Religion by Scribe
by Scribe

Follows Vulcan


Prologue:
Space Dock

SPACE DOCK, EARTH
SIX MONTHS AGO

Three hundred years after it left Gateway, the last great orbital station before the period the historians called the Collapse, the Sulaco returned home.

Towed by a Ptolemy-Class vessel, the USS Miracle of Dunkirk, the transport/tug extended its warp field to encapsulate the Sulaco, allowing the ancient ship to make the journey home at Warp Factor 2. Anything faster, and the Sulaco's structural integrity would buckle. As sturdy as she was, the Sulaco was built to withstand the stresses of space travel via fusion reactor. Its engineers had yet to even conceive of anything as exotic as warp travel.

Fourteen days after the Miracle took charge of the Sulaco, both ships arrived at Space Dock in orbit over Earth. It was a far shorter journey than the three months it took for the Sulaco to reach LV 426 when it left Gateway three centuries earlier, and even longer after chasing the Emergency Evacuation Vehicle (EEV) to Fiorina' Fury' 361.

Once at Space Dock, the ship remained in isolation due to Captain Chris Larabee's recommendation that Omega Level sterilisation protocols be initiated and completed before anyone was allowed on board. A baryon sweep conducted across the entirety of the ancient armoured carrier destroyed any organic matter on board at the microscopic level. After the report provided by Captain Larabee regarding his experience on Fury 361, Starfleet Quarantine was taking no chances.

The precautions, entirely justified, did little to soothe the impatience of historians, engineers and anthropologists eager to examine the ancient ship. They boarded the craft as soon as clearance was given. Swarming across the Sulaco like locusts, the scientists explored every corner of the old transport, fascinated by its pristine condition, even if its ugly past was only months behind them. The Sulaco, a Conestoga class troop carrier, was one of a kind, the only surviving Colonial Marine transport in existence following the chaos of the Great Collapse. Whatever violence preceded her return to Earth, she was still a ship in demand.

Once their examinations and analysis were concluded, the Sulaco would see out its retirement as an exhibit at the Zefram Cochrane Museum of Space Flight, located in the vacuum above Lunar. As perfect in condition as the Sulaco was, Starfleet was unwilling to allow civilian visitors on board, without the ship being heavily modified first. Not when the Sulaco was a honeycomb of electrical conduit tunnels, air shafts and maintenance ducts, none of which possessed the internal sensors commonplace in starships.

The alien lifeform, or Xenomorph, as Chris Larabee called it, used the network of tunnels throughout the ship with great success. While the baryon sweep ensured there were no more of the savage creatures left on board, security officers with the Biological Hazard Division accompanied the engineers installing multi-phasic sensors throughout the length and breadth of the ship. While the engineers carried out their work, making sure every corner of the Sulaco could be monitored remotely, their security escorts conducted visual searches with handheld tricorders.

"So this is your last week?" Security officer Lt. Jerry Lambert asked Engineer Lt. Callie Leech, as he walked along the walls of the Sulaco's circular-shaped engine room.

The fusion drive sat in the centre of the deck, reminding Jerry of a starship warp core, except this one was covered in multiple segments of overlapping titanium plating and more blinking lights than he cared to count. Each end of the drive disappeared through the bulkhead above and below them. It was as wide as a redwood and Jerry couldn't help thinking the engineers of the past did not build these ships for comfort.

Callie, who was lying on her back against the floor rewiring the innards of the drive's diagnostic controls, did not answer him immediately. Jerry walked past her, suppressing the urge to snigger as he saw her slender legs sticking out from beneath the work station like a hovercar mechanic. He'd been her escort for almost a fortnight now and couldn't deny he was attracted to her. She was a pretty thing with soft brown eyes who wore her dark hair in a cute pixie cut. Jerry had been toying with the idea of asking her out to dinner, but knowing she was shipping out soon meant he was setting himself up for disappointment.

"Yeah," she finally replied. "I've been assigned to the Ventax II Research Station. It's my first off-world posting. I was hoping for a starship, but you go where they send you."

Jerry noticed the disappointment in her voice and supposed she was young, not that long from the Academy and like every cadet who chose the life, dreamed of adventures in space. Having fought in the Battle of Sector 001 and the Dominion War before that, Jerry was a little more jaded and was quite content with his posting on Earth.

"You gotta pay your dues first," Jerry stated, satisfied the tricorder readings confirmed his visual inspection of the room, everything was nominal. "Spend a year or two on an outpost or research station. Try and stand out there and you'll land that starship posting in no time."

"I guess," Callie shrugged, "pity, though."

"Pity?" He paused and looked her way. "Why?"

"We'll only have a week together before I have to go."

Jerry stared at her and saw Callie pull herself out from under the workstation, a piece of old motherboard in her hand. There was grease on her nose he noticed when she emerged far enough for him to see her. Wearing a smile, she stared at him. "So will you get on with it and ask me out already?"

Jerry laughed, his hazel eyes dancing. "Sorry, I was picking my moment."

"Pick any more, and we'll be the two ships who pass in the night without ever seeing each other."

"Right, right," Jerry nodded, kicking himself he hadn't asked her out before this. "Okay, so when we're done here? Do you want to go grab a bite to eat? I know this great place in New Orleans, has the best jambalaya."

"Sounds like a date," she winked at him. "I'm almost done. Just got to replace this old board and I can connect the relay to the controls on the bridge."

Grabbing the new component out of her toolbox, Callie slid back under the workstation again. "Shouldn't take me long, I've just got...." she paused a moment. "Hmmm...hold on a second. There seems to be some loose..."

Her scream was short but effective.

All thoughts of their date vanished from Jerry's mind as he sprinted over to Callie whose legs were kicking out wildly in her desperation to get out from under the work station. As she pushed herself across the floor, Jerry reached her and bent down far enough to help her along. Grabbing her by the ankles, he pulled her clear of the workstation. She did not emerge alone. Something was resting on her chest, and it did not at all look like a bit of loose wiring. It resembled a hand with too many fingers, with two sacs next to a long prehensile tail.

Jerry knew exactly what it was.

Every member of the security team was briefed on the incident following the Sulaco's discovery and why such extreme measures were taken to sterilise the ship upon its arrival at Space Dock. His first impulse was to shoot, but if he did that, he'd almost certainly kill Callie. The damn thing had acid for blood! As soon as her hands were free, Callie flung the creature away from her. As she did so, Jerry noticed something else, it left a small cloud of dust behind as it was hurled away. The engineer waved her hand in front of her face, dispersing the fine particles and wincing when it appeared she'd breathed some of it in.

Jerry raised his phaser rifle to fire when he realised the alien wasnít moving. It landed on the deck where Callie had thrown it, on its back, its leg curled in like a dead roach. Still keeping it in the crosshairs of his rifle, he threw a quick glance at Callie who appeared unhurt, just understandably shaken.

"Are you alright?" He asked quickly as he approached the creature.

"Yeah," she nodded, wiping her nose with her forearm. "I'm okay. It just fell on me...."

"Lt Lambert to Chief Nakamura," Jerry replied as he closed in on the alien. "We've located the larval form of the xenomorph described in Captain Larabee's report."

"Do not approach it and put it down immediately if you can!" Nakamura's response was almost frantic. "Repeat it, do not approach!"

"Chief, I think its dead," Jerry commented. He was near enough to touch it now and decided it would not be too much of a violation of Nakamura's order if he nudged the tail with his boot. As he did so, the action puffed another small cloud of dust into the air before the ventilation system dispersed it. "It looks desiccated."

"It could have been in here during the sweep," Callie suggested coming up behind Jerry, but careful not to get in his way in case the alien was playing possum. Brushing her chest again, she frowned at the residue it left behind, no doubt fragments of dead skin. "If so, the baryon particles would have destroyed its tissues at the molecular level."

Emboldened, this time Jerry tried prodding it with his gun and once again, the creature did not move. Leaning in closer (but not too close), Jerry examined the condition of the specimen and realised Callie could be right. Its skin was nowhere as leathery, and it's colour appeared grey, unlike the creatures in the Sulaco tapes. If anything, it looked like a dried husk and any more contact would cause it to crumble further.

"Well, don't touch it," Nakamura spoke through their combadges. "I'm sending a containment case to your location via transport. Secure it and get back to Operations. I'll get a quarantine team down there to collect and dispose of it."

"Aye Chief," Jerry nodded, taking a step back away from the creature, still unmoving.

"God," Callie shuddered staring at it in distaste. "That's Captain Larabee's alien?"

"Looks like it," Jerry glanced at her, not wanting to take his eyes off it for long. "At least it's dead and won't be able to cause any harm."

Callie couldn't disagree. She wanted out of here so she could grab a shower. A hot water shower, she decided.

Something to get rid of that awful smell in her nose.

Chapter One:
Sleepless

He could still hear the voices.

There were so many of them overlapping each other until he couldn't tell where one began and ended. Filling his skull with their loud drone, he couldn't hear anything else but their chatter, crowding in on him. He could almost feel their breath against his skin, their hands tearing at his clothes, tugging him this way and that. The air seemed thin, and the faster he inhaled, the less of it reached his lungs, leaving him panting, desperate for his next breath.

He tried to run, to claw past them, but their grip was iron, and no matter how hard he fought, or loudly he screamed for help, he could not break free of them. As ice-cold shards of panic shredded his reason, he could feel something else happening. It burst through his skin from beneath his flesh, cold and hard. Reaching for his face, his fingers made contact with something spreading across his temple, his cheekbone and finally over his eyes.

When the red lens of an ocular implant descended upon his world, Buck Wilmington started screaming.

*******

The First Officer of the Maverick woke up in a cold sweat.

He remained there for only a second, springing out of bed, the damp sheets clinging to his skin as he crossed the carpeted floor. Reaching the dresser, the small light in the alcove flooded the space with an ambient glow, allowing him to see his reflection in the mirror. For a few seconds, Buck stood there in front of the glass, staring at himself. Eventually, his trembling fingers reached for his face and traced the line of his cheekbones. The scars were no longer there and the eye staring at him was his own, but as Buck gripped the edge of the dresser, he could still feel the presence of the ocular implant on his face.

And his reflection still felt like it belonged to a stranger.

Buck knew who he was. He could remember the best and the worst of his life, but since he emerged from his ordeal as a drone, it didn't seem quite real. Sometimes, Buck thought he was watching an old-style flicker show from the 20th century, where he was the actor on screen, playing a role in an unfamiliar script. Six weeks after their return from the past and Buck still didn't feel like himself. In the depths of the night, when he couldn't sleep or was jolted out of a nightmare like a few seconds ago, he wondered if he was still trapped in his mind and this was a dream.

Stepping away from the mirror, he went to the replicator for a drink of water. Frowning at the tangled sheets on his bed, he saw the state of the fabric. Even from here, he recognised the dampness of sweat and cursed because the ship's stewards weren't going to be thrilled at having to change another set of sheets, so soon after the last time. Glancing at the chronometer, he saw it was almost shortly after 0200 hours and knew even if he tried to go back to sleep, he wouldn't.

His friends had told him repeatedly if he needed to talk, no matter what the hour, he could call on them and yet Buck couldn't bring himself to do it. Inez had been wonderful. She tried so hard to understand what was going on in his head, but Buck felt it unfair to burden her with his troubles when she had barely overcome the fear of losing yet another person she loved. It took her a long time to get over losing Raphael. How could he put her through that again with what was going on with him?

Meanwhile, Chris did his best to be supportive, and Buck felt deeply touched by how much his oldest friend tried to be there for him. But Chris was the Captain of the Maverick and Buck couldn't take up all his time when the man had enough things on his mind already. Buck supposed he could try Josiah, but as First Officer, Buck knew Josiah's attention was divided amongst all the traumatised members of the crew who'd also been freed from assimilation.

In the end, Buck decided he wasn't going back to sleep and chose to do something productive with his time. Stepping into the shower cubicle, his preferences unleashed a torrent of hot water instead of the more efficient sonic shower that was the norm in the 24th century. It was Vin who introduced him to the concept and Buck had to admit, nothing felt more refreshing than feeling warm water wash away the dried sweat on his skin.

It was odd how soothing hot water and soap could be, but it was. Feeling the spray across his face and back made Buck more connected to his skin than any other activity since emerging from assimilation. Beneath the water, he felt alive, invigorated and more himself than he'd felt since...

Buck couldn't bring himself to say it.

Closing his eyes and calming his turbulent thoughts, Buck knew he was fast reaching the point where his decision to handle this stoically would become impossible. He could feel himself fray at the edges, and despite being aware of the problem, Buck did not know what to do about it.

Buck only hoped he recognised the edge before he tumbled over it.

*******

Was it only six weeks ago, they were last in orbit above Vulcan?

Actually, that was wrong, JD Dunne told himself. Technically it was two thousand, five hundred and six weeks ago since the Maverick left Vulcan. A temporal mishap saw the Collective arriving at the pre-Surak era of Vulcan history, with the Maverick in pursuit of their assimilated crew. Together with the assistance of General Stef, father to a teenage Surak, the Maverick was able to remove the Borg menace, while at the same time retrieving their missing crew. Once the threat was over, the Maverick needed to return home or risk being as dangerous to the timeline as the Borg.

Gaining the help of the wormhole aliens in the Celestial Temple of Bajor, the Maverick was returned to the 24th century with no drastic changes to the timeline. The future was left very much intact and unhindered by their actions in the past. After spending a few weeks on Earth, where the assimilated could heal, and the rest of the crew enjoyed a well-deserved furlough after the trials of their last mission, the Maverick headed towards the frontier again, making a slight detour to Vulcan.

Of course, after the Captain's meeting with the Department of Temporal Investigations, JD couldn't blame Chris Larabee for a needing a few days to recover.

Taking in the view of Vulcan from the command chair since he had the bridge during the night shift, JD still found the sight of the red planet breathtaking. 2500 years had not changed that even if the passage of time was marked by the obvious technological advances. In geosynchronous orbit around the planet, were subspace relay stations, smaller communication and weather satellites, not to mention Vulcan's Space Dock, whose size was equal to any starbase. Ships flew across the screen in transit, where they were small transports or sizeable starships.

Just as marked was T'Khut, Vulcan's sister world. No longer the site of one lone mining complex, such facilities now covered more than half the planet. The perilous surface conditions were now carefully monitored by automated subterranean platforms, capable of offering occupants ample warning before significant geothermal activity took place. The advances allowed Vulcan to take full advantage of the mineral resources on T'Khut and these days, most of Vulcan's metal came from its sister world.

"So are you going down there for shore leave?"

Ensign Jewel Chun asked from JD's customary seat at communications. At the same time, Ensign Nora Densham occupied Vin Tanner's domain at the helm, making up the skeleton crew operating on the bridge at this hour.

"I don't know," JD hadn't really considered it.

He'd arranged a subspace call with Casey who left for Bajor not long after their return to Earth. Though he missed her terribly and since she'd gone, they'd communicated via subspace messages, JD understood Casey's need to reconnect with her people on Bajor. Adopted by then Captain Wells during the Occupation, Casey's parents had died trying to smuggle her off the planet, under the notice of the Cardassians. As a result, Casey was raised human and knew almost nothing about her Bajoran background. Assigned to DS9, JD knew she was going to spend the time away seeking out any remaining family she might have left.

"After what happened when we were there, aren't you curious?" Nora asked.

"A little I guess," JD shrugged, supposing he'd like to see if T'hossuth had recovered from the destruction following the Borg invasion. "I don't know, I've got a subspace link set up with Casey."

"Oh, how is she doing?" Jewel looked at him interested, and JD remembered Casey and Jewel spent some off-duty hours together. Jewel was an avid ice skater and had given Casey lessons on the holodeck.

"Great. Casey's been visiting places on Bajor, you know the Fire Caves, Kendra Province and the Dakeen Monastery." Even as he tried to inject some enthusiasm in his voice for Casey's exploits, JD couldn't help but pine for her.

The door hissed open suddenly, prompting all three junior officers to turn and discover to their surprise, the First Officer stepping onto the bridge.

"Buck! I mean Commander," JD exclaimed, vacating the command chair immediately.

"Hey JD," Buck greeted the younger man while offering a nod of acknowledgement to both Jewel and Nora. "How're things up here?"

"Quiet," JD took up the spot usually occupied by Mary Travis, while Buck lowered himself into the centre seat. "I mean there's the usual ship traffic, and the Lexington arrived an hour ago, but other than that, nothing exciting."

JD resisted the urge to ask Buck was he was doing here, although inwardly the Communications Officer could guess. Before the Borg, Buck was rarely on the bridge during the small hours of the night unless an emergency required his presence. Back then, Buck rarely spent his nights alone, and Ezra had a running bet on which female crew member would be taking the walk of shame from the exec's quarters the next morning. Since seriously dating Inez, those instances had dwindled. While the rumour mill suggested Inez had yet to consummate her relationship with the First Officer, Buck had no trouble spending his nights alone.

That was then.

During their shore leave on Earth, Vin Tanner invited the Senior Staff to his ranch in Texas, with only Ezra and Julia Pemberton absent since the Chief Engineer wanted to go home to her family in Maine. Having been just as traumatised as Buck by her assimilation, no one could fault her for that. Buck as always, tried to put up a brave front, behaving as if everything was normal and he was completely recovered. Yet JD had seen him sitting on the porch half the night, going for walks, midnight rides, anything Buck could think of to keep from going to sleep.

JD wasn't sure whether the Captain or Josiah was aware of the problem, but his worry about Buck was fast reaching the point where he was unprepared to continue doing nothing. He considered bringing it up with Alex, since she was the Maverick's second officer but wrestled with whether or not he was betraying Buck by doing so. If this was any other situation, it was to Buck he would go to for counsel, but what was he to do when Buck was the reason he needed the advice?

"What are you doing up here?" JD asked gently, "you're not on duty for hours."

"Oh, I felt like getting an early start," Buck shrugged off the question. "It's going to be a busy day tomorrow with everyone going down there for shore leave."

"You aren't going?" JD stared at him.

"I've spent enough time on Vulcan," Buck said without thinking.

The bridge fell silent, and Buck's gut clenched at letting the comment slip. Cursing himself softly, he had no desire to let anyone know how uncomfortable he felt about going down to Vulcan. Even if the events he remembered were nearly two and half millennia in the past, to Buck and the Maverick, what happened was only weeks behind them. For Buck, it was even less than that and the memories replayed in his mind every damn night. The screams he heard in his dreams, the faces that still flashed in front of his eyes, the terror that came with thinking death was upon them, even if what happened was far worse.

"I'm sorry Buck," JD quickly apologise, admonishing himself for not realising being back on Vulcan could be a sore point for Buck. "I didn't mean too..."

"Don't worry about it, JD," Buck dismissed the perceived slight and decided a change of subject was definitely in order. "I'm fine. I've just seen enough for a while. Besides, I gotta find Chris a new Yeoman before he goes crazy. He's got a ton of paperwork he hasn't made a dent in yet. I don't think he's recovered from that meeting with the boys at Temporal Investigations."

"Yeah," JD let out a sigh, realising with the appointment of a new Yeoman, Casey was really gone. Despite himself, JD felt another surge of longing at her absence and wished he had compelled her to stay, but that wouldn't have been fair to her. Casey had needed to go.

"You okay?" Buck didn't miss the sadness in the boy's eyes.

"Yeah," JD nodded. "I'm fine. Just missing her, that's all."

"You know she had to go," Buck said kindly, patting JD on the shoulder and feeling a little more himself at being able to offer the kid some comfort. It made a welcome change from all the well-meaning attempts by others aimed in his direction of late. "Besides, it's a big universe out there and you both need to see some of it before deciding on anything permanent."

"Thanks, Buck," JD said gratefully and for a moment, thought the First Officer might be returning to some semblance of himself until JD saw his eyes.

*******

Ezra Standish woke up to find the space next to his bed empty.

This did not surprise him in the least since sleeplessness was only one of the symptoms being exhibited by those who escaped the Borg. Since her recovery from the Collective and her subsequent release from Sick Bay, Julia was barely able to manage a few hours of sleep at night. Her dreams were filled with nightmares, and though she did not describe their substance, Ezra could guess. The few words he'd managed to make out while she tossed and turned next to him, told Ezra enough.

Sitting up from his pillow, Ezra found Julia where he expected to see her, lying against the sofa in his quarters, with Huxley curled up in her lap. She'd moved in after Nathan Jackson released her from Sick Bay shortly after their departure from Vulcan. With so many patients filling up medical, Nathan had needed the space but did not wish Julia to be alone. Moving in with Ezra allowed him to keep an eye on her during her convalescence. As Nathan explained it, the biggest difficulties drones had once they were freed from the Collective was adjusting to being alone inside one's mind again. While Julia had not been assimilated for long, it was long enough to leave its mark upon her.

"Julia?"

Both Julia and Huxley turned to him at the sound of her name. "I'm sorry Ezra, I didn't mean to wake you."

"You did not," Ezra smiled at her affectionately. The Security Chief padded across the soft carpet of the room and sat at the edge of the sofa. Huxley, the Persian they'd bought together on Risa, purred a little louder in expectation of another hand to stroke and pamper him. "Were you able to sleep?"

"A little," she offered him a faint smile, trying to reassure him because Julia knew he was worried about her. Truth be told, she was a bit concerned about herself too. Julia had thought coming back to the Maverick would help with this sense of disconnection, but it didn't. Sitting on this sofa, staring into stars beyond the window, she could feel the wasteland inside her. "Ezra, I feel broken inside, and I don't know what to do about it."

Ezra reached for the hand presently stroking the soft fur of Huxley's body and squeezed. "Julia, it will take time before you are fully healed. I cannot speak to what you must be feeling, but I do know what you endured was an ordeal. You are certainly not alone in your discomfort. I am certain everyone who was liberated from assimilation feels the same way."

This Ezra knew for a fact. As Chief of Security, he was privy to everything taking place onboard the Maverick. He could do his job no other way and knew several crew members were working through their own demons following their freedom from the Collective's hive mind.

Buck's insomnia manifested itself by how frequently the First Officer of the Maverick was reporting to his shift on the bridge, hours before he was actually needed. When Julia snuck out of bed, Ezra would find her in Engineering, conducting some minor maintenance task customarily performed by her underlings. Nurse Maria Ruiz had been sighted on three separate occasions, jogging through the Maverick from bow to stern, at least two or three times a night. Crewmen Kalani was making excessive use of the holodeck while others were playing poker in one of the empty cargo bays. Ezra had even joined them once or twice.

"Julia," Ezra took a deep breath, "perhaps we should return to Earth for a few months. Under the circumstances, I cannot imagine Josiah would not grant you leave to go. I can come with you."

"Ezra," she touched his cheeks, grateful for him and the sacrifice he intended to make. "I might be able to take the sabbatical, but you can't. The Maverick needs its Chief of Security. "

Ezra took a deep breath, wondering whether it was fate giving him the opening that suddenly presented itself or Lady Luck smiling on him again. "Julia, I can take the time if I am a member of your immediate family."

Her brow knotted a moment, trying to comprehend what he was saying to her, and when it dawned on her, the flicker of light in those emerald coloured eyes, almost made him believe she was his Julia again, whole and full of wonder. "Ezra, are you proposing to me?"

"Is it so hard to believe?"

Huxley meowed in the affirmative before Julia could respond.

"Very droll, you over-indulged ball of fur," Ezra glared at the cat before meeting Julia's gaze. "Your silence is not helping my nerves, my dear."

"I'm trying to figure out what your exit strategy is," she managed a smile.

"I see Huxley sense of humour is hereditary," Ezra returned and then continued. "Julia, when I thought I was never going to see you again, I had much cause to reflect on my choices and resolved if the opportunity to tell you how I feel rose again, I would not waste it. I love you, Julia, I want to marry you."

Julia leaned forward and kissed him. "I want to marry you too Ezra, but not right now. I just need some time."

Uncertain whether or not he should be disappointed or relieved, those were conditions he could live with. "Take all the time you need my dear," he kissed Julia's knuckle gently. "I shall not be going anywhere."

*******

Somehow he made it past them.

He could feel the damp underneath his uniform, feel the raw wound under his ribs pulsing with fresh gushes of blood with every step he took. Lt. Jerry Lambert knew he couldn't go on for much longer in this condition, but he had no choice. What they intended to do was insanity, pure bugfuck crazy as a shithouse rat insanity, and if he didn't keep moving, it would come to pass. Somehow, he passed through the barricade and knew that path would be sealed now that they'd discovered how he'd escaped.

The icy cold wind cut through his skin, and he supposed if there was some consolation to be had in all this, he would probably die of hypothermia instead of his wounds. Running across the snowcovered glacier, he glanced over his shoulder to see if anyone had come after him. No one had. All he could see was the vague shape of Tenarus through the year-long blizzard that enclosed this world in a fist of ice. Ahead of him, the mixture of snow and wind made it difficult to see, and though he was dressed in cold-weather clothes, not even his thermal suit was going to protect him for long.

They probably knew it too, which is why they hadn't bothered to chase him. They knew he was not going to survive for long with these injuries. It didn't matter if he died or not, as long as he got to the transmitter. If he could get to it and call for help, then it wouldn't matter if he died out here. Everyone else would be saved. Jerry could do that at least.

It might just make up for utterly failing Callie.

Chapter Two:
Music of the Universe

Eyes closed, T'Laina allowed the music to move over her like the wave of a warm breeze.

It was not a logical thought, she told herself silently. Yet no matter how much discipline she possessed in practising cíthia, there were some things beyond logic, even the purity of thought. She was transported to a place far beyond the stone porch of her home, or the sweet scent of Vulcan orchids and spice tea sitting on the table before her. As her fingers moved with elegant dexterity across the string of her instrument, the music took to Seleya and better days.

Siran would tell her there was little point in looking back at what could not be changed, but then her mate did not understand the power of music as she did. Just like she was a stranger to the nuances of quantum theory and astrophysics. His was a mind of cold, hard facts that could be broken down into the binary, where for her, each chord was a revelation. During dark days where not even the solace of c'thia could salve her anguish, music had allowed her to grieve and overcome.

The chime of the doors interrupted the flow of the music.

T'Laina blinked as the metallic tinkling of the chimes spirited her away from the top of Seleya where she imagined she was standing. For a moment, she almost felt the hot wind dragging tiny fragments of sand across her skin or the squint in her eyes as the sun burned hot in the morning sky. Instead, she was back in her family home, sitting on the porch, surrounded by Vulcan orchids and White Stars, shielded from the sun by the shade of Induku trees.

Getting to her feet, she rested the lute across the table and went to answer the door, aware V'Lash their housekeeper was running errands. Siran was at the Academy this morning, and so she was alone today, mildly curious as to who her visitor might be since she expected no callers. At the age of two-hundred, she wore her age well with only a few flecks of grey in her black hair, styled in a chignon and her figure, hidden behind a long silk dress of green with a high mandarin collar remained slender.

Crossing the floor of the double-storey home in the heart of the Falina District of Shi'Kahr, T'Laina had to admit her curiosity was piqued. Since retirement, she spent most of her time here, composing new music, and sometimes wondering if retiring from the Music Academy was a mistake. Like Siran, she enjoyed the interaction with new students, finding fulfilment in nurturing their talents when they came up with new and unusual chords to add to the great orchestra of the universe.

Reaching the door, she activated the panel next to it and waited for it to slide open.

The first thing that registered upon T'Laina was the uniform. The people standing in front of her were undoubtedly Starfleet and her quick Vulcan mind quickly identified command red and science blue. It was when she tried to identify their race, she grasped what should have stood out first and foremost. The young man before her, with the long hair, at least by Vulcan standards and the day's growth across his face was not human. He was Vulcan.

And he looked just like Siran.

At least the Siran she knew when they were young, uttering their vows of bonding in the presence of family at the Temple of T'Panit. She remembered feeling the fire in her blood, slaked momentarily after the Pon Farr. Looking at this stranger, she saw Siran in the shape of his face, the colour of his hair, even the familiar chin. The only thing different was his eyes, and when she realised why, the air felt drained from the world.

His eyes.

T'Laina had seen those eyes in the mirror every day of her life, they were the same as her father's and her heart ached because her daughter had inherited them too. Her little khio'ri lost for almost thirty years. Logically, her mind told her what she was seeing was impossible, but her heart beating so fast in her chest, and the ancient voices of her blood demanded expression.

"Who are you...?"

Vin Tanner wasn't sure what he was expecting when he saw T'Laina of Vulcan for the first time. All he knew of her was she and her husband, were the only remaining family of T'Lara, Vin's biological mother. Seeing her reaction to him, made Vin realise she must recognise him and the Maverick's helm officer had to wonder how. Despite her Vulcan discipline, he could see her shock and knew even without introductions they were kin.

"Vin," Alexandra Styles nudged him to speak because it was clear they were family. Alex only had to look at the woman to recognise those expressive blue eyes that were such a window into Vin's soul, to know they were related. "Talk to her."

"I'm sorry ma'am," Vin apologised quickly, finding the need to do so because his appearance was clearly causing her distress, Vulcan or not. "My name is Vin Tanner," Vin said slowly, trying to say the words he'd rehearsed in his head only to find now that the moment was here, none of it seemed right. "I was born Svinak. My mom was T'Lara and my father, Svianek."

Her eyes widened at that revelation, and for a few seconds, Vin was almost tempted to reach out and touch her except he knew it was terrible manners to do so without invitation. However, the lady recovered after a moment, and Vin saw her Vulcan discipline reassert itself, regaining control so understandably shattered at hearing the name of his birth parents.

"T'Lara is dead."

It was not a question, but a statement of fact. Nevertheless, inside buried under Surak's discipline, a part of her heart died. Oh, my beautiful, sweet little khio'ri.

"Yeah," he nodded and resumed his explanation. "When I was five years old, there was an accident. The ship we were on crashed landed on a world at the edge of the quadrant. No one else but me made it. I was rescued a few days later by my..." he almost said parents but was uncertain how T'Laina would take that description and rephrased, "a human couple who raised me as their own. On our way back to Federation space, our ship crashed landed on an uninhabited planet, and we were marooned there for twelve years."

Studying him carefully, T'Laina guessed he was past the age of Rapture and noted the woman behind him. She saw the gold band on each of their fingers and realised this was a human marriage custom. This woman was his mate. "You are both mated?"

"Yeah," Vin looked over his shoulder at Alex and extended his hand towards her. He knew she'd been holding back to let him explain to T'Laina, but since the woman had asked the question, it was appropriate to make some introductions. "This is Alex, my wife."

T'Laina bowed her head slightly in greeting, but it was an obligatory gesture because she had many questions at how all this could be. "Why were we not told of your existence? If my daughter had a child, you are of our blood. The authorities should have notified us as soon as you were returned to the Federation."

"When the ship crashed, the memory banks were fried so my foster parents couldn't tell who was piloting the ship. All they knew was that craft was called the Seleya's Heart, and after I was rescued, there was no record of that ship in the registry. There was no way of tracing where I came from. My adopted family left their ranch to me on Earth, so I went there instead and got ready to join the Academy."

"Left it?" Her eyes met his. "They were not with you?"

"No," Vin shook his head and remembered thinking how unfair it was the first time he saw the ranch, that his ma and pa weren't with him to show him the place. "They died on the planet five years before I was rescued."

T'Laina's mind whirled, her Vulcan mind making leaps of intuition as he told his tale. "You were alone?"

"I managed," Vin shrugged because only he knew how terrified heíd been, fearing heíd spend his entire life on that savage world alone.

T'Laina felt a fresh surge of anger and once again, used cíthia to calm herself before the cruelty of it slipped through her controls. All this time, she and Siran mourned for their daughter, without ever saying it out loud to each other she was dead, even if logic dictated T'Lara's fate could be nothing else. Now she discovered, not only had T'Lara died, but she had borne a child they knew nothing about. A child who suffered alone, disconnected from his people when she and Siran would have given anything to have found him.

"I didn't come here to upset you,' Vin explained. "I know I'm not what you'd expect your kin to be, but I thought you ought to at least know what happened to your daughter. "

"I have no expectations of you because I did not know you existed," T'Laina stated, puzzled by his self-deprecating tone. She supposed being raised human, without any knowledge of their ways, he had no choice but to be what he was. Clearly, he was not a Vulcan who practised c'thia, but he had obviously endured to build a life for himself. "It suits me well to know you simply exist."

"I didn't want to be an embarrassment to you or your family," Vin dropped his gaze to the ground in front of him. "I'm never gonna be Vulcan. I've been raised human and I ain't ashamed of that."

"Vin," Alex countered immediately, not at all liking the idea he thought himself an embarrassment to anyone. "You've got nothing to feel ashamed about, you're just different."

T'Laina supposed since he knew nothing of their ways, he might believe other Vulcans would find him an affront to their philosophy of c'thia. But Surak did not just teach them how to control their emotions, he taught them that the universe was one of infinite diversity and infinite combination. How could they reject this young man at his ignorance of one aspect of Surak's teaching, while everything he was embodied another?

"Please come in," she gestured to them to follow her into the house since this entire encounter was still being conducted at the front doorstep.

Vin exchanged a glance with Alex, before leading her into the house behind T'Laina, his grandmother. Christ, that felt odd to say. After losing his foster family, all Vin ever wanted was to belong somewhere and Fate had been kind enough to let him find his place on the Maverick, with people who were as close as any blood relative and a mate to share his life with. Until meeting Svinak, he never imagined there could be more.

Once inside the house and the doors slid closed behind them, T'Laina turned back to him.

"May I?"

At first, Vin didn't understand what she wanted of him when she took a step closer until she was inches away from his face. Then it dawned on him what she intended was to form a telepathic link. Vin almost retreated until he realised she probably wanted to verify his story, to ensure he wasn't lying. After all, by his own admission, he was raised human, and humans lied. Although stung by her doubt, he understood it was vital for her to know the truth.

"Vin are you sure?" Alex asked when she realised what the woman was about to do. Vin was never comfortable with melding with anyone and the few times he'd done it had been purely out of dire need.

"Itís alright," he nodded and tensed as he saw T'Laina placing her long slender fingers against his cheekbone and temple. Her fingertips felt cool, and he stared into her eyes, once again struck by how much like his they were.

"My mind to your mind, my thoughts to your thoughts."

Closing his eyes, he felt the warmth of her mind invading his thoughts, exploring his memories. It wasn't unpleasant at all, the sensation reminded him of how his foster mother would stroke his brow when he was tiny and frightened. How her touch and her soft voice, whispering in his ear made him feel safe and secure like nothing would harm him under her watch.

Closing his eyes, he saw the memories T'Laina touched and felt her empathy in his moments of sorrow. The death of his foster family, his father first and then his mother. The anguish of being alone, of returning to Earth only to find no one wanted him. His isolation at the Academy when classmates had no idea what to make of him because he was neither Vulcan nor human, but a puzzle trapped in the limbo between.

T'Laina wept at his loneliness and wished more than anything, she and Siran had known this boy lived because no child should ever feel unloved, especially one belonging to her daughter. It pleased her to know he had found peace, shared his joy at the discovery of friendship and love on the Maverick. She saw the Captain who would do anything for his best friend, the comrades who considered him blood, and the woman who almost died to save him during the plak-tow, the blood fever.

But there was one memory she needed to see before it was all said and done.

Thanks to her training, she knew how to stimulate memories long buried, forgotten by time and trauma. What mental shields he possessed was no better than a child's even though both her family and Siran's were strong adepts and he would have inherited that power, even if he was untrained. Carefully, she manipulated the neurological strands and surfaced a memory of T'Lara and Svianek.

She called me her little khio'ri.

Yes, Vin heard T'Laina's voice in his mind. Because she was mine.

And though the words were not spoken and never would be because it was not the Vulcan way to do so, Vin sensed her thoughts through their connection. What he felt was her joy and her gratitude to the universe for giving her the gift of him. It was happiness so great, he could hear music. For a few seconds, Vin could do nothing but marvel at the utter beauty of the song, and through that beautiful arrangement, she spoke to him and everything Vin feared about this meeting, vanished with every chord played in her mind.

You have come home to us little khio'ri. You have come home.

*******

"Whatís this meant to be?"

Chris Larabee stared at the concoction of green swirling in his cup, with sprinkles of what might have been finely chopped leaves, exuding a smell that while pleasant, was NOT the Jamaican blend coffee he was accustomed to receiving with his breakfast each morning.

Every morning since becoming master of the Maverick, he would come to his Ready Room to begin the dayís work, to find a light breakfast of eggs and toast, with a cup of his favourite Jamaican blend waiting for him. As his Yeoman, Casey felt it her responsibility to ensure her duties to her captain didnít just involve administration but also extended to his well-being. At first, Chris had thought it was presumptuous of her to assume he couldnít get his own breakfast, but as time went by, he rather appreciated the gesture.

Eventually, it became the pleasant start to the morning Chris needed to help him deal with whatever calamity the day might bring.

Since Casey left the ship for Bajor, Chris had been forced to appoint another yeoman to avoid being buried in paperwork and hoped the Benzite named Arlok would serve him as well as Casey had done. However, staring at the breakfast before him, Chris knew that was always a slim hope because instead of his usual breakfast, he was staring into the depths of a green swirl, accompanying what looked like the most unappetising omelette in the known universe.

Arlok had come on board the Maverick when they last put to Earth, and although Chris was familiar with Benzites in general, Arlok had also been the only one to volunteer for the job as his Yeoman. Chris didnít know whether he ought to be concerned no other junior officer wanted the position and had to wonder if he had a reputation for being difficult, a question none of the Senior staff would answer when he put the question to them.

Ah, what did they know? He was a great boss.

"It is Tarkalian tea, served with a vegetable omelette," Arlok answered as a matter of factly, sensing nothing in the Captainís manner to give him caution as he continued speaking. "I accessed your medical records, and it appeared under Doctor Jacksonís recommendation, you required a little more fibre in your diet to avoid cons......"

"Accessed my medical records?" Chris stared at the Yeoman in open-mouthed shock, horror quickly turning into outrage.

"Why yes," Arlok stared at him, his brow furrowing in confusion at the rising octave in the Captainís tone. "According to Yeoman Wellsís notes, this position requires taking care of the Captainís needs, and that includes your physical condition."

"My physical condition," Chris started to sputter, "is just fine..."

At that moment the door slid open, and whether or not Yeoman Arlok knew it, heíd been rescued from a keelhauling when Counsellor Josiah Sanchez entered the room, carrying a mug of something with aroma far more pleasing than the swill before Chris.

"Iím sorry, am I interrupting?"

"Actually," Arlok reached for the datapad in his hand. "You do not have an appointment and the Captain has a busy day ahead of him."

Chris shot Josiah a look threatening murder.

"This is a medical emergency," Josiah replied promptly, recognising the Captain of the Maverick about to reach critical mass. "If you donít mind?" He gave Arlok one of his most intense stares which penetrated even Arlokís lack of familiarity regarding human behaviour.

"Of course," Arlok nodded and turned to the Captain. "I shall be back later when you have finished your breakfast so we can begin work on those reports for the Temporal Investigations Department. You still have to fill out Form 67189- A, 1885-ER and PRTA 9183."

"Heíll be waiting with bated breath," Josiah waved Arlok out of the room. "If you please, Yeoman? This conversation needs to be conducted in private."

"Certainly Counsellor," Arlok replied and stepped out of the Ready Room in a matter of seconds leaving the two men alone.

"I am going to kill him," Chris said flatly.

"Thatís the kind of thing that makes me want to scribble in my psychiatristís pad," Josiah took the chair in front of Chrisís desk, making a face when he saw what was in front of the Captain instead of his usual breakfast order.

"Why canít I get a decent Yeoman," Chris threw up his hands as he got up and went to the replicator to make his own damn cup of coffee. "How did that guy end up being the only one who wanted the job?"

Josiah rolled his eyes "because the others are terrified of you?"

"Of me?" Chris stared at Josiah, "Iím perfectly pleasant."

Josiah was in mid-sip when that statement rang in his ears and promptly started coughing. When he lowered his cup, he replied in an entirely neutral voice. "Of course you are."

"Casey didn't have a problem with me."

ĎSheís Bajoran, they're used to suffering." Josiah joked and earned himself a scowl from Chris who came back to his desk with his coffee.

"So, what's this medical emergency?" Chris asked, sitting down at his desk, pushing away the tray and deciding a definite change of subject was in order.

"Buck."

Chris let out a sigh and for once could not disagree with Josiah. His presence difficulties with Arlok wholly forgotten, the Captain eased back into his chair. "Yeah, Iíve noticed."

"I donít know whether it was a good idea for him to take the second seat so soon."

"Me neither," Chris admitted. "Heís trying to downplay how badly itís affected him, but I know heís not sleeping. Heís been turning up on the bridge during the night shift. JD hasnít said anything, but Iíve been keeping an eye on him, so I know itís happened on at least five separate occasions."

"Disrupted sleep is something all the assimilated crew are experiencing," Josiah explained. "But with Buck, itís deeper. He was leading the other drones from the moment they left the ship in the Corrizo. The Collective used his knowledge to get as far as they did on Vulcan and on the Maverick. While he knows logically itís not his fault, he still feels the guilt. Not only that, but the reclaimed drones donít have the luxury of forgetting so every face heís taken, every life that was lost, heís feeling it."

Chris guessed as much. His friendship with Buck allowed him to read his old friend with surprising empathy, and despite Buckís attempt to shrug off what happened to him, Chris knew he was wounded inside. Aside from offering to be there for Buck, Chris didnít know what else to do.

"I canít take him off active duty Josiah," Chris stated, hoping thatís not why Josiah was here because the last time they had this similar discussion, neither had walked away happy.

"Iím not asking you to do that. I think youíre right like before with Alex, Buck needs to be here. I just wanted you to be aware of the problem. Iíll keep chipping away at those defences heís erected to hide whatís happened to him, but when that wall comes down, you might need to let him go if he asks to leave."

"If he asks," Chris agreed. "Iíll let him do what he needs to, but not before."

Chris had promised not to give up on Buck, he intended on keeping that promise.

*khio'ri - star

Chapter Three:
The Larabee Glare

Inez Recillos wished she knew what to do.

When Buck appeared at her quarters for breakfast that morning, she could tell just by the dark circles under his eyes, he had another sleepless night. Since his return to the Maverick, Inez tried to be there for him, aware the trauma of assimilation had left its mark and was sympathetic to his increasingly detached behaviour. Those blue eyes that often gave her such insight into the man, beyond his notorious womanising reputation, showed her just how traumatised Buck Wilmington was, despite his words to the contrary.

Inez's heart broke for him because now more than ever, she wanted to hear him laugh when he was rebuffed after making a shameful attempt at a come-on, or display the wry sense of humour that could always be counted on to diffuse tension. The void he left by his presence was felt most acutely during his assimilation. In times of crisis when the Captain was busy, it was to Buck they turned to for assurance that all would be well. He was just as vital to the mental health of the Maverick as Josiah. When he was returned to the Maverick after assimilation, Inez, with the rest of the crew, breathed a sigh of relief.

Except now, Inez knew he was far from free of the Collective.

As a civilian, she knew little of the Borg, only that they were the terrible enemy with the power to shake the courage of even the most seasoned Starfleet officers. She'd barely given them a second thought when she was engaged to Raphael Castille. Raphael was the Captain of the Intrepid on the front lines of the Dominion War. What she feared most was his death at the hands of the fearsome Jem'Hadar. A fear realised when he died at the Battle of Cardassia Prime. The Borg were the boogeymen in the background, emerging once or twice to bedevil them.

After Buck's assimilation, Inez became a quick study.

Having spoken to Josiah while Buck was still in Sick Bay, Inez learned freedom from the Borg was more than just the disconnection from its hive mind, and the removal of the grotesque prosthetics and implants. All the survivors, from Jean-Luc Picard to the more recent experience of the young woman called Seven of Nine, it was freeing oneself from a hell where free will was trapped, with just enough awareness left for torment. She couldn't even begin to imagine what it must have been like for Buck, whose best characteristic was his ability to instinctively know what people needed and being that for them. Now when she looked into his eyes, she knew he was haunted by the faces of everyone he harmed as Borg.

Even worse, there was something lurking beneath that guilt, something she couldn't quite grasp, but suspected was the true cause of his inability to sleep.

Sitting across each other at the small dining table in her quarters, they'd resumed their ritual of breakfast before he went to start his morning, except now he was usually coming off the nightshift because of his insomnia. They used to have lively chats about how they were going to spend their day but since his return, the breakfasts were quiet affairs where she did most of the talking. Today was no exception.

Even Aislyn, the Selurian Minx cat Buck rescued following one of the Maverick's earliest Away missions, noticed the difference. Inez had kept the furry, golden feline in her care since Buck was assimilated, aware he would not like the creature to be alone. She had to admit, Aislynn had been a great comfort to her and like her master, seemed to know exactly when she needed comforting. The cat weaved in between Buck's legs, rubbing her gorgeous pelt against his calf, reminding him she was there and also to soothe him in her own way.

"She missed you," Inez pointed out as they ate a breakfast of Belgian waffles, with Inez trying to ignore he was just picking at his food. "Maybe it's time to move her back to your quarters?"

Buck leaned down and swept up Aislynn with one hand, pushing back from the table so she could sit comfortably on his lap while he ran his palm across her soft fur. To him, Aislynn would never really be an animal. She would be that timid sixteen-year-old girl from the Leonov, who surrendered her humanity to save his life and became trapped in the skin of a cat. He promised he would always look after her and no matter what, he would die before breaking that promise.

And it would be nice to have her company during those hours where sleep eluded him.

"Yeah," Buck agreed, smiling at Aislynn affectionately, "I think it's time you came home too. What do you think, girl?"

Aislynn purred her agreement, her blue eyes fixed on Buck. Even if she was incapable of speech, Buck knew Aislynn understood everything being said to her.

"You look tired," Inez said after a moment, unable to ignore the state of him any longer. He wasn't sleeping, and by the looks of it, not eating either. She hated being the kind of girlfriend (if that was what they were since no formal discussion had been made on this point), who nagged their partners but Inez was growing increasingly worried about him.

"Just a busy night Darlin'," Buck shrugged it off, continuing to stroke Aislynn's back. "I've been fighting off all those ladies who are just so excited to have me back. I guess they haven't heard I'm spoken for these days. You know how they can be." He flashed her a grin, but even Inez could see it didn't reach his eyes.

"Buck," she reached for his hand, "you know I'm here for you if you need me. It doesn't matter what time it is. You can call me if you need to talk about why you can't sleep."

Inez winced inwardly, knowing it was a mistake the second she made the offer.

Buck withdrew his hand, and his expression became hard. Inez could see the walls being erected even as he lowered Aislynn to the floor and straightened up again. "I sleep just fine, Inez."

"Do you really?" She insisted, refusing to let it go because she was convinced he needed to talk to someone about this. Inez knew not from JD, but from the chatter she'd overheard at Four Corners, the First Officer had been turning up on the bridge at odd hours of the night. The Maverick was a ship of a thousand people, and like any small community, gossip travelled fast.

"I'm fine Inez," he got to his feet, uncomfortable at her questioning because he wasn't ready to admit he was going through his life terrified. Buck took a deep breath and blinked slowly, coming to a decision he knew was the best thing for both of them right now, even if a small voice in the back of his head was telling him he was a goddamn coward.

"Look, I think it might be a good idea if we gave each other a little space right now."

"Buck," Inez stared at him, unable to believe where that one question had led. "I'm just worried about you. I'm not trying to be unkind, I know you're going through something I can't understand, and I want to help you. Don't shut me out, please."

"Goddamn it Inez," Buck snapped, feeling a surge of anger at her not letting this go. "I want a little damn space, alright? I mean, come on," he stepped away from the table. "Christ, you made me wait long enough, can't you do the same?"

The words stung and Inez swallowed the lump in her throat, telling herself repeatedly this was the trauma talking, not Buck. She'd seen the look in his eyes, she knew he loved her. Everything he'd done since Buck realised she was within his reach proved it. His womanising ways had stopped, and while he was still a shameless flirt, Inez knew none of it should worry her. When he committed to someone he loved, he did not do so half-heartedly.

"Alright," she nodded, not wanting to push him any further because if this was how extreme he reacted to what she thought was a rather gentle prod, Inez dreaded to see what he would do if he was really provoked. "I'll give you all the space you need Buck," she hid the emotion threatening to flood her eyes with tears, "but I won't stop caring for you. When you're ready. I'll be here."

Buck didn't trust himself to answer because he knew he'd hurt her. Hating himself, he started towards the door, refusing to look at her because if he did, he might cave and Buck had come to the decision this was for the best. She was better off without him. Let a little time pass, and she'd probably agree with him.

"Look, I've got to get to the bridge. I'll come by later to get Aislynn. Thanks for looking after her."

"Whatever you feel is best," Inez said watching him leave and knew the dam behind her eyes would burst the instant he left. Yet she knew she had to let him go, trying to keep him would only make him fight harder to escape her and Inez didn't want to put Buck through that right now. She knew this was an excuse to avoid the problems plaguing him, and once he recovered, if he recovered, she thought involuntarily, he would come back to her.

She just had to be patient.

Buck walked through the doors, not looking behind him and didn't stop walking until he was at the end of the corridor. When he did stop, he drew in a deep breath and knew what he had done was right, as painful as it was. His head was a mess of implants and Borg programming Buck couldn't quite shake, even though Nathan said all of it was gone. He could feel it in his head, squirrelling beneath the skin, waiting to take him back to the prison where he could see but not affect.

It was best Inez be nowhere near him when that happened.

*******

"So how did it go?"

Chris Larabee asked Vin Tanner from his command chair, in a much happier mood after savouring the cup of Jamaican blend coffee Casey thankfully left programmed in his replicator. Most of the Senior Staff was present, except for Buck and JD. The kid was getting some rest after the night shift, and Buck was due to come on duty shortly. Even Mary was back on the bridge, busily studying her datapad, engrossed on the material she was scrolling through.

Vin spun around in his chair, looking away from helm control where he was running a diagnostic, to face Chris and noted Ezra had looked up in interest as well. He didnít mind Ezraís curiosity since it was the Security Chief who helped him track down his family on Vulcan after their return from the alternate universe.

"It went good," Vin couldnít help but share a smile with Alex who was at her customary station next to Ezra who occupied Tactical. "My grandpa didnít say much, but I get the impression they were just happy to know what happened to my ma and the fact theyíve got kin. It seems my ma was their only child."

Most of the Senior Staff were aware Vin and Alex had gone to Vulcan the day before to meet his biological grandparents. They were burning with curiosity with how the encounter went, given Vinís reservations at how he would be received due to his human upbringing. Chris always thought Vin was selling his people short, even though he understood why. Vin was very much ostracised at the Academy, with the younger Vulcan cadets uncertain what to make of him. Even if he was one of their own, he possessed no knowledge of their ways. The experience cemented Vinís view he was an affront to all Vulcans, when really Chris suspected, they had no idea how to treat him.

After Sarah and Adamís death, Captain Savilís empathy saved his career. It was Savil who sent Buck to save him from himself when Chris was ready to throw his whole life away in grief. Hell, it was Savil who approved Vinís transfer to the Rutherford and instructed Chris to keep a close eye on the Vulcan when he came on board. Chris suspected Savil had read Vinís Starfleet jacket and recognised a lost soul needing to belong somewhere, and giving him a spot on the Rutherford would help him do that.

"I"m so happy to hear that Vin," Mary lowered her datapad and smiled at him. "Despite their emotional control, family is everything in Vulcan culture. Even if they didnít show it, Iím sure learning they have a grandson would have meant the world to them. Trust me, I know."

Something in the timbre of her voice made Chris shoot her a look and knew immediately, her own visit to Syanís relatives may not have ended as amiably as Vinís encounter with his long-lost family. Mary had taken Billy to visit them while Vin was on the surface and wondered if they were at her to raise Billy like a proper Vulcan again. Chris hated to think of the child who enjoyed going fishing, learning how to skip pebbles and crushing on Lt. Rain, being buried under all that Vulcan discipline. He made a mental note to ask her about it later.

"Oh, TíLaina was happy," Alex added. "I mean she was perfectly Vulcan, but I could tell she was delighted. "

"And what of your grandfather?" Ezra chimed in, "how did he take the news of your existence?"

Vin fell silent for a moment, thinking of Siran, who looked so much like him, it was jarring. It was strange catching a glimpse of what he might look like in the future. The Vulcan academic had been standoffish at first, but Vin was fast learning how Vulcans showed their approval. Before he and Alex returned to the Maverick, Siran had touched his shoulder briefly. From that contact, Vin realised his grandfather was not only pleased he had entered their lives but was grateful for the joy it brought his wife, who still pined secretly for their lost daughter.

"Well, he used the words satisfactory, adequate and said it was only logical me and Alex ought to stay with them the next time we came to Vulcan, and maybe visit us at the ranch the next time we were on Earth. Vin couldnít help but grin at that, trying to imagine the regal couple at the property in Texas.

"Yes," Alex couldnít help but share Vinís smile, "Siran believes it could be...fascinating."

"Which in Vulcan terms," Mary translated, "means they want to get to know you better."

"Thatís for sure," Chris agreed, glad it had gone so well because Vinís self-esteem was finally in a good place. He would hate for it to take a step backward after all the progress his best friend had made since coming on board the Maverick.

"That is good to hear Vin. I would hate to think my efforts on your behalf was for nothing." Ezra said with a little smirk. Secretly, Ezra was gratified it went so well for the young Vulcan. While Ezra offered no opinion on what should be Vinís decision alone to make when he was conducting his investigation on Vinís behalf, he was pleased Vin chose to take the chance and meet them. "So will you be seeing them again?"

"The next time we come this way, yeah," Vin nodded. "It still feels strange knowing I got blood kin, after so many years."

Chris was about to answer when the turbo lift doors slid open, and Buck made his entrance onto the deck. Letting his gaze linger on the First Officerís approach, Chris had to admit the novelty of seeing Buck back on the bridge again had yet to wear off. Remembering what it had been like to face the Borg Buck had been, preparing to take the Maverick, Chris would never tire of being grateful for Buckís continued presence in his life.

"Hey Buck," Chris greeted, choosing to remain silent about the night shift unless Buck brought it up first. "How was your breakfast with Inez?"

Buck stiffened ever so slightly, but it was enough for Chris to catch it.

"Fine," Buck said, taking his place in the First Officerís seat. "Same old, same old. Sheís begging me to stay, and Iím telling her I have to get to the bridge so I can find you a Yeoman before Arlok decides to space himself."

Chris didnít believe Buck for a second and judging by the expression on Alexís face, neither did she. More than anyone on this ship, save Julia Pemberton, Alex Styles understood trauma and knew all the tricks used to hide it. Once again, Josiahís warning about Buckís nocturnal troubles surfaced in Chrisís mind, but this was not the time for that discussion.

"Very funny," Chris gave Buck a look. "It cannot be that hard to find me a replacement for Casey. Another week with Arlok and he wonít have to space himself, Iíll happily do it for him."

"Nice," Buck frowned. "Iíll take a look at the personnel files again today, see if we canít find another nice sweet Bajoran who can put up with you."

"Put up with me?" Chris stared at Buck. "What am I, a Klingon Targ?"

"No offence Chris," the First Officer shrugged, "you can be a little ornery."

"Me, ornery? Iím not ornery!" Chris protested and then noticed all his senior staff, found reasons not to meet his gaze.

Alex was suddenly scrutinising her screen, Ezra was preoccupied with brushing something off the sleeve of his jacket and Vin had abruptly returned his attention back to the diagnostic he was running. Buck tilted his head past Chris, meeting Maryís eyes and heard the Protocol Officer sigh at the realisation she was the one who was going to have to answer Chris. She was probably the only person on board, who could tell Chris the truth without ending up in the brig.

"Chris," Mary gave him a look of affection. "You can be a little intimidating."

"Oh come on!" Chris balked.

"Captain," Ezra cleared his throat. "You are aware that there is a standing joke that the Larabee glare has been rumoured to incinerate enemies on the spot, and possibly some crewmen."

"The Larabee glare?"

A snort from directly ahead gave away Vinís efforts not to laugh, with Buck trying to suppress a grin, while Mary rolled her eyes wondering why she bothered with these men at all. Fortunately, before Chris could further express his outrage, a light chirp from somewhere across the bridge indicated the presence of an incoming message.

"Oh, thank God," she muttered under her breath.

"Captain," Alex spoke up, having taken up JDís communication duties while the young lieutenant was off the bridge. "Weíve got an incoming message from Captain Krista at DS5."

The mood on the bridge immediately shifted from its light banter to Starfleet professionalism as everyone turned to the view screen in anticipation of Chrisís order.

"Put it through," the Captain exchanged a look of puzzlement with Buck. The Maverick was a long way from Deep Space Five and Lysia, and if Captain Krista needed help, there had to be starships in closer proximity than the Maverick.

The attractive features of the Illidarian Captain appeared across the screen a second later. Captain Krista, like the rest of her species, possessed almost translucent blue skin, with beautiful markings against her temples, an indication of caste. She always made Chris think of those lovely blown glass figurines, favoured by little old ladies everywhere. At the sight of the Maverickís bridge, Krista broke into a warm smile, having become familiar with every member of the Senior Staff since the Maverick began making regular stops at DS5.

Krista," Chris greeted pleasantly. "This is a surprise, is everything alright at DS5?"

"Hello Chris," Krista returned just as warmly. "Yes, everything is fine. I just wanted to catch the Maverick before you left Vulcan and headed back our way."

"Well we werenít planning on making an extended stop," he explained. "Did you need something? "

"Yes," she nodded, "I was wondering if you could make a slight detour to Arloff IV. I know itís a little bit off your course back to the frontier, but a civilian transport on route from Gamma Hydrae detected what appeared to be a distress signal from the planet. By the time the ship arrived in orbit, the signal was gone, but it definitely originated from there."

"Arloff IV," Chris mused, thinking the name sounded familiar as he glanced at Alex when it came to him. "Isnít there a medical facility of some kind over there?"

Alex, who pulled up the information from the shipís computer, gave him a more accurate answer. "Yes Captain., The Tenarus Research Asylum is located there."

"Asylum?" Ezraís brow furrowed, not liking the whole concept of such places in general. "Pray to tell why is a facility for mental health located in such a distance locale?"

"Because the research being conducted there is for the treatment of the criminally insane," Alex explained.

"Thatís right, Chris," Krista declared, revealing why she contacted the Maverick. "When Captain Okona of the Erstwhile contacted the facility, the director claimed nothing was wrong, and they sent no transmission. I know Captain Okona, heís not prone to getting exaggeration. Heís convinced the signal came from Arloff. Considering the nature of its occupants, I think this is worth further investigation."

"Captain," Ezra spoke up, "it bears looking into. If the inmates have somehow overcome the asylum staff, it may be why they are denying a transmission was sent at all."

"Especially if someone escaped long enough to get one out," Buck added.

Both good points, Chris thought silently before he faced Krista. "Leave this with the Maverick Krista, weíll check it out."

"Thank you, Chris," Krista smiled gratefully. "Keep us informed on what you learned. DS5 out."

Once Kristaís image vanished from the screen, Chris turned to Buck. "Alright, I guess shore leave is over."

Chapter Four:
Repeated Mistakes

"Captainís Log - Stardate 2378.292.

We have left orbit of Vulcan and are presently on route to Arloff IV, on Captain Kristaís behalf to investigate further the source of the message received by the civilian ship Erstwhile. At present course and speed, we should be arriving at Tenarus Research Asylum in less than five hours. I am convening a senior staff meeting to determine how to best approach the situation at the facility if there is one. If some misadventure has occurred involving the inmates, our main priority will be the safe removal of the medical staff."

Chris Larabee surveyed the faces surrounding the oval table of dark glass in the Conference Room. After recent events, he felt a surge of satisfaction seeing his senior staff together again. Both Julia and Buck were in their customary positions, and while Chris knew they were a long way from being fully recovered, it was a journey they would take surrounded by their friends on board the Maverick. For this meeting, Josiah and Nathan were present as was JD, who looked refreshed after a few hours of well-earned sleep.

"So, what do we know?"

The question was directed at Alex, who immediately activated the view screen to begin her report. Since the Captain called for this meeting shortly after the ship left Vulcan orbit, Alex collated all the available information on their impending destination. The screen flashed an external image of the facility, which appeared taken from above the planetís surface. The main structure was almost a perfect dark square pressed into a snow-white glacial plain. Surrounding it were smaller structures, appearing as little more than tiny, round dots in worship around their larger counterpart. Framing the facility, were formations they all knew to be mountains.

"According to the Central Bureau of Penology in Stockholm, the Tenarus Research Asylum located on Arloff IV or Tenarus, is named after the cavern in which Hercules found Cerberus in Greek mythology. The planet is mostly uninhabited, except for the native fauna, which includes several predators closely related to the mugatos of Neural, herds of wild orus, or antelopes by our definition, and an assortment of small burrowing mammals. The surface temperature of the planet is recorded at -60 degrees celsius on average and can drop as low as 90 during their storm season."

"A fitting name," Ezra said distastefully. Still, he understood the advantage of housing the criminally insane in such an inhospitable environment. It made escape extremely unlikely.

"Aside from the asylum and one communication relay station located here," the screen shifted to reveal a smaller structure half protruding from the incline of a high mountain peak, "there is no other civilization there."

"Relay station?" Buck asked, "if the asylum is claiming they didnít send a message, could it have come from there?"

"I would say so," Julia spoke up for the first time and as all eyes turned to her, a slight tinge of colour flooded her cheeks. It was the first senior staff meeting Julia had attended since her assimilation and judging by the tone of her voice, devoid of its usual upbeat spirit, she was still finding her feet. "The positioning of the relay and its distance from the facility tells me that itís a backup station. In case of any malfunction at the asylum."

"Makes sense," Ezra added his voice to her comment in a show of support. "In the event of the asylum becoming compromised, this may be the only way for its staff to seek help."

"Agreed," Chris nodded and turned to Alex. "Please continue."

"Tenarus was built more than twenty-five years ago, and unlike its predecessors, this facility was built solely to rehabilitate the criminally insane. Itís not a repurposed prison, like the penal settlements on New Zealand, Tantalus, Jarus and Elba II, which was built to incarcerate the most incorrigible criminals until the movement for rehabilitation was spearheaded by Doctor Tristan Adams in 2266."

"Hmmph."

The involuntary snort came from the direction of Josiah Sanchez, prompting Nathan Jackson to cover his face with his hand, presumably to hide the slight smile produced by the Counsellorís reaction.

"Something to add Josiah?" Chris glanced at the older man and hid his own amusement at seeing the normally serene counsellorís feathers ruffled.

"Not really," Josiah shrugged, feeling a little embarrassed by allowing his contempt to show. "My thoughts on Doctor Adamsís methods arenít stellar."

Both Josiah and Nathan were familiar with Dr Tristan Adams, recalling the physicianís contribution to the modern-day rehabilitation of the criminal mind. Unfortunately, the excellent work Adams began was overshadowed by the incident leading to his ultimate downfall. Since then, what became known as the ĎTantalus Incidentí was required reading for every student of psychiatry as a cautionary tale in hubris.

"How so?" Mary asked somewhat intrigued, aware they were going off-topic a little but the Captain opened the door.

"There really isnít much to tell," Josiah sat up straighter and offered Alex an apologetic look for usurping her briefing, only to be given a smile he had nothing to be sorry for. "Doctor Tristan Adams pioneered the transformation of prisons into rehabilitation centres. Thanks to the advances in medicine and biochemistry, we gained access to technology that allowed us to fully chart the brain, giving us a better understanding of how it functions. Thanks to his recommendations, we now conduct psychological screening during an individualís early development, enabling us to diagnose and treat any kind of aberrant behavioural issues before it manifests into abnormality. Itís not a hundred per cent of course, but it is now the basis for all our treatment for the criminally insane."

"If I am not mistaken, did not Doctor Adams take his theories to the extreme?" Ezra asked.

"Unfortunately, yes," Josiah frowned. "He was in charge of the Tantalus colony, and being so far from the core worlds, he conducted behavioural modification treatments that were no better than mind-control. Itís why Iím not an advocate of these kinds of facilities, established so far away from society. Even with the best intentions, thereís always the possibility of abuse when allowed to operate without oversight."

"You think something like that could have happened here?" Vin asked.

"I have no idea," Josiah answered truthfully.

Aware that Alex had yet to conclude her report, Buck gestured at the Science Officer to resume conscious Chrisís reflective expression meant the Captain was taking in all viewpoints into consideration.

"As I said, the facility was built twenty-five years ago and has been heavily involved in the research of abnormal xeno-psychology for most of that time, as well as acting as a rehabilitation colony. At present, there are 219 patients and seventy staff, including guards. The asylum is fully enclosed in a Level 1 penal forcefield, capable of withstanding phaser bombardment from orbit, and can only be lowered from inside the structure. To date, there have been no escapes from Tenarus."

"No wonder," Vin stated. "Even if you got past the force field, youíd freeze as soon as you hit the ice."

"Pretty much," Alex gave him a little smile. "Captain, the facility is currently under the authority of Doctor Paracelsus. He took over the asylum six months ago."

Josiah sat up straighter. "Gabriel Paracelsus?"

Chris eyed Josiah. "You know him?"

"A long time ago," Josiah admitted, remembering a rather sombre young man, who was sometimes too introspective for his own good. "We knew each other at Starfleet Medical, but that was years ago. Iím afraid any impressions I have of him are out of date."

"It might be worth having Josiah make contact when we get there Chris," Buck suggested. "Friendly face and all. He might be more inclined to talk to another doctor than to us."

"I agree, Chris," Mary added. "This is still a civilian facility, not Starfleet. They may not appreciate a starship knocking at their door, especially if theyíre claiming nothing is wrong. We should be mindful of how we approach them. Right now, weíre here based on one message whose origins we canít determine other than the fact it came from the planet."

"Maryís right," Chris agreed with her assertion, even though he fully intended to investigate, remembering Josiahís words about such places having little oversight. Out on the edge of the Federation, it was easy for someone to take advantage of that isolation for their own ends. "Theyíve got a force field surrounding the facility. If we go in there guns blazing, they might not even let us in. Iíd prefer we play nice and convince them to let us take a look around."

"In that case," Buck spoke up, "Chris I say we make this look as casual as possible like weíre just coming for a visit. Josiah, we can play up your connection to Paracelsus, say you were in the area and wanted to take a look at the place. Nathan, you come too and Mary."

Chris didnít like the idea of sending Mary down there at all but was aware heíd catch nine colours of hell if he said anything in protest. Reminding himself, in this room, she was just another officer, Chris found Buckís plan sound. "Itís a good idea."

"Captain," Ezra frowned, not liking the idea of any member of the Maverick walking into a potentially dangerous situation without help. "With all due respect to Commander Wilmington, if anything goes wrong while the Away Team is on the surface, we will be unable to help them due to the force field. I would like to accompany the Away Team, if only under the pretext of inspecting their security and communication systems. "

"I can help, Sir," JD spoke up enthusiastically, more than eager to participate in any Away mission, especially at Buckís side. "I mean they wouldnít have access to Starfleet trained technicians. I can tell them Iím running a diagnostic of their comm systems, maybe put in a couple of improvements to keep them from having stray messages get out like this again."

"Sneaky," Buck grinned at the younger officer. "What do you think, Chris?"

"Sounds like a plan," Chris nodded in approval. "Letís get this do."

*******

After the meeting had concluded and before Buck could leave the room, Chris called out to his First Officer and best friend to remain. Chris hadnít missed the slight hesitation in Buckís eyes when heíd asked about Inez earlier and suspected more than just breakfast had taken place this morning. While Inez had said nothing to Chris about Buckís behaviour, the few conversations heíd had with the lady in passing did give the Captain of the Maverick the impression Buckís state of mind was very much on hers.

"What do you think is going on down there, Buck?" Chris asked casually as the two men remained seated after everyone had left the room.

"Iím not sure," Buck leaned back into his chair. "I mean on the face of it, it doesnít sound like anything to worry about, but we both know Krista, sheís no alarmist."

"True," Chris agreed. "I mean if I had a strange message coming from the planet where Iím the only occupant, Iíd want to get to the bottom of it. Seems to me Tenarus was just a little too dismissive for my liking."

"Yeah, then again. It could really be nothing."

"It could be that too," Chris was forced to concede the point and waited a moment before he spoke again. "How are you doing? You okay?"

Buckís gaze was fixed on his reflection on the glass table, but the question made him look up immediately. "Iím fine, why do you ask?"

"Just concerned," Chris shrugged. "This is going to be your first Away Mission since...," he didnít have to finish the sentence.

"Iím fine," Buck stated a little more forcefully than he intended, and then realized he sounded defensive. "Really, Chris," he said after a moment. "Iím okay. Iím just working through things."

"And everything okay with Inez?" Chris probed, not believing it for a second Buck was as well-adjusted as he claimed. Chris could tell by the periods of silence Buck lapsed into these days, his mind was going somewhere decidedly unpleasant. Of course, any effort to get the man talking was dismissed by his usual bravado and swagger.

Buck bristled, and Chris saw the tension running through his shoulders and the subtle clench of his jaw. It was a characteristic Chris had become familiar with these days. Buck felt things deeply and had a bit of a temper when the moment took him, but hidden resentment was new, and lately, thatís all Chris was seeing in his friend.

"Inez is great. We had breakfast this morning and got a few things off our chest."

Oh shit, Chris didnít like the sound of this at all. "Like what?"

Buck opened his mouth about to tell Chris to mind his own business when he remembered Chris was his Captain and there were just too many times in the past when Buck waded knee-deep in Chrisís business after being told to butt out. How could he expect his oldest friend to behave any differently when Chris had been on the receiving end of Buckís help for years, whether or not Chris wanted it?

"We decided we both needed some breathing room," Buck admitted after a long pause.

Chris kept his expression neutral. "Really?"

Since Buck Wilmington laid eyes on Inez Recillos, the woman had been his holy grail. Heíd pursued her relentlessly during those first few months, so much so Chris considered telling the man his behaviour was bordering on harassment. Fortunately, Inez had proved herself quite capable of dealing with Buck on her own and fended off his most ardent attempts to charm her. Eventually, it came out that Inez was the fiancee of an old friend of both Chris and Buckís, Raphael Castille, Captain of the USS Venture.

At the height of the Dominion War, Raphael had wanted his fiancee nowhere near the front lines. Inez had taken the posting to the Maverick, placing her on the other side of the quadrant, safe from harm. Of course, Raphael could make no assurances for himself, and following the battle of Cardassia Prime, the Venture was lost with all hands. Buck maintained his distance but chose to be Inezís friend as he would any person suffering a loss. Chris knew from experience how valuable that could be.

Buckís patience had paid off, and the two began spending more time together, proving to Chris Buckís affection for Inez was something deep and lasting. Judging by Inezís devastation when Buck was taken by the Borg, the Captain of the Maverick believed Inezís feelings for Buck were similarly profound. It was why hearing Buck claim this business of spending time apart felt utterly preposterous to Chris.

"Yeah," Buck continued. "Iíve got too much going on in my head right now. Best she donít have to deal with any of that."

Christ, Chris almost rolled his eyes. This sounded fucking familiar.

"Buck," Chris let out a breath, having held it for a second, trying to figure out the best way to put this and then decided being straight with his old friend was the only way to proceed. Christ knows he owed Buck that much for the countless times Buck had shaken the dumb ass out of him when he was displaying it in spades. "You remember how I was, after I found that Sarah and Adam werenít just killed, but murdered."

"Who could forget?" Buck gave him a pointed look. The Captainís obsession had almost driven the senior staff to revolt, and only a life and death situation returned Chris to his senses.

Chris glared at him through narrowed eyes before remembering he was trying to help Buck here.

"I pushed Mary away because I thought it was the right thing to do when it wasnít. I told myself I was doing her a favour when all I was doing was trying to justify my own bad behaviour. Iím not saying thatís what youíre doing because God knows, you have reason to feel doubt after what the Borg did to you, but donít make my mistake. I almost lost Mary. Donít push Inez away because she wants to help you."

"Itís better this way," Buck rose to his feet abruptly, unable to meet Chrisís gaze because everything the Captain said was right and Buck knew it. Hell, heíd even said those words to Chris in a harsher tone than this back then. "Can I be dismissed, Captain?"

"Buck, come on, letís talk about this," Chris stood up as well, not wanting to let Buck go when it was clear his old friend needed help. "Tell me whatís wrong, I want to help."

"Help do what?" Buck snapped. "Help me stop waking up at night, screaming? Help me believe that all this," he gestured to the room around them, "isnít some Borg hallucination Iím going to wake up from and find all gone? I can still feel them, Chris! I can feel them under my skin, inside my head! Every time I wake up, I have to remember Iím in my bed and not in a goddamn regeneration alcove! I donít want Inez anyway near me like this! Canít you see that?"

The raw panic in Buckís eyes was not lost on Chris, and the Captain didnít know what to say for a moment, cursing himself from pushing too hard. Thatís why we have a counsellor, stupid.

"Buck, we know what youíre going through...."

"The hell you do!" Buckís roar took even Chris by surprise. "You donít have the slightest goddamn idea what Iím going through and no offence Captain," Buck glared at him mercilessly. "Unless Iím not performing my duties, this is none of your damn concern., I donít remember you putting up with anyoneís nose in your business when the shoe was on the other foot, so donít presume to try and do the same thing to me. This is between Inez and me!"

Chrisís jaw clench, trying not to get angry because he knew Buck was a raw wound right now, much worse than he imagined. Besides Buck was right, Chris hadnít tolerated anyone telling him what to do when he was in the worst of his obsession. It had taken nothing less than the deaths of several crewmen to make Chris realize how recklessly he was behaving. Those deaths weighed heavily on Chrisís mind even now, and a part of him would never forgive himself for what heíd done.

"Alright Buck," Chris maintained his calm, even when his eyes were hard like points of ice piercing Buckís skin. "Itís your business what goes on between you and Inez. I just donít want you to do anything youíll regret later. Youíve saved me from myself a dozen times in the past, Iím just returning the favour."

Flinching under Chrisís stare, he looked away finally, unable to tolerate those eyes capable of seeing too much for his liking. "May I be dismissed?"

Chris sighed slowly deciding he had said his peace and could do no more. It was up to Josiah now. Chris hoped the Counsellor had better luck than he did with Buck. Even with that thought, Chris felt immediately guilty for giving up on his friend and First Officer, except he knew Buck was nearing some kind of an edge. If Chris kept pushing, Buck was liable to go over it, and Chris didnít want to risk Buck not finding his way back if that happened. As much as Chris loathed to admit it, Buck needed someone with far more expertise than Chris to help him heal. He needed Josiah.

"Youíre dismissed Commander," Chris said finally. "Inform me when we reach Tenarus."

"Aye Sir," Buck nodded, not looking at Chris when he swept out of the room, leaving the Captain of the Maverick alone with his thoughts.

After a few seconds, when Chris recovered from the confrontation, he tapped his combadge.

"Counsellor Sanchez," Josiahís low rumble of a voice followed the spirited chirp from the device.

"Josiah, itís Chris," he stared at the door Buck had just exited. "We need to talk."

Chapter Five:
Tenarus

Even from space, the planet looked cold.

Against the dark expanse of stars, Arloff IV or Tenarus, as it was named by a more imaginative cartographer after its mapping, resembled a white dot on approach. The star around which it revolved was equally distant, explaining why Tenarus suffered the weather it did. Possessing twin moons close to each other, their orbit around the planet ensured the surface would be frequently lashed with blizzard-like winds. As the Maverick closed in, its crew could see the formation of thick cloud cover, landmasses gripped in arctic conditions, battling the few drops of ocean for dominance.

Perfect place for a gulag, Chris Larabee thought involuntarily as he studied the planet from his command chair, deciding on first impressions he did not like the place. It wasn't just the concept of the asylum bothering Chris, especially after Josiah Sanchez's words about any institution where guards were required to maintain residents, lacking oversight so far away from the core systems.

"Alex," Chris glanced at the science officer at her station. "Get Josiah to report to the bridge."

"Aye Sir," she nodded, aware that Josiah was probably getting ready for the Away Mission to the surface and quickly summoned the Counsellor to the bridge so he could make the initial contact with Doctor Paracelsus.

"I feel like I need a sweater just looking at it," Vin said distastefully, having never acclimated to frosty temperatures. Every place he'd ever been was always warm and he avoided cold weather like the plague. Any environment needing that many layers to stay warm, was not anywhere he wished to be.

"You're too Vulcan for your own good," Chris teased. "It wasn't warm when we climbed Everest."

"Oh yes," Alex couldn't help but remark, "because climbing Everest in a holodeck with temperature controls set at cool, is exactly like the real thing."

"Well don't blame us if you and Ezra get hysterical every time we talk about turning off the holodeck safeties." Chris exchanged a grin of schoolboy mischief with Vin before turning it Alex's direction.

"We just want to keep our Captain and idiot husband from going splat at the foot of a mountain." Alex shook her head, wondering why she was arguing with these two. They devolved into juveniles whenever they talked about their extracurricular activities on the holodeck.

"Hey!" Vin threw her a look of mock offence. "You know you can always come with us, make sure we don't do anything stupid." He was perfectly aware it was an offer she would never accept.

The idea of spending her off duty hours climbing a mountain made her wince. "I think I'll just stick with mai-tais on a beach."

Chris laughed, sensing Vin had just scored the winning serve and spared Alex any further embarrassment. "Are we in communications range?"

"Aye Captain? Shall I hail them?"

"Yeah, we should let them know we're here."

JD Dunne who would have usually done the deed was preparing for the Away Mission to the surface along with Buck Wilmington, Nathan Jackson, Mary Travis and Ezra Standish. At maximum warp, they'd arrived at Tenarus in record time, and Chris was determined, no matter what the outcome of his conversation with Doctor Paracelsus, his Away Team would be landing on the surface of the planet. Still, as he noted the empty seats on either side of him, Chris felt his bridge seemed incomplete with half the Senior Staff embarking on this mission to the surface.

"Yes Sir," Alex nodded, pausing in her task of conducting a surface scan of the planet to carry out the request. It took a few taps across the glass display before the screen flashed green, indicating the facility was receiving their hail and standing by for a message. "Tenarus Research, this is the USS Maverick. Please standby to receive a transmission from Counsellor Josiah Sanchez."

No sooner than afte Alex made the statement, the turbo lift doors slid open, and Josiah stepped onto the bridge.

"Reporting for duty," Josiah said as he descended the walkway to join Chris in front of the view screen.

"You're up," Chris explained. "We've just hailed the facility on your behalf."

A few seconds of silence followed, before the view of the planet on the screen vanished. In its place, was the face of a dark man with imposing features, wearing what appeared to be a white doctor's uniform, with Caduceus against his mandarin collar. His shoulders were broad, and his eyes were deep set, making his brow especially pronounced. His features appeared chiselled from ebony and Chris suspected he was probably tall.

"Greetings, Captain Larabee. I am Director Gabriel Paracelsus of this institute. Did you say, Josiah Sanchez?"

"Hello Gabe," Josiah stepped into view. "It's me, Joey."

Alex and Vin exchanged glances, both mouthing the word simultaneously. Joey?

"Oh my God, how long has it been?" Paracelsus exploded, his smile stretching across his entire face in delight.

"Longer than either of us wants to remember," Josiah grinned. "Gabe, I hope you don't mind, I'm serving aboard the Maverick as its Counsellor, and when I heard this was on the way back to our assignment in the frontier, I asked Captain Larabee if we could make a slight detour."

"Greetings Director Paracelsus," Chris introduced himself, now that Josiah had given him an opening. trying to appear as amiable as possible. "I hope you don't mind us using Counsellor Sanchez's desire for a quick visit to see how you're doing. This sector is close to the former Romulan Neutral Zone, and with what's happened with the empire lately, raiders are more common than not. We'd like to come down, upgrade your comms and security systems just in case."

The smile on Paracelsus's face did not waver and he replied with a tone of graciousness. "Of course Captain, I would not fault you for trying to carry out your duty, and it is true, we are somewhat isolated out here. While I cannot confess to seeing any raiders yet, I suppose it would be unfortunate if they discovered our presence and realised how vulnerable we are."

"Exactly," Chris offered the man a smile in return. "Our Away Team is on standby to transport at your convenience."

"They can come down right now, we'll lower the force field the minute you're ready," Paracelsus replied before turning to Josiah. "It will be so good to see you again Joey, you can tell me if you ever got anywhere with that Betazed girl you were pining after."

Chris shot Josiah a look and hid his amusement when Josiah's face turned red with embarrassment. If Chris was not mistaken, that Betazed girl was, in fact, Ayla, Josiah's late wife. For some reason, it did Chris's universe some measure of good to know that the wise, often sagely Counsellor with all the answers, was once as awkward as the rest of them.

"Oh I made some headway," Josiah cleared his throat and now felt genuinely eager to catch up with Gabe again. It wasn't often he ran into friends who knew him before he became a therapist. "We'll talk about it when I get down there, and you can show me your playground."

"I'd be delighted," Paracelsus replied with just as much sincerity.

Yet as Chris studied him on the screen, there was something in his smile that didn't seem quite right to the Captain of the Maverick, although for the life of him, Chris couldn't figure out what.

Chris only hoped it was a mystery that didn't end up putting the lives of his Away Team in jeopardy.

*******

A short time later, Chris walked Josiah to Transporter Room 1 where the Away Team under Buck's leadership was preparing to transport through the colony's shields. Leaving Alex the bridge, Chris wanted the chance to talk to Josiah about Buck, since he was still concerned about the First Officer's state of mind, but also because he wanted to know more about Doctor Paracelsus.

"So you two were friends?" Chris inquired as they made their way down the hallway after stepping off the turbo lift.

"We were a part of the same group," Josiah answered. "You know how it is at the Academy. There's always a group of cadets, you stick with through the whole thing and then drift apart, promising you'll catch up but never do."

Chris couldn't deny that, remembering the friends from his Academy days. Buck was still in his life of course, but Raphael Castille was gone, and last he heard of Noah Forbes, he was practising medicine at Starfleet Medical, and Rebecca Sharpe was at the office of the Judge Advocate General.

"Yeah," Chris nodded. "I know what you mean."

"He and I went to a lot of the same classes since we were both preparing for Starfleet Medical," Josiah continued. "He was a quiet type, spiritual. He had the idea that mental well-being required belief in something inviolate."

"Like God?" Chris eyed him curiously.

Religion in the 24th century was still practised. However, the more outdated concepts were abandoned as clerics preached enlightenment through the acceptance of others, which was not all that different from the Federation's worship of IDIC. On the Maverick, the diverse crew was a microcosm of different customs and beliefs.

On Sundays, or rather the closest approximation to Sunday as one could get in space, church services were held on the holodecks, with holographic chaplains taking the pulpit. During the Christmas mass, Chris had attended as Captain and was surprised to see Nathan Jackson, Drew Katovit and even Audrey King present. Meanwhile, practitioners of Islam were allowed their time to worship during the day and of the alien holidays, Mary and Billy observed Kish'altriq; a Vulcan holiday. Casey celebrated Ha'mara and even Alex kept the Klingon Days of Honour, by inflicting Rokeg blood pie on all of them.

"Not quite," Josiah answered. "According to scripture, not even God is perfect to some. No, Gabe believed in something even greater than all that, something that could not be driven by emotions or ego, something pure."

"He's in for a long wait," Chris managed to say. "Even the Q, who is about as close to God as you can get, aren't perfect."

"Agreed," Josiah nodded as they saw the door to Transporter 1 ahead.

Upon realising they would soon be joining the Away Team, Chris halted a moment. "Josiah, what about Buck? I'm worried about what happened earlier. Should I be letting him run this mission?"

Of course, Chris didn't even want to think about the fallout if he kept Buck on the Maverick. It might be the right decision as Captain, but the damage it would do to their friendship was another thing entirely. Yet he knew he could not ignore this. If Buck was compromised, then Chris blindly burying his head in the sand was only going to lead to disaster.

Josiah nodded in understanding, aware of how difficult a position Chris was in at present. The Captain of the Maverick was one of the strongest willed people he knew, if not the strongest. Being forced to admit Buck's situation might be beyond him, was something Josiah had no doubt struck Chris Larabee to the core.

"I'll keep an eye on him," Josiah assured. "Right now, he's compartmentalising, and so far it's worked, but those walls are starting to thin. I think he needs to confront his anxieties, not bury them away so he can ignore them."

"Are you sure Josiah?" Chris asked, fearing he was blinding himself to the fact the man might not be able to lead the Away Team. "I don't want a situation to develop while he's down there."

It didn't help matters that Mary was going to the facility as well, but once again, Chris reminded himself she was an officer under his command. For their relationship to work, some lines could not be crossed and his treating her like his 'girlfriend' certainly qualified. He could not afford her any more consideration than he would give to the others in the same Away Team. Fortunately, Ezra was going along, and if there was one thing the Security Chief was good for, it was standing up to senior officers when they were behaving like assholes.

Chris knew that first hand.

"Chris," Josiah stared at him, "more than anything right now, Buck needs to feel in control of his life, that the decisions he makes are his own, not the product of some Borg fantasy. He's struggling to convince himself everything is normal, that this is his life. We've got to help him believe what's around him is real, so he can rebuild the control he thinks he's lost. Taking him off active duty right now, would be tantamount to the Borg taking away his free will. Not an action I can recommend. I will keep an eye on him, and if I think for one minute, he can't cut it, I'll let you know."

"I'll hold you to that Counsellor," Chris said seriously before they stepped into the room.

*******

"Ezra, I don't think we need to be armed," Nathan Jackson frowned as he hooked his phaser onto his belt. "We're just going there for an impromptu visit."

"Doctor," Ezra as always wore his best poker face, even when he was trying not to show how exasperated he was. "We are about to transport into a facility which has a penal forcefield, with only the scantest information that all is well. Once we are at the complex, nothing short of a photon torpedo, if that, is going to penetrate the shield if things should go badly."

"Alright, alright," Nathan grumbled, conceding the point. "Just quit talking like we're about to beam into a firefight."

"You never know," Buck said with a little smile. "Besides its Starfleet regulations when we beam down to a penal colony, we have to go in armed."

"See," Ezra crowed in triumph while JD wore a look on his face that implied clearly, he thought he was the more mature of the two.

"Don't get too cocky," Buck told Ezra. "You're scaring the womenfolk."

"Hey!" Lt. Rain who was operating the transporter controls immediately piped up.

"He said it not me," Nathan quickly added, wanting no part of that last comment.

Chris and Josiah stepped into the Transporter Room just in time to see Buck getting swatted on the arm by Mary.

"Maybe I should go alone," Josiah said with a straight face, after hearing the antics of the group and wondering whether or not he ought to be checking everyone, except for himself, JD and the Captain into the asylum for observation.

"You're not leaving me with this bunch," Chris returned. "Buck? Are we ready to transport?"

"Almost," Buck said grinning at the protocol officer. "You know striking a superior officer is a court-martial offence."

"I'll take my chances," Mary said sweetly and exchanged a wink of solidarity with Rain.

"Now you see what I have to put up with," Chris couldn't help but wink at Mary.

"Very funny," the Protocol Officer returned Chris's smile with one of affection before returning to the business of securing her phaser and tricorder to her belt.

Mary was wearing a blue bodysuit made from soft material and knee-high space boots, clothing she'd taken to wearing when she wished to appear as a neutral party. During diplomatic missions when she was required to play mediator, it was less jarring to opposing factions if she did not wear the uniform. While Starfleet's mandate was to protect the ideals of the Federation, it was still considered a military institution by many.

"Are you ready to go?" Chris asked Buck.

"More or less," Buck cast a glance at the Away Team. As always, Nathan had his medkit with him, even though it was highly unlikely he'd need it considering they were transporting to an asylum with medical facilities. However, the healer had suffered one too many missions to know the precaution was never wasted. Ezra was making sure everyone had a phaser. At the same time, JD carried a small case which Chris presumed contained the parts needed for the upgrades to the asylum's communications and security systems.

"Alright," Chris turned back to Buck. "Check-in as soon as you arrive at the complex, and give me hourly reports. The purpose here is to take a quick look around, make sure nothing is going on we should be concerned about. Nathan, Josiah, talking to the patients would help. Ezra, the asylum is huge, try and get a good look around if you can but don't be too intrusive. As Mary says, this is a civilian facility, and our jurisdiction only kicks in if there is an imminent threat to life, not because we're on a fishing expedition."

"Captain, please," Ezra made a face at the notion of going fishing, or any outdoor situation requiring him to handle worms or insects with his bare hands. "I investigate based on data, I do not go on 'fishing expeditions' of any kind."

"Rain," Chris rolled his eyes before turning to the Transporter Chief. "Could you please let Tenarus know we're ready to transport the Away Team before I send Ezra down there in a torpedo tube."

******

Of course, they caught him.

There was only one place on the entire planet he could go, once he escaped. Making the journey to the communications relay had almost killed him, but he knew he had no choice, he had to get there. The message was sent, and sooner or later, someone would come. If nothing else, Jerry had to have faith in that. He was half-dead when they went to the relay station and found him, giving Jerry no chance to put up much of a fight.

The warders of Tenarus were not just humans, some of them were Nausicaans, hired not for their ability to provide mental health care, but because they were strong and did not care what they did as long as they got paid. Jerry suspected if they knew what was really happening in Tenarus, no amount of money would be enough to keep them from running.

Surrounded by the steel walls of the lift that took him all the way down to the lowest depths of the facility, his captors were not the Nausicaans. No, they had merely retrieved him from the relay station and brought him back. Now he was in the hands of the 'Believers', what Jerry called the most deranged followers of Paracelsusís new religion. Composed of humans, they also included Tellerites, Andorians and one or two Bajorans. They bought into Paracelsus delusion, hook, line and sinker.

Jerry made no attempt to speak to the two men who stood almost a head taller than him, their eyes filled with the vacancy that only came from complete indoctrination. They were guards once, but somehow Paracelsus twisted their minds so out of shape, there was nothing left of their individuality.

All that remained was serving her.

Jerry knew they weren't alone, he could hear her too. Remain at Tenarus long enough, and everybody did. She used no words that could be called a language, but when she whispered, you wanted to be apart of her, and God help you then.

Because there was no going back after.

Chapter Six:
Black Hole

En route to her first posting out of the Academy, Mary's ship the USS Mandela was forced to make a brief detour to study the collapse of a red supergiant. Unfortunately, before they could arrive to conduct their analysis, the massive stellar body, measuring -3 on the HertzsprungĖRussell scale, had imploded prematurely. By the time they reached it, all they could see was the dense stellar material crumbling into the gravity well it created.

The result of the spectacular collapse was the formation of a new black hole.

Mary remembered standing at the observation deck of the Mandela, mesmerized by the disintegration of the supergiant. Its debris disappeared into the singularity, leaving Mary with a chill running down her spine at the sight. The brief ignition of stellar matter made the accretion disk visible, but everything beyond that crimson ring was utter blackness. It was a void from which not even light could escape, where the laws of physics had no meaning, and even space-time was forced to bend to its will.

Mary stared at it, overcome with a sense of oblivion like she was staring at the dark heart of the universe, the part of it that terrified spacefarers because it was a reminder, in space no one could hear you scream.

When the shimmer of the transport beam dissipated, and the Away team found themselves in a room very much suited to the atmosphere of an old asylum, Mary felt it again. It seeped into her consciousness like black oil, until she felt her insides slick with its taint. Her heart and mind were invaded by something wordless, letting her know she was no different than the debris hurtling towards the singularity.

The instant he was able to react, Nathan Jackson, who was standing next to Mary on the transporter pad, saw the change in her pallor. "Mary, are you alright?"

The question immediately drew the attention of the others, because they were no more than ten seconds into their arrival at Tenarus.

Mary's cheeks reddened at their concern, feeling for a moment like one of those women in ancient times who suddenly caught a case of the vapours. Shaking away the unpleasant sensation, she quickly regained her composure. "I'm fine," she said to Nathan and then looked at the other men present in assurance. "Strong emotions generated by a place like this, bleeds into the walls. I guess I can feel them."

"Are you sure?" Buck Wilmington asked. As First Officer, anything that might affect the safety of the Away team concerned him. Not to mention, Chris would not be pleased if anything happened to Mary under his watch.

"Yes," Mary smiled, trying to hide the flutters she still felt in her stomach. "I'm okay. Please don't worry."

Josiah Sanchez was not that convinced, although he believed Mary's story about emotional resonance left in a place. When Ayla his wife was still alive, she rarely visited him at the psychiatry wing of Starfleet Medical because as a Betazoid, the bombardment of aberrant thoughts was too much for her. Mary's telepathic abilities were not comparable to Aylaís, but Josiah knew her former bond with her Vulcan husband had awakened her latent telepathic abilities. Not to mention, according to Maryís psych records, she had quite a high ESPer rating.

"We can't help it," Josiah said encouragingly. "You're the prettiest among us."

"That's my line Josiah," Buck grinned before turning his attention back to JD and Ezra.

Ezra stared at Mary, choosing not to add his voice to the litany of concern surrounding her since the lady was doing her best to downplay her sudden turn. His ability to see through facades told Ezra whatever it was Mary experienced, she was not recovered from it but for their benefit, was hiding her discomfort. He was too much the gentlemen to demand she explain herself, so Ezra made a mental note to ask her about it discreetly later.

"Where is everyone?" JD asked no one in particular. "I thought someone would be here to greet us."

While the transporter room of the Tenarus asylum was comparable in size to the one the Away Team had just used on board the Maverick, that was where the similarity ended. Instead of a well-lit room, with walls painted in pleasing green and illuminated surfaces and controls, this room was fashioned with grey, metal walls and almost black floor plating. Unlike the Maverick, where the transporter controls were visible, a narrow alcove at the corner of the room served a similar purpose.

The lighting was harsh and strategically placed, so there were too many shadows for the liking of the Maverick crew. Conduits ran along the walls, disappearing through ceilings and into the deck, no doubt joining the rest of the network spread across the complex. Just before one of those darkened corners, facing the alcove, were twin doors which appeared to be the only way in and out of the place.

Suddenly the door slid open, and a young woman hastily walked into the room, stopping short at the sight of them, her eyes rested on JD first.

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" She exploded into apologies as she closed the distance to him. "This place is just huge, and Doctor Paracelsus was finishing up some last-minute consults when you contacted us from your ship. He sent me to bring you to the Main Compound."

"It's okay," JD answered with a smile, trying to disarm her anxiety, "we just got here. I'm Lt. Dunne."

Dressed in a lavender coloured dress, matching tights and boots, she stood slightly shorter than JD, and her though she looked no older than twenty, there was just enough puppy fat in her cheeks to make her look younger. Her long blond hair swung over the small of her back in a ponytail, while her brown eyes rested on JD with warmth.

"Oh thank Goodness," she said relieved and then broke into a smile. "I'm not used to greeting visitors. My name is Holly Jones, Doctor Paracelsus's assistant. I usually just bring him coffee and make his appointments."

"Well it's nice to meet you, Holly," JD greeted, thinking she looked awful pretty when she smiled.

"It's nice to meet you too," she beamed and then shifted her attention to the rest of the Away Team. "Is one of you Counsellor Sanchez?"

"That would be me," Josiah stepped forward at the mention of his name.

Walking past JD, she approached the Counsellor and began speaking again. "I'm sorry Doctor Paracelsus couldn't meet you himself, Counsellor. He was just completing his rounds in Red Sector when we got the hail from your ship. If you all would like to follow me, I'll take you through the facility. He's really excited to see you. We don't get a lot of visitors here, except for new patients, that is."

"I guess this isn't the destination of choice for most people," Josiah agreed.

"No, not at all. I mean we get staff coming and going, but that's it."

"We're here just to look around," Buck stated after taking a moment to check in with Chris and let the Maverick know they were all right. While the force field surrounding the facility assured no one could transport in and out without permission, it did not prevent a subspace message from escaping. "We want to make sure you get some standard upgrades to your comms and security systems. You're a long way from the Federation, and things out here are pretty wild these days."

Ezra said nothing, taking note of how Nathan was maintaining a vigil on Mary. Even if the healer was trying to hide it, Ezra could tell Nathan was concerned about her. Over the last year, Mary's 'impressions', he would not call it telepathy, saved the Maverick from uncertain situations. It was not something to be dismissed out of hand, and Ezra knew without having to hear her say the words, something had affected her the instant she arrived here.

And Ezra would know what that was.

*******

Stepping through the doors of the Transporter Bay, as Holly called it, once introductions were made, the Away Team was confronted by the sight of two formidable-looking Nausicaans who eyed them with suspicion as they walked past.

"Oh don't worry about Abrogar and Zargh," Holly assured them, seeing the way the new arrivals reacted to the duo. "They've been with the Institute for years now."

Nausicaans who stood on average two meters in height, with bony protrusions across their faces and teeth that resembled tusks, were primarily known throughout the quadrant as mercenaries for hire. Relations between Nausicaa and the Federation had yet to stray into outright hostility, but there was no love lost between them either. Exchanging a glance with Ezra, who was probably more grateful than ever he insisted the Away Team carry phasers, Buck started to share Ezra's suspicions about this place.

Why on Earth would someone think Nausicaans would be appropriate warders for an asylum?

"Really?" Ezra questioned, not at all comfortable with the presence of mercenaries here. "This is not the place I would expect to see Nausicaan guards."

"Well to tell the honest truth," Holly glanced over her shoulder at the Security Chief, "it's been kind of difficult to get staff who want to work here."

Ezra supposed he could understand that. The wind outside could be heard howling through the thick walls and Ezra could only imagine how inhospitable the planet would be if one was on the surface. This part of the ĎInstituteí as the young lady was calling it appeared to be off-limits for the patients if the signs he saw were any indication. The low hum behind some doors told him this section was mostly for the generator rooms of the facility's various systems, such as power, climate controls and the force field. Ezra could appreciate why they had to be kept well away from the reach of any patient.

"And they are guarding the transporters to ensure no one attempts to leave?"

"Not that they could," Buck reminded. "The force field isn't going to let anyone escape."

"Even if they knew how to use it," JD added.

"Do you have many attempts?" Josiah inquired since the Institute cared primarily for the criminally insane. Before treatment was completed, it stood to reason some patients might have attempted to leave. After all, he thought silently, someone had managed to reach the relay station and transmit a call for help.

"Not that many," Holly explained. "Most of the time they just wander into the wrong place, but we're more afraid of them getting outside than we are of them using the transporters. I mean, the surface temperature will kill you in two minutes without a proper enviro-suit, to say nothing about the critters on the ice."

Nathan fell back a bit, allowing the others to ask their questions about the complex, so he could talk to Mary quietly. Something in her eyes told him she was not alright, despite her claims to the contrary.

"Are you okay?" He asked quietly out of earshot of the others, and more specifically, Holly.

The girl seemed nice enough, but they had come here because something didn't feel right to Captain Krista. Now that he was here, he could feel it himself, eyeing the Nausicaan guards receding further behind them and the surveillance devices installed unobtrusively along intermittent sections of the ceiling, not to mention Mary's reaction to the place.

"I'm fine," she patted his arm in a gesture of affection at his concern. "I just got hit by a sense of something I can't explain."

"Something here?" He looked up furtively.

"No," she shook ahead, trying to articulate what she felt. "It's hard to put into words. I feel afraid for some reason like we're somewhere we shouldn't be, but for the life of me, I can't understand why. It's like this distant buzzing in my ears, you know when you can hear a fly somewhere in the room, but not exactly where?"

"Not really," Nathan shrugged. "But it's good enough for me. We should tell Buck."

"Not yet," Mary shook her head in answer. "Ezra maybe. You know him, he's already suspicious after seeing those Nausicaans."

"Yeah," Nathan nodded, resisting the urge to look at them again. "Can't say I blame him."

*******

Until the Away team checked in, there was little to be done on the Maverick except wait. During these instances, Chris wished for the days of old when a Captain could lead an Away Team, instead of being forced to remain trapped on the bridge. Of course, he knew the rule was a wise one, even if he hated it personally. Sitting in his command chair, Chris began drumming his fingers against the armrest, trying to decide whether or not he would remain on the bridge or go see what Adam was doing.

Vin noticed Chris's boredom and threw a knowing look at Alex, who saw it too. The helmsman had plenty to occupy himself, even if the ship was holding position above the planet. With JD away, Vin was listening to subspace traffic as well as maintaining a stable orbit around Tenarus. It was just a matter of time before Chris's lack of purpose would drive everyone nuts, and Alex would have to step in to prevent mutiny.

Alex caught Vin's look and realized Chris was about to slip into the rather annoying habit of asking what everyone was doing, at two-minute intervals. Josiah's records were filled with junior officers still suffering nervous episodes from their Captainís antics when he was bored. Deciding she needed to occupy Chrisís mind productively, she turned her attention to the message received by the Erstwhile, transmitted to the Maverick's mainframe by Captain Krista.

"Captain," Alex broke the silence, "why don't you and Vin transport down to the relay station and take a quick look around?"

Chris swivelled around in his command chair and eyed her suspiciously, "why?"

Usually, she would advocate going herself, not suggesting he did the deed. Not that Chris minded of course. It was a low-risk venture, and it would keep him from bothering Adam, at present in the Captain's quarters studying hard for the equivalency exams he would have to pass to qualify for Academy enrolment next year.

"I've analyzed the transmission detected by the Erstwhile, and it's short. Too short, in fact. Judging by my scans of the relay station, there's no damage to the structure, and it appears to have power. If the message didn't come from Tenarus, but from this station, there is no reason why it should be so short. Whoever sent it made sure it didn't last for more than 0.34 seconds."

"0.34 seconds?" Now it was Vin's turn to pay attention.

"That's oddly specific," Chris understood why Vin was so interested. "You thinking what I'm thinking?"

"Yeah," Vin nodded. "That's about as long as it would take to set off a communications alert. If you could cut the transmission before that time, the computer would record it as random subspace chatter instead of a genuine message."

"They were hoping to sneak it past someone," Alex guessed, reaching the same conclusion as her husband and her Captain. "Someone at Tenarus."

"Well we assumed the staff at Tenarus was compromised, and someone escaped to send a distress signal, but Buck's report tells us that's not the case." Vin pointed out. "So something else is going on down there."

"We need to find out who sent that message," Chris said thoughtfully. "Civilian or not, Tenarus is a Federation installation answering to the authorities on Earth. That means there should be a record of every patient being held there."

"Might not be a patient, Chris. It could be one of their staff."

"Which is a more worrying thought," Alex admitted, not liking where this was going. If it was a member of Tenarus's staff, then the Away Team might be walking into a great deal of danger.

"Worrying but logical," Chris stated, sharing her concern. "A member of staff would find it easier to escape the facility than a patient who's probably being watched all the time."

"Tell you what though Chris," Vin stared at the viewscreen and took in the sight of the icy world displayed. "If they did make a run for the station from the facility, that's one hell of a trip. The surface temperature and the fact the place is located on the side of a mountain proves someone was willing to risk everything to get help."

"Yeah," Chris agreed and rose to his feet. "I say we go take a look. Come on pard, time to break out your snowshoes."

The time for speculation was over. They needed to get down there and see for themselves.

*****

The Away Team did not descend all the way to the last sublevel of the institute, but it was near enough.

After travelling more than thirty levels, Buck felt as if they journeyed all the way to the icy core of the planet. As the whump, whump of lift pulsed in their ears with each level passed, Buck could tell just by the intensity in Ezra's eyes, the situation they were entering was becoming more precarious by the minute. Should they find something amiss down here, there would be no way for the Maverick to lock on to their signal to transport them back, even if the ship could penetrate the force field which it could not.

When the doors finally slid open, Buck was relieved to see not another gloomy-looking hallway, but a well-lit compound with light coloured walls, artificial grass across the floor and trees lining walkways. There were bushes and flowering plants in planters and pots, benches for people to sit and even water fountains. People were walking along the paths, others sat together in groups, while some were simply taking the time alone, to read data pads or admire the scenery.

"Now that's a damn sight prettier," Buck exclaimed, surveying the scene with approval.

JD had to agree and gawked at their new surroundings in amazement. "Wow, I did not expect this."

"Isn't it great?" Holly smiled at him. "This was Doctor Paracelsusís idea. It's for the staff and the patients. I usually grab lunch by that tree," she pointed to one being held up by a large planter. "It's almost like being back on Earth."

"It's certainly impressive," Josiah complimented, thinking this was a better environment for the mentally ill, not some dismal looking prison, like they saw earlier. Raising his eyes to the ceiling, he could see the lights were made to mimic the appearance of sunshine, in itself quite therapeutic.

"I must agree," Ezra continued to study the place, wondering where the guards were at this moment. If patients were allowed free reign of this section of the facility, then some had recovered enough to be granted such liberties. "If I did not know better, I would have believed this to be a holodeck recreation."

"Well, it's sure as hell more pleasant than what we saw above," Nathan commented and was about to add something further when he saw Mary's face. She was nowhere as enamoured.

Mary remained untouched by what she saw for a good reason. Even though the scene around her appeared idyllic, what was churning in her gut was nothing so benign. Whatever terrible thing was lurking in Tenarus, coming to this place had only brought them closer to it.

Chapter Seven:
Reunion

"Gabe!"

"Joey!"

It was astonishing how easily decades could fall away when old friends who had not seen each other in years, reverted to the personas of their youth at a second's notice. Yet this was precisely how it was when Josiah Sanchez and Gabriel Paracelsus reacted the instant they laid eyes on each other again. Neither saw themselves as middle-aged men taking the penultimate turn on the great wheel, but young men impatiently waiting to take on the world.

Through the viewscreen on board the Maverick, Buck thought Paracelsus looked imposing, but in the flesh, he stood almost a head taller than Buck. The First Officer watched both men striding towards each other after Holly led them through the doors to the doctor's office. Paracelsus was seated behind his desk, but he emerged from it at the sight of Josiah. The two men crossed the tan carpeted floor, meeting each other midway before exchanging a warm hug, the kind delivered by friends who had forgotten how much they missed each other until now.

Buck blinked, trying to wrap his mind around the idea of Josiah ever being young enough to be called 'Joey'.

Still seeing the reunion between the two friends made him smile and Buck noted the same sentiments shared by the rest of the Away Team. Like him, they were accustomed to Josiah being the wise Counsellor who was there to nurse them through whatever emotional difficulties they experienced. It was sobering to remember, Josiah had grown into the man they knew, not sprung fully formed like Athena. Glancing at the others, Buck gestured subtly for everyone, including Holly, to hold back while the two men caught up.

In the meantime, Buck studied the large suite from which Paracelsus ran the institute. They were led here through the Atrium, what Holly called the large courtyard the Away Team entered after disembarking from the lift. The Atrium appeared to be the intersection leading to the other parts of the level through doors and open archways. One such arch took them to the Administration Wing, where the business of running the institute was conducted.

The wing was reserved for staff only and was devoid of patients. Holly explained not only was this the administration section of the institute and the staff living space, but it was also the location of the Operations hub. From Operations, all systems in the entire facility could be accessed and monitored. Naturally, patients were housed on the level below, along with the guards who kept a vigil on them.

Anything less would have discombobulated Ezra's sensibilities.

"I can't believe you're here," Paracelsus stared at Josiah in wonder, still unable to believe this encounter had come about so suddenly after so many years. "How have you been?"

"I've been well," Josiah grinned, taking a moment to study of Paracelsus now they were meeting each other face to face. On the viewscreen, Paracelsus had grown into his height, since Josiah remembered him as a lanky youth, who had oversized feet. Now the man had filled out, with streaks of grey in his black hair. Aside from crow's feet at the corner of his eyes, he had aged well. "I've been at Starfleet Medical since graduation."

"Starfleet Medical?" Paracelsus exclaimed in surprise, recalling Josiah's aspirations and knew it had little to do with being planet-bound. "What happened to you shipping out and providing good mental health to the spaceways? You were always talking about a starship posting."

Josiah laughed, hearing Paracelsus repeating the words Josiah had spoken so often during his Academy days. Though he felt some sadness that dream did not eventuate as he intended, his assignment on the Maverick more than made up for it.

"Two daughters and a wife happened," Josiah shrugged, regretting nothing. "It just worked out better if I stayed on Earth for that. Ayla wasn't much of a fan of raising children on a starship."

"Ayla?" Paracelsus's brows reached for his hairline, recognizing the name. "The Betazoid girl? You actually married her?"

"I did," Josiah nodded as his mind flashed with memories of his dear wife and once again, knew his marriage to Ayla had been perfect and his children, equally fulfilling. "No regrets, we had a good life together."

Paracelsus was just as astute a therapist as Josiah, and recognized the sadness that flickered into his old friend's eyes as grief. "She's gone?"

"Two years ago, Darnay's disease."

Even now, it still hurt Josiah to say it out loud. The Counsellor knew his grief was what allowed him to connect with Chris Larabee when he met the future Captain of the Maverick, after the Battle of Sector 001.

"I am sorry, Joey," Paracelsus put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently. "I wish I had known."

"Thank you, my friend," Josiah was touched by the sentiment. "But I've moved on."

"I'm glad," Paracelsus nodded before remembering they were not alone and quickly turned towards the rest of the Maverick's crew waiting discreetly for them to complete their reunion. "Oh I've been remiss Joey, I've forgotten your friends. Please accept my apologies," he turned towards the Away Team. "I'm afraid I don't get much chance to catch up with old friends, and forgot you were there."

"Yes, that's my fault too," Josiah admitted and gave Buck a grateful nod at his patience. "Let me introduce Commander Buck Wilmington, First Officer of the Maverick. Security Chief Lt. Commander Ezra Standish, Doctor Nathan Jackson, Lt. JD Dunne and Lt. Mary Travis."

"It's lovely to meet all of you," Paracelsus declared with a welcoming smile. "I'm sorry I wasn't able to meet you myself when you arrived, but your visit was something of a surprise, and I needed to complete the session I was running at the time."

"No apologies necessary Doctor," Buck took the lead, speaking for the others. "This little lady here has been a great guide." He flashed Holly a smile of thanks that made the young woman blush in gratitude.

"I expect nothing less," Paracelsus eyed Holly with genuine affection. "I wouldn't be able to run this place without her."

Buck saw Paracelsus sweeping his gaze over all of them before he came to rest at Nathan. "Doctor Nathan Jackson, you wouldn't be the same Doctor Jackson who wrote the paper Heterogeneity in the Borg Assimilation Process?"

Nathan stared at the man in surprise, rarely called out for his medical credentials, except when someone needed mending at Sick Bay, or to cure some weird alien rash they caught touching something they shouldn't. "Yeah, that's me."

"Well, what a wonderful surprise!" Paracelsus burst out. "My colleagues and I were discussing that paper not long ago, and we would love to hear about your insights on nanotechnology in the application of altering brain chemistry." He seemed to lapse into silence for a second before looking at Buck. "Tell me, Joey, are you and your colleagues in a hurry to return to your ship?"

Josiah looked to Buck for an answer.

"Not exactly," Buck threw a sidelong glance at Ezra, whose consummate gambler's facade revealed nothing about what was really going on behind the man's eyes. Buck knew Ezra wanted a chance to take a look around the place and decided if Paracelsus had something in mind, then he would be foolish not to exploit it. "We did intend to update your systems while we were here. Commander Standish, how long will it take to install those modifications?"

"No more than a few hours," Ezra answered, although, in truth, he could finish it in one. However, there was a mystery to be solved in Tenarus, and the time to do it would not be unwelcomed.

Besides, despite Doctor Paracelsus's welcoming manner, Ezra's instincts told him something wasn't quite right. So far the man had made no mention of the fact not long ago, another ship had come to Tenarus investigating an errant transmission. Ezra couldn't imagine Paracelsus not being even the slightest bit suspicious about their coincidental arrival here not long after. It was as if the doctor was deliberately avoiding the correlation between the two incidents and that sent Ezra's suspicion nature into overdrive.

Like Ezra, JD was perfectly aware of how long those upgrades would really take and since it appeared Paracelsus was about to ask them to stay a bit longer, it suited Ezra's desire to snoop around the institute. Seeing the opportunity to help further the cause, JD spoke up.

"Same here for the comms upgrade Commander," he caught the Security Chief's eyes. "It's not something I prefer to rush since I'm going to be interfacing civilian and Starfleet components. I don't want to rush it and corrupt any of your previous programming data."

"Well if you have something in mind," Buck looked at Paracelsus, "we wouldn't mind a few more hours to get the upgrades done right."

This seemed to agree with the doctor, who broke into a smile. "In that case Commander, if you do not mind my presumption. I'd love for you and your team to stay for the evening. Doctor Jackson, if you are willing to give a little talk to my staff, I can tell you they'd be delighted to hear your thoughts about the Borg assimilation process and its effect on brain chemistry."

No one looked at Buck following that statement.

Nathan cleared his throat and took a moment to formulate a response, perfectly aware of how sensitive the subject was to Buck. "Of course, it would be my pleasure."

"Yes," Josiah jumped in as well, wanting to rush past the subject quickly, remembering Chris's concerns about the First Officer's state of mind. "Gabe, that should be fine. It was our Captain's wish we give you all the help you needed while weíre down here. A talk to your staff would certainly qualify. What do you say, Commander?" Josiah eyed Buck.

"Absolutely, we're here to render assistance," Buck spoke, but his voice lacked its earlier authority.

In truth, the First Officer was fighting hard the emotion churning in his gut at Paracelsus's clinical interest in the Borg assimilation process, like it was some strange new bacteria to be examined under a microscope, to be discussed over a three-course meal. The man had no idea what a living hell it was.

Then again, how could anyone here know?

"Wonderful," Paracelsus declared, oblivious to the effects his suggestion was having on the Away Team. "Holly, can you see to it that the guest quarters are prepared for our new friends?"

"Certainly," Holly nodded, before turning to Ezra and JD. "Lt. Commander Standish, Lt. Dunne," her gaze lingered on JD a little longer before she spoke, "if you follow me, I can take you to Operations so you can get to work on those upgrades. Shavo our operations chief is on duty, so he should be able to help you with anything you need."

"We are in your hands, my dear," Ezra said graciously.

JD on the other hand, gave Holly a little smile, sensing she might like him a little and was wrestling with what to do about it.

Fortunately, JD's reaction to the young woman as the three of them left the room, allowed Buck to think about something else, other than talks about Borg assimilation. Nathan, Josiah and Paracelsus had started talking shop again, and Buck wanted no part of the discussion. As it was, he had far too much insight into that subject than he would like.

"Buck," Mary motioned him to join her a few steps away from the three physicians, so they could talk discreetly. Mary remained mostly silent, speaking only when it was necessary. The feeling of dread experienced since her arrival had yet to unleash its grip upon her. However, she brushed it aside when she saw the distress in Buck's eyes. "Are you okay?"

Buck wished everyone would just stop asking him the question and fought the urge to tell Mary just that. She was trying to be kind, and he had no call being an ass. "I'm fine," he said instead. "How are you doing?"

"I still feel a little uneasy," Mary admitted readily, not about to lie. "But are you okay? I'm sure Doctor Paracelsus wouldn't have asked Nathan about the lecture if he knew what you went through."

"What I went through is done," Buck dismissed it as he had on previous occasions when someone mentioned his assimilation. "I'm okay. I just don't need to hear more about it."

"I understand," she said kindly.

"Commander Wilmington," Paracelsus caught their attention once more, speaking over Nathan and Josiah. "I was about to give Joey... I'm sorry Counsellor Sanchez, and Doctor Jackson a tour of the facility, would you and Lt. Travis like to join us? I rarely get the opportunity to show this place to people."

"We would be delighted," Mary answered for Buck, wearing one of those smiles Buck knew for a fact could floor even Chris Larabee.

"Yeah, we wouldn't miss it," Buck answered, trying to match her enthusiasm.

And failed utterly.

*******

Snowflakes frosted over his visor the minute Chris Larabee materialized after transport.

It was no wonder, he realized once the shimmer of gold vanished from his eyes and was able to see through the darkness of the room. The only light came through the windows, one of which had shattered, allowing the polar winds to blow into the station. As a result, almost every surface was covered in a thin layer of frost. Fortunately, Alex's scan of the conditions inside the relay station before he and Vin transported in, gave them forewarning to be dressed for the cold temperatures.

"Jesus," Vin cursed as he wiped the ice from the glass of his helmet so he could see better. "What the hell?"

Chris stared at the plexiglass window and knew nothing short of a phaser blast could crack it. Without investigating further, Chris knew without a doubt, the message had come from here and whoever sent it might have paid the price.

"See if you can't bring the place back online," Chris ordered. "I'm going to check out the rest of the place."

"Right," Vin nodded and then paused for a moment. "Be careful, Chris."

It was a subtle reminder to his Captain to draw his phaser, just in case. Chris caught the unspoken request and unhooked his phaser before going off to investigate. Fortunately, the station was not that large, so neither would be very far out of each other's line of sight for long, and Chris knew without having to hear Vin say it, the helmsman would be at his side in a second if he were in trouble.

"Don't worry," Chris shrugged. "I'm guessing whatever happened here, we missed it."

Vin couldn't argue with that opinion since he thought the same thing himself, but Chris was his Captain and best friend, so he was not about to be anything but vigilant. "Just be careful anyway."

Heading straight for the Ops station in the centre of the room, Vin noted Alex was right about the station still being powered. Like everything else in the place, it was covered with frost and Vin ran a gloved hand over the panel, so he could get a clear view of the controls. A faint, green light pulsing lethargically at one corner of a dark screen, waited wearily for manual initialization and Vin was more than happy to oblige.

"Computer initialized main power."

"Access denied. Please state Starfleet designation and service number."

"Tanner, Vin. Lieutenant. Service Number SC245-67190CEC."

"Identity confirmed. Access granted to Lt. Vin Tanner."

"I'm in," Vin called out over his shoulder.

"Good. See if you can bring up an emergency force field to seal that breach," Chris ordered as he continued to study the room.

The relay station was no different than other ones of its type Chris encountered throughout his career. It was roughly two floors, joined by a flight of short steps, and overlooked the cliff face of the mountain in which it was built. Unlike the Tenarus facility, this was an entirely Starfleet construction with a Type 1 communications array installed on the roof. He spotted a single transporter pad and a workstation, separate from the Ops Control in the middle of the floor.

A sudden whoomp quickly becoming a low hum signalled the return of main power as lights flooded the entire station, followed by the calm voice of the awakened computer system.

"Emergency forcefield initialized."

Thanks to the illumination, Chris was able to see the second floor provided limited amenities for whoever was manning the station. There were doors to a sonic shower and a privy against the wall nearest to the top of the steps, and the frames of double bunk beds. As the light filled the place, the temperature started to climb with the breach sealed. Even as he stood on the steps, he could see the frost quickly melting away, leaving behind puddles of water that would soon dry up with the heat.

A thought occurred to Chris, and he turned sharply to Vin, cutting short his journey to explore the second level. Mind racing, Chris descended the steps and was making his next order before he touched the ground. "Vin, whoever sent that message was Starfleet."

Vin returned Chris's statement with a look just as sharp. The helmsman's unflappable mask vanished as his eyes widened in realization. "Damn Chris, you're right. No way they would have been able to access anything here otherwise."

"It's how they knew to send a message only 0.34 seconds long," Chris added, joining Vin at the Ops Control and started removing the helmet of his enviro suit now that the internal conditions of the station were restored to the requirements of its newest visitors. The air felt crisp in his lungs, and the temperature while still chilly, was nowhere as icy as it had been when they first arrived.

"Computer, who was the last person to gain access to this system?" Vin asked, anticipating Chris's next order before taking off his own helmet.

"Previous access was granted to Lt. Jerry Lambert - Service No. SS116-0647SHN."

"That's a security officer's designation," Chris recognized immediately before tapping the communicator on the arm of his suit. "Alex, this is the Captain."

"Captain, is everything alright?"

"Everything is fine," Chris assured her, meeting Vin's eyes. "Alex, I need you to find out everything you can about Lt. Jerry Lambert - Service No. SS116-0647SH. There's a good chance he sent the message from here."

"Standby Captain."

"This is damn strange Chris," Vin admitted. "If this Lt. Lambert was Starfleet, what was he doing here? I mean wouldn't his authority to access any of this be rescinded if he was a patient? And if he wasn't one, what's a Starfleet Officer doing at a civilian facility?"

"I was thinking the same thing," Chris looked around again. "If he was Starfleet Security, that would explain how he made it here. The survival training alone would have allowed him to cross that distance, and I'd like to know what it was he was running from, that they came in here, weapons blazing to get him."

"Captain," Alex's voice followed the chirp from his communicator. "I have the information. Lieutenant Jerry Lambert is currently on sabbatical from active duty. From what I've been able to determine, he was assigned to security at Space Dock on Earth. Three months ago, he requested a leave of absence for personal reasons. He did not explain why but the records show he did travel to Ventax II."

"Ventax II?" Chris knew the planet. It was a pleasant enough place but hardly the best spot for a vacation. The same could be achieved at either Pacifica or Risa, which was much closer to Earth. "Does he have family there?"

"Not according to the records, Lambert has a sister in Alpha Centauri, but that's about it."

"Still makes no sense," Vin shrugged, unable to understand how Jerry Lambert had come to be in this world, even after Alex's report.

"There is one thing, Captain," Alex spoke, and Vin immediately frowned because he knew her voice enough to know whatever she was about to say, was not a revelation she liked making. "I don't know whether it's relevant and it's probably a coincidence..."

"What is it?" Chris said abruptly, wanting to know. He could tell by Vin's expression the Vulcan was sensing something in his wife's voice that gave him cause for concern, despite Alex's attempts to assure them otherwise. Hell, Chris could hear it himself.

"Lambert's assignment at the time he took his leave, was providing security to the engineering crew responsible for the refit of the Sulaco."

Chris's inside froze, and it had nothing to do with the temperature inside the station.

Meeting Vin's eyes, he could see the Vulcan was affected just as profoundly, although for very different reasons. The ancient ship from Earth's past was a symbol of one of the most shameful incidents in Chris Larabee's career, if not his life. To this day, he carried the guilt of his actions during that mission. The faces of those who paid the price for his recklessness was burned into his memory. Chris suspected he would never stop paying penance for those lives for as long as he lived.

For Vin, the effect was almost as traumatizing. Although in his case, it led to a seismic shift in his life. It was Vin's contact with the xenomorphs on Fury 361 around which the Sulaco was in orbit, that brought on the early arrival of Pon Farr. During the worst of the plak tow, he had harmed the people close to him, Chris, Julia and even Alex. If not for Alex's dangerous gamble of facing him in the Koon-ut-kal-if-fee, he would have died.

When the name finally sank into his mind, and all the possibilities with it, Chris trusted himself to speak again. "We're going to complete our scan of the station and transport back. In the meantime Commander, I want you to find me every byte of information there is on what Jerry Lambert was doing during his time on the Sulaco, because given the lack of cause, it stands to reason whatever set him off on, started there."

Chapter Eight:
Jerry and Callie

William T Riker called him the best damn poker player in the Fleet.

Well, he wasn't wrong.

Nevertheless, despite the accuracy of the statement, it was his skills as an investigator Ezra Standish valued the most. It was why Chris Larabee had no other candidate in mind when choosing his Chief of Security. The Captain of the Maverick cared little for Ezra's somewhat chequered Starfleet career due to numerous reprimands in his record. These were lodged by commanding officers with little patience for his gambling pursuits. Thanks to Ezraís upbringing, travelling the spaceways with Maude, he absorbed the subtleties and nuances of behaviour and was able to spot a mile away. It allowed him to assess a situation and know immediately if something was amiss.

Everything at Tenabarus Research Asylum didn't feel right.

From the minute they arrived at the Institute, Ezra felt it. Even without hearing Mary's insights on a telepathic level. Something was happening here. Something which screamed danger, but for the moment was maddeningly ill-defined. The presence of the Nausicaan guards was suspect enough. Still, the sense of dread that came with plunging 30 sublevels into the earth, beyond the transporters ability to reach them, even if it managed to penetrate the force-field, made Ezra doubly paranoid.

It was a state of mind that did not improve after leaving Doctor Paracelsus's office. As promised, Holly escorted Ezra and JD to Operations, taking them out of the administration wing and through the Atrium once more. With JD possessing the young lady's undivided interest, Ezra was able to study the faces across the Atrium carefully and still had reservations about seeing patients with free rein over the facility, no matter how well-adjusted they seemed to be. After all, this was an institute for treating the criminally insane.

Still, despite the idyllic view across the Atrium, Ezra was raised on the principle of nothing ever being what it appeared, and his suspicious nature spat up the observation that this entire scene felt contrived, possibly even staged. Could this pleasant drama exist solely for their benefit? Perhaps it was why Paracelsus was so eager to show off his facility to the Away Team. As it was, everything about Paracelsus felt wrong.

Oh, Ezra had no doubt, the doctor was genuinely pleased to see Josiah Sanchez, but it was beyond belief Paracelsus would not have questioned the Maverick's presence here so soon after the Erstwhileís investigation. No, the man was hiding something, and until Ezra could investigate for himself, no real truth about Tenabrus could be uncovered while they saw only what Paracelsus wanted them to see.

*******

When they arrived at Operations a short time later, Ezra saw a room no more extensive than the Maverick's bridge. Located in a self-contained space which could only be accessed through a door that required a swipe card, Operations was as implied, the central control for all systems throughout the Institute. From here, staff could oversee all aspects of the complex's smooth running. Display panels were monitored by four technicians in the room, their blue jumpsuits distinguishing them from medical staff. The dimly lit room drew Ezra's gaze to the display screens, and he was able to get a glimpse of the other sub-levels.

At their arrival, the quartet threw a glance at them with a mixture of emotions from mild curiosity to barely concealed indifference, and in one instance hostility. Ezra supposed he could not blame them for their mixed feelings at his and JD's presence. The Security Chief could empathize with their ambivalence, deciding he would not be entirely thrilled if a stranger came on board the Maverick and told him his security measures were lacking.

"Hi Shavo," Holly greeted them pleasantly before turning to JD and Ezra behind her. "This is Commander Standish and Lt. Dunne of the USS Maverick. Gentlemen," she gestured to the technicians, "this is Shavo, he's our head of Operations, that's Kash, Rekellen and Dralak. "

Shavo said nothing, while Kash gave them a short wave while Rekellen scowled and Dralak offered them a nod of acknowledgement.

The Operations leader was Andorian, and like all members of that species, his skin was a milky blue, with a set of antennae peering through the crow of his snow-white hair. Ezra estimated he was middle-aged, and his eyes so filled with apparent dislike were blue. Ezra could guess just by reading his body language, Shavo took exception to their presence here and would provide no assistance beyond what was required of him.

Fortunately, Kash, who waved at them, was a little more accepting. Ezra immediately identified him as Xyrilian, and was somewhat surprised to see him here. The Chief could count the number of times he'd actually laid eyes on the species. While technologically advanced, Xyrillians did not like to leave home due to their unusual reproductive habits, with genetic material transferable through touch and capable of jumping species. In earlier times, this had caused much confusion.

This particular Xyrillian was male, which explained why he was here since it was the female of the species who could pass their material to others through contact. Male Xyrillians if Ezra was correct, was capable of generating a low-level electrical discharge through their fingertips. Like most Xyrillans, he looked humanoid, except for the scaly skin and the large pupils of their bright green eyes.

"You're from the Maverick?" Kash asked with some enthusiasm. "Is it true she's a galaxy-class starship?"

"Yeah," JD smiled at Kash, recognizing the same awe he felt when he first sighted the Maverick. "She's got 42 decks, eight transporter rooms, two shuttles..."

"JD," Ezra stopped him, not wanting the young lieutenant to reveal too much about the Maverick's capabilities. "You and Kash can talk later, we have duties to perform."

"Oh right,' JD said sheepishly before exchanging a little smile with Kash that told Ezra the two young men would be getting together later to discuss the matter. "Sorry."

Ezra returned his attention to the rest of the technicians. "We shall endeavour to be done with this matter as quickly as possible to avoid disrupting your day."

"Would it matter?" Rekellen, the Cardassian female bit with obvious contempt. She was in her thirties, with severe features that seemed even more pronounced by the expression on her face. Her manner was a seismic shift from Kash's warmth, and it was clear she shared Shavo's dislike about the Starfleet officers in her presence.

Ezra saw Holly's sharp intake of breath. Paracelsus's young assistant did not at all care for the hostility being displayed to their guests. "Come on Rek, they're here to help us."

"It is alright," Ezra assured Holly, whose irritation was rather sweet. Instead, he addressed Rekellen himself. "You are a long way from the core worlds, and many outposts located this far out from any starbases, particularly along the border of the former Romulan neutral zone have been subjected to violence. We have received reports of raids from a slew of nefarious characters, the Orion Syndicate, Osaarian and Ferengi pirates, not to forget the occasional Breen privateers. Without the Romulans keeping a vigil, these attacks are getting bolder. Since you are a Federation facility, we are required to ensure your safety by any means we can."

"He is right, Rek," Dralak, who was Romulan, admitted reluctantly. Dralak reached across his console towards Rekellen, brushing the woman's hand gently, as if trying to appease her bitterness. The intimacy in the gesture was not lost upon the others who surmised the nature of their relationship immediately. "The Empire is not what it used to be."

"It is not," Ezra sighed and though the Romulans and the Federation were only new allies before the destruction of the Hobus star, Ezra had to admit, he did not like seeing the fall of the once vast empire. No matter what their relationship, the Romulan Star Empire added to the balance of power in the Alpha Quadrant and with their fall, the power vacuum left behind had destabilized the entire region. "You may take this how you will, but I am sorry for what has happened to your world."

The Romulan accepted Ezra's words with a silent nod.

"Our security system has been operating quite efficiently. With our forcefield, there is very little chance of any raider reaching us," Shavo said confidently, not liking the fact the Starfleet officers were so personable. It deconstructed the image of arrogance he built up in his mind. "Even your galaxy-class phasers will not be able to penetrate our shields."

"We're glad to hear that," JD spoke up, picking up the verbal gauntlet Shavo had tossed in their direction. "And we want to make sure it continues to run efficiently to keep you protected."

"Shavo," Holly spoke up, and this time her tone wasn't the sweet, bubbly voice JD or Ezra had become accustomed to hearing. Instead, it was sharp and determined, just like her spine becoming ramrod straight implied she was about to assert herself. "Doctor Paracelsus has given them permission to proceed. Please provide them with every assistance," and she paused and drew in her breath as if summing up the nerve to finish her sentence, "every courtesy."

While she appreciated Shavo feeling a little annoyed by Starfleet's arrival, she did not care for the hostility being displayed to their guests. Holly had been the doctor's assistant long enough to know the man would expect his staff to treat the Maverick's crew with the same consideration he was displaying himself. Besides these men were colleagues of Counsellor Sanchez, and Doctor Paracelsus would not at all be pleased to know his old friend's colleagues after receiving such an icy reception.

Ezra saw the warning penetrate and something surfaced in Shavo's eyes, so brief, he doubted anyone else in the room would have seen it, save perhaps Chris Larabee. Seeing it send a surge of alarm through Ezra, deepening his suspicions and making him feel once again grateful, he had insisted they arrive here armed. For all the hostility and contempt received from the Operations team, none of it had concerned Ezra as much as that brief moment, when Shavo's guard had lowered.

Because Ezra saw fear. Not just fear, but terror.

*******

In the depths of the world, where no light penetrated except a dark so complete, one could think themselves staring into the eye of a black hole, Jerry Lambert knew he was utterly and completely screwed.

Closing his eyes and trying not to think about where he was, he could feel beads of sweat beneath his hairline, could feel the invader being soaked through the pores of his skin. Inwardly, he knew he was doomed the minute Jerry realized where he was, but he was a fighter. Sheer stubbornness refused to let him give in, despite the inevitability breathing its fetid breath down his neck.

That was even before she started talking to him.

She whispered to you, not in words, but emotions. She made you believe you were a part of some intricate cosmic design, the first step on the path to pure enlightenment. It would not be something you would have years to ponder, but weeks. Jerry tried not to feel afraid because he knew he had it better than most, that by the time the end came, he would know nothing. What remained of his mind would have disintegrated into soup by then, and what he saw in the mirror if such a thing even registered any longer, would be meaningless since his eyes would have long since disappeared.

Was he terrified? Absolutely. However, Jerry knew the road he was on the instant he realized what happened to Callie.

Trapped in his death shroud, he clung to his fading memories, aware when the process was complete, everything he was, would vanish into oblivion. Yet while his mind was still his, Jerry dreamed of Callie. Callie with the brown eyes of smooth chocolate, whose smile made his heart soar like a teenager, who came out of nowhere to change his life even if it brought him to this terrible end.

*******

For one glorious week, Callie made Jerry Lambert truly happy.

During the day, Jerry worked side by side with her on the Sulaco, following her around the ship as she prepared it for its debut at Lunar. He brought her hot tea to soothe her sore throat, caused by a mild reaction to the ferrous oxide particles in the ancient ship's nooks and crannies, according to Sick Bay. When the day was done, they would clock off together, finding some exotic place to eat because Callie wanted to try all the authentic human cuisine she could get before she shipped out. Later on, he realized Callie's ulterior motive for this and cursed himself for not seeing what was so obviously in front of him.

For seven glorious nights, Callie was his.

Their romance was a brief flame they knew could not last, but its intensity burned like a supernova. Jerry was by no means a sentimental man but knew this thing between him and Callie was the kind of torrid romance sensationalized in literature throughout the ages, but ultimately finite. Jerry accepted it, and even though it would break his heart when it came time to say goodbye, he would regret nothing, and he suspected neither would Callie.

Except by the week's end, they were in love, and there was no denying it.

Yet long-distance romances had very slim chances of surviving, and it was a fact of life having a career in Starfleet meant saying goodbye to the people you loved, sometimes for good. Still, Jerry and Callie were determined to try. While standing outside their favourite Mulberry Street Italian restaurant in Little Italy, they made plans for him to visit Ventax II during his next furlough, in two months.

The time apart would be difficult, but not impossible. Jerry and Callie could make it work. Other Starfleet officers and crew managed it and absence did make the heart fonder.

The next morning, he'd seen her off at the Transport Station in San Francisco. Jerry knew her excitement to go to Ventax II was dampened by their parting and this damn sore throat she couldn't seem to shake. Brushing his fingers against her soft cheek, they ignored reality's best efforts to burn to the ground the lovely fantasy they'd built in their heads, that this thing between them was not over. Kissing him goodbye, Callie promised to send a message to him the first chance she got so they could work out the specifics of his trip to see her.

Before she stepped onto the transporter pad and left his life, Callie had told him she loved him. Jerry surprised himself by saying it back.

He didn't hear from her for almost a month.

Ignoring all the anxieties that came from her silence, Jerry told himself Callie was probably getting settled in after a long space flight to a planet on the far side of the quadrant. Of course, he missed her terribly, and by the time the subspace message from Ventax II finally reached him, Jerry made up his mind, he was going to propose to her after his vacation to see her.

Sitting down to listen to her message within the privacy of his quarters at Earth Starbase, he nursed a cup of coffee in his hands and felt the familiar thrill of anticipation at being able to hear her voice again.

It died the instant Jerry saw her.

Callie looked sick. That flawless skin he spent their nights charting like Columbus, was almost grey. Her cheeks were sunken, and there were far too many dark circles under her eyes. For a second, he couldn't imagine this gaunt figure on the screen being the vibrant young woman who stole his heart on the Sulaco. What in God's name had happened to her? As Jerry stared at the screen, his shock and horror heightened by their inability to communicate, he tried to process how she could have deteriorated so badly.

Perfectly aware of the questions he would have upon seeing her, Callie had tried to explain. The doctors claimed she was suffering a genetic disorder, resulting in the mutation of her DNA. So far, they managed to slow down its progress but were unable to halt it completely. Even though she tried to remain brave for his sake, Jerry could see Callie was terrified. Without knowing how he was so sure, Jerry knew as badly as Callie as describing her condition, it was in actual truth worse.

If the doctors at Ventax II were considering sending her home, then Jerry knew it was likely because they could do nothing for her and required consultation with Starfleet Medical. None of which bode well for Callie.

Before the message ended, she promised to contact him in a week, once the physicians at Ventax II made their decision on whether to send her back to Earth.

When he didn't hear from Callie the following week, Jerry began making his own inquiries, burning up his subspace allotments to contact Ventax himself. Maddeningly, he discovered being neither family or spouse, they were limited in what they were able to tell him. Sensing his extreme frustration, the officer Callie reported to at the research station she was assigned, did show enough compassion to let Jerry know Callie was still alive but her condition had deteriorated.

Despaired, Jerry knew if he didn't get to her soon, she might pass out of his life without his ever saying goodbye. Worse yet, Callie was alone in the world. If this was really her end, she would see it alone, and something inside Jerry Lambert would not stand for it. He would not let her die without him. Nakamura granted him furlough two weeks early, understanding the depths of Jerry's feelings for Callie and allowed him to take the first transport he could find to Ventax.

Jerry spent the trip onboard the SS Serenity praying Callie would hang on until he reached the planet. Ventax was on the other side of the quadrant, and it took him almost two weeks to arrive at the research station. Without wasting any time, he barely thought to get himself settled in before hurrying to the hospital and discovered to his horror, she was no longer occupying the room she'd been languishing since her last communication.

She was gone.

According to the authorities, Callie discharged herself. Stunned that she would leave without telling him, Jerry did what any good security officer would do, he investigated. What he learned alarmed him. By the time Callie left Ventax II, and it was confirmed she was no longer on the planet, she was hardly been in the position to leave her sickbed, let alone the planet. Speaking to the friends she made on Ventax before the illness came and took her, her state of mind was quite precarious, not that anyone blamed her.

Jerry cursed himself for not acting on his first impulse, to jump on a transport to be at her side. Instead, he'd left it, left it too damn long and let someone else get to her. Someone who came in the guise of a saviour, who told Callie in her darkest moments, there was hope when it was all lie. Alone and frightened, Callie had believed this deceiver and put her faith in him. When the stranger told Callie she could be free of this malaise, she believed him.

Where she had been taken was a mystery until Jerry learned about Doctor Paracelsus.

At first, he couldn't understand why a psychiatrist would be taking charge of a patient with an unidentified cellular degeneration disease. From all accounts, Doctor Paracelsus was a giant in his field of treating criminal disorders, a man with a reputation of reliability and great success. Yet he lacked any of the expertise needed to help Callie. How on Earth had he managed to convince Callie to go with him? More importantly, why had she gone without telling Jerry where she would be? Surely she had to know he'd be going crazy not knowing.

Whatever the reason, Jerry was determined to learn the truth and using his skills as an investigator, he'd traced Doctor Paracelsus back to his asylum on Arloff IV. The more Jerry conducted his search for Callie, the more questions arose, but this time, he was not wading in like a hysterical boyfriend. Something wasn't right, and Jerry decided he needed help to approach this situation with far more caution than before.

Enlisting the aid of his commanding officer, Commander Trevor Nakamura, Jerry explained the situation as best he could. When Jerry concluded his story, Nakamura suggested he make the attempt to contact the asylum, not Jerry. If something were indeed wrong, then Jerry's anonymity might be Callie's only hope. Deciding to take the senior officer's advice, Jerry held back and allowed Nakamura to act on his behalf. What resulted should not have surprised Jerry in the least, given everything that had transpired so far, but it still enraged him to hear what Paracelsus had said when Nakamura asked about Callie.

Paracelsus had no idea who she was.

Chapter Nine:
Airborne

The Sulaco.

When he heard its name mentioned in connection to this whole business in Tenabrus, his reaction to it was visceral.

The Sulaco conjured up a gamut of emotions within Chris Larabee every time he heard its name spoken. The ancient ship represented the most disgraceful period of his life, when he was so self-absorbed, even justifiably, that he risked the lives of everyone around him. The deaths of those he caused indirectly were forever branded into his consciousness and reminded Chris most starkly his responsibilities as Captain of the Maverick.

Secondly, the Sulaco taught him to never take the people in his life for granted. In the weeks leading up to the discovery of the ship, Chris had mistreated everyone from Buck to Mary, behaving like a selfish bastard when all they wanted to do was help. It never occurred to him what it would be like to have no one at all, not until he learned about Ellen Ripley whose fate was so tightly bound to the Sulaco. Ripley lost everyone she cared for, one by one, desperately trying to save them and failing through no fault of her own.

By the time he left the Sulaco behind, Chris had learned what it was to put himself before his ship, and it was a mistake he would never make again.

*******

More than six months earlier, the Maverick encountered an ancient carrier wave transmission originating from a Conestoga-class Colonial Marines carrier, from pre-World War III Earth. Investigating the signal brought Chris and the Maverick to the Sulaco, now trapped in orbit over the planet Fury 361, a world once used to host a prison facility. Through the shipís logs, they learned about Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley and her terrifying encounters with the creatures called xenomorphs.

With a reproductive cycle closely related to parasitic wasps, requiring another organism to reproduce, the xenomorphs overwhelmed the mining colony of Hadleyís Hope on the planet of LV-426, now known as Acheron. Accompanying a group of Colonial Marines, one of which was ironically an ancestor of the Maverickís Captain, Ripley journeyed to the planet in hopes of rescuing the miners before it was too late. Unfortunately, almost all the colonists had been used as hosts for new aliens, and the marines found themselves greatly outnumbered.

Only Ripley, his ancestor Dwayne Hicks, a synthetic named Bishop and a lone survivor, a little girl called Newt, escaped alive.

Unfortunately, the xenomorphs proved hardier than their human opponents and managed to get loose on the carrier during the groupís return trip home in stasis. The attempt to penetrate the hypersleep chambers created an electrical fire which saw the crew moved to the Emergency Evacuation Vehicle or EEV, and directed towards a world capable of supporting human life. In this case, Fury 361. Once the Sulaco dealt with the fire, the computer system altered its trajectory and went in search of its human passengers.

On Fury 361, the aliens were allowed to thrive. By the time the Maverick arrived some three hundred years later, the prison facility where the EEV had landed became the centre of their nest, with more than a hundred specimens in hibernation. Unaware of any of this, the Away team that included the Captain, Vin Tanner, Ezra Standish, Alex Styles and three security officers, landed on the planet to investigate. They would subsequently learn through their discovery of the android Bishop, Ripley and her companions never left Fury 361.

Worst yet, the xenomorphs became aware of their presence and attacked. The Away Team barely escaped with their lives, losing all their security personnel, including the officer left on board the Sulaco with Julia Pemberton. Chris ordered the entire nest vaporized with a barrage of photon torpedoes and recommended when the Sulaco was returned to Earth, it should be thoroughly scanned to ensure no other specimens remained.

The risk of any of the goddamn things getting loose on Earth was simply too much.

*******

"What have you got Alex?"

Chris waited for his Science Officer to deliver her report while seated at his usual place at the head of the Conference table, with Vin Tanner and Julia Pemberton also present. As soon as he and Vin returned to the Maverick from their Away mission to the relay station, they turned their tricorders over to Alex who was more than capable of disseminating the data contained and coming up with the answers needed to explain what might be happening on Tenarus. Just to be safe, Chris had contacted Buck at the asylum and discovered to his relief, they were in no danger at present.

"Keep an eye out Buck," Chris had told his First Officer. "If something even smells wrong, I want to know."

"You got it Chris," Buck assured him.

Alex didnít waste any time getting to her feet and walking to the main display so she could deliver her report. Like Vin, she knew just how volatile the Captain could be on this subject and would not tax his patience any more than necessary. It was why she enlisted Juliaís assistance to review the data and it was all the Chief Engineer could do to not descend into paranoia herself, once she heard the Sulaco mentioned in connection to their current mystery.

"Alright," Alex drew in a deep breath and began speaking. "It took me a few hours to track down all the available information about Lt. Lambert by contacting Earth on subspace. I think I may have an idea of what happened, although Captain, I think we need to recall the Away Team immediately, and possibly begin the evacuation of Tenarus."

Chrisís eyes widened at the suggestion, dread inside him rising like the rank stench of rotting flesh. However, he was Chris Larabee, and he knew how to crush such emotions ruthlessly, at least until he knew why she had made her extraordinary statement.

"Tell me," Chris said coolly, indicating he would do nothing until she told him why.

Vin glanced at his Captain and best friend and could imagine the invisible strands of Chrisís patience snapping, one by one with each second of silence. Meeting Alexís gaze, he told her silently to begin.

"As we already know, Lt. Lambert was assigned to the Sulaco, shortly after it returned to Earth. Following your recommendations Captain, Starfleetís Biological Hazard Division initiated an Omega Level baryon sweep across the entire ship, ensuring the sterilization of any organic matter still remaining on board. After that, the engineering crews moved in, with security escorts to begin the refit for its eventual display at the Zefram Cochrane Museum."

"Did they find any of those goddamn things?" Chris demanded, wanting this question answered first and foremost and knew he was being testy, but when it came to the xenomorph, he was running on an extremely short fuse.

"Yes and no," Alex answered promptly, unperturbed by her Captainís sour expression.

"Thatís impossible!" Julia protested. It was the most animated anyone had seen the redhead since her rescue from the Borg. "We went over that ship inch by inch before we sent it back to Earth. There were no more of the things left!"

"A specimen was found, but it appeared to be dead," Alex explained quickly because she could see the possibility the scans missed something disturbed Julia. Particularly when Alex remembered how determined Julia was to ensure the Sulaco was rid of the xenomorphs after Fury 361.

During the time the Away team was trapped on Fury with the alien hive, Julia was forced to contend with one of the alien spores implanting security officer Ty Atwater. When the xenomorph emerged, Ty Atwaterís grisly progeny hunted her across the ship. Alex remembered Julia being profoundly affected by Atwaterís death, knowing he had died in agony and alone, without her being able to help him at all.

"Julia," Alex addressed the woman kindly, "we donít know anything about this creature, not really. Except for the specimens we found on the Sulaco, we didnít have much time to study the things. It required recalibration of our tricorders just to detect the xenomorph, itís very possible the eggs might have some form of natural camouflage preventing us from seeing them during scans. In any case, this particular specimen did not survive the baryon sweep. It was found dead by one of the teams, and from what we can tell, no one was implanted."

"How can you be so sure?" Julia frowned, not about to absolve herself just yet.

"Because none of the engineering teams was alone long enough for it to happen. Itís why security was assigned to each engineer. Captain, it was Jerry Lambert who found this specimen. The engineer he was working with, Lt. Callie Leech, was in the shipís drive when the spore was found. By the looks of it, it was already dead. Commander Nakamura at Space Dock told me that both of them were checked out after their encounter, there was nothing implanted."

"Alright," Chris nodded, not about to let go of his suspicions just yet, but wanting Alex to continue her report. "Go on."

"The specimen when examined appeared to have died from massive baryon contamination," Alex explained. "My theory is there was an egg somewhere on the ship, somewhere it was near impossible to scan. According to Nakamura, the spore appeared to have been found in the shipís drive network. I believe this one was laid by the creature hatched while we were on Fury 361. According to Bishop, each drone is capable of laying eggs, I think that was what it did while it was hunting you."

"Damn it," Julia cursed under her breath, aware this was perfectly logical. While she had been hiding from it, the xenomorph had run of the Sulaco and could have done precisely what Alex suggested.

"Anyway, with Lt. Leech given the all-clear, work resumed on the Sulaco, and the ship was deemed safe. In fact, it took its place at the Cochrane Museum only a month ago, and there have been no reports of any trouble. Lt. Lambert continued working at Space Dock until two months before his sabbatical. Now whileís it not on his official records why he left, I got the real story from Commander Nakamura."

Alex braced herself because if her reaction to what Nakamura told her was extreme, Alex couldnít imagine what the Captain was going to think of it.

"Lambert and Callie developed a relationship just before she shipped out to Ventax II. Now before she left, she had checked into Starfleet Medical, and they did detect some form of oxidized material in her lungs which was causing a mild allergic reaction. Aside from an odd taste in her mouth, she suffered no ill effects and the doctor who examined her gave her an all-clear."

Chris sat up, ramrod straight. "Oxidized material?"

"Yeah," Alex nodded, thinking it was how she reacted to that news herself. "The doctor thought it was rust."

"Oh my God," Juliaís hand flew up to her mouth. "Is it possible?"

"We canít be sure," Alex continued, "but she got worse on route to Ventax II. Now no one connected it to the spore because we know implantation needs to happen, and it did not in this case. Furthermore, the trip to Ventax took weeks, and the normal gestation period for a xenomorph is days. If she was implanted, it would have emerged long before she arrived at Ventax."

"Then what happened to her?" Chris asked. Ideas were forming in his head, ideas he didnít much like to entertain but he would not leap to conclusions until he heard the rest of Alexís report. He saw Vin staring at him hard as if the helmsman had a window into his soul and knew exactly what he was thinking. Chris didnít envy him the ability today. What was in his head right now, was pretty unpalatable.

"She arrived on Ventax II and presented with all the symptoms of respiratory illness. Doctors on Ventax reached the same conclusion as they did on Earth, she was having an allergic reaction and treated her for that. However, she was continuing to deteriorate, and this time the doctors took it more seriously and after extensive tests, discovered she was suffering some kind of genetic disorder, where her DNA was mutating."

"Oh shit," Vin swore, understanding now that look in Chrisís face all well now.

"Mutating into what?" Chris demanded.

"They didnít know," Alex replied after a moment. "I contacted Ventax Research Station and told them to transmit all their records to us here. Iíve asked Doctor Li Pong to take a look at it using Nathanís own research material. The doctors at Ventax couldnít help her because they had no idea what they were dealing with. I mean why would it occur to them this could be related to the Sulacoís xenomorphs?

"Agreed," Chris nodded in understanding, "so what happened to her?"

"Nobody knows."

"What do you mean nobody knows?" Chris demanded. "She canít have just disappeared!"

"Two months after arriving at Ventax, Callie disappeared," Alex repeated herself. "Since Lambert wasnít her husband or family, they wouldnít tell him what happened to her until he got there himself and found out, sheíd become friendly with a psychiatrist making the rounds of the hospital where Callie was being treated. Somehow or rather, this psychiatrist managed to convince her to leave Ventax with him."

"A psychiatrist?" Vinís eyes widened, realizing where she was going with this. "You donít mean...."

"Paracelsus."

"Why on Earth would she go with Paracelsus?" Julia blurted out the obvious question.

"We donít know for certain Callie went with him," Alex stated firmly. "However, if Jerry believed she went with him, it would explain why he was here on Tenarus."

"Yes," Chris nodded in understanding. "If he believed Callie went with the doctor, he would be led here, trying to find her."

"Except," the science officer sighed, "Paracelsus claimed he had no idea who she was."

"If that were my girl," Vin spoke. "I wouldnít take his word for it."

If Lambert loved Callie enough to go to Ventax to be with her during her illness, then he would have chased down every possible lead to her whereabouts. Furthermore, Paracelsusís denial he knew Callie at all, especially when Lambert knew it to be an untruth, would have led the security officer to draw some pretty damning conclusions.

"He didnít," Alex looked at Chris. "Nakamura made the inquiry on Jerryís behalf, and it was after Paracelsus denied knowing her that he left Ventax. I believe he came to Tenarus looking for Callie."

"And needed to escape the place months later to send a distress signal," Julia pointed out. "Captain, the analysis of the scans you took over the relay station, indicate the scoring from small arms fire. You were right about someone going in there with guns blazing. Iíve also detected return fire. Now the blast patterns are very distinct. One is a Starfleet issued phaser, our ordinance produces a very specific kind of signature."

"And the other?" Vin asked.

"A Nausicaan disruptor pistol," Julia nodded at Alex who tapped the display to show the weapon in question. Resembling an Earth-type revolver with more hard corners, its poly-alloy casing had a dark, almost black metal finish. "I recognized the energy dispersal from a paralithium cell. Also, the message intercepted by the Erstwhile definitely came from the relay station."

"So Paracelsus sent his thugs after Lambert once he realized Lambert was trying to get a message to us," Chris frowned, remembering Buck mentioning how unhappy Ezra had been to see Nausicaan mercenaries playing the part of hospital warders. It appeared Ezraís instincts were correct as usual. With what they now knew about Paracelsus, the presence of the Nausicaans seemed even more ominous. "The question is, did they kill him, or is he still alive in the facility? Obviously, he was trying to get Starfleetís attention when he sent that distress signal."

"Inconclusive," Alex shrugged. "There was blood detected by your scans. The DNA did match him, but it was nowhere substantial enough to imply he was killed. He could have been wounded."

"So," Vin finally asked the most obvious question. "Why? Why did Paracelsus take Callie?"

Alex dropped her gaze to the carpeted floor, deciding it was time to speak up, now they had reached the heart of the matter after all the discussion. The conclusion she reached was not going to make her Captain very happy, not in the least. Chris called her the best science officer he ever worked with, and much of his faith had to do with her ability to make conceptual leaps. She was about to make one now and hope the journey across didnít seem too outlandish, considering everything she had to base this on, was speculation.

"Captain, I have a theory."

All eyes shifted to her, and Alex found herself on the receiving end of the Larabee glare set at full intensity. The manís stare could make her feel like a freshly-minted cadet at the Academy again, and not even Vinís encouraging smile could shake it off.

"Iím all ears Commander," Chris spoke with just enough edge in his voice to indicate he wanted to hear it now.

"We know how resilient the xenomorphs are. The things can exist in a vacuum, theyíre capable of hibernating for centuries and patient enough to wait out a host, no matter how long it takes. It possesses a digestive system that also acts as itís circulatory system, carrying the most corrosive biological acid in existence. It took military-grade hardware to kill one in the 21st century and hand phasers in this one. I think itís safe to say these creatures are near indestructible."

"Thatís for sure," Vin nodded, unable to disagree. Even though he often ran a combat simulation pitting him against the xenomorphs hand to hand, Vin knew he cheated by programing the creature without their acidic blood, somewhat neutering them.

"The thing is, we know so little about silicon-based lifeforms. We assumed a baryon sweep would exterminate them immediately. What if it didnít? What if it mutated the spore to such a degree, it didnít need to immobilize a host as usual? The report I saw from the Biological Hazard Division showed the alien spore Lambert found dead, had been so for quite some time. Captain, the carcass was desiccated."

"Jesus Christ," Chrisís eyes widened in horror, realizing what Alex was trying to say. "You think she breathed it in?"

"Oh God," Julia gasped, equally shocked to the core by that idea. "YOu mean the oxidized material they thought was rust was actually..."

"Xenomorph DNA," Vin concluded. "Makes sense, the things can adapt to just about anything. Why not this? But then why didnít it come out of her like the others?"

"The mutation caused by the baryon sweep might have altered its normal gestation period," Chris explained. "It normally implants an embryo into a host directly. What did Callieís doctors at Ventax say it was? A genetic disorder?" Because if she breathed in it, itís microscopic, means its nowhere as indestructible as it was if it were an embryo. Remember, without transporter technology, getting the thing off a hostís face is nearly impossible. The blood alone will kill any victim. No, it couldnít do what it had to as fast."

"So the embryo was growing inside of her by the airborne xenomorph DNA?" Julia winced, unable to imagine anything more horrible, and for the first time, being Borg didnít seem as terrible as what poor Callie Leech must have endured in the last hours of her life.

It was worse than that, Chris realized when he saw Alex had not spoken because what was on her lips was too terrible to say.

"No," Chris shook his head and felt his stomach heave. "It turned her into one."

Chapter Ten:
Protocol

Chris Larabee, you lucky bastard.

Buck Wilmington cursed his Captain and old friend for the dozenth time since sitting down to listen to the lecture being presented by Nathan Jackson to the staff of the Tenabrus Institute.

He wished he was anywhere but inside the small auditorium attached to the Administration Wing of the facility, twenty-two levels deep beneath the surface of the planet. While it was always a point of contention between himself and Chris whenever the Captain wanted to assume command of an Away mission, this time, Buck would have happily lost the argument. At this moment, he wished more than anything, regulations didn't require the First Officer to take the place of the Captain on Away missions since he really rather Chris was here instead of him.

Months ago, the subject of the lecture would have fascinated him. Like Alex, Buck was a former science officer, and they often sat together during such occasions. Buck could imagine he and Alex side by side, trading comments under their breath, like two kids passing notes in class. Right before Chris jabbed him in the ribs and made Alex cower with a patented Larabee glare. Instead, Alex was up there on the ship, and he was down here, listening to a subject in which he had far too much insight. Discussing it with the clinical indifference of those who had no idea how traumatic the reality could be.

Seated along the front row of chairs in the auditorium, next to him was Ezra Standish and Mary Travis, appeared to be listening to the lecture with interest along with Josiah who was next to Paracelsus. Nathan, who was more than accustomed to delivering talks, not just to the Maverick staff, but was often called on to speak about his work on the Borg assimilation process, captivated his audience. If not for the subject matter striking too close to home for his liking, Buck would have been similarly engaged.

"The Royal Protocol," Nathan spoke from behind a marble rostrum at the head of the auditorium, "appears to be a line of programming incorporated in the cortical implants of all Borg drones shortly after activation of their neural transceivers, the device which connects them to the Collective hive mind. This program remains dormant for most of the drone's life, activated only when there is a need to produce a Borg Queen."

"Produce a Borg Queen?" A hand shot up on the cusp of that question. It belonged to one of Paracelsus's staff, a middle-aged Takarian with prominent nasal ridges. "I thought the Borg Queen was a single telepathic female."

"According to the data gathered after our Captain's encounter with the species called the C'Kaia, that is true. The C'Kaia are a race of arthropods whose planet went nova, taking a sizable number of their population with them. To colonise worlds for their use, they created the Borg to do the deed for them, in much the same way the Founders bred the Jem'Hadar. Like all high-order insects, they exist with a hive mentality and chose to do the same with their new creations. They wanted the Borg hierarchy to mirror their own hive mind, since it would be easy to control one telepathic female, instead of thousands of cybernetic organisms."

"Of course," Paracelsus spoke up, "Every species which accepts the concept of mono or polytheistic deities, imagines God in their own image. We've seen it in every species and culture in one form or another. It makes perfect sense for the Borg and the C'Kaia, whatever role they play in each other's development, to view themselves in the same way."

"Absolutely," Nathan nodded. "I believe a telepathic female was originally needed to create the hive mind and link the others. When the Queen severed their link, the Borg evolved beyond the need for her to be a real person. With the cultures and the technology the Borg absorbed in the search for perfection, the link no longer needed the telepathic connection to exist."

"It is not without precedent," Paracelsus spoke to his staff. "In the society of bees, all female worker bees are capable of producing fertilised eggs. Then they simply feed one particular larva royal jelly. The added nutrients produces a queen who becomes the mother of their society."

"In this case," Nathan continued, "it is a line of programming the Borg initialises when the Borg queen is killed, or they are cut off from the Collective and require one."

The Royal Protocol.

Buck's stomach churned inside his stomach when a wave of nausea came out of nowhere and threatened to make him sick. Closing his eyes, Nathan's words faded away, and only one phrase remained. Royal Protocol. Each word impacted like the explosions from artillery shells and Buck could taste something metallic in his mouth. Logically, he knew it was his mind playing tricks on him, that all this was a memory, a memory of being Borg. Yet Buck also knew if Chris hadn't freed him from the Collective when he did, this would have been One of Nineteen's ultimate plan.

The next step after the Maverick was assimilated would have been the initialisation of the Royal Protocol.

Buck stood up abruptly, silencing Nathan in mid-sentence. The healer looked at him puzzled before understanding dawned across the man's face, and Buck saw genuine regret at how this lecture might be affecting the First Officer. Hating it that Nathan should feel bad about anything, Buck just knew he had to get out of there.

"I need some air," he said hastily to Ezra, who offered no judgement, nodding in understanding and allowing Buck to make a discreet departure without further comment.

Leaving the others without looking over his shoulder, Buck strode out of the auditorium through the first exit he could find.

*******

Buck strode through the now empty hallways and activated the glass panels along the walls, not unlike those on the Maverick, and got directions to the Atrium. Right now, he needed solitude, not more corridors and hallways. The Atrium might not be the open space Buck craved, but Paracelsus had designed it to resemble a large park and for Buck that was good enough right now. His pulse was racing, and Buck knew he was on the verge of a full-blown panic attack, which filled him with exasperation and probably worsened his condition.

Fortunately, the area was devoid of people at this time of the evening. Most of the staff were either at the lecture or enjoying their downtime. Buck had given JD leave to forgo the talk since Holly had invited him to dinner. Despite the younger man's stuttered reaction to the invitation, Buck knew JD had wanted to go. Although Buck knew JD was hoping to maintain a long-distance relationship with Casey, who was in Bajor, there was no indication the girl was coming back. It wouldn't hurt for the kid to date a little to determine if absence did indeed make the heart grow fonder.

Thinking of JD and Casey's relationship inevitably brought Buck back to his thoughts on Inez and once again, the turmoil inside him was given the added turbulence of where he left things with Inez.

Christ, he was a mess.

Reaching the Atrium, Buck found the grounds of the faux-park were empty. All the patients, or inmates as Ezra insisted on calling them, were now back in their rooms in the level below, along with the Nausicaan warders charged to keep them in line. Leaving the path through the grass, he made his way to the section of wall concealed by the holographic projection of the Higo Hosokawa Gardens in Japan.

Sighting a bench sitting next to a Bajoran lilac tree, he headed towards the seat facing the picture-perfect view of the gardens during one of its famous lighting festivals. Sitting down, he admired the scene of maple, hackberry and wax trees, illuminated by fairy lights with Kumamoto Castle in the background. Once settled, he took several deep breaths, trying to calm himself.

Breathing in and out, remembering some of the meditation exercises Josiah suggested he try, Buck tried to calm his nerves when suddenly a voice came out of nowhere to invade his still forming state of serenity.

"Pretty nice view considering we're as far away from Japan as we can possibly be," Josiah Sanchez remarked casually.

Buck blinked and looked up to see the Counsellor next to him. "Counsellor, shouldn't you be in the auditorium catching up with your buddy Gabe?"

"I will eventually," Josiah rounded the bench before he took up the space next to Buck and leaned against the backrest, admiring the same view. "Gabe's happy quizzing Nathan about the Borg, he'll be fine without me for a while."

Buck frowned, guessing his abrupt departure from the auditorium would not have escaped the Counsellor's notice and wished the man would go away. He had no desire to talk right now.

"So you needed some fresh air too?"

"I needed to see if my friend was alright." Josiah threw him a sidelong glance, not about to mince words about his intentions. Buck would see through a lie and as a Counsellor, honesty was vital in all dealings with a patient. "If it wasn't me, it would have been Mary. She's worried about you, and so is Ezra, but he respects your privacy too much to intrude."

Buck's first reaction was one of hostility, but he could tell nothing being said to him was meant to be intrusive. They cared about him and because of that, Buck reined in his temper. "I'm fine Josiah. Just too much shop talk about the Borg for this time of night. I needed a break."

"Fair enough," Josiah conceded the point. "I suppose all that talk is somewhat repetitious for you. You've heard it all before and you know more about the Borg than anyone in the room."

"Damn straight," Buck bit back and then realised he showed a little more emotion than he intended. "I wish everyone would stop asking me if I'm alright, I'm fine."

"They're concerned about you," Josiah pointed out. "It's natural, given how we almost thought we lost you for good."

They weren't the only ones, Buck thought silently and knew that his friends were only trying to help, just like Josiah. Yet something inside him didn't want to touch the bag of crazy that was left behind by the Borg.

"Well, you didn't," he started to get to his feet, preparing to run again, in any direction he could find, as long as he could avoid this conversation. "I'm here, aren't I?"

"Yes, you are," this time, Josiah did look at him. "I know that, do you?"

Buck stopped short. "What do you mean?"

Once again, his heart started pounding and what drove him from the auditorium, returned in full force. The clenching of his gut, the fear that seemed to come out of nowhere and suffocated him. Buck was certain he had been hiding it! He'd done everything he could to show no one how fragile he was because he refused to be seen as a victim and couldn't bear their pity. He was broken inside, he knew that, but Buck couldn't take anyone else knowing it too.

"Buck," Josiah stared at him kindly. "No one expects you to bounce right back from what you went through. You've set an impossible standard for yourself to be the man you were before this happened. No matter how much you want to ignore it, you can't. You know exactly what kind of effect being assimilated has on your mind, I don't have to tell you that it's going to be with you for a long time. What I can do is help you accept what happened and possibly move on. If you keep ignoring the problem, trying to make demands of yourself you can't possibly meet, it's going to hurt you worse than assimilation ever did."

"You don't know what it's like Josiah!" Buck snapped, stepping away from him. "I close my eyes, and I see them, I see the faces of the people I hurt. I hear them screaming in my dreams! I almost destroyed the ship! Those people on Vulcan, the ones we couldn't save, that's on me Josiah! On me!"

"Listen to yourself," Josiah stood up and faced him. "You're using words like I, me, and my. When you were Borg, you were none of those things. There was nothing in Buck Wilmington in those actions. You became a number, just one part of a hive mind programmed to behave the way a million other minds caught in their web behaved before you. The Collective took the best of you without any permission and used it."

"I should have been able to...."

"Stop them?" Josiah countered. "If Jean-Luc Picard, one of our greatest commanders couldn't stop them, what makes you think you could do any better? Picard's will alone has forged some of our greatest victories, and the Borg went through him like he wasn't even there. You have no reason to feel less because you couldn't fight them. So many have tried Buck, so many have failed. Some never come back, even after the implants are removed. You are still here, and I know you're fighting hard to come back all the way, but you don't have to do it alone. We're here for you, and we'll do everything we can, but you need to trust us."

Buck turned away, unable to expose all even though Josiah's words penetrated. They just didn't go deep enough.

"Sometimes," Buck said softly, "I wish Chris had killed me down there. I wish he fired the phaser and made it all end. I almost hate him for not doing it, for not setting me free before I hurt all those people."

Buck just wished Chris had let him go.

*******

"So what's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?"

JD used a line that would have made Buck Wilmington proud if he were present to hear it as he stared across the table at Holly.

They were in the dining hall located in another section of the same sublevel as the Administration Wing, sharing dinner after Buck told JD he was not required to be at the lecture. After hours installing the upgrades to the communications system, drawing out the work while Ezra tried to figure out the place, JD didn't mind the exemption. Especially with Holly.

Although surprised by the invitation, stunned really, JD managed to accept without looking like a complete idiot despite Ezra's efforts to hide his amusement at the whole scene. Trying not to read more into the invitation than the fact Holly probably didn't get a chance to meet people her own age here, JD accepted. Still, a part of him was rather pleased a pretty girl with that killer smile found him interesting enough to hang out with.

The dining hall they ended up in for dinner, contained at least two dozen white plasteel tables with matching chairs, with every wall except the one installed with food replicators, covered with holo screens. The scenery on each wall was different, but all were breathtaking and idyllic, from the beaches of Risa, to the glorious skies of Russo IV and of course the undersea cities of Pacifica. With the lighting dimmed enough for things to remain visible but not harsh, the atmosphere was pleasant enough to make everyone forget they were in an asylum.

Holly laughed at JD's question and bit into the piece of lettuce, taking a few seconds to chew and swallow before answering him with a sad smile. "My father and Doctor Paracelsus were old friends. They worked together when my dad was stationed at Corridan, so I knew him growing up. When my dad caught Legato's disease and died, I was a wreck. My mom died when I was five and Doctor Paracelsus was family to us. He knew I didn't have anyone left, so he offered me a job as his assistant, and I accepted."

"I'm sorry," JD reached across the table and squeezed her hand, understanding more than he would like how alone she must have felt. "I know the feeling. My mom died at the Battle of Sector 001, and it was only just the two of us."

"It's funny, isn't it?" Holly met his gaze, the grief still lingering in her blue eyes, "you grow up wishing there were more people in your life when it's just the two of you, not realising when you lose that other person, they were all you ever needed."

"Yeah," JD agreed. "So do you like your job? I mean it's gotta be a little creepy working here."

"It was at first," she admitted readily, remembering how anxious she'd been when they'd taken that first ride from the surface to the sublevels where the institute was located. "But Doctor Paracelsus was really nice, and I've come to know the other doctors and staff, so I'm getting used to it."

Holly flashed him a smile and JD had to admit, it was capable of lighting up even this dreary place. He liked her a lot and felt a pang of guilt at the idea of being attracted to her. Still, JD reminded himself what he and Casey agreed to when they decided to part six weeks earlier. Both of them recognised their lives were just beginning, and neither were starry-eyed teenagers, and it was entirely possible Casey might not return to the Maverick at all. While he was not yet ready to think it was over between them, JD accepted Casey's decision for them to part as friends.

As he allowed himself to like Holly, JD decided it might not have been such a bad idea after all.

"What about you?" Holly broke him out of his reverie. "Life must be pretty interesting on a starship."

"It is," JD grinned, "but it can be scary too. I mean we ran into the Borg not long ago and that was bad. Most of our time's been spent the last few months along what used to be the Neutral Zone. After what happened to Romulus, everything has been going crazy in this quadrant. It's why we were so insistent on making those upgrades."

"Well the force field keeps most things out," Holly explained before a memory surfaced and her expression became troubled. "Although we did have one of our patients wander outside not long ago."

"Outside?" JD's eyes widened in surprise. He was certain Ezra implied nothing could penetrate the force field once it was raised. Then again, he thought silently, during their last check-in with the Captain, they'd discovered someone had escaped the asylum to reach the relay station. That person had to find a way through the forcefield to make the hike there. "Won't they die?"

"Yeah," Holly nodded. "We thought for sure they would, except this patient managed to get to one of our cold-weather suits and escaped through a breach in the lower levels. I mean we didn't build this facility, it was here long before we arrived. Doctor Paracelsus says that we just added to it. I think it was some kind of base used by Romulans or something."

"What sort of breach?" JD seized upon the opportunity that Holly had unexpectedly presented him. During the tour, Buck mentioned Paracelsus took them no further than the sub-level below them, where the patients were in residence. The final two levels were nothing but storage space according to the doctor. However, if Jerry Lambert had stolen a cold-weather suit, then his escape route might have been underground, beneath the reach of the force field.

"I'm not sure," Holly admitted, aware she was probably talking out of turn but JD was a Starfleet officer. It was perhaps important he had this information if they were to be kept safe from anyone trying to harm the institute or its inhabitants. "Kash told me he heard Shavo saying they found some kind of tunnel system on Sub-Level 25. That's the lowest level in the facility. It was apparently ancient and not in any of the blueprints."

"Holly," JD said gravely, "if there's a way out, that means there's a way in. We need to seal it off."

"I'm sure it has already," Holly assured him, although the uncertainty across her face a second later indicated she wasn't entirely sure.

"Can I take a look?" JD asked, aware if this entryway existed, Paracelsus might keep it from them if they confronted the doctor directly. If Ezra were able to act on this information, JD knew the Security Chief would already be on his way down there to investigate. As it stood, JD was sure he could convince Holly to take him instead..

"You mean, go down to Sub-Level 25?" She stared at him, a little apprehensive. "I've never been down there."

"We won't stay long," he promised. "Weíll just go down there and take a look around. I can get my tricorder so we'll find it in a hurry. If there's a breach Holly, we should get it fixed as soon as possible or reinforce it. The Maverick has tonnes of stuff to make sure nothing wanders in from the outside. Didn't you say there were all kinds of critters living on this planet?"

"There are," she confirmed. "I guess we could take a quick look, I mean to make sure it's safe."

"Thanks Holly," JD grinned, pleased at his effort to convince her. "Now let's finish dinner and go down there for a look. I'm sure there's nothing to worry about at all."

Chapter Eleven:
Connection

Until Nathan saw Buck stand up and leave, the healer had forgotten how his words would be received by someone still raw from the process of assimilation. Unable to go after the First Officer himself, Nathan was glad to see Josiah had done it instead. Still, the distress Buck would have felt, left a sour taste in his mouth. As a healer, he took an oath to do no harm, and that included not rubbing salt into the mental wounds of his patients.

Even Doctor Paracelsus noticed Buck's abrupt departure, and it took a quick explanation after the lecture for the doctor to understand why.

Thus when Nathan saw Josiah and Buck step through the doors leading into Doctor Paracelsus's suite, where the man was hosting a private dinner for his guests, there was only one thing to do.

"Buck, I'm sorry. I should have known..."

"It's okay, Nathan, I'm fine." Buck stopped the doctor from going any further. He hated that Nathan should regret anything because he was unable to get his emotions under control.

Buck was still nowhere close to feeling like himself, but the talk with Josiah did serve the purpose of releasing some of his pent up anxieties. It also gave him some food for thought. Josiah's advice did make him question whether or not he could continue as First Officer of the Maverick when his grip on reality still felt somewhat fragile.

Doctor Paracelsus, who emerged from the next room to greet his guests, approached the three Starfleet officers, wearing a look of contrition. "I am afraid I would not have imposed on Doctor Jackson if I were aware of your situation Commander," the man said, genuinely regretful. It only heightened Buck's annoyance at how everyone was affected because of his traumas.

"Like I told Nathan," Buck dismissed the perceived slight with a wave of his hand. "You couldn't have known."

"Still, it must have been a terrifying experience," Paracelsus was not about to be absolved so quickly as he gestured for the group to take a seat at the lounge while the catering staff prepared the meal in the adjoining dining room. Mary and Ezra had yet to arrive and since dinner was some time away, the doctor retreated to the drinks replicators to furnish his guests with refreshments.

"Gabe," Josiah tossed Paracelsus a look to drop the subject.

Buck caught the exchange and decided he wasn't going to have the entire evening descend into awkwardness by having people tread on eggshells around him. Perhaps if he explained himself a little, it would ease the tension.

"It's okay Josiah," Buck gave him a small smile of gratitude and once again, shared Chris's sentiments that the Maverick had the best damn counsellor in the fleet. "It wasn't an experience I'd recommend," he admitted to Paracelsus to satisfy the man's curiosity.

Paracelsus returned with a carafe of synthehol and some glasses, before placing them on the table and taking a seat himself. "Doctor Jackson tells me you were with the Collective for a few days."

More like an eternity, Buck thought to himself. "I was."

"They say a Borg drone is never alone when they are connected to the hive. Did you hear the others or one single voice?"

"Perhaps this isn't the best conversation to be having," Josiah had no desire for Buck to relive any traumatic memories, especially after their discussion in the Atrium. He understood Buck was trying to prove he was able to handle any situation, even scrutiny about his Borg experience. Still, Josiah would prefer to spare him the ordeal when his emotional state was suspect.

"I don't mean to intrude," Paracelsus apologised, seeing Josiah's concern.

"No, no," Buck brushed aside their worries, determined to pull himself together for the duration of this mission. He wasn't going to be treated like he was fragile, and he was done behaving like it as well. "Look you said it yourself Josiah, Iíve got to talk about this."

"I did," Josiah remarked still concerned about Buck's state of mind, despite the First Officer's attempts to prove he was capable of handling anything, "but in a more controlled setting."

"I'm surrounded by three doctors. It doesn't get much more controlled than that." Buck gave Josiah a little smile, trying to assure the Counsellor he was up to answering any questions about assimilation.

"He's got a point," Nathan replied, trying to be supportive, but he wasn't about to let Buck get ahead of himself either. "But the minute it gets uncomfortable, you say so, and that will be the end of it, right?"

Nathan shot Paracelsus, a stern warning he would not be defied on this point. It was Nathan who pulled the Borg implants out of Buck's body and the memory of just how much of it there was during the painstaking operation, told the healer Buck had every right to his discomfort. Nathan was still mortified by his lack of sensitivity at not realising how his lecture would affect Buck, who was not just his commanding officer, but his friend.

"Of course," Paracelsus took the warning seriously before regarding Buck again. "Commander, I didn't mean to cause you any upset. Out here, we've been fortunate to be out of the Borg's path during their incursions into our space. I've read all the papers, but you are the first person I've encountered who's actually been through assimilation. I apologise if curiosity got the better of me."

"I understand," Buck shrugged, and took a sip of the synthehol in the glass he poured himself before addressing the question asked by the doctor. More than anything he wished it was the stash of whiskey Chris claimed he didn't keep in his Ready Room.

"It was never a single voice," he said after a moment. "There were a lot of voices talking all at once. You were never alone in your mind, they were always there, but they didn't say anything different. Their voices weren't something you heard, it was like seeing out of a thousand windows all at once, and one of them was yours. The Borg always say assimilation makes you feel like a part of something, but they're wrong. You can see everything, but you can't do anything about it. You can hear the others, but you can't talk to them. All you can do is just watch."

No one spoke for a moment, and both Josiah and Nathan could tell by the dull expression on Buck's face, this was what made Buck suffer so much, witnessing all the pain the Collective used him to inflict on others, without being able to do anything about it.

"And the Queen?" Paracelsus asked since he did not know Buck, and could not read him as well as his friends. "Did you hear her?"

"No," Buck had to admit. "The circumstances of the Maverick's encounter with the Borg kept the Collective away from the assimilated. The Queen was never able to influence us. Still, even though she wasn't there, you could..."

"...feel her?" Paracelsus finished off Buck's sentence to the surprise of Josiah and Nathan.

"I thought you said you've never dealt with assimilated patients before?" Nathan asked, finding Paracelsus' guess a little too accurate.

"I haven't," he admitted quickly, clearing his throat. "But I have encountered species with hive mentalities before. The Jarada and the Xindi-insectoids have a similar societal structure as the Borg, with their leader being the queen mother. The Jarada Queen can communicate with most of their warrior and worker classes. I've even been asked to consult on a few cases, and I must admit, I've felt her touching my mind."

Josiah stared at him for a moment, wondering how Gabe could have allowed himself to become involved in such a situation. Starfleet Medical had strict regulations for therapists without mental training to attend to telepathic patients. Before his arrival on Tenabrus, Josiah reviewed Gabriel Paracelsus's record and knew the man had no credentials to be treating patients with those kinds of abilities.

Thanks to his marriage to Ayla, who was Betazoid and fathering two children with the same traits, Josiah learned how to erect shields around his thoughts. It allowed him to treat such patients safely, preventing them from inadvertently affecting his mind. Having a psychic connection was dangerous, it led to cracks in a therapist's impartiality and risked contamination by whatever psychosis the patient was suffering.

"Is that wise?" Josiah looked at him with concern.

"Unintentional I assure you," Paracelsus saw Josiah's scrutiny. "However, it is a fascinating insight. For some, having a voice telling you what to do removes all the doubt from one's action. It liberates them from moral quandaries, insecurities and reservations..."

"Assuming the voice is real and not the result of mental illness," Josiah pointed out, finding Paracelsus's viewpoint troubling.

"Agreed," Paracelsus laughed. "But for some, it almost feels like religious enlightenment. Surrendering yourself to something greater, being part of a whole, working to one purpose. It's like hearing the voice of God telling you exactly what he wants of you and knowing how you fit in his plan."

"I wouldn't call it that," Buck spoke, finding nothing about assimilation at all enlightening.

"Well, the Borg are in search of enlightenment," Paracelsus smiled. "Perhaps when they have evolved to that point, they will have the perfection they seek."

"The Borg don't want enlightenment," Buck found himself saying because the man's words angered him.

The evolution Paracelsus referred to had come at the cost of whole civilisations, swallowed up by Borg machinery, destroyed for all time. He thought of the races the Collective had taken. All their achievements, their songs, their history, their dreams and their technology. All of it was compressed into streams of data where the beauty of it would be considered irrelevant, just some information to be used when preparing to assimilate yet another race.

"They're locusts. All they understand is taking what they need and discarding the rest. There is no enlightenment, no attempt to achieve true ascendancy, just this insane need to have more."

"Sometimes," Paracelsus said with a little smile, unperturbed by Buck's harsh assessment of the Collective. "God's ways are not to be understood."

*******

Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ.

His heart was pounding in his chest like the pistons of some great engine suddenly jolted into overdrive. For a moment, JD Dunne thought it might literally explode inside his chest, cracking open ribs, spraying flesh and meat in all directions like...

...a xenomorph being born.

The association would have made him double over and puke if he were not so terrified already. Tendrils of fear coiled around his spine as he caught his first glimpse of teeth, slick with noisome fluid, appearing through the darkness like the slow reveal of the stage when the curtain rose for the play to begin. A long, thin strand of drool hung pendulously from one of those enormous teeth and when the elongated head turned in their direction, what remained of Holly's senses was utterly shredded.

Her scream not only snapped JD out of his paralysis, but it gave the creature clawing its way out of hibernation, the jolt it needed to become fully alert. As it tore at the resinous coating around its body, JD knew with absolute certainty, they would have only as long as it took for the creature to rip its way out of its cocoon before it would be upon them. Neurons began firing rapidly in his brain, flooding JD with an encyclopedia of information in a split second. It was spurred on by the flight instinct, telling him what he needed to know to survive the next thirty seconds.

"Come on!" JD gripped Holly's upper arm and dragged her forward, shaking her mind out of its stupor of fear.

Despite this, she followed him blindly, her neck still craned so she could see what was behind them, instead of where he was leading them. JD needed no visual to know the creature would soon be in pursuit, if not already. What he knew about the xenomorph was burned into his memory after reading the Captain's report following the mission to recover the ancient ship, the Sulaco. Until then, JD thought he was ready to handle all the terrors of space.

Seeing the footage of the xenomorph on LV-426 told JD he knew nothing at all and made him remember in vivid detail what he was dealing with.

These things were fast, damn fast. They were capable of climbing walls, flattening themselves like mice so they could fit into ducts, electrical conduits, and airshafts. Shooting them with a phaser only worked if you were standing a reasonable distance away, or else the acid spray from their bodies would have the same effect as diving into molten lava. If you didn't use a phaser, they would come at you with lightning-fast reflexes, and unless you were a Vulcan amid plak tow, you had no goddamn hope of taking them on hand to hand.

Sprinting across the metal-plated floor covered in sticky globs of resin and tendrils of dark organic matter, JD knew in his mind they were withered umbilical cords. He also knew if the xenomorph in pursuit didn't kill them, then the spores inside the eggs of this alien hatchery would accomplish that just as well, only slower. As they hastily retraced their path into this hellish place, JD became conscious of other sounds penetrating his heavy breathing and Holly's barely stifled whimpers of terror.

He heard things tearing in the darkness, movement in places where all had been still, the low hiss of things alive and terrible, awakening from their slumber, ready to spring unto an unsuspecting world. They were all waking up, JD realised with dismay as he saw the open grate against the wall beckoning them forward. Absurdly, he thought of Alice in Wonderland and how he and Holly had chose to go down their own rabbit hole, except it did not lead to a world of whimsical magic.

Instead, it led them straight to hell.

He could hear the hard chitin of its exoskeleton chinking against the metal, wincing upon hearing it. Without looking back, he knew the xenomorph was behind them, and it was closing the distance quickly. The open mouth of the grate awaited and he knew they had seconds if that to reach it before the xenomorph was upon them. A few more steps and they were at the wall surrounding their escape route.

"Get in!" JD warned, swinging around at last and going for his phaser.

How close the creature was made his blood turn cold and going purely on instinct, JD fired.

The energy beam struck the creature in mid-torso, almost severing it in half. But the cut was nowhere that clean, and the xenomorph's body exploded, spraying acid in all directions. The bulk of greenish fluid bathed several eggs and the floor surrounding it. JD raised his arm to shield himself, and noted in the split second before he felt the acid eating through his uniform, the creature's corrosive blood did little to harm the eggs or the organic tendrils on the floor.

JD, however, was not so lucky.

He knew he was a suitable distance away when he fired, but that did not prevent a few stray drops from splashing against the sleeve of his uniform. He felt the sting immediately like he'd been hit with the stray embers of a fire and uttered a cry of pain as the corrosive material began to eat away at the fabric. Still clutching the phaser because he was too frightened to let go of it, JD quickly yanked the sleeve off in one powerful rip. It did not stop the pain biting into his skin, and by the time he discarded the blazer sleeve, he'd realised it ate through his grey turtle neck as well.

"JD!" Holly shrieked.

JD looked up and saw another alien on fast approach. More than one actually, a few of them.

"GET GOING!" He barked and prompted her towards the grate by his sharp demand.

Tearing off the sleeve of his turtleneck, he fired again, able to ignore the pain in his arm because the adrenaline was lending a helping hand. Another alien took the brunt of the blast and exploded, bathing the others in its blood and immediately filling the room with more noxious smoke. JD didn't wait around to see if more were coming, because he knew they were. Instead, he turned on his heels and ran, seeing Holly disappearing through the vent and fully intending to follow her in. He heard her scrambling into the metal passageway and bent over to follow her, casting a glance at the hatchery they were leaving behind.

They were waking up, JD thought with horror. Not just the ones so cleverly concealed in the dark cracks of the alien growth clinging to the walls like some grotesque fresco. Even as he saw their shadows moving across the walls covered in bio-resin, and God only knew what else, he knew the xenomorphs coming out of hibernation. They were pulling themselves free of the nooks and crannies they'd created with their bizarre alien design and would soon be seeking their way of this sub-level.

"Hurry, JD!"

JD heard Holly cry after him as he reached the opening and clambered inside. She had already started crawling along the shaft, pausing long enough to ensure he was behind her. As he saw the aliens approach, he picked up the grill lying on the floor near the opening and quickly pulled it into its place. He had only a few seconds because the aliens were on the move and he suspected it wouldn't take them long to figure out where their potential new hosts had gone. Adjusting the setting on his phaser, he pulled the trigger and worked quickly to weld the grate in place.

"What are you doing?" Holly insisted, her eyes wide with fear, wanting nothing more than to be away from this place.

"If I don't seal this, they're going to come after us, and I'm telling you, they're better than we are with ducts."

"Oh God," she whimpered as the yellow energy beam did its work of melting the steel of the grate. The smell made her flinch, and she retreated as the glow bathed JD's face, and she saw the sweat forming on his skin. "Those things," she managed to say, "what are those things? Where did they come from?"

That was an excellent question, JD thought and then tapped his combadge with one hand, while the other was still gripping the phaser tightly.

"Commander Wilmington! Come in!"

There was no answer.

JD tapped his com badge again. "Commander Wilmington, please come in. Buck!"

JD exchanged a quick glance with Holly who looked just as perplexed.

There was no chance to debate the matter because he saw something moving through the louvres of the grill, followed by a sharp jolt and an earth piercing shriek of indignation when the metal did not buckle.

"GO!" He waved Holly to start moving. "I don't know how long that's going to hold!"

No sooner than he finished those words, the grate shuddered again, and this time, JD saw it buckle just enough to tell him that with persistence, the creature on the other side of the grill was going to get through. Crawling on his hand and knees after Holly, he moved quickly along the shaft with that relentless pounding spurring him on.

They had to get out of here and tell the Captain about the cocoons, and about Jerry Lambert.

Chapter Twelve:
Belly of the Beast

"Thank you for indulging me in this Ezra."

Mary Travis flashed the Security Chief a look of appreciation after they met each other in the hallway, a few doors away from the rooms they were assigned for the nightís stay at the Institute. In truth, they were supposed to be heading to Doctor Paracelsusís private suite for dinner. Still, since the Away Team was now being allowed to move about the facility unescorted, Mary wanted to take the opportunity to investigate the telepathic signals she was receiving from an unknown mind somewhere in this place.

While the sensible thing might have been to bring her insights to Paracelsusís attention, something in her gut, an instinct Chris often said he swore by, advised against it. Despite his outwardly charming and affable manner, Mary did not trust the doctor. She was a career diplomat who sat in mediation with a variety of people and races throughout her career, and she knew how to spot a lie. Paracelsus reeked of it, but unfortunately, Mary had nothing except her minor telepathic senses to back up her suspicions.

Something was going on here, something she could not put her finger on but felt it imperative they discover before it was too late.

"No thanks needed Mary," Ezra dismissed her gratitude gently. "Your perceptions in the past have been of great value to the ship, I believe the Captain would expect me to do nothing less than to investigate any sensitivities you might experience while here. Besides I, myself would like to search this facility without any escorts showing us what they want us to see in their supposed guided tours."

Mary flashed him a radiant smile of thanks and could see why Julia Pemberton was so smitten with Ezra. The man might sound like an English novel about manners, but there was reassurance in his words stronger than duranium. Having his confidence meant a lot to Mary, who was not ignorant of the fact that as a telepath, she barely rated. She could not probe other peopleís thoughts or impose her will upon them, but her marriage bond with Syan did leave her open to receiving telepathic signals.

Leaving the hallway, they entered the Atrium once more, now mostly deserted as staff and patients returned to their private quarters to spend their evenings. Earlier, the bright lighting and picturesque holographic scenes made the place look cheery and idyllic. Now with the lights dimmed to simulate the evening, the images projected altering to show nighttime scenes, and the long shadows everywhere, Mary found the place somewhat eerie.

"I feel something Ezra," Mary tried to explain herself to justify his faith. "Itís compelling, but also subtle, not quite a language. I think." she glanced at him, "eventually anyone with high to median esper ratings will pick it up."

Ezra frowned because, on the Esper scale (ESP), he had a poor rating and would most likely not detect anything, which left him at a disadvantage. "Can you interpret what you are sensing?"

"If I didnít know better," Maryís brow furrowed, aware Ezra wasnít going to like this association at all. "It feels like Borg chatter."

The Chief stopped short immediately and stared.

"Excuse me?"

"Itís not the Borg," Mary reassured Ezra quickly, aware he would not be impartial on this matter. After what happened to Julia, Ezra was especially sensitive to any possibility of the Borg being in the vicinity and wanted him to get the thought out of his mind right away. "Itís in the background, but instead of many voices, itís just one. And itís female."

"Like the queen."

"No," Mary shook her head as they reached the lift. "Itís not a language but emotions. Its intent is not to affect your mind, but your heart."

"A far more insidious form of control," Ezra replied and then added. "However, I believe you are correct, this does not sound like a Borg situation. The Collective is ruthless, clinical and methodical. Emotions are irrelevant distractions of no use to them."

Ezra leaned forward and activated the lift controls, waiting for a second before the doors slid open and they stepped inside. The Chief examined the lift control once the doors sealed them in. As far as they knew, the deepest floor of the facility was Sub-Level 25, where storage equipment was being kept. His discussions with the Operations staff while he and JD were installing the new security and communications upgrades revealed the functioning of transporters and comms on this level was problematic, which was why it was used for storage. Still, Ezra wanted to take a look for himself.

"Would you say your sensitivities became more acute the deeper we journeyed from the surface?" Ezra asked the protocol officer, his gaze still fixed on the panel

"Yes," she nodded. "Right now, what Iím experiencing feels like a call, drawing me into something."

"Then we should not disappoint," Ezra answered, grateful they were both armed. Despite Paracelsusís assurance, the patients here were non-violent, Ezraís distrust of the man, not to mention the knowledge this facility housed criminally insane patients, meant he would take every precaution necessary. "Sub-level 25."

"Sub-level 25 is restricted." The automated voice responded.

"Under whose authority?" Ezra inquired smoothly, showing no signs of annoyance at the refusal. If anything, he expected it.

"Doctor Gabriel Paracelsus."

"What do we do?"

The security chief unhooked the tricorder attached to his belt and tapped the display before aiming it in the direction of the lift panel. Mary watched in fascination as the controls suddenly came alive, streams of numbers running over its dark glass display. She understood quickly it was a program of some sort, but its purpose was beyond her.

"What is that?" She had to ask after a few seconds.

"It is a decryption program Alexandra and I were working on during our off duty hours. We were hoping to use it to access restricted systems on enemy ships, particularly ones with a personalised authorisation code. We, or rather I call it," Ezra couldnít help flash her his trademark smirk, "the Wild Card."

Mary rolled her eyes. "Does Vin know you and his wife are secretly creating dangerous programs that violate the security of non-Starfleet systems?"

"Not specifically, but if we were to object, I might let it slip that he did attempt to build a motorcycle in their quarters in one afternoon."

"In one afternoon?" Mary laughed.

"Oh yes, he was fortunate transporter technology was able to remove that unholy mess before Alex returned from her shift or else I would have had to make up my couch for him for the evening."

Mary was about to respond when the computer spoke up again, almost with contrition.

"Authorisation accepted. Proceeding to Sub-Level 25."

With a soft jolt, the lift began moving, repeating the same pulsing drone that accompanied their descent when they arrived at the Institute earlier today. As the seconds ticked by, taking them to the lowest levels of the facility, the sensation Mary experienced suddenly intensified, and instead of gentle cajoling where she felt drawn into something unexplainable, now a new emotion swept through her.

The warning of danger.

It surged through her like somewhat just gave her a hypospray of pure adrenalin. Mary could almost feel the neurons in her brain firing, prompting her heart to start beating harder, turning the brisk current of blood running through her veins into a frothing frenzy.

"Ezra," she spoke almost breathlessly as if she had run a mile in a split second. "Something is wrong."

Beads of sweat were forming against her skin, giving it a waxy appearance. Maryís pupils were dilated, and Ezra stared at her for a moment, trying to understand how all the release valves on Mary Travisís usually elegant and poised composure had been flipped open, allowing her to descend rapidly into panic. His concern heightened because he knew whatever ailed her physical condition was not due to changes in the environment, but no doubt a result of a mental attack.

"Mary, tell me what is happening to you?"

Though his voice maintained his usual calm, inside he was anything but that. Mary Travis was his comrade, not to mention and finally, the woman Chris Larabee loved. If anything happened to her, Chris would level this place to the last sub-atomic particle in retaliation. In the background, the liftís journey continued with its pulsing beat, taking them deeper and deeper into Tenabrusís depths.

"I feel like..." Mary struggled to articulate the emotions bombarding her. Every sense was alive and dialled to maximum. She felt as if she could hear everything, poised to react to it. "I feel as if someone screamed danger in my head and told me to be ready, to do whatever it takes to survive. I donít understand completely. As I said," she drew in a deep breath, "none of this is spoken in words but in feelings."

The lift came to a stop, silencing them both for a second, and the doors slid open.

They stared into the corridor it emptied into and saw a passageway of stone and dark grey metal. Ezra straightened up immediately, his hand drifting to his phaser in an almost reflex action. If the upper levels were designed to promote the image the Tenabrus Institute was a medical facility, then what they saw now gave no doubt this was anything but a prison. Grey walls of steel Ezra instinctively knew were inches thick, flanked the metal plated floor. He could see the rivets in the seam, and the lights along the ceiling were harsh and glaring. The corridor led to another set of doors, just as formidable looking.

Warm, humid air rushed into the space they occupied. For a second, Ezra thought he was stepping into the path of a hot-air dryer. While the temperature wasnít uncomfortable, it certainly reminded him of the tropics. He started to feel the moisture forming beneath the collar of his uniform. Every sense Ezra had, warned him of danger. It overrode his desire to see what was beyond those doors, which instinct told him would explain everything. None of it was as important as his responsibility to his comrade.

"Mary, we must return you to the Maverick. I do not believe you should remain here."

"No," Mary pushed past him, the need to approach almost overwhelming now. "We need to see what is behind there."

Without another word, she pushed past him and entered the corridor. Ezra followed her out but paused just beyond the lift after its doors slid close with a hiss. Tapping his combadge, he wanted to make some effort to let everyone know where they were. The soft chirp of the device was broken by the crackle of static, telling Ezra the Operations team had not lied when they said communications at this depth were problematic. Wiping his damp forehead, he tried again and was greeted with the same disagreeable noise.

"Mary, we are going to see what is through those doors and then we are returning to the others," Ezra said firmly following her out. "We have no communications down here."

Mary wasnít listening, she was striding towards the end of the corridor, her footsteps echoing through the area as she moved. The need to see what was behind those doors was overwhelming. She knew it was more than just her own mind that demanded the knowledge, but a need being generated by something lying in wait down here. From the moment she arrived, it had been calling to her, and now on the cusp of discovery, the rational part of Maryís mind wondered if Paracelsus

Reaching for the panel, she was poised to activate it when she heard Ezra call.

"Mary, stop!"

The sharpness of his order made her freeze, the command in his voice seldom used, was penetrating. Glancing over her shoulder, she stared at him with a mixture of impatience and confusion. "Ezra I need to go in there."

"I know that," Ezra came alongside her. "But I will not allow you to rush in blindly. The tricorder appears to be malfunctioning. I suspect the cause may be a dampening field of some kind. One only employs such a device if they have something to hide."

Her emotions were still churning, drawn by the desire to enter those doors, but her reasonable mind recognised the danger he was implying. "Alright, what do we do?"

"We need answers," Ezra sighed heavily, knowing despite her erratic behaviour, they needed to know what was happening. Without further delay, he activated the door panel, anticipating the possibility of access into the room might be restricted.

Except it wasnít.

The doors slid open and what lay inside was a scene Ezra Standish never wanted to see again.

"The derelict ship carrying the original alien eggs crashed on LV426. It didn't come from there. Somewhere out there, is an entire planet of these things, and someday, we're going to land on it, and she'll find us all over again."

Chris Larabeeís words repeated themselves in Ezraís mind like artillery shells exploding. What he saw in front of him was a scene he never wished to see again. Of course, there would be no reason to implement further security measures to prevent anyone from entering the room. What lay inside wanted visitors. No, not visitors Ezra thought in horror.

Hosts.

The room was filled with eggs as far as the eye could see. It explained why the temperature on this floor was so warm and why access was restricted. The place was the size of the shuttle bay deck on board the Maverick, not enormous but large enough to ensure there was space for hundreds of eggs. Hundreds. His stomach hollowed at the thought and knew however these things had come here, they could not have been transported in. Paracelsus knew about these creatures, he had to, Ezraís mind reasoned. Itís why access to this sub-level was restricted.

Staring at the grotesque hatchery, Ezra was reminded of Fury 361 and realised the climatic conditions of the planet matched the temperature on the deck. Fleetingly, he wondered if the xenomorphís world was similar. Of course, it was challenging to say the least when to date, xenobiologists examining the remains of the creatures had yet to learn where they originated.

There was a belief the derelict spacecraft carrying the hatchery came from outside the galaxy before crash landing on LV-426 in the Zeta Reticuli system. Ezra thought this more than likely since the creatures had appeared nowhere else. Only the void between the galaxies could contain them. In his nightmares, Eza dreamed of a dark universe where nothing but the alien lived, stilled into hibernation because the species had overtaken all other life forms.

"We have..."

Before he could utter another word to stop her, Mary entered the room.

"MARY!"

She wasnít listening. Instead, she was walking through the space between the eggs, oblivious to the danger she was in. Ezra had to pause a moment to set his phaser to stun, perfectly willing to render her unconscious to get her to safety. The woman was being pulled in by some kind of telepathic control, and even though there might be some risk involved in severing that link, that was nothing in comparison to what would happen if one of those eggs opened.

Ezra now understood what was affecting Mary since her arrival here. The xenomorphs were telepathic. On Fury 361, Vin had developed sufficient mental shields to keep the creatures out of his mind and was only affected after having direct physical contact. Mary was able to receive telepathic signals but had little to no ability to keep anything out.

Tapping his combadge again even as his feet started moving, Ezra was once again greeted by a burst of static, reminding him how alone he and Mary were in their current predicament. Searching ahead, he saw Mary in the middle of the room. Ezra cursed because he had to go after her. Palm gripped tight on his phaser, Ezra followed Mary into the belly of the beast, mindful of how quiet he needed to be, even if the urge to shout was overwhelming.

When Alex was trapped in the hatchery on Fury 361, she told Ezra she escaped implantation for as long as she had, because she remained silent. The eggs needed external stimuli to open, and Alex theorized that stimuli was sound. So whatever he had to do now, he had to do it in absolute silence or else neither he or Mary were leaving this place alive.

As he delved deeper into the room, he saw the thick dark veins running across the walls and the ceiling, transforming the room from its man-made appearance to something organic, pulsing with lifes. It occurred to Ezra at that moment, turning his blood cold at the realisation, that these veins were constructed by the xenomorphs and were what they used to remain concealed in hibernation. With something akin to stark terror, Ezra understood these eggs could not have been hatched in such numbers unless...

Dear God. Unless there was a queen.

Ezra opened his mouth to warn Mary to tell her to stop moving because they had to get out of here now. They had to get back to the Maverick and order an immediate orbital strike. This planet had to be quarantined. Was that what Jerry Lambert had tried desperately to escape and warn them? His association with the Sulaco would have told the security officer precisely what he was dealing with. Ezra could appreciate why he would risk the escape.

Fearful he would lose Mary in this darkness, Ezra hastened his pace reluctantly and told himself if one of the eggs so much as moved, he was going to obliterate it. Mary crossed the room, coming to a halt at the opposite wall, in front of a twisted alien construct of dark veins and protruding metal. Ezra let out a sigh of relief, grateful the obstruction kept her from going any further into this hive. If there was a queen in here, he certainly did not wish to meet her. Heíd avoided that particular experience on Fury 361, and had no wish to make up for it here.

Mary was staring at the obstruction, and it was only when it moved, Ezra realised it was no alien-made construction at all. The irregular edges moved into the light pouring in from the outside corridor, and Ezra saw a massive black crown tapering into the elongated head, rising slowly at their presence. Teeth appeared then, dripping with noisome fluid, almost as long as his forearm. Ezraís first impulse was to open fire, but if he did, the tidal wave of acid would kill Mary on the spot, and he had no guarantee he would kill it.

All of a sudden an egg hissed open, and perhaps it was at this last moment, Ezra saw Mary blinking in realisation at the trap she had been led to. As she saw the alien queen revealing its teeth, its soft hiss of a voice belying the savagery of the creature, was eclipsed by the loud gasp of the alien egg unsealing. Steaming air rose out of the open egg, and as Mary started to withdraw, those clammy, pale fingers penetrated the sheath of skin and began emerging.

It was as far as Ezra was prepared to let it get. The chief of security fired and the egg exploded as the beam of phaser energy struck the meaty side. A sharp screech of fury escaped the alien queen as she bellowed her outrage at one of her children being murdered. It snapped Mary out of her reverie, and the protocol officer began to withdraw as Ezra closed the distance between them, determined to get her out of there safely.

Then out of nowhere, something small and coiled launched itself at Mary Travis before Ezra could fire. It landed across her face and brought her down, screaming. As Ezra watched in horror, he could do nothing as the thick tail coiled around her neck, tightening its hold as its digits dug into Maryís skull.

Ezra was sure if it were possible, he could have sworn the queen was smiling.

Chapter Thirteen:
Blessing

When the chirp from his combadge sounded, Buck excused himself from Paracelsus's suite and stepped into the hallway so he could talk to the Maverick.

Even if the Maverick didn't make contact, Buck would have contacted the ship anyway. So far, the rest of the Away Team had yet to make their appearance. Not JD, not Ezra, not even Mary. While he knew Ezra's tendency for investigation could sometimes lead him to take risks to get to the truth, even Ezra knew better than to remain out of contact in this environment. Furthermore, he couldn't be sure if Ezra was with Mary and JD, neither of whom had checked in either.

"Commander Wilmington here, what's up?"

"Buck," Chris Larabee spoke up, and the tone he used was one Buck knew well, it was reserved for Cardassian guls and Vorta commanders. Something was wrong and judging by the tension in Chris's voice, it was bad. "I want you to take charge of the Institute and lower the force field."

Buck blinked.

"Excuse me, Captain?" Buck's gaze shot up to the ceiling as if he could see through the twenty-three sublevels and the sky above, at the Captain. Starfleet tended to respect civilian jurisdiction, and it was only under extraordinary circumstances, did they permit their personnel to usurp it.

In anticipation of Buck's question, Chris started explaining.

"I've already contacted Starfleet Command and advised them of the situation. You are to secure the Institute immediately and lower the force field. A security team will be ready to transport to the asylum the minute that happens. We're going to begin immediate evacuation."

Buck was struggling to catch up. When Chris Larabee set his mind on a course, the Captain of the Maverick was like a speeding comet attempting to implement it. "Chris slow down, what situation? What's happened?"

Buck heard the Captain drawing breath before continuing. "Jerry Lambert was assigned to the Sulaco when it reached Earth. He went to Ventax II and Tenarus to track down his girlfriend, Callie Leech. She was an engineer on the Sulaco...."

Before Buck could react to this piece of information, the silence in the hallway was shattered by the orchestral boom of klaxons. Startled by the sudden noise, Buck forgot about the Captain's report for a second, sweeping his gaze across the hallways to see other doors along the corridor sliding open. Anxious hospital staff were poking their heads through doorways, looking about in confusion and alarm. They stared at him instinctively for answers, but Buck had none to give them since he was just as puzzled by the sudden alert as the rest of them.

"Chris, they've initiated the emergency alert for some reason. I'm going to find out what's going on."

There was no response.

Buck tapped his combadge again. "Chris, are you still there? Maverick, come in."

Once again, Chris did not answer. Buck tried more before he was greeted by the almost inaudible chirp of the device, over the screaming klaxons. Swearing under his breath, he made an attempt to contact Ezra and the rest of the Away Team, and found they too, were out of reach. Wherever they were, they were not responding. Furthermore, Buck had not missed the mention of the Sulaco before he and the Captain were cut off.

"What's going on?" One of the Institute's staff, an older woman in her fifties, hollered through her doorway.

"Just stay in your quarters until we have more information," Buck ordered, deciding that was good advice no matter what the crisis. At least until he knew what was actually happening.

Retreating the way he came, he strode towards the doctor's quarters. He entered the room to find the traditional 'before dinner drinks conversation' had been abandoned as both Nathan and Josiah were firing a battery of questions at Doctor Paracelsus. The director was speaking with someone through the comms panel on the nearby wall while motioning the two Starfleet officers for silence.

"What do you mean a security breach?" Nathan was demanding even after Paracelsus had called for quiet. "I thought you said the patients were in lockdown for the evening?"

"Buck!" Josiah turned to the First Officer with noticeable relief on his face at Buck's arrival. "Do you know what's going on?"

"No," Buck replied shortly, "I was talking to the ship when we got cut off, and I can't get a hold of Ezra and the others either.."

The first officer continued towards the Institute's director wearing an expression on his face that told the man he would not be dismissed as easily as Nathan and Josiah. After what Chris said about the Sulaco, Buck was not underestimating how dire their situation could be, if the absolute worst-case scenario was being applied to their present circumstances.

"Doctor, what is going on?" Buck's tone left no room for Paracelsus to mistake he would be willing to wait for answers.

The doctor turned to Buck, his expression stony. Nowhere in sight was the amiable doctor who had welcomed them with open arms. The expression on his face was nothing less than glacial as if Buck and the Away team were intruders at his bastion of power. "We have a security breach in Sublevels twenty-four and five. "I believe your officers have been down there."

The accusation in his voice was apparent, but Buck ignored it because if the doctor had nothing to hide, there would be no need for alarms to be screaming nine colours of hell around their ears. No, Buck decided, the doctor was hiding something, and it looked like Ezra's usual nose for trouble was right on the mark. Again.

"I thought those sub-levels were just for storage?" Nathan returned, uncertain why that would be the cause of a facility-wide alert. Not that he was surprised. Ezra being Security Chief was often willing to go where angels feared to tread in search of answers. When there was a mystery to be solved, the man was damn near relentless.

"It doesn't matter what's down there," Buck stated, more focussed on the fact they were cut off from the Maverick and for that matter, the rest of the Away Team. "Why can't we contact our ship?"

"I've disabled all communications through the force field. Your ship cannot be allowed to prevent what must happen. I was waiting until you and your people to leave, but because of your interference, the great work we are conducting will begin soon. You should feel privileged Commander, what we do here today will change the galaxy and bring us unity the likes we've never known. It will make the Federation charter obsolete."

His words might have been attempting to sound reassuring. Instead, Buck's jaw clenched by how ominous it seemed. How many times had tyrants begun their road to damnation with those lofty ambitions? Nor was Buck alone in his reaction to Paracelsus's statement. Neither Josiah nor Nathan liked the doctor's explanation one damn bit if the expressions on their faces were any indication. Nevertheless, it was Buck who spoke first. "Unity? How?"

"Through the attainment of perfection of course," Paracelsus answered as if it was blindingly obvious.

This time, it was Josiah who had a visceral reaction to the word, recalling the context in which Paracelsus once used it. Long ago, when they were young men at the Academy lying in the sun and engaging in all kinds of philosophical discussions before time and experience taught them better, they spoke about religion. Not just about religion, but about worship and deification, as well as the path to achieving true enlightenment. Josiah was never religious, but he understood faith and spirituality.

Paracelsus, on the other hand, found religion, those on Earth and beyond it, lacking. Too many deities were fallible constructs of their worshipper's weaknesses and had no desire to give his faith to beings he considered fundamentally flawed. To Paracelsus, reaching religious enlightenment meant the attainment of perfection. With a sudden start, Josiah realised it was probably why he was so fascinated by the Borg, although it was not an observation Josiah was going to voice to Buck at this time.

"What does that mean?" Buck's stiffened, making the same association as Josiah. When the Borg assimilated him, it was all he could hear in his head, their single-minded pursuit of perfection. As if that goal justified the civilisations and lives they brought to ruin to achieve it.

"I found it. I found perfection," the doctor explained, seeing no reason to conceal the truth when he was sure the missing Starfleet officers had already discovered it themselves. He drifted away from the wall panel and went to the table to pour himself a drink, deciding he would need one to reveal the truth to these non-believers. "I was on Ventax II, and there it was, lying in the most unexpected place in the galaxy, in a hospice, surrounded by the living dead."

"Callie?" Buck asked, remembering the name of the girl Chris mentioned.

"No, not Callie," Paracelsus shook his head. "The Goddess. She spoke to me. I heard her speak in my head, even as she was still forming, coming into being."

"What Goddess?" Nathan balked, fearing the reality Paracelsus might need as much treatment as his patients.

"Dear God," Josiah stared at him, seeing the veneer of sanity slip away from his old friend's face until all that remained was the grotesque visage of a fanatic.

"Josiah, you understand, don't you?" Paracelsus turned to him, trying to convert Josiah With his deranged words. "You remember what we talked about, about how gods should be perfect, and they should make us perfect as well. They shouldn't be forcing us to endure the endless struggle of free will where we try to make the right choices to get where we need to be. A perfect god would make us the perfect vessels without all that torment."

"What the hell have you done?" Buck cut in, every word out of Paracelsus's mouth convincing him Chris was indeed correct for telling him to assume command of this facility.

"I told you," Paracelsus smiled at him. "I have allowed the perfect god to be born. That poor girl on Ventax, she was so confused. She didn't know what was happening to her. She couldn't hear the Goddess the way I did. She thought she was struck down, diseased but it was nothing like that. She was chosen, the way Mary was chosen by Jehovah to give birth to the son of God."

'You think Callie was chosen?" Buck exclaimed, remembering what Chris revealed seconds before they were cut off. A wave of sympathy and disgust swept over him at the fate of poor Callie, who was doomed before she even left the Sulaco.

"Yes," the doctor nodded, oblivious to the growing horror of the others in the room. "Callie thought she was going to die, but I knew the truth. She was going to transcend, to become the mother of all. She wasn't able to hear the Goddess, which was unfortunate because then she would have known she was blessed. I could though. I heard the Goddess speak, and I understood what was happening. Callie was a vessel. She carried the Goddess within her."

Josiah's expression was ashen. "Gabriel what did you do?"

"I told her to come with me to Tenarus so I would take care of her. I made her understand she would be born again, transformed into something wonderful."

Josiah blinked slowly, trying to understand how a rational mind could succumb to such beliefs? The Gabriel he knew was a spiritual man, open to possibility, but this, this was beyond everything they had been taught as healers of the mind. How could he have become like this?

"You mean a queen xenomorph."

Both Josiah and Nathan stared at Buck in stunned horror.

"How is that possible?" Colour drained out of Nathan's face at the revelation of the unseen menace Paracelsus believed was a goddess. As a doctor, he'd seen all kinds of dangerous organisms and species. He was not naive to the reality that terrifying life forms were lurking in the darkness throughout the galaxy, creatures so fearsome they were never meant to be encountered. The xenomorph fell into one of these categories. "I thought we made sure there weren't any of them left on the Sulaco."

"Even in death, they survive," Paracelsus continued, smiling as the full measure of his mania became apparent. "All it needed was for Callie to breathe in their essence. The Goddess lives in all things, even in the dead cells of her children. Her spirit entered Callie, and made it possible for her to be reborn. "

"You let this happen to her?" Josiah accused his old friend, becoming more infuriated by his callous disregard for Callie's private hell. "You knew this thing was eating her up alive and you did nothing?"

"No one could have stopped what was happening to her Joey," Paracelsus declared, refusing to see he had done anything wrong but provide Callie with some kindness. "The doctors at Ventax had no idea what was happening to her. They filled her with so many drugs, she couldn't hear the Goddess. Only I could, and by the time I found her, there was no changing what was going to happen. So I gave her peace, making her understand she was about to reach enlightenment."

Buck's thoughts were fixed on this connection Paracelsus was extolling with such awe. At the briefings after the Away Team returned from the Sulaco and Fury 361, they'd discussed the alien in some length. Vin believed they were telepathic, having reached the conclusion during the Vulcan's brief meld with the creature. If these things had an insect consciousness, then perhaps they were similar to the Borg in the way the Queen communicated with drones.

As the Maverick's First Officer, Buck had access to the crew's personnel files and knew Mary's latent telepathic abilities, arisen from her marriage bond with Syan, was also due to her high ESPer rating. All first-year cadets were required to undergo the testing at the Academy, mostly to ensure those with high scores were unaffected adversely when they came into contact with telepathic species. She had no doubt picked up the queen's telepathy the moment she arrived at Tenarus.

Buck suspected the same was true for Gabriel Paracelsus. If he was able to check, Buck was convinced he would learn the doctor also possessed a high ESPer rating, which was why he was so susceptible to the queen's manipulations on Ventax. Except in Paracelsus's case, it had months to work, to wheedle its way into the doctor's brain, eroding away the man's tenuous hold on morality and using his search for perfection to get to this moment.

"Okay, okay," Nathan spoke out, trying to process what Paracelsus was saying into hard, scientific fact, ignoring his rants about religion. "From what I understand of these things, they need to implant a host."

"Chris recommended a baryon sweep across the entire ship when she got to Space Dock," Buck countered. "There's no way they could have survived that."

"We don't know that for sure," Nathan returned, refusing to discount the possibility of such a final outcome. He recalled the specimen he examined after the Captain returned to the Maverick from Fury 361. A spore attached itself to Lt. Ty Atwater, and though it died after embryo implantation, Nathan had learned enough about the alien to know the species was highly adaptive.

"Remember, this isn't a carbon-based lifeform. The xenomorph cells showed a propensity towards extreme adaptability. They were made to survive at all costs. We assume a baryon sweep might have killed any remaining spores, but it could have mutated their DNA, allowed them to evolve an airborne method of delivering the xenomorph cells. Once she breathed it in, it went to work rewriting her DNA, until she either turned into one of them or produced a queen."

"It isn't a goddess Gabe!" Josiah grabbed the doctor by the arms and shook him, so angry he couldn't think. "It's an alien life form that needs hosts! We've dealt with them before!"

'You're wrong!" the doctor broke free and stepped back. "Callie gave her life to see the Goddess born. Even after death, she continued to serve, continued to bring enlightenment to the rest of us."

"To the rest of us?" Buck's blood ran cold. "Whoís us?"

He almost didn't want to know.

"The Goddess was young, she was still weak. I had to keep her safe, but when Lambert broke in here, looking for Callie, I knew the others would come So I did what I had to, to protect her, to make sure no one could hurt her. She told me what I had to do, told me I had to make the others understand. The queen was still alive in Callie's blood, I could pass it on to those who were worthy, let them reach perfection as Callie did. There were so many whose minds were troubled, who needed the simplicity of the Goddessís guidance. I freed them from that pain."

"Patients," Josiah whispered. "You infected patients?"

"How many?" Buck demanded, thinking that no matter how bad Chris thought things were down here, they were actually worse.

"Enough," Paracelsus replied.

"HOW MANY?"

Buckís furious bellow startled Josiah and Nathan alongside Paracelsus.

The doctor's expression was almost serene when he gave his answer. "Fifty."

"Jesus Christ," Buck exclaimed. "You got fifty of the things running around loose?"

"No!" Paracelsus declared. "They're hibernating, they don't wake up unless you go down there. It's why those levels are sealed. She's only just started laying..."

"That does it!" Buck snapped, cutting him off, having heard enough to know they had to leave immediately. The klaxons screaming around them proved something had gone wrong, Paracelsus's grand plan of containment had failed. "Lower the force field, we're evacuating everyone to the Maverick before this place gets overrun."

"Her plans will unfold accordingly," Paracelsus said with a smile, "but right now they are contained. They cannot reach us from the levels below. I have seen to it. There's no way for them to reach us here."

"I don't care," Buck snapped. "You will lower the force field down. We're leaving, all of us!"

"You can't," Paracelsus smiled. "Without my authorization code, you can't lower the force field. I've made sure no one can lower it without my permission. I suggest you accept your fate," he glanced at Nathan and Josiah as well. "Let what must happen, unfold as she desires it."

Buck was about to tell him what he could do with that sentiment when the doors to the doctor's quarters slid open.

"I NEED HELP HERE!"

Buck had never heard Ezra Standish so panicked, but as the Security Chief stumbled into the room, carrying Mary Travis in his arms, Buck could well understand why. The blond protocol officer appeared unconscious, although it was difficult to tell for sure, since all Buck could see was the monstrous alien creature covering her face. It's spindly digits were clamped around her skull, while its long tail was coiled around her throat.

"Oh, my God!" Nathan gasped in horror, perfectly aware of what hideous process was taking place inside of Mary at this moment.

Buck could only stare at Mary, thinking to himself, he prayed Chris would forgive him if he had to kill her.

"It's alright," Paracelsus said in an almost soothing tone. "She is being blessed."

Chapter Fourteen:
Lifesigns

THIRTY MINUTES EARLIER

JD Dunne didnít like what he was doing, even if it was for an important cause.

Holly Jones liked him and judging by their conversation throughout dinner, it was clear the girl was starving for friends her own age. It didnít hurt that she was gorgeous, with soft smoky blue eyes and the sweetest smile heíd ever seen. Despite himself, JD couldnít deny he liked her too, and that made him feel like a jerk for two reasons. One because Casey was gone for less than two months, and he was finding himself attracted to another girl, and two because JD was using Hollyís attraction to investigate the Institute.

After convincing Holly it was of dire importance he saw the escape route Jerry Lambert had taken to escape the Institute, the duo left the hallway and headed for the first lift that would take them down to those restricted levels. Despite her belief in his words, JD needed to see Lambertís possible escape route. He sensed Holly was a little afraid of breaking protocol. Still, it was obvious she liked him, and held her reservations in check, making JD feel even worse.

That ainít no way to treat a lady.

JD could almost hear Buckís reproachful tone in his head, but also knew they needed to understand what was going on in this place. Lambert had risked everything to get a message to them, even daring to cross the blizzard ridden wasteland beyond the walls of this facility. Whatever it was Lambert was trying to tell them, it was important enough for JD to risk bruising his conscience a little.

"You sure youíre okay with doing this?" JD asked as they reached the lift and saw her hesitate when she reached for the controls. Secretly, he hoped she didnít change her mind but felt compelled to ask nevertheless. By helping him, JD was aware Hollyís future here could be jeopardized.

"Yeah," Holly gave him a little smile, a trace of apprehension in her eyes. "I guess maybe I want to know whatís down there too."

"Really?" He looked at her with surprise, seeing something in her eyes for the first time. The possibility of worry breaking the surface of her sunny disposition.

Holly paused before answering, throwing a brief glance down the hallway ending with the lift in front of them. At this time of the evening, there were a handful of people in view. They were either coming or going into the dining hall or heading in towards the lift on the other side of the corridor. When the lift doors slid open, and she stepped inside, she seemed almost relieved she was away from prying eyes.

"You have to understand JD," Holly said quietly as the door slid to a close sealing them inside. "Dr Paracelsus isnít just my boss. After my dad died of Clarkeís disease, I had no family. My mom passed away when I was a little girl, so dad was my world. I felt totally alone until Dr Paracelsus came to the funeral and offered me a place here as his assistant. He knew I did the same thing for my dad, and even though he said he needed help here, I knew it was because he didnít want me to be alone. I care about him as more than just someone I work for. Heís been my family too."

JD felt worst hearing that and decided he was not going to trick her into betraying Doctor Paracelsus, no matter how much he needed to get at the truth. It wasnít right. "Holly, if this is going to get you into trouble with him, or..."

"Something has been going on," she said abruptly. "I mean heís the same as heís always been, kind and willing to help anyone, no matter how sick they are, but ever since he came back from his trip two months ago, thereís been something, and Iím not sure how to explain it."

"Hey, itís okay," JD lifted her chin so she could meet his eyes and Holly could see he sincerely wanted to help her. "Just take your time."

Holly tried to articulate her suspicions but found it a strain. He was there, but sometimes he wasnít, and if Holly didnít know better, she would think his mind wasnít on his work even though he went through the motions of making sure every patient got the help they needed, but his attention lay elsewhere.

"Itís like heís here, but heís not," Holly explained. "I could be talking to him, and even though heís listening to everything Iím saying, it feels like it doesnít matter to him, any of it."

JD let out a sigh, finding Hollyís admission a little familiar. He thought of Buck and how the First Officer of the Maverick had been ever since he was liberated by the Borg. Yeah, JD understood where Holly was coming from alright.

"You mean like you know heís okay, and heís saying all the right things, but his heart isnít in it?" JD ventured a guess.

"Yes!" Hollyís eyes lit up when she saw JD understood what she was trying to say. Her voice displayed the enthusiasm of their first meeting.

"It started when he came back from Ventax II. Then it wasnít just him, it was some of the others too. Dr Srurin, Dr Beshnaach and Dr Zanil. Itís like they donít like what theyíre doing any more and itís all a job to them! I used to see them care about their patients, I mean really care, but now theyíre almost indifferent! Then, of course, we got the Nausicaans. I mean it made sense when Dr Paracelsus explained it, that it was hard to get warders out here, but theyíre walking around with disruptors and telling us sub-Level 24 and 25 are now restricted!"

This exploded out of her in a gush of words. Finally, Holly exhaled loudly realizing she had been holding this in for so long the ability to speak it was liberating. "Iím sorry, youíre the first person I could really talk to about all this. I mean I donít feel right about talking about Doctor Paracelsus, but now that youíre here and the more I think about that patient who escaped, the more I think maybe it isnít as right as I thought it was."

"Can you get this lift moving?" JD prompted, reminding her they were still inside the lift and had yet to direct it to where they wanted to go. He did however, want to hear about this patient, now that he finally got Holly talking. JD promised himself he was not going to betray her trust, now she chose to confide in him, but instead get to the bottom of her fears.

"I can, but I can only get us to sub-Level 23," Holly replied. A small smile of mischief stole across her face before she continued speaking. "Kash told me that thereís an old accessway that starts at 23 and goes all the way down to 25. Itís from when this place was some kind of an outpost before the Institute was established. We can use it to get down there. The guards wonít even see us."

*******

Holly was true to her word.

Most of Sub-Level 23 was reserved for patients. When JD and Holly stepped through the lift doors after it opened for them, they were once again at the start of a long corridor, not unlike the one the Away team travelled before reaching the Atrium. Instead of emptying into a vast, idyllic garden, this time JD saw a formidable set of steel doors, marked with enough signage to indicate only medical staff would be permitted entry beyond that point. According to Holly, on the other side of those doors were the Nausicaan warders, keeping a vigil on their patients..

Nevertheless, Holly led JD through the first door along the corridor. The sign on the wall next to the doorway read administration, and Holly explained the room was where daily patient records were uploaded into the central computer. After navigating through several smaller rooms, including an infirmary, a staff lounge and a lunchroom with a replicator, they finally arrived at what appeared to be a small, maintenance compartment.

"Here?" JD looked dubiously at the enclosed space.

"Yeah," Holly nodded. "According to Kash, there should be an old air duct, shaft or something around here."

JD took a step inside the room and saw old equipment, boxes and other forgotten objects stacked against the walls. The air was musty, and it was clear the facilityís circulated air did not quite reach this far. As he scanned the walls, he noticed it was constructed of rock that resembled sandstone and then surmised this part of the complex must have been part of the original structure. Using his tricorder, he ran a quick scan and immediately located an opening behind a stack of boxes.

"Let me get these out of the way," he told her before quickly setting to work to clear the area.

The boxes werenít hefty, and JDís scan with the tricorder revealed the objects inside them were just linens stored away until needed. Holly leaned in to help and very soon, theyíd moved enough of the boxes to reveal the accessway previously concealed. It was little more than a square opening in the wall with a metal grate sealed over it. Judging by the dust accumulated across its narrow panes, no one had attempted to open it for quite some time.

"I wonder how long since anyone opened it," JD remarked as he got onto his knees and gripped the corners securely before attempting to pull it back. Age kept it in place for so long it took quite an effort to even get it to budge. JD eventually shifted his grip to the metal louvres and made a little more progress when he put his back into it.

It came off suddenly, sending JD backwards to land heavily on his rump, the cover still in his hands.

"You okay?" Holly came next to him, her eyes studying him with concern.

ĎYeah," JD, let out an exhale. "Just reminded me I need to spend some time in the gym. "That was tough."

"You did it though," She smiled at him before going to investigate the open vent.

"Holly, hold up," JD spoke up as he put aside the cover, not about to let her climb in first, which she looked prepared to do. He was the Starfleet officer who convinced her to help him. While there might be nothing down in Sub-levels 24 and 25, JD had no intention of letting her find out first, especially if it did turn out to be dangerous.

Poking his head through the opening, the shaft awaiting them ran along the wall for a few dozen feet before reaching what appeared to be a juncture. JD adjusted the tricorder and flooded the passage with enough light to let him see ahead. It came to an intersection that led to both the upper and lower sub-levels. Deciding this was what Kash meant, JD started to climb in when he paused and looked at Holly.

"I suppose telling you to wait here is going to be pointless?"

"See," Holly smiled at him radiantly. "You Starfleet officers are smart."

*******

With just enough space for him to fit without his shoulders and skull bumping against the roof of the duct, JD led the way as they crawled along the dusty passage. The narrow space was illuminated by the tricorderís display screen, and when they reached the intersection, JD observed, they were able to see the rungs of a ladder against the wall. No doubt an emergency accessway, the ladder ran through the entire facility, past every sub-level there was.

Once again, Holly would not be deterred from following him as JD began the descent to sub-level 25, deciding if they were going to enter forbidden territory, they were best to start from the bottom. It didnít take them long to climb down even though both JD and Holly were aware if they slipped, the consequences would be somewhat dire. Neither could see the end, and with only JDís tricorder providing illumination, the journey felt more than a little ominous.

After what felt like an eternity, they finally reached the floor of hard rock which signalled the end of the shaft. At its base were the entrances to two other vents, not unlike the one they used to reach this point, moving in two separate directions. Despite this, it was the thickness of the air, not to mention the warmth of it that captured JDís attention the most. At this depth, heíd imagined the temperature would be cooler, not warmer and almost tropical. While he appreciated the climb down might have left them a little sweaty, there was no ignoring the unusually high humidity level.

Curious as to why this was and wanting to determine which vent they should enter, JD conducted a quick scan with his tricorder. After a moment, the readings appeared across the display screen, leaving JD frowning at the data.

"Holly, what did you say was down here again?" He raised his eyes to her.

"Equipment," she stated, her expression turning wary when she saw the look on his face through the greenish glow of the tricorder screen. "Why?"

"Iím detecting life sign readings," JD explained and walked towards the accessway to the right of them. "Itís real faint, but itís definitely here."

"There shouldnít be anyone down here," Holly repeated herself. "Itís meant to be for storage. I know thereís research being conducted on sub-level 24, what kind I canít say, but this far down, there shouldnít be anyone at all."

"Then we need to find out who these life signs belong to," JD said firmly.

*******

In retrospect, JD wished he hadnít.

When they emerged near the source of the life signs, he wished to hell Holly was anywhere but with him. As it was, he had to give her credit for not losing her head. It was bad enough he practically had to use a phaser to cut through along the vent cover to get out of the duct. The other side was covered with some form of biological material the tricorder could only identify as a kind of organic resin, but possessing none of the markers for eukaryotes.

Once they were through, JD understood why.

The chamber they entered was vast. JD did not know just how large it was, but he suspected it might encompass the entire sub-level. He determined very quickly, the other vent would have simply led to a different section of it. It was so big he couldnít even see its walls, not that the dim lighting inside the chamber allowed for that. Lights attempted to appear through the organic constructs coating the walls, resembling large veins and made one feel like they were inside the belly of some unholy beast.

"JD," Holly whispered, her face almost white with fear. "What is this?" "

JD knew immediately of course. He read the reports from both the Captain and the Maverickís Science Officer, detailing the events on Fury 361 and the encounter with the creatures called the xenomorphs. Yet as he scanned the area, trying to stymie the rush of terror threatening to grip him as surely as it was sending Holly to the raw edges of panic, he realized there was something unusual about all this.

Yes, the design was undoubtedly like the hive construction on Fury 361, and the interior was as described by Alex, who had a much closer look at the place than she would have liked, JD was sure. However, there were no eggs, not one sign of them. He couldnít understand how that could be. If this was a xenomorph hive and they were enough of the things around to build this biomass surrounding JD and Holly, where were the eggs?

"JD," Holly tugged at his arm. "Letís go."

"Not yet," he stated firmly because he wanted to find out the source of those life signs. Xenomorphs were extremely hard to detect, even on tricorders and he recalled Alex mentioning recalibration were needed for them to be identified. This meant the life signs he was seeing did not belong to the creatures since he had yet to adjust the tricorder for them to appear. Considering how the xenomorphs reproduce, it was vitally important for JD to find out who they belonged to, and report it back to Buck and the Away Team.

"Holly," he turned to her and said firmly. "I know youíre scared and believe me, you got reason, but I know what did this and if Iím right, there are people trapped down here, about to die in the worst way possible. Weíve got to be sure about this, so we can help them okay?"

Holly swallowed thickly, nodding slowly even though she was scared. Sheíd insisted on coming with him, and now she was not going to be a complete pill by going all hysterical on him, especially when he mentioned there could be people down here, dying. "Okay, JD."

"Weíll be fine Holly," JD looked at her and without thinking raised a finger to her cheek, stroking the soft skin tenderly, surprising them both by the action. "I promise."

Her cheeks bloomed with colour, and if it were not for the fact they were in the worst place possible, JD might have kissed her, but instead, he saw her jaw set, conviction flooding into her face.

"Letís help them."

Taking her hand with one of his own, JD moved forward quietly, using the tricorder to lead the way. Whatever had been stored here before was now a part of the strange alien architecture, held together in some biological design he could not even begin to comprehend. Tables, chairs, pieces of conduit, wall panelling, anything that could be used to create the formations across the floor and ceiling, some so large they were almost columns connecting both.

"What did this?" She asked softly.

"I think," JD spoke very quietly, remembering Alexís report and how important it was to keep sound to a minimum. "Itís an alien life form we discovered on Fiorina 361. Itís one of the most dangerous aliens weíve ever encountered, and we thought we destroyed them all. "

"So what is it doing here?"

"I have no idea," JD admitted, but he wasnít about to reveal the reasons for the Maverickís arrival at Tenarus, not without permission from Buck or Ezra. He did believe it had to do with Jerry Lambert and his assignment to the Sulaco.

Keeping his eyes fixed on the display screen, JD followed the signal that led them deeper and deeper into the sub-level. He was grateful Holly took his lead to remain quiet as they crept through this stygian hell, where demons of a kind waited around every corner. Aware of how well these creatures could remain hidden in the shadows, JD had to let go of Hollyís hand so he could hold the tricorder and his phaser at the same time.

"Are we close?" She asked, wiping her sweaty palm against her thigh, trying to keep her fear reigned in. She didnít know anything about these creatures, but this bizarre construction around them told Holly she never wanted to see one face to face.

"Yeah," JD paused, somewhat puzzled because the tricorder told them they ought to be in sight of the life form readings by now, but he could see nothing. Sure they were faint, but they should have been visible by this point. "Hang on Iím going to switch to a different spectrum, maybe I can see them better..."

"Kill me."

The voice made both JD and Holly freeze in their tracks because it came out of nowhere.

"Hello?" JD spoke up again, searching the darkness ahead of them, trying to find the source of that desperate voice. Lowering his eyes to his tricorder, he tried to pinpoint the exact location when he heard it again, this time loud enough for him to have no need of the device in his hand.

"Kill me, please."

JD and Hollyís eyes lifted up and saw a face staring down at them. The roof of the chamber was pregnant with cocoons and peering through one, not entirely formed was the face of Jerry Lambert. Most of his body was already consumed by the metamorphosis he was undergoing, with thick ropy veins of translucent yellow coiling around him like a python about to swallow him whole. As JD struggled not to get violently sick, he realized Jerry was the lucky one. The others, despite projecting life signs, were already too far gone. There was no trace of the people they were, fully encased within the slimy, alien shell.

Holly opened her mouth to scream but clamped her hands over her lips to stifle her horrified cry, knowing the noise could bring whatever did this to the poor souls trapped in amber above them. Self-preservation kept her silent.

"Please," Jerry begged again, and this time, JD could hear the utter desperation in his voice. "Please kill me."

"We can get you out!" JD burst out, refusing to let anyone die like this. "I"m from the USS Maverick, our medical officer can help you. He can get you...."

"You have to kill me!" Jerry Lambert found his voice, seeing his one chance at salvation and needing this young man to understand just what the stakes were. "Itís too late. You have to kill me and the others. You have to get out of here and get back to your ship, and tell them what heís doing."

"What heís doing?" JD asked, staring at Jerryís face, covered in slime, the alien tendrils growing beneath his pale skin. "You mean Doctor Paracelsus?"

"Yes," Jerry managed to sob, "Doctor Paracelsus. Heís growing queens."

Chapter Fifteen:
Kobayashi Maru

It was strange how it took a moment of utter horror to give you the sudden clarity to realize what was happening, was no product of a nightmare or a hallucination. Reality didn't allow you to linger on specific pieces of terror for maximum effect, it ran you over and kept going, caring little for the wreckage left behind. It had no time to consider all the bullshit going on in your head, it had its own agenda, and it had little time to deal with your personal trauma.

When Buck Wilmington saw Mary Travis lying against Paracelsus's sofa, with that obscene lifeform attached to her face, he understood, at last, this was no Borg induced illusion. This was his life, and it was real.

For the first time since he woke up to see he was in the Maverick's Sick Bay, freed of all the implants and Borg wiring in his head, Buck felt himself. The nightmare of assimilation, of being trapped by so many walls, the idea of penetrating them was impossible, became translucent. If his fears were something tangible, Buck realized he would be able to claw through it and find his way out. The anxiety crushing his chest rose into the air like wisps of smoke, diminishing into the past.

Josiah would have called it a breakthrough if Buck had chosen to tell him about it. In that split second, Buck recognized how much of his time he wasted building this house of cards around his mind, believing it to be impenetrable when all he needed was a splash of reality for it to collapse. What was happening right now was real, so real that no amount of Borg influence could ever allow him to conjure up a situation as terrible as this one.

Like a sleeper awakening from a deep sleep, Buck Wilmington realized it was time he started being the first officer of the Maverick because his friends and comrades needed him to be.

Turning away from Paracelsus, refusing to listen to any more of the man's insane babble, he had more important things to deal with than the man's deranged idea of enlightenment. The doctor was clearly certifiable, and Buck was happy to let Josiah try to deal with him from this point out. At this moment, Buck was only interested in saving Mary Travis, because there was no way in hell he was going to kill her to end her misery, not without exhausting every other possibility to help her first.

"Nathan, how long does she have?"

Nathan didn't answer him immediately. The healer was too focussed on Mary as he remained hunched over her unconscious form in examination. Nathan ran his tricorder over her from head to toe, before pausing at her midriff. Even as Buck looked in Nathan's direction, he could barely stand looking at Mary with that monstrosity attached to her face and wondered how on Earth, Nathan managed it without shrinking away in revulsion.

"The embryo implantation is currently in progress." Nathan finally spoke. "I'm guessing it will be done in about six hours. After that, the gestation period could last anywhere between twelve to fourteen hours before...."

Nathan didn't need to finish because everyone in the room understood what came next.

The idea Chris Larabee could lose the second love of his life in the space of five years made Buck's jaw clench in outrage. Suppressing his fury at how this had come about, Buck steadied himself to do everything possible to prevent Nathan's deadline from reaching its awful conclusion. Turning his gaze back to Paracelsus the look he gave the man was one of unmistakable menace.

"Doctor, I'm not going to ask you again, lower the force field."

Paracelsus, too far into his delirium, saw none of this. "I will not rob her of the blessing..."

"FOR GOD'S SAKE GABRIEL!" Josiah exploded with exasperation and complete disbelief. "This has nothing to do divine intervention! These creatures are not gods, they're parasites that need a host organism to propagate! You've just infected Mary, and God only knows how many others to the kind of death I wouldn't inflict on an enemy! Now lower the fucking force field so we can help her before its too late!"

Josiah's outburst shocked the rest of the Maverick's crew who were unaccustomed to seeing their Counsellor display such rage.

Josiah could not reconcile himself with how his friend, who had expressed his religious leanings, albeit in the context of a philosophical discussion, stray so far off the path it had led him to this. They were healers, bound by an oath to do no harm and the fact Paracelsus had ignored that and intended to spread this horror across the galaxy was even more unimaginable.

Josiah's booming voice sounded like a command from God himself, but Paracelsus was already worshipping at another altar.

"You're wrong, Joey," he shook his head, wearing a smile of fervour that was almost as unsettling as the creature on Mary's face. "They are gods, and they will give the universe the unity we lack. I understand her plan, and as her prophet, I must bring her message to the galaxy."

With a sinking feeling, Josiah realized there would be no convincing his old friend this manifest destiny was simply the fiction used by the xenomorph's queen to spread her seed to new hosts. If he had willfully infected innocent people with the xenomorph's spores, then it was too late for Gabriel, and Josiah was simply wasting his breath, trying to gain his help.

"God help you, Gabriel," Josiah shook his head, stepping away from him, in case his insanity was catching. "God help you."

"She already has," Paracelsus smiled wider. "She already has."

Buck heard enough, refusing to waste any more time with the doctor who was obviously not going to help them. All that lay between Mary and salvation was that force field, and he was bringing it down one way or another. "Ezra, you're with me. We're going to Operations. We've got to get that force field to lower."

"You will fail," the doctor spoke once more, eyeing Buck with the look of a teacher trying to explain some immutable truth to an ignorant child. "Only my authorization will lower it. You will face your destiny when you become her children."

Without uttering a word in response, Buck drew his phaser and fired.

Paracelsus collapsed as the yellow energy beam struck him in mid-torso and Buck showed no signs of remorse by his action. The First Officer of the Maverick did not care to listen to the man's dangerous prattle and suspected Paracelsus might attempt to interfere with their efforts to lower the shield. For Mary's sake, Buck did not need the complication. Thinking what the Captain would do in this situation, Buck had acted accordingly.

"Commander?" Ezra gaped at Buck in astonishment. This ruthlessness was something he expected from Chris Larabee, not Buck Wilmington.

"It's set on stun," Buck assured his shocked comrades. "I'm sorry Josiah, we need him out of our hair for the next hour at least. I don't want him trying to stop us from getting back to the ship."

Josiah stared at Paracelsus, lying unconscious in a heap and exhaled loudly. "I agree. He's too far gone. Whatever the telepathic link with the xenomorph queen did to his mind, he can't be reasoned with. It had to be done."

Nathan's surprise lasted as long as it took for him to remember he had a patient in dire need of health. "Buck, when he was giving us the tour, I saw a stasis pod in their main Infirmary. They probably use it for serious injuries or illnesses that need specialized treatment. If I can get Mary there, I can put her into stasis. It won't stop the embryo implantation, but it might slow it down long enough for us to get back to the Maverick."

"Can you extract that monstrosity from her?" Ezra asked, feeling all kinds of responsibility for allowing this terrible fate to befall the Protocol Officer in the first place. The security chief could not even begin to imagine the Captainís reaction if he saw her like this.

"It is possible," Nathan sighed. "When I was conducting the analysis on the xenomorph remains, I theorized it was possible to transport the embryo out of a victim's body, but it can't be done at this stage. The implantation is still taking place on the cellular level. We can't transport anything until that process is complete."

"Are you telling me you must allow that odious creature to complete its purpose before you can do anything to help her?" Ezra stared at the spore attached to Mary and felt a fresh surge of revulsion.

"Unfortunately yes," Nathan nodded grimly. "It will be easier to transport it out when it forms its version of a placental sac inside her."

"Dear God," Josiah gasped in disgust, glaring at Paracelsus's unconscious form with fresh anger.

"Alright," Buck cut in, deciding it was time to do something. Mary needed every second they could give her. "Josiah, you help Nathan. Get Mary to the Infirmary, put her in stasis. Ezra and I are going down to Operations. Keep an open com channel. I want us to stay in contact at all times."

"In that case," Ezra pointed out rightly as Josiah went to help Nathan with Mary, "Has anyone heard from Mr Dunne?"

"I was trying to raise the both of you when all hell broke loose," Buck replied, glancing upwards at the klaxons whose siren alert had retreated into a bellows at fifteen-second intervals. "It's not like him to ignore a com badge or check-in."

A disturbing thought filled Ezra's mind, and he stared at Buck with colour draining out of his face. "Commander, Lt. Travis and I were on Sub-Level 25 when we discovered the alien hatchery. Lt. Travis wanted to investigate the source of the telepathic signals she was receiving. While there, we discovered the queen Doctor Paracelsus referred to. Buck," Ezra swallowed. "She has been exceedingly productive. We saw hundreds of eggs."

"I thought he said fifty," Nathan blurted out as he and Josiah helped Mary from the sofa.

"I wouldn't trust a damn thing that son of a bitch says," Buck said coldly before turning back to Ezra, "what's this got to do with JD?"

"When we made our discovery, I tried to reach you but was unable to do so. The head of operations, Mr Shavo did imply there was some disruption to communication devices so far below the surface. If Mr Dunne is out of contact..."

Ezra didn't have to finish because Buck grasped what the Chief was saying and suddenly, Buck had a terrible premonition where JD was at this moment.

*******

"Queens?"

JD stared into the face of Jerry Lambert, trying to comprehend the evil that could have allowed one person to do this to another. As he surveyed the roof of the chamber and saw just how many of cocoons there were, more than a dozen by his count, JD realized the magnitude of Paracelsus's crime, especially when Lambert made him understand the doctor's ultimate aim. Next to him, he could hear Holly sobbing, sobbing because she simply couldn't believe the man she cared for and considered a surrogate father was capable of such cruelty.

"You're from the Maverick?" Jerry's eyes widened with recognition.

"Yeah," JD nodded. "Chris Larabee is my Captain. You're from the Biological Hazard Division at Starfleet? We traced your signal here."

Jerry blinked, and JD's heart ached when he saw the moisture glistening on his face and knew it wasnít sweat, but tears. "I came here looking for my girl, my Callie. She was on the Sulaco as an engineer." He paused a moment, tugging his story from his fading memories. "She was sick, and he told her he could fix her. He tricked her like the Queen tricked him."

Queen. JD's jaw dropped open, and he immediately scanned the area, hoping he was nowhere near a queen xenomorph if there was one on Tenarus. "The Queen?"

"She gets into your head and talks to you. When you're here long enough, you can hear her. She makes you feel like you're one of her children, and if you don't understand what it really means, it almost feels nice, like you're not alone."

This was what Mary had been sensing, JD realized and wondered if the same thing had happened to Paracelsus, which fitted with what Holly explained about the man's changing behaviour.

"Callie was infected by the xenomorph on the Sulaco," Jerry explained, forcing himself to get the words out because it would be his last chance to tell his tale. "I think the baryon sweep we did, mutated the spore left behind. Instead of getting down her throat, she breathed in it. It took longer but somehow she had a queen growing inside of her. Paracelsus told her he could fix her, but it was too late."

His sentence ended with a sob, and JDís jaw tightened at the hell this man was enduring. Next to him, Holly's hands covered her face as she wept at her mentor's actions.

"It killed her when it was born," Jerry resumed after a moment, "but he wasn't done with Callie. He used her blood to infect others, to create new queens and drones. Paracelsus is fucking crazy. He thinks the queen is some kind of god and infecting people is a way of helping them reach enlightenment. The doctor plans on using the others," Jerry glanced at the cocoon, "to infect other parts of the Federation. He thinks he's a prophet spreading the good word."

"Jesus," JD whispered.

"Please," Jerry implored once more. "Please end it. It's becoming harder to think, very soon I won't be able to. I'll become like them."

"I'm sorry," JD closed his eyes, wanting to refuse him, wanting to take him out of this place, because Nathan might be able to help him. Yet even as the thought crossed his mind, JD knew as well as Jerry did, it was too late. If they had reached him earlier, perhaps there was a chance, but not like this, not when his body was already in mid metamorphosis into whatever twisted hybrid the xenomorph DNA had wrought upon his system. JD remembered the Captain making the decision to end Buck's torment when he was a drone and knew as much as it pained Chris Larabee, this was the right thing to do.

"What are you doing?" Holly demanded when she saw him changing the settings on his phaser.

"What he asked," JD said listlessly.

"No!" Holly burst out, "We can help him!" She stared at the man attached to the wall, the face she recognized as one of the new warders that arrived at Tenarus and disappeared just as quickly. It happened often, the staff came to this place and found they couldn't tolerate the isolation, leaving not long after. At least, she hoped that's what happened to them.

"You can't!" Jerry implored once. "Please, let me go."

"We'll stop what's happening here, Jerry," JD said softly, raising the phaser and taking aim. "What happened to you isn't going to happen to anyone else. I promise you. The Captain will see to it."

"Thank you," Jerry closed his eyes, not wanting to see the end come.

The pain seared through his body for less than a second, enough time for one last thought as energy reduced his flesh to atoms. He thought of the girl with the smile like sunshine, telling him with her eyes, they would be forever even if their time together was brief.

Jerry hoped it was true.

*******

NOW

When JD heard metal rip, he knew they would never make it to Sub-Level 23.

After he and Holly scrambled back into the vent, leaving the chamber where they found Jerry Lambert and the royal cocoonery, he had sealed the cover across the opening with his phaser. It took less than thirty seconds for the xenomorphs to reach it and began their assault upon it. Each time, the loud clang echoed through the shaft, making their ears ring with its deafening sounds, JD also heard the sound of metal buckling inwards. They impacted the steel like a small wrecking ball, and even if JD didn't see it, he could imagine the dents forming after repeated attacks.

Ahead of him, Holly was crawling along the passageway, saying nothing because, like him, she was still recovering from the shock of learning Doctor Paracelsus had gone completely insane. Seeing the cocoonery left little doubt in her mind because everything Jerry told them answered all the questions she had about the doctor's behaviour since his return from Ventax II. Not to mention, that the horrific undertaking in the bowels of the institute could not have been done beneath Paracelsus's notice.

No, JD suspected, no matter how much Holly might have wished it otherwise, that part of Jerry's tale could not be denied.

For his part, JD finally understood how the Captain felt when he was forced to fire upon Buck when the First Officer was a drone on Vulcan. At the time, JD could not fathom turning a phaser on someone who meant so much to him, but after today, it was a choice he understood with more clarity than he ever wished. He'd given Jerry Lambert his wish, he'd ended the man's misery, and though JD would have liked to have done the same for all the poor souls trapped in cocoons, the instant he fired his phaser, he awoke the xenomorphs in hibernation.

If his phaser hadn't alerted the xenomorph to their presence in the cocoonery, then the klaxons sounding their warning throughout the facility most assuredly did. JD had no idea how many of the aliens rallied for attack by that awful din, but he was sure it would be more than enough to overwhelm him and his one phaser. After what he was forced to do to Jerry Lambert, JD had no intention of allowing either himself or Holly to end up the same way.

Yet as he heard the shredding of steel and the scrambling sounds of something climbing into the shaft, JD knew the xenomorphs would be on them in a matter of minutes if not sooner. Somehow, he had to delay them, delay them long enough to come up with a plan. Looking ahead, he saw the end of the passage approaching and knew they would soon be in the vertical shaftway leading to the rest of the sublevels. If the xenomorphs followed them up there, then the things would infest the rest of the facility the way it had supreme charge of sub-level 25.

Somehow, he had to keep them from reaching the ladder, which would give them free access to the whole of the Tenarus facility. Think, JD, think!

Holly climbed into the vertical shaft first, but instead of heading towards the ladder, she was staring at JD with a mixture of terror and understanding. Something was wrong, although considering their present situation, it had to be the biggest understatement of the century.

"JD, if the facility is under alert, that means there's a lockdown. The lifts could be disabled! We could get to sub-Level 23 and find we're trapped there!"

It made sense, JD thought quickly, the neurons in his synapses firing like pulses of quantum particles. This was a prison facility, once you forgot about all the fancy names and ostentatious titles. Tenarus was meant to house the criminally insane and if there was a lockdown, then it was most likely to keep someone in, rather than letting them out. Violent offenders couldn't have free rein over the place, and so it made sense from a security standpoint, as Ezra would be the first to say, to limit escapees to whatever sublevel they were on at the time.

Holly was right, they couldn't risk trying to make it to the lift. Then again, they could not remain on this level. What both of them had seen here proved that enough. So he had to come up with another way.

There had to be a step forward that didn't end with them being torn apart by the xenomorphs or worse yet cocooned. JD's Starfleet tutors treated him like the second coming after he beat the Kobayashi Maru program, claiming he could be the next Kirk or Picard. JD had to tap into that well of resource that allowed him to beat the no-win scenario. He had to for both their sakes and because he wasn't about to let Jerry die for nothing.

Jerry...

The answer came to him like a proverbial bolt of lightning, and suddenly JD Dunne knew precisely what to do.

Just like it had been during the Kobayashi Maru test, the idea came to him from the gut. If JD had ever told Chris Larabee about the sensation, it would have surprised the youngest member of the Senior staff to learn, this was usually how the Captain felt before pulling off one of his famous Larabee hat tricks.

Without answering her, JD turned to the shaft they had left and fired at point-blank range at the opening. The phaser, set at maximum, collapsed the mouth of the shaft, burying the base of the wall and floor with a large enough mound of rubble to ensure nothing was getting through for the immediate moment. The shock wave rocked the vertical shaft, and the masonry groaned in protest. As the ball of dust rolled up the shaft, smothering them in dust, JD prayed he hadn't done worse damage than that.

"That will hold them for a bit," JD said, waving away the dust cloud, trying not to cough. He had no illusions that he was only going to buy them a few minutes if that. The xenomorphs were strong enough to rip through metal, JD had no doubt they would clear a pile of rocks quickly enough. Facing Holly, he placed his hands on her shoulders and looked into her face, even as she was struggling to control the coughs wracking through her body.

"Holly, do you trust me?"

Holly stared at him cautiously, not liking how ominous that question sounded, but answered him anyway. "Yes, I trust you."

"Okay," he took a deep breath once the dust cloud had dissipated. "I've got a plan to get us to safety, but it's going to be dangerous, and you absolutely have to do what I say. Once we roll the dice, there's no going back, but it's the only chance we've got."

Holly's fear showed in her eyes, but she was no coward either.

"Alright JD," she said, trying to sound confident when she was far from it. "What are we going to do?"

"We're getting out of the institute," JD stated, "the same way Jerry did."

Chapter Sixteen:
Escape

Gripping Holly's hand tight, JD gazed into the mouth of madness.

The only way to escape sub-Level 23 was to leave the same way Jerry Lambert fled, and that meant taking the alternate passage through the walls. JD wasn't sure what he would find when he climbed out of the horizontal shaft once they reached its end, but after seeing the cocoonery, JD didn't think there could be anything worse. He was wrong.

He switched places with Holly before climbing out the vent, this situation was perilous enough without endangering her life. The klaxons had ceased their bellowing, and JD wondered if that meant whatever crisis sparked its activation had ended or did someone turn it off because they were as sick as the noise as he. JD had removed his Starfleet blazer tied around his waist for the moment because the temperature was insufferably hot, but he could not discard it altogether. He would need it soon enough if his plan worked.

Of course, his plan seemed like a long shot, especially after he realised where they were.

There were eggs as far as the eye could see. They stood a foot and a half tall, and JD knew immediately what they were. He saw the footage from the Sulaco, he knew this alien hatchery was the progeny of the queen birthed by Jerry Lambert's Callie. Freezing in place, he almost didn't dare to move as he stood there, gawking at them, trying to decide what to do in the light of this discovery. Once again, he was running through his mind, everything he read in Alex's report, so he could navigate this nightmarish place without ending up like Jerry.

Holly climbed through the vent after him and took only a second to register what was happening around her before she understood their predicament and opened her mouth to scream. As JD spun around to stop her, Holly regained her composure and pressed her palm across her lips to stifle her cry, even though terror exuded from every part of her. She was panting hard, trying not to let her fear snap her reason as JD met her eyes and shook his head, issuing an unspoken warning that silence was the only way they would escape this place alive.

Darkness surrounded them since the lights on the ceiling were obscured by the alien's bizarre architecture, created by resin and whatever materials the xenomorphs managed to scavenge. The walls were damp with humidity and the moisture in the air kept the eggs slick and wet. JD could see the spores inside the translucent shells, languidly emersed in the thick, noisome fluid. Somewhere in all this horror, was the queen. Callie's offspring, he thought.

Holding the position for now, he knew that in insect entomology, the drones were rarely allowed into the hatchery. According to Jerry, Paracelsus had created drones to protect the young queen, so it made sense he and Callie ran into them at the cocoonery and had yet to see one here. Of course, if he and Callie were noticed in here, that would change, so they had to go through with his plan no matter how dangerous it was.

Gesturing her to remain silent, JD raised the tricorder so he could conduct the scan of the floor. Whatever this place had been built for, long before the asylum was established, this sub-level had been used for more than just an alien hatchery and an empty storage place. Conducting the same analysis Jerry had undertaken to make his escape, JD scanned the slabs across the floor, now almost entirely concealed by alien spores and thick tendrils of resin.

It did not take him long to find what he was looking for, a narrow sluice tunnel that ran beneath the slabs, sealed off when the facility became an asylum. According to Holly, Jerry's entry point had been sealed off so no one else could use it to leave the Institute, but there was no way to completely sever the access to several hundred feet of tunnel. Still, JD doubted anyone would try to use it as an escape if they knew what they had to get past to reach it.

JD studied its route through the tricorder display and determined which was the best way to proceed. So far, they were at the far wall of the chamber, and if they kept skirting its edges, without entering any further, it was likely they would never encounter the queen. Taking Holly's hand, he started moving slowly and was grateful to see she understood the need to sneak through this ghastly nursery because they could ill afford to give any of the eggs the stimulus to awaken.

Moving along the wall, they trudge silently across the soft, porous tendrils that reminded JD of rotting foliage and made him shudder each time he heard his boots crushed them underfoot. Holly's grip on his hand was almost vise-like and when JD glanced over his shoulder at her, saw her face white with fear. She was trying not to make a sound, but the trembling he could feel through his palm told him just how near the edge of hysteria she was. If this were any other situation, he would comfort her, but right now he was more focussed on getting out alive.

SCHLOCK.

The sound made them freeze. JD raised his eye to the wall they were walking past and saw something move in the organic material encrusted against the steel. It was along, spindly tail, curling in slumber. Heart freezing in his chest, JD saw the still hibernating xenomorph attached to the wall, continue to sleep, unaware of their presence or at least, too deep in whatever dark dreams in its head to realize they were intruders in its midst. For a few seconds, neither JD nor Holly moved, both were too frightened.

The tail shifted again, before settling into position and moved no more.

Wanting to exhale loudly in relief, JD controlled his breathing and nodded at Holly they were going to keep going. He had to tug on her hand twice to get her moving because, for a second, her legs didn't want to work, not that he could blame her. They continued in silence, this time mindful not just of the eggs but the xenomorphs on the wall. Obviously, some of them did remain close to the hatchery to protect their queen and her eggs.

Something moved in the darkness ahead, and JD dropped to the ground, taking Holly with him. She uttered a suppressed squeal of fear that stuck in her throat, evident only by the way she clamped her mouth shut again. As they both dropped to their knees, almost the same height as an alien egg, they watched as a xenomorph walk carefully through the nest. JD suspected it was because of Holly and him, they were patrolling the hatchery.

When he had been shooting earlier, there was little time to observe the creatures. Now as the lone xenomorph surveyed the area, its elongated head pivoting from side to side, JD almost wished he didn't have the opportunity. He thought Species 8472 looked alien. It was nothing in comparison to this biomechanical nightmare, with its spindly tail, ridged spine and talons capable of tearing steel. Teeth the length of fingers were bared, dripping with a viscous fluid. It had no eyes to speak off, and JD decided this was a kindness.

Eyes were the window to one's soul, and JD didn't have to look into the xenomorph's to know it didn't have one.

The creature continued its survey, turning in their direction but staying low to the ground, not to mention the darkness, allowed JD and Holly to blend in with the eggs in the rest of the hatchery. Remaining as still as the grave, JD prayed Alex was right about the xenomorphs, that they used sound as effectively as dogs used to smell for hunting their prey. Seconds stretched into a full minute before the xenomorph continued its patrol, moving further and further away into the distance until neither human could see it. Even then, JD waited another minute before he and Holly resumed their tortured journey to freedom.

Finally, they arrived at the place they needed to be. The slab of floor beneath them looked no different than any other they had seen since entering sub-level 25, but JD knew what lay beneath it. They had moved beyond the range of eggs, and this section of the wall appeared relatively untouched since the stone walls were free of the alien construction. Taking a deep breath, he reached for his com badge and pressed it into Holly's palm.

"Listen to me," he said quietly as he slipped on his blazer again. "When this starts, you get into that tunnel, and you run. Do you understand me, you run as fast as you can. The minute I fire my phaser, those things are gonna know it, and they'll be coming for us. Our only chance is on the outside..."

"But JD," she hissed back in protest. "We don't have suits! We'll die in two minutes without one!"

"I know," JD had already taken that fact into account. "But once we're outside, we'll be clear of the force field. Use my com badge and contact the Maverick. They'll be able to transport you back to the ship before those two minutes are up. I promise."

"Transport me?" Holly's eyes widened. "What about you?"

"I'll be right behind you, but I've got to hold those things back, or we'll never make it out of the tunnel alive."

"But..." her face melted into fear for him, especially after seeing the xenomorph up close.

"I'll be fine," he assured her. "Just do as I say, okay?"

She swallowed thickly, fear and worry plain on her face. Then, before JD had a chance to protest, Holly pressed her lips to his in a quick kiss. She felt her chest flutter at the contact but knew they had no time to linger. Pulling away just as quickly, she took note of his surprise and offered him a little smile before nodding at him to begin. Whatever happened, would happen. She was ready.

JD drew in a deep breath, his eyes sweeping over the chamber once more, knowing that the instant he fired that phaser, the stillness would be broken and they would be coming.

The phaser beam struck the dead centre of a slab and exploded spectacularly, obliterating the stone and sending fragments in all directions. As they were pelted with chunks, JD shouted at Holly, wanting to waste no time in getting her moving. The smoke had yet to clear, but he could see the outline of the hole he created. Beneath that broken slab was their way out of this hell if they could get away fast enough.

"GET GOING!"

Holly hurried to the hole, just big enough for both of them if they dropped in, feet first. She had barely a second to process the size of the new opening or the seven-foot drop awaiting her when she stepped off the ledge. Landing hard, she was almost driven to her knees by the sudden stop, but she recovered quickly and moved out of the way so JD could follow.

"JD! Come on!"

Even as he bolted forward, he could hear the hiss coming off the walls and in the darkness, he imagined those hibernating xenomorphs waking up, honing in on the source of that phaser blast. A flurry of movement at the corner of his eye made him turn, just in time to see a xenomorph sprinting towards him. Even though it was bipedal, it moved on all fours, and its locomotion reminded JD of a lizard's sprint. It was all the analysis JD was prepared to offer before he fired the phaser, striking the creature as it entered the weaponís extreme range.

The last JD saw of it before he jumped into the sluice tunnel was its body exploding, spraying corrosive acid in all directions. Dropping through the newly created entrance, he heard Holly's pounding footsteps against the stone floor as she did as he ordered, running as fast as she could. JD followed suit, aware that in a matter of seconds, they would have company. It didn't take long for him to catch up with her, and once again he used his tricorder as a makeshift torch, drawing power from its batteries to flood the display with a radiating white glow.

Even as they ran forward, he could feel temperature starting to drop, there was no trace of the humidity or warmth of the egg chamber down here.

"JD!" Holly called back, needing to hear his voice to reassure herself the aliens hadn't gotten him.

"I'm here!" JD shouted back, no longer caring if he was heard or not. The aliens already knew they were here. "Just keep running!"

Suddenly, the light reflected something above him, and JD saw a xenomorph running across the ceiling, directly above his head. He fired instinctively, blasting it dead centre and then jumping clear. Acid blood splattered across the walls and floor, immediately reacting with the surface by filling the passageway with noxious fumes. JD had no time to respond to this because he saw another alien sprinting towards him and fired. Once again, its body exploded, sending acid in all directions. JD uttered a cry of pain when some of that splatter reached the upper sleeve of his blazer.

Ripping it off his shoulder as he ran, JD didn't wait to see if there were any more aliens. He could not hear Holly anymore, which meant two things, either a xenomorph got her, or she was so far ahead she was outside his audible range. Either way, it didn't matter, he had to move his ass. JD ran forward, careful to avoid the alien corpse in front of him and sidestepping any acid pools. He didn't know if any of the things were behind him, but he kept up his breakneck speed.

Indications of the temperature drop became more and more apparent as his pants appeared before him in the cold air. His arm ached because even the small faint drops of acid were able to eat through the sleeve of his turtle neck to reach skin. Biting down to control the pain, JD ran for his life.

*******

Uncertain whether or not the cold was a factor or perhaps there weren't enough xenomorphs to come after them, there was no sign of the creatures after ten minutes of running. JD was out of breath, and the pain was becoming acute, but he comforted himself with the knowledge he could hear Holly's footsteps echoing down the tunnel as well as the howling wind of the arctic conditions outside.

Natural light began to flood the tunnel, telling JD they were almost out, even if the temperature hadn't given away that fact already. The icy cold had not yet reached its extremes, but JD knew that was coming. Very soon, running would be the only thing generating any heat in his body. Craning his neck to look behind him again, he saw no sign of the xenomorphs and prayed they abandoned the pursuit.

When the cold did finally hit him, it did so with the ferocity of a thousand knives. Every nerve ending he possessed screamed in protest as he was plunged into minus 50-degree temperatures. Shuddering at the impact of the sudden drop in temperature, JD saw Holly standing at the mouth of the tunnel, her face covered in flecks of snow, blown in from the outside. She was shivering hard, her arms hugging ber body close, while her teeth chattered.

Beyond her, lay an icy wasteland and JD knew they would have to leave the tunnel and go into the open if they wished to see how far they were away from the Institute and its forcefield. He didn't much like the idea of survival if they were face to wander into the tundra.

"JD!" Holly screamed, her eyes wide as saucers.

JD spun around just as the alien pounced...

*******

Chris Larabee tried to ignore the empty chairs when he and what remained of the Senior Staff convened in the Conference Room a short time after they lost contact with the Tenarus Institute.

While the bridge crew continued their attempts to raise the Away Team, Chris knew they had a much larger problem on their hands than just failed communications. As Ezra feared, before the Security Chief insisted on joining the landing party, the force field in place around the facility made it impossible for Chris to send anyone else to the asylum to rescue Buck and the others. As he faced Vin, Alex and Julia at his customary chair in the Conference Room, Chris forced himself to ignore the knowledge Mary was also down there.

This was the job, his and hers. Chris had to accept there would be times where her life would be in danger. He could not be Captain of this ship if he did not remember that.

"Julia, is there any way we can disable the force field form up here?" Chris demanded, opening the meeting.

"Not easily," she answered, just as worried for Ezra as the Captain was about Mary. "It's a Level 10 security shield. Those kinds of security screes are developed to contain anti-matter explosions. Unless it's disabled from the inside of the installation, we can't breach it."

"That's not an answer," Chris spoke with just enough edge in his voice to imply he wanted solutions, not information he already knew.

"Chris," Vin started to say, seeing Julia flinch, when Alex touched his hand gently, letting him know she would handle it. They could both see the Chief Engineer was still a little fragile after her Borg experience and probably not as immune to the Captain's biting tone as she would under usual circumstances.

"Captain," Alex spoke up instead, aware of what was going through their Captain's mind even if he was trying hard not to show it. "What Julia means is, we're going to have to think of another way to get through the screen."

Chris swore inwardly, realizing he was being an ass and that Julia had just as much invested in lowering the shield as he did. The Captain gave Alex a nod of thanks for calling out his tone before he regarded Julia again. "Julia, I'm sorry, is there any way we can get around it as Alex suggests?"

Julia gave Alex a grateful smile and dropped her gaze to the dark surface of the table, thinking. After a moment, she lifted her gaze. "We could detonate a chronoton charged photon torpedo in the upper atmosphere above the facility."

"Chronotons?" Vin stared. "I thought that they just affected warp reactors."

"Not necessarily," Chris replied, considering the possibility now Julia opened the door in his mind. "They destabilize atomic frequencies so they might affect the force field, but will it be strong enough to lower it?" Chris eyed the engineer dubiously.

"It doesn't have to do that," Alex stated, meeting Julia's gaze and guessing where the woman was heading with this. "It's just enough to create fluctuations in the force field intensity. Maybe we just need to detonate one just beyond the shield's range, so we can localize the effect. If we do that, we might weaken it just a little."

"Enough to get a transporter beam through?" Vin ventured a guess, now entirely on board with what Alex and Julia were proposing.

"Yes," Alex nodded, and then regarded Chris. "But we'll have one shot at it, and we'll have to do it fast. If it was just matter we were dealing with, we could probably guarantee the effect to last longer, but since the screen is energy, the shield will reconstitute quickly back to full strength."

"It will have to be very precise Captain," Julia added, now that Alex had taken her suggestion to its natural conclusion. "I can calibrate our sensors to the transporter pad, energizing as soon as the shields are weakened enough to enable the beaming."

"I'll take a security team, Chris," Vin suggested, perfectly aware of what Chris suspected was awaiting them down in Tenarus. If the Captain was right and xenomorphs were somehow involved, then Vin was the best person to deal with them, being the only one on board who'd gone hand to hand with the things and survived.

"We'll take a security team," Chris stated, not about to let Vin go down there alone. He too had a very personal stake in this.

"Captain..." Alex started to protest, not liking the idea of the Captain being anywhere near xenomorphs. For that matter, she wasn't entirely thrilled Vin was going down there too, but she could accept it more than the Master of the Maverick descending into a situation where an alien horde might be running loose.

"That's my decision Commander," Chris spoke with enough edge in his voice to tell Alex in no uncertain terms his mind was made up.

"Then I suggest you don't take phasers," Julia added, recalling her own experience with the creatures. Julia had played a deadly game of cat and mouse with a xenomorph on the Sulaco, while the rest of the Away Team was stranded on Fury 361. "You know the effect of phasers on their bodies."

"She's right," Alex agreed, deciding if the Captain and her husband insisted on going down there, then she was going to make sure they did it the right way. If there were xenomorphs on Tenarus, then they would have to rethink how they approach the creatures after their experiences on Fiorina 361. The things literally exploded when struck with energy weapons, and the resulting spray from their acidic blood was like being bathed with lava. "Julia, can you replicate those 21st-century pulse rifles used by the Colonial Marines of the Sulaco?"

"I should be able to," she looked at Chris. "Captain, I'll need your authorization to override Ezra's security lock on the replicator protocols."

"You got it," Chris was aware all replicators were restricted from creating any kind of weapon, even outdated ones. "In the meantime, Alex, I want you to conduct scans of the facility and its surrounding area. Jerry Lambert got out of the place to reach the relay station, I like to know how...."

The sudden chirp of Chris's communicator made him reach for the device immediately. "Captain Larabee, what is it?" He asked, somewhat annoyed by the interruption.

"Captain, we've just received a signal from the surface. It's Lieutenant Dunne."

Chapter Seventeen:
Xenomorphs

As bad as Buck Wilmington thought things were, in truth, they were worse.

How bad had yet to reveal itself to him fully as he and Ezra approached Operations with the klaxons whining over the communications systems. However, with xenomorphs in the equation, all bets were off. On a beeline straight for the institute's central control, Buck now understood why Chris wanted him to take charge of the place and begin evacuation immediately. The Captain's reaction to xenomorphs was visceral, and only Buck knew how deeply affected Chris Larabee was by what took place at Fury 361.

"Jesus Christ," Buck shook his head as he hurried down the corridor with Ezra at his side, thinking about the exchange with Paracelsus. "The man's totally insane."

For once Ezra was not about to argue with the First Office in any shape or form, feeling the same astonishment when he listened to Paracelsus speak of his 'goddess' and what he let happen to the poor engineer Callie Leech. As one who went to hell trying to retrieve Julia from the Borg, Ezra also felt a great deal of empathy for Jerry Lambert, who tried desperately to save her and failed.

"While I am just appalled at his actions, we did not have time to examine the full extent of the xenomorph's ability for telepathic communications during our last encounter with the vile creatures. We have no idea how powerful the Queen's control over him might be. A propensity for spiritual enlightenment could have been twisted into this grotesque shape through no fault of his own."

Buck snorted.

"Unless he can't talk or move, he had control over himself, and that should have been enough to do something. There's no excuse for what he let happen to that poor girl. He's a goddamn counsellor, the minute he heard voices; he should have told someone. We might have been able to save her if we'd gotten to her early enough, but he didn't. That thing used her as an incubator, and even after she died, Paracelsus used her to do the same to others. No," Buck shook his head. "I don't have any sympathy for him."

Ezra threw a sidelong glance at Buck and knew the commander was speaking about more than just Paracelsus. As one who kept a close eye on just about everything on board the Maverick, the Chief was perfectly aware of Buck's mental state, even if he chose to say nothing about it. Ezra was aware how many hours Buck was logging across the Maverick, except in his quarters but hesitated to approach the man about it. He had his own difficulties in dealing with Julia's transition from Borg to the person she was and decided the Captain or Josiah were the best ones to pick at that scab. Now Ezra felt guilty for being so selfish when it was clear Buck still had issues.

"We may encounter some resistance when we reveal the Captain's directive," Ezra remarked instead, deciding the subject of xenomorphs might actually be easier to deal with right now than Buck's feelings post assimilation. "He's inducted quite a few into this religion of his. They may have drunk the proverbial 'Kool-Aid'."

"True," Buck couldn't deny that point. "We'll use extreme force if necessary. I don't much like firing on civilians, but you know better than I do, what is at stake if there are xenomorphs on the loose here. "

Ezra shuddered, remembering the loss of his entire security team on Fury 361. He had been so furious with Chris for bringing them down there in the first place, despite Ezra's most persuasive arguments to the contrary, he had almost come to blows with his Captain. For weeks after, he still had nightmares of seeing the black tide of alien bodies spilling over the roofs of the prison facility, closing in on them. If the same was taking place here, there would be no shuttle capable of reaching them this far down, and their only salvation would be to reach the upper levels where the transporters could get a lock on them.

All of which depended on lowering the shield.

They were closing in on Operations when they saw the approach of the two Nausicaans guarding the transporter room, Abrogar and Zargh. Buck noted they were both armed and glanced instinctively at Ezra, who went for his phaser. By the set in the Chief's jaw, Buck knew it would not matter one damn bit if the shorter of the two Nausicaans stood taller than him. The gambler might have been smaller in stature, but he could fight like a demon when the mood took him.

"What are you doing here?" One of them barked as soon as the Starfleet officers were in view.

"We're going to lower the force field," Buck said without hesitation, aware Ezra had a firm grip on his phaser and was more than ready to open fire if the duo gave him trouble. "We have orders to evacuate this place immediately."

"Evacuate?" The Nausicaans eyes widened, his gravelly voice rising an octave in outrage. "Under whose orders?"

"Under the orders of Captain Larabee and the Central Bureau of Penology on Earth, whose authority this place is under. Your doctor is responsible for unleashing an extremely dangerous biological hazard we thought we contained until now."

Both Nausicaans exchange glances at each other and then faced front again, their grips on their weapons tightening. "You speak of heresy!"

Before they could get another word out, Ezra's phaser was drawn with far more speed than either of them would have imagined possible of a human.

"Gentlemen," Ezra spoke with a glacial edge matching the freezing temperatures beyond the institute. "I would advise against drawing your weapons, or you will be communing with whatever deity you have mistakenly chosen to worship far sooner than either of you would like."

Buck didn't give them a chance to think twice. He reached forward cautiously, his eyes fixed on the two warders and grasped the barrels of the disruptors in their hands before they had a chance to fire. Without even needing to look over his shoulder, he was certain Ezra had his finger poised to fire in case either of them chose to react to Buck's attempt to disarm them.

It was a bet he would have lost.

No sooner than he wrestled the weapon out of their hands, the Nausicaan Buck learned later was Zargh, lashed out with a mighty fist, connecting with the underside of his chin. The power behind the strike sent him staggering backwards against Ezra. Fortunately, the reflexes that made the Chief such an excellent card player, allowed him to step out of the way and avoid ending up on the floor, but the momentary delay was enough.

The other Nausicaan charged, and Ezra had just enough time to sidestep him. The alien's enormous bulk rushed past, giving Ezra a clear view of his back. As any of one of the Chief's former opponents could attest, this was not the best position to be. Spinning around to reacquire his target, the Nausicaan Abrogar turned to see Ezra take aim before he was met with a chest full of phaser fire. The force of the setting swept him off his feet as if he weighed nothing, and he was spared the pain because he was unconscious long before he hit the metal deck.

Meanwhile, Buck recovered enough from the Nausicaan's punch with a shake of the head to dispel any lingering disorientation. He had a second to react before he threw a forward in the hulking enemy's sternum and followed through with a sidekick, this one landing in the stomach. As the Nausicaan doubled over, Buck finished him with a back kick, the ball of his foot connecting with the hard protruding ridge of the enemy's nose. The bone crumbled beneath his foot and the Nausicaan managed a muffled grunt before he staggered backwards.

Before he collapsed, a phaser beam caught him against the ribs, and if he had any fight left to offer the First Officer of the Maverick, it ended with the side of his face slapping hard against the floor.

"I had him," Buck threw Ezra a look, wiping the bit of blood from his bottom lip.

"I'm sure you did," Ezra rolled his eyes and kept going. "My way is a great deal more expedient."

"Can't argue with you there," Buck shrugged, not bothering to deal with the Nausicaans for the moment, although he retrieved both their weapons. The last thing they needed right now was being blindsided by the duo when they finally regained consciousness.

Leading the way, Buck stepped through the doors of Operations. He soon realized the alerts sounding throughout the facility, was nowhere as loud as the chatter inside the room.

"Stop saying that!"

Ezra recognized Rekellen's exasperated voice even before he and Buck stepped through and arrived just in time to see Dralak slamming Shavo against the wall with a loud thud. The Andorian didn't seem to be offering any resistance and Ezra reminded himself that Dralak being Romulan, was almost as strong as a Vulcan, albeit to a lesser degree.

"What the hell is going on?" Buck demanded as Ezra moved in quickly, the Chief's training as a security officer demanding he attend to the altercation immediately. Ezra grabbed Dralak by the arm and tried to drag him away from Shavo who was merely staring at them both, shocked but not moved enough to do anything.

"This Andorian *Ryak'na has gone mad!" Dralak snapped angrily, his eyes still fixed on Shavo, intending to choke the life out of him.

"You have nothing to fear," Shavo grunted through the strangulating fingers on his throat. "It is the Blessing."

Oh hell, Buck cursed and realized this Andorian was just as insane as Paracelsus. One of the Faithful, he thought ruefully. Like all the others before him, Paracelsus's belief he could handle the xenomorphs was an illusion fragmenting with each second. Three hundred years ago, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation had believed the same, and they were a hell of a lot more realistic about what the xenomorphs were capable of than the good doctor. Unlike Paracelsus, who sold his followers the fiction the alien Queen was some kind of goddess.

"It is coming for all of us," Shavo repeated himself, even as Dralak's grip around his throat loosened because Ezra had wrestled the Romulan away. The Andorian's eyes reflected his complete indoctrination to Paracelsus's words, and his expression revealed the look of one who had reached the edge of fear and tipped over into the abyss of madness. "We will be one with Her."

"What rot is that?" Dralak barked his fury and managed to collect his thoughts enough to explain. "He's been saying that since those things appeared!"

"You're Starfleet!" Rekellen barked at them from where she was standing in front of her console. While her words oozed with contempt, there was no hiding the fear on her face. "Do something! Shavo has lost his mind!"

"What's the situation?" Buck asked as he crossed the floor even though he could guess. By the level of panic on her face and that on the young Xyrillian Kash, he could only imagine.

Rekellen blinked recalibrating her mind to think clearly instead of succumbing to her intense Romulan emotions. "We had a security breach on sub-Level 25," she stuttered her response, and it was strange seeing a Romulan anything but supremely confident. "We assumed that it was one of the patients trying to escape. We had a similar problem not long ago, so I initiated lockdown procedures."

"Including raising the shields and blocking out communications?" Buck demanded and glanced at Ezra. The security chief had a firm grip of Shavo, ensuring the Andorian didn't cause further mischief.

"No," Rekellen shook her head. "Lockdown is meant to keep everyone inside, but comms lock is not part of it. Shavo arrived at Operations and told us we not only had to initiate the locks, but we had to encrypt permissions. Doctor Paracelsus did that remotely. None of us can get in to disable it or the shields now."

"Damn it," Buck cursed and almost wished Alex was here. The Science Officer had a Class A rating when it came to programming and was pretty damn good at it, not to mention like Ezra she had first-hand knowledge of the xenomorphs. Turning to Ezra, Buck was about to ask the Chief if he could put his Class A programming skills to work and possibly get past Paracelsus's encryption when Kash cried out from his station.

"Whatever they are, they're moving fast!"

The younger man shot a glance at Buck and even though he was Xyrillian, his manner was so much like JD's at the moment, Buck felt a fierce need to protect the younger man from harm. Thinking about JD sent fresh fear through Buck about the fate of his young protege who so far had yet to check-in. He couldn't think about that now. He had to trust the kid knew how to handle himself, and if the worst had happened, he would deal with that after. Right now, he had a job to do.

"Jesus Christ."

It was all Buck could say when he stood over Kash's shoulder and looked at the young man's display to see what he was looking at. Buck read the reports when the Away Team returned from Fiorina 361 and the Captain's own logs about the incident. Hell, Buck had even taken a look at the grotesque corpse of the spore brought back to the ship for study, but nothing compared to seeing the things for himself. For the first time, he understood Chris's reaction to hearing Jerry Lambert's connection to the Sulaco and why the Captain had demanded the evacuation.

There were five of them on the screen.

They moved so quickly one could have been forgiven for believing they were irregularly shaped shadows flickering along the walls. Yet once your eyes adjusted and saw what they were, there was no mistaking them for anything but the hellish creatures that had killed almost every human who encountered it. Buck stared at the animals, and even on the screen, he knew they matched him in height. Their exoskeletons were covered in black chitin like that of an insect, with dorsal spines along their backs. At the end of both spindly arms were sharp claws capable of tearing through metal. Their long tails, flexible and serrated, acted as effective as whips and if needed, spears.

The most distinct feature, of course, was the banana-shaped heads. The slick black skulls gleamed in the darkness, were often the first thing you saw of the creatures and the sharp, three-inch teeth when it opened the first of its jaws, were often the last. Once you laid eyes on them, everything about these aliens was a vision of terror, guaranteed to chase you into your nightmares.

"Where is this?" Buck managed to ask, finally snapping out of his horror because he knew there were more than five of those creatures on the loose, and the rest of them would be coming.

"It's a disused air shaft that was sealed off when the Institute was built into the structure," Rekellen answered now that she had recovered her anger and overcome any lingering animosity towards the Starfleet Officers. "It starts at sub-Level 25, and goes all the way to the surface."

Ezra swore, and Buck didn't blame him. Profanities were rare from the Chief of Security, but under the circumstances, it was entirely warranted.

"In other words," Ezra spoke up, his voice grim. "They have access to the entire facility."

God help them.

*******

"Captain, we've just received a signal from the surface. It's Lieutenant Dunne."

There were only two ways a signal could reach the Maverick from the surface. Either the shield was down, or JD was outside of it. If so, Chris knew what his next order was going to be. "Have you got a transporter lock on him?"

"Aye Sir," Drew Katovit's voice replied before a burst of static cut off the Assistant Security Chief.

"Maverick, this is Lt. Dunne, two to transport immediately!" JD's voice cut through the static as well as the gale-force winds surrounding him. "We are outside the range of the force field without enviro-suits...!"

"Oh my God," Alex gasped, perfectly aware of how long any human could survive in the icy temperatures of Tenarus without cold-weather gear. "Captain...."

Chris was way ahead of her. "Transporter Room, lock on to their signal and transport them immediately. Repeat, transport them immediately. JD standby! We're beaming you up now!"

"Captain!" JD started to say when suddenly something cut through the air that made everyone at the table freeze.

The shriek was like talons across glass. It cut through the static and the blizzard surrounding JD and whoever was with him. Everyone at the table recognized the source of that unholy screech. It was a sound none of them ever wished to hear again.

"JD WATCH OUT!"

The voice screaming was no one familiar, but they knew terror when they heard it, just like they recognized the discharge of phaser fire. It ended the shriek abruptly but was quickly followed by another indignant howl of outrage.

"JD!" Chris shouted and received no answer. The Captain jumped to his feet and was running out the Conference Room with Vin following close behind.

"Drew!" Alex fought the impulse to go after them and reminded herself while Buck was absent; she was the Acting First Officer and had to behave accordingly. "Get security to the transporter room immediately! Break out the phaser rifles and set weapons for maximum. We may pick up hitchhikers when we're transporting the away team! "

"Come on!" Alex gestured to Julia before the two women hurried after the Captain and the helmsman.

*******

Chris arrived at Transporter Room 1 just in time to see the golden shimmer of the transporter beam appearing on the pad.

Everything moved at slow motion after that because it was the only way to process what took place over the next sixty seconds. Once the shimmer on the pad solidified, it revealed the form of a young woman, no older than twenty if that, by Chris's estimation. She was on her knees, her arms folded over her head. Flakes of snow-covered her clothes and skin, and what they saw of her face revealed nothing but terror. When they saw what was materializing on the second transporter pad, Chris could understand the reason for her fear.

He had yet to form fully, but what did appear in the transport stream painted a vivid and terrifying picture. JD was on one knee. Like the girl, he was covered in particles of snow. His sleeve was torn to the skin and what was exposed, revealed burns Chris had far more knowledge of than he would like. Acid burns. The youngest member of the Senior Staff was aiming his phaser above him and what was caught in amber, about to be given life in several seconds, was the confirmation of Chris's worst fears about what was happening on Tenarus.

"Jesus Christ!" Vin exclaimed, hurrying to the weapons locker while there was still time.

"Captain," Transporter Chief Rain who was manning the transport pad was deftly working the controls while addressing him at the same time. "There was the discharge of a weapon when we locked on. I'm deactivating it!" Rain explained before her eyes lifted and saw why. "Holy heck!"

The xenomorph materialized right above JD. It would land right on top of him when the transport was complete.

"Vin...!" Chris threw him a warning, already hurrying towards the girl who needed to be gotten out of the way.

"I got your back, Chris," Vin replied promptly, moving into position.

The few seconds between full materialization and movement was all the time Chris and Vin possessed to save JD and his companion. The instant the shimmer stopped, Chris leapt towards the young lady he would later know as Holly. Holly uttered a short scream as Chris slammed into her in a full-body tackle, sending them both tumbling off the transporter pad. JD's predicament required an even more forceful approach.

Vin, whose combat programs on the holodeck included hand to hand battles with xenomorphs, ran forward and jumped while the xenomorph was still in mid-air. With the butt of the phaser rifle he'd managed to retrieve from the weapon's locker, he slammed the thick stock into the xenomorph's jaw with all his Vulcan strength, sending it flying away from JD. The creature uttered a screech of fury as it hit the wall hard. When its disorientation cleared, the alien hissed in anger as well as puzzlement. Vin had enough time to yank JD off his knees before the xenomorph overcame its confusion at its sudden change of surroundings.

It was upright on all four with the speed of a coiled snake, baring those fangs that would rip apart metal as easily as flesh. It assessed its situation immediately and decided to deal with Vin first, sensing the Vulcan was the strongest opponent in the room.

"Vin, you can't shoot that thing in here!" Chris warned, scrambling to his feet. "It will eat halfway through the ship!"

"Computer, initiate emergency force field Section 7, Grid 21 Ė Lieutenant Rain - authorization code Galadriel!"

The force field surrounded the xenomorph before it had a chance to lunge at Vin. As it moved forward and impacted against the energy barrier, the burst of static upon contact made the creature recoil in pain, before it uttered another enraged shriek. It hurled itself against the force field once more refusing to accept its captivity.

"Captain," Rain stared at the monstrosity before, trying to settle the horror shared by all her previous hosts as a Trill. "What do you want me to do with this thing?"

Chris glared at the xenomorph and spoke through gritted teeth. "I want you to get that fucking thing off my ship."

Romulan translation - *garbage or trash

Chapter Eighteen:
Hazardous

When Ezra Standish got scared, Buck Wilmington knew all bets were off.

Witnessing the Chiefís face draining of colour after seeing what was on the display in front of him, Buck realised however bad the situation looked, it was actually worse. If there was one constant in the universe the crew of the Maverick could rely upon, it was the fact the Chief of Security always had his shit together, no matter how bad things were. When he didnít, that was the time to worry.

Ezra would never admit to it of course. Still, the sight of the xenomorphs scaling the walls of the hollow passage running up the height of the facility, where they would have access to every level of the Tenarus Institute shook the man. Not that Buck could blame Ezra for his terror, because seeing the grainy images of the things on the footage from Fiorina 361 and the recovered data tapes of Acheron, was nothing in comparison to what he saw now.

They were more than just hideous. The xenomorphs were the things nightmares were made of.

If there was any consolation to be had in all of this, Buckís mind wasnít entirely as gripped with fear as Ezraís. Perhaps it was never coming face to face with the creatures that allowed him to think with clarity. He had to if any of them were going to escape this place alive.

More and more of the creatures were appearing across the numerous displays across operations. They were spilling out of sub-level 25 as if someone had kicked open an ant hill. The aliens had one purpose the minute they emerged, and that was to find a way to reach the potential hosts above them.

"We need to bring the shield down," Buck turned to the Operations team. "Thatís the only way we are getting out of here. I donít know how much you know," he swept his gaze over the faces of Dralak, Rekellen and Kash, "but the biological hazard I just mentioned are these creatures. Doctor Paracelsus has been growing an entire nest of these things down in Sub-level 25.

Disbelief showed across all their faces, except for Shavo, whose adoration of the man was elevated to almost religious worship, where nothing said against Paracelsus would penetrate. For the others, the doctor was a kind and compassionate man, and Buck had no doubt if not for his encounter with the alien Queen, it would have still been the case.

"It canít be," Dralak muttered, but even as the words left him, he shifted his gaze towards Shavo who was proof of Buckís accusation. "He wouldnít..."

"He told us, alright!" Buck snapped, not having time to convince the Romulan. Not when the xenomorphs were on the verge of infesting the entire facility. "Thatís why we came here in the first place. We received a distress signal from your relay station, asking for help. The message came from a Starfleet Security Officer named Jerry Lambert who risked his life to warn us, by escaping this place and making it to the station on foot."

"There was no Starfleet Security Officer," Rekellen protested, about to demand what kind of fool he thought they were when she remembered something. Raising her eyes to Kash, who was also processing the Starfleet Commanderís words, they reached the same conclusion.

"The patient who escaped!" Kash burst out before Rekellen could. "The one who got through the disused sluice tunnel."

"Disused sluice tunnel?" Buck jumped to the possibility there was a way out of here without having to break through the formidable force field.

"Yes," Dralak nodded, still glaring at Shavo, his Romulan passions well and truly enraged and Buck suspected it wouldnít take much for the man to snap the Andorianís neck in anger. "It was a month ago. A patient escaped. He got outside, and the Nausicaans were forced to retrieve him."

"Is it still sealed?" Ezra questioned, reaching the same conclusion as Buck that this could be an alternate way out.

"I assume so," Dralak replied, revealing his uncertainty of whether or not this was the case.

"It is sealed," Shavo spoke up suddenly. "It is sealed and only the worthy may enter it now. The path lies through the temple of the Goddess on Sub-Level 25." The Andorian continued to display that unnerving expression of bovine vacancy, as if it was their fate to be taken by the xenomorphs.

"Oh Christ," Buck shook his head in disgust and decided to waste no more time with the man. They had to get out of here. "Ezra, can you try and access the system?"

Once again, he prayed Ezraís skills as a Class A programmer were enough.

"I can make an attempt," Ezra stepped forward even if his voice was dubious, "but it will take time."

"We donít have it, but do what you can."

"What are the things anyway?" Rekellen asked as she saw more and more of the aliens emerging from their subterranean nest. It chilled her to the bone to see how swiftly they moved and how sheer walls did nothing to slow them down.

"The most dangerous alien life form weíve ever encountered," Buck said shortly and saw a group of xenomorphs surrounding a ventilation grill along the straight wall. He did not like the look of this. "Where is that?" He asked, not particular about who gave him his answer.

"Sub-Level 23," Kash answered and then looked up, his Xyrillian eyes filled with fear. "Patientís wing."

"Christ," Buck swore. "Give me comms to the level immediately! Weíve got to get everyone out of there before these things get fresh hosts."

"Host?" Rekellen stared at him.

"Yeah," Buck nodded grimly. "These life forms donít kill you. They reproduce by implanting an embryo inside the sternum of a living host. When the embryo matures, it exits through flesh and bone while the host is still alive."

"Griff!" Kash swore, his golden scales turning almost grey with fright.

"Itís a blessing," Shavo chose that moment to speak again as if he was relishing their terror. " You need not fear it."

"SHUT UP!" Dralak swore, whirling around and preparing to put his fist into Shavoís face when Buck caught his arm, stopping him from going any further.

"Save it!" He stared the Romulan down hard, even if he understood the manís fury. Paracelsus had sold these people on a fiction, induced by his telepathic link to the xenomorph Queen, unaware of the true nature of the species. "Weíve got bigger problems. These things gestate fast once theyíre implanted. The infants will become full-size adults in a matter of hours. They also bleed acid for blood, so if you fire on them with phasers, they literally explode in front of you. If youíre not at a minimum safe distance when that happens, theyíll take you with them. Their blood can eat through duranium."

"How do we fight them?" Dralak looked to the Starfleet officers who seemed to be the only ones who made any sense right now.

"We donít," Buck admitted readily enough. He didnít like running from anything, but Chrisís report had painted a grim picture of how dangerous these creatures were. "We get the hell out of here."

"Doctor Paracelsus claimed there were fifty of them," Ezra explained from the workstation he commandeered to break Paracelsusís encryption of the main computer. His face was illuminated by the green hue of the display screen while his fingers moved deftly across the console, continuing his combat with algorithms and programming. "However, he is also in possession of an egg layer."

"An egg layer?" Rekellenís eyes widened in realisation. "You mean like a..."

"...queen." Ezra threw her a sidelong glance as the sentence died in her throat at her full understanding of their problem. "There is no telling how many progenies she has birthed, but there is every possibility there may be an egg for every last one of us."

Buck didnít comment on Ezraís grim forecast of their predicament, choosing instead to warn the rest of the facility they were about to be overrun by the very worst invaders possible.

"All personnel, this is Commander Buck Wilmington of the USS Maverick. At this time, I am assuming control of this facility under the authority of the Central Bureau of Penology in accordance with Starfleet Regulation 19, Section C, allowing me to assume tactical command due to the threat of imminent loss of life. Doctor Paracelsus has been conducting illegal experimentation with highly hazardous biological organisms. These organisms have now broken quarantine. All security personnel are to begin the orderly evacuation of all patients to the Transporter level for immediate departure. Repeat, all patients are to be evacuated immediately. All other personnel are ordered to report to your direct supervisors to carry out the same. This is not a drill. REPEAT, THIS NOT A DRILL."

Buck cut off the channel at that point, convinced the comm system would soon be bombarded with a barrage of transmissions from confused personnel demanding an explanation regarding his rather incendiary announcement.

"What good is getting them up there?" Rekellen demanded with no trace of Romulan superiority in her face, just fear. "With the force field up, your ship cannot transport any of us out of here!"

"The further we get away from Sub-Level 25, the more time we have to figure a way out of this mess before they get to us. Personally, I would rather get as far away from the Queenís hatchery as I can." Buck bit back before glancing over his shoulder at Ezra. "How are you doing Ez?"

Ezraís sea-coloured eyes remained fixed on the screen before him, his fingers continuing to tap furiously as the smooth glass console, "I told you before Commander, without Paracelsus, it will take some time."

They didnít have time because Rekellen was correct. Even if everyone evacuated to the upper levels, the things would catch up eventually if there was nowhere for them to go. It wouldnít take long for the creatures to breach sub-Level 23. Once that was done, there would be no stopping them from overwhelming the few Starfleet Officers and Nausicaans armed with hand disruptors and phasers, from getting their pick of hosts.

They had to lower the force field. There was no other way.

Unfortunately, Paracelsus was so deep in his religious mania he would never consciously agree to help them. This entire situation had come about by the doctorís design. Or rather that of the xenomorph queen using her telepathic influence to addle Paracelsusís mind into believing her primeval instincts to breed was some kind of divine path to achieving enlightenment.

All this fell to damn familiarity for Buckís liking.

Once again, he was revisited by images of himself as Borg, preparing to assimilate Chris Larabee so he could take over the Maverick, all for the sake of the Collective and returning to their Queen. The similarities between Paracelsusís dementia and Buckís assimilation felt so similar, Buck felt the bile crawl up his throat from sheer revulsion. Paracelsus was just like Buck had been, a drone.

No, Buck told himself firmly. He was a drone. Now he was Commander Buck Wilmington, First Officer of the Maverick with no connection to the Collective, no matter how many nanoprobes swirled dormant in his blood. Everything he had done as a drone was not him, it was the Collective. He never had any choice in the matter. Not one damn bit and it was time he accepted that.

He wasnít One of Nineteen, Primary Adjutant of Unimatrix 376 anymore.

The admission of this simple fact made him feel like Atlas, casting off the world from his shoulders. For the first time in too long, he felt like himself, like this reality heíd been experiencing wasnít a figment of a Borg induced nightmare, but his life. The Maverick, his friends, Chris, JD and Inez, God...Inez. They were waiting for him to acknowledge it.

And he did.

Letting out a long exhale, because with that watershed moment another thought occurred to him.

"What if we blew the force field generator? Set our phasers to overload and take out the whole level itís located on. Reduce it to ash."

All eyes turned to Buck in shock.

It was Rekellen who found the voice to speak first. "That is madness. We wouldnít just lose the force field, but everything! Life support, environmental functions and what security measures might keep those creatures out. With the temperature outside, weíll freeze to death in hours!"

"Maybe," Dralak replied, meeting Buckís gaze with something akin to admiration at the ruthlessness of the plan. It was almost Romulan. "But Iíd rather freeze than become a host to one of those monsters."

"I second that," Ezra agreed, thinking it was worth the gamble despite the danger.

"Good," Buck saw Kash and Rekellenís doubt, but they werenít about to argue when there was no other alternative. "Weíll blow the generator after everyone is on the transporter level. The Maverick can evacuate almost everyone within the hour, and weíve got enough shuttles and runabouts to get the rest."

"Thereís only one problem," Shavo spoke up and appeared as if he were a harlequin. "The shield generator is on sub-Level 25."

"Of course it is," Ezra Standish said dryly.

******

"..... Repeat, all patients are to be evacuated immediately. All other personnel are ordered to report to your direct supervisors to carry out the same. This is not a drill. REPEAT, THIS IS NOT A DRILL."

"Well this day just keeps getting better," Nathan Jackson growled as he and Josiah Sanchez made their way to the Infirmary level with Mary Travis in his arms.

With the hallways now filling up with people hurrying to evacuate the area, Nathan felt like he was swimming upstream of a raging river. Weaving through the bodies trying to reach the lifts to escape, Nathan wouldn't have minded going with them if not for the fact Mary's only chance of surviving the alien implantation was inside a stasis tube. He was grateful he had spotted the pod during Paracelsus's tour of the facility, although he would have preferred using it for anything except this situation.

"I can't believe he did this," Josiah muttered while waving people to go around Nathan, so the healer didn't run into obstacles while he carried their unconscious Protocol Officer to the Infirmary. Even now, Josiah could barely stand to look at Mary with that monstrosity attached to her face. Doing so would only fill him with renewed rage that this was done to her because of his old friend's insanity.

"He did it alright," Nathan shook his head, wanting to sympathize with Josiah but not having the time for it right now They had a very narrow window of opportunity to save Mary, and Nathan was not going to tell the Captain the woman he loved was going to die in the worst way imaginable. "Road to hell is paved with good intentions and all that."

Josiah's response was interrupted by someone's fearful cries as they approached the corner leading down the hallway running past the main doors of the Infirmary.

"GET BACK INSIDE!"

Josiah froze in his steps and exchanged a look with Nathan, who also heard the commotion and stopped dead in his tracks. Gesturing the doctor to hold back since he was the one carrying Mary, Josiah inched closer to the edge of the corner and peered around it. The angry bark was followed by voices soon cowed into silence. It was a stark contrast to the chaos further down the corridor where people hurried to the lifts with such haste, they were oblivious to the drama taking place now.

A Nausicaan guard was standing beside a Napean doctor Josiah remembered Gabriel introducing as Doctor Zanil. The Napean, who was recognizable by the boney leaf-shape formation across his forehead natural to the species, seemed to be standing with the guard against his human and Tellerite colleagues. They were being kept from evacuating by the disruptor pistol aimed in their direction.

"Zanil! What are you doing?" A petite nurse with jet coloured hair and dark brown eyes stared at the Napean in bewilderment at the threat. "You heard the Starfleet officer! We've got to leave!"

"It's a lie!" Zanil declared as the Nausicaan closed in on the duo, barking another order for them to retreat into the Infirmary. "They don't understand what is happening, they can't hear her voice."

"Whose voice?" The portly Tellarite doctor in a blue smock demanded with just as much confusion. "What are you talking about! There is a biological hazard on the loose!"

Josiah groaned inwardly guessing what Doctor Zanil was going to say before he uttered the words. Napeans were empathic and had limited psi ability. If Mary, with her scant talents, could detect the telepathic signals of the alien queen, then this Napean would have had no defence against her influence. Like Paracelsus, he had probably been converted slowly over time, until now he was just another worshipper ready to sacrifice friends and colleagues to become xenomorph hosts.

"There is no hazard," Zanil replied as Josiah suspected he would. "There is just the blessing. What is happening will unite us. We'll be reborn in a new skin with a consciousness that only recognises unity."

"Have you lost your mind?" The woman snapped in disbelief. Josiah couldn't blame her.

Retreating, Josiah took a deep breath and unhooked the phaser from his belt. Never again was he ever going to question Ezra Standish's paranoia. The man was a cynic, but he was the best kind. The kind who prepared for every contingency. Quickly examining the settings to ensure the weapon was set at stun, Josiah met Nathan's gaze, and the doctor understood immediately what Josiah intended to do. If it were not for Mary in his arms, Josiah was sure Nathan would have helped.

He crept to the corner again, aware he had to do this before the group disappeared into the Infirmary and while he still had the element of surprise on his side. Taking careful aim, he thanked God for all the captain's demand that everyone on board the Maverick was phaser proficient. The beam of energy shot out of the phaser as soon as he pressed the trigger. A burst of sound chased the yellow bolt across the floor. It struck the Nausicaan in the small of the back.

The towering alien uttered a groan of pain before his legs gave way beneath him. As he fell, Doctor Zanil swung around in Josiah's direction, and there was a split second as both healers made eye contact. Zanil raised his weapon to shoot, but Josiah was just a second or two faster. A second blast of energy escaped phaser, eliciting a cry of shock from the young woman while the Tellarite stumbled back against the door to the Infirmary, startled.

Zanil collapsed where he stood, and when he hit the floor, his fall was partially broken by the unconscious Nausicaan on the deck already. They folded upon each other like pieces of cardboard across the floor.

"Get their weapons!" Josiah ordered emerging from the corner.

Both of the rescuees stared at the Counsellor, somewhat surprised that salvation had come from such an unexpected quarter. Nevertheless, the Tellerite did not waste any time hurrying forward to collect the disruptors still in the grips of their would-be kidnappers.

"What is going on?" He demanded as Josiah closed in on them, with Nathan stepping into the hallway behind him.

"They're under the influence of the creatures that are about to overrun this facility," Josiah did not mince words. "You two need to join the evacuation immediately."

"Wait," the female, who Josiah realized was a nurse, objected when she saw Nathan approaching with a patient. "What's wrong with..."

She stopped short when they saw what was attached to Mary's face.

"Oh my God..." the woman whispered in horror, her skin turning pale.

"You need to get going now," Nathan ordered, " both of you."

They left without further argument.

Chapter Nineteen:
Breaches

"This is an M41A Pulse Rifle. Ten millimetres, with an over-and-under thirty-millimetre pump-action grenade launcher. Feel the weight."

Alex Styles stood before the assembled Away Team fitted with cold-weather gear, trying not to flinch at the fact her Captain was among them, while she delivered her briefing. Eyes resting briefly on the Captain, she knew nothing short of a phaser set to stun could keep him from descending onto Tenarus, riding the full wrath of the Larabee rage. As the acting First Officer of the Maverick, she took some comfort in knowing Vin would be at his side, keeping him safe.

Of course, she was no happier about her husband being down there either, but if there was one person she knew could handle himself against those savage lifeforms, it was Vin.

Returning her attention to the remaining members of the Away Team, who included Drew Katovit, Kate Stokes, Opa Loca and Manny Garcia in Cargo Bay 2, she saw them examining the weapons they were issued with a short time ago. There was apparent scepticism on their faces as they experimented with the bulky weaponsí functions while Alex resumed speaking.

"Each member of the Away Team will be carrying no less than ten clips each. Each clip contains 99 rounds, but Engineering has replicated them with 95 rounds to avoid stoppage. They're explosive tip, caseless, light armour-piercing rounds. Take time to familiarise yourself with the flame units you've been provided with. The M240 incinerator is designed for close-quarters combat, utilising ultra-thickened naphthyl fuel with a range of thirty meters."

As she mentioned the second weapon, her audience studied the flame throwers, a sleeker gun that the Pulse Rifle, but still cumbersome in comparison to their handheld phasers.

"These will be useful where visibility is low. Even though your tricorders have been calibrated to detect silicon-based life forms, the xenomorphs have superior camouflage abilities. In tight spaces where visibility is poor, the flame units can save your life. If you enter the hatchery and your presence has not been detected by the drone, maintain absolute silence. The eggs react to external stimuli, most likely sound. The spores are fast, and you do not want to get caught by one."

"I don't understand," 2nd Lt. Manny Garcia, the youngest member of the security team, looked up at her. "Why can't we just use phase rifles?"

Chris, who was in the process of securing the fastenings on his heavy parka, looked up. "The xenomorphs bleed acid. A direct hit from any energy-based weapon causes their bodies to explode violently. Their blood is the most corrosive molecular acid in existence, capable of eating through duranium. If it gets on your skin, you'll die screaming in seconds. I shit you not."

Garcia turned pale.

"You're scaring the kids Captain," Vin whispered, tilting his head in Chris's direction.

The rest of the security team tensed with Garcia swallowing audibly. Knowing the Captain, his statement meant he did not want to hear any more complaints on the choice of their weapons. The rest of the Away Team got the message and faced front again, waiting for Alex to continue.

"We realise these weapons may seem primitive in comparison to our phasers, but in close quarters combat, which is how you will be most likely engaging the xenomorphs, they're more effective to avoid the acid spray. Captain, would you like to take over?" She knew he may wish to explain the finer points of their entry into the facility.

"Only to say we will enter the Institute using the route Lt. Dunne found on sub-Level 25 and will undoubtedly encounter the creatures. We've received the facility's technical data from the Penalogy Institute on Earth, so we know the force field generator is also located there. Our objective is to disable it so the Maverick can begin transporting the Institute's population on board. We'll deal with the xenomorphs after the civilians and our Away Team is safe."

Vin didn't need to be a mind reader to know what approach Chris would take once the Institute was cleared. He would obliterate it from the surface of the planet, and the Vulcan couldn't blame him for it. Even though the inadvertent meld with a xenomorph brought on premature Pon Farr, Vin knew he hadn't suffered the worst of it during their encounter with the creatures on Fury 361. The Captain had been taken through the wringer, and still carried the burden of many deaths, especially young Lt. Angel who sacrificed herself for him.

The doors to the cargo bay opened and to their surprise, JD was striding into the room with their guest Holly following him closely.

"JD Dunne, you are not supposed to leave Sick Bay! Didn't you hear what Doctor Zheng said, you should be resting. Dermal regeneration works only if you keep the injured area still for longer than an hour!"

"I'll be fine," JD bit back and stopped in mid-sentence when he realised that they had an audience.

"JD, what are you doing here?" Vin asked first. "Ain't you supposed to be in Sick Bay?"

"That's what I said!" Holly burst out.

"JD..." Chris looked at the two young people. "Miss Jones is right. You should be getting some rest."

"Captain," JD shot Holly a look of annoyance before facing Chris again. "I should be going down there with you. I was apart of that Away Team, I can't just abandon the others."

"You're doing nothing of the kind," Chris understood JD's desire to go with them. "You gave us a route into that place, it's going to help us a hell of a lot with lowering the force field. Right now, the best thing you can do is stay here and rest."

However, JD was having none of it. His worries for Buck and the others overrode his normal inhibitions of speaking his mind to the Captain. "Captain I've been down there, I can save us time when trying to navigate that place. The aliens have turned it into some kind of a nest with these weird formations all over the level. You may have technical data on the facility's layout, but they may not be current."

The kid had a point, Chris thought with a frown, and the xenomorphs knew how to use their victims' unfamiliarity of the terrain to maximum effect.

"JD, you should be staying here with the Captain, you can still help!" Holly insisted, sensing the Captain's silence might be capitulation.

"The Captain isn't staying here," Alex commented, wishing he would do precisely what Holly assumed. "He's leading the Away Team."

Chris shot Alex a look, suspecting she was still smarting over his decision to go down.

"How can the Captain go down to the surface?" Holly turned to them in surprise. "Isn't that against your Starfleet Regulations?"

"You know Starfleet Regulations?" JD stared at her in surprise.

"Of course I do," she replied as if this was the most obvious thing in the world. "I read up on them before your ship arrived here. If we had to deal with Starfleet, I needed to know how you guys operate so I can do my job as Doctor Paracelsus's assistant. How can you leave the ship? Isn't this like a crisis?" Holly questioned Chris.

Alex bit her tongue, Vin found something on the floor more interesting to look at, while JD winced inwardly. The rest of the Security found a reason to look away as well.

"Miss Jones, you are a guest onboard this ship. It's not your place to question how I run it."

Chris bristled in annoyance, controlling his temper as he stared down the young woman with the most scathing version of the Larabee glare he could muster.

"With all due respect Captain," Holly countered without batting an eye. She was accustomed to dealing with testy authority figures or at least ones who were being plain petulant. "I'm a civilian. You can't tell me not to voice an opinion, especially when you're breaking your own rules."

"Holly..." JD started to say, recognising the Captain's expression of anger slowly reaching volcanic.

"Captain," Alex stepped in before Chris murdered the girl. "JD has a point. I don't like him going down there either, but you need to get to the force field generator as quickly as possible without getting lost down there, fighting off the xenomorphs. If you insist on going to the surface, then JD should go with you."

Alex didn't like the idea of sending either of them to Tenarus but any advantage the Away Team could get on the surface was one they could not squander. Exchanging a glance with Vin, who was trying to suppress a smile of amusement by the whole scene, she saw the Captain trying not to groan with exasperation as he surrendered to the superior argument.

"Alright," Chris conceded defeat. "JD, you got ten minutes to get ready. Alex, tell Julia to replicate us more weapons."

"But Captain!" Holly protested.

JD ignored her and gave Chris a nod of gratitude. "Thank you, Sir. Come on, Holly!"

The junior officer retreated through the way he came, dragging Holly with him before she could say anything further and end up in the brig.

Vin finally spoke after the two were gone. "I like her."

*******

A different kind of alarm now screamed its warning throughout the Tenarus Institute.

Through the communications panel on the wall of the Infirmary, Josiah Sanchez listened with rising alarm to the terrified voices of patients and staff throughout the facility seconds before their transmissions were interrupted by dead silence. Each disrupted voice vanished in a burst of horror and fright, the tell-tale sign Paracelsusís twisted plan was being unleashed upon them all. Both officers could only listen to the deteriorating situation for a few minutes before it became too much for them. Josiah and Nathan could do nothing to help the people on the other end of those transmissions, not if what made them scream was already upon them.

Josiah finally switched off the communicator, convinced if Buck Wilmington needed to reach them, he would do so via their combadges. At this moment, he and Nathan had more significant concerns. After liberating the medical staff attempting to evacuate to the upper levels, both healers retreated into the Infirmary and found it empty. Sealing the doors from the inside in case any more of Paracelsus's fanatics chose to bother them again, Josiah stood guard after helping Nathan place Mary within the stasis chamber.

"How is it going?" Josiah paced the area in front of the main doors, studying the display providing him with a glimpse of the outside corridor. It appeared everyone in the area had either been evacuated or were staying out of the hallway.

"I'm setting up the stasis field right now," Nathan explained, moving along the bullet-shaped capsule key to Mary's continued survival. Everything above the Protocol Officer's shoulders could be viewed through the clear glass window that made up a third of the capsule's construction. The rest of the chamber was the dark grey of duranium, with a control panel of opaque glass fixed along the side, in the middle.

Nathan was calibrating the device to ensure Mary's vitals, as well as the alien spore, slowed enough to halt the implantation process while keeping both human and xenomorph alive. The healer avoided looking through the glass because the sight of Mary with that creature attached to her face, infuriated him. Especially when Nathan remembered it was another physician who brought this horror upon her.

"And the implantation?" Josiah almost couldn't bring himself to say the word. It was too monstrous. As it was, he winced each time he saw Mary through the glass window of the capsule. He couldn't even see her face, all he could see was that damn spore attached to her like some grotesque mask. Again, the rage frothed up inside him, knowing the architect of this horror was someone he once called a friend.

"It's slowed down," Nathan answered, but judging by the creases Josiah could see on his forehead, it was clear Mary was nowhere out of the woods yet. "But not enough."

"Not enough," Josiah stared from across the room. "What does that mean?"

"The life cycle of these things is exceedingly fast," Nathan paused long enough to meet Josiah's gaze. "From the moment the spore attaches itself to a host to the eventual 'birth', we're talking just a day."

"Oh my God," Josiah shuddered, understanding what Nathan was getting at.

"Yeah," the healer nodded grimly. "I've extended that as much as I can, which is to say two days and no more. We've got to get to the Maverick well before so I can get this thing out of her while it's still in embryonic form. Anything further along than that, removing all the stray bits of DNA becomes a hell of a lot more difficult. "You heard what Paracelsus said about that poor girl working on the Sulaco."

"Callie," Josiah recalled.

"She breathed in particulates of xenomorph DNA, and they were able to implant a queen inside of her. These things are highly adaptive, almost down to the molecular level. When I remove the embryo from Mary, I have to get it all, nothing can be left inside her or else it will simply multiply through cellular mitosis. I haven't seen anything like it since Species 8472. Because their cells are so densely coded, they immediately infect all foreign cells around it. The only reason the Doctor on Voyager was able to get rid of them was due to his access to Borg nanites...."

Nathan's voice trailed off into silence as wheels started spinning in his head, possibilities emerging.

Josiah could tell immediately Nathan had stumbled onto something important, but anything else he had to say died in his throat when something dropped down from an air vent on the ceiling, at the far corner of the room. It had made its penetration silently, and even though the Infirmary was well lit when the xenomorph made its appearance, it felt as if all the light was drawn to it like an organic black hole.

"Nathan," Josiah said calmly, sensing if he shouted, the creature would attack.

The tail appeared first. It was a boney ridged thing that looked like it belonged to one of those dinosaur skeletons in a museum. Josiah had seen images of it after the Fiorina mission, and that footage did nothing to convey how terrifying these things actually were. It landed on the floor, like a coiled ball of nightmare, ready to strike.

"Jesus Christ," Nathan whispered when he saw the ashen look on Josiah's face and followed the man's line of sight to its horrid conclusion.

His first thought was to go for his phaser before he remembered what the Captain said about shooting these things. In these close quarters, there was no telling how much damage that acid spray would do. He'd treated the Away Team for acid burns when they returned to the ship after the mission with the Sulaco and knew just how corrosive the stuff was.

Josiah took one step forward, not sure what to do when the creature's head pivoted towards him, opening those formidable jaws to let out a hiss. The xenomorph hadn't attacked yet, which was contrary to everything he knew about these lifeforms. They were apex predators, who feared nothing except fire and their queen. It should have turned this room into a blood bath by now.

Why was it hesitating?

In a flash of insight coming from twenty-five years of counselling numerous races with different behaviours, the answer surfaced in Josiah's mind.

"Nathan, head for the office," Josiah didn't take his eyes away from the xenomorph watching him closely. It was waiting for him to behave the way all prey did before its natural instincts overrode what minuscule reasoning skills it had.

"What about Mary?"

"She'll be fine," Josiah maintained his tone, aware their lives were perched on a razor's edges. "Just do it and don't look behind you."

"Oh, you don't have to worry about that," Nathan started to move slowly and through the corner of his eye, could see the xenomorph turning back to him.

The creature was starting to take more interest, and Josiah knew it was nearing the limits of its control. When it saw Nathan move, it's body seemed to tense, ready to pounce. Josiah did not give it a chance. Instead of firing directly at it, the Counsellor aimed his shot above the xenomorph's head, striking at the panelling. The metal hissed with heat, spitting sparks in outrage.

"RUN!"

Nathan didn't need to be told twice. The healer sprinted across the room towards the main office as the xenomorph uttered a shrill screech of savage and bolted after him. Josiah did the same, and both men moved faster than either was accustom. The xenomorph crossed the floor in a streak of black, intending to reach them before they entered the room. Nathan entered the interior of the office first, coming to an abrupt halt at the wall next to the door panel.

"MOVE YOUR ASS JOSIAH!"

Josiah leapt over a chair with far more agility than a man his age was capable with the xenomorph in close pursuit, knocking everything in its path out of the way as it closed the distance between them. It's tail swished about, slapping so hard against the glass window of the capsule, for a second Nathan feared he would crack it. Despite Josiah's speed in trying to escape, Nathan could tell he wasn't fast enough. Desperately trying to think of what to do, Nathan knew shooting at the xenomorph when it was that close to the Counsellor would only get the man killed.

Instead, he fired at the nearest panel along the xenomorph's path. Nathan hoped no one received severe radiation poisoning in the next few hours since he was aiming for the controls to the decontamination chamber. The glass display exploded violently when he hit it dead centre, sending fragments and sparks in all directions. The xenomorph reacted for only an instant since fire was the only thing that seemed to give it pause, uttering another indignant howl as if any attempt to keep it was some unpardonable sin.

It was a split-second delay, but it was enough. Josiah crossed the doorway into the office less than a second before Nathan slammed his palm on the door controls. The twin doors began to close almost immediately, but the healer knew that would not be enough to keep the xenomorph from breaking in.

"Computer, activate security lockout, Starfleet override Theta 251879!"

"Code accepted," the computer's calm voice spoke. "Initiating security lockout protocols."

With the dull thud of the doors sealing them inside the room, a security field hummed into being across the entire doorway. The xenomorph ran straight into the energy field and was flung backwards by the impact. Screeching in pain, it was not about to give up two potential hosts and hurled itself at the force field again, uttering another spine-tingling screech when it was met with the same resistance. The xenomorph made two further attempts before it finally retreated.

While the thing had no eyes, Nathan was convinced it was glaring at them with nothing less than murder. The healer suspected if it did get through, the beast might forego the trouble of keeping them alive for implantation. It would kill them outright. After its final attempt met with the same result, it retreated back the way it came, disappearing into the shaft with its tail going out of view like a coiled serpent.

"Good thing Paracelsus didn't change any of the standard security protocols," Nathan exhaled loudly as he leaned against the wall.

"That's something," Josiah sighed, preferring not to think about his old friend at present. Forcefields like the one Nathan had just initiated were standard safeguards in any penal colony. No matter how well behaved or well run any facility might appear to be, the Federation took no chances when it came to the safety of staff working in such rehabilitation centres. "You know after everything I read about those things," Nathan said, staring at the vent where the creature had vanished. "I didn't think we'd get a chance to get away when that thing came after us."

"Me neither," Josiah admitted. "Without being able to use our phasers, it should have taken us apart, but it didn't."

"We got lucky," Nathan sighed.

"No, we didn't," Josiah met the healer's gaze. "It hesitated for a reason."

"What reason?"

"Mary," Josiah stared at the stasis chamber, where Mary Travis lay, oblivious to the fact she had just saved both their lives. "It hesitated because it sensed the alien inside her. It wonít harm her because she needs to be alive to for the birth."

Nathanís heart clenched in his chest. "Christ."

Chapter Twenty:
Converts

Gabriel Paracelsus could hear the Queen in his dreams.

Although she never used words, he knew exactly what she meant. There was never any misunderstanding between them when she could speak so directly to his heart. She whispered to him now, telling him her children were in danger, the children she'd charged him to protect in the world, to walk the places she could not. They were in danger, beset upon by the hateful who did not understand the grand gift she'd sought to give them, and she needed his help to put a stop to their murdering.

He woke up with a start in his quarters and realised he was alone. The meddling Starfleet Officers who usurped his authority in his own kingdom were nowhere in sight, no doubt attempting to interfere with the plan he so painstakingly cultivated over the past three months. Even Josiah, a trusted friend, had become Judas the betrayer. Getting to his feet, he shook away the ache in his limbs from the stun blast and staggered over to the comm panel. He had to learn what was happening in his institute, and salvage the plan to enlighten everyone.

"Operations," Paracelsus spoke. "Come in. This is Doctor Paracelsus. What's happening?"

There was a pause for a moment as if the person on the other end did not know what to say, but when the voice responded, Paracelsus recognised it immediately. It was Rekellen.

"What is happening, you lunatic!, is that we are all about to die because of your insane plan! Your creatures are loose across the facility! We need to shut down the force field so we can leave!"

An unbeliever, Paracelsus sighed, his shoulders slumping visibly. He always suspected the Romulans would be the most difficult to convince. In any case, it didn't matter if she didn't believe. He had plenty of others in the fold who were faithful to the cause. They would help him show her the truth.

"It's alright, Rekellen," Paracelsus countered in a calm, soothing tone. "There's nothing to fear. Once we're a part of the whole, there will be no reason to worry. We will be reborn into something better."

There was a pause where nothing was spoken for a few seconds, and Paracelsus wondered if she was considering his words, that perhaps she might see the light.

"You're insane."

He supposed it was too much to expect any more from her. She would see the truth of his words in time. Right now, however, he had work to do. Activating the panel again, this time with a specific code entry, he addressed a different audience, one he knew would be waiting for his guidance.

"This is Doctor Paracelsus. My friends, it is time for the purification to begin."

*******

"Do you have any idea how we are going to do this?"

Dralak asked the two Starfleet officers he was accompanying as they hurried towards the nearest turbo-lift after departing Operations.

The Romulan was armed with one of the blasters taken from the unconscious Nausicaan joining them on their plan of disabling the force field. Leaving Shavo under Rekellen's watchful eye and ensuring the two guards were secured, the trio headed towards Level 25 with no illusions, their chances of reaching the power generator would be a perilous journey if the xenomorphs were on the loose. So far the area had been evacuated with only a few stragglers left to reach the upper levels, but there was no guarantee those evacuees were any safer, not when the xenomorphs had the run of the place.

"I'm making it up as I go," Buck confessed, noticing the sharp look from Ezra as he made that statement. "I'm hoping these things are too busy infiltrating the rest of the facility to worry about anyone trying to reach their nest. You were in their hive the last time Ezra, you got any suggestions?"

Ezra frowned, having successfully buried the memories of Fury 361 into the back of his mind after his experiences there. Aside from losing the entire security complement assigned to the mission, the Away Team was so utterly overwhelmed it was a miracle they survived at all. Finding himself in a repeat of that experience was something Ezra never wanted to face again, to say nothing about how many lives hung in the balance this time.

"Alexandra is the real expert in their behaviour," Ezra commented, wishing they could contact their science officer for her opinion on the subject. Of course, if that were possible, they would be back on the Maverick instead of running for their lives. "These creatures have similar behavioural traits as societal insects, living in a hive with a single female, a queen who is the primary egg layer."

"Right, right," Buck nodded, recalling what he read in Alexís mission reports. "As a rule, they tend to keep out of the egg chamber, so if she's laying them down there, they might keep their distance. From our earlier encounters, they have drones and spores, no sign of a warrior caste, so the drones may be the ones infiltrating the rest of the institute. From the data gathered from the Sulaco and LV427 about the queen, she displayed highly intelligent behaviour."

"We must assume so," Ezra agreed. "Telepathically, she was able to connect with Doctor Paracelsus and convince him that he was on a quest of divine enlightenment."

"I can't believe it," Dralak shook his head, still bewildered by this. "I have worked with the doctor for almost two years. He isn't a foolish man. As a healer, he is rational and compassionate. It is beyond me he could have been so deceived. "

"Look I do not doubt he isn't batshit crazy right now," Buck said without pause as they neared the turbo lift. "But if she's telepathic, we have no idea what she could have done to his mind. If he was exposed because of his high ESPer rating, he might not have been able to fight her off."

"I agree," Ezra nodded as they waited for the doors to open. "We must also remember that the queen chose to build her nest under the primary heat exchange at the Acheron colony. The one place the Marines who went there could not use their weapons. If that location was chosen strategically, then we have to assume she may have built her nest near the shield generators for the same purpose."

"That could work for us," Buck stated. "If she's done that here, the drones will stay away from the hatchery, which means we might be able to get through before they figure out we're there."

Ezra said nothing since the xenomorph's ability to lay waste to the best plans of mice and men was infamous. Not that he could say anything because when the doors slid open, Ezra found himself staring at a blaster pointed squarely at his belly, courtesy of an Andorian who looked not much older than Shavo, with Paracelsus standing behind him. The doctor was accompanied by two of his Nausicaan guards who were similarly armed and apparently ready to meet resistance.

"Gentlemen," Paracelsus greeted. "Kindly drop your weapons."

Despite having a blaster aimed at him, Ezra was unprepared to relinquish his phaser, especially when giving it up meant surrendering to Paracelsus whose insane plan involved implantation by a xenomorph. Ezra would rather take the shot.

"Not a chance in hell," Buck answered before Ezra could, his own phaser drawn, more than willing to shoot it out in this corridor if they had to. "Your creatures have broken containment, they're moving throughout the facility. This isn't a question of a few of your faithful converts becoming enlightened, this is about everyone here and potentially all the life on this planet becoming hosts."

Ezra, Buck and Dralak took a cautionary step away from the turbo lift. One of the Nausicaans tensed as if preparing to open fire, but Paracelsus stayed his hand. The First Officer of the Maverick knew immediately it wasn't because the doctor was opposed to violence, but rather because every dead body was one more squandered host. Buck was thinking fast, aware they had to get down to the shield generator as quickly as possible. Every second wasted, was another second allowing the xenomorphs to completely overwhelm the facility.

"The method may vary, but my purpose has unfolded all the same. We will all know the Queen's blessing."

"You fool!" Dralak swore with disgust. "One only needs to look at these creatures to know we are nothing but raw material to them."

Buck flinched at the comment, finding the Borg connotation too close for his liking.

"Doctor," Buck stared at him with eyes as hard as flint. "Stand aside, or we'll go through you. If you want to stay here and let you and your converts receive a blessing or whatever the hell you want to call it, I can't stop any of you. The other people in this place didn't ask to become purified. You have no right to sacrifice them without their consent."

"They'll thank me," Paracelsus spoke, sounding as if nothing Buck said had any effect.

"Oh for God sake!"

Ezra Standish, showing why he was one of the best card players in the fleet with reflexes to match, fired point-blank at the Andorian in front of him. The Andorian, mistakenly letting down his guard during the conversation, was struck before he had a chance to realise the Security Chief's patience had finally reached its limit. The beam sent him sprawling backwards, tumbling into the bodies of the Nausicaans behind him.

"Come on," Dralak shouted as one of the Nausicaans reacted swiftly, pushing Paracelsus to the side as he opened fire. "We'll take the other lift!"

Buck dodged the beam of energy that flew over his shoulder, aware that unlike Ezra's phaser, Nausicaan blasters didn't come with stun settings. The bolt struck the wall, turning the white paint finish black. Smoke filled the corridor as he saw Dralak gesturing furiously for them to follow. Buck dropped to one knee, firing at the Nausicaan who took cover behind the open doorway of the lift. The beam impacted harmlessly against the wall, unable to reach his target.

"Don't harm them!"

Buck heard Paracelsus cry out and once again, his jaw tensed knowing this wasn't for their sake. The doctor was issuing the warning because corpses made poor hosts. Next to him, Ezra fired at the Nausicaans again, keeping them temporarily pinned inside the lift. "Commander, go! I will cover your retreat!"

"Ezra, we're leaving together!" Buck shouted, not about to let the security chief lag behind for any reason. Ezra's devotion to duty, particularly in protecting the senior officers of his ship, often led him to risk his life, which Buck was not having under any circumstances.

Behind them, Dralak had turned around and was returning fire, trying to cover them both as the Nausicaans emerged from the lift doors attempting to force the Romulan back and cripple the two Starfleet officers. Ezra continued to fire, watching them close the distance, successfully avoiding his shots until he felt Buck's hand gripping his arm and pulling him away. The security officers started to move when something caught his eye from above.

A ceiling panel suddenly dropped and following it all the way down, was a xenomorph.

Buck, who had never seen the thing before could only stare at it.

All he could think of while gaping at the monstrosity of gunmetal grey, baring its sharp teeth oozing noisome fluid, the video footage brought back from the Sulaco and Fury 361 did not convey just how terrifying it looked. Even though it launched itself at the Nausicaan staring at it with horror seconds after its landing, it felt like an eternity. No one spoke in the wake of their first glimpse of the alien, and the Nausicaan wore an expression of revelation that had little to do with reaching divine purity.

Perhaps at that moment as he saw those teeth bearing down on him, he realised these creatures had come from the darkest corner of creation not a higher plane of existence. Fear snapped the Nausicaans reason as he attempted to shoot, raising his weapon following his abrupt display of belated clarity.

"DON'T SHOOT IT!" Paracelsus screamed.

It was a warning they all agreed with for entirely the wrong reasons. The blaster struck the creature in mid-torso, exacting a screeching shriek of agony that ripped through the air. Buck didn't wait around to see what would happen when the energy weapon did its worst on the xenomorph's skin. The First Officer of the Maverick yanked Ezra with him as they bolted further down the hall, turning back just in time to see the xenomorph's body explode.

The greenish fluid splashed across the room in all directions, bathing the Nausicaan directly in front of the alien. In its death, the toxic blood began eating into everything it touched with a loud, sinister hiss. That sound was eclipsed by the blood-curdling scream of the Nausicaan whose flesh started to disintegrate as if someone had poured scalding water on butter. Buck's stomach clenched in horror at the excruciating agony the man was experiencing and did the only thing he could.

He fired his phaser.

The stun setting of the phaser would do nothing to save him, but it would render what was left of his rapidly liquefying brain unconscious. His shrieks of pain were immediately muted but as he continued to dissolve, so was the floor and the walls where the corrosive acid had struck. The alien's corpse sunk through the metal deck, leaving a ragged hole of molten steel and stone as it continued its journey downward.

"By Romulus," Dralak whispered. "We're going to die."

"I don't want to hear that!" Buck barked at him, understanding his fear but needing for them to get moving. The only way to prevent more deaths was to lower that shield generator, and after what Buck just saw, they didn't have a lot of time.

Actually, they had no time at all.

The rest of the ceiling panels attached to the one used by the dead xenomorph to make its arrival, suddenly vanished, ripped away by three of the creatures falling onto the ravaged deck. Attracted by the death cry of their brethren, they landed with cat-like agility, surveying the situation in an instant before launching themselves at the prey in the room. One of the things snatched up the unconscious Andorian Ezra had stunned and disappeared into the gap again.

"Commander! We are leaving!" Ezra snapped, exchanging places, being the one who was now dragging him along.

Buck paused long enough to see the remaining aliens converging on Paracelsus and his lone Nausicaan follower before he turned on his heels and ran for his life.

They rounded the corner, unaware whether or not the xenomorphs were following when Dralak shouted at them both. "We can't leave without Kash and Rek! This level has been breached. They can't stay in Operations!"

"Right!" Buck agreed not about to let anyone else be sacrificed to those monsters.

Fortunately, Operations was on their way to the other turbo lift, and all three ran in full stride, aware their enemy would be coming if not already in pursuit. Ezra wanted to examine the tricorder and get a fix on the creatures, but that was using time they didn't have. The smoke from acid burns began to fill up the hallway, and Ezra wondered if Paracelsus' other Nausicaan minder had opened fire on one of the xenomorphs. A shriek both outraged and ferocity cut through their ears and Ezra knew it was a rallying cry to all the others.

"We have to get off this level!" Buck shouted, voicing what Ezra suspected. "They'll be coming for us!"

"You read my mind Commander," Ezra agreed as they saw Dralak arriving at the door to Operations.

"Dralak wait!" Buck called as he saw the man activating the door panel.

His demand did not register as the Romulan rushed in. Buck uttered a curse of annoyance, understanding Dralak's impatience because he had a relationship with Rekellen, but with the appearance of the xenomorph on this level they could take nothing for granted. Then again, Buck was swimming upstream of Romulan passion and having had to deal with the Vulcan variety in the past, knew he was fighting a losing battle.

Exchanging a look of exasperation with Ezra, the two Starfleet officers followed him into Dralak and stopped short.

It was empty.

There was no sign of Rekellen, Kash or even Shavo. The only sounds of life were coming over the comm systems as multiple screens showed the nightmarish scenes of xenomorphs infiltrating almost every floor of the Institute. Only the uppermost level where the transporters were located seemed unaffected. For now. Elsewhere, terrified faces in corridors and rooms were suddenly obscured by blurry shadows that moved too fast for the recorder to capture, before leaving those spaces devoid of any life a second later.

Buck stared at the screen, horrified by the sight of people being taken by the xenomorphs. He fought the urge to draw the conclusion JD might be somewhere in this accursed place about to become a host to an embryo. The horror of it was more than he could bear, but he reigned it in. If he succumbed to his fears for JD, he would be useful to no one, and none of them would leave this place.

The kid was alive. Buck refused to believe anything else.

Meanwhile, Ezra had started examining the room, trying to determine what happened here, although the lack of bodies painted a painfully clear picture. He spared a glance at Dralak who was standing next to Rekellen's empty seat, a look of anguish on his face. At that moment, he didn't look too unlike Vin after they'd discovered Alex's abduction on Fury 361.

"Commander," Ezra called out, capturing Buck's attention from the monitor screens.

"What have you found?" Buck asked although he could guess.

Overhead, ceiling panels had been removed in places while one or two had been ripped in half, with deep grooves in the metal that resembled the claw marks of a creature capable of tearing through steel. One of the screens was smoking, no doubt the recipient of an errant blaster shot. Ruined wiring and circuits were still spitting embers through the shattered display. Across another screen, where Shavo was seated, was a splatter of blue blood across the dark glass. Buck wondered if Shavo had survived to get his blessing or had the xenomorphs killed him.

If there did, he would be here, Buck reasoned. The aliens had no use for a corpse.

"This," Ezra gestured to the floor.

Buck sucked in his breath as he saw the Nausicaan blaster they'd liberated from the guards lying across the floor, covered in the familiar translucent, thick resin. Dralak, drawn out of his stupor of grief, stumbled next to Buck and looked down at the weapon they'd last seen in Rekellen's hand.

"They killed her," Dralak whispered anguished. "They've killed Rek!"

"No," Buck clenched his shoulder and made the Romulan look at him. "There are no bodies here. That means they've been taken for embryo implantation. If we can get to her and the others, we might be able to save them. Dralak, I need you to pull yourself together. We've got to get to Sub-Level 25. The only way we can help them is to get them to the Maverick. Do you understand?"

The question seemed to snap Dralak out of his stunned state, and he blinked several times in quick succession as if needing to dispel the stupor he had been in.

"Yes, yes, I do. Come on," Dralak spoke with renewed focus and started jogging towards the door, expecting Buck and Ezra to follow. "It's this way to the other lift."

Without argument, they followed him out, leaving behind the voices screaming through the comms for help.

Chapter Twenty-One:
Reach

When the gold shimmer of the transporter beam faded from his eyes, Chris Larabee was frankly amazed JD Dunne had not been returned to the Maverick with severe hypothermia.

The landscape surrounding the second Away Team after their materialisation on the surface of Tenarus revealed a treacherous wilderness of wide glacial plains scarified by harsh blizzard winds and enclosed by jagged mountain ranges. In the nearby distance, the prison facility appeared through the haze of snow, and while it ought to look like a shelter in a storm, to Chris, the ancient origins of the structure made it look more ominous than impressive.

After agreeing to let JD accompany the Away team, they beamed onto the surface of the planet fully armed with the same weapons used by the Colonial Marines of LV426. Despite being bombarded with a litany of reasons why he ought to be staying on the Maverick, Chris ignored Alexís entreaties and maintained command of the mission as intended. Under any circumstances, he would have heeded Alexís advice, but he had a blind spot when it came to the xenomorphs. They had to be destroyed and he would trust no one else to lead their annihilation other than himself.

"Vin, you take point," Chris spoke beneath the faceplate of his enviro-suit. "Use your tricorder to find the tunnel entrance."

"Aye Sir," Vin stepped forward, virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the Away Team in their suits which looked like a formidable hybrid of cold-weather gear and battle armour. Although the Vulcan hated arctic temperatures, he was also the only one of them who possessed reflexes fast enough to take on a xenomorph, not to mention rip one apart with his bare hands if he was pissed off enough.

"Drew, scan the area. I want to know how many of those things have gotten out of the facility."

"Yes Captain," Drew Katovit nodded after gesturing to his security team to flank the Captain while producing the tricorder Julia Pemberton calibrated to detect the creaturesí odd silicon-based life readings.

"Captain," Kate spoke up, "if these things reproduce as prolifically as youíve said, can we assume they might try to reach the other indigenous life forms on the planet?"

As much as Chris hated to admit it was a possibility he couldnít discount. "It is, and weíll have to solve that problem when we get to it. It may be necessary to quarantine this entire planet if the aliens have expanded beyond the Institute."

"I gave them a way out," JD frowned, realising if this took place, it would be the result of his escape with Holly using the same route Jerry Lambert had taken to flee the institute. "Theyíve gotten loose because of me."

"Donít even go there," Chris said sharply, turning to JD who was walking next to him. "If you didnít get out, we wouldnít have a way to help Buck and the others. Thereís only one reason this happened because Paracelsus let it."

"Yes Sir," JD nodded and even though Chris couldnít see him through the faceplate of his suit, the Captain suspected the words would mean little to the man if the aliens succeeded in infesting Tenarus.

Vin left Chris behind, going on ahead, holding his pulse rifle with one hand while scanning for the sluice tunnel concealed by wind and snow. As he studied the display, he was also mindful of the flurry of movement before him. The snow made it difficult to see and like Chris, Vin was amazed JD and Holly had survived this blizzard when they emerged into it without suits. As it was, the temperature was south of -60 degrees and if the Maverick hadnít found the duo, they would have been dead in minutes.

The tunnelís location appeared in the tricorder display a few seconds later with the sensors using the structureís composition to hone in on its location. It was just over the next small hill. "Iíve found it!" Vin spoke up loudly, trying to be heard over the roar of the wind. "Itís just above that snowbank!" He gestured at Chris and the others as he started forward.

"Vin, hold up!" Chris warned, remembering that the alien had no difficulty in cold weather. The things could survive in a vacuum and would be more adaptable to this weather than the Away Team. As much as Chris wanted to get into the facility and find Mary and the others, he knew he had to be cautious. On Fury 361, heíd behaved recklessly and cost the security team their lives.

He would never make that mistake again.

Vin maintained his position as instructed, knowing how testy Chris could get with anything related to the xenomorphs. He lowered the tricorder, preparing to hook it to his belt when something that didnít seem like the frenzied swirling of snow entered the extreme left of his vision. The Maverickís helmsman turned around just in time to see the xenomorph coming out of the snow, its black exoskeleton almost grey from the white flecks. It moved across the snow at surprising speed, giving Vin just enough time to raise the Pulse rifle and pulled the trigger.

Chris saw Vinís silhouette through the blizzard and was on approach when the sound of gunfire ripped through the air, banishing the howling of the wind to background noise.

"VIN!"

Chris bolted forward brandishing his weapon, ready to shoot when he saw a xenomorph avoiding the barrage of bullets Vin fired at him. The creature pounced at Vin but the helmsman managed to jump clear and prevent the xenomorph from bringing him down. The Vulcan spun around just as quickly and slammed the butt of the Pulse rifle against the side of the xenomorphís skull, disorientating it. Taken by surprise at the fact its prey was far more formidable than expected, the creature swished its tail in Vin's direction. The helmsman ducked, dropping to his knees to avoid being swatted aside before firing again.

This time the hail of bullets met its mark and as the shells tore apart the xenomorphís body. Vin had just enough time to register its dark exoskeleton rupturing, spewing forth tides of deadly acid when a hand yanked him backwards. The noxious blood splattered across the snow, filling the air with toxic fumes as it created craters in the snow-covered ground. In front of him, the xenomorph's body disintegrated the snow beneath it, sinking into its depths like a torpedoed ship.

"Thanks, Pard," Vin glanced at Chris as the rest of the Away Team caught up with them.

"Anytime," Chris returned, staring at the carcass turning the snow into slush the deeper it sank into the glacial plain. "I guess thereís no question they found a way out."

"Iím afraid so Captain," Drew came up alongside him.

The tone of his voice put Chris on guard telling him nothing good was coming from the Assistant Chief of Security. "What is it?"

"Iíve detected at least six of the creatures are on the loose," Drew reported.

The statement immediately prompted Vin to get on his feet and conduct a visual survey of the area, trying to see through the blizzard for any signs of the xenomorphs closing in on their location. In the snowstorm, he could only see a few feet ahead and the snow was moving so fast across the landscape it was impossible to distinguish anything through the drift.

"Location?" Chris demanded, doing the same as soon as Drew mentioned that number.

"Not in our location," Drew answered quickly. "The one we just encountered appears to be a straggler. Iím afraid theyíre spreading out Captain, theyíre heading into the wilderness."

"Theyíre searching for hosts," JD gulped, his worst fears realized.

Chrisís jaw ticked, aware of what that would mean for the native wildlife of Tenarus. If left unchecked, the xenomorphs would very quickly spread out across the continent, turning the entire planet into a hive. All it would take was one ship to land on this world for the aliens to escape containment, as they had done in the Institute.

Closing his eyes slowly, he tapped his combadge. "Captain to Maverick, come in."

"Captain," Alexís voice replied immediately. "Whatís your status? Is everything alright?"

"Weíre all fine Commander," Chris replied, omitting to tell her about Vinís most recent encounter with a xenomorph. "Commander, weíve detected signs of the creatures escaping the facility. Right now, theyíre out in the wilderness, hunting for prey."

"Captain, if they succeed in implanting the indigenous life forms..."

"I know," Chris cut her off before she could finish the statement. Just one of the xenomorphs was capable of producing a handful of eggs for the purpose of implantation. It would take only one of those to be nurtured into a queen. "Commander, I want you to use the Maverickís sensors and scan for any silicon-based lifeform outside the facility and fire phasers at their location. I want the target range over a half-mile radius."

Everyone except Vin gaped at the Captain in shock. Vin was sure if Alex were here, she would probably be displaying similar astonishment at the order. However, as extreme as Chrisís solution was, Vin knew it was the only way to save the planet from becoming a xenomorph nest.

"Did you hear me, Commander?" Chris asked when Alex didnít respond.

"Yes Captain," she replied, composed from her shock. "Readying phaser banks now."

"Good. Weíll check in once weíre inside the structure," Chris ended the transmission before regarding his Away Team. "Letís get moving."

*******

Although seemingly safe inside the safety of the security force field in the Infirmary, both Nathan Jackson and Josiah Sanchez knew it was only a matter of time before the aliens found a way into their sanctuary. Trapped inside the CMOís office, they were forced to watch through monitors and listen through combadges, the chaos taking place throughout the facility. It seemed Buckís action of evacuating everyone to the upper levels had merely delayed the carnage, not halted it.

The xenomorphs were on the loose and through the displays, Josiah and Nathan watched hapless inmates and staff being snatched away by blurred images that moved in and out of view in a second. Only the harrowing memory of inch-long fangs dripping with slick fluid, the curve of a distended head and the spindly tail remained behind in the aftermath. Those who had been screaming, whose terrified faces spoke of the coming attack, disappeared soon after.

"How long do you think it will take them to get through here?" Josiah asked, staring at the ceiling and feeling some measure of gratitude to see the force field array providing a canopy of protection. At least the xenomorphs were not coming through the ceiling vents as it had done earlier.

"Hopefully not before the Maverick figures out how to get us out of here," Nathan replied, casting a look at Mary who still remained cocooned in the stasis pod, far safer than any of them at present. At least the xenomorphs would leave her alone while she was still undergoing the implantation process. The doctor was presently seated at one of the terminals, scrolling through streams of data in careful scrutiny.

"Counsellor Sanchez to Away Team, come in." Josiah tapped his combadge, hoping to reach Buck and the others. With everything in the Institute going to hell, the Away team hadnít checked in with each other since the First Officer ordered them to bring Mary here.

"Josiah! This is Buck! Whatís your status?"

Josiah exchanged a look of relief with Nathan before he resumed speaking. "Weíre still in the Infirmary. Nathan managed to get Mary into a stasis pod, but we had to erect the emergency force-field in the CMOís office because we had company."

"Are you alright?" Ezraís voice interrupted before Buck could respond.

"We are for now," Josiah assured the Security Chief, aware of how Ezra could be when he thought anyone under his charge was in trouble. "The security grid is keeping them out, but weíve heard nothing from JD. What about you?"

Josiah didnít have to see the expression on Buckís face to know that the pause that followed was answer enough. Inwardly Josiah prayed JD and Holly had found a safe place to hide, but the boy hadnít attempted to contact them via coms and that was pretty damning proof it might be too late for the young lieutenant. Still, for Buckís sake, Josiah chose not to voice that possibility.

"No, nothing," Buck spoke after a moment. "Weíll have to look for him later. Right now, weíre heading towards Sub-Level 25. Weíre planning on shutting down the force-field generator."

"Is that wise?" Josiah asked, concerned that Buck and Ezra were entering the proverbial lionís den.

"At this point, we donít have a choice. If we donít shut down the force field and get help from the Maverick, none of us are leaving this place alive."

Unfortunately, Josiah couldnít argue with Buck on that point. "Alright Commander, good luck."

With that, the channel fell silent and Josiah swore, hating it that he was trapped in here with Nathan while Buck and Ezra went into the maw of madness. As it was, the Counsellor was struggling to keep his fury under control, because he still couldnít believe the architect of all this death and horror was a fellow physician, worst yet, someone he considered a friend.

"What are you up to?" Josiah turned to Nathan, noticing the healer was studying the data on the screen intently. The Counsellor needed something to distract him from worrying about his friends while they were trapped in here.

"Iím going through Paracelsusís research."

"Heís not a medical doctor," Josiah pointed out, taking the seat in the empty terminal next to him. "Can it help you?"

"Yeah, I think it can. Fortunately, medical data isnít locked up as tight as his permissions for Operations so I was able to access his private files using my Starfleet Medical override. No matter how much he might consider this his private fiefdom, Tenarus Institute is still a civilian facility and I can get access to those."

Josiah supposed in the scheme of things Starfleet would always carry a bigger stick than most of the other organisations in the Federation. "So what have you learned?"

"As you said, he could only record general medical data in regards to Callieís condition, but the progression of her implantation is well-documented. Apparently, she was one of the engineering teams setting up sensor devices across the Sulaco before it ended up at the Lunar Museum. During a work detail of the engine core, she came into contact with a dead xenomorph spore."

"Dead?" Josiah started, wondering how all this could have been set in motion by one dead carcass.

"Yeah," Nathan nodded, "remember, under the Captainís recommendation, they zapped the whole ship with a baryon sweep to sterilise it. If we missed a spore, not entirely impossible considering how huge the Sulaco is, it could have killed it. According to Paracelsus, the spore was in a desiccated state when Callie ran into it, meaning she might have inhaled particulates from the dead husk."

"Thatís what Gabriel meant," Josiah understood at last, "when he said she breathed in its essence."

"Exactly. Now we know the xenomorphís highly adaptive, but even so cells mutating would need to find the optimum place for growth. I would say that was why it didnít show up on scans immediately after the event. The girl just walked out of Starfleet Medical with no idea she was carrying a timebomb."

"That poor child," Josiah shook his head. "Would we have been able to help her if we had gotten to her soon enough?"

Nathan eased back into his chair and considered the possibility. "I donít know. These life forms are like nothing Iíve ever encountered, and Iíve dealt with some pretty alien species over my career. If we had gotten to her early enough and understood what we were looking at, perhaps."

"So it was already too late by the time Gabriel found her?"

"Yeah," Nathan admitted sadly. "I think it was. According to Paracelsusís data, the embryo wasnít implanted in the sternum but in utero. I think it adapted itself to her reproductive system, using it to nurture the alien queen."

"I suppose we ought to be grateful Mary got implanted the old fashioned way," Josiah frowned, staring at the Protocol Officer in her stasis tube. "Nathan, can you get that thing off her?"

Nathan didnít answer. Instead, his attention was fixed on the plexiglass window. It took but a second for Josiah to follow his gaze to realise what had captured the healerís attention so completely. Entering the room through the main entrance of the instituteís clinic was Gabriel Paracelsus.

The doctor looked as if he were in a daze, trying to come to grips with what was taking place around him. He surveyed the room before his eyes rested on Josiah and Nathan on the other side of the plexiglass.

"Joey, youíre still here."

"Thanks to you, we canít go anywhere," Josiah returned coldly, no longer seeing this man as a friend, but as a mass murderer. "What do you want Gabriel? Your grand plan is underway. Shouldnít you be soaking up the accolades? Look at those displays! See those faces? Isnít this what you wanted?"

Paracelsusí brow furrowed as his gaze dropped to the floor, and his expression became one of confusion as if he were uncertain about what heíd wrought. "I donít understand, we were supposed to be blessed, to reach enlightenment," he raised his eyes to Josiah. "Why are they treating us like the enemy?"

"Because weíre not the enemy!" Josiah snapped, unable to believe the man could be so lost in his own narrative he couldnít see the truth. "Weíre hosts, all of us! Theyíre not coming to save us, Gabriel! All they care about is breeding. If you hadnít been so wrapped up in your delusions of grandeur, you would have seen that? For God sake, how could you not see any of it!"

"I could hear her talking to me," Paracelsus looked at him stricken. "She spoke to me, Joey! Only to me! Sheís angry with me. Thatís why this is happening."

"What?" Josiah felt his heart sink, thinking that perhaps Gabriel had reached a watershed moment, where he understood the folly of his ways, but then realised the manís ego simply would not allow it. That he had been so misled. His delusion was becoming a snake eating its own tail and the only way to cope with the catastrophe he caused was to produce a more outlandish reason for its cause.

"Oh shit," Nathan cursed as more xenomorphs lowered into the room from the ceiling.

Both healers took a step back as Paracelsus found himself flanked by two of the creatures. They had yet to attack, mostly because they sensed the presence of the spore on Mary Travisís face. The same hesitation that saved Nathan and Josiah earlier kept Paracelsus from falling prey to the xenomorphs in front of him.

"I have to prove myself to her," Paracelsus exclaimed, the mania in his eyes horrified Josiah as he saw something implode inside his old friend as if the man could see nothing else but his queen.

"Gabriel, hold still!" He shouted, drawing the attention of the xenomorphs to him. In truth, Josiah had no idea how to help the man, not from this side of the energy field.

"I can prove myself to her!" Paracelsus cried out, drawing the creatures to him again. "Iíll bring her this blessing!"

With horror, Josiah realised he meant Mary. The doctor took steps towards the stasis pod, intending to open up the capsule that was Maryís salvation. Both creatures tensed, their screeching growing even more ferocious. However, Paracelsus cared little for this. The fantasy consuming the doctor had swallowed him whole and Josiah could only watch helplessly as it played out to its final, grisly end. When he saw the xenomorphs react to the manís advance towards the spore and its host, Josiah knew that moment was now.

"GABRIEL! DONíT!"

Gabriel Paracelsus never had the chance to reach the pod because both xenomorphs pounced, misunderstanding the doctorís advance to be an attack on the spore. The blessing he intended to deliver to every one of them, was a gift he would never know himself as they tore him apart.

Chapter Twenty-Two:
Hosts

The unspoken rule on board the Maverick was if Ezra Standish was afraid, you better pay attention.

For the senior officers of the Maverick, this was a rule both Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington observed without question. Since coming on board the starship, the two senior officers had learned the Chief of Security's nose for trouble was without peer. While most considered Ezra the best card player in Starfleet, Chris had brought Ezra on board the Maverick as its Security Chief because he thought the man the best investigator there was.

Perhaps it was due to his unorthodox upbringing travelling the gambling circuit with his mother that allowed him to read people at the poker table as well as away from it. Whatever it was that made him such an astute investigator, Chris relied upon it and so did Buck.

Right now, Ezra was afraid, and that didn't bode well for what lay ahead.

Inside the still functioning turbo lift, Buck, Ezra and Dralak were descending into the mouth of madness. Thanks to the operations officer, they were able to bypass the restrictions set in place by Doctor Paracelsus for unauthorised persons to reach Sub-Level 25. The Romulan's status as one of the senior operations staff gave him access to the area, though until now, there had never been a reason for him to journey there. Meanwhile, their combadges allowed them to hear the frantic cries of more and more inmates and staff falling prey to the xenomorphs.

Whatever containment Doctor Paracelsus had believed he put in place to keep the creatures restricted to sub-level 25 had predictably failed. The aliens had the run of the facility now, and not even the evacuation to the upper levels protected them. While some of the facility's personnel were armed, it only took one shot from a blaster for the security of the floor to be breached. The xenomorph's corrosive blood ate through the floor and kept going, creating new entry points for their brethren to infest the area.

"Ezra what can we expect?" Buck asked because Ezra had said nothing, and Ezra Standish quiet was a rarity in itself.

Ezra took a deep breath, composing himself because he was not about to deny what he was feeling was terror.

On Fury 361, he'd seen his entire security team decimated and the image of the black swarm sweeping across the prison facility, closing in on the Away Team and their transport still haunted his dreams. Except for being captured by Borg, being taken by a xenomorph as a host was probably the worst way he could imagine dying. Ezra had hoped to never reencounter the monstrous creatures, but Fate could be a cruel beast when she so desired.

"The queen's ability to produce eggs is quite prolific," Ezra explained, the gentle pulse of the turbo lift repeating in the background as they descended. "Judging from what I saw on Fury, she was able to produce hundreds of progeny, which is why the xenomorph's primary objective is to acquire hosts. I believe at present they are doing just that, acquiring as many as they can find to begin implantation. Therefore, we may not encounter as many of them when we approach the hatchery since the adults would be spreading out throughout the facility."

"What about Kash and Rek?" Dralak asked, his Romulan passion barely restrained because two of his friends were now in the hatchery, most likely already implanted.

Ezra didn't speak, but his silence spoke volumes.

"Dralak," Buck assured him. "If the worst has happened, we'll get them back to the Maverick. Our CMO believes they can be removed by transporter technology. The xenomorphs have a particular type of physiology, we can lock-on and remove the embryo if they've been implanted."

"Hells," Dralak cursed, not wanting it to get even that far. "This would depend on how quickly we can get to them, right?"

"Yes," Ezra couldn't lie to him, and in truth, he didn't know himself. The gestation period varied. In the reports downloaded from the Sulaco and then from the observations of the Bishop android recovered on Fury 361, the process could take hours or days. With the mutation of the xenomorph's DNA inhaled by poor Callie Leech, there was no telling how the implantation process was affected. As it was, they were in a race against time to save Mary Travis. Right now, the only thing keeping her from suffering the fate of other hosts, was the stasis pod she was presently encased.

God only knew how the Captain would react when he learned of her condition.

"Okay," Buck spoke up as he saw the digital counter on the wall revealing their approach to the depths of the facility. "We're right at the bottom, so we don't have to worry about causing breaches. We shoot to kill and make sure we do it at a minimum safe distance."

"When we move through the hatchery," Ezra added, "I would recommend silence. The spores react to oscillation and sound, we cannot avoid producing the first, but we can certainly practise the second."

"What about this queen?" Dralak asked, "Is she capable of movement?"

"The specimen we encountered in Fury remained attached to the umbilical appendage and appeared quite immobile, but once she breaks free of that restraint, she is quite formidable."

"Well let's make sure that doesn't happen," Buck stated. "How far is the generator from the turbo lift?" He glanced at Dralak as he saw the approach of Sub-Level 25.

"80 meters," Dralak replied just as the lift came to a halt. "We should be able to see it the instant we step off the lift."

"SUB-LEVEL 25."

"Ezra, keep your combadge on mute." Buck reminded. "No communicators."

"A wise precaution," Ezra agreed and tapped the device to silence it for what came next.

All three men immediately tensed, gripping their weapons just a little tighter by the announcement made. As the floor beneath them lurched by the liftís gradual halt, no one knew what to expect. Thanks to Paracelsus's desire for secrecy regarding his 'project', all monitoring devices on the sub-level were disabled. The door slid open with a slight hiss, and all they braced themselves for the worst.

It was the heat they felt first.

Humid air rushed into the space within the lift, like a hot belch in their faces. The mist that reminded Buck of a tropical rain forest followed soon after. He took the lead, because he was First Officer and because if he didn't, Ezra would be doing it instead. The lighting on the sub-level still functioned, but it was obscured and cast too many shadows for his liking. When they stepped out of the lift, Buck understood why.

"Jesus Christ."

Instead of a vast room for storage where the shield generator should have held court, they stepped into what might have been an unknown alien landscape. Dark, organic formations constructed from whatever material were available at the time created a maze of narrow passages and cavernous walls. Surfaces gleamed with the slick moisture of too much humidity, hardening resin and other viscous fluid none of the men present care to name. It was a nest worthy of the creatures who inhabited it.

"Oh, I did not ever wish to see this sight again." Ezra said to no one in particular, following Buck out of the lift.

"Again?"

"This is exactly like the nest we encountered on Fury 361," the Chief explained to Dralak as he unhooked his tricorder and examined the dark display. During their trip in the lift, he'd calibrated the device to locate all life signs, including the silicon-based readings produced by the xenomorphs. "On that occasion, they constructed the nest as a free-standing structure, using any materials capable of fitting the purpose, including corpses and bones."

"Where did they come from?"

"We're not sure," Buck admitted, remembering Chris's log reports. "Our Captain seems to believe they may have originated from outside the galaxy. The original discovery was made by humans 300 years ago. They described a ship of unknown origin. What footage we've seen of the craft indicates a design we've never seen before. Furthermore, no civilisation we know has ever encountered these species either."

"Commander," Ezra spoke up when his muted tricorder flashed readings across the screen. "I'm detecting at least a dozen life signs in that direction," he pointed to one of the winding pathways to the left, "including four xenomorphs."

As much as Buck wanted to save those people, he knew it was more critical they destroyed the generator first. Once the forcefield was lowered, the Maverick could send help for everyone. "We need to keep going towards the force field generator."

"What about those people!" Dralak hissed, and even though he did not use Rekellen's name, the Starfleet officers knew that was who he meant.

"Dralak," Buck bit back in a lower voice to prompt the man into doing the same. "We need to lower the force field first so we can get them help. Right now, nowhere in this facility is safe. We've lost the Institute, do you understand?"

Dralak wanted to respond but held his tongue when he realised the human was right. There was no point freeing Rek and any of the other friends captured by these monsters if there was nowhere to take them, even if they did escape implantation which he was too much the realist to assume.

"Of course," he nodded begrudgingly.

"Good," Buck replied and started moving first, leading the way. "Ezra, tell us if any one of them gets close."

"I will. However, it appears the life signs are close to the force field generator, so we may find both."

For some reason, that didn't give Buck much comfort.

Leading the way, he was conscious of every sound and shadow. Since they agreed to keep their voices down, none of them spoke which made the place seem more sinister than ever. The silence was broken on occasion by the sound of something wet tearing or the plink plink plink of water droplets splattering on some unseen surface. It felt like they were walking through the belly of some beast that had yet to awaken.

For reasons he could not explain, Buck thought this felt a lot like a Borg hive and the association made him shudder. As he moved past the formations, he saw pieces of equipment forced into place with furniture, held together with resin, hardened until it set like rock. The construct was bizarre, and Buck wondered if everything the xenomorphs did was for functionality. Did this species have any considerations beyond its primary instinct to breed?

"Commander," Ezra warned. "Stop."

Buck froze in his tracks, not asking why. Up ahead, he saw something moving, something the size of a man but did not appear remotely human. The xenomorph had not sensed his presence, and Buck watched the grotesque creature sprinting past, its powerful tail swishing behind it as it ran across the path ahead. It almost disappeared into the shadows again when it paused suddenly. Buck's breath died in his throat, and for a second, he imagined the xenomorph had spotted them and would utter that awful shriek bringing the others.

Instead, it pivoted its elongated head, trying to locate the source of the sound that made it pause in the first place, its teeth bared in annoyance when it could not find the cause. After a second, it started moving away, vanishing into the shadows cast by the labyrinthian architecture.

Buck let out a breath and was convinced Ezra and Dralak did the same before he started moving again, clutching his phaser tighter after that near miss. Behind him, he saw the faint glow of the tricorder illuminating Ezra's face. No doubt, the Chief was making sure they had no surprises coming out at them. Buck wondered if the xenomorphs fashioned this place in this manner for defensive purposes. Aside from providing them with the perfect environment for camouflage, it disorientated trespassers.

He stepped through an archway that was composed of tubing, parts of a table and what looked like someone's tool bench to enter another chamber. Now the air was not just humid, but rancid. His stomach immediately lurched with the odour of something putrid and Buck found himself breathing through his mouth to keep from gagging. Behind him, he could hear the sharp intake of breath from both Ezra and Dralak, telling him they were similarly nauseated.

Somebody moaned, and Buck was about to tell whoever it was to dummy up when he realised the voice hadn't come from behind him, but rather from ahead.

"Commander," Ezra said, "we are approaching the life signs."

Ezra needed not have told him because Buck saw it for himself a split second earlier. Until that moment, he thought seeing the interior of a Borg ship, with bodies lined up in alcoves one after the other was the most awful thing he'd ever seen. After today, his definition of horror would need new measures because he doubted he would ever forget the scene before him right now.

He counted at least a dozen people held in place against the walls, their bodies covered in slick resin, now hardened to the density of concrete. Like the toys of some unseen child, they were held there with no thought to comfort, their bodies twisted at an angle to fit the aliens' design and bones broken to make them fit in the grim tapestry across the wall. Legs dangled off the ground, arms flopped loose and heads drooped forward in contrition for the sin that condemned them here. Yet that was not even the worst of it.

In front of every single one of them was an unsealed alien egg.

"Oh my God," Ezra whispered.

Buck didn't have to look over his shoulder to see Ezra's gambler's composure shock to the core.

More moans were heard, and this came from those who had already been implanted. Lying on the deck in front of them, were the spores delivering the alien seed. Buck wondered if these poor souls had any idea what kind of death Doctor Paracelsus inflicted upon them. Others were still undergoing the process, and Buck's jaw tightened with horror when he saw two or three victims with spores still attached to their faces.

Despite himself, he searched the victims and saw no sign of a Starfleet uniform. Wherever he was, Buck could at least be assured JD Dunne wasn't here. He still feared the worst for the young man because JD could very well be in another chamber like this, somewhere else in this hell. However, Buck would take what little comfort he could in the kid's absence. If JD were in here, Buck had no idea whether or not he could function. It was bad enough seeing Mary with a spore attached to her face, he couldn't imagine the horror of finding someone he knew in here...

Then as if Fate was showing just how cruel she could be, a voice called out in the darkness.

"Dray?"

It came from directly above them. All three men looked up and saw a familiar face above them. Rekellen. Her cheeks were smeared with slime, and her skin was damp with sweat. Most of her body was concealed beneath the weird alien resin keeping her restrained to the wall with her feet suspended over the floor. Buck winced seeing her and turned immediately to Dralak whose expression was nothing short of aghast. Once again, Buck thanked God Nathan had sense enough to get Mary to a stasis pod to spare her the nightmare Rekellen was enduring now.

"Rek," Dralak whispered, the anguish in his face couldn't be hidden even if he was grateful to see her. However, what pleasure in knowing she was still alive was dashed by the unsealed egg in front of her.

"It's inside me Dray!" She started to weep, and the tears running down her face stabbed the heart of not only her lover but the two humans behind him. "I think I can feel it moving."

Dralak dropped his gaze to his feet, unable to meet her eyes. He knew the xenomorph's method of reproduction, and the horrible Fate before her if they didn't get her and the other poor souls trapped here to the Starfleet ship in orbit above Tenarus.

"We're going to help you Rek," he reached for her and was only able to take her hand because she was too high above him for anything else. "We've got to lower the force field generator so the Federation ship can beam all of you to their Sick Bay. I promise you, you will not end here."

"Damn straight," Buck added his voice to the conversation. "We're not leaving any of you behind, but we have to disable the generator first. Once you're on the Maverick, the best doctor I know is going to do everything he can to get that thing out of you." He said those words not just to assure Rekellen but to remind Dralak they had to get moving. Their arrival at this chamber meant the hatchery was close and they needed to reach the generator before those eggs hatched, and its spores came hunting for them.

"Please Dray," she wept, her eyes showing her terror because she too knew what was going to happen. "If you can't get me out, you need to kill me. I don't want to die seeing that thing coming out of me...!"

"I will never let that happen to you Rek," Dralak promised, blinking away his own torment because she needed his strength to endure this ordeal. As a Romulan, he knew how to be pragmatic, but he couldn't bear to sacrifice her, not like this. "But I need to leave you for a little while, so we can lower the force field. That's the only way to get that monstrosity out of your body."

She nodded in understanding but still broke down and started to weep. Buck, who had found Kash taken at the same time, was relieved to see the young man unconscious. If luck was with them, the kid would wake up in Sick Bay without ever realising what was growing inside of him. A few others were awake, crying out for death, while some weren't aware of what was happening. He wondered how many of these were Paracelsus's converted.

"Commander," Ezra spoke up, wanting to get moving because staying in one place was dangerous.

Buck didn't need him to finish. He gripped Dralak's shoulder, perfectly aware of what kind of hell this was for the man. "We have to go."

Dralak nodded, pulling away from Rek, forcing himself to stay focused because to remain was to doom her to death. The only way to save her now was to follow through on their plan.

"I'll be back for you," he said once more before she disappeared out of view. "I promise."

Rek didn't reply, but as they left the chamber behind, all three heard her weeping.

Hurrying out of the chamber leaving behind the moans of the others, not to mention her sobs, the Romulan followed the two Starfleet officers. They drew away from the area with haste, no doubt to spare him any further agony. The next chamber, however, offered no easement in their torment as they discovered the source of the rancid stench that filled their lungs the minute they stepped out of the lift.

Unlike the previous chamber where the hosts waited for salvation, there was no such hope in this one. For every person here, it was already too late.

The bodies attached to this wall had one thing in common. All their sternums had exploded outward, and the deadly seed emerging from them was no doubt the adult drones gathering new hosts throughout the facility. Strewn across the floor covered in rotting meat and blood, were the spore carcasses. As horrific as the previous chamber had been, this was worse. There was no help for any of these poor souls who most likely had no idea what happened to them, even as the xenomorph infants were tearing through their flesh.

"I know some of these people," Dralak whispered. "They were inmates and staff. Doctor Paracelsus told us they had left or were discharged."

Ezra's jaw tensed. "I suppose he had to concoct a tale to avoid suspicion."

"I want to kill these things. want them all to burn."

Buck said nothing, but he agreed wholeheartedly with that statement, and he had a feeling when Chris Larabee saw what became of Mary Travis in this place, the Captain of the Maverick would ensure everything would burn.

Chapter Twenty-Three:
Distraction

"Hell is not a place. It is a state of mind conjured by the deepest, darkest well of one's depravity, entered willingly by a rope of guilt after death."

In this instance, it was not a rope leading them into hell, but a long, dark tunnel equally symbolic. As the Away Team descended into the sluice tunnel leading them into Sub-Level 25, Chris Larabee wondered if Gabriel Paracelsus had any idea what kind of nightmare he was unleashing upon the world by his cultivation of a xenomorph nest. Listening to JD describe Jerry Lambert's fate, Chris decided he was no better than those fools at the Weyland-Yutani Corporation revealed by the tapes recovered from the Sulaco.

The tunnel JD had taken to escape the force field surrounding the Institute was like taking the final walk through the gallows, with pervading darkness beyond the range of their torches. The xenomorph's presence was painfully clear by the patches of resin along the walls and the gaping holes in the floor. Acidic blood spilt had eaten through the rock, taking with it the carcass left behind as it disappeared into the earth.

"And this is why we're using these rifles instead of phasers," Chris said to the Security Team, just in case they still had doubts about using these ancient pulse rifles.

"No kidding," Drew muttered through Chris's comms.

"Captain," Kate spoke up. "According to the tricorder, we've passed the force field barrier."

"Then our combadges should work," JD stated excitedly, glad they could now try to find the rest of the stranded Away Team.

Chris was well ahead of him. "Captain to Away Team, come in. Repeat, this is the Captain. Report."

They stood in the darkness, praying that the worst had not happened. That Paracelsus's insanity had not wiped out their comrades, just as surely as it had done to Jerry Lambert and the other poor souls trapped in this place.

"Chris, it is damn good to hear your voice," Josiah Sanchez replied.

Chris let out a sigh of relief and saw a similar reaction from the others in the tunnel with him. "Likewise, Counsellor, what's the situation?"

"Doctor Paracelsus has been creating a nest of the xenomorphs on Sub-Level 25 of the facility. He went completely insane, Chris. He was in direct telepathic communication with the xenomorph queen and believed it was some kind of divine message. Somehow an engineer named Callie Leech..."

"From the Sulaco," Chris stopped him. "Josiah, JD managed to escape through the tunnel Jerry Lambert used to get out of the Institute. He told us most of what Paracelsus has done."

"JD's with you?" Josiah's relief was palpable. "Thank God, we had no idea where he was."

While Chris couldn't see JD's face through the visor, the Captain could tell the young man was just as grateful to the friends he left behind were alive and well."

"He's safe," Chris assured him. "We managed to transport him and Miss Davis off the surface before the weather got them. He's with me, Vin and a security team, we're approaching Sub-Level 25."

"You're here?" Josiah's voice grew taut. "Chris, the xenomorphs have broken containment, they've got the entire run of the facility now. They're snatching new hosts from everywhere. Buck took command of the Institute and evacuated everyone to the transporter level while he and Ezra went down to lower the forcefield generator."

"Well we'll find them," Chris stated promptly, aware the Security Team would be especially motivated now they knew the Chief was close by. "What about you and the others?"

Chris didn't mention Mary by name but was certain Josiah would know what he meant. Since learning just how bad things were on Tenarus from JD, Chris had tried to maintain his objectivity and not be guided by his fears for Mary. He couldn't be. Long ago, when they realised they meant something to each other, they decided there were some lines he couldn't cross, not if he intended to remain Captain of the Maverick or Mary his Protocol Officer. Her life couldn't be any more valuable than any other member of his crew, but at moments like this, that line became as vast as the Sahara.

"Nathan and I are holed up in their Infirmary with the security forcefield in place, so the xenomorphs haven't managed to breach it."

"And Mary?"

It did not escape Chrisís notice Josiah missed mentioning Mary.

The pause on the line made them all stiffen and sent a spike of white-hot terror through Chris. "What?"

"Chris," this time it was Nathan who spoke, and Chris knew what was coming even before the words left the doctor's mouth. "She's been implanted."

"Fuck." After seeing what had happened to Jerry Lambert, JD couldn't imagine anything worse and reacted accordingly.

Chris couldn't breathe. Not since hearing about Sarah and Adam had he felt this level of anguish. It almost broke him in half with its intensity. He thought about Lt. Angel, the young security officer who died on Fury 361. The child who begged him to kill her because she'd been implanted and there was no saving her. Not before the xenomorph growing inside her body tore her apart being born. Chris closed his eyes and saw her in his mind, her terrified eyes pleading for him to end her life, and he had. It was the hardest thing he ever had to do in his life, firing the phaser that ended hers.

Until now.

"Captain, we've got her in a stasis pod," Nathan said quickly, guessing from Chris's silence where the Captain's mind was. "We've halted the implantation process. If we can get her back to the Maverick, we can get the thing out, and I've got an idea to make sure we remove all traces of the xenomorph's DNA. We just need to get her back to the ship."

Chris collected himself, latching onto the lifeline provided by Nathan because the idea of having to deliver the same kind of death to Mary as he had to Lt. Angel was a hell he never wanted to face. He'd never survive it.

"Chris," JD spoke up, placing a hand on Chris's shoulder. "We can save Mary. We need to help Buck bring down the force field."

Chris fell silent and sucked in his breath, looking up at the young man who was one of his best friends. Nodding slowly, he gripped the hand on his shoulder in thanks. "Nathan, Josiah, are you safe?"

"For now," Nathan answered, grateful the Captain had replied. "The things aren't too willing to attack because of Mary so we're okay."

Chris's stomach clenched at the thought, but he would take it as a positive. "Alright, the minute the shield is lowered, contact Alex and get her to transport all of you directly to Sick Bay. We're going to head to the generator. Buck and Ezra are going to need help."

"Aye Sir," Nathan answered.

Chris straightened up and noticed Vin was standing with his back facing them. The helmsman had been conspicuous by his silence, and for the first time since his temporary fugue at learning about Mary, Chris wondered why.

Vin said nothing because something was pressing at the walls of his mental shields. Thanks to the meld with his grandmother, she had been able to teach him without uttering a word how to strengthen them, to keep other minds out, as well as avoid inadvertent intrusions. This invasion, however, felt entirely alien and it took him a few moments to realise when he felt the sensation before.

On Fury 361.

During a hand to hand fight with a xenomorph, Vin had inadvertently melded with one of the creatures. The result had been the premature awakening of his Pon Farr, but this time there was no savage lust to breed. This invasion was more like a rallying cry, a call to arms, trying to draw you in. Vin's eyes snapped open when he realised who was attempting to breach his mental shields and worse yet, what it was trying to do.

"Chris," Vin shot the Captain of the Maverick a hard stare. "I can hear her."

"Her?" Chris was almost afraid to ask.

"The Queen. I can hear in my head. She can't get past my shields, but she's sending up a flare."

"Aw hell," Chris swore, guessing what that meant. "We better get moving."

"What is it, Sir?" Drew inquired, not liking the ominous tone in the Captain's voice.

Before he could answer, the narrow chamber was filled with the distant bellow of something large and furious.

"Trouble."

*******

Buck stood stock still.

There was nothing else to do when they left behind the gruesome mural of bodies and entered the next chamber. They'd called it the hatchery, but in truth, it was really the nursery. Bile crawled up his throat at either term being applied to the xenomorphs, but when they closed in on the shield generator, they knew they had been wrong. The source of the force field's power, a tube-like construction that resembled a warp core, pulsed with a greenish light. However, more than half of it was encased in thick veins and tendrils the size of tree branches, making it look as sinister as the rest of the place, even if it provided them with some illumination.

Although in retrospect, Buck wasn't grateful for this.

Surrounding them as far as the eye could see were eggs. There were so many he could barely count them and Ezra's warning about what they would find here felt like icy, cold fingers wrapping themselves around his spine. Covered in a sheen of moisture which no doubt came from the humidity in the air, he could hear the sound of droplets splattering against the deck or rolling languidly across the organic containers.

None of them could speak, remembering Ezra's warning to them about sound being the stimulus waking up the eggs. They had to reach the shield generator in front of them without any of the eggs unsealing or awakening the queen whose court they were trespassing. Buck tried to see her, but it was too dark, and the xenomorph architecture around them simply too bizarre. In the end, Buck opted not to waste his time trying. They had a mission to undertake, and as it stood, their chances of surviving were slim. There was no need to complicate matters by sightseeing.

Signalling at Ezra and Dralak, who were both just as still and looking similarly tense, Buck stepped forward, walking stealthily through the forest of eggs around them. The things stood no more than two and a half feet tall and were semi-translucent because as Buck passed them, he observed the life form slumbering inside. The spore that resembled a hand with too many fingers and a long prehensile tail. The sight of it hastened his pace, but not so much to make any noise. As it was, his stomach lurched every time his boot sank into something soft and slick.

They were almost up to the shield generator when Buck saw something moving across the glowing surface of the generator. At first, he thought it was the energy fluxes behind the casing of the device, but it was too slow, almost sluggish. Then he realised something was wrapped around its cylindrical structure. It took a moment for Buck to understand it was organic. The appendage was translucent, and it surrounded the generator like a serpent coiled around its prey.

The science officer he had been, knew what it was immediately. An ovipositor.

Within this tubular sac, untold numbers of alien eggs were being formed. It was enormous, which was why Ezra had probably missed it when he and Mary made their ill-fated trip down here. Buck followed the tube which ran across the wall before it culminated in its birth on the floor of the sub-level, joining the rest of its sealed brethren. Reversing direction, he followed the tube back towards the shield generator and perched against it was the bizarre construction he thought to be a product of xenomorph design, but was nothing so benign.

The alien queen seemed to be aware of them because she lifted her monstrous head, with its flared crown and bared her teeth. Like Ezra and Dralak behind him, his breath caught at the sight of her. Instinctively, all three men took a step back as she craned her head forward, trying to reach them. As she did, Buck realised something else, now that he had overcome his horror at seeing her and was able to think more clearly.

"Ezra, Dralak," Buck spoke in a low voice, never taking his eyes off the queen. "Circle around and get to the far side of the generator. Disable it."

"Commander..." Ezra opened his mouth to protest, his eyes still transfixed by the alien queen in front of them.

"She's attached to the ovipositor," Buck hissed. "She can't move so this is our one chance to get to it before she figures out what we're here to do and calls for reinforcements. She's telepathic, she could be calling them all now."

"What do you intend to do?" Ezra asked quietly, aware that Buck was correct.

"Keep her attention on me," Buck replied, aware it was a tall order.

Ezra and Dralak started moving and caused the queen to turn her massive head in their direction. Almost on cue, Buck began waving his arms wildly in her direction, snapping her attention back to him again.

"Come on, Your Highness!" He hissed at her as that monstrous face turned to him and bared her teeth again. Her voice was a low growl, and he felt the heat of her breath against his face and thought it smelled like the bottom of a furnace, crusted with toxic ash. As she opened her jaws, Buck shuddered at the teeth revealed by those widening jaws, each one as long as his forearm.

At the corner of his eye, he saw Ezra and Dralak moving out of view, trying to move stealthily past the eggs, each one a timebomb waiting to go off.

Without warning, another set of jaws sprung out of her open mouth like a Jack in the Box. Buck stumbled back, narrowly avoiding decapitation. The heel of his boot struck something hard and rubbery. With a curse, Buck glanced over his shoulder and saw it was an egg. He retreated from it, ensuring he was a safe distance from the queen to avoid any more surprises while fixated on the egg, waiting for it to open.

"Very clever," he said, giving her a hateful glare. "This won't end the way you wanted it to."

In rebuttal to his comment, she shrieked loudly, the sound resembling a screech of fingernails against glass. Buck winced and wondered if she might be mobile after all. Her limbs flayed about impotently, trying to reach him and when she couldn't, lashed her tail at him. The spiky appendage struck him on the side and swept him off his feet. Buck landed on the deck covered with sticky resin and flagella creeping across the floor from each alien egg. He uttered a cry of pain on impact, feeling ribs taking the worst of it.

Not that he had time to recover because the queen intended on killing the intruder in her hatchery. The tail came at him again, and Buck rolled out of reach before it impaled him through the chest. Scrambling away, Buck knew he couldn't stray any further. The longer this monster focussed her attention on him, the better the chance Ezra and Dralak had to sneak past her and get to the generator.

It was only when he saw the unsealed egg a second later Buck realised it was he who had been distracted.

"Damn," he cursed a split second before something launched itself at him.

If he had been one second slower, the spore would have landed on him, face first. Fortunately, Buck's marksmanship with a phaser was equally swift, and he reacted instantly, firing a streak of amber energy. The energy beam struck the spore dead centre, and Buck had just enough time to jump behind a cluster of sealed eggs before the splatter of its acidic blood reached him. The corrosive fluid hissed as it made contact with the ground, but as Buck suspected when he took refuge behind the eggs, they were immune.

The queen uttered an enraged shriek witnessing the murder of one of her children, and as Buck scrambled to his feet to escape the spores that would soon be emerging from the very receptacles he used to protect him, her struggles intensified. Her tail was swishing about violently, seeking something to attack and her screeching bellow echoed throughout the room. It didn't take a genius for Buck to realise she was summoning her army.

The loud hiss of escaping gases followed the opening of another egg like the blooming of a grotesque flower. Buck searched the space for Dralak and Ezra, seeing no sign of them, praying they had successfully evaded the queen and were even now working to disable the generator to which she was attached. Returning his attention to the spore, the sight of one digit probing the outside world, snapped Buck's restraint and he fired again, not caring how pissed off he made its mother.

The egg exploded with Buck retreating to safety beyond the reach of its corrosive fluid. Another roar of fury rocked the air, and he saw the queen's body heaving as she began to pull away from the generator. Another cry tore through his ears. This time, it came not from the xenomorph queen in front of him, but from behind. Buck spun around and saw an adult xenomorph sprinting across the floor towards him. It moved like a lemur, with speed and agility, making such expert use of shadows Buck could well understand how just one of the creatures managed to wipe out the crew of the Nostromo in a day.

With the queen's attempts to break free, the eggs unsealing around him and now this alien drone closing in, Buck came to the firm conclusion he was in trouble. Without thinking of the consequences, he opened fire before the drone reached him. The beam struck the drone, and the effect on the creature was devastating. Its body exploded, spraying acid in all directions. Some of it splashed across Buck's uniform and began to sizzle. As the pain bit into his skin, he tore off his Starfleet blazer and the jersey, tossing it away as it began to smoke.

He didn't escape unscathed. When the noxious stuff reached his skin, he felt the burn across his abdomen and his forearm. The pain was stinging, but Buck forced himself to ignore it. But at least the pain was real, just like this nightmare in front of him was real. No Borg induced illusion could conjure anything like this. The alien carcass continued to hiss, disappearing through the deck as its acidic blood disintegrated the steel. Meanwhile, another egg-opening in front of him prompted Buck to shoot again, giving him no time to register his injuries because right now, the danger was closing in on him on all sides. The egg erupted spectacularly, sending chunks of meat and pulp in all directions.

Buck expected another angry bellow from the alien queen but was greeted with something else entirely.

The sound of tearing.

Spinning around, he supposed if his intention was to give Ezra and Dralak the distraction the two men needed to lower the shield generator, he succeeded spectacularly. The queen was no longer tolerating the assault on her children and was heaving even more violently than ever. With her jaws open as she shrieked, her massive legs unfolded and reached the floor. Buck watched for a second, mesmerised with horror as she ripped the ovipositor sac from her body, spilling noisome fluid across the floor, along with half-formed eggs.

Turning her head in his direction, she screamed a warning that said in no uncertain terms, she was coming for him.

Chapter Twenty-Four:
Critical Mass

Trying to ignore the game of Russian Roulette his commanding officer was playing with the xenomorph queen, Ezra Standish navigated the clusters of eggs surrounding the force field generator. He questioned the value of trying to walk stealthily around these biological containers when the Queen and Buck were parlaying so noisily behind them. Even as he led Dralak away against his better judgement, he could hear the Queen screaming her outrage at whatever distraction Buck was providing.

So far none of the eggs had stirred, but Ezra didn't count on them remaining that way, not when there was so much noise around them. The tubular sac coiled around the generator was encrusted in resin, securing it further in place. The Chief's jaw clenched at the sight of the forming eggs through the translucent tube, each one of them destined to bring a horrific death to some poor soul. Their journey through the ovipositor had ceased, and Ezra realised it was because the Queen's biological gauge was preparing her for a fight.

"We must move quickly," Ezra whispered to Dralak, breaking the silence.

"Trust me," the Romulan replied, "I am not lingering unnecessarily."

Dralak did not have the experience of these Starfleet Officers with the creatures infesting the Institute, but then one did not need to after seeing and hearing the carnage caused by them. A part of him still grappled with disbelief that Gabriel Paracelsus, a man he respected, who gave him and Rekellen sanctuary from the Empire, was the cause of all this. The man Dralak knew was one of compassion who tried to do the best for his patients. How he had been twisted into this crazed fanatic willing to sacrifice them all was beyond the Romulan.

With Buck and the Queen out of sight, Ezra realised they'd arrived at the back of the generator. The space surrounding it was covered with eggs and Ezra guessed the drones must be responsible for spreading them across the sub-level. With the Queen attached to the ovipositor, there would be no way for her to do it herself. Searching the generator shaft for the control terminal, he could barely see it for all the organic matter concealing it. Bathed in greenish light, the clumps of hardened gelatinous material and the sac itself made the whole scene even more sinister.

Ezra caught sight of it finally, a row of coloured lights glowing dully under the resin. A small section of workstation display could be seen through the organic material, and Ezra swept his gaze around once more, ensuring the eggs remained sealed, and no xenomorph was in sight. His tricorder indicated they were safe for the moment, but judging by the Queen's bellows, he didn't think it would be long before the drones made an appearance.

As he approached, Ezra was startled by another enraged shriek, except this one was followed by the distinct sound of phaser fire. Craning his neck, he tried to look past the ovipositor and the generator, but his line of sight was obscured. Nevertheless, the use of a phaser meant Buck was in trouble, and they had to move fast if they were going to help him.

"What in *Areinnye is going on?" Dralak hissed, similarly alarmed.

"It doesn't matter," Ezra said smoothly, "the terminal is there. Disable the generator, and I shall keep watch."

Dralak didn't argue and quickly moved past Ezra towards the partially concealed terminal. The Maverick's security chief was fighting his natural inclination to go to his comrade's aid but held firm as Dralak approached the terminal. The Romulan could see through the organic material coating the shaft of the shield generator and once again felt a surge of disgust and fury at what Paracelsus had done. Dismissing his anger for now, he sucked in his breath as he sunk his fingers into the sticky mess covering the terminal and felt revulsion at the contact. Dralak started to pull the clumps of resin off the touchscreen.

The sac wrapped around the generator shifted suddenly, corresponding with another enraged scream from the Queen. Bits of resin tore away from its outer casing and made both Ezra and Dralak jump.

"What....?" Dralak started to say when Ezra cut him off.

"Hurry! She is attempting to free herself!"

The statement was punctuated by another burst of phaser fire. A fresh shriek, this one not as loud and not from the Queen, followed. Ezra knew without having to see it, it belonged to a drone. The monarch had called for reinforcements which meant very soon they would have more than just eggs to worry about.

Dralak continued to rip away pieces of hardened resin from the terminal, removing enough of it to gain access to the touch screen display. It was covered with moisture from the humidity in the air, and when he wiped it away with his palm, the screen came alive with colour. Tapping the black screen smeared with resin and fluid, data began to flash across the display, giving him access to the system.

Now all he had to do was...

The sac shuddered again, this time more violently. Dralak took a step back in surprise and noted briefly Ezra had done the same. It shook so hard for a second the Romulan thought it might actually damage the generator. Neither man could hear the sharp sound of tearing like someone had pulled a ripcord somewhere because the Queen was shrieking so loudly now, they could listen to little else. As it ripped away from the generator, the sac split open, emptying torrents of thick, greyish fluid into the open. The viscous material splashed across them, sending waves of revulsion through both men before it broke free completely, tipping over several eggs as the two men got clear.

Ezra scrambled to his feet, struggling not to slip as he tried to see what was going on and froze at the sight of the Queen no longer held in place on her perch. She was free of the sac and ovipositor attached to her body, moving quickly away from the generator, in pursuit of her prey.

Buck Wilmington.

Ezra almost ran after them when he remembered his orders. The force field needed to be lowered because there was more than just Buck's life at stake here. There were hundreds in the Institute needing rescue before the xenomorphs used them all as hosts. In the face of those numbers, Ezra knew what he had to do.

Damn!

Swinging around, he turned back to Dralak who had gotten to his feet again. The man had to jump clear when the sac and the ovipositor had broken free of the generator. The biological conveyor belt had tumbled to the floor, collapsing on itself as it continued to spew out eggs and noisome fluid. Dralak was trying to stand upright, a problematic proposition when like Ezra, he was covered in alien slime.

"Disable that damn shield!" Ezra shouted, no longer caring who heard.

Almost on cue, an egg to his left began to unseal. Ezra didn't let it open fully before he incinerated with a bolt from his phaser and got clear to avoid the spray of acid. Another one opened no sooner than that, and Ezra fired again, not about to let any of those spores see the light of day. Once again, Ezra retreated to avoid the spray of acid as the bolt of amber energy ignited the organic container.

In the meantime, Dralak found himself wincing in disgust as he climbed over the piece of sac lying across the front of the terminal. The touch screen, covered with moisture before was now slick with the xenomorph version of amniotic fluid. Swallowing away his revulsion because he was Romulan, he ignored the slippery feel of the organic sheathe as Dralak returned to the display screen and was forced to wipe away viscous liquid so he could resume disabling the shield.

Behind him, the Starfleet officer was conducting his one-man war on the hatchery, ensuring any egg attempting to open was promptly obliterated. Dralak paid no attention to this, too busy trying to gain access to the operational commands that would override Paracelsus's permissions. He thought of Rekellen in that terrible nursery, with people he'd worked with almost every day since coming to Tenarus.

Dralak and Rekellen were only going to spend another year here, just until they had the credits to travel to one of the newly establish Romulan colonies to begin their lives together as husband and wife. Following the Empire's destruction, their love for each other had been an oasis in a sea of pain.

He could not fail her.

The eggs were opening much faster now, and Ezra was using every ounce of skill he had to destroy them before the Queens' dearly progeny had a chance to emerge. Across the vast sub-level, he could hear the giant xenomorph's deafening screech as she continued her pursuit of Buck. Ezra didn't even want to think about how she would react when she learned what he was presently up to. The air was thick with the stench of burning metal as the noxious acid ate away at the floor and any vulnerable surfaces. So far he'd managed to say out their reach, but the smoke was making his eyes water and the toxicity of it, harder to breathe.

Through the intensifying swirls of grey, Ezra saw a shape that was not Dralak moving near the terminal. Too late, he realised what it was.

"DRALAK!"

Dralak turned around at the last minute before the xenomorph could strike and reacted in the only way a man caught by surprise could do.

"DON'T SHOOT!"

Ezra's warning came too late as Dralak pulled the trigger, and the result of the energy weapon on the body of the xenomorph was every bit as devastating as the Chief feared. Its body exploded, soaking Dralak from head to waist. In horror, Ezra watched the toxic chemical continue its onslaught across the terminal and the outer casing of the generator shaft, immediately eating away at everything beneath it. Dralak uttered a piercing scream of such complete agony Ezra knew he would remember it until the day he died.

In horror, Ezra could only watch in muted horror as Drala's face melted away. Skin, flesh and hair melted into a sludge of red before bleached bone appeared. His scream was muted because seconds after that first cry, he no longer had a tongue to make any sound. The acid ate through his clothes and caved in his chest until all that remained was a ragged hole of disintegrating flesh. He was dead before his legs buckled beneath him. However, the damage did not end with Dralak's death.

Just as quickly as it liquefied the Romulan, the acid ate into the terminal, disintegrating glass and metal like butter. Energy surges spat in protest before the screen disappeared into a smoky mess. However, it was nothing compared with what took place as the acid ate through the casing protecting the core of the shield generator. Ezra took a step back, realising the acid would eat its way to the deutronium power cells.

As soon as the thought crossed his mind, the green glow of the generator began to fluctuate. As the light faltered, Ezra started to retreat, no longer worrying whether or not they could disable the shield. In less than a minute, that question would become academic. Something else was moving in the smoke, coming at him from behind the device reaching critical. Ezra counted at least three aliens closing in on him. One from the ceiling above and two from the next chamber. The xenomorphs were oblivious to the danger, and Ezra saw no reason to enlighten them.

Still covered in ovipositor fluid, Ezra spun on his heels and started running, putting as much distance between him and the generator. The xenomorphs quickly gave chase but time was against them as the acid ate through the device and reached the volatile deutronium core.

The explosion that followed lit up the entire sub-level like someone had ripped off the roof and allowed the sun to into the room.

He felt the heat against his back, felt the shockwave lift him off his feet, followed by the terrible screech of the xenomorphs who hadn't gotten clear in time. Ezra smashed into several eggs, tumbling across the floor like a rolling dervish before taking them with him. As the world turned into a kaleidoscope of blurry images, he saw the space where the generator had been. The entire shaft had been obliterated, along with everything in its immediate vicinity. A smoking ring of black was all that remained in its place.

Shaking the disorientation out of his head, his return to clarity was prompted by the furious roar of something very mad coming his way.

*****

"Commander Styles!"

Alex, who was at Tactical, looked up at Jewel Chun who was presently occupying JD's navigator station on the bridge.

The Science Officer and temporary commander of the Maverick was in the process of carrying out Chris Larabee's order to locate any xenomorph that might have escaped the Institute and target the area for phaser bombardment. It was not an action she approved of since there were sure to be life forms unaffected by the creatures, and this sterilisation would kill them too. Unfortunately, when it came to the xenomorphs, nothing could be left to chance.

All she had to do was remember being trapped inside a xenomorph hive in Fury 361 to appreciate the Captain's sentiments on the matter. Furthermore, she also knew Starfleet would also consider such extreme action appropriate after hearing the tapes from the Sulaco. Not to mention the Away team's reports detailing their initial encounter with the creatures.

"What is it?"

"The force field just lowered."

"What?" Alex quickly tapped the screen before her and changed the view of the tactical display to see for herself. She was convinced Ezra was going to come back and complain she'd messed up all his settings. The man could be so pernickety when it came to his toys. Of course, Alex was only thinking of him this way, because she was worried about him. As it was, she was unhappy every member of the Magnificent Seven, the nickname given to the men of the Senior Staff because of that silly holo program, were down on a planet with xenomorphs.

Within seconds, Alex had confirmed Jewel's statement was true. The force field was down and with it, streams of data began flooding in, not only into Ezra's station but hers too.

"You think the Captain managed to lower the shield?" Charlotte Richmond asked, standing in for Alex at the Science station.

"I don't know," Alex shook her head, but she knew what it meant if the shield was down. "Jewel, hail the Captain."

"Maverick to Captain Larabee," Jewel obeyed immediately as she tapped the display, each touch of her fingers against the dark glass creating a soft chirp they all could hear. "Please come in."

Seconds passed into a minute with Jewel making repeated entreaties to their Captain with little success. When it became apparent he was not going to respond, they tried the other members of the Away Team and was rewarded by a familiar voice filling the bridge.

"This is Counsellor Sanchez! It's good to hear your voice."

Alex let out a visible sigh of relief, grateful to know they had contact with someone from the original Away Mission. After what JD reported about Doctor Paracelsus, Alex was worried about their welfare. "Josiah, are you alright?"

"Nathan and I are fine.," the Counsellor's voice was as always calm, and Alex wondered how the man managed to sound that way even when the world was falling around their ears. "We've heard from the Captain and the security team, they were on their way to Sub-Level 25 to disable the shield generator. I assume they managed to get it done since we're talking."

"We don't know Josiah," Alex admitted. "We can't seem to get in contact with them."

"He's probably got his hands full," Josiah stated, trying to sound comforting to those on the bridge, even though he was in greater danger down in Tenarus than any of them. "Nevertheless, we need to get Mary back to the ship as soon as possible."

"What's happened?" Alex asked and was almost afraid of the answer.

"She's been implanted," Nathan broke into the conversation. "I've put her in stasis, but I need to get her back to Sick Bay immediately."

"Oh my God," Alex gasped and quickly composed herself because they needed to act fast if they were going to save their Protocol Officer. "Nathan, can you get her to the Transporter level?"

There was a slight pause before Nathan provided her with an answer. "We can, but we'll have to take her out of the pod. I don't know how long the gestation period is Alex. These xenomorphs have been mutated so it could take longer or it might be shorter. Whatever the answer, we have to get this done fast."

Alex thought quickly. "Okay, just get her to the transporter pad, and we'll beam you directly to Sick Bay. I'll tell Li Pong to have a stasis pod prepped and ready for her when you get there."

"Good," Nathan replied and then added, "also I need Julia there when we arrive."

"Julia?" Alex exchanged a puzzled glance with Charlotte. "Why?"

"Because I have an idea and I'll need Julia to make it work."

*******

Under any other circumstances, having a woman hell-bent on getting her hands on him would be the greatest thing in the world to Buck Wilmington.

Unless of course, she was a queen xenomorph who stood almost fifteen feet tall and was capable of tearing you apart with her bare hands, if she didn't decide to decapitate you with a single bite of her massive jaws. As Buck turned on his heels and ran for his life, he heard her behind him and didn't dare look back because her royal highness moved pretty damned fast for a creature that big. He didn't have to look over his shoulder to know she was stomping through her own hatchery, demolishing the formations making up the catacombs on Sub-Level 25.

All he had to do was here that fearsome bellowing.

Yet while his heart was pounding like a warp core about to reach critical, and he wasn't ashamed to admit he was scared shitless, Buck Wilmington felt almost euphoric. For the first time in weeks, he felt like himself again, as if the fear and adrenaline had forced out all the trauma left behind by the Borg and he had a better grasp of himself than ever. Unfortunately, this watershed moment would be for nothing if he couldn't think of a way out of his current situation.

Except for the shield generator, the sub-level was used primarily for storage. What the xenomorphs hadn't taken to construct their strange labyrinth still remained behind. The Queen ran through these discards like a wrecking ball, and Buck knew he was only ahead of her by a few paces because she was moving fast, much like her progeny. Elsewhere, he could hear the distant cries of drones, and he knew that he suspected right, she had called for reinforcements.

Jumping over a set of crates that must have been used to store machinery by its size, he hoped the dim lighting and the confusion would hide his route, but the Queen kept up with him. While he ran over it, she smashed through and thought he did not see the carnage, the tearing of metal and plasteel as she tore it apart. He knew he couldn't keep this up because sooner or later, he was going to run out of sub-level.

Out of nowhere, he saw a ladder standing in front of it. Buck recognised it as the type used for maintenance purposes and followed the rungs to the top. It led to a walkway running beneath the ceiling, no doubt to allow maintenance personnel to carry out work on the lighting fixtures now obscured by alien architecture. The ramp was suspended high enough for him to escape the reach of the enraged monarch behind him. Deciding it was his best chance to stay alive, Buck practically jumped on it and started climbing.

As he ascended, the Queen closed the distance, and it astonished him just how fast she was moving and how damned lucky he was to be alive. At the sight of him scaling the ladder, she uttered another furious howl, determined to reach him before he slipped out of reach. Buck saw her slamming through everything in her path, reducing the organic walls into pulp. In some instances, trampling her own eggs in the effort to close in for the kill. Buck scrambled up the rungs, never moving so fast in his life. He climbed onto the steel mesh walkway just as she ran into the ladder.

Panting hard as he looked down on her, the Queen tilted her massive head in his direction, and though she had no eyes to speak of, Buck was convinced she was doing a fair representation of the Larabee glare. For a second that might have been an eternity, Buck saw her regard him with calculation, and with a sinking feeling, he knew in that instant what she was going to do.

She was going to jump.

"Oh fuck..."

The utterance coincided with a Hail Mary pass that came out of nowhere. All of a sudden, the centre of the sub-level lit up in a blinding white light that made him flinch and look away.

BOOM!

The explosion and the resulting shockwave was so loud, he dropped to his knees as the walkway shook beneath his feet, throwing him off balance. The world drained of all sound but the ringing in his ears. Buck was half-aware of the flames and smoke resulting from the blast. The generator! Ezra and Dralak just took out the generator. As the light started to contract, allowing the darkness to regain purchase, Buck saw the Queen reacting in kind.

She had forgotten all about him and spun around to witness the destruction of her nesting place. Throwing her head up like a wolf howling at the moon, the sound that escaped her was like a thousand kinds of rage, flung in the direction of the blast like driving points of daggers. Buck watched her stomping forward, armoured rage determined to make the destroyer of her children pay.

For their sakes, Buck hoped Ezra and Dralak were safe because hell was about to descend on them.

*hell

Chapter Twenty-Five:
Fire

"I should be coming with you."

Chief Engineer Julia Pemberton stared at Alex Styles as they both rode down the turbo lift together. After the force field was disabled and the Science station was able to make a scan of the facility, complete with calibration for detection of silicon-based life form, the result had sent Alex heading straight for the nearest shuttle bay.

"You need to stay here," Alex stated firmly, not as Julia's friend but as the ranking officer on board the Maverick. "Nathan needs you to help Mary. Last we checked, he and Josiah were on the transporter level, so they should be beaming back to the Maverick any time now."

"Thank God they managed to do it before the power cut out," Julia stated as the turbo lift hummed its descent to the shuttle deck around them.

"Yeah," Alex agreed wholeheartedly.

The complete destruction of the generator not only lowered the forcefield but resulted in a loss of power to the entire facility. Not only was the place running on batteries and auxiliary power, it meant whatever remaining security protections were in place, was disabled.

Worse yet, the Captain remained out of contact, which only worried Alex more, even though she tried not to think about Vin. Their marital bond told her he was still alive, but where xenomorphs were concerned, that was no guarantee of anything.

Mary Travis was still alive, but she was not at all safe.

As it was, the batteries were the only things that managed to get Josiah and Nathan to the transporter level. Otherwise, they would have been trapped in the depths of the institute, with no way for the Maverick to reach them.

It left the remaining members of the Away Team and the party led by the Captain, in a decidedly vulnerable position as they would be cut off from reaching the transporter level unless they left the institute the same way they came in. If they intended swarming the hatchery, then the xenomorphs would be rallying in that location to protect their Queen.

"I'm going to set down at the coordinates where we picked up JD and Miss Jones," Alex explained as the turbo lift announced their arrival on the shuttle bay deck. "I should be able to get a fix on our people and beamed them onto the runabout if they're coming in hot."

"Alright," Julia didn't disagree with Alex's plan because Ezra was down there and the idea of anything happening to him left her sick with worry.

For two months, Ezra was a constant at her side, proving in so many ways how much he loved her, tirelessly helping her overcome her trauma after assimilation. Julia knew she hadn't made it easy on him, but his patience, so easily transferable from his gambling skills to a human Rock of Gibraltar was just what she needed. It was not lost on Julia, Ezra had been willing to walk away from Starfleet to help her recover at her family home. Now Julia didn't care where they were, as long as he was safe and they were together.

"Hey," Alex caught the worry on her face and squeezed her hand in comfort. "They'll all be okay. If nothing else, those guys know how to get themselves out of trouble as much as they get into it."

*******

If the Captain of the Maverick did not respond to the hail of his Second Officer, it was for a good reason.

They were just emerging from the sluice tunnel, rushing to reach the Away Team whose life signs were finally visible through the tricorder after the generator exploded. The lowering of the force field allowed them to scan the interior of Sub-Level 25, revealing Buck Wilmington and Ezra Standish's present location but reaching them became problematic with the other noticeable life sign signals. Not that it took long for them to gain a visual.

Vin's telepathic discovery of the Queen's rallying cry had not gone unheeded by her children. Not since that awful moment on Fury 361, when the Away Team inadvertently awoke the xenomorphs in the hive, had Chris seen so many of the creatures appear. It was a sight he never wanted to see again. They were a tide of slick, black chitin, baring sharp, jagged teeth dripping with noisome fluid and spindly bodies that resembled skeletons fashioned in obsidian.

The same terror gripped him as it did when he first sighted them on Fury, and like his ancestor, the ill-fated Corporal Dwayne Hicks, he crushed the emotion mercilessly because he had to get his people through this safely. The aliens were closing in on them, and there was every possibility the queen was on the loose as well. With the power now disabled throughout the entire facility, only the torches mounted on the barrels of their pulse rifle provided any illumination. Still, it was more than enough to show them they were about to be overrun.

"VIN!

On your right!"

Vin Tanner swung around at Chris's warning, just in time to see the first xenomorph to reach them, spring out of the darkness. The helmsman wasted no time raising his rifle and unleashing a deadly barrage at the drone, cutting it down in mid-air.

The rat-tat-tat of the 21st-century weapon he wielded was lost in the already deafening bursts of gunfire exploding around him. A sharp screech followed by a ruined body sent acid splattering across the floor covered with debris and organic tendrils that resembled tree roots.

Vin took a step back, avoiding the acid spray and wrinkled his nose in reaction to the noxious fumes produced by its corrosive blood eating through deck plating and stone. The xenomorphs looked like springs bouncing off the floor and walls as they launched themselves at the Away Team. One of them closed in on JD. The kid reacted to the attack with more speed and less emotion then Vin expected, reducing the xenomorph to chunks when he opened fire. Vin supposed after JD's earlier visit here, the younger man had braced himself to face the creatures.

No sooner than he dispatched the alien attempting to kill him, JD promptly swung around and shot down another drone before it could bring down Kate Stokes.

Flashes of muzzle fire flared across the darkness, revealing a gleam of teeth, and it was all the warning Chris got before the xenomorph pounced. He dropped immediately as it sailed over him. The Captain rolled across the floor before straightening up one knee. The thing was dangerously close, too close for bullets, giving Chris time to switch to his flame unit instead.

"FIRE IN THE HOLE!"

He hollered the warning and hoped it was enough for the others to get out of the way before he unleashed a jet of fire that swallowed the xenomorph in flames. The creature uttered a shriek of pain before being driven away, looking like a demon breathed in hellfire. The fire lit up the darkness. His Away team got clear or were beyond the range of the fire.

It also showed him there were surrounded.

"Manny watch out!"

The scream came from Kate Stokes as she watched Manny Garcia being attacked on both fronts. While firing at an advancing xenomorph, one of the creatures took advantage of the young man's distraction to drop down behind him. At Kate's cry, Garcia swung around but had no time to act as the xenomorph's inner jaws sprung like a coiled trap. The extended jaws crushed the bones of his cranium and left him unrecognizable when they retracted. Garcia never had a chance to utter a scream of pain as his brain matter was shredded inside his fragmented skull.

Kate's reaction to this was visceral when she saw Garcia collapse, his leg still twitching from the shock of his sudden end. She uttered a howl of anguish rivalling any produced by a xenomorph queen. Without thinking twice, she pulled the trigger on her rifle, ignoring the danger of acid spray, wanting only to destroy the thing that killed Manny.

They were friends! Kate had gotten to know him off-duty since they were both a part of the Maverick's music society. He played the flute just like she did, and the idea he would never play Poulenc's Flute Sonata again broke her heart.

"Kate, you're too close!"

The warning came from Drew Katovit who grabbed her by the arm and pulled her away before she was given an acid bath. As he did so, he spun on the ball of his foot to shoot another burst of gunfire at an advancing xenomorph. With just as much speed, he pulled Kate behind the cover of a stone column, allowing it to bear the brunt of the corrosive blood.

Another short screech followed with Kate sighting another drone attempting to outflank them. Its body was ripped apart as Opa reduced it to hissing flesh with a quick burst of gunfire.

Chris had shot another blast of fire at a charging xenomorph when he saw something moving above him. He had just enough time to look up, to see a drone dropping down on him.

It reached him before he could fire, and the creature's weight had them rolling across the floor. The xenomorph moved with astonishing speed, its skeletal tail swatting the flamethrower out of his hands. As it clattered away, Chris saw those widening jaws coming at him and knew it would do the same thing to him as it had done to Garcia...

All of a sudden, the xenomorph's elongated head snapped sharply to the side when the butt of a pulse rifle slammed into its jaw. The power behind the blow was more than enough to dislodge the drone. The Captain rolled unto his stomach. Meanwhile, Vin leapt over him to strike the xenomorph across the jaw again. The Vulcan possessed more than enough strength to daze the creature. Chris stared open-mouthed as Vin circled the drone so quickly, it had no time to react when Vin grabbed its skull and twisted hard.

The sickly squelch of bone was heard even through gunfire with the xenomorph going limp after Vin twisted its head around in a 360-degree turn. It slumped against the floor with no further struggle and Vin sidestepping it without further thought to reach Chris.

"You okay pard?"

"Yeah, thanks," Chris said gratefully, snatching up his gun as the rest of his security team continuing their fight against the drones. "Now's let's find Buck and Ezra."

*******

Was that gunfire?

At first, Ezra wasn't sure what he heard. To be fair, he was running for his life from a queen xenomorph intending to have her revenge for destroying her hatchery and to his dismay, the nursery where Rek and Kash awaited their grisly fate. The explosion from the generator had vaporized them all, and Ezra didn't know whether he ought to be grateful he didn't have to tell Rekellen Dralak was dead. He had not known any of the unfortunate victims for long, but he mourned their loss, nonetheless.

With the Queen in pursuit, Ezra had started running, chased down by the enraged monarch who would not waste her time trying to immobilize him for implantation. No, he had foregone such a prolonged ending for something more swift and final.

However, when the gunfire erupted, Ezra knew it sounded familiar. He tried navigating the labyrinth of xenomorph created chambers and formations to reach the help he suspected had come. However, the Queen simply obliterated everything in her path, stomping it into the ground as she gave chase.

Tapping his combadge as he ran, he panted as he demanded an answer. "Chief Standish to the Maverick! Come in!"

The only answer came from the repeated shriek of the Queen, cutting through his ears like a loud screech. Nevertheless, as he attempted to reach the source of the gunfire, Ezra realized he recognized its origins. Pulse rifles! Whoever was out there was using pulse rifles! Unfortunately, judging by the frequency of muzzle flashes bursting like fireworks in the distance and the intensity of the gunfire, it appeared he was not the only one paying attention. He had to get to them if he had any chance of escaping the enraged queen behind him.

On Fury 361, they'd encountered the Queen when the Away Team comprising of himself, Vin Tanner and the Captain had ventured into the alien nest in search of Alex Styles who was taken for implantation. When Mary talked him into following the telepathic signals she was receiving to its source, they'd been led to Sub-Level 25 where both of them came face to face with the Queen cultivated by Gabriel Paracelsus. Previously, the Queen was held in place on her roost, rendered immobile by the ovipositor attached to her body. It was a testament to the brutal nature of these creatures that even in such a restrained condition, she managed to terrify him.

That was nothing compared to seeing her thundering after him, her massive crowned head leading the way with mouth wide open, revealing foot-long teeth that could crush his skull with one snap of her jaws. Free of her reproductive appendages, she sprinted towards him with the speed of any land mammal built for the purpose. He knew if he didn't act immediately, he would die before ever reaching the rescue team from the Maverick. At the rate she was gaining, Ezra knew he had to buy himself some time.

Craning his body just enough to take aim, Ezra fired a blast of phaser energy in her direction.

The amber bolt struck her in the chest and halted her advance, forcing her to retreat. The Queen uttered a howl of outrage at the personal assault with the ridged armour plating across her sternum smouldering with heat where the phaser beam struck. She was driven back no more than two steps before she put her head down and charged. Impossibly, she seemed to get even faster, as if her rage could spur her on, not slow her down.

As she bore down on him, the security chief did the only thing he could think to do, turn tail and run.

The Queen gave chase almost immediately, and Ezra thought absurdly of Orestes, being chased by the Furies for the crime of matricide. While he hadn't harboured such thoughts about Maude since his teenage years, Ezra supposed he should have been grateful he hadn't done it if this was the result. Leaping past the eggs which oddly enough hadn't opened, Ezra wondered if leading the Queen to the rescue party was the wisest course of action.

Ducking through the shortened entrance of yet another chamber, this one was also filled with cocooned eggs, presumably for the hosts, the drones would collect from the institute's population. Ezra weaved through them, suspecting the eggs had some kind of warning system that prevented them from blooming if the conditions were perilous.

Without warning, a xenomorph emerged from one of the walls where it had been hiding, waiting for the most damaging moment to strike. Ezra fired his phaser while it was still far enough away for him to avoid harm from the inevitable acid spray. The creature exploded as expected, dousing the surrounding eggs in acid.

Behind him, the Queen roared again, and Ezra saw her rip apart the organic wall created by her children, to reach him. In dealing with the drone, Ezra had wasted precious time, and now she had caught up.

Fear caused him to turn to run when a blast of phaser fire struck one of those massive frills on her head. It sheared off enough of her crown for her to scream in pain. Acid spewed from her wound, running down her black body and eating into the ground. Before she could recover enough to resume her charge, a second shot struck her, followed by a third. One by one, Ezra saw her driven back and had the presence of mind to use his own phaser to help his rescuer.

The combined blasts drove the Queen back enough for Ezra to look up and see Buck Wilmington standing on a walkway above him.

"You called Chief?" Buck grinned as he took aim at the suspension cables holding up one section of the walkway nearest to Ezra. Taking a precise aim, Buck severed both of them in mid-length, dropping one end to the floor as if he'd just lowered a drawbridge.

"Come on, she's not going to be dazed for long! I haven't had the chance to raise them, but I'm pretty sure that's our security detail causing all that ruckus!"

Ezra did not argue and could see the Queen tilting her head in their direction after shaking off the brunt of the phaser blasts. The Chief did not know if getting on the walkway was any safer, but it seemed a better course than the one he was charting at present. Running up the ramp, he looked behind him long enough to see her closing the distance.

She reached the edge of the metal frame just as Buck pulled Ezra to his section of the walkway.

Not that it mattered because her large hands gripped each side of the slanted ramp and started pulling. The remaining walkway shuddered, and both Ezra and Buck had to fight to stay on their feet as it swayed from side to side by the Queen's insistent tugging. Bellowing at them in what seemed like a gloat and a promise they were going nowhere, the Queen continued to pull at the metal frame, determined to bring down the entire construction to reach her prey.

"You know," Buck turned to Ezra as they started retreating further along the walkway, trying to outrun the inevitable collapse. "In my head, this plan sounded better."

"Perhaps," Ezra managed to say as he was flung to the railing and held fast, instead of going over. "You should attempt to employ your animal magnetism on the lady. She is, after all, a single woman with a large brood. Your dubious charm might win her over."

Suddenly the Queen stopped shaking the downed rampway, and both Buck and Ezra knew what she was about to do.

"Oh hell," Buck cursed.

With far more agility than one would expect from a creature her size, she stepped on to the ramp, making her way along its length even as her weight buckled the metal beneath her. Oblivious to the strain she was causing, the Queen was several feet off the ground when she jumped. Whether or not intended to reach the walkway beyond, neither of them would ever know for sure. The suspension cables were no match for her weight, and each one snapped behind Buck and Ezra as they tried to get far enough away from the Queen as possible.

The Queen hung on as the walkway collapsed, determined to end this avenue of escape once and for all.

When the floor gave way, Buck was thrown off, while Ezra rode it all the way to the ground. The First Officer landed hard, convinced those bruised ribs from earlier were now definitely broken. However, he hardly noticed the pain because when he scrambled to his feet, he saw Ezra was in worse shape. A section of the railing had broken off and twisted into gnarled and jagged metal, one sharp shard finding its way into the security officer's body. He was pinned and groaning in pain, blood starting to pool beneath him.

"Jesus Ezra," Buck rushed to Ezra, at the same time, throwing a look behind him to see where the Queen had landed. She was on the ground now, wrapped up in twisted metal and masonry, shaking off the debris like a big dog shaking off the rain. She did not look at all hurt, and Buck wondered if anything could kill her.

Along with the jagged metal penetrating his flesh, there was a patch of slick on Ezra's skull, providing a reason for his unresponsive state. Buck knew then and there, he was not going to be able to save Ezra before the Queen reached them. The possibility of saving himself never entered his mind because Ezra was his friend, and if Buck couldn't save him, they'd die together.

The queen xenomorph advanced, her triumph expressed in a loud hiss as she bared her teeth again. Instead of using demolishing speed, she now approached them slowly as if she knew her prey was cornered with nowhere to run. Trailing behind the Queen, were at least four other xenomorphs and as she closed in on them, Buck was convinced she was gloating.

Tightening his grip around his phaser and preparing to fight to the death, Buck felt no fear, just regret.

More than anything, he wanted to see Inez, wished he could tell her he had been a prized ass when she had done nothing but be there for him since his freedom from assimilation. Buck wanted to tell Josiah and Chris he was okay, because he'd finally accepted this was his life, and it was all his, with Borg programming expunged for good. Glancing at Ezra who was unconscious, Buck took some comfort in the fact the Chief would not be awake for the death coming to claim them both.

Until a stream of ignited naphthyl fuel created a wall of fire between them. The Queen uttered a shriek as another jet of flames flared in her direction, driving her and her drones backwards. For a second Buck could only watch as at least four crisscrossing streams of fire forced the xenomorphs into retreat.

"BUCK!" JD ran forward, emerging from the smoke

"JD!" Buck hid the intense relief he felt seeing the young man alive. Throughout all this, JD's fate was something he tried not to think about because if the boy was dead, it would have broken him into a thousand pieces more completely than anything the Borg could have done to him. He clamped his hand on the younger man's shoulder and squeezed. "Where the hell have you been?"

"Long story," JD said grinning, "but we got to get moving!"

"Ezra's hurt," Buck turned back to Ezra until he noticed Chris joining them. "Chris, what the hell are you doing here? You should be on the ship!"

Chris glared at Buck exasperated, "this is hardly the time for that conversation Commander. Let's get Ezra, so we can get the hell out of here. We've taken that bitch by surprise, but she'll regroup soon enough."

Buck had no doubt of that, and despite Chris's tone, Buck could see the Captain's intense relief at finding them both alive.

"Amen to that," Buck grinned. He wanted to go home.

Chapter Twenty-Six:
lagiarus praepotens

Josiah was never more grateful to return to the Maverick, but he wished it were under any other circumstances.

As he, Nathan and Mary materialised in the centre of Sick Bay, there to greet them was Doctor Zheng Li Pong, Lt. Rain and Julia Pemberton. Both Julia and Rain were understandably puzzled at the need for their presence in what was a wholly medical matter. However, after hearing Nathan's plan to save Mary Travis, Josiah knew no one else on board could help the doctor with the minor miracle he intended to perform.

"Oh my God," Julia gasped as she stepped back and saw Nathan carrying Mary in his arms to the nearest biobed where Li Pong awaited.

"There's nothing holy about what happened to her," Josiah stated firmly, thoroughly sick about hearing anything spiritual in connection to the xenomorphs. It would take a long time before he could forget the mania Gabriel Paracelsus displayed, and how many he'd condemned to a horrific death because of his delusions. Never again would Josiah be able to see his old friend as anything but a monster, not after Gabriel so flagrantly ignored a healer's mandate to do no harm.

"We need an immediate scan of everything going on inside of her," Nathan told the assistant CMO of the Maverick. "I want to be able to identify every trace of xenomorph DNA inside of her."

"Yes, Dr Jackson," Li Pong nodded promptly, hurrying over to the biobed controls to do just that.

No sooner than Nathan had delivered that message, he crossed the floor of Sick Bay, his attention fixed on the two non-medical staff present in the room. Although Nathan would have liked to have a personal moment with Rain, whose eyes showed him how grateful she was to have him back in one piece, it was not a desire he could immediately satisfy. Not when Mary's life was at stake and not when the time was so short.

"Rain, I'm going to be attaching transponder isotopes to the spore," he glanced over his shoulder at the monstrosity attached to Mary's face."

"Will that work?" Josiah asked, not capable of believing it could be that simple.

"To remove the larger organism, yes."

"I can calibrate the transporter to the silicon DNA of that thing," Rain confirmed, her distaste at the creature attached to Mary evident on her face, "but if it's on a microscopic level..."

"I know," Nathan was prepared for this.

"Doctor," Li Pong called out from the display screen next to the bio-bed. "The implantation process has begun. I'm detecting high levels of dimethyl sulfoxide being produced by the spore."

"That's its delivery system," Nathan explained to his comrades. "These things don't carry any kind of embryo, not in the way we understand it. They infuse potential hosts with a substance called Plagiarus praepotens instructing the host body to replicate the biological matter required to create the embryo."

For the uninitiated, the information was horrifying. So far, no one who became implanted survived the birthing process and the idea Mary could die screaming as a monster tore out of her body, was too terrifying to accept. Josiah, Rain and Julia automatically shifted their gaze to Nathan, hoping he'd have a solution to save her.

"How long until it matures?"

"Seven hours."

Seven hours. Okay, Nathan could work with that.

"Monitor its progress," Nathan instructed her.

The doctor nodded quickly, turning her attention to the display on the bio-bed controls again.

"What are you going to do?" Josiah had to ask. While the idea of transporting the spore away was the most obvious answer, Josiah retained enough information from med school to know the solution was nowhere that simple.

During their time in the Institute's Sick Bay, Nathan had thought long and hard about what to do about Mary's condition once they returned to the Maverick. An idea struck him, borne mostly out of desperation, but the more he gave it thought, the more he became convinced it was the only way to save their Protocol Officer.

"There's no way we can get the spore off surgically, not when it has acid for blood, but we can inject her with transponder isotopes which will be programmed to attach itself to any silicon-based lifeform in and out of her body. We use it in the same way we treat malignant tumours too dangerous for surgical removal."

"Give me the specs Doc," Rain said with a determined set of her jaw. "I'll get that damn thing off her."

"But that's not enough," Josiah pointed out. "Not if she's been infused with Plagiarus praepotens. Just a few cells from a dead spore was enough to infect Callie Leech and create the mess on the planet!"

"I know," Nathan was prepared for his outburst and suspected even Josiah's usual calm was not going to find his next response any more comforting. "To eradicate it, we need something that can transform cells on a genetic level by rewriting it."

Julia's eyes widened in realisation as Nathan's gaze slowly shifted to her. Now she understood why he had asked for her.

"You can't be serious..." her voice escaped her in a strangled whisper.

"What?" Josiah looked at Julia and then at Nathan. "What do you have in mind?"

"Borg nanites. He wants to inject her with Borg nanites." Julia revulsion was plain.

"Nathan that's crazy!" Rain blurted out, never one to stand on ceremony.

"Maybe," Nathan ignored the protests. "But it will work. The Borg nanites have proved capable of rewriting the cells of every species they have encountered. If I reprogram them to seek out the xenomorph cells, I think we can use them to remove all traces of Plagiarus praepotens from Mary's system."

"Where do you propose to get these nanites from?" Rain questioned. "We're a long way from the Collective."

Josiah saw Julia stiffen and turned a shade pale and guessed the answer. "We don't need to be, do we?"

"No," Nathan shook his head. "We don't."

Julia took a deep breath, hating to be reminded somewhere in her bloodstream, there were still Borg nanoprobes rendered inert. Nathan had disabled the neural transceiver in her brain and all the other hardware the Collective saw fit to infest her with, but he had not been able to remove everything. During the first few weeks after she was free of assimilation, Julia was plagued with recurring nightmares that they would spontaneously come alive and turn her into Borg again.

Now it appeared they could well be Mary's only salvation.

Remembering Lt. Ty Atwater, who died on the Sulaco alone and in terror, Julia knew if she could spare Mary that same nightmare, then she would not hesitate to help. Besides, if she was to have these microscopic freeloaders in her system, she might as well put them to work.

"What do you need from me?"

*******

Chris realised there was only one way out of Sub-Level 25. The way they came in.

After the generator's destruction, every xenomorph in the facility was on route to intercepting the intruders in the hatchery. There was no way to reach the transporter level via the turbo lifts. Furthermore, with the Queen leading the charge, they would never make it there anyway. Buck and JD carried Ezra who was still unconscious. The possibility of the head injury he sustained was much more severe than the bleeding wound on his side preyed on everyone's mind.

The flamethrowers had given them enough of an opening to make a run for it, with Drew, Kate and Opa laying down a wall of fire to allow the rest of the Away Team to reach the tunnel. Sandwiched between the Captain, Vin and the security team, Buck and JD held Ezra up by each arm as they entered the narrow passage.

"Chris, let me take point," Vin spoke over the whooshes from the jets of fire being unleashed by the flamethrowers, followed by the corresponding shrieks of pain and outrage from their targets. "With the power down, they could come at us from the outside."

"Good idea," Chris agreed, finding in these close quarters, the flame units were more useful than the bullets from the Pulse rifles. At least the fires would force the drones back and not put any of them at risk by getting splattered with acid. "Buck, how's Ezra doing?"

"We need to get him to Sick Bay," Buck grunted while struggling to keep Ezra on his feet, even with JD's help. "I think he got hit on the head pretty hard when the bitch brought down the walkway."

"As soon as we're out in the open, we'll be in transporter range. The ship will transport us before we die of exposure!"

"I'd rather freeze to death than let one of those things take me. I've had enough of fucked up alien species deciding they want to use my body for Christ only knows what, without my permission. First, the Borg and then these goddamn things. "

"Must be all that animal magnetism," JD couldn't help quip, glad to hear Buck sounding more like himself than he had in months.

"Real funny junior," Buck shot him a look. "You can't know the trouble I've seen because of it."

Chris shook his head at their sense of timing but couldn't hold either at fault. For the first time since coming out of assimilation, the shadow in Buck's eyes was nowhere in sight.

The Captain supposed the xenomorphs had a way of making you put aside all the bullshit running through your head to remember what was really mattered. When Chris had been on Fury 361, his obsession with finding out who killed Sarah and Adam had made him reckless, costing a lot of good people their lives. After that incident, he learned never to take his position as Captain for granted again and swallowed a bitter lesson about how his choices affected the lives of his crew.

Perhaps being in a similar position had given Buck the same clarity.

"If you ladies can quit jawing," Vin barked from the front, "we've got company."

Leading the Away Team through the tunnel, now illuminated by the glow of torches and the jets of fire, Vin had a good view of what was ahead of them. The end of the passage approached with daylight pouring through its entrance, but they were not alone as a trio of xenomorphs closed in on them rapidly. Vin hesitated to use the Pulse rifle because splattering acid across the terrain they would need to cross to escape, sounded like a generally bad idea. Instead, he opted for the flame units.

At least three of them were sprinting across the stone floor, intending on intercepting the escaping humans. Two were moving along the stone slabs, while a third was making its approach from the roof, no doubt planning to get above them before dropping in. Vin wasted no time depressing the trigger of the flame unit, sending a rush of fire down the passage, filling the small space with smoke that made his eyes burn and started someone, he thought it might be JD, coughing.

The fire swallowed one xenomorph, provoking a sharp screech of pain as it flailed about wildly before retreating the way it came. The flames surrounding its body lit the drone's flight out of the tunnel, and Vin wondered if it had the capacity to reason that reaching the snow outside could save its life. Meanwhile, the rest of its pack advanced, their savage instinct forcing them to attack. The one on the ceiling dropped to the ground, taking up position next to the remaining drone. Both pounced, intending to bring Vin down before he could aim those jets of heat in their direction again.

Vin didn't give them the chance to reach him, pulling the trigger again and sending a stream of fire in their direction. At the same time, a hail of gunfire exploded out of Chris's pulse rifle. Between the flames and the bullets, the drones were either cut down or forced back. Their retreat gave the Away Team a clear path through the tunnel for now. As the Maverick's crew forged ahead, sidestepping the carcass of the alien Chris had killed, they avoided the acid eating into the stone. The Captain looked over his shoulder and was relieved to see the Security team had rejoined them.

He supposed he could take comfort in the fact the Queen couldn't follow them down here.

"Report!" Chris barked as Vin continued to lead the way, unleashing bursts of gunfire to ensure their way out was safe. "Security?"

"We're okay," Drew Katovit replied promptly. "A little singed, but okay."

"What about that big bitch!" Buck demanded, convinced the Queen would not give up so easily, not after seeing how relentlessly she pursued him and Ezra through her hatchery.

"Can't say, Commander. We lost sight of her once we climbed in here."

Another burst of gunfire cut off Drew's speech, telling Buck and Chris the xenomorphs had not given up yet. It was clear the drones would dog them every step of the way until they were transported to the Maverick, which wouldn't be long now. Despite the use of flamethrowers and the heat generated by the fire, the air was growing steadily colder, an indicator they were almost outside.

"We're almost out!" Vin announced as the light ahead became brighter, eclipsing the radiance from their torches and the fires. There was no further appearance of the xenomorphs in front of them.

"No kidding," Buck complained as he started to shiver, his uniform no match for the icy temperatures of Tenabrus. While the others were dressed for it, he and Ezra were not so fortunate and would not last for long on the surface.

"Captain to the Maverick," Chris tapped his combadge as they approached the exit. He could see the grey sky starting to appear past the doorway and felt the cold wind assail his skin since he was no longer wearing any headgear. "Come in, Maverick."

"Captain!" Charlotte Richmond exclaimed almost immediately. "What's your status? Are you safe? Did you find the rest of the Away Team?"

Where was Alex? Chris was puzzled. She should have been on the bridge.

"It's a long story Lt," Chris said abruptly as they emerged onto the surface of Tenarus with the Institute behind them. "I need you to lock onto our signal for immediate transport."

Cold winds lashed at them as soon as they emerged into the harsh icy weather, with Kate taking his place carrying Ezra since Buck needed both hands to deal with the cold's effect on him. The First Officer was rubbing his hands over his arms, trying to generate heat. At least Ezra was spared the discomfort, although Chris did not know if this was a good thing or not.

THUD!

The sound was loud enough to interrupt Chris in mid-sentence, and every member of the Away Team honed in immediately on its source.

THUD!

It was coming from the Institute. Another loud bang, audible over the sound of the howling wind told them why. With a mixture of horror and astonishment, the Away Team watched with wide eyes as a section of the outer wall crumbled from repeated bombardment. As the cracks became fissures and finally gave way, a small dust cloud of mortar and steel formed over the newly created opening to Sub-Level 25.

Emerging through it, was the Queen.

*******

"Are we ready?"

Nathan Jackson stood over Mary Travis, with Li Pong at the bio-bed controls. Surrounding them was a force field because as much as this procedure was necessary to save Mary's life, there was no avoiding how dangerous it was. If they failed to remove the spore properly, it would kill Mary in retaliation for their tampering. If his plan succeeded, he would have knowingly infected Mary with Borg nanoprobes, risking the possibility the nanites could continue their assimilation of the Protocol Officer once it was done with the xenomorph threat.

Outside the security shield, both Josiah and Julia watched on. The Engineer was more than willing to donate her blood where many of the nanites resided in their dormant state. Nathan knew she had mixed feelings at allowing the things to be injected into Mary, but seeing that monstrous creature on her face went a long way to convincing the Engineer this was the right thing to do. Still, Nathan was glad to see Josiah was standing by to offer her support.

"As I'll ever be Doc," Rain spoke up. "The transponder signal is strong. I'm getting a good read on the organism."

"Alright then," Nathan sucked in his breath. "Engage."

No sooner than he spoke, the xenomorph spore started to shimmer. As the transport beam activated, Nathan saw its limbs twitch and the tail coiled around Mary's neck began to tighten, as if the creature knew something was happening. The golden mist of energy expanded, enveloping the spore and animating it further, but it was too late. Nathan and Li Pong had been meticulous in their preparations, planning for every contingency to ensure the creature did nothing more to endanger Mary Travis.

The transport beam lasted for only a few seconds, and when it vanished, Mary's face became visible once again. Nathan was not about to celebrate. "Did we get it all?"

Li Pong faced the display screen on the biobed and studied its reading for a few seconds, unaware Nathan, Josiah and Julia were holding their breaths in anticipation of her answer.

"Yes," she nodded, too relieved to smile, "the spore itself is gone."

That's one, Nathan thought silently.

"Rain, have you got it?" He spoke up, aware the Transporter Chief was listening via the open channel between Sick Bay and Transporter Room 1.

"I've got it," Rain replied tautly. "It's in the transporter buffer. What do you want me to do with it."

"In the words of our esteemed Captain," Nathan eyed Josiah and Julia. "Get it the hell off the ship."

"Oh, I like it when you talk dirty Doc," Rain teased and then added more seriously. "Acknowledged."

While the spore was gone, Mary was nowhere out of danger. Nathan was not about to let her suffer a repeat of Callie Leach's ordeal. While any trace of the xenomorph's DNA remained inside Mary's system, she was in danger. Now that the spore itself was removed, including the vile proboscis lodged inside her throat, Nathan could move to the next phase of treatment.

Reaching for the instrument tray, he picked up the spray applicator containing the nanoprobes extracted from Julia's blood. Once again, he noticed the Engineer flinch when he held the device to Mary's neck. He knew she was still anxious about what he was proposing, but her lack of refusal indicated Julia knew there was no other way to save Mary.

"Li Pong, you keep an eye on her vitals. The minute these nanoprobes enter her bloodstream, the assimilation process is going to happen real fast."

Nathan had activated the nanoprobes after removing them from Julia, programming them to seek out any traces of Palgiarus praepotens in particular, during the assimilation of its new victim. Of course, he also had a good dose of Omicron particles on hand to neutralise the things when the time came.

"Yes Doctor," Li Pong nodded, having no illusions on this point. Not after the Maverick's most recent encounters with the Borg.

"Nathan," Josiah felt compelled to ask as he saw the doctor about to inject the nanoprobes into Mary's body. "Are you sure about this?" He threw a sidelong glance at Julia, who was biting the nail on her thumb as she watched on with apparent anxiety.

"Yeah," Nathan answered. "If we'd gotten to her soon enough, we could have saved Callie and spared her what Paracelsus made her go through. We can't help her, but we can help Mary."

"Do it," Julia finally spoke. "Those damn things have to be good for something."

The doctor did not answer and squeezed the hypospray against Mary's neck, slightly bruised from the spore's tail coiled around it for so long. The nanoprobes entered Mary's body with a hiss, and for a few seconds, nothing happened.

Josiah didn't have to look directly at Julia to know she was tense. Her green eyes were fixed, and Josiah could only imagine what terrible feelings this was surfacing in Julia's mind. Looking straight ahead, he saw Mary remained in her unconscious state, oblivious to the effort being made on her behalf. Josiah suspected he might have to clear his appointments for the next two days to counsel those who would undoubtedly need it after this whole affair.

Hell, he and Chris were due to share a bottle of Saurian whiskey because for once, it was not Chris who needed to talk. He did.

Without warning, Mary convulsed suddenly as red light indicators lit up across the bio-bed controls and the shrill beeping of emergency sounded throughout the room. The Protocol Officer's body arched sharply over the mattress, her peaches and cream complexion quickly taking on the grey, mottled colour of Borg skin. Next to Josiah, he heard Julia's breath catch when the first dermal implants burst through Mary's cheek and hand.

The assimilation had begun.

*******

The Queen stepped through the freshly created hole she had just battered into existence, stepping out of the dust cloud resulting from broken mortar and rocks like some twisted version of the Angel of Death. Emerging with her, were swarms of xenomorphs swarming past, able to move far swifter than any of the humans who might try to outrun them.

Chris snapped back to attention far quicker than any of the Away Team. "Charlotte, we need a beam out now!"

"Aye Captain!" The assistant science officer did not miss the urgency in the Captain's voice.

However, the xenomorphs would be here in a matter of seconds, and Chris had a feeling some of them might make it off the planet in time, but others would not. The creatures were closing in way too fast. Beside him, Vin and the security officers were preparing to meet the onslaught of drones, but the numbers racing towards them would make this an extremely uneven fight. Even with the technology at their disposal.

"Now this is why you need to stay on the ship!" Buck stated as they waited for the Maverick's transporters to sweep them to safety, hopefully before the xenomorphs reached them.

"Is this really the time?" Chris gave him a look.

"We're about to die," Buck shrugged. "It's as good a time as any."

"Die?" JD's eyes widened at the thought.

The creatures were closing in and all three men, despite holding up an unconscious Ezra Standish, braced themselves for a fight.

All of a sudden, a bolt of energy flew past their heads and struck the enemy line. The blast was powerful enough to send all the drones into complete disarray. As the shocked Away Team looked up into the sky, they saw a Starfleet runabout making a tight loop above their heads before taking another run at the swarm attempting to stampede them. The Queen realising the odds were about to shift significantly out of her favour, charged the runabout. With her head bent like a battering ram, she roared with fury in a shriek also laced with finality.

The phaser banks fired, and she was obliterated in a ball of fire. Her body was blown apart, no match for phasers made to tear through deuterium hull plating. As pieces of alien flesh and acid blood scattered in all directions, her army screamed in outrage, their anguish at her loss rising above the whistle of the wind.

"Hey, Captain," Alexandra Styles's voice spoke through their combadges. "I was just in the neighbourhood and thought you could use a lift."

Vin was grinning as he stared into the sky, unsurprised his wife would be just impatient enough to come get them.

"Good timing Commander," Chris shared Vin's elation at hearing the Science Officer. At least he knew why the lady wasn't on the bridge when he made contact.

As the Captain spoke to Alex, Buck heard the familiar hum of the transporter beam and smiled to himself as Tenarus, and the world around him became enveloped in a shimmer of gold. Closing his eyes as he was spirited away, Buck's last thought as he vanished off the surface of the planet was how good it was to finally go home to the Maverick and the people he called his family.

*Plagiarus praepotens is referenced in canon-related works for the Alien franchise.

Epilogue:
Choices

"Captain's Log - Stardate 2378.293.

It has been twenty-four hours since the Maverick completed the final evacuation of all personnel from the Tenarus Institute. We recovered 147 of the 219 residents of the facility. The rest were taken by the xenomorphs and killed after embryo implantation or were caught in the generator explosion. More disturbingly, upon examination of Doctor Paracelsus's personal log, we learned he falsified the release of 43 patients, claiming they had left the facility. According to the doctor's surviving followers, these unfortunate souls never returned home and were the xenomorphs' first victims.

Also lost, was one of the Maverick's own, Ensign Manny Garcia. I do not look forward to informing his parents of his passing. Mr Garcia is the oldest child of his parents who own a farm in Oregon, and the first in his family to attend Starfleet. Counsellor Sanchez tells me he was a practising Catholic, so services will be held as soon as time permits.

I have recommended Tenarus be permanently quarantined after ordering phaser bombardment of the facility. It is my hope we managed to excise the xenomorph threat completely. Nevertheless, Starfleet has issued a Priority One advisory alert to all relevant authorities and governments regarding the biological hazard now existing in Tenarus. While I hope my orders to Commander Styles to sterilize each instance of infestation was successful, we cannot be sure the threat is truly eradicated. If nothing else, the xenomorphs have proven to be extremely adaptable.

Nevertheless, Dr Paracelsus's followers have been confined to the brig due to the continued influence of the Queen on their judgement. Counsellor Sanchez believes rehabilitation may be possible for some. Still, for those who have had prolonged exposure, they may never break free of the delusion she is a deity, worthy of worship. Fortunately, Paracelsus never knew about LV-426 or Fury 361 since the information was deemed classified. Not even Lt. Leech was aware of the xenomorph's true origins. As a result, it is doubtful the more extreme members of his cult can trace the xenomorphs to those worlds in an attempt to revive their 'religion'.

Meanwhile, Doctor Jackson has successfully removed all traces of Plagiarus praepotens from Lt. Mary Travis's body. Utilizing reprogrammed Borg nanoprobes, the nanites sterilized all foreign cells capable of interfering with the assimilation of a new drone. Once confirmation of removal of Plagiarus praepotens was made with 100 per cent certainty, Doctor Jackson then administered omicron particles to Lt. Travis's system, deactivating all nanoprobes in her body. The implants were surgically removed, and though Lt. Travis must remain under medical care for the next week, it appears she is free of the xenomorph's infestation.

Also recovering well is Lt. Commander Standish, who sustained a fracture to his skull and a perforated liver during his encounter with the queen xenomorph. No doubt the Chief will be demanding his release from Sick Bay the minute he wakes up. I'm guessing he will discover a queen xenomorph is as threatening as a neutered tribble in comparison to the Chief Medical Officer of the Maverick.

The sudden chirp at his door made Chris Larabee pause from his log entry.

"Come in."

Entering his Ready Room was Holly Jones, who was carrying a Starfleet datapad as well as a mug of coffee that was wafting with an unfamiliar but rather inviting aroma. Remembering their earlier encounter, the master of the ship eyed the young lady with suspicion.

"Hi, Captain," she greeted pleasantly. "I bought you some coffee. I know you drink the same Jamaican blend all the time, but I thought you might like to try something different. You know, mix it up a bit? Anyway, I've gone through your paperwork and completed most of your outstanding reports. You have two personnel requests and at least four requisition forms that just need approval. Once you do, they'll be good to transmit to Starfleet Command."

She spoke faster than artillery fire.

Chris blinked and stared at her through narrowed eyes, trying to understand what was happening here. "Miss Jones, I have a Yeoman who does all this for me already, and who gave you the authority to access my reports?"

"Correction, you did have a Yeoman. Apparently, Ensign Arlok has decided to transfer to stellar cartography or go home to Benzar to raise sea turtles or something. Commander Wilmington didn't specify which exactly, but he said you needed my kind of help since you've hardly got time to do your reports, what with leading Away missions and all that. Besides, I've got nothing to do until we get to a Starbase."

That rat bastard. He should have known. Clearly, his oldest friend and First Officer was not yet ready to forgive him for leading the Away Team to the surface and was getting his revenge by inflicting this girl on him. Chris supposed he ought to be grateful since this was a clear indication Buck was on the road to recovery at last.

"I can manage on my own," Chris bit back petulantly.

"Oh don't be such a baby," Holly rolled her eyes, unafraid of him because technically, she was still a civilian not crew. The petite young woman set down the coffee mug and the datapad with his completed reports on his desk. "Go on, try the Hawaiian Koa blend."

Chris shot her a glare, disappointed it did not have the power to incinerate her on the spot when the aroma of coffee reached his nostrils. It made him look down into its dark depths with interest. Not looking at her, he raised the mug to his lips and took a sip.

Damn, it was good.

Of course, he would rather be facing an armada of Borg before he admitted it to her.

"Not bad," Chris grumped, not about to admit it tasted delicious.

"See? Dare to be different, Captain.," she beamed before continuing. "I've also gone through your schedule today, shifted a few things around and freed up some time so you can take a meeting with Counsellor Sanchez and visit Lt. Travis in Sick Bay. Don't forget to bring her flowers. I'll replicate you some roses. Girls love those."

Chris wondered if it would be a bad thing to send her back to the planet.

*******

For the first time in weeks, Julia didn't dream about the Borg.

In fact, she didn't dream of anything in particular. The flotsam of her day swirled around her in the dreamscape, adding little twists on the mundane occurrences she barely heeded in her waking hours. She floated through them like a disinterested traveller, scarcely aware of them they drifted by. It was a pleasant change from the terrible nightmares of being assimilated where she watched helplessly as friends and whole worlds were destroyed by the juggernaut of the Collective.

This time, she was roused out of her sleep by something other than a nightmare reaching climax, where escape came by waking up in a cold sweat or by screaming. Ezra's soft groan sliced through her slumber like a laser torch. Julia's eyes flew open at the hearing of it, the walls of her dream environment abruptly lowering for the cold sterility of Sick Bay. Another groan banished it entirely, and she blinked to wake herself up fully.

She hadn't realized she'd fallen asleep by his bed, having come into the room the night before because the idea of going back to their quarters without him was more than she could stand. However, when Julia looked up, she saw Ezra slowly emerging from his drug-induced sleep. The wonders of 24th-century medicine left him devoid of any wounds once Nathan finished treating him. Still, even if his wounds were healed, his body remembered the abuse he'd suffered onTenabrus.

Ezra's return to consciousness filled Julia with an overwhelming sense of relief. When he was first brought into Sick Bay, the stark terror running through her heart made her forget all about her discomfort at donating the nanoprobes needed to help Mary. The idea of losing him, after all they had been through together was more than she could bear. He'd fought so hard to bring her home it would be the height of cruelty if they were parted again.

Not after what they discussed the night before.

Ezra emerged from his stupor, his senses quickly adjusting to his situation as he took stock of his surroundings. When his eyes met hers, Julia broke into a smile, thanking all the deities that may exist for his life.

"Hey Chief," she reached for his hand and squeezed it.

"Julia," Ezra croaked and winced at how dry his throat was.

Julia wasted no time remedying that situation by pouring him a glass of water and holding it to his lips so he could drink. She watched him take a few sips before retreating again.

"I take it from my presence here, I have Commander Wilmington to thank for my continued existence?" Ezra tried to ignore the throbbing in his head and wished for something to make it go away. However, such easements from the doctor usually came with a sedative that would put him right back to sleep again. Doctor Jackson was cunning as he was compassionate.

"Not just him," Julia explained, planting a soft kiss on Ezra's palm as she resumed holding his hand at his bedside. "The Captain led an Away Team..."

"The Captain?" Ezra almost sat up in his bed at that morsel of news. "By himself? On the surface? Why?"

Julia rolled her eyes in mild exasperation, wondering if Captain Larabee who was already in Buck Wilmington's doghouse would be suffering a similar sentence in Ezra's brig.

"He had a security team with him, Ezra," Julia said gently and on that subject knew this revelation was about to take a dark turn. She wished she could avoid telling him, but Julia knew what Ezra's people meant to him. "Ezra, we lost Ensign Manny Garcia on the Away Mission."

"How?" Ezra started to ask and then stopped himself. If Manny died on Tenarus, it took no clairvoyance to know why. "Nevermind, I think I can guess."

"I'm sorry," Julia saw the sorrow flooding his sea-green eyes briefly before Ezra reverted to type, sealing off his emotions from everyone behind his usual poker face.

"He was a good officer," Ezra said quietly, the only indication just how much it hurt to hear of Manny's death. Manny who played the flute, who came from Oregon and played a killer game of dom-jot. This was his first starship posting and his last, Ezra lamented silently. "He was too young to die at the hands of those insidious creatures."

He looked so grieved at Manny's loss, Julia wanted to console him with some good news. "Nathan managed to get the spore off Mary," she revealed, wishing him to know that not all encounters with the xenomorphs had ended in tragedy.

"He did?" Ezra exclaimed, fearing such a thing might have been impossible when he brought Mary to the healer. Still, it was a welcoming bit of news and Ezra supposed with every loss, there could be victories too. He just wished Manny didn't have to die to even those scales. "Was he able to transport the spore out of her body?"

"Something like that," Julia nodded, not about to explain the part Borg nanites played in Mary's salvation, or where they had come from. Not yet anyway.

She did know what she wanted to talk about now that he was conscious. During the hours Julia sat at his bedside, she thought long and hard about their relationship and where she wished it to be. Before the Borg, it was a no-brainer. Since her return to the Maverick, Julia had struggled to get back to a normal life without the Collective. While Josiah had counselled her through much of her trauma, it was Ezra who held her together even though she still kept him at arm's length. When she saw him broken and bleeding, Julia realized just how awful it would be if he were gone.

"Yes."

Ezra stared at her, not understanding. "Yes?"

"Let's get married."

It took a second for his brain to catch up and when it did, Ezra had to confess the shock statement caught him by surprise with his gambler's facade shaken completely. While he felt elated by her answer, he was quick to question it for fear of disappointment. Ezra cleared his throat, trying to downplay the whole thing with cautious regard. No doubt his injuries were a prime motivation, and he didn't want her to make life-changing decisions only to regret it later.

"Julia, while I would love nothing better than to enter a matrimonial state with you, I do not wish you to make such a decision because of my present condition."

Julia rolled her eyes in exasperation, but then again, this was Ezra.

"Ezra, I don't deny seeing you hurt scared the hell out of me, but it also reminded me of how much I love you and need you in my life. You've been my rock these past two months, and you've put up with my crazy for longer than that. I want to share my life with you, and I certainly don't want you to go on an Away mission, where you could die any time, thinking I don't have enough faith in you to come back to me. I want to marry you. I want us to share our lives together, on the Maverick or any other ship in the fleet. I don't care, as long as we're together."

Being able to read people allowed Ezra to know she was being sincere and realize this was something she wanted to do because she loved him. His chest swelled, thinking this was better medicine than any concoction Nathan could administer. "In that case, I accept on one condition."

"And that is?" Julia asked before she leaned in to kiss him.

"Let us keep this from my mother for as long as we can."

*******

Chris entered Sick Bay when he finally had the chance after Holly's expert manipulation of his schedule (damn her), carrying the bouquet of red roses the girl insisted he brought when he left his Ready Room.

On his way to Sick Bay, he promised to get Buck for inflicting the girl on him and made a mental note to tell Vin to head to the nearest starbase at Warp 9.9. The sooner they got that pain in the ass off his ship, the better. Even if that Hawaiian blend coffee was to die for.

Mary wasn't alone in her room in the Recovery wing of Sick Bay. Adam had brought Billy to see his mother, aware Chris would be too busy to do it earlier. Thus when Chris entered, he found Billy lying against his mother on her bed, with Mary's arms wrapped around him to assure her young son she was not going anywhere. Adam, who spent most of his time these days studying for the equivalency test to qualify him for admission into Starfleet Academy, occupied the only chair in the room.

"Chris?" Mary sat up, looking a little pale but no worse for wear after her experience the last twenty-four hours. "You brought me roses?"

"Yeah," Chris bristled, trying not to show his annoyance at Holly being right about Mary's appreciation of the blooms. "They were just lying around."

"Smooth dad," Adam smirked, somehow inheriting all of Buck Wilmington's sass. "I thought I'd bring Billy by since you've been busy fixing that mess down on the planet."

"Thanks," the Captain patted his son's shoulder in gratitude. Even though this Adam was not the child born to him and Sarah, Chris loved him just the same. Through the barriers of dimensional walls, they had found each other and healed the wounds from two different tragedies to become a family. Adam discovered the father he never had, and Chris became the father he never expected to be again.

"Anytime dad," Adam said with just as much affection before regarding Billy. "Hey kid, let's go get some lunch. We can go surfing on the holodeck later."

Billy seemed reluctant to leave Mary, and Chris could understand why. The boy lost his father less than two years ago, and the possibility he could lose his mother the same way must have been terrifying.

"Can't I stay with you?" He asked in a small voice. Even though he was eight years old, Billy wanted to remain at her side for as long as he could.

"Of course you can," Mary planted a kiss on her son's forehead, seeing his fear clearly. "But you need to get some lunch, and you can come right back after if you want. Right?"

"Absolutely," Chris said to the boy who had come to mean so much to him since they laid eyes on each other. "Adam will bring you right back if you want."

Billy nodded and climbed off the bed once he was given the assurance. Adam gave him a little smile, and Chris had a sneaking suspicion Adam liked playing big brother to Billy. Adam, who had the most dysfunctional upbringing in that other universe was happy to embrace the whole notion of family in this one.

"Come on, Billy," Adam gestured for him to follow. "We can go to Four Corners and grab sundaes." As they left, Adam threw Chris and Mary a look, "I hear one of the people we rescued from the planet is a cute, hot blond."

Chris winced.

When he turned back to Mary, he saw she was smiling even though she looked pale, with circles around her eyes and the red marks against her neck. At that moment, Chris was grateful he never saw her with that damned spore attached to her face. The Captain had no idea how he would have reacted to seeing that monstrosity smothering her and was grateful by the time he returned to the Maverick, Nathan had successfully removed the thing.

"Are you okay?" He set down the roses on the table beside her and took her hand in his. Leaning over, he kissed her gently on the mouth and stared at her with all the love he could convey without uttering a word. Like the two boys who just left, this woman restored his wounded heart and taught him that life went on, even after tragedy.

"Yes," she nodded, a little more sedate, now she no longer had to put up a brave front for Billy. Touching her neck, she could still feel the clammy tail wrapped around her throat. A shudder of fear ran through her, and despite Nathan assuring her, nothing was growing inside her body, she couldn't help feeling anxious. After learning what happened to Callie Leech and how that poor girl had suffered her own private hell. One exacerbated by Gabriel Parcelsus's delusion. "Iím scared Chris, I can still feel her."

"Feel her?" Chris stared at her with alarm.

Mary nodded, "like she isn't far away, even if I escaped implantation."

"I know the feeling," Chris empathized, remembering his own demons after Fiorina 361. "When I came back to the Maverick from Fury, I knew it wasn't over. She was out there somewhere waiting in the dark for us to fly into her web."

"What do we do?" Mary whispered because the idea of meeting these creatures again was terrifying.

"We deal with it together," Chris looked at her affectionately as he squeezed her hand once more and then added, "and we watch. We make sure the next time will be the last."

*******

"Penny for your thoughts?"

Josiah Sanchez looked up and saw his Captain standing over him.

The Counsellor had been nursing a glass of Saurian brandy, staring into the stars through the large window, lost in his thoughts as he reflected on what had taken place on Tenarus. Even though he'd spent his day helping several people, including Mary Travis and Buck Wilmington, Josiah found he could offer himself no such comfort. His mind kept replaying the events as they unfolded, again and again, wondering how someone who had been a friend could have lost his way so utterly.

"We live in a society without money, and even if you had a penny, you couldn't afford me," Josiah gave Chris a little smile before inviting the Captain to take up the empty seat in the booth he was presently occupying.

Chris slid across the seat and motioned one of the passing servers to bring him a glass so he could share the bottle of whiskey in front of the Counsellor.

"How are Paracelsus's followers? Do you think there's any hope for them?"

"I don't know Chris," Josiah shook his head, still trying to wrap his mind around how deluded some of them were. "They really think the xenomorphs are the source of some divine agency, not even after I explained to them, we've encountered these life forms before, omitting the location of Acheron and Fury of course."

"What do you recommend?" Chris asked, grateful Josiah kept that information from them. The xenomorph's adaptability made Chris fear these fools might actually try to reach those worlds to continue their worship. While he was confident he'd wiped out the aliens on Fury, the creatures might have managed to survive. What happened to Callie Leech was case in point.

"We keep them confined until we can be sure they're no longer a danger to themselves or anyone else," Josiah sighed, hating to recommend imprisonment as a solution but there was no other alternative. The last thing the Alpha Quadrant needed was an outbreak of xenomorph infestation because of these misguided people.

"Okay," Chris nodded and then took a moment to study Josiah. It didn't require any unique insight to know Josiah too, was affected by what went down on Tenarus. The report he received from Buck and JD told him plenty about how Gabriel Paracelsus, once-respected psychiatrist, had lost his mind under the influence of the alien queen. Such a downfall would have had to affect the friends who knew him, friends like Josiah. "How are you doing?"

The question took Josiah by surprise, and he took a moment to compose himself before deciding sincerity would suffice. If there was one person he could talk to about this, it was Chris Larabee.

"I've been better. It's not every day I see a friend change so drastically, he's unrecognizable."

Chris dropped his gaze to the table surface, choosing not to remind Josiah that less than two months ago, he'd faced down Buck who had become a Borg drone. Buck was on the cusp of delivering the Maverick to the Collective before a desperate gamble on Chris's part restored the First Officer to himself once more.

"Maybe just a little."

When the second glass was set down on the table, Josiah poured Chris a drink and met the Captain's gaze. "I suppose you do."

"Josiah," Chris said kindly, "we know so little about the xenomorphs. We have no way of knowing how strong the queen's telepathy really was. Even Vin, with Vulcan shields intact, could feel her in his head, your friend would have had no ability to tune her out."

"Perhaps," Josiah raised his glass to Chris before taking a sip. "But there were so many choices he could have made Chris, so many decisions before the telepathic influence became too strong. Gabriel could have told someone what was happening, that Callie wasn't sick, she was carrying something inside her. The instant he felt the connection, he should have raised the alarm. I watched Nathan save Mary, he or another doctor like him, could have saved that poor girl."

There was no denying that no matter how much Chris tried to reframe the subject. In the end, he didn't even try. "You're right, he had choices. I guess sometimes the search for truth becomes an obsession that warps your sense of right or wrong. I went down that path once as you know, almost lost everything to find out what happened to Sarah and Adam. I didn't even realize how bad it was until it was too late..."

Josiah did remember, but in Chris's defence, the stakes had been terribly personal. There was no such excuse for Gabriel. "It wasn't too late. You pulled yourself together in time to bring everyone home."

Chris did not believe so, not one damn bit. How he still had his command was a testament to the friends around him. Had Ezra chose to push the point, Chris could have found himself accountable to more than just his conscience. People had died, and in the end, it was no Larabee hat trick that saved them, it was Julia getting to the Away team in time.

No, he would never be able to absolve himself for those deaths, not ever.

"Josiah, some people can't be saved. I don't think anything you said would have made a difference. From what you told me, Dr Paracelsus wouldn't let it go, not even at the end. That kind of obsession is beyond anyone to sway. I'm sorry you lost your friend, but I think he was gone long before you arrived on Tenarus."

"I know," Josiah was forced to admit, thinking about the disbelief on Gabriel's face when the xenomorphs ripped him apart. As if he could not accept he wasn't the chosen one, the Queen had assured him he was. The Counsellor never wanted to be that mistaken. "I just mourn who he was, Chris. I mourn the friend of my youth, and perhaps I'm mourning a little bit for myself. Seeing him this way makes me remember how different I am from that kid so many years ago."

"You became better Josiah," Chris patted him on the shoulder. "And youth is overrated. I prefer who you are now, my friend."

"Thank you, Chris," Josiah met Chris's eyes with gratitude. "When you convinced me to accept this post, you said space could be dangerous, I never realized how much until now."

"Yeah, I think the universe throws something like the xenomorphs at us every now and then, to teach us a lesson about not becoming complacent while we're out here. No matter how technologically superior we think we are, or how civilized we believe ourselves to be, it doesn't take much to show us just how helpless we can be if we're not careful."

Josiah thought about Gabriel and his religion and raised his glass once more to the Captain. "Amen to that."

*******

Inez Recillos ran her fingers across Buck's brow and decided she loved this man.

After losing her fiance', Inez thought she was done with relationships or men with ambitions to be starship Captains. She didn't believe for one instance the man who could fill the void left by Raphael would be the worst philanderer on the ship, but then she had always had a very odd relationship with Buck Wilmington.

When Raphael had died, she thought Buck was trying to take advantage of her vulnerability, but instead, he stayed away and what he did offer was friendship of the purest kind. He asked for nothing in return, and even if it was to let her rant and weep into his shoulder once a week, it had been enough for Inez to slowly mend her broken heart. The breakfasts they began sharing at Four Corners during this time, had become a ritual, and nowadays Inez's day didn't feel like it was starting right if they didn't break bread together.

Less than two days ago, he had told her that he needed some time apart and Inez understood his reasons for what they were. Buck was a frightened man trying to deny he was in pain by shutting out everyone who could see it. Instead of reacting with her usual fiery temper, Inez chose restraint, suspecting Buck didn't really wish her to go, he just didn't know how to deal with his inner turmoil.

Upon his return to the Maverick, she had been the first person he sought out.

*******

"Buck!"

It was all Inez could say as she saw him covered in blood she would later realize was Ezra's, with his Starfleet jacket gone and what looked like burns on his skin. What on Earth was he doing here, instead of Sick Bay? While she did not know what exactly transpired on Tenarus due to her being a civilian, Inez was aware the First Officer and the Away Team were in trouble. Not that she needed to speak because soon as he laid eyes on her, he was pulling her to him in a deep, passionate kiss.

He kissed her like she was all the air in the world, all the breath he would ever need. As he clung to her, Inez felt his heart pounding against her and realized whatever he went through on the planet, must have been traumatic indeed.

"Inez, I'm sorry," he said into her hair when his lips left hers. He was still hugging her against him as if he needed to feel her closeness to make sense of things. "I've been a prized jackass. You've put up with me these last two months, and I never appreciated how hard that must have been for you, not after losing Raphael."

"Oh Buck," Inez dismissed his self-reproach. "You were there for me when he died, how could I not be there for you when you needed me? I know it has been difficult for you after what happened with the Borg, even if I couldn't understand. If you need time, I can give that to you."

"No," he pulled away so he could look her in the eye. "I don't need time, I need you. I've been stuck in amber since coming out of assimilation, believing this wasn't real, any of it. I went down to Tenarus and found out just how real this life is and how I was on the verge of squandering it."

Buck thought about Lt. Callie Leech and Lt. Jerry Lambert whose story JD had related to him. Two people who never had a chance because their love was doomed the minute the xenomorph entered their lives. Their love affair was so twisted out of shape, death was the only mercy left to them. What happened to them was out of their control. Everything going on with him and Inez was wholly within his. If he took nothing else away from their tragedy, he would take away this.

"Buck, I am not going anywhere," she drew him to her and kissed him gently on the lips.

Buck Wilmington smiled. "Neither am I."

*******

That was hours ago.

Now Inez looked down, watching Buck as he lay stretched out across her sofa. He'd returned to her quarters once he'd attended to his duties as First Officer and had his injuries attended to. They shared a little supper and talked about how he still felt a little disconnected, but generally better. They even made plans to take shore leave together, visiting someplace beautiful (not Risa) for a week or two. However, the real success of the evening came when she lay next to him, her fingers running soothingly over his brow, please to hear the light snore escaping him.

Finally, Inez thought with a smile, he sleeps.

THE END

Feedback to: Scribe51@optusnet.com.au