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Infinity

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Infinity
by Sheri Ann

Earth. Stardate 49695.3

It was yet another crazy day for him. Lucas Wolenczak had been putting in twelve, thirteen-hour days for the past two weeks—trying to develop his theory into more than just the theoretical. To actually develop a stable, predictable, inducible worm hole . . . that was his project, his dream, his inspiration, his baby. It was the project of the century. Hell, it was the project of the millenium. If he were able to finish this, if he were able to accomplish his goal, everything would change: everything. A new phase in science and physics would be born. Quantum mechanics would never be the same. All the theories, all the formulae of the past would have to be completely restructured. New textbooks, new learning would flood the classrooms.

Lucas’s life would never be the same, either. His father might . . . perhaps understand him more, perhaps accept him . . . at least quit chewing his ears out when even the slightest thing went wrong. And he was so close, too. His latest test run was more than promising. Sheltered from the rest of the world by the triple-protected shielding of the physics lab (or, more to the point, sheltering the rest of the world with the triple-protected shielding), he entered his formulae, numbers, and theorems . . . and he started the program, initiating the computer count down. He then watched as everything changed before his sight. His eyes flew wide as the worm hole whirled into existence, watching as the space differential increased, as matter and antimatter spiraled together beautifully in a dance of blinding, amazing colors and patterns, of immense, unthinkable power.

And then all hell broke loose.

The worm hole whipped out of control, smashing against him and throwing his slim body against the shielding. Sparks flew everywhere as smoke curled in the air. One hundred volts shocked through his body, coursing through his veins, through his nerve endings, through his entire soul, it seemed. And then, finally, it stopped. After several minutes of complete unconsciousness, Lucas’s eyes flickered open, and he looked around to find a lab in complete disarray—noting, vaguely, that not much seemed actually broken, just hideously rearranged—and himself crumpled much like a rag doll without stuffing. Wishing the world would stop shifting crazily around him, he crawled to the med kit, his body screaming at him with each crawl, with each shuddering movement. His hands shook helplessly as he pulled the med kit open and ran the tiny regenerator over his body. It took thirty minutes to even moderately heal himself, but at least he was able to place one foot in front of the other and make it out of the lab.

That had been over an hour ago. Still feeling like his head was about to explode, Lucas caught a speeder home and tried to keep his stomach from churning as the insane driver turned twists in the air that should have been (and probably were) illegal. The drive took fifteen minutes, time spent earnestly praying that he would live through both his stomach’s increasing unease and this lunatic’s driving habits. He was more than glad when the impressive towers and gables of his home appeared in its brightly lit, highly secured neighborhood off New Imperium Drive. He transferred the requisite credits to the driver’s account, then trudged up the elegant marble steps that led to the equally-elegant cherry wood double doors. Crystannium globes lined the door, twinkling in an eerie blue shimmer of unutterably alien light. Marble, cherry wood, crystannium globes: that was the Wolenczak household. Elegant, expensive, repulsive.

Sometimes the splendor of his parent’s place made him ill. His friend Mark lived in a small two-story home with little frills and even less luxury. Lucas would stay at Mark’s place any day over this monstrosity. Mark’s place was a "home"; his was nothing more than a "house" filled with expensive furniture and annoying amenities.

He peeked inside, hoping against hope that his father wouldn’t be upset with him. He had made progress with his project: he really, truly had. Though the worm hole ran amuck after first initiation, it had still formed. That was a lot more than anyone else had been able to do. It was truly a new step in science . . . or, even more, a new leap. The twenty-fourth century had just leapt forward another hundred years or so.

But his father always seemed upset with him, no matter how hard he tried. No matter what he did, his father saw something wrong with his every movement, his every breath. Lucas sometimes thought that his father would only be happy with him if he no longer breathed. As he walked into the mansion, his limp rather obnoxious, Lucas suddenly noticed just how dark the Grand Room was. No lights, no sound, no anything. Carefully, he glanced around, being careful not to move his head too quickly for fear of making his already nauseous stomach tumble right through his lips, and wondered where his parents could be. He’d seen the shuttle on the parking pad; someone had to be home.

Nervous, he continued to glance around. It was 2237 hours. He supposed his parents could be asleep. It was possible. But normally they weren’t asleep until 2400 or so. A tinkling caught his ear, and he leaned in towards the noise. Tinkle, tinkle. Clink. Ice cubes tapping against crystal. Then abrupt noise. A glass thudded down against wood, a hurried, stumbling step swayed towards the foyer. Lucas’s hair rose on end as the shuffling neared him.

Damn. His dad was in a black mood . . . again. He was stinking drunk. The peace talks probably hadn't gone as well as they should have gone. Some Cardassian had probably insulted someone else, most likely a Klingon. Who knew? Hell, it was never easy to tell an insult from a misunderstanding in the first place: too many unknowns, too many different ways of seeing something. Anything could have gone wrong.

But, damn all Ferengi to everlasting hell, the peace talks had probably ended in disaster, and his father was going to take that disaster out on him. Lucas wanted to fling his aching body up the spiraling staircase at warp speed. Damn, damn, damn. Little more than an hour after he’d completely reinvented physics as he knew it, Lucas was staring at his father’s black, angry eyes. His nerves chaotically jumped to and fro. Oh, God. Heated, hateful eyes glared at him: seemed to study him like he were some bug needing squishing.

Hell.

With a shudder, Lucas turned to run up the stairs. He felt his father's heavy hand dig into his shoulder, though, even as he turned. The grip tightened as he tried to struggle out of his father's reach.

The heavy tread of his father's feet stopped; Lucas was suddenly whirled around to face him. Hot breath rushed into his face, the stench of alcohol--real, unadulterated alcohol, not the fake stuff--reeking on his father's breath. Lucas swallowed hard, a lump forming in his throat: dread and fear tore at his stomach.

"You botched it again, didn’t you?" The question was a hiss, almost sibilant. As if struck, Lucas flinched. To emphasize his words, Lucas's father shook him with each pause. "I want an answer, you scrawny sack of bones. Did mess up again?"

His father's large hands were slowly, steadily, moving towards his neck. Lucas swallowed hard, genuine fear striking through his heart and making him tremble helplessly. His father was ordinarily the most elegant of speakers. However, right now he was so smashed that his words slurred crazily together.

"Can’t do nothing—nothing right, can ya’?" asked the drunken man, swaying back and forth slightly. He leaned closer to his frightened son. Lucas briefly wondered if the nineteenth century Russian mystic Rasputin had had such a gaze: such wild, crazy, dark eyes. God help him, they seemed insane. "Can’t—can’t finish that damned good-for-nothin’ pro-project, eh? Eh, boy?"

Lucas stared at this, confused. Even his father, even this man who called him useless at least once a week, even he knew the project was incredibly important. His father had done nothing but pressure him for the past several months just to finish the thing. He wanted to brag to his peers what a wonderful job his genius son (the same one he couldn’t stand under any other circumstances) had done redefining modern science. Lucas had figured it might at least get the bastard off his case about being a useless sponge. If his father could take pride in ownership of a son who could build a worm hole, then maybe, just maybe, he’d leave that poor son alone for a change.

The hands abruptly left Lucas's shoulders. He sagged against the wall, body limp with sudden relief. Then it struck him: his father's large, heavily boned fist. Reality seemed to swing out of control as the fist hammered into his skull, over and over. Lucas felt his senses slipping slowly away from him. His mind shaded with numbness, Lucas shut his eyes against what was happening, shut his mind against the pain that struck with each blow. But the fists continued, continued, continued . . . a blur upon his mind as pain struck through every fiber of his being. Lucas screamed in agony, in torture. He screamed for mercy, for help, for anything, anything but this. But no one came to help him. Nothing stopped the eternal fist from mercilessly barreling into his slim body.

The blackness ended to be replaced by stark, harsh, painful white. It glared against his consciousness. It stabbed at his mind. Sounds accompanied the white glare. Low voices tensely fought with one another, arguing over what he could not hear. Not that he cared much; he couldn’t recognize the voices, making the source of their dispute of little importance to him. More voices then: several clamoring for each other’s attention, then quieting moments later. He felt a cool device placed against his neck and a slight pinch, then dropped back into a hazy sleep.

He suddenly awoke what felt like only moments later. His head was hot, heavy—stuffy. It hurt to move his neck or to flutter his eyelids against his cheek. He could have sworn that even the air hurt as it pressed his skin. Again, there was noise, but this time the noise seemed to be the throbbing hum of engines. As this strange thought registered on his mind, he felt something . . . shudder.

Engine shudder, his mind sleepily whispered. He’d know it any day.

Though he wasn’t of legal age to fly a shuttle by himself, he’d flown enough to know the feel of a shuddering warp engine if he were blindfolded. His flight supervisors said he was a natural. He couldn’t agree more. The flight panels felt like an extension of his own arms. They were almost as natural to him as high-speed quantum physics, antimatter theorems, gravitational formulae, advanced mathematics, and worm holes. He was a devout physicist with an uncontrollable, almost wild passion for flying: an unusual mix, to say the least.

Inwardly, he grimaced as he listened to the engines shimmy. God, who the hell was flying this damned thing? Suddenly, his mind caught up with the question and wondered, What the hell is this damned thing and why the hell am I here? Two very good questions. Lucas swallowed hard, trying to calm his increasing nausea, then focused on sliding his eyes open. What met his eyes forced him to whimper and shut the same eyes as quickly as he could. All he saw was twisted, grotesque . . . sickening. It shimmered around him like some sort of holodrug run awry. His head again pounded as the light pierced his skull. God. What the hell was going on? What was wrong with him?

Images of a fist pounding into his body abruptly entered his mind. A fist and his father’s crazy black eyes glaring at him, demented, absolutely beyond reasoning. The fist again pounding into him, then again, then again . . .

He groaned, the sound catching in his throat. It wasn’t just a nightmare. He was sure of it. He could remember that fist all too well as it raced in towards him.

It had really happened. His father had beaten the crap out of him. Again, he peeked his eyes open, this time forcing himself to keep them open. It was too important for him to know where he was. He had to know. He had to know with whom he was traveling, how many people there seemed to be around him, and what they seemed to be doing with him. He had to know where his father was. He had to know . . .

Slowly, the images began to coalesce, to quit shifting so badly. He could make out a face here and there, but, strangely, none of them seemed even remotely familiar. They were all about forty or so, all dressed in formal attire—some even in uniforms—but most in blaring white.

One caught him staring in confusion, then smiled slightly. "Hello, there," she said softly, breaking off a soft conversation with a woman beside her and leaning in towards him. She gently rested her hand against one of his. "How are you feeling?" His tongue felt heavy with disuse. Again, he swallowed hard, then croaked, "O—okay, I think—"

She silenced him, carefully sliding a hand under his head and a cup of water against his lips. Gratefully, he swallowed the blessed liquid, thinking it tasted better than any concoction he had ever had before; need made anything taste all the better. He then blinked at her as she rested his head back again. "Thank—thank you.

I didn’t realize . . ." He paused, trying to get his sluggish mind into some semblance of order. Again, he blinked. "Um—I feel a bit dis—disoriented. Like nothing is connecting right."

She smiled at this, then patted his hand gently. "That’s understandable. You were pretty badly hurt." She looked away, a frown briefly crossing her face before she looked back at him, her face again carefully cleared of anything but a calming smile. "You’ll probably feel disoriented for awhile, so don’t worry about it."

The lady sitting beside her whispered into her ear, then disappeared with a quick look at him. Lucas watched her leave, then asked, "Where . . . ?"

A nervous laugh. "Yeah, I was wondering when you’d get around to asking that." She sighed, again looking away from him. Lucas saw an uncomfortable frown flicker across her face, an angry drawing of the brows, before she again turned to him. He was amazed at how calm her face seemed after just seconds ago looking like she was about to explode. "You’re on the Federation passenger shuttle Delphi, and we’re currently approaching the Denorios Belt. We’re heading towards Deep Space Nine."

Lucas could only stare at her, shocked. He blinked several times. Finally, he squeaked, "You're taking me where?"

Deep Space Nine was one of the more distant of ports in the United Federation of Planet’s governing power. It was ominously close to the Cardassian border: the "no man’s land" of space where skirmishes and terrorist attacks were a way of life. Since the peace treaty with Cardassia and Bajor, the Federation and Cardassia had been at a kind of hostile peace: always ready to cram hatred or knives down one another’s throats, the weapon of choice depending on the level of hostilities at the time. Few but the very hardy of heart ventured into Deep Space Nine’s space. It was just too close to the border. It was the Wild Wild West of Space. And, as such, Lucas couldn’t even begin to imagine why on earth he was being taken there.

A soft voice caught his attention. "Nancy, I’ll take over now. Thanks."

Lucas’s visitor nodded, quickly patting his hand before standing and walking away without a look back. Lucas’s gaze followed her away, then he looked up at his new guest. The man was stern, dignified, with eyes that almost burned into his own. The sharp, almost piercing hazel of those eyes cut through his mind, a knife against his currently over-sensitive nerves. Gracefully, he sat next to Lucas, a whip-like power in the liquid, assured movement of his muscles, in the elegant but unconscious command of his carriage. He smiled slightly.

Lucas knew this man . . . or, at least, he knew of him. He’d seen him on the vid screen during newscasts or the like. He’d even seen him at a few of his father’s parties, though he’d never actually spoken to him. He was Admiral Bill Noyce, one of the uppity-ups of the Federation’s powerful Starfleet. This was the same Fleet that had approached him several times about joining their ranks only to be flat-out denied. He simply didn’t want to spend his entire life in space. He sure as hell didn’t want to stay there so long that he no longer remembered what earth looked like, which was what many people said happened to Fleeters. He wanted a life on earth, one that didn’t mean fighting a new enemy almost every week and hoping to God you didn’t get eaten alive by some nasty unknown alien. He’d leave that to those who really craved death and dismemberment, thank you, anyway.

So . . . he had to wonder what Noyce was doing on the way to Deep Space Nine on a passenger shuttle that just happened to be carrying him there, too—and right after his father had just beaten the living daylights out of him.

"Hello, Lucas. It’s good to see you awake," Noyce began softly, studying Lucas with an almost possessive stare. Lucas shivered, wishing the man would look at anyone but him. He looked like a cat about to pounce on dinner. "How are you feeling now?" He supposed the question was inevitable, though he couldn’t for the life of him figure out why these people were here with him—or why he was "here" in the first place. He sighed. "Okay, I suppose. A bit tired and achy." That was a bald-faced lie if he’d ever heard one. He felt much worse than "tired and achy," but he wasn’t so sure he wanted Noyce to know it. "Um . . . why . . . ?"

"Why are you here?" Noyce finished for him. Lucas only nodded slightly, then felt his brows raise as Noyce sighed tiredly. "That is the question, my young man. And it’s a very involved question at that."

Playing with the soft blanket that he’d suddenly realized was covering him, Lucas simply waited for the man to continue. He wasn’t disappointed.

"It would seem your . . . father . . . and you haven’t been . . . getting along well lately?" The question was carefully asked. Lucas looked at him with a pained frown, then nodded. It wasn’t as if he could deny the obvious, anyway. Judging from the painful ache and burn along his entire body, his father had pounded into his body with marvelous efficiency. No one could ever say the man wasn’t thorough. A troubled silence passed, then Noyce asked gently, "Has this happened before, Lucas?"

Lucas couldn’t truly see how this was any of the Admiral’s business, but he nodded slightly. "A few times," he mumbled finally, forcing himself to look up. He blinked. "But—he’s never hit like this. Normally, dad just raises a fist or two, not . . ." He couldn’t complete the thought, visions of his father’s hateful, enraged eyes burning through his mind. He loved his father—well, he did most of the time, at least—but now . . . how was he supposed to even walk into the same room as the man?

A charged sigh from the Admiral, and Lucas looked over in surprise; yes, the man was definitely upset. The hazel eyes sizzled, but he quickly patted Lucas’s hand as he saw the questioning, almost fearful look in his eyes.

"It’s all right, Lucas. There’s nothing to be frightened of." He paused, looking away for a moment. He looked back at Lucas. "Your father and I have made an . . . arrangement . . . for your safety. I’m more than pleased to tell you that he won’t be harming you again."

Silence. "Arrangement?" Lucas finally asked, voice taut. Lucas’s tense word echoed around the now-silent shuttle. He abruptly noticed that, except for the two of them, the shuttle seemed suddenly—empty. He knew that wasn’t true, but it made him nervous nonetheless. Where had everyone gone?

Noyce dodged his question with a question of his own: "Do you recognize me, Lucas?"

Lucas glared at him, suddenly more than annoyed at the older man. Just like an adult to skirt the issue . . . "Yeah, of course I do. I may have had the hell beaten out of me, but I wasn’t deprived of my brains. You’re Noyce." Lucas’s voice was testy, almost down-right rude. "You’re the one who’s been after me for the past year or so."

Part 2

"Well, it’s good to see you’re back to your normal, polite self," Noyce said wryly, shaking his head. "And, yes, you’re right. I have been after you for a year now. It’s rare to see talent like yours . . ."

Again, Lucas glared at Noyce. He interrupted, "You know, I get the funny feeling your ‘Arrangement’ is going to be to your benefit more than mine. How about filling me in on the details of why I’m here in this absurd part of the galaxy?"

The wry grin flickered across Noyce’s face, and he shook his head with a soft snicker. Lucas thought the snicker didn’t quite fit with the older man’s appearance, and he wondered what other types of surprises the man had up his freshly-pressed sleeves. "Always to the point, I see, Lucas. Well, that’s good, actually." He paused for a moment, inhaling deeply before saying, "I have taken custody of you, Lucas."

Custody! Lucas looked at him with wide, disbelieving eyes. Surely—surely he’d heard wrong? It had to be a mistake . . . right?

Silence. Noyce continued, "Actually, Starfleet has custody of you. We’ve . . ."

"Just like that?" Lucas finally managed, blinking. He sat up, ignoring the intense pain that shot through his head and body. "Just—presto! I’m yours?" He shook his head quickly, then winced as an explosion of fireworks passed before his sight. "No! I don’t think so, Admiral. Absolutely, positively, irrefutably, irretrievably, impossibly—"

"Lucas, please! You’ll hurt yourself," Noyce interrupted, quickly pressing him back against the shuttle bench and covering him up. He sighed, running a hand through his graying hair. Finally, he shrugged. "I know this sounds pretty bad. I know it. Believe me when I say this. But, given the circumstances, we couldn’t see anything else to do. It was that or do the unthinkable: leave you with your father."

Lucas felt like he was going to achieve meltdown any second now. His anger was burning through him, boiling, seething. He gave the Admiral a scathing look. "Oh? Is that the only thing you could see doing? Either leave me with . . . him . . . or take me into your own ‘protective custody’ . . . a ‘custody’ that you’ve been wanting since you knew about me? That seems mighty convenient, now doesn’t it?"

Noyce sighed. He shrugged, not meeting Lucas’s gaze. "I know what it sounds like, Lucas. I know it sounds like . . . I planned this. I didn’t. In fact, I had all of five minutes to come to a decision on what was to be done . . ."

"Five minutes!" Lucas again sat up, throwing Noyce’s hand away from him. "You decide the course of my life in five minutes, and you expect me to be understanding?" He pressed his lips together, wanting to hit the man. Hell, he’d take hitting anyone right now. "You know what it sounds like to me, Admiral? It sounds like opportunism. Highway robbery. Thievery. Blackmail. Burglary. Bribery," Lucas said, drawing the list out with an angry frown and punctuating each word with an angry wave of his hand in front of Noyce’s nose. He shook his head. "Can you tell me that’s not what this is? You’ve been wanting me to join the Fleet for over a year, and now—bingo!—here is your chance . . . without bothering to ask me what I might want on the matter, you draft me into the Service! It’s nothing better than piracy!"

After a moment, Lucas let his tirade die, then inhaled deeply, trying to calm his shaken nerves. An unusually quiet Admiral Noyce quickly took the chance to speak. "I understand your anger, Lucas. I truly do, though you may not think so. I’m not your enemy. I just . . . I didn’t see a lot of options at the time. Perhaps I acted incorrectly. But none of this changes the simple fact that what has been done has been done. Your father did something that was highly illegal, and I’m afraid that you, too, must pay for that action. It was that or leave you with him, and I couldn’t do that."

"Why doesn’t he have to pay for his crime?" Lucas finally snapped, at last coming to the heart of the issue. He swallowed hard, then met Noyce’s eyes. "He’s the one who went crazy. He’s the one who beat me to a pulp. And he’s the one, seemingly, who’s going free. Why do I have to pay for his mistake?"

Noyce looked away for a moment, his face drawn—very tired. Lucas could see the man had been struggling over this decision, and it had taken its toll on him. His anger softened somewhat as he saw Noyce shake his head to himself, obviously holding an internal dialogue: a debate, a heated argument. Noyce had never impressed him as an asshole, despite Lucas’s recent words to the contrary. He didn’t seem the type to engage in piracy or opportunism. Lucas wondered what was truly going on that he might never know. Because of his age, he knew—he damned well knew—that people kept things from him, and he had a nagging suspicion this might be one of those ‘things.’ Finally, Noyce looked back at him. The elegant face was pained even: lines Lucas hadn’t noticed suddenly appearing, then quickly vanishing as Noyce hid them.

"I wish . . . Lucas, I’m so sorry. Please believe me when I say this. I would rather talk you into the Fleet any day than having to . . . bring you in against your will. That isn’t something I like to do, especially with someone like you. Please, Lucas, understand that I mean this. I’m not just saying it."

After a moment, Lucas nodded, his gaze never shifting from the other man’s face; he believed him. Though he wanted to ignore the signs that told him of Noyce’s honesty, of his integrity, he knew those signs spoke the truth.

Noyce continued: "I do wish things were different. Between you and your father, certainly, but—perhaps even more—between society and the public official."

Lucas stared at this, then paled as sudden realization hit. Abruptly, he understood what was happening. It was sickening, but he understood it. Only too damned well.

Noyce inhaled deeply, then plunged forward. "Because of your father’s . . . position . . . in government, the truth of what happened . . ."

He paused, unable to continue. Lucas saw the pain on his face—rigid grooves entrenched in the man’s skin—then sighed. He shut his eyes.

"It’s . . . okay. I understand, Admiral. I understand the problem. A scandal right now could undermine the Federation when it is already too weak from the recent war with the Borg."

As he ran a shaking hand through his hair, Lucas looked over at the Admiral. He was amazed to see the shocked, almost disbelieving expression on the man’s face. After a moment, he said, answering the unspoken question, "There are certain things you learn living with a politician, Admiral, and one of them is the delicate balance of power. My father and I could never agree on anything, but that was one thing I did learn early on. And I’m responsible enough to know that if the Federation falls, we slip right back into pre-Federation bloodshed. I obviously don’t want to be at the center of such a slip."

He paused, looking away, one question eating at his insides. Several minutes of silence passed between them. Finally, Lucas looked up, carefully holding Noyce’s gaze with his own. His voice was hesitant, almost frightened, when he asked, "Did . . . did my dad . . . protest your plan? Did he fight it . . . at all?"

What Lucas was really asking, in a rather evasive, convoluted manner, was whether his father had wanted him home or not: whether his father had been more than happy to get rid of him or not. He saw his father’s fists, saw the hatred in the man’s eyes, repeatedly replaying in his mind. Right next to that image played one question: did his father want him at all? Did his father hate him completely? Was he worth less than garbage to the man he had so much tried to please?

Noyce was silent for some time, his eyes trained quietly on his hands. After weaving and unweaving them together five or six times, he looked at Lucas. He met his gaze. When his answer at last came, it was soft, gentle—but also refusing to hide the truth.

"Lucas . . . this is a difficult thing for me to say to you. By all rights, your father—your father should thank God every time he sees you that he has such an understanding and intelligent son. But . . . I’m afraid we don’t always do what we should. We don’t always see what is right in front of us."

He paused uncomfortably, then continued, "I’m sorry, Lucas, but you need to know the truth. I won’t lie to you. Your father . . . no, he didn’t fight this. He didn’t say a thing against giving the Fleet custody of you. The man’s a moron for it, but . . ."

His voice drifted. He seemed surprised when Lucas asked, "What of my mother? Did she, too, just . . . say nothing?" Lucas could feel tears threatening to pour from his eyes, but he had to know. He had to know the truth.

Again, a sharp breath, then Noyce simply nodded his head. He finally said, "She didn’t fight it. She asked where we would likely assign you, with whom, that type of thing . . . but no, she didn’t try to stop us. I’m sorry, Lucas. Truly."

Strangely, Lucas knew that Noyce meant it; he was sorry for what had happened. And so, too, was Lucas. More than he could put into words. It felt like a tight clamp squeezed around his chest, his lungs, his heart. It hurt.

Nancy returned with a pain killer, one that was better timed than she could have known—though, perhaps, she might have known, judging from the kind expression on her face. As the liquid seeped into his blood stream, Lucas thankfully closed his eyes to the pain and allowed his mind to drift into oblivion.

<CENTER~~*~~

AND NOW, in enters NATHAN BRIDGER . . .

(BRIEF SILENCE as BRIDGER refuses to appear in this insane, crazy work)

ME: (Clearing throat) Hey, BRIDGER, you're on next!

BRIDGER: (Grumbling softly) Yeah, yeah, I'm coming. (Mumbles to himself) At least we're not landing in a field of corn . . . (Stares at me in horror as a sudden thought strikes) We're not, are we?!

ME: (Rolling eyes, laughing) No, even I'm not that bad! (Almost as an afterthought) Besides, I have other plans for you . . .

BRIDGER: (Shudders at the very thought) No Neptune, right?!

ME: (Evil chuckle) No Neptune: you've only got wormhole aliens, quantum singularities, and NELIX to deal with!

BRIDGER: (Running in terror) That's it! I quit! I'm hiding! Help! Let me out of here! (A much-protesting BRIDGER gets booted onto stage)

ME: Methinks the Captain doth protest too much . . . (If you've ever wondered if I was crazy, this little scene has probably convinced you of the likelihood . . .)

Lights, cameras, action . . .

"What?"

For a moment, there was only silence as the explosive question hung in the air. Then the voice’s owner resumed his pacing: back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. He frowned angrily at the screen, brushing a distracted hand through his hair. At one time, the hair had been dark brown and full. Now, though the head of hair was still full—vibrant even—streaks of gray zigzagged through its waves. With a growl, he looked back at the screen, dark eyes glowering at the face across from him.

Admiral Noyce met the gaze with no hesitation. He waited as his friend slowly calmed enough to ask, "Did I hear this correctly, Bill? Please tell me I didn’t. I’m going to be seriously ticked at you if I heard what I thought I heard."

Noyce snorted at this, shaking his head. The day his friend wasn’t seriously ticked at him would be the day Bill could expect the Second Coming. And, since he didn't expect the Second Coming any time soon, Noyce was could easily conclude that his friend was angry with him. Calmly, he shrugged, watching as his friend scowled back at him. He lifted his hands in a pacifying gesture, all too aware that the gesture was pointless when Nathan was this upset. "Oh, please, Nathan. You know what you heard the first time around. You’re not deaf."

Nathan again stomped back and forth, then finally slammed his fist into the neatly polished table in front of him. He winced. "Just great, Bill. Just freaking bloody great. How could you even think . . ."

Before Nathan could get his steam fully tilting, Bill interrupted. "Nathan, come on. Knock it off. You’re behaving like a first year ensign, not the Captain of one of our Fleet’s greatest ships! The truth is simple, my friend: you don’t have much say in this. He is being assigned to your vessel, like it or not . . ."

Bill heard a mumble that sounded suspiciously like, "Truth? In the UFP? That would be an event . . ."

He stared at Nathan. Nathan simply stared right back, his face suddenly becoming quite blank of emotion. He looked suspiciously innocent of having uttered a word against the United Federation of Planets and its leaders.

Bill was tempted to snort. Nathan knew better than to try that stunt on him; he knew him too well. Deliberately ignoring Bridger's comments, Noyce continued with his campaign: "But, believe me, Nathan, he’ll be an asset to your crew. In fact, I’d be surprised if you didn’t think this particular young man was indispensable by the end of the first hour . . ."

"Isn’t he just a bit young for this, though? Just a tad bit below the age requirement?" Nathan finally snapped, shaking his head. He didn’t care what Bill said on the matter—the man was a statesman in disguise, after all. He could easily look quite comfortable in any situation. And it was Nathan’s crew that would be affected by this little act of Bill’s; he had a right—no, an obligation—to fight this absurdity!

A pause, then Bill sighed. He looked sad; though many people might have mistaken Bill’s expression as indifference, perhaps even callousness, Nathan knew better. He knew when something was seriously bothering his best friend. Tiredly, he sighed, shaking his head. He had a bad feeling this whole situation was going to get worse the more he heard of it. "All right, Bill. Out with it. What the hell is going on?"

Bill shrugged, then finally said after a long silence, "We didn’t have much of a choice in the matter, Nathan. His father—his father beat the crap out of him. For no good reason. He just—slammed into the kid the other evening. We had only two choices: we sent him back to his father, or we took responsibility for his welfare. I decided on the second option . . ."

"I don’t get this, Bill. That’s nonsense, and you know it." Nathan paced in front of the table, then leaned in towards the vid screen that stretched across half the room’s wall. He scowled. "You can have the bastard put behind bars. You can have emergency beacons placed in the house. You can do all sorts of things that don’t require your placing a child on my ship!"

Bill groaned at this. "Oh, for heaven’s sake, Nathan: wake up!" At Nathan’s confused look, Bill shook his head. "I know what options are ordinarily available in this type of situation. I’m not an idiot. And I don’t just go around taking custody of children when their parents . . . abdicate their responsibilities. I don’t have the time for such things."

A pause passed between the two men; then, Bridger finally sighed, giving in to the inevitable. "So . . . why are you doing it in this case?"

"For two reasons: because of who the kid is and because of who his father is."

Nathan heard this last part and felt his temperature was about to shoot right through the galaxy. Who his father was! Of course . . . he should have known. He should have guessed he was some prima dona’s child. That at least made some sort of demented sense. And, as all such children were, he probably also thought he was God’s gift to mankind.

Noyce continued: "Nathan, this kid . . . he isn’t like any other young man you’ll ever get the chance to work with. He’s more than just a genius. He’s more than just talented. He’s brilliant: really, truly, absolutely, blindingly brilliant. Einstein would have difficulty keeping up with this kid’s mind."

As Nathan continued to stare at him, unconvinced, Noyce glanced around himself, as if looking for eavesdroppers. He then continued: "Ever heard of induced and controlled wormholes, Nathan?" Amazed, Nathan nodded, quickly blinking his eyes. Everyone had heard of them—and everyone had heard that such things were no more than pleasant dreams. "Well, this kid is about a hair’s width away from doing it. He has the ‘induced’ part down, but he still has to work on the ‘controlled’ bit."

Holy shit, Nathan thought with a start. Feeling much like a fish being reeled in for cooking, Nathan sighed. He knew he'd been caught by Noyce's bait: science. He'd always had a weakness for knowing the latest scientific information; he also knew that Noyce knew this. Noyce knew exactly how to lure him in against his best intentions.

Part 3

But the information was definitely . . . tempting. Bridger ran a hand across his chin, lips pursed as he thought of what Bill had just said. It was amazing; actually, it was more than amazing. It was frightening. Wormholes were thin tubes of space-time connecting regions of space together across vast distances; unfortunately, they also tended to open and close at will.** A spaceship could travel within the wormhole and reach points of space light-years away from home, yet there was no guarantee that the wormhole would remain open minutes after travel was complete. Wormholes collapsed when they collapsed, despite all attempts to manipulate them. Scientists were even now frantically, almost obsessively, trying to artificially create wormholes.

As far as Bridger knew, though, the closest anyone had come to this was all theory: nothing practical whatsoever. No application. But this sounded like an entirely different story. He had to admit he was intrigued. In fact, nothing this intriguing had passed his way in years. Finally, he managed, "By himself . . . he’s doing this by himself?"

"Yeah. The Academy is letting him use their physics lab for the experiment, but no one seems to be in on the details. He’s got everyone going crazy over the thing."

Nathan’s curiosity was flaming almost painfully, but he decided to try hiding it—at least for the time being. He knew Bill knew him too well for him to hide it for long, though. He launched into the next question: "And his father?"

This brought a dark expression on Bill’s face. Nathan could see his friend was still furious over what had happened. "Nathan, his father is Admiral Wolenczak."

Oh, hell. Abruptly, Nathan understood why Bill had been forced to act as he had. Admiral Wolenczak was one of the most powerful men in the UFP—the whole damned UFP, all its one hundred and fifty planets and species combined. He made Admiral Noyce, a man with quite a few buttons at his disposal, look like an inconsequential fly. A scowl from Wolenczak could lead to a career being ruthlessly axed.

Wolenczak's power didn't end at his Admiral's chair by any means. He was also married to one of the wealthiest moguls in the Federation, Cynthia Manis-Wolenczak. Cynthia Manis-Wolenczak's family was currently one of the more powerful armament manufacturers. They supplied at least a third of the Fleet with its weapons. Several members of the Manis family were also (somewhat ironically) key ambassadors within the Federation. Without a doubt, any scandal involving Admiral Wolenczak—this poor child’s father—could easily lead to political problems that sent chills of fear up Nathan’s spine: war, broken treaties, more war. The family was, quite simply, more powerful than Bridger even wished to consider; they were the powers behind the headlines, behind the promotions, behind several of the more lucrative budgets authorized within the Fleet itself.

There wasn’t a damned thing Bill could do to bring this father to justice, for trillions of lives depended upon that bastard for their survival.

Slowly, Bridger sat down, shooting a bitter look at his friend. He sighed. "So . . . Admiral Wolenczak gets off free while his son, the victim, is carted off to the furthest reaches of the galaxy and stuck on a ship that is almost guaranteed to see combat. This hardly seems fair, Bill."

Guiltily, Bill nodded, leaving Nathan to wonder what thoughts were spinning behind his friend’s eyes. From what he’d heard, Bill had no reason to feel guilty; hell, if anyone had reason to be guilty, it was the kid’s father. "I know," Bill began softly, looking down for a moment. "I’m afraid, though, that ‘fair’ has little to do with this. I just . . . couldn’t see any other way around this one."

Silently, he nodded, thinking.

At last, after a long silence, Bill cleared his throat. He looked at Nathan. "Look, I have to get going, Nathan. Lucas will be waking pretty soon, and I wanted to talk to him again . . . make sure he’s all right with this . . ."

"How did he take this, by the way?" Nathan abruptly asked, frowning slightly. He tried imagining himself in Lucas’s place; try as he might, the only thing he could clearly imagine feeling was fury.

"Well . . . better than I thought he might, to tell you the truth. He seems to know the ropes about his father’s position more than I would have expected." At Nathan’s puzzled expression, Bill sighed. "He’s furious over this—believe me when I say it—but he knew why his father’s position was so important. I think he wanted to break something, but he also understood why this is being done. It seemed he had more of a problem with the fact that his parents . . . wanted . . . to give us custody of him than anything else. That hurt pretty badly, I think."

Nathan winced at this, then shook his head. Whatever the case, it stank. It stank from here to Cardassia. But political power had its rewards, and one of them seemed you could get away with just about anything when you were essential to your people’s survival. It was sickening, but it was also true.

"When will you be here?" Nathan finally asked, interrupting his thoughts with a sigh.

"About a day from now. You’ll be just getting ready to leave for the border, right?" Nathan nodded. "Okay, well, I guess I’ll see you then, Nathan. Keep in touch."

With that, the vid link went dead, and Nathan sighed. Annoyed, he tapped his fingers against the desk, shaking his head. Damn. His ship, the Infinity, would soon be patrolling the Demilitarized Zone along the Cardassian border, looking for a ship stolen from Fleet headquarters back on earth. Rumor had it that the top command chain of the Maquis, a highly militant band of renegade anti-Cardassians, had stolen that ship. Rumor also had it that the Maquis were planning to bombard Cardassia with the ship’s extremely effective plasma inverters . . . which, essentially, meant that they’d be turning Cardassia into a new definition for "scorched earth." The Infinity was the fastest, most heavily armed galaxy-class starship built to date, but still . . . this was going to be one dangerous mission. And a kid was about to become a member of his crew. A kid sure as hell didn’t belong on a mission like this. Nathan didn’t like placing any of his crew in danger, but this—this was different. This was a child, a child who had already faced the terrible spectacle of having his father beating the crap out of him. Damn, damn, damn!

What had Bill been thinking? Sure, place the poor kid on a ship—but not one about to engage the Maquis in Cardassian airspace! He sighed. Well, he didn’t suppose there was much to do for it now. Bill was on his way with the child in tow. He’d just have to find a way to keep the child relatively safe.

He snorted at this idea. Relatively. Yeah, right.

~~*~~

Nervous, his hands fidgeting uselessly at his sides, his mouth dry, almost parched, Lucas Wolenczak stared at the view port. He swallowed hard. Though the view port was small—in fact, it was little larger than the size of his own head—it showed him more than enough details to frighten the soul right out of his body. As they moved closer, Lucas could see the sleek white body magnifying in size with each passing second. Again, he swallowed hard. It was huge: monstrous, even. Lights glimmered across its surface, windows blinked, adding a touch of familiar warmth to the vast cold of space. He’d never imagined anything like this. Though he’d trained to fly just about any flying contraption made to date, he’d never actually seen a galaxy class starship up close. All his work had simply been on simulations: never the real, amazing, frightening thing. But this . . . this was real. This was fascinating. And it was blood chilling.

He continued to fidget uncomfortably as the ship obliterated his view of space: Lord, the thing was huge! And he’d be on that for how long?

The thought unexpectedly sent a chill through him. How long would he be on that beast? He almost wondered if it would be years—decades. Forever. He wondered if he would be trapped there, never to escape . . . forgotten by his parents, forgotten by anyone and everyone, left to rot . . .

Abruptly, he stopped that train of thought. Almost forcefully, he shoved his fears to the back of his mind. He didn't have time for nonsense.

Noyce had already left for the ship. He was talking to the captain even as Lucas impatiently waited, wondering what he should do in the meantime. He could just imagine the kind of reception he was going to receive from the crew of the Infinity; these were career Fleet officers and crewmen. They were military. They were obsessed with protocol and functionality. Almost without doubt, they wouldn’t want him around. They wouldn’t want some kid genius poking his nose into their problems.

He sighed, then forced himself to unclench his fingers. They were white, nail imprints stamped into his flesh, almost drawing blood. Just what he wanted the captain of this ship to see: him with clenched fists and bleeding palms. Just flaming great. With annoyance, Lucas glanced at his reflection in the mirror. He was dressed as a Fleet crewman was supposed to dress: perfectly crisp lines, no wrinkles, spotless attire. It made him want to run and hide. He didn’t want this. He didn’t want to traipse around looking like some moron in a uniform. He was a kid—not a damned officer!

But an officer’s title he now carried. Just this morning, Admiral Noyce had given him a field commission as an acting ensign—one of only two teenagers ever appointed in the Fleet’s history. Acting ensign status was supposed to be a privilege; however, Lucas couldn't even begin to see it as a privilege. At least the other receptor of the status, Wesley Crusher of the starship Enterprise, had still been older than him. He’d at least wanted the rank. Lucas sure as hell didn’t.***

As he considered the image reflecting back at him, Lucas snorted. In his own eyes, he looked absurd. The black jumpsuit made him look smaller than his already slim size, and the red slash of color at the uniform’s collar did nothing for him. To make things worse, he had a grape turtleneck under the jumpsuit, making him feel more than just simply ridiculous. Who had had the bad sense to come up with two of the most clashing colors he’d ever seen placed side-by-side?

To top it all off, the whole bloody outfit was itchy and uncomfortable. Lucas was missing his jeans and t-shirts already. A sharp chirp startled his thoughts; ruefully shaking his head as he calmed his jumping nerves, Lucas finally determined the source of the annoying sound. He cautiously touched the gold pin on his uniform—a pin shaped like a fat inverted "V"—then asked, hesitation obvious in his voice, "Yes . . . hello? Um . . . Lucas Wolenczak here."

He could have sworn he heard a chuckle on the other side.

"Hello, Lucas. I’m Captain Nathan Bridger. We’ll be transporting you over in a second. Stand by."

"Okay. I mean . . . yes, sir."

Again, he heard a soft, somewhat stifled chuckle. "See you in a few. Bridger out."

Great, Lucas thought unhappily, groaning inwardly. Now he thinks I’m a complete idiot.

As he was mentally castigating himself for sheer stupidity, Lucas almost screamed bloody murder as a shimmer surrounded him and he abruptly felt the world shifting around him.

God.

He’d heard about transporters, of course. But he sure as hell hadn’t ever used one. Even his father, the Admiral, didn’t use them. They were rather exclusive because of the expense involved; only galaxy-class starships seemed to have them. It would seem that the Infinity had them. If he’d stopped to consider the matter at all, Lucas realized that this wouldn’t have been surprising: he was, after all, on a galaxy-class starship.

His thoughts were abruptly interrupted, though, when he looked around himself to find . . . no one. The room (or whatever it was) seemed completely empty. Heavy darkness surrounded him on all sides, impenetrable; there wasn’t a light in sight. And it was cold: furiously cold. He heard sounds, whistles, murmurs, but none of it sounded like it came from a human being.

Then he heard a yowling, crying, yipping screech . . .

This couldn’t be the ship, could it?

God, he hoped not. So . . . if he wasn’t on the ship . . .

Where the hell was he?

~~*~~

SCENE: (Behind the curtains, offstage right. SHERI paces back and forth, back and forth, glaring at watch)

IN hussles BEN KRIEG . . . Hamburger juice can be spotted on his wrinkled uniform.

SHERI: (Tapping watch) You're LATE, Krieg!

KRIEG: (Wiping highly suspicious hamburger juice from chin) I know, I know . . . I just had some . . . uh . . . important business to finish. (Aside: mumbles under breath) Bridger isn't eating my hamburger AGAIN, I tell you . . .

SHERI: (Looking at clipboard that mysteriously materializes out of the thin air) You were due on stage at least ten minutes ago! Lucas is wandering around even now . . .

LUCAS: (Voice heard from on stage) Hey, anyone here . . . *hint, hint* . . . I *said,* anyone here?

SHERI: See? He's waiting on you to save the day! (Aside) Like that'll happen . . .

KRIEG: (Hurt puppy dog expression) I heard that! (Calls out to stage as Lucas continues mumbling something about morale officers getting their rear ends kicked) I'm coming, I'm coming . . . gees . . . you'd think finishing a hamburger around here was a state crime or something . . .

SHERI: (Pushing Krieg out onto stage and watching as he blinks in surprise) Go get those bad alien dudes, Krieg! Besides, they're hungry: you'd better hurry out of there quickly . . .

KRIEG: (Look of horrified comprehension crosses face) Hungry aliens . . . ah . . . Sheri, could we possibly talk about this . . . It wasn't in the contract . . .

I disappear in a puff of smoke, leaving our poor heroes wandering the stage alone . . .

~~*~~

As Lucas wondered where the hell he was, it suddenly occurred to him that, no, perhaps he was in hell . . .

Staring around himself, Lucas clapped a hand over his mouth as his teeth began to chatter. Every hair on the back of his neck stood on edge. Again, he gazed at the scene around him . . . what he could see of it, at least. Blackness stretched every direction the eye could travel.

Lucas blinked quickly, then stared: no, he hadn't been imagining things. There was an eerie, almost green tinge to the air. It seemed a mirage. First, he saw nothing but darkness; then, suddenly, there was a glow drifting through the night sky, something like a green haze. The haze seemed to dance, whirling a crazy, chaotic course across the sky.

As he stared, Lucas realized he was hearing something: almost a buzz. He shook his head, trying to dispel the buzz from his ear. But the odd noise remained. The noise seemed to be coming from the green light, but he couldn't be certain. It could be something like the Northern Lights on earth: brilliant, vivid colors that streamed across the arctic sky on clear nights. He knew they were rumored to hum close to the Arctic Circle.

But it could also be just about anything else: his ears playing tricks on him, some environmental variable, aliens gathering to come eat him alive . . .

Something moved near him. Lucas quickly bolted away, rolling to the ground and ducking beneath what looked like a rock . . . no, a boulder, or several of them. His fingers closed on cold stone; it felt frozen, sharp to his touch. He shivered, wondering again where—where—he could be.

A noise sounded next to him. He heard another rustle in the dark, and he felt fear clawing its way up his throat.

And then he felt a thud on his shoulder; with a jump, he looked up, alarm striking through his eyes, into a pair of onyx gems. No, into brown eyes. They just seemed like onyx in this strange, almost-no-light-glow. The hand gripping his shoulder was pale, lightly boned, human.

"I’m Ben," came a whisper. They exchanged quick stares, then nods. Lucas tried to make some sense of where he was, why he was there, but nothing was making any sense. He supposed this man’s simply materializing out of nowhere made no less sense than any of the rest of it. "Ben Krieg. Lieutenant. Morale and Supply Officer." The voice drifted, and Lucas simply continued to stare at the man, not knowing what to say . . . or even if he was entirely real. As of yet, Lucas hadn’t been able to convince himself any of this was real.

Maybe this was all a bad dream . . . yeah, a really, obnoxiously bad dream.

Krieg—or Ben—looked carefully at him, then suddenly widened his eyes. Lucas sighed. So what if the lieutenant was a little slow on the uptake? Krieg had still noticed the obvious. He’d seen he was a kid. He’d probably tell him to get lost or something.

Krieg cleared his throat, then pinned Lucas with eyes that refused to let him look away. "How did you get here? And who are you?" Lucas swallowed hard, wondering what he should do. Should he answer the question? Should he try running? Should he pray to God that this was not truly happening? Should he try screaming at the top of his lungs?

On second thought, perhaps screaming at the top of his lungs wasn't the wisest of choices. He glanced at the frozen wasteland surrounding him: no, screaming was out of the question. Several minutes passed in silence, and Lucas looked over at his unexpected companion, suddenly realizing that the man hadn’t pressured him. For some reason, that made him slightly more comfortable—as if Krieg might actually be who he said he was and as if Krieg could actually explain what the hell was happening. He sure hoped this was the case, for Lucas only knew he certainly couldn’t explain anything himself.

Lucas inhaled softly, then sighed. "I—I was waiting to be transported from the shuttle Delphi to the Infinity. I waited, and a shimmer suddenly surrounded me . . ." Lucas’s voice drifted, then he shook his head. His brow furrowed. "And then I ended up here . . . wherever here is."

"Umm." The noncommittal grunt made Lucas turn towards the man. Krieg was watching him with keen, piercing eyes. "And who did you say you were?"

Part 4

Lucas could feel extra pressure being placed on his shoulder. He stared at Krieg, wondering what could have caused such a strange reaction to his statement. Then he realized the problem: he’d omitted his name. Nervously, he cleared his throat. "Uhm—I’m Lucas Wolenczak . . ."

Lucas saw a flash of brown, angry eyes as he spoke his last name. Muscles tensed in the man beside him, but then—finally—the hand tightly clamping into his shoulder suddenly released its hold. Krieg met his eyes. "Wolenczak? Are you . . .?"

Ha! At least one thing in this demented, lunatic world fell in line with normal experience: the reaction to his last name. Since he knew the question without needing to hear it, Lucas gruffly replied, "Yeah, that’s me . . . the good old Admiral’s son." With that, he glanced away from the man’s eyes—they were again keen, piercing, almost too sharp to the sight—and around them. He looked back at Krieg. "Where are we? Do you know?"

"Haven’t the foggiest."

Lucas rolled his eyes at Krieg's reply. Just great. Fantastic. Marvelous, in fact! Not only was he stuck out in the middle of some godforsaken wasteland, but he was also stuck there with someone whose only response to the situation was, "Haven't the foggiest."

Krieg sighed, looking around, before turning back to his companion. "Did you see or hear anything unusual before the transport? Anything at all?"

"I’ve never been in a transport, Krieg. Everything seemed unusual to me," Lucas explained with exaggerated patience. He paused, then hazarded a guess: "I take it we’re not where we’re supposed to be, and you have no idea why we’re here?"

A blink, then a slow grin. Krieg ran a hand through his hair. "Yeah, that’s putting it pretty well, Lucas." He sighed. "We’re lost. I have no clue where we are, but we’re certainly lost."

"How long were you here before I arrived?" Lucas asked hesitantly, quickly seeing that they were in a bind—and if he wanted to see the insides of that damned ship, which at this point sure looked a hell of a lot better than this no-man’s-land, they’d better get out of this mess. Whatever this mess might be. The same instinct that reliably told him to duck when something was about to explode in the lab was telling him right now—in a loud, shrill call—that he’d better get his skin out of here as quickly as possible if he wanted skin remaining on his bones.

"Hmm . . . about four or five minutes, tops. Perhaps less than that, depending on how long it took me to realize you were here." He turned to look at Lucas, then suddenly seemed to make a decision. "We need to find shelter of some sort. I want you right at my elbow. Don’t even think of disappearing. Stay right at my side, okay? Losing one another could get us killed in this place—wherever ‘this place’ is."

After a moment’s hesitation, Lucas nodded, wondering if the lieutenant was overreacting—even as his heart told him for sure that he wasn’t.

~~*~~

SCENE: The camera pans in on a little office. The office is pandemonium itself: papers (which a certain author we all know should be filing) sprawl across the floor, Mountain Dew cans pile up next to a computer keyboard, and a little Dogbert sits on a computer (trying his best to ward away the computer demons, but not succeeding overly well). Sitting in front of the monitor, grinning wickedly, is SHERI. She is mischievously weaving plot strands together from all across the galaxy . . . when a FIGURE dressed in red and black peers over her shoulder.

Startled, SHERI turns to look behind her. Before her amazed eyes stands the CREW OF THE VOYAGER.

SHERI scratches her head, wondering over this amazing appearance. She looks back at her audience. "What are you doing here? You're not slated to appear till . . ." SHERI thinks for a moment, considering: remember, she's inventing this story as she goes. ". . . Well, anyway, till later."

CHAKOTAY, whining, shakes his head. "But I want to beat the aliens . . ." He glances at JANEWAY, then quickly amends as he sees her glowering eyes, "Err, I mean, meet the aliens. Come on . . . just a little early."

JANEWAY, looking commanding, gives the official and highly requisite Starfleet response: "Now, Commander, we must consider the Prime Directive. No one on this ship will disregard it."

The CREW--not to mention SHERI herself--look at JANEWAY with obvious skepticism.

TOM PARIS, still remembering his demotion for disobeying the Prime Directive, mutters under his breath, "Yeah, right. Doesn't JANEWAY flagrantly disregard the Prime Directive at least once a week?" As JANEWAY glares at him and B'ELANNA kicks him in the shins, TOM simply smiles beatifically, trying his very hardest to look like an angel.

The look, quite obviously, just doesn't fit PARIS.

SHERI rolls her eyes, then calls into the shadows: "Hey, DARTH! Could you please Use the Force and force these twits out of here?" In lumbers DARTH VADER--dressed, naturally, in black. He lifts his hands (looking mystical, hands poised significantly), then sends the entire Voyager and its crew sailing to the Delta Quadrant. He smacks his hands together, clearly pleased with his results.

SHERI, seriously pondering VADER's actions, mutters, "So that's how they really ended up in the Delta Quadrant . . ."

Let us now rejoin our shivering heroes as they travel the Wastelands . . .

"Just another transporter malfunction," Krieg began—actually, Ben began. They’d found something to hide in—a cave of sorts, complete with dripping water and howling noises surrounding them on all sides—and they were more than grateful for the thin protection the cave afforded them. Though wind still managed to howl into the cave, it was far softer a howl than what was found outside. They could both hear the wind crackling, blowing, gusting; it sounded to Lucas like a tornado. He was thanking God above for the solid feet of dirt surrounding them as each new gust blasted against their haven. "That would make this . . . oh, about transporter malfunction three hundred . . ."

They’d been talking for over an hour now, both shivering violently against the cold wind. Ben hadn’t had his phaser along with him when he’d been transported over to wherever they currently were. Lucas, of course, hadn’t had a phaser to begin with. So the decided lack of phasers blew one of Lucas’s ingenious ideas right out of the water: charging some of the inconvenient rocks surrounding them with their phasers and using that as a heat source—an oven of sorts. With no heat, they were both freezing. Neither had a jacket or a pair of gloves or a hat or a blanket. It looked to Lucas like they were going to get to experience first-hand the effects of exposure and frostbite. Now, the scientist inside him had always wondered what it would feel like to be a Popsicle, but really . . . this was taking scientific experimentation too far.

Ben suddenly nudged him. "Are you falling asleep, Lucas?" Ben’s face peered into his own, studying him with concern. "Try to keep awake, okay? This isn’t a good place to fall asleep." Ben was, of course, talking about the cold—though he wasn’t saying it outright. Lucas nodded, wishing his teeth would quit chattering so obnoxiously against the chill. "Sor—sorry. I’ll keep awake . . ."

With a decisive grunt, Ben pulled Lucas towards him, sighing tiredly as Lucas looked up at him with surprised, wary eyes. He shook his head. "Don’t worry. Contrary to public opinion, I’m not the devil in disguise. You’re freezing. We need to share body warmth. Snuggle up, ensign . . ."

After several seconds of uncomfortable shifting and turning, Lucas finally settled into a reasonably warm position. He decided to lighten the mood. Hell, if they were going to die freezing, they might as well do it laughing. Moments later he whispered with a soft laugh, "Lucas . . . If we’re going to be snuggle bunnies, you’re going to have to call me Lucas."

Silence for a moment, then a snort of laughter. "Snuggle bunnies, eh?"

"Yeah, Thumper. Snuggle bunnies."

Again, the snort—then a hearty laugh. Lucas grinned, glad to hear the sound; against the echo of the wind’s howling, the laugh was surprisingly heartening. He somehow had the feeling that, providing they managed to survive this little trip into whatever frozen wasteland they were in right now, they would be good friends. And that was more than just a blessing. Lucas hadn’t had a good friend for years. Being the brilliant son of the Admiral had its prices, one of which was friendship. He could never be sure when someone was a friend for his father’s sake or for his own. It was possible, though, that life on a starship might not emphasize his parentage; in fact, with any luck, maybe people would simply forget what prestigious man his own name was attached to. At least he could always dream this was the case.

But what had Ben meant by "public opinion to the contrary"? The question teased Lucas’s mind as he sat there, trying to find something upon which to keep his mind occupied while his body began the agonizing process of freezing to death. Well, he supposed he could just ask . . . but that had none of the wonderful challenge of trying to solve a puzzle—or any of the chance to keep his mind busy.

Part 5

At last, he gave up. For over an hour, he’d tossed the question back and forth, puzzling it over, trying to imagine what interesting life Mr. Krieg had led to give him a reputation. It could really be just about anything. And Lucas’s mind was imaginatively vivid: he could come up with all sorts of intriguing possibilities. Ben had been an undercover agent for Cardassia's Obsidian Order; Ben had married a member of the mafia; Ben was a member of the mafia; Ben was the head of the mafia; Ben had kidnapped the princess of Sheriondia on a mission and was keeping her locked in his closet . . .

"For heavens sake, what are you thinking about?"

Blinking in surprise, Lucas looked up at his companion. Had he said something?

Ben groaned, then repeated, "What—are—you—thinking—about?" Lucas glared at the deliberately slow, patronizing pronunciation. He stuck his tongue out at the man, deciding to play the part if he was going to be assigned it. This made Ben’s groan turn into a moan of defeat.

After a moment, Lucas finally cleared his throat. "Well . . . do you want the honest truth?"

At this, Ben sighed; he seemed to think he knew what was coming. With a short nod, he quickly looked away from Lucas’s curious eyes. Lucas again cleared his throat, seeing his new friend so suddenly reticent. He looked at Ben carefully, trying unsuccessfully to get the man to meet his eyes. He finally shook his head, nudging Ben to get the man’s attention. "Ben, earlier . . ." paused, carefully considering his phrasing. " . . . You said something about public opinion. What—what did you mean?"

A charged breath of air was Ben’s only response.

Lucas sighed. "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset . . ."

"No. It’s okay," the distraught lieutenant interrupted. He ran a hand across his chin, apparently at imaginary whiskers. He ducked his head away from Lucas’s curious eyes. "I have a—a bad reputation on the Infinity. It’s one I’ve tried to change, to live down: to escape. But, I’m afraid nothing I do seems to change it. In fact," Ben suddenly sighed, shaking his head sadly, "as soon as you’re on board, you’ll probably be ‘encouraged’ to avoid me. For your own good, at least."

Silence. Lucas stirred restlessly, then asked the question Ben was obviously trying to avoid: "So . . . what did you do? Why the reputation?"

There was another charged silence. Several seconds crept past, Lucas watching Ben as unobstructively as possible. As Ben seemed unwilling to speak, Lucas shrugged. "It’s okay, Ben, whatever it is. If you don’t want to tell me, it doesn’t bother me. It’s truly none of my business."

"No. I want to say something." He paused, sighing. Another hand ruffled through Ben’s hair. "And it will be your business, anyway. You’ll be a part of the Infinity. You’re going to hear . . . things. You should hear my side of the matter, too. "I am a . . . very good pilot, Lucas," Ben paused, smiling slightly. The lieutenant shook his head, as if disbelieving the possibility of what he’d just said. "I’ve been told I’m the best pilot in the Fleet. I love to fly; it’s kind of like it’s in my blood or something. My first trip to the simulators was . . . Lord, I guess I must have been about five. Anyway . . . I’m good. It’s not bragging; simply the truth.**

"About two years ago, though, I was an idiot: a real, flaming, stupid, inane idiot. I thought I could do no wrong and that others could do no right. No one else knew how to fly a ship; nobody else should be listened to; orders were made to be broken. You get the picture. I was a genuine creep." Ben shivered, then continued, "Anyway, I liked to fly stunt maneuvers. You know: flaming stars, ocean bursts, flying jacks. The fun stuff."

Another long silence dragged by. Lucas sat silently beside Ben, allowing him the time to collect his thoughts.

Finally, Ben said, "There was this beautiful ensign I was trying to impress. I'd just gotten divorced from the love of my life, Katherine Hitchcock. I was in a rough mood. I don’t know why I had to be such a stupid jerk, but I was; I figured nothing would happen to me, the God of Flight, that I was somehow invincible, invulnerable to the problems that other pilots faced." He stopped, snorting bitterly. "However . . . however, it did happen. Fate caught up with me and kicked me in the ass. While I was flying one of those wonderful ocean bursts I was so envied for, an ion field suddenly pounded into us. I lost control of the shuttle."

There was a pause. Ben’s eyes were unfocused, looking deep within the past. "We crashed. I was at least able to land the damned thing. But . . . Lucas, everyone but me died. Everyone. Including that lovely ensign I was trying to impress. I can still remember looking around myself . . . seeing them, seeing her, lying there so lifelessly. Boy, I really impressed her, didn't I?"

Silence passed between them as Ben thumped an angry hand into his leg. The lieutenant then hissed, "God. What a fool. What a flaming, idiotic, uncaring fool I am."

Lucas winced as he heard the present tense verb being used; Ben still seemed to think he was the idiot, the uncaring jerk, he had been when the accident occurred. It was obvious to Lucas, though, that this wasn’t the case at all: he couldn't call himself a flaming, idiotic, uncaring fool if he truly were one. Ben was no longer the sky-rocketing, chance-seeking fool he’d been. The accident had killed that man as surely as it had killed the companions with Ben in the crash.

Lucas shook his head. He was silent for a moment, wondering what he could say, what he should say. Finally, he opted for the only thing that came to mind. "I’m sorry, Ben."

Silence. Ben’s face was turned from him, but Lucas could see that the lieutenant was listening to him carefully.

Lucas continued: "What happened was . . . horrible. There’s no avoiding that truth. But . . . you’ve learned from it, haven’t you?" The question was really more of a statement. He could tell with little doubt that Ben had learned his lesson from the crash; in fact, Lucas would be willing to bet that Ben was now the safest pilot in the Fleet. Mistakes tended to have that effect on people. Ben nodded slightly. "Yeah. I’ve definitely . . . learned." He looked at Lucas, surprised to find that the kid hadn’t leapt away from him at high speed. Most people did when they discovered what he’d done. "You don’t seem too sickened by this."

"The past is the past, Ben. Let it rest there." As Ben appeared unconvinced, seeming quite depressed, Lucas said, "Here’s a question for you, Ben. How many times have you laid awake at night, repeating that crash in your mind, wishing you could change things?"

Ben’s grimaced.

"I thought so. You’ve paid your price for that mistake. You can’t pay it for the rest of your life, though. Again, I’d simply say: let it rest. Let it remain a part of the past."

For a moment, Ben stared at him—really, truly stared at him. The man seemed to be weighing Lucas’s words. Suddenly, he smiled somewhat lopsidedly. "Of course . . . that’s not the only reason I’m considered somewhat disreputable."

Naturally, Lucas thought with a wry shake of his head. However, he felt fairly certain that the truth, the truly painful reality, of Ben’s "reputation" had already been discussed. Perhaps now there were only minor misdeeds to be discussed. He rolled his eyes, waiting for the next terrible deed up Ben’s sleeves.

"I’m considered quite the Romeo on board . . ."

Lucas positively snickered at this.

"Hey, it’s the truth. I’ve got finesse, style, debonair . . ."

"Ha! A lot of hot air is more like it, Krieg."

Ben’s grin widened. He poked Lucas in the ribs with his elbow.

"Just you wait and see, youngin’ . . . seeing my finesse in action will cinch the matter entirely. In fact, you could write a textbook on great romantic sayings just from watching me."

Again, Lucas snickered. He added, "More like textbook for bad pickup lines, if I’m any judge of character. Your favorite is probably something like, ‘What is a doll like you doing alone on a hot night like this?’ To which, of course, the reply is probably a gagging noise . . ."

"Ah—jaded so young, are we, Lucas?" Ben didn’t seem to be deterred by Lucas’s snide comments at all; actually, he seemed to accept them quite happily. "A young man such as yourself hasn’t had the chance yet to learn the finer points of female persuasion . . ." Ben suddenly stopped, his eyes rapidly changing from softly dreamy to unpleasantly sharp. He looked at Lucas. "Speaking of which . . . how old are you?"

That was most certainly a question Lucas had hoped to avoid. Oh, hell. He looked away, refusing to meet the older man’s gaze. Finally, he cleared his throat and mumbled, "—teen."

Ben blinked, then frowned. He studied his young companion, then said pointedly, "I’m afraid I didn’t catch that, Lucas. Could you repeat that?"

Lucas looked about ready to melt into the cave rock; of course, that would have been quite the feat, considering it was probably about one degree above zero. He huddled closer to the rock. "Sixteen . . . just about. Close enough. Sixteen."

Ben listened to this, frowning. He shook his head. Just about and close enough obviously meant a number under sixteen, no matter how well you tried to couch your terms. "You’re fifteen," Ben finally stated, the convoluted age calculations at last hitting home. His brows raised almost to the top of his forehead.

He stared at the young man, the teenager . . . no, the almost kid-in-grade-school sitting before him, then shook his head. He could not believe this. He could not believe this! A flash of anger burned through him as he ground out, "What the hell are you doing here, Lucas? What on earth were your parents thinking?"

Lucas continued to stare at the ground, his fingernail now scraping—hell, Ben thought his fingernail was gouging—the rock beneath them. When his answer at last came, it was an almost indistinct murmur: "They weren’t. They really couldn’t have cared less."

Again, Ben blinked. He shook his head. "But . . . your father is Admiral Wolenczak."

Lucas glared at the obvious question underlying Ben’s words. "Yeah, and aren’t I the luckiest kid in the world for it?"

Ben opened his mouth, but his jaw slammed shut as pain—clear, not-to-be-missed pain—struggled across the boy’s features, then . . . was simply wiped away, as if the pain had never been there. But Ben was certain that was only an "as if" condition. Pain like that couldn’t be purged in just seconds. Finally, after much consideration, he finally said, "I’m sorry, Lucas. For . . . whatever happened between you and your parents."

Lucas looked at him quietly, then nodded. "Thanks, Ben. It helps hearing it." He cleared his throat, then said in what even Ben knew was an obvious change of subjects, "You know, it’s good meeting you. Especially since I don’t know anyone on the entire boat . . ."

"Boat?"

"Oh—you know, the old floating tub we’re supposed to be on right now . . ."

Ben shook his head, then grinned. "I’d hardly call the Infinity a tub. Better not let Captain Bridger hear that one. He’ll skin you alive."

Lucas smiled slightly, then sighed as he looked around them at their rather grim reality. He watched curiously as Ben pulled a strange looking hand-held gadget out of a pouch at his side. Truth be told, Lucas hadn’t even noticed the pouch: a strange occurrence when Lucas could usually notice a speck of dust out of place. The thought might be somewhat exaggerated, but not overly; Lucas knew he owed at least a portion of his abilities in the sciences to his incredible observational skills. His curiosity grew as the lieutenant whipped open the strange gadget and lights whirred into action. Ben pointed the gadget around them, watching a small screen as numbers filtered across.

Finally, his curiosity getting the better of his patience, Lucas tugged at the lieutenant’s wrist. "What on earth is that?"

"A di-corder."

A die chorder . . . what the hell is that? Lucas considered himself relatively in-the-know when it came to technology and all its fun devices, but he couldn’t remember having heard of a "die chorder," whatever that might be. Puzzled, he studied the gadget, watching as more numbers migrated across the little screen. His attention suddenly snapped into focus. Numbers migrating across a screen . . . something here looked oddly familiar. He couldn’t honestly remember seeing the gadget before, so he didn’t think it was that that was familiar to him. So what, then, could it be?

More numbers drifted into view. Lucas then tore the gadget right out of the lieutenant’s hand. "Of course . . ." he whispered, staring at the numbers.

He ignored Ben’s annoyed curse, then stood, pointing the gadget around them.

Yes, he was exactly right. The device was somehow recording dimensional activity, printing quantum and temporal signatures across its shining screen. There was a God after all: and its name was science!

<CENTER~~*~~

LUCAS: (sprawled on a chair and munching away at some candy) So . . . when do the aliens appear? I want some aliens. Mean, old nasty aliens. Drooling aliens. The bigger, the better.

KRIEG: (hamburger in hand, eyes wide as he bites into the bun . . . simply to find that it's a stage prop made of cardboard. His expression, at the very least, is displeased) Aliens? Just what we need. What with Star Trek's "Alien of the Week" policy, we'll be overloaded with them. (Smiling smugly) Besides, aliens are no fun. You see one, you see them all. But a woman: that's something entirely different . . .

LUCAS: (not responding, merely rolling eyes and munching on another handful of candy)

KRIEG: (his eyes, looking miles away, suddenly widen as Lucas munches into his candy) Hey! How do you rate real food when I get cardboard?

LUCAS: (smiles mischievously with a shrug of the shoulders. Replies as if there is no explanation necessary) You were born Pre-Lucas. That means you get cardboard.

KRIEG: (growls, steals some of Lucas's food) So, SHERI, when do the aliens kidnap this twirp?

SHERI: (considering. The answer is anything but helpful) Some time between Part One and Part Fifty . . .

LUCAS: (stops eating, looks at SHERI with sudden concern) Hey, wait a minute! I thought KRIEG was supposed to get alien-napped!

KRIEG: (gloating over his good luck) Don't worry about it, kid. With your attitude, they'll probably send you back in no time flat!

LUCAS: (throws something at KRIEG, then ponders the aliens he is soon to encounter) I just hope they're not hungry aliens . . .

So . . . will the aliens be hungry? Find out as our heroes battle the enormous obstacles of the Waste Planet . . .

Sitting numbly in the midst of whatever frozen wasteland he and Lucas Wolenczak were now stranded in and would probably perish upon, Ben Krieg simply stared, wondering, at the scene before him. He watched listlessly as the resident teenager stomped around their cave, waving Ben’s di-corder haphazardly and chattering away in a nonsensical fashion. It made no sense whatsoever to his chilled mind. But if it amused Lucas, why not let the child play with his newfound toy? Ben felt especially good about this decision, considering that he didn’t really know what to do with the confounded thing himself--and he really didn’t see any hope of their getting out of this rather nasty situation, anyway. What harm could there be in giving Lucas a bit of a distraction?

He listened as words and numbers floated his way: ". . . 50 millimeter substratum bore, 30 QFI distribution, .9001 cubic interspersion . . . hmmm, about .0000561 off on QFI four . . . I wonder if that would cause a temporal break, though with temporal mechanics anything’s possible . . . residual evidence of harmony established . . . patterned anomaly in AFI four, too . . . level .00009951 . . ."**

Finally, even Ben’s stubborn refusal to pay attention to whatever scheme Lucas was up to deteriorated. He sighed, looking over at the crazily babbling teenager, his expression one of saintly patience.

"All right, Lucas . . . you’ve got me curious. What on earth are you doing?"

Startled out of wherever galaxy his mind had inhabited, Lucas looked over at Ben with a puzzled expression. His fingers tapped against the di-corder excitedly. "This--thing here seems to somehow be picking up residual traces of dimensional substratum layers . . . Actually, it’s pretty cool . . ."

Residual dimensional sub-what layers? Ben wondered. All this from the same kid who said it was "pretty cool"? He shook his head, as if clearing it of spider webs. "It’s doing what now?"

Lucas looked at him, then smiled sheepishly. He attempted to clarify the matter: "It’s detecting residual harmonic and disjunctive temporal-quantum resonance within the dimensional substratum layers of this plane . . ."

Ben held up his hand with a frustrated sigh. "No, Lucas, wait . . . I don’t understand a word you’ve just said. Could you speak in English, please?"

Lucas blinked. A blush quickly erupted through his light skin. "Sorry. I thought you wanted the technical explanation." He glanced around them quickly, then simply said, "The numbers this little gadget of yours is spouting out seem to indicate a tear in the fabric of space and time, from what I can tell. The temporal signature is off by about one-hundredth of a percent . . . not much, but theoretically enough to create a tear."

Ben stared. Finally, he managed, "Lucas . . . how . . . ? You’re fifteen, for heaven’s sake! How the hell do you know all this?" The blush was back in full force. He carefully refused to meet Ben’s eyes. "I have a Ph.D. in Quantum and Temporal Mechanics. Right now, I’m working on a project to induce stable and controllable wormholes. I have to know the theories and numbers behind dimensions, behind substratum layers, to understand anything about wormholes."

A Ph.D. in Quantum and Temporal Mechanics? Dear God! Ben shook his head in amazement, perplexity, disbelief--then acceptance. Well, this certainly explained why Lucas might be on the Infinity instead of safely at home in high school. He was a temporal engineer. The Fleet was always looking for new, enterprising temporal engineers--even if they were barely into their teens, it would seem.

The question was simple, though: Could that enterprising young mind get them out of this mess?

As he watched Lucas quickly calculating formulae using a twig and some dirt, the youth’s movements quick, determined, practiced, and--above all else--confident, Ben decided that his answer very well might be yes. He stepped over to Lucas’s side, watching as the boy ran through the most complex formula Ben had ever seen--and Lucas finished it in the matter of seconds. When Lucas’s blue eyes glanced up towards him inquiringly, Ben smiled slightly. "Is there anything I can help with?"

Lucas thought for a moment, then pointed at the di-corder. He waved Ben to his side. "Yeah . . . what is this thing, anyway? Does it do more than dimensional detection?"

"Well . . ." Ben sighed as he sat beside Lucas. "It’s a new instrument. We just got them about two weeks ago . . ."

"That would explain why I’ve never seen one, at least. Actually, I’ve never even heard of them. Who came up with them? What exactly do they do?"

Ben paused thoughtfully, then frowned. "I’m not sure who came up with them. I don’t exactly recall hearing, to tell you the truth. As for what they do . . . they record dimensional activity. Thus, they’re called di-corders: dimensional- recorders. Anyway, that’s their main function, recording the dimensional activity. However," Ben suddenly grinned, leaning towards Lucas with excitement, "I’ve also heard that they emit trans-dimensional signals. I’m not sure if this is true or how they do it, but there is that possibility."

"Trans-dimensional signals. Hmm." Lucas paused thoughtfully, looking at the recorder with interest. He fiddled with several controls, then practically jumped as three red buttons started to glow. After eyeing the buttons speculatively, he suddenly started tapping figures and data into the machine. Ben watched, suddenly nervous, as purple lights began to glow right beside the red. Lucas didn’t seem to worry over the new lights, though, so Ben simply shut his mouth and watched with increasing interest.

Several minutes of tapping and cursing later, Lucas set the di-corder aside. He glanced over at Ben, who was startled to notice the sheen of perspiration on the teen’s face. Ben watched, concerned, as Lucas ran a shaking hand through his golden hair and across his face. He suddenly seemed to notice Ben’s worried eyes. "It’s okay . . . I just get a little nervous when I’m dabbling with changing physics at the temporal levels."

Ben could easily see why that would be a bit nerve-wracking. "But . . ." Lucas inhaled sharply, then shut his eyes. "Unless I’ve made some seriously wrong calculations, we should be okay." Ben simply stared at this. Calculations?

Seeing Ben’s blank stare, Lucas carefully explained, "I’ve set the di-corder to signal our position to what should be normal time and space for the Infinity. With luck, they should receive it."

Ben listened, wondering why he had a sudden tightness in his belly. Why did something seem not quite as simple as Lucas seemed to imply?

Lucas suddenly met his eyes, his own expression quite tense. After a second, he quietly said, "Remember the crash you told me about earlier, Ben?" Ben simply nodded. "Well, if I’m wrong, your crash will seem the lesser of the terrible mistakes made by either of us. You see, the Infinity will transport us through the dimensional tear using the calculations I give them. If any of my calculations are off by even a decameter, our atoms will be defused throughout thattemporal- spatial tear."

Ah . . . now the shoe fell.

Lucas watched him anxiously, then said, "I haven’t sent the numbers yet, Ben. I won’t until you say I should. I don’t want to play with your life without your permission."

Ben nodded, squeezing Lucas’s shoulder in reassurance. He suddenly felt old, tired. If he were any judge, their only real chance was Lucas’s idea. It was far too cold here, and there was always the matter of the strange howls they kept hearing from time to time--howls that weren’t anything Ben wanted to come closer to. They wouldn’t long survive here; he’d been reconciled to the probability of their deaths long before Lucas had even seized on the idea of a message between dimensions.

Gently, he again squeezed Lucas’s shoulder. "Go ahead, Lucas. I don’t think we have any other choice, anyway. And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work."

As if to emphasize the peril of their current position, the mysterious yowls suddenly rang through their cave. Ben started at the sound, looking around them with frightened eyes; the cries seemed to be in the cave. He shivered. Trying to seem casual about his movements, Ben soundlessly placed his own body in front of Lucas’s, shielding the boy from harm.

After glancing worriedly towards the howls, Lucas nodded. He breathed deeply, then--with some trepidation--flipped on one last button and entered one final sequence of numbers into the dimensional recorder. As the last number was entered, the button glowed orange, then red, then white.

A roar, a cry that sent Ben’s heart into his throat suddenly erupted next to their ears. Ben’s eye watched, horrified, as an orange glow flickered inside the cave wall nearest Lucas.

A gray claw reached out, followed split seconds by another, then another. The rock had somehow come alive.

Part 6

LUCAS: (still sprawled comfortably on a chair eating candy, but now he has a script in hand. He reads the script with disbelief) How could she? "A gray claw reached out" . . . this is just too much! "A gray claw!" Who ever heard of a gray-skinned alien?

KRIEG: (highly crinkled copy of Sea Babes spread out in front of him. His mind is elsewhere) What . . . what’d ya’ say, kid? (Slight pause as Lucas scowls at him. Krieg tries to bring his mind out of the perpetual gutter it resides in) Oh, of course . . .well, at least it’s not chartreuse. (Ponders this a moment, actually looking away from the centerfold of Sea Babes for an entire minute. Lucas imagines this is a date worthy of recording in the Guinness Book of World Records) I guess, really, they couldn’t use chartreuse. They’ve already got NEELIX. (LUCAS and KRIEG both shudder)

LUCAS: (still thinking about his alien-abductors-to-be) And "claws"? Aliens don’t have claws! They have . . . tentacles. Long, slimy, oozing green tentacles . . .

KRIEG: (shakes head, attention again glued to the centerfold) You’ve just been watching too much of that Sci-Fi Channel lately. I told you that was a bad habit. I mean, look at that one show . . . Farscape, I think it is: the "alien’s" blue paint-skin wipes right off!

LUCAS: (sighs, disgruntled) Yeah, well . . . there’s that Babylon 5 show that SHERI likes. I tell you, KRIEG (looks pointedly at author), you want to talk aliens, look at the pointy heads on half the space station!

KRIEG: (snorts) They have a good plot, though. No claws reaching out of walls. (He looks my way now, obviously inferring that this story has no plot)

LUCAS: (suddenly nervous) Hey, SHERI, you never did answer my question about the aliens . . . are they very hungry . . .?

SHERI: (pleading the Fifth, doing her very best to look like a lawyer) No comment.

And now, we return to our bizarre story . . .

In a sort of horrified petrifaction, Lucas watched as the seemingly hard surface of the rock slowly dissolved, falling into pieces on the cave floor. Orange light splayed out around the claws, an eerie, sickening glow that lit the stone and pushed back the darkness. The cave rock burned, steaming. In a matter of split seconds, the wall creaked, grinding, crackling, as if an earthquake shook the ground. Dirt drifted into the air in plumes, smothering the feeble light cast by the claws. Liquid rock seeped across the ground, hissing, coiling. Then, suddenly, bright white light exploded from the cave wall, flashing across the once-dark cave, blazing through the darkness.

Lucas simply continued to stare, unable to move. This could not be real . . . could not be . . . could not be real . . .

And then . . . reality simply collapsed. Claws scraped across his wrists, opening a wound beside his vein, then tugged him towards the wall. His wrist burnt with agonizing pain. Something seethed within his veins, ripping his cells apart: an acid to his human flesh. He screamed inwardly as the most brutal pain he had ever known to exist pulsed through his body. It exploded in his mind, in his skull, in his bones, in his flesh, in his very spirit.

Something shattered, tore open, bled deeply within: a gash widening into a chasm. He reeled, throbbing with endless, inconceivable pain.

Heat like fire continued to burn through his blood. He could feel his blood disintegrate against the heat. He was dissolving into the wall, becoming part of it . . . the coolness, the utter coolness . . . earth surrounding him, eating him up . . . entombing him. The pain turned into blackness. He grasped helplessly for reality, searching for himself, his identity, in the blackness around him. Where am I? His mind cried, staring into an abyss unfathomable, unknowable. He thought dirt surrounded him, but he couldn’t . . . couldn’t . . .

Lucas’s mind wavered helplessly, questions tormenting him: Who? Who am I? The abyss deepened. Black warmth embraced him, beckoned him. So smooth, so gentle. Pain? No pain. The black wavered, calling . . . but his better sense hovered near, whispering he must not fall into the blissful coolness of oblivion . . . Yut there was softness . . . peace . . . no pain no pain no pain no need no anything all gone gone an end an end . . . Fear. Sudden, abrupt fear. It gripped him, yanked him away from the blackness, shattering the peace flowing through him. Who am I? I? What--I? No I, no, no I . . . The reeling slowed, almost stopped.

. . . Wait! . . .

Out of blackness, he seemed to remember--a ship. Someone he had just met recently. Someone named Neb. No, that wasn’t right. Ebn? No . . . He couldn’t remember. His mind rotated, grasping for what was his life. It had been there, once: he had been a person, someone, somewhere.

Oh stop--pain, stop, stop!

The abyss retreated a breadth.

Slowly, with effort, he shook his head, trying to bring some flow of being back to his thoughts. Warped. Everything was distorted. Twisted. Unreal.

Awareness slowly awakened his outer senses. Something was missing. Something. He looked, wondered. Yes--something. Something to do with rocks. With walls. And someone else: Neb, Ebn . . . No, Ben. That was right: Ben. He wrapped his mind around the name, then stopped, confused.

Where was Ben?

Strange noises: howls, moans. A bizarre gibbering near his ears, one that made him wince. He felt something sharp poke his side, then again and again. Angrily, he reached to swat the offender aside, but found he couldn’t move his arms.

Then he wasn’t thinking at all as the pain returned full force. The pain, God, the pain . . . He shut his mind against it, drifting back into obliteration, nothingness. The darkness was so cool so comforting so . . .

Vaguely, he felt a tug at his body, ever so slight; sluggishly, his mind awakened. A light hesitantly shimmered around him . . . moved, as if not entirely focused. But the light soon dissolved and faded, receding beyond his reach.

Lucas shut his eyes in despair, realizing finally what that light had been: a failed transporter beam.

Pure black encircled him. At last, he fell unconscious into its embrace.

The scene: Dark caves. A strange, surreal orange glow flickers about the cave walls. Shadows cling to the rock (of course, the rock is paper mache--but who's counting?). As the camera zooms in, we see LUCAS slumped against the floor, moving uncomfortably and screaming. His head suddenly tosses, as if he is having a terrible nightmare. Suddenly, there is movement in the cave entrance. A figure approaches LUCAS.]

LUCAS: (peeking his eyelids open. A frown abruptly forms, and he whispers in worried confusion) Hey! You're not supposed to be here. What if the . . . (he pauses, then dramatically looks around himself) . . . aliens walk in while you're here? It's not in the script, you know!

BRIDGER: (sighing. He slips down to sit beside LUCAS, who watches him with remarkably clear eyes for someone who is supposed to be drugged by alien venom) I wanted to find out when it's my turn again. I'm bored. (He pauses, then lowers his voice) I want ACTION: monsters, aliens, creatures of the deepest, darkest, dankest corners . . .

LUCAS: (groans) Just wait a bit. You'll get your chance. The way SHERI writes, there's probably a monster lurking between every page . . .

BRIDGER: (snorts. LUCAS silently ponders whether Bridger, given the large quantity of snorts he is assigned by a certain author, will eventually grow a snout and pig's tail) I won't get to fight those monsters with you monopolizing all the attention! I'd like a few moments, too, you know . . .

LUCAS: (rolls eyes) Hey, all I get to do is scream and get hurt. You get to beat up the nasty old aliens! Besides, look on the positive side: This is SHERI writing. I'm sure she'll change her mind sooner or later. She changes her mind at least once a paragraph!

BRIDGER: (face brightening) Hey, that's true! SHERI never knows who's going to do what and when . . . she doesn't know the meaning of the word "plot." I'll just suggest things to her in her sleep.

(BRIDGER stands, then immediately transforms into . . . an imp dressed in red. He grins, then vanishes, leaving only brimstone and LUCAS still huddled on the floor)

[Scene: Dark room. Again, the effects are constructed of highly expensive paper mache.]

BRIDGER: (magically appears floating over my head) Hey . . . psst . . . SHERI . . .

SHERI: (swats at the little BRIDGER IMP, but misses and hits herself instead. Muffled curse is heard)

BRIDGER: (thinking frantically, then reaches for a bull horn, which--as usual in my fiction--magically, preposterously, impossibly appears before him) HEY, SHERI, WAKE UP!

SHERI: (screams, sits up, sees BRIDGER, and continues to scream) OH, GOD, I've been writing too much . . . I've lost my mind! (Thinks for a moment.)

BRIDGER: (crosses arms and raises eyebrows in a classic "oh?" expression)

SHERI: Oh . . . that's right. I never had it to begin with . . . (With that, our poor AUTHOR whacks herself over the head until she finally falls asleep, the BRIDGER IMP studiously ignored)

And now, we return to our poor friends aboard the Infinity, who are scurrying helplessly in search of our two heroes . . .

Captain Nathan Bridger glared at the reports in front of him: Nothing, nothing, nothing! The sensor readouts, the transporter reports . . . none of it indicated any fluctuations, any anomalies, any anything that might help them find their missing crew members. It was frustrating. He had the best crew in the Fleet. He had one of the finest ships in the Fleet. He had the best minds, the best scientists in the Fleet frantically scurrying for answers—and yet there were none. Lucas Wolenczak and Ben Krieg had just disappeared without a trace.

His comm badge beeped, and he growled. With an impatient mutter, he touched the golden badge and snapped, "Bridger here."

Lieutenant Commander Katherine Hitchcock’s voice rang back at him, undeterred by his snap. "Sir, we just received an inter-dimensional signal. It appears to have come from Krieg’s di-corder, though how on earth he managed to work this calculation on a di-corder is well beyond me . . ."

Bridger shook his head, already out of his seat and steaming towards the bridge. "Does the signal seem legitimate?"

"Aye, sir." There was a short pause, then, "It matches Krieg’s di-corder frequency."

"I’m on my way." Actually, he was half way there already. "Bridger out."

As Bridger practically barreled into the turbolift to the bridge, he let out a sigh of relief. With luck, they’d be getting their two crew members back soon. There’d been no end of grief over this catastrophe. Noyce had been down his throat about Lucas; Commander Hitchcock had been screaming about Krieg, her ex-husband; people were afraid to use the transporter, fearing a similar fate. He himself had felt terrible about both disappearances. Admittedly, he and Krieg weren’t the best of friends—actually, he couldn’t think of anyone who called Krieg a "best buddy"—but the man could certainly supply the ship well. He was also a good officer, if a bit unorthodox in procedures. And Lucas . . . Nathan had felt awful about the teenager’s disappearance. The poor kid had already faced his father’s fists; he didn’t need to face this on top of it. He’d also been looking forward to talking science with the kid. He sure as hell didn’t want to put Lucas’s name in the ranks of the permanently missing in action.

The bridge was a flurry of activity as he sprung from the turbolift towards his command chair. Katherine Hitchcock quickly stepped aside, handing him a datapadd as she did so. He scanned the data, eyes brightening as he, too, agreed with Katie’s assessment: This was certainly coming from Ben’s di-corder. "Well, Commander, you’re exactly right. This seems to be the Lieutenant’s. Is Commander Ford down in transporting?"

"Aye, sir. He wanted to run the figures a few times. Dr. Westphalen is with him." p> "Good. Thank you, Commander." He tapped his comm badge, routing it through to transport control. "Commander? Any luck?"

A brief pause, then, "Aye, sir . . . or we think so, at least. Dr. Westphalen has ran the numbers through the computer about five times. They appear to work exactly to the last detail."

"Very good. Doctor?"

"Yes, Nathan, they seem to work quite well. I’m still not sure how Ben managed to come up with these numbers, but not even the computer could have scaled them as well. I’m going to have to have a talk with Mr. Krieg, I believe, when he gets back . . ."

"I wouldn’t get too excited, Doctor. I doubt the Lieutenant was the mind behind these numbers."

A pause, then, "Oh?"

"You forget he’s not alone. He’s with Lucas Wolenczak, who, from what I understand, is more than capable of producing such figures." Bridger paused, smiling slightly. He could almost hear the wheels of Kristin’s mind spinning from here. "Is it safe, then, to try transporting them back over?"

There was a heavy silence, then, "Nathan, if they’re wrong—if Mr. Wolenczak has even erred slightly . . ." Nathan tried not to snort at Kristin calling Lucas "mister," for she obviously didn’t know how young the boy really was. ". . . If this happens, they’ll be killed immediately."

Startled, Nathan blinked quickly, listening as she explained about temporal mechanics and the result of any error—no matter how slight. He swallowed hard, then asked softly, "Do you believe the settings are correct?"

"Yes. Yes, I believe the numbers are right."

He inhaled deeply, frowning. For a moment, he ran a hand over his chin. He finally said, try to push his misgivings aside, "Then we’ll do it. Wait until I’m there with you, though."

"Understood."

His stomach tight, Bridger left the bridge to Katie—who watched him with frightened, worried eyes—and hurried to transport control.

~~*~~

Bridger flew into transport control, ignoring the startled gazes swinging his way. He simply looked towards Dr. Westphalen as he arrived smack in front of her. "Well, ready?"

She scowled, shaking her head over his preposterously childlike behavior. The man was captain of one of the Fleet’s fastest ships, and he still acted like a child of eight or nine years! From what she’d seen of Admiral Noyce, Bridger’s boss and good friend, the man was just as bad. In the Academy, the two had often been reprimanded for practical jokes; now, since they were both in command positions, it seemed that those practical jokes got sillier with each year.

And to make things worse—as if their jokes weren’t bad enough—both men tended to bring their executive staffs into the practical jokes, too . . . willingly or unwillingly. She often wondered if silly dispositions and childlike antics were necessary prerequisites for command. At least, this seemed to be the case with the Fleet officers she'd known.

However, she also liked him—like a moth to fire, she often thought. His antics, his enthusiasm for life: these were all qualities she found precious in this man of incredible political and military clout. Of course, she’d never say this to him. Oh, no—never. She’d already had one failed marriage; she wasn’t planning on becoming "involved" with such a man as Captain Nathan Hale Bridger. While he had never had a divorce, Bridger was still a grieving widower. Five years back, Caroline Bridger had died and he’d secluded himself from the rest of the world until a position with the Fleet was offered to him on the very vessel he’d designed. Kristin sighed. Bringing together two people with a history for tortured romances? No, it just simply would never work. It was an impossible idea. So . . . they were at a stalemate Kristin never intended to pass: he still believed she thought him the devil incarnate and she still stayed as far from him as humanly possible. But now was not the time for thinking about Bridger and failed romances. With an annoyed shake of her head, Kristin returned her mind to the possible catastrophe awaiting them. She nodded in response to Bridger’s question. They were, all things considered, as ready as they ever would be. With a weary sigh, Kristin quietly entered the last string of commands to initiate the transporter, then waited, her stomach twisted into knots, for what was to follow . . . whatever that might be.

A shimmer, then a yowling, screeching hiss reverberated through the room. Kristin’s nerves tightened, and she blinked with horror. Two figures formed in the static of the transport beam: the first figure, tall and dark-haired, was reaching franticly for the hand of the second figure. Kristin gulped at what she saw. The second figure seemed to be . . . stretching, as if caught between something she couldn’t see.

Then the shimmer began to fade, to dissolve.

Oh, God.

"Tighten control. Phase out the ion interference!" Bridger snapped. Commander Ford ignored the rudeness, quickly following Bridger’s directions. Slowly, the shimmer came back into focus—as did the outline of a claw as it caught at the wrist of the slimmer of the two forms. Kristin thought she heard a cry of pain, but wasn’t certain; the sounds were simply too distorted.

Slowly, the transporter light disappeared. One disembodied form coalesced into flesh and immediately toppled to the floor. Blood puddled around his right arm.

But the second of the two figures disappeared.

Part 7

[Scene: a tiny, overheated, over-packed office. Computer books and computer parts scatter across the floor; the computer parts are the cannibalized parts of old computers being reassembled into a sort of Frankenstein Computer, its wires tangled and hanging everywhere. On the wall is a DART BOARD. Pasted on each of the dart board’s slices is a small piece of paper. On each piece of paper is a scrawled note. We see the words on two of these slips of paper as we approach: note one reads, The Klingon Empire is secretly in league with the aliens abducting Lucas—they hope to declare war on the Federation and note two reads, The Klingon Empire is secretly at war with the aliens abducting Lucas—they hope the aliens are both colorblind and stupid and will somehow manage to overlook the obvious fact that Lucas isn’t Klingon.

In the small office, standing in the entrance, is SHERI, the author of this whacky work. Behind her is assembled the various CAST and CREW of her story, "Infinity." At this point in time, they are clearly divided into factions: the seaQuest crew versus the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager crews. Wild, obnoxious cheering is heard from both factions.]

SHERI: (glares at her characters) All right, all right! Will you guys just settle down! (Stretches her dart arm, limbering up for the final throw) Yikes, you’d think none of you have anything better to do than stand around haunting me! (Thinks about it for a moment, then sighs) Of course, I know, I know . . . since you’re all figments of my imagination anyway, you don’t have anything better to do.

CHIEF MILES O’BRIEN: (ale in hand) Oh, just throw the blarmy old dart, will ya’? You’re taking longer than Julian, even!

DR. JULIAN BASHIR: (offended pout on his face) Hey, I have a reputation to uphold, you know! I have my standards! After all, I’m genetically enhanced and at the peak of my performance . . .

(Breaks off as he sees everyone—seaQuest crew included—mimicking his words, as if in rehearsal) But it’s true, you know! It is!

TOM PARIS, NOW-ENSIGN BUT ONE-TIME LIEUTENANT: (rolling those gorgeous blue eyes of his) Oh, please . . . someone gag him, will ya’?

ENGINEER B’ELANNA TORRES: (grinning wickedly, pulling out a gag that mysteriously appears out of a space anomaly just when she needs it) Oh, come here, cutie . . .

[BASHIR runs in terror. TORRES chases him, still grinning wickedly.]

SHERI: (aside, muttering to self) My imagination and I really have to have a talk about this . . .

BRIDGER: (looking curiously at his crew) Are you sure that wasn't LONNIE?

[As one, the group shudders.]

KRISTIN: (shakes head) No, LONNIE was found to be a succubus. Don’t you remember, Nathan . . . (stops herself, then flushes a nice red) . . . Oh, no, of course you don’t remember . . . you were . . . otherwise occupied with the succubus herself. (Kristin shudders with the rest of the seaQuest crew)

SHERI: (trying to bring some order back, whistles) Hey, folks! Remember me?

[BASHIR and TORRES race past, TORRES now cooing at the fleeing doctor.]

SHERI: (shakes head, as if to clear it of a bad nightmare. Raises voice and waves her arms for everyone's attention) Hello? Anyone listening out there? (Frustrated, SHERI starts to throw the darts at BASHIR and TORRES. They simply ignore the little winged projectiles and keep on running) We were here to find out the next plot twist . . .

LUCAS: (more interested in BASHIR and TORRES as he sees TORRES is now wielding a pair of scissors) Where’d she get the scissors? (Grinning, he then seems to think of another question) Hey, even better . . . what’s she gonna do with those scissors?

[Everyone gulps as unquestionably kinky images hit their minds . . . ]

SHERI: (audible groan) I give up! You characters are more insane than I am!

And with that, let us return to our hero, who is currently in the Clawed Clutches of the Evil Gray Aliens . . .

Darkness.

Vaguely, out of the darkness that was his mind, Lucas remembered a claw: a sharp-taloned, gray claw, reaching out of a cave to grab him. His sluggish mind stopped there, puzzled. No, there was even more. The claw had reached out of a cave wall to grab him—as if the wall had never existed, as if it weren’t solid stone. The wall had actually melted, sizzling (Lucas thought rather inappropriately that it had sizzled like bacon); but rocks simply didn’t sizzle. Rocks didn’t melt into puddles on the floor. Impossible, his mind responded. But the impossible was apparently possible in this strange frozen wasteland.

Pain burned into his memory, and the strange, distorted images disappeared . . . only to be replaced by darkness yet again. Eyes shut as darkness cloaked him, Lucas heard sounds . . . strange, sibilant sounds that sent chills through his body. A hiss echoed beside his ear, then a higher pitched near-cackle. Lucas shivered. But at least these were sounds, which were far better than the silence of his mind.

A shuffling noise sounded to his right. He felt something scrape across his wrist.

And then his world once more faded into nothingness.

~~*~~

Some time later, the blackness cleared. Lucas carefully, warily, opened his eyes. He inhaled and exhaled, simply concentrating on his breathing: on living. He was alive. Somehow, he had survived . . . whatever had happened.

He frowned.

So . . . why was he still alive? And who—what—had taken him? Pondering these questions, Lucas cautiously tried to move.

But found he couldn’t.

Panic struck, gnawing at his insides until full-blown terror raced through his mind. Lucas forced his eyes to make some sort of sense of the strange images surrounding him. As his eyes gradually began to refocus, Lucas frowned at what he saw. Where the hell could he be? Strange, tubular black . . . rope-like things . . . hung from what looked like a cave ceiling, the tentacle-like tubes draping over one another, crossing this way and that in a labyrinth of equally strange twists and turns. The air was strangely chilled, almost freezing. Long slabs of gray, perhaps about eight feet each, lined the chamber or cavern—or whatever it was—he was in, each slab encased by shimmering blue transparent covers . . .

Lucas’s eyebrows suddenly shot near the top of his hairline. It would seem that he, too, was lying upon one of these gray slabs, for he could see the glowing glass-like substance extending over his head and past his sight. What was this . . . an alien coffin? Did they believe him dead? Lucas’s overly vivid imagination suddenly began to overtake his senses as numerous dark, sinister possibilities flooded his mind. Was it some sort of torture chamber where recalcitrant prisoners were locked beneath glass-like sheets and—shocked or stunned or pulverized by any variety of instruments? Did they plan to use that pain-inducing . . . stuff . . . to torment him again: the alien alchemy that had sent his blood screaming throughout his body? Were they planning to bury him alive? Or maybe . . . maybe they were planning to dissect him . . .?

He shivered violently, tearing at the bindings holding him in place. He’d always wanted to meet an alien or two, a race that had never encountered humanoid species before; however, this wasn’t exactly what he’d had in mind.

Pulling uselessly at his bindings, Lucas suddenly wondered . . . what did these strange creatures eat?

As he began to picture himself sizzling in the alien version of barbecue sauce, Lucas would have jumped in shock if he could move at all as a loud thump sounded above him. Quickly, he looked up, eyes blinking.

A dark, black-eyed, gray-skinned, heavily-robed figure caught his eye.

Hell.

He watched, terrified, as the alien tugged at the glassy shielding above him, then removed it with one clear sweep. As the creature leaned over him, its black eyes glittering at him—entirely incomprehensible to Lucas as he lay looking up at it helplessly—Lucas half expected the creature to try to eat him. But, instead, the creature reached down towards him. Involuntarily, Lucas flinched, expecting torture, interrogation, whatever. Surely something unpleasant.

Carefully, the black-eyed alien paused, then continued reaching towards him. Its movements were now much more cautious. Softly, it spoke in hissing words to him—words that Lucas could not hope to understand. It moved its claws in time to the rhythmic, patterned speech; the creature’s speech seemed a complicated dance of words and movements. Still both moving carefully and hissing softly at Lucas, the alien unhooked several tubes from around Lucas’s wrists and feet.

"Zy zadorri sassin-hi amorass’ka," spoke the creature. "Na’hidri zamorre. Morakkon lyoshka." Lucas thought he saw what looked like an expectant expression on the alien’s face, but he couldn’t imagine for the life of him what he was expected to do. The words uttered at him were entirely incomprehensible to his human ear. As Lucas continued to stare back at the dark alien without comprehension, it made what Lucas could only identify as a cackling noise, then quickly gestured for him to sit up by waving its claws in an upward gesture.

This gesture Lucas understood. He quickly complied, again allowing his gaze to slide around him.

The place gave him the creeps.

However, as two other aliens dressed in a skin-like, scale-covered, glittering green material made of the strangest substance Lucas had ever seen arrived, Lucas wished he could simply stay where he was, creepy or not.

The newly arrived aliens in green seemed to have other ideas. They mercilessly hauled Lucas to his feet without any hesitation, hissed something at the creature in black robes, then dragged Lucas with them, their claws digging into his skin. Lucas winced, but continued to follow, scrambling his feet after the tall creatures. Something about these two aliens made Lucas think he couldn't afford to upset them. They were sinister. Their faces were as if carved from the rock itself: unmoving, unemotional, uncompromising. The eyes--the eyes were enough to shake Lucas to the core. They were cold, measuring. They were calculating.

Lucas had seen eyes like that in human beings. He'd quickly learned to avoid the people who owned them.

Onwards their trek continued. The growing knot in his stomach twisted as Lucas saw that their brisk pace was leading him steadily downward, deeper and deeper within the ground. He swallowed hard. Damn. Hell, he silently cursed. His wrist ached as one of the aliens tugged at it, its cruel onyx eyes piercing straight through his fear. Hell and damnation. Lucas quickly obeyed the creature’s unspoken command to walk faster, faster, faster; he was almost positive his wrist would snap if he didn’t.

Further they continued into the inhospitable frozen ground’s underbelly, a general sense of foreboding settling on Lucas the deeper they went.

~~*~~

Four Characters in Search of a Story:

A "Slight" Revision of the Original*

[SCENE: Mos Eisley Space Port. Strange aliens hanging around everywhere, drinking, reveling, and generally having an obnoxiously good time. In the corner sits SHERI, who has, miraculously, looked up from her keyboard to find herself transported in time and place from 20th century Anchorage, Alaska, to . . . well, here.]

[Entree FOUR CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF A STORY. They gaze quickly around the bar, then hone in on SHERI; immediately, they march towards her cubicle.]

LUKE SKYWALKER: (dressed as he originally was in Star Wars--desert clothing, hair hanging in his face . . . kind of like a Tatooine-born Lucas Wolenczak. Nervous shifting of feet) Hey, word around town is that you're writing a story. We were thinking . . . that is, we were wondering . . . (thinks for a moment. Wonders exactly how BEN KENOBI did this originally) Uh . . . we need a . . . err . . .

HAN SOLO: (shakes head, then leans in towards me, grinning like--well, like a scoundrel, of course) What the kid is trying to say not so well is that we're lookin' for a story. We hear you're writin' one. Interested?

SHERI: (still staring, trying to make this strange scene disappear from her computer) Looking . . . you say you're looking for a story? (Nonplussed) How can you be looking for a story? You're already in one . . .

PRINCESS LEIA: (looks knowingly at LUKE and HAN) Hey, Neanderthal-brains, I told you she wouldn't get it, didn't I? (LUKE and HAN roll eyes)

HAN SOLO: (aside) Knew I should have left Her Royal Perfectness in her cell . . .

PRINCESS LEIA: (pretending to ignore one of the said Neanderthal-brains as she jabs him in the ribs) It's like this. We're characters. We need a plot . . . p> SHERI: (shakes head) But . . . you already have a plot. You're only the most famous characters since . . . gees, since Noah!

LUKE SKYWALKER: That was until . . . (looks around, cringes) Phantom Menace. Now everyone's talking about Obi and Qui--never about us anymore!

DARTH VADER: (one hand hooked into his belt, the other caressing his lightsaber. His black mask is implacable as I continue to stare stupidly at him and his companions. His words are spoken in a deep, carefully controlled voice) You, writer, have a plot. We must have that plot. (Leans in threateningly) Now would be a good time to reconsider . . .

LUKE SKYWALKER: Hey, Darth . . . (leans in towards VADER and whispers) You're supposed to be on the good side now, remember?

DARTH VADER: (hissing) Read the script, Skywalker! This scene predates Return of the Jedi. (Turns back to me) I wouldn't want to teach you a lesson, now, would I?

SHERI: (swallows hard, remembering the rather fast rate of promotion on Empire ships**)

HAN SOLO: (trying to recreate any spirit of cooperation that may have been lost with VADER's words) Hey, look on the bright side . . . we're fully developed, rounded characters. We have histories prefabricated for your convenience. We even come equipped with the Millenium Falcon. What more could you ask for?

SHERI: (considers their words, then shakes head) But this is a seaQuest, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine crossover. There's no Star Wars here. Look . . . (picks up script) Do you see your names written anywhere here?

DARTH VADER: (pushing forward, pulls out lightsaber and leans in towards me. His right fist is lifted to emphasize his words) But you don't know the power of the Dark Side of the Force. Join me, and together we will rule the Galaxy as Character and Author . . . (stops, reconsiders--this is a bad plan for his royalties. He changes tactics) Resistance is Futile. You will be assimilated . .

. [At this point, SHERI, HAN SOLO, LUKE SKYWALKER, and PRINCESS LEIA all stare at DARTH VADER like he's lost his mind somewhere within that mask of his.]

PRINCESS LEIA: (nudges DARTH VADER) Hey, Bucket-Head, you're reading from the wrong script . . .

DARTH VADER: (again leaning towards me) I could make the perfect ELF agent!***

PRINCESS LEIA: (rudely interrupting as she fixes one of her cinnamon bun hair rolls) Oh, great! Now he's confusing Star Wars with Christmas!

DARTH VADER: (ignores her) I could torture LUCAS WOLENCZAK with style, with finesse . . .

LUCAS WOLENCZAK: (voice heard from offstage) Hey . . . wait a second here! Who said anything about DARTH VADER torturing me?! (Beats on the wall) It's not in the contract, SHERI!

[As various characters start arguing at the same time, SHERI decides she really needs a drink around now . . . then, reconsidering, decides the last thing she really needs right now is a drink! Instead, she shuts her portable computer down, hoping the characters will just simply . . . disappear. However, this hope quickly fades: they're still standing in front of her.]

LUCAS WOLENCZAK: (voice again heard from offstage) All right, already! Could you start the show? (Grumbles to self) Gees, SHERI, I've been left at the hands of wicked aliens for more than a week now . . .

[SHERI, sighing, relents and begins the story . . . well, the other story not involving VADER et al.]

Darth Vader and ELVES?

Isn't that Illegal?!

And with that, let us return to our hero, who now thinks he is part of Alice in Wonderland . . .

~~*~~

Lucas didn't like the way things were going--at all. His two alien escorts were steadily leading him deeper and deeper into the ground. As they continued to march downwards, Lucas saw that the level of light was decreasing. While the areas above had strange, glowing green lights that lit the dark path, down here . . . there was almost nothing.

It was also becoming increasingly cold. Lucas shivered, wishing he'd had a jacket or a sweater--or something--when this whole mess began. He could only hope that Ben, his companion for several hours before Lucas's own abduction, had managed to escape. If not, Lucas feared the lieutenant might be a frozen corpse by now.

He shuddered at the idea, a multitude of depressing images wandering through his mind. As he imagined himself being gobbled alive by hungry aliens while Ben Krieg slowly transformed into a Popsicle in the frozen wastelands of this planet, Lucas simply wished he knew . . . well, how to do anything he needed to do to escape his current predicament. He didn't have a weapon; however, Lucas was fairly certain he might shoot himself in the foot rather than an alien, for he'd never handled a phaser in his life. His father had never allowed him near one, saying that only adults should possess weapons to defend themselves. Trekking behind the leathery backs of his captors, Lucas silently snorted over this idea: yeah, like he'd ever had to defend himself against anyone other than his own father, the man who'd declared himself the perfect holder of phasers and firepower. Wasn't life all too ironic sometimes?

Lucas forced his mind back to the problem at hand, mentally eyeing the area for escape routes, for anything that might help him flee this . . . place. And fleeing was the best option. Without question, Lucas knew--somehow knew--that he needed to get away from these twisted paths, from this seemingly endless cavern with tunnels meandering into nowhere, as soon as possible. This place was dangerous. Lucas brushed his hands unconsciously against the back of his arms, then was startled to discover every hair was standing straight on end. He pushed back the sudden fear, the sudden panic, that tore through his mind; no, he couldn't afford to slip into a panic attack. He couldn't afford to lose what little control of his life he now possessed. That fragile control might very well mean the difference between life and death, for him--or even for Ben. They continued on. Lucas silently followed his escort, his mind still racing. No, he didn't have the weapons he needed to fight these creatures off . . . whatever their intentions might be. At this point, he couldn't even begin to imagine what they wanted with him. For a moment, when he'd opened his eyes and looked at the black-robed creature in the strange room with gray slabs, Lucas had thought that he might have some hope. The creature hadn't looked at him with hate or malice, just with curiosity and concern.

However, these two creatures were an entirely different matter.

Lucas had detected nothing in their eyes: no emotions, no thoughts . . . nothing. This frightened him more than seeing pure hate seething in those black orbs. At least that way, he'd know what he was up against. But with this . . . Lucas had no idea what these beings thought. And since they were his current holders, he also had no idea what they might do with him.

He suddenly felt a jab in his right shoulder, then looked up to see one of his escorts waving him to a dark tunnel slithering to his right. Lucas swallowed hard, then entered the tunnel, wishing he could see where he was going. The only thing that kept him from running into the walls was the small light globe held by one of his guards. The globe was a sort of purple color. As Lucas looked at it, his scientist's mind warring with his survivalist instincts, Lucas wondered how on earth the light managed to work. It simply looked like a circle of light hovering over a black bar, with several inches worth of empty air between the bar and the globe of light. Hmmm . . . how could the energy for the light travel . . .

Again, Lucas was pushed forward as his mind wandered from the scene around him. He blinked, then tried to focus all his attention to his surroundings. He found this not overly difficult, for the creatures kept--looking at him. The looks were frightening, too, for, again, Lucas couldn't interpret them. He couldn't understand them. They were beyond his comprehension, alien expressions and gestures untranslatable in his human context. The only gesture that had translated into perfect Federation Standard was the shove the beings gave him now and then when he managed to drift off their prescribed route.

Part 8

What seemed an hour's worth of time (but may actually have been only minutes) later, Lucas found himself being pulled by his hair. Flinching, he held back a furious curse of frustration as he was hauled straight from the tunnel past some door on the side of the tunnel. Tears brimmed in his eyes as the alien continued to pull him forward, his hair ruthlessly bound to the creature's claws. Something swished open, only to close with a jarring thump. He then felt himself thrown bodily into a hole. With no warning, Lucas tumbled down a long pathway of broken ground, almost like a slide made of sharp rock. Pain jolted through his body as he continued to tumble. As the reckless journey downwards continued, Lucas felt rocks tear into his skin; his bones ached cruelly as one bone after the other struck against hard, unforgiving, unyielding rock.

With a surprised grunt, Lucas landed on the ground, limbs sprawled helplessly in every direction, much like a broken tree. He lay huddled on the ground, trying to catch his breath . . . simply lying there for several seconds.

Breathe in, breathe out, he silently coached himself. In, out. In, out. See? No trick to it. After several seconds of mental training, Lucas swallowed hard; he had to move sooner or later. He'd prefer sooner rather than later. So . . . carefully, he tried moving his arms, only to wince in sharp pain. Oh, God, that hurt. That hurt!

He closed his eyes. Relaxation, calmness: that's what he needed right now.

Unfortunately, those very two qualities seemed about the last two things Lucas could obtain right now.

Slowly, he tried moving his other arm. It wasn't quite as bad . . . just a twinge or two of pain.

That was a good sign. Lucas sighed, hoping to the heavens that the rest of his body might be in a similar condition.

Okay, it was time to move the leg now. Again, Lucas swallowed hard, then began to move his right leg . . . not too bad yet. Good . . . just a bit more . . .

Then he heard a noise behind him; all thoughts of simple pain fled. He whirled around, blue eyes wide against pale skin.

"Hi, there," a voice whispered on the right side of his elbow. Lucas could see what looked like a golden uniform almost entirely submerged in the darkness. A vague hint of light traced down from some unseen location; Lucas supposed the light could actually be coming from the hole he'd been thrown into, but he couldn't be entirely sure.

Lucas stared, then blinked, trying to assure himself this man was truly there. He sure seemed real enough. As the figure approached him, Lucas continued to stare. His thoughts became increasingly skeptical. This was all a part of his imagination. It simply wasn't happening. How could there be another Starfleet officer stuck in the same position as he was?

Like it or not, though, the man was truly there--and he was also, quite obviously, Starfleet.

The man knelt at Lucas's side, looking at him with large, concerned eyes. Lucas stared at the man, vaguely noticing the orange curly hair and hazel eyes. Who the hell was this? Another shipmate from the Infinity? If so, Lucas was beginning to think the Infinity was the voyage of the damned on a one-way trip to hell itself.

"I'm Miles O'Brien," the man stated, leaning in towards Lucas and lowering his voice. He glanced around them, clearly suspecting aliens were lurking in the background. "I'm Chief Engineer on Deep Space Nine. Who're you? Are you all right?"

"Uh . . . Lucas Wolenczak. And . . .yeah, I guess I'm still in one piece," Lucas whispered. He glanced up towards the ceiling, then back at the Chief. "I just was . . . pushed through some hole in the roof. I fell into this place . . . wherever it is." Lucas blinked, then shook his head. He was beginning to wonder if he was in Alice in Wonderland or something. Falling through holes, people appearing out of nowhere, aliens . . . well, Lewis Carroll might not have had aliens, but it was close enough for Lucas's judgment. He frowned, his brow furrowing. "Do you know where we are?"

O'Brien sighed, sitting beside Lucas and shaking his head. He looked back at Lucas. "No idea. I was hoping you might know." The Chief shrugged.

Silence passed between them. They stared at one another. Finally, Lucas managed, "How . . . how long have you been here? I mean, in this . . . cave?"

For a moment, O'Brien left the question unanswered. He sighed. "Longer than I'd care to count." He drew a few random lines in the dirt, then looked back at Lucas. "Probably about a week or so. I was transporting to a planet near DS9, when . . . I arrived on this planet instead . . ."

Lucas's eyes widened. "Yeah, same thing here." He paused, suddenly nervous. There was a definite trend here--and one he didn't like in the least bit. "What happened next?"

"Well, probably like you, I got caught by . . . these creatures. I was walking around near a cave, and bang, out of nowhere, these creatures just . . . my honor on it . . . they melted out of the stinkin' cave walls!" O'Brien shook his head, looking to Lucas to see if the boy thought he'd lost his mind.

But Lucas only shook his head. "Yeah, I saw that, too. Weirdest thing I've ever seen."

After a relieved sigh, O'Brien continued, "Well . . . next I knew, I was being dragged--rather unwillingly, I might add--through these dark tunnels. Lord only knows where we are now. Anyway, they tossed me in here, and . . . here I am."

Lucas silently pondered O'Brien's words, watching as the man pushed dirty hands through his hair. He finally sighed, getting O'Brien's attention once more. He cleared his throat. "Do you . . . do you know why we're here? I mean . . . what have they . . . done to you since you've been here?"

At Lucas's question, O'Brien paled.

Lucas steeled himself for the worst.

"Lucas, have you ever heard of the Chain Gangs that used to be normal practice on earth?"

Oh, hell, it was worse than he thought. Lucas nodded, shivering as he did so.

"Well, my boy, we're part of one now. Like it or not." O'Brien shook his head, irritation obvious in the tightness of his shoulders. He glared at one of the walls. "They've been coming in about once a Standard day, marching me off to some . . . place in the middle of nowhere. While there, I work: non-stop. There are others there--humans, a few Klingons, a few species I've never seen, even some Cardies . . ." O'Brien sneered the last word, his lip twisting up slightly. Lucas didn't need to consult his imagination to see that O'Brien didn't like Cardassians. "Anyhow, we work until they gesture for us to stop. If we don't, we get clobbered over the head, or . . . scraped along the vein with one of their claws." Lucas shivered from a chill completely unassociated with the cold. He remembered that claw all too well; it'd hurt like hell. Lucas figured it was a remarkable capture device, for he'd been incapable of moving for a long stretch of time; he imagined it was just as potent a discipline tool.

Softly, he asked, "Why are they using us?" As O'Brien stared at him, not understanding his question, Lucas simply shook his head. He tried again. "I mean, why us? Why take the time to . . . kidnap . . . us? It seems like a lot of work for a helping hand."

O'Brien silently stared at him; finally, he looked away, the silence stretching Lucas's already taut nerves almost beyond endurance. His voice was hushed when he at last replied, "Because we're expendable, Lucas. Expendable."

Hearing this, Lucas stared at his new companion, then shut his eyes.

Expendability certainly didn't bode well for their future. He wondered, briefly, how long it took a prisoner to move from expendable to dead.

~~*~~

[SCENE: Back stage of an auditorium. Popcorn litters the floor, crumpled cups pour out of an overfilled garbage can, and the smell of overcooked butter permeates the air. Slowly, a FIGURE appears in our view . . . He is hammering at a door as we focus on his face: dark hair, dark eyes, annoyed frown.]

BRIDGER: I know you’re in there. You might as well give up. (Listens to only silence. Shifts feet) C’mon, Krieg. I don’t have all day.

KRIEG: (Voice heard from off stage. His voice is muffled) No. (Pauses) You can’t make me.

BRIDGER: (Sighing, then rolling his eyes, as if asking the gods "why me?") Oh, please, Krieg . . . this is ridiculous. We’ve got work to do. Lots of it. (Thinks for a moment) You know you can’t stay in here forever. There aren’t any cheeseburgers in there. You’ll die of cheeseburger starvation if you don’t come out now.

KRIEG: (Groaning. The Captain had a point) Cheeseburger starvation is probably better than whatever it is you’re gonna’ do to me once I get out of here . . .

BRIDGER: And what do you think I’m going to do to you, Krieg? Eat you alive?

KRIEG: (Muttering) You might, at that . . . (Clears throat, raises voice as he hears BRIDGER’S exasperated sigh) You’re going to Read Me the Bridger Specialized Riot Act, in a loud, obnoxious voice made just for me . . .

BRIDGER: (Innocently) Me? Read you the Riot Act? Never. [The door is suddenly thrown open. BRIDGER sees KRIEG’S holding a large, heavily bound leather TOME OF DOOM in his hands. BRIDGER waits curiously as KRIEG saunters out, dragging the immense TOME with him]

KRIEG: (hefting the TOME up, huffing and puffing from the effort) Look, sir . . . here’re the rules. (Opens TOME; several layers of dust fly away and he coughs. Finally spots what he’s looking for and whoops triumphantly) See? Here’s Section VI, Sub-Section 10.a, Paragraph 3.111.54. And I quote: "If at any time LUCAS WOLENCZAK is for any reason and by any hand injured, and if at that same time BENJAMIN KRIEG is vaguely within the remote vicinity of the said injury, though the remote vicinity may be within light years of the injured party . . ."

KRIEG: (Looks meaningfully at BRIDGER, who is studiously studying his shoes) " . . . if this shall at any time happen (and, as a general rule of chance and probability, it shall happen in most circumstances), then The Most Honorable and Trustworthy . . ." (KRIEG tries not to snort at this) ". . . Captain BRIDGER shall in all due haste and concern, in all wrath and ire, proceed to declare KRIEG a direct and Necessary Cause of the injury. He shall then read BENJAMIN KRIEG the Official, Full, Uncensored, Undiluted, Unadulterated, Unabridged, Heated, Twenty-Minutes-or-More Captain BRIDGER Riot Act."

[BRIDGER runs a hand along his chin, trying to forget the script SHERI has just handed him.]

KRIEG: (Looks at BRIDGER, pointing at the infamous paragraph) See? It’s there! In the ELF Writer’s Code of Honor itself!

[BRIDGER looks away guiltily as KRIEG is hauled on stage by unseen forces . . . He then sighs as he rehearses his Official, Full, Uncensored, etc., etc., Riot Act]

And with that, let us return to poor Ben Krieg, who is about to face The Wrath of Westphalen . . .

From somewhere inside his fuzzy brain, Lieutenant Benjamin Krieg, junior officer and highly imaginative supply officer, heard a groan of pain--immense pain, in fact. As he heard the sound, he looked towards it, wanting to know who could be in so much pain. He was startled to discover that the groan had come from his own throat when another moan forced its way past his lips.

Lord Almighty, what . . . Krieg choked on the thought . . . what had he done now?

Judging by the pain even now exploding through his skull, Krieg had a pretty good idea of what he’d done. He thought he even recalled some of it: not a lot, of course, but some of it. Yeah, he remembered something about . . . a woman, perhaps . . . maybe two . . .

He moved his head, then moaned once more as the pain turned into a heated vise circling his brain, squeezing ever-so-slowly until, finally, his brain squished into pulp. Oh, God . . . and from the way it was feeling now, Ben was sure his brain was about to reach pulp stage.

Man, what had he done? He couldn’t have drunk that much booze, now could he have?

As he thought of the likelihood of such a possibility, Ben cringed. Bridger was going to kill him. Bridger was going to sew his skin into a new rug for his Ready Room. At the very least, Bridger would send him for a long dive from his current Lieutenant’s rank right down to Ensign . . . no, Ensign wouldn’t do it . . . probably Crewman . . .

Why was it he could only clearly see the wisdom of following Bridger’s orders when he was already in boiling water? Speaking of Bridger’s orders . . . though his brain right now couldn’t remember much of what had happened in the past twenty-four hours, Ben could remember all too well what had happened last month. Even now, it made his stomach churn. He didn’t think he’d ever seen Bridger so . . . well, angry didn’t even begin to cover it. Pissed. Rankled. Ready to murder.

So Ben had engaged in a little . . . private enterprise? What was the big deal? It wasn’t as if he’d ripped anyone off--well, not really.

They’d been on a planet off in the middle of nowhere-land, doing their regular boring work: charting a few new territories for the Federation databanks. It had been about as unchallenging an assignment as Krieg could recall; hell, he’d take a fight with the Borg over another assignment like that one. Anyhow, he’d been doing his share of remedial work--recording this, measuring that, trying to look interested in a few gray rocks--when something had captured his attention.

Riveted his attention, in fact.

Nestled in the harsh grasp of several rocks had been a glowing, gem-like stone. The native residents of the planet called the stone umak. Krieg called it his one-way ticket to the private pleasure dome he’d always dreamed of on Risa, the planet of love and lovers. He could picture it even now: his own pleasure dome to rival anything seen across the galaxies, women everywhere, hot, simmering weather . . .

Needless to say, Ben’s opportunity-seeking fingers had itched for umak. After contacting several shady and highly disreputable sources, he’d managed to buy several loads of the stones for next to nothing. Bingo: he’d been on the road to wealth, fortune beyond his wildest imagination . . .

And then he’d been caught--not only caught, but caught with his opportunity-seeking fingers right on the goods. To make matters worse, he’d been caught by none other than Commander Ford, the upholder of propriety and decorum.

With the exception of food and water, Ben’s hide had been canned for two days before anyone had bothered seeing him in the Brig. On the third day, in had stomped Captain Bridger, heat blazing from his eyes and scorching Ben upon contact. Ben had swallowed hard. Well, after a long "conversation" in which Bridger had ranted and raved and Krieg had obligingly listened, Ben had been left in the Brig for five more days, then allowed out. He’d had to personally return each and every umak stone purchased from the planet and its overly generous residents, explaining in detail to anyone who asked what, exactly, he’d done. That had been Part One of the Bridger Penalty Plan. Part Two had entailed writing each and every one of Bridger’s reports--all two hundred of them. Ben swore Bridger had invented reports just for him. However, Part Three had been the worst duty of all: Cleaning Detail. Bridger had deactivated the self-cleaning function on board the ship, then had smiled brightly his way. So, for the next three weeks, Ben had cleaned and scrubbed, scrubbed and cleaned, the hallways of the usually self-cleaning Infinity, his dreams of a pleasure palace steadily slipping away . . .

Finally, only yesterday, Bridger had decided Ben had paid his dues. He’d released him of the Bridger Penalty Plan, allowing him--most graciously--to join the rest of the crew as they went on a short shore leave to the M-Class planet Myomra. That day, Ben had been scrubbing Deck Four (for the hundredth time) when Bridger had called him to his Ready Room. Ben had arrived to find Bridger fairly shouting down at him with yet another Bridger Lecture. But this one had been different, for at the end of it had been a dim light growing steadily brighter.

Bridger’s words had throbbed in his skull as Ben had waited for Bridger to simply get it all over and throw him out the door. Bridger’s words had certainly indicated this might be a likely outcome, until Bridger had suddenly said, a small grin playing at his lips, "You, Lieutenant Krieg, may go below with the rest of the crew on shore leave."

Ben had stared at this. Shore leave? For him? It seemed there was hope for him, after all . . .

Bridger had continued, the small smile quickly disappearing. "You may go, Lieutenant, but hear me out on this." He leaned in towards Krieg, brows drawing together. Krieg flinched from that glare. "While you are down below, you may not transport, teleport, import, exhort, or extort any goods or supplies or objects or trifles or knick knacks, to the locals below, to their neighbors, to their neighbors’ neighbors, to any alien planets in the vicinity, or to any satellite settlements as yet unknown to myself. Do I make myself clear, Lieutenant?"

Ben had gulped. The threat had been clear: if he screwed up on this, Bridger would probably demote him so far that he’d never see the light of officer status again.

After leaving the glower of Bridger’s eyes behind, Ben had jumped in jubilation--then straight into the nearest transporter to beam him down.

Yeah, that had been it . . .

He groaned once more. So, what foolish things had he done on Myomra? He knew he’d been told to behave, but Krieg also knew that he just couldn’t do that. Behaving was boring. He remembered going to some bars, frequenting a few . . . unsavory places, going to some more bars . . .

Vaguely, images of a blond-haired boy-ensign and gray-skinned alien-like things with leathery scales struggled at the outer rims of his consciousness, but he simply shook them off as hallucinations.

Pretty damned good hallucinations, if anyone asked him. That alien brew he’d been drinking must have been better than he’d thought it was. Either that, or they’d laced it with some fairly interesting hallucinogens. He knew better than to drink alien beer; after all, you just could never tell what they put in it.

He sighed. Well, he supposed he had to face the music sooner or later. Krieg would have preferred later any day, but he also knew that, with the way things were going, it would probably be best if he had it out with Bridger now. At least that way, after Bridger had flailed him alive, demoted him, thrown him out the nearest vacuum--whatever Bridger deemed fitting for him--he’d have the worst over and done with so he could skulk away to his quarters.

Carefully, he forced his eyes open. Ai-yaiii! The light was painful. It made his stomach swish. He blinked, then groaned. Okay, Benny Boy, time to face them, Krieg told himself. He looked around, trying to force his eyes to focus on his surroundings. Just a little more, and he might be able to see his own hand . . .

When his eyes finally focused, what Krieg saw startled him: more than ever. Sitting beside him, one of her hands tapping a nervous, worried dance across her leg, the other hand tapping a datapadd up-and-down, up-and-down in perfect time to her fingers, was Doctor Kristin Westphalen. She looked worried. As he watched her, her gaze traveling years away, lifetimes away, Ben realized that she must, truly, be concerned over something: she’d never let him simply stare at her for several seconds. That the uncannily observant Kristin Westphalen hadn’t noticed his stare was proof enough for him that something was seriously wrong. He cleared his throat. When she still didn’t turn, Ben started sitting up, trying to distract her from wherever her mind currently resided.

Doctor Westphalen’s attention suddenly snapped towards him. She stared, then smiled happily, almost joyously. "Lieutenant! You’re awake!"

Hmm . . . not quite the response he’d been expecting. He’d been thinking more along the lines of a frown, a grimace . . . certainly not a smile. Maybe today was just his lucky day--but, somehow, Krieg doubted it.

She leaned towards him, feeling his pulse before smiling again. "Good, good . . . and how are you feeling today?"

Today? Krieg wondered. That seemed to imply that he’d been here longer than just a few hours. Krieg looked carefully around himself, then back at her. "Um . . . better, I think . . ." he muttered.

"Yes, you seem to be doing better. Your vital signs have certainly strengthened," she told him matter-of-factly. She tapped the datapadd against her knee. "We were all considerably worried, you know."

They were? Krieg’s brows bunched together as he tried remembering anything--anything--that could explain this strange turn of events. He remembered bars, then a few women he’d been interested in following, then . . . damn, again, something about gray aliens and a blond-headed kid. Maybe they had him on some extremely potent painkillers.

She studied Ben’s face for a moment, then sighed. As he looked up at her curiously, Doctor Westphalen smiled slightly. "You don’t remember anything that happened, do you, Lieutenant?"

He suspected if he told her what kept coming to mind--gray aliens, rocks dissolving, that type of thing--he’d be committed to the funny farm faster than he could squeak out, "help!" So he simply kept his mouth shut.

Doctor Westphalen smiled slightly, then rose. "I’ll be right back, Lieutenant. If you need anything, just holler. Someone will come help you soon."

Krieg watched her leave, then sighed. Damn. Just when he thought he might get some answers out of her.

With a groan, Ben settled back against the biobed and grimly considered what was likely to happen when Bridger heard of his latest fiasco . . . whatever that fiasco had been. For though Ben couldn’t remember the details of it (in fact, he couldn’t remember much of it at all), he felt certain he’d done something pretty bad to end up in Sick Bay with Doctor Westphalen worriedly watching over him.

Yep. That was definitely the last time he’d drink alien booze, no matter how good it looked.

Part 9

"Uh . . . Sheri . . . wait one minute . . ."

Capt. Bridger Peeks Through Text . . .

BRIDGER: (Peeking into the text, his face suddenly emerging where once were words) Hey . . . do I get to read him the Infamous Bridger Riot Act next? I’ve been practicing, y’know . . .

YOU: (Staring, disbelieving, at the text that is suddenly speaking back at you) Where’d you come from? You’re supposed to be in the story . . .

BRIDGER: (Looking around, then grinning) SHERI was getting tired, so I decided to take over for awhile. What do you think of that? I mean, the characters writing the story? It’s pretty fun, don’t you think?

YOU: Pretty weird, you mean. (Thinking, then sighing) But this is SHERI’S work we’re talking about, isn’t it? Of course, it’s got to be weird.

WESTPHALEN: (Voice heard from offstage) Oh, BRIDGER-darling, where are you . . .?

BRIDGER: (Ducking back into the text, by all appearances hiding) Damn that woman, she’s found me . . .

YOU: But I thought you’d want to chew out KRIEG. I mean, you seem to like it. You do it at least once a story.

BRIDGER: (Blinking, then smiling) Oh, that I love . . . it’s just that KRISTIN is going to insist I be nice to KRIEG. (Sighs) Well, I know it’s going to happen, sooner or later . . . she’ll find me, then SHERI will have her talk me right out of a Riot Act, and then KRIEG will be off the hook . . . Ah, well, such is life.

YOU: (Reminding him with a grin) Uh . . . just remember, there’s gotta’ be a BRIDGER Riot Act Scene if Lucas gets injured and KRIEG is anywhere near. It’s mandatory. So . . . you’ll get to work in the scene sooner or later.

BRIDGER: (Grinning quite happily now) Hey, I’d forgotten that. Thanks!

[And with that, Bridger disappears into the text once more, and we are ready to resume our story . . .]

Krieg was restlessly fidgeting with his blankets when Bridger entered Sick Bay. He was surprised to find that Bridger wasn’t scowling.

If anything, this new discovery made Ben even more nervous. Bridger was always scowling at him: it was a preordained law of nature. What could have happened in the past few hours to change this law so quickly?

Whatever it was, Krieg was sure he wasn’t going to like it. Unless God Himself had struck Bridger with a mighty tough case of amnesia--one that conveniently wiped his memory of all Krieg’s misdeeds--Ben was sure trouble was afoot.

With a nod and a slight smile, the Captain pulled up a seat beside Krieg’s biobed, watching as Dr. Westphalen sat beside him. He then looked back at Krieg. "Well, Lieutenant, you’re looking better." Ben listened carefully to the Captain’s tone. It was even: no pauses, no simmering tone behind the neutral words. Nothing. If anything, Bridger’s voice was actually friendly.

Maybe he was in an alternate reality?

Hmmm. That seemed a pretty good possibility. Perhaps they were just being kind to him, trying to ease his unsettled nerves before they delivered the bad news that he would be forever stuck in their universe. Besides, what with the million or so transporter malfunctions plaguing the Infinity on a daily basis, he could easily have been accidentally rerouted to a different universe. Yeah, that made sense. p> "Thank you, sir. I’m feeling . . . all right," Ben finally stated. His eyebrows quirked as he noticed Bridger really looked uncomfortable with this conversation. The Captain kept shifting back and forth in his chair, moving his legs this way and that way. He also kept running his right hand through his hair, a sign Ben had long learned to recognize as agitation--at least, in his Captain on his Infinity in his universe. With an alternate reality Captain, anything was possible, he supposed.

"Ah. Good to hear it." There was a slight pause as Bridger stared momentarily at his hands. He clasped and unclasped them, then clasped them once more, before looking back at Krieg. "I understand you don’t remember much of what happened?"

That was the understatement of the Alpha Quadrant. Krieg nodded. "Last thing I remember was going to Myomra, sir." He cleared his throat, noting the Captain’s expectant expression. Well, he supposed he ought to get it over with, alternate reality or not. Bridger was bound to behave like Bridger no matter what reality he was in. He’d definitely want a full explanation of what Krieg had been doing on Myomra, particularly focusing on any shady activities. "I remember . . . well, sir, there’s just no easy way of saying this, so I’ll say just say it." He paused, hoping an enemy ship would attack or an anomaly suddenly appear: anything to get him out of telling Bridger what he suspected he’d done.

Bridger just sat and waited, seeming to have all the patience in the world.

Krieg ran a sweaty palm through his hair. "Well, the last thing I remember was a bar." He glanced surreptitiously at Bridger, then rolled his eyes at the partially hidden smile tugging at Bridger’s lips. "There was a lot of alcohol. There were also some . . . women."

Bridger seemed amused. Krieg couldn’t imagine for the life of him what Bridger was so amused over. He simply continued with his narration, ignoring the Captain’s soft chuckle: "Anyway, I left the bar . . . accompanied . . . and then a few hours later . . ." Krieg paused, watching with disbelief as Bridger tried to suppress a laugh. Yep, he was definitely in an alternate reality. The Bridger he knew would rant and rave if he discovered Krieg had been entertaining alien women--or if he knew alien women had been entertaining Krieg. Clearing his throat, he continued, "After that, I . . ."

Krieg stopped, suddenly not sure of what had happened next. He seemed to recall transporting over, but was that what had really happened?

And what about that damned image of the kid and the aliens? None of it made any sense. Maybe that alien beer had completely addled his brain cells, after all. "Well, sir, I don’t know for sure what happened after that. It’s all really muddled."

"You were transported, Lieutenant," Bridger informed him after a moment’s silent thought. He sighed. "However, we had a . . . slight problem during the transport."

He knew it! Krieg practically shouted the words out loud: he’d been right. He was in an alternate reality. He just wondered how he was going to get back to his own.

Bridger continued. "We lost you in the middle of the transport beam."

Krieg’s mind suddenly halted. What?

"You were, somehow, beamed outside our dimension," Bridger finally admitted, watching silently as Krieg’s face lost all color. He shifted in the chair, waiting until Ben seemed ready to hear more. "We were only able to . . . retrieve you about twelve hours ago."

"But . . . but where was I?" Ben stammered, shaking his head. This wasn’t quite the turn he’d expected. He’d been thinking he was in another reality right now, not that he’d just escaped it. And that damned image of aliens clawing at him, reaching for his skin, kept intruding his thoughts. "And how did I get back?"

At this, Bridger glanced at Westphalen. The doctor looked from one to the other, then sighed. She chewed at her lip for a moment. "Lieutenant Krieg . . . Ben . . ."

Ouch. Ben knew it was bad if Doctor Westphalen was calling him by his first name.

"You were caught in a fracture in time and space. You essentially were pushed into another dimension, one existing in parallel to our own." Okay. This wasn’t too bad. He could deal with this information; after all, it was what he’d initially expected.

However, he had a bad feeling things were going to get worse. She cleared her throat. "You were brought back because someone else . . . helped you."

Ben dug his fingers into the biobed’s unyielding surface. Damn. Damn! The kid and the aliens. He was pretty certain they were real.

"Ben, do you remember any of this? What happened when you got there? Where you were?" She paused before adding softly, "Who was with you?"

Oh, hell. It was all starting to come back. He’d blinked his eyes, feeling the transporter beam shifting around him--and then it had been as if his body had lurched from within. He had again blinked. As the transporter beam faded, he’d finally seen his surroundings: ice. Cold, streaking winds had whipped through the air, chilling his bones. He’d lost feeling within his fingers in less than a minute. And around him, stretching as far as the eye could see, had been a plain of gray ice, broken only by jagged rocks jutting from the ground.

A sound had caught his attention. Fighting the wind, he’d turned around to see a human body materialize out of nowhere, the distinct shimmer of a transporter beam cloaking the form.

That had been the kid, the one he kept remembering: the kid genius with a Ph.D. in Quantum and Temporal Mechanics. This was the same kid who’d whipped up some theory about creating a wormhole. Yeah, if Krieg wasn’t totally wrong in his recollection, listening to this

kid talk science had seemed more alien than any alien language he’d heard. Even the Klingon jargon Commander Worf liked to throw his way now and again (in what Ben was sure were insults, but was unable to prove, of course, because he didn’t speak Klingon) had been more intelligible.

The silence lengthened. Ben finally nodded his head, meeting Kristin’s eyes. What he saw there told him everything he needed to know. He saw sympathy, but also worry--deep worry. Ben shut his eyes for a moment. "The kid. He didn’t make it back, did he?"

Bridger’s voice broke through the silence next. "No, Lieutenant, I’m afraid he didn’t." He looked away, silently cursing himself for incompetence, stupidity, whatever. Obviously, he’d done something wrong if he’d managed to lose two crew members in one day; to make matters worse, he’d failed both of those crew members by somehow managing to leave one of them behind in some godforsaken alien wasteland. Captain James T. Kirk would have had them out by now. Hell, he’d probably have beamed over with next-to-nothing in weapons and managed to conquer the entire planet. Captain Jean-Luc Picard would have solved the problem, too, through wits. But here he was, Captain of a ship more powerful than either Enterprise had ever been, and he couldn’t rescue a teenager stuck in a hostile environment.

And he had no doubt that the environment was hostile. The damned claw had said so, as had the blood . . . not to mention the blood-freezing yowls.

Yeah, just great, Bridger, Nathan silently berated himself. Lose the kid genius on his first day aboard your ship . . . no, not even aboard your ship. He’d not quite made it that far!

"How . . . how did he end up not making it back? It was his idea in the first place. I wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t thought of it!"

Ben asked, eyes wide against a face suddenly turning unnaturally pale. Doctor Westphalen leaned towards him, feeling his pulse. He simply turned away. "I remember . . . I remember feeling the transporter beam come around me . . . around us. And, then, it was like all hell broke loose." Ben stopped, suddenly shaking his head. "No . . . that’s not right. All hell broke loose before the transporter beam surrounded us."

Ben looked at Westphalen and Bridger, eyes almost haunted. "You’re going to have my head examined for this, doctor, but I can’t help it. It’s what actually happened." He steeled himself for the worst. "When we got to . . . wherever it was, it was freezing cold. We needed protection, so we climbed inside a cave. Lucas . . . that’s his name, Lucas Wolenczak . . . somehow managed to program my di-corder. He sent the message to you. While he was sending the message, we began to hear really noisy howls; it spooked us a bit."

Krieg inhaled deeply, wishing he didn’t have to explain this. It was the craziest, most preposterous thing he’d ever heard of. He wouldn’t be surprised if Doctor Westphalen threw him in a locked cell and immediately rewired the door to never open again. With a strangled sigh, he explained, "Anyway, a few minutes later--maybe more, I’m just not sure--we started to see . . . well, we started to see the cave walls dissolve around us."

He waited for the explosion, the laugh, or the stare that Doctor Westphalen would obviously direct his way any moment now. But it never came. Westphalen simply watched him with sympathetic, concerned eyes.

"After that, the transporter kicked in, I guess," Krieg finished softly, looking away. He played with a wrinkle in his blanket. "At least, it did for me."

Bridger straightened in his chair, then stood. Sighing softly, he looked at the unhappy Lieutenant. "You’re not to be blamed on this, Lieutenant. It wasn’t your fault. I don’t know if there was anything you could have done." He crossed his arms for a moment, shooting Kristin a quick look. "Doctor Westphalen assures me you’re going to be all right. You’re to take a few days off to recover before returning to regular duty."

Ben was silent for one moment. After a second’s hesitation, he asked, voice soft, "What about Lucas, though, sir? Are . . . are we going to get him back?"

"Make no mistake of it, Lieutenant Krieg. We’ll get him back." Unmistakable determination rang in Bridger’s voice. "We’ll figure a way to bring him home." Bridger didn’t bother adding his worst worry: that they would be too late bringing him home or that, in fact, they were already too late. Krieg didn’t need that information slammed into him at this point.

Bridger was about to speak further when his com badge beeped. Irritably, he tapped it. "Yes, Bridger here."

Commander Hitchcock’s voice rung through, unperturbed in the slightest by Bridger’s snap. "Sir, we have an urgent message coming through for you. It’s from Captain Sisko on Deep Space Nine."

With a sigh, Bridger quickly gave in to the inevitable. It seemed every time he was even remotely near Deep Space Nine, something went wrong aboard the station. Last time, it had been Bajorans versus Cardassians. Like Captain Sisko, he’d been tempted to just let them fight it out. After that had been some medical emergency involving mutant bacteria strains, a mess he still shuddered over. He suspected there was trouble now, too. He sometimes couldn’t figure how Sisko kept remotely sane aboard that station of his. This time, as luck would have it, the bar fellow with the big ears--that obnoxious Ferengi Quark--had probably instigated a riot on the promenade. Bridger wouldn’t put it past the Ferengi, especially if the greedy bar owner could get his fingers on a few bars of pressed latinum in the process.

Bridger groaned inwardly before replying in what he hoped was a calm, professional voice, "Very well, Commander. I’ll take it in my Ready Room." He frowned. After a second, he looked back at Krieg. "Lieutenant, I’ll keep you posted on this. Consider yourself under the direct orders of Doctor Westphalen until she releases you from her care. You’re to follow her orders explicitly, right down to how many hours of sleep you’re supposed to get. Is that understood, Lieutenant?"

Krieg nodded, but Bridger knew he’d have to keep an eye on Krieg. If he were any judge of character, Krieg already planned to escape Sick Bay as soon as possible, most likely to try to help get Lucas Wolenczak back. The guilty look briefly flashing across Krieg’s face only proved his point.

With a final stern look directed in Krieg’s general direction, Captain Bridger headed out of Sick Bay, already wondering how on earth he was going to help solve whatever dispute had recently erupted on Deep Space Nine. He couldn’t blame Sisko for asking for help whenever a friendly ear was within the remote vicinity. He thought he’d call, too, if he were stuck on that solemn gray station, trying to control a pack of thieves, spies, murderers, religious fanatics, and fully-sworn enemies.

Watching the doors to Sick Bay close behind Bridger’s form, Kristin spoke up, reaching towards Ben’s hand and gently tapping it. "You’ll need to rest here for a few more hours, then I should be able to release you." As if she could see the very question forming in his mind, Westphalen smiled slightly. "You were scraped by one of the alien claws. Though the wound was only superficial, there was an amount of toxin in your bloodstream. We needed to clean your blood of the toxin. Right now, it’s completely gone, but you’ll still need plenty of rest to recover."

Krieg frowned, a nasty memory resurfacing in his mind: Lucas standing beside him, his body closest to the cave wall . . . the wall collapsing . . . a gray claw reaching out from the suddenly melting rock . . . then more claws and more claws . . . Then he remembered Lucas crying in pain as a claw tore through his flesh.

With a shudder, Krieg vowed that he would get Lucas back. He’d get the teenager out of the cursed frozen land, and he’d get him out in one piece. He didn’t care who or what tried to stop him. He was just going to do it, all misgivings or orders to do otherwise be damned.

~~*~~

[You are reading happily along when a text mysteriously, magically even, appears right smack before you. You stare at the text for a moment, then frown as you see the words "Infinity," "Part Twelve," and "Labor Camp" scrawled across it.]

READER 1/YOU: (Looking at text, then placing hands on hips and frowning) Hey . . . where’s the pre-writing stuff? You know . . . the crazy stuff that happens before the story starts.

READER 2: (Appearing out of nowhere, as most things in "Infinity" are bound to do . . .) I like the pre-writing stuff. It must be a conspiracy. Yeah . . . that’s it: a conspiracy. SHERI’S trying to drive us mad by changing her format . . . *again *.

READER 1: What’s this all about, SHERI? (Stomps foot) I *like* the pre-writing stuff . .

[Out of the thin air, SHERI suddenly appears . . . drifting aboard a cloud, naturally {of course, while there’s nothing "natural" about this, it makes perfect sense in SHERI’S world} . . . SHERI disembarks her cloud-like vehicle, looking around in wonder] Hey, where are we?

READER 1: (You find you have miraculously been transported from your comfortable reading location to . . . well, someplace ELSE, a place as yet undetermined by this whacky author!) How should *we* know? This is *your* story, after all. (Shuddering) It’s your imagination we’re stuck in, you know . . .

READER 2: (Horrified, starts looking for an exit. As READER 2 moves, the scene moves with her) Oh, just great! Now, we’re stuck in part of your story! (Stark terror) That means . . . we’ll be forever stuck in this absurd, bizarre, crazy, demented, inane, insane, luny, mad, perverse, ridiculous, strange, twisted, weird . . .

SHERI: (Impatiently waits for the alphabetically arranged and highly organized list of faults to end, but runs out of patience at "W"--then abruptly claps hands together) Oh, yes, that’s very good, I’m sure . . . but, hey, the show must go on, mustn’t it?

READER 1 and 2: (Looking at one another and frowning; obviously, they don’t agree on this little point)

SHERI: (Waving hands. People start popping out of the air everywhere) Come, it’s almost curtain time . . .

[READER 1 and 2 are forcibly ejected from the stage. A curtain suddenly appears, dropping from the once-empty air. Lights and stage equipment accompany it]

SHERI: (Smiling) Well, that looks about right . . . (Starts screaming as she, too, is ejected from stage)

[The curtain rolls into the sky, and, slowly, the darkness falls back to reveal the frozen alien wasteland . . .]

~~*~~

The landscape was dark, cold, hostile. Sharp, piercing rocks scraped out of the frozen planet’s surface. Mist coated the area, sparkling frigidly in the strange alien light.

Howls drifted into the air. Something gray slunk towards him, its movements choppy, almost halting: monstrous. His heart beat faster, faster, faster. Mist swirled around him, gradually thickening, clinging to the skin, vaporous leeches--drawing on the skin and refusing to let go.

More howls, more wails chopped through the heavy night air. The mist writhed around him, coy, dangerous, lethal.

Suddenly, claws whisked through the air.

A claw struck out at him. Then another. Then another. Pain erupted through his arm, through his mind, and through his entire body. Agony ripped him apart until only darkness encompassed his mind.

Then more shrieking. Images whirring by. Noises he couldn’t identify, didn’t want to identify . . .

*Stop it, stop it, stop it, stop it . . .*

A shrill voice filled the cavern, bouncing off the walls and reverberating back towards his shocked ears. Lucas’s eyes snapped open, staring blindly around him; he flailed his fists against the unseen attackers, the unseen claws.

Human words, a human voice, whispered at him, "It’s okay. Just a dream. No one but us here."

Lucas thought he recognized the voice: the Irishman, Chief of Engineering somewhere . . . oh, yeah. Deep Space Nine. That would be Miles O’Brien . . . his . . . cellmate.

Slowly, his breathing calmed, and he looked at Miles. He swallowed hard. "Sorry, Miles. Didn’t . . . didn’t . . ." The words stopped as a shudder tore through him. He closed his eyes. God. He wished he could just get the images out of his mind: the gray claws, ripping through rock as if it had never been there. Aliens staring at him with cold, emotionless, pitiless eyes. Words uttered at him in confusing, nonsensical language.

"It’s a’right, Lucas," O’Brien said softly, sighing as he forced Lucas to meet his eyes. "I was the same way when they brought me in, too. Screamed th’ entire night, I think. I hope to God and earth that I kept th’ alien bastards awake the whole time, but I doubt it."

So, it had been a dream . . . kind of. But, unfortunately, the dream was based on an unbearably true reality. The reality seemed to be consist of the following lovely elements: there were aliens; he was still stuck on the damned planet of ice; he was now down . . . wherever he was, sharing a prison cave with O'Brien; and, finally, he had been "enlisted" into some form of Alien Chain Gang.

Just flaming great. Lucas wondered what would happen next. With his luck, a giant asteroid would crush the planet, with him and O'Brien still, unfortunately, on it.

Well, he supposed complaining did him no good; somehow, he thought the aliens weren't likely to listen to him. Suddenly, he shivered as he remembered the aliens he'd briefly encountered on his way over from . . . who knew what it was . . . the alien version of Sick Bay, perhaps? Though the black-robed creature he'd first encountered had seemed somewhat kind, these two had been anything but kind. Their eyes . . .

Abruptly, Lucas stopped himself from pursuing that thought. Instead, he looked around, trying to get his bearings. He inhaled sharply. Yeah, that's what he needed to do right now: get his bearings. Maybe that way he could say or do something at least partially intelligent. It at least gave him the chance to look for an escape route.

As Lucas started walking carefully around the cavern, Miles simply watched him. Lucas was peering up what looked like ten or more body lengths to the hole in the ceiling that led to the rock slide when Miles joined him. "Yeah, I've been lookin' every day, too. Can't find a way out yet. You see anything that might help?"

Lucas heard the obvious hope in the man's voice, though he also suspected Miles already knew the answer. He crossed his arms, examined the slide from every angle he could think of . . . only to arrive at the same conclusion as Miles: unless they grew a hundred feet taller, they weren't going to be escaping through that damned hole.

"No. Sorry." He kicked at the ground, watching as plumes of dust filtered into the weak light above. His eyes then narrowed as his head snapped up towards O'Brien's waiting face. His blue eyes practically glowed with excitement in the darkness. "But wait a sec! Chief . . . how . . . if there's no other entrance, and if we can't just sprout wings and fly up to that hole . . . how do they get us for . . . their little Chain Gang?"

O'Brien sighed, looking away. Lucas decided that the Irishman looked decidedly ill, as if he'd just ate something repulsive. His own stomach muscles tightened as he considered the possibilities. If O'Brien was . . . sickened . . . by however the aliens got them, just what . . .

He shuddered. He knew imagination could often be worse than the real thing, but right now his imagination was driving him right towards terror.

"Lucas, how they get us . . . it's not goin' to help us escape." O'Brien looked away, then suddenly snorted. "Well, not unless you know how to melt the blarmy rock."

Lucas stared at this. Melt the blarmy rock? How the hell did you melt rock?

But then strange images began rushing back at him. He'd been standing with Lieutenant Krieg, typing frantically on the di-corder and he tried to get the formula in exactly right so their atoms didn't get distributed across several quantum realities. Just as he'd entered the last of the formula, the howls around them had intensified. He'd sent the information, his eyes darting everywhere . . . wondering where (and from what) the howls were coming.

The transport beams had settled around him . . . and then the cave walls had melted. He'd never forget that. They'd just . . . melted: drip, drip, drip. Stone had become liquid in less than the blink of an eye.

He choked. "We're supposed . . . they're gonna' make us . . ."

Lucas was still choking, his face turning several shades green, when he heard a noise.

O'Brien bolted up, his back straight and unyielding. He swallowed hard.

Silence passed between them before the noise sounded once more: a soft whirring, followed by . . . almost a hum, but it wasn't anything like a human hum. It was, somehow, different. Lucas couldn't quite decide if the sound was organic or mechanical, for its pattern was consistent, without stop. Several minutes passed by, and still the sound kept coming, never skipping or changing by even the slightest note.

Lucas stared at O'Brien, eyes almost painfully wide; O'Brien finally caught his look. After clearing his throat, the Chief explained, voice shaking slightly, "It's them. It must be time to go to work."

Momentarily stricken silent, Lucas eyed the . . . rock from where the noise seemed to be coming. The sound had suddenly increased in pitch, now resembling more of a shriek--a hissing shriek. Lucas shivered.

He was rapidly trying to swallow, and finding even that simple motion nearly impossible, when the wall started running down the ground in little rivulets of molten stone. O'Brien yanked him back as several tendrils of the steaming stone started smoldering around his feet.

Then . . . several feet of the wall just collapsed in on itself. The remaining wall stood solid, seemingly unaffected, as a gaping hole shone from the darkness in their cave. Light shimmered from within the hole, its golden color gently undulating against the walls of their prison.

Lucas was standing, for the first time in many yearly utterly bereft of words, utterly bereft of any idea on how *this* could be possible, on earth or any planet within his known reality, when his breath stuck in his throat.

Slipping through the hole and looking at them with coldly glittering gem-like eyes were two aliens clad in green. As they stooped through the make-shift entrance, Lucas noticed for the first time how truly tall these creatures were. From what he could tell, the hole had to be at least six feet tall . . . and yet these creatures had to bend to pass through. Their intimidating height became increasingly clear the closer they got. The towered over both humans, probably by three or four feet.

O'Brien quickly looked at Lucas, then--seeing his frightened, almost paralyzed expression--pulled him towards the hole before the aliens could. He simply hauled the boy after him, not bothering to explain his actions--simply hoping Lucas would have his wits together enough not to speak right now.

If he knew anything, O'Brien knew that speaking in front of the aliens was a punishable offense. Another punishable offense was not moving until after their captors motioned them to move. O'Brien himself had a long scar on his forearm to prove that.

Thankfully, judging by Lucas's suddenly very active glance, O'Brien judged that the boy understood their predicament quite well. He only wished he'd been able to explain a bit more of what was to follow before their abductors came for them.

O'Brien figured that such an explanation would have saved Lucas a great deal of confusion and, perhaps, pain, but the chance simply hadn't been given them. However, Miles was determined to help Lucas, as much as humanly possible, through this first day in Hell.

Part 10

The warm, undulating light that had looked so comforting from their prison was no such thing, Lucas grimly decided.

The cavern they entered from their own prison chamber was monstrous. It was the same height as their own prison cell, or so it seemed, but in over all expanse it measured nine, maybe ten times more. Lucas wondered if the whole *Infinity* could be shoved inside the cavern, bow to bow. Providing the aliens could somehow rip open the ceiling cave--which was entirely within the realm of possibility in this *Alice in Wonderland* nightmare--Lucas imagined the *Infinity* could probably fit.

This wasn't an entirely pleasant idea, come to think of it. Lucas shuddered. *Here* was the last place the entire *Infinity* needed to be. He didn't know how many people were onboard that ship, for he'd only seen it as it drifted in space before his frightened eyes, but . . . he figured an entire crew of expendable prisoners wasn't a good idea.

O'Brien continued to haul him along, never pausing a second. The engineer hurriedly walked straight past several . . . stone *things.* As O'Brien dragged him on towards the opposite side of the cave, Lucas stared at these stone things, eyes widening. Stone slabs wove throughout the cavern. On these stones . . . Lucas swallowed hard, his stomach nearly rushing into his mouth.

Oh, God.

His eyes were glued to the . . . stone slabs . . . when O'Brien glared at him and jerked the teenager's face around until he was looking straight ahead. He continued to drag him forward, giving him no chance to speak as their alien escorts growled something, claws tapping against each other and making a strange, frightening *clack.*

Lucas's mind whirled. He kept his eyes focused straight ahead, feeling O'Brien's nails cutting into the back of his neck. What he had seen . . .

Chills struck. He was trembling as they abruptly halted at the other side of the cavern. Anxiously, Lucas looked around himself; relief pounded into him as he saw that there were no slabs here. He focused on these more mundane details, trying to push the horror of what he'd just seen away.

The stone tables were all cluttered with what looked like beakers and vials. Or, at least, that's what Lucas supposed them to be. Liquids filled most of the small containers, and little lines were marked on the containers' sides, so, yeah, he supposed they resembled the scientific equipment he'd worked with before. The large difference between them seemed to be in material. If he weren't mistaken, the beakers and odd components were made of the same glass-like substance he'd seen earlier in the medical area when he'd awoken. The only real difference was that the substance here wasn't glowing.

A few paces away, he saw what looked like several tanks of chemicals, all very . . . odd . . . looking. In one tank was filled with a hazy green chemical; strange light glowed within the chemical, moving slowly, as if it had a life of its own. Another tank contained something black, almost like oil. A black cloud of steam hung over it. Beside it was yet one more tank, and Lucas could barely glimpse the chemical filling it; it seemed a glowing purple, but it was hard to tell from where he stood. He noticed with puzzled curiosity that the tanks lined the wall of the cave; though he couldn't be certain, Lucas was pretty sure each of the tanks contained some sort of chemical.

God above, Lucas felt like he was in some demented writer's version of Frankenstein meets X-Files. This was just getting too weird. Though he'd enjoyed watching halo-images of the two old earth shows, he'd certainly never wanted to be in them.

O'Brien suddenly stuffed a vial of some strange liquid in his hand, and they started moving. Lucas followed the Chief as he walked from one table to the next. Miles stopped in front of what looked like a clean beaker, inhaled deeply, and poured the contents of his own vial into the beaker. He then looked at Lucas, plainly waiting for him to do the same thing. After giving Miles a worried frown and getting only a short nod of the head in return, Lucas warily poured his vial's contents in with the Chief's and watched as Miles stirred the two liquids together. A soft blue mist rose, but . . . nothing more. Lucas waited a few seconds more, muscles tense. He was half expecting something to explode.

Apparently, so, too, was Miles, for he breathed a sigh of relief when, after a minute's time, nothing exploded. Lucas stared at him, eyebrows quirked in genuine wonder. But Miles simply continued with his work. The Chief next placed the majority of their concoction in a test tube rack at the back of the table, keeping only a small amount of it in one beaker.

He then moved towards the other side of the cavern: towards the stone slabs.

Lucas swallowed hard. He didn't want to go over here. However, the tight hold O'Brien had on his wrist didn't give him much choice.

They walked into the middle of what looked like thousands of slabs. He didn't want to know the exact number of slabs there, for to know would have been--awful. As he followed O'Brien, trying to look anywhere but at the slabs, he felt he was drowning in a sea of the dead, in a sea of faces and bodies surrounding him.

They neared one slab; Lucas forced himself not to vomit as he looked down. Pale yellow skin . . . scales . . . deep incisions. He stared at the torn skin, then shut his eyes. His stomach churned. Spasmodically, he swallowed, conscious that he was nearly gagging. He simply concentrated on breathing: one, two, three . . . one, two, three . . . one, two . . .

*SSSS . . . whap!*

Something exploded behind him. Lucas's eyes shot open. His head popped up. As he twisted around to see what had caused the noise, Lucas felt what was left of his control almost explode, too. A creature--he'd have to guess Vulcan, from what was left of the pointed ears--sprawled across the floor, the remnants of a shattered beaker in his hand. Burns scorched the Vulcan's skin, charring it beyond recognition.

Lucas watched in horror as several people surrounding the dead Vulcan simply . . . walked around him, as if nothing of serious concern had happened. Seconds later, one of the guards grabbed a Cardassian by the hair, shoved him towards the body, then gestured for him to move it. Only seconds after that, all signs of the accident had disappeared, the body now hidden in one of the large tanks of chemicals.

Darkness hovered before Lucas's eyes. Before he could stop it, Lucas clutched at his stomach, leaned over, and puked; hot, searing vomit tore through his throat. Tears scalded his eyes. Slowly, shaking, Lucas stood, avoiding O'Brien's eyes.

He felt a hand on his shoulder, then watched through bleary eyes as O'Brien pulled the glass-like shielding from the figure stretched out across the slab in front of them. Again, he swallowed convulsively, knowing he wasn't going to like whatever the hell it was O'Brien was about to do.

The alien was fastened to the slab by strange tubing. In fact, the tiny fraction of his mind still left semi-rational realized that the slab, the tubing, and the shielding all looked exactly like what he'd found himself on a day or so ago. That had been when he'd awoken shortly after his abduction. But this . . . this didn't seem to be for the same purposes. He thought he'd been in some sort of healing room, a medical center of sorts.

Here, though, his mind warned him in glaring tones that this *wasn't* a healing room. What they were doing to these creatures--these thousands of creatures, all lined up like lambs for the slaughter--was torture instead of healing.

Nausea clutched at Lucas's stomach again. His eyes widened, face paling, as O'Brien lifted the vial towards the alien's arm, his own mouth pinched into a white, pained line. Lucas desperately reached his free arm towards O'Brien. Blind, numb shock warred with disgust in his mind. O'Brien . . . he couldn't . . . he wouldn't . . .

But the Chief tightened his grip on Lucas. With a quick look towards their captors--Lucas noted for the first time that there were about twenty of them--he hissed, "It's either it or us, Lucas. *It* or *us.* Which would you prefer?"

Lucas vaguely noted the dehumanizing "it." He shivered, then shook his head--first slowly, then with increased determination. "No. *No.* You . . . you can't . . . you just can't go and pour chemicals on another creature's skin, O'Brien! He's helpless! He can't stop this. If we do this, we're worse than our captors, worse than . . ."

Placing the beaker on the slab, O'Brien suddenly slid his hand over Lucas's mouth as the boy's near-hysterical voice increased in volume. He glanced from their jailers back to Lucas, then whispered fiercely, "Lucas, this isn't easy for me, either. I'm not a monster. But if we don't do as we're told, we will be killed. It's that simple."

Lucas wrestled his face away from O'Brien's hand, eyes narrowed in anger. He backed away from the Chief as far as the man's hold would allow him. "Yeah? And just exactly where did you learn your ethics, Chief? Hmm? Machiavelli's School for the Sadistic?" Lucas pulled at his hand once more, but it was still tightly in O'Brien's grasp. His voice edged up one more note as he snapped, "Let me go. Damn it, *let me go* . . . "

"What? So you can get yourself killed?" O'Brien snapped right back. He then lowered his voice, watching as several of their captors started to look their way. "Lucas, if you want to keep your skin in one piece, listen to me. We're attractin' *their* attention. If we attract much more of it, they'll beat the hell out of us--or worse. Just . . . shut up and listen to me for a change."

Lucas opened his mouth, then shut it. He kept his mouth clamped shut as O'Brien again lifted the beaker. Lucas stared at its contents, a tear silently tracing its way down his cheek.

O'Brien's eyes looked his way, studying him, his right hand holding Lucas still as he slowly began to pour the chemical over the alien skin. He looked back up, then increased the pressure around Lucas's wrist as the teen started to hyperventilate. He leaned in towards him. "Breathe. In, out. Good. Just breathe for a moment." O'Brien glanced at the alien's arm, closing his eyes in shame at what he saw. A dark burn could be seen on the arm. The chemical had obviously had some effect, but he doubted it was what his captors were looking for. He wasn't positive, but he thought they were looking for something much more . . . aggressive.

After a second's pause, O'Brien looked back at Lucas. He sighed. "Lucas, we have no choice on this. And this . . . creature . . . was dead long before we came here. It's breathin', it's alive, but at the same time it's dead. It's been dead since it's been these aliens' enemy. There's no way it will ever escape these bastards. It's dead . . ."

"Oh?" Lucas finally threw at him, eyes sparking with something near hatred. The teen shook his head quickly. "So it's just fine and dandy for us to come along and play a few tests on him? Is that it?" Lucas inhaled sharply, then exploded, "Well, that's just fine, O'Brien. Just fine! What a perfect idea you have there!

"But . . . wait a second!" Lucas facetiously pretended to think. "What if someone thinks we're 'just dead,' too? What if someone else just decides their survival is more important than . . ."

Lucas abruptly found O'Brien's hand slammed back over his mouth. He watched as the captors looked their way. After a moment's time, Lucas saw the aliens turn back to what looked like a heated conversation.

Again, O'Brien leaned in towards Lucas. The Irishman shook his head. "I'm not sayin' this is right, Lucas. I'm just sayin' this is how we survive here. And I *know*--I *know*--it's not easy. But we have no choice, and these aliens are already in our captors' hands. There's nothin' we can do for them. If we don't do this, though, *we'll* end up in one of those." O'Brien's head jerked towards one of the tanks. He looked back at Lucas, eyes practically glowering as he met the boy's angry gaze. They stared at one another for several moments, anger warring in their eyes.

Finally, O'Brien looked away, shaking his head. "When you have a better solution for this, let me know. Until then, though, just do what you need to. If you don't, they'll kill you. They don't care if they kill you because they can always replace you."

With that, O'Brien walked away, dragging Lucas with him. Lucas was silent, pale, seeming almost haunted.

But O'Brien remembered he himself had been that way the first day, too.

<CENTER~~*~~

SCENE: large oak-paneled room, tastelessly decorated in scarlet drapes and cherry wood furniture. A huge fireplace burns in the right corner; on the left corner can be seen--rather inappropriately--a floating throne. In the back is a huge gallery of ALIENS, all looking rather bemused to be there in the first place. In the exact center of the room is a single, isolated chair.

A shimmer briefly encompasses the room, and the GALLERY ALIENS blink in surprise. Before their amazed eyes, drifting aimlessly in the air, is the immortal and invariably mischief-making Q. He is currently dressed in a Starfleet uniform of scarlet, though it constantly transposes with scarlet robes.

Q: (Clearing throat) And now, for the moment we have all been waiting for, though we may have not realized this . . . (Flourishes right hand dramatically, posing as he does so . . . much like David Copperfield) . . . is the Judgment of Humanity!

YOU: (Suddenly dragged out from under your Nice, Comfortable Rock. Puzzled expression) Hey, wait, Q . . . you can't do that . . .

[Q looks at you like you've just gone nuts. He derisively raises his left eyebrow.]

YOU: (Growling) Look, Star Trek has already done this. Don't you remember your own scripts? (As The Eyebrow raises, you sigh) You know . . . Star Trek? Next Generation? Ship called the Enterprise?

[More derision from the Q Department.]

YOU: (Hand held up to your shoulder) Bald headed Captain, about this height? Loves poetry?

Q: (Light finally blinks on) Oh! That! (YOU look at him with a "yeah, *that * expression") It's Star Trek. Don't we always re-run and re-run our plots under new names? I mean, really: think of the halosuite adventures!

YOU: (Shuddering. He has a point there . . .) Yeah, but . . . you're Q! You're supposed to be . . . errr . . . original or something.

Q: (Smiles) Oh, I am! I'll be putting O'Brien on trial instead of Picard. See, isn't that original?

[LUCAS suddenly appears out of a dust cloud. He looks mighty disheveled. He's breathing hard and walking around in tattered clothes. If you had a nasty mind, you'd be thinking some very interesting thoughts right now . . .]

SHERI: (Voice overlay) Hey, I said *if you had a nasty mind!* Gees . . .

LUCAS: (Still breathing hard, eyes frantically searching around) All right, where are they? (Peers under rug that magically appears out of nowhere) I know you're in there. Come out, wherever you are! Q: (Looking rather interested) Who, pray tell, young man, are you looking for . . . under that delightful carpet?

LUCAS: (Scowling) Don't pretend you're innocent! They're here! I know it! (Eyes wide, paranoid) The ELFs are here. They're hiding somewhere. Just you watch, and they'll get you, too . . . p> Q: (Reaches for a telephone, which, naturally, appears out of nowhere) Yes? I'd like the number to the Psychotic Institute . . . yes, I'll hold . . .

[With that, we return to . . . well, the caves . . . darkness . . . aliens . . . you know, all those fun elements we love so much!]

~~*~~

P> Deep Space Nine Chief Engineer Miles O'Brien shifted nervously on the ground. He cleared his throat, moving his head around in circles to loosen the many kinks his neck had knotted into over the past twelve hours of tedious labor in the Alien lab. A slight *pop * sounded from his neck as he moved it, and he sighed in relief. Slowly, he then stretched out his legs, almost moaning as the sore muscles protested his movement. Gods of Ireland, you wouldn't expect muscles to scream at you this way just from walking back and forth, back and forth, all day.

Of course, there had been a bit more to the day than that.

He sighed, wishing he could erase the day as easily as he had once been able to erase the memories of his computers. Tiredly, he ran a slightly trembling hand over his eyes.

God. The day had been awful.

Lucas had had his first exposure to the labs today. Of course, if he'd even thought about it, Miles now knew that he would have realized a problem would be forthcoming. Lucas was . . . what? All of fifteen years old? He was the spoiled son of Admiral Wolenczak, the High-and-Mighty, uppity-up, Big Brass official of the United Federation of Planets. Now, while Lucas himself seemed a perfectly good boy, Miles had no doubt that he'd never experienced anything . . . brutally unpleasant. Naturally, that wasn't his fault. How could he have? He was, no doubt, the Next Generation Golden Child destined to rule Starfleet with that famous Wolenczak name.

So . . . given the variables, Miles figured that he should have seen the problem well before it slapped him in the face--almost literally--today. He should have seen that Lucas, being fresh and somewhat "green" to real life, would have some ethical qualms about what they'd be doing.

Hell, Miles had his "ethical qualms" about what they were doing. But he had enough experience in life to know that, sometimes, you just did what you needed to do to survive.

Survival was the primary concern.

All other issues were secondary.

Right?

Miles shifted on the ground, a frown chiseled into his features. He growled as sudden annoyance ticked through his stocky frame.

Damn. Damn that boy! Before Lucas had balked, before Lucas had started proclaiming to him in no uncertain terms the wrongfulness of his deeds, Miles had never questioned what he was doing. He'd simply . . . blocked all questions from his mind. He'd pushed them aside, more concerned about living than about the morality of his behavior. Hell, he'd figured he could do as he needed now and pray to God afterwards for forgiveness. It made sense, to his mind.

But then Lucas had to come and spoil that. Damn him!

He looked across at the young man . . . no, really, the *boy* . . . and felt some of the heated anger slip from his body.

Miles swallowed hard. For a moment, he fought back a moisture that felt suspiciously like tears. He shook his head.

He could clearly remember, now that he looked at the slumped, battered figure lying in a broken heap on the ground, what had happened today. O'Brien wasn't sure he'd be forgetting it any time soon. He was certain Lucas wouldn't, for the lessons of today were still clearly marked across his body: across his temples, across his shoulders, across his back. O'Brien knew that they were also well marked within his blood . . . as they had been with him on his first day at the lab.

Miles brushed the traitorous stream of tears from his cheeks, then blinked. He studied his trembling hands, remembering . . . remembering what had happened.

~~*~~

Lucas had been standing beside him, angrily ignoring anything Miles said. They had been standing before one of the many desks in front of the wall, combining chemicals for their next experiment. Miles had reached for the last vial, which Lucas had been holding.

And then Lucas had taken the chemical--staring at Miles with his face whitened, his eyes wide and frightened--and dumped it on the ground, slowly, as if watching it drain into the ground at the exact time that all color had drained from Miles' face. Unflinching, unblinking, Lucas had then taken the vial and . . . smashed it. He'd dropped it to the ground and crunched that piece of strange, alien "glass" right under his heel.

He'd then started smashing all the vials, all the beakers, all the tubes and strange implements, on their desk.

Miles' blood had frozen in his veins. He'd started, helpless, as Lucas's control shattered. Like the testing equipment around him, Lucas had just . . . broken.

The boy had shouted, over and over, "They're not *its*, damn you, Miles! They're not some *it* out there that has no effect on us, no effect on who and what we are! They're not some sterile *it* we can damage and remove ourselves from!" The boy had gestured at the hundreds, thousands, seemingly hundreds of thousands of slabs surrounding them, each bearing its alien victim. "*Look at them,* Miles! *Look at them!* They're not . . . they're not monsters. They're not insects. They're living, breathing, sentient *beings.*"

Even as their alien captors approached them, Lucas's voice had risen, catching every ear in the facility. Heads had turned their way, ears listening, perked in attention. Unconscious of his audience, Lucas had started shattering more and more instruments, even as Miles tried to stop him . . . tried to stop him from getting himself killed. The hysteria in Lucas's voice had reached throughout the complex. "What's the worth of our lives if we have no self-respect left? What's the worth of saving ourselves if--by our own self-saving--we've killed what we stand for? *What, then, are we worth?*"

Claws had descended, scraping into Lucas's flesh. Miles had stood there, watching, his mind suddenly . . . frozen. Reeling. Frozen and reeling, unable to move and feeling time was moving too quickly, Miles had watched, stuck in his own private version of hell: a hell short in seconds, but long in psychological torture. His hell was still moving. His hell was still raging through his veins, through his mind, through his conscience.

What the hell was he, then, if a *fifteen year old boy* had more moral fiber than he had?

What the hell did that make him?

Miles wiped at tears as they streamed down his face, a damp sea he should have been crying days ago. How could . . . he choked.

God Almighty, *how could* a week--one puny, little week--have changed him so much? How could a week have changed him from . . . a man who would never harm a helpless soul . . . to what he now was . . . one who had stood and watched, unmoving, as a child was nearly beaten to death because he had the guts to stand against wrong?

He heard a soft rustling, then a moan. Brushing tears out of his eyes, Miles realized it had been Lucas. Quietly, he crawled to Lucas's side, gently taking the boy into his arms and whispering nonsense at him. He watched as Lucas tossed restlessly for a moment before falling back into unconsciousness.

Carefully, Miles brushed the hair out of Lucas's eyes. He studied the bruised, too-pale face, the scratches of claws on his neck where alien venom had seeped into Lucas's bloodstream. Most of the effects of the venom were over now, for it was a weaker dose than had been given O'Brien on his first day in the labor camp. He suspected that was not from any sense of reprieve on the alien's part, however; it was probably luck. He thought it might have something to do with alien stature--general size being roughly equal to venom strength--but he wasn't sure. He didn't really care, either.

The only thing that truly mattered to him right now was that Lucas seemed to be breathing reasonable well, and the pain appeared to have dissipated to livable levels.

And that, indeed, was now priceless to him, for Miles had vowed never again to allow the bastards to hurt Lucas.

He had also vowed to somehow never hurt another of their captor's alien test subjects. He wouldn't do it.

Lucas was right. There were more important things than simple survival. There *was * something more important than breathing in and out, in and out, for a seeming-eternity of days.

There was more to living, and Miles would never violate that "something more" simply to live one more day. He swore never to do so again.

~~*~~

Before either Lucas or Miles knew it, the alien jailers came to take them back to the lab. Miles watched as, slowly, Lucas arose and followed him. He was particularly worried at the boy's heavy limp. Though Lucas seemed to be doing much better this morning, he was still obviously not in the best shape.

They entered the lab, Lucas looking with nausea at their surroundings. Miles met the young man's eyes, then sighed. Quietly, Miles sent Lucas off for some chemicals--some of the more harmless ones, from what he'd seen--as he tried to figure out how on earth he was going to keep both of their skins from being flailed alive by their resident alien jailers.

He wasn't sure what they were going to do today. In fact, he wasn't sure of much of anything right now: himself, his ethics, his beliefs. Least of all was he sure of how he should act.

However, the question was soon answered for him as he saw the inky head, dark gray scales, and prominent forehead ridges of someone he would normally have considered his worst enemy . . . or pretty well close to it. Right now, though, that inky head looked like the nearest thing to salvation he had seen in years.

The man attached to the inky hair might not be the most ethically considerate individual in the universe, but he certainly had one distinct advantage: he was a master of intrigue. He was also someone Miles knew from his own dimension in space and time, which certainly made him a potential ally . . . to a degree, at least. One never went over "a degree," though, with this Cardassian.

"Garak!" Miles walked towards the Cardassian, looking quickly towards their captors. His eyes then slid back towards the man; they exchanged beakers, careful not to splash any of the liquid onto their skins. "What the hell are you doin' here?"

The Cardassian scowled, eyeing him darkly. Typical Garak condescension dripped from his voice when he coolly replied, "Why, mending clothes, of course, Chief O'Brien. What does it look like I'm doing?" Garak mumbled something that O'Brien couldn't quite overhear, but figured he was probably better off not knowing. "Now, if you could please be so kind, could you pass me my seam ripper? I seem to be missing it . . ."

O'Brien rolled his eyes, then smiled slightly as Lucas trudged over to join them. The boy hadn't, as of yet, been beaten for the day, which was far better than yesterday's explorations in instrument smashing. He did, however, look about to drop on his feet. The dark bruises so obvious in the darkness of their cave now glared from across his white skin, and his hands shook slightly as he handed O'Brien a small vial of smoking alien . . . whatever. He was, however, keeping up the pretense of following the prescribed working habits for the alien lab.

"Here, Miles, can you take this?" Lucas mumbled softly, somewhat awkwardly. He seemed grateful to be rid of the substance. He then turned towards the mysterious figure standing beside Miles: the Cardassian. "Hello, uh . . . ?"

"Ah, Lucas. This is Garak. He's a . . . resident of Deep Space Nine . . ."

Garak hurumphed. "Well, I *was* until two days ago, when I ended up *here* rather than *there* after a short . . . vacation . . ."

Miles snorted. He knew all too well what type of "vacation" Garak had likely been having: spies, secrets, back-stabbing, political assassination . . . something of that sort. Considering the Cardassian was a rumored spy for the Obsidian Order, there were all kinds of things he could likely do on a "vacation." Miles had no doubt that Garak had been doing something shady, at the very least.

Lucas looked from one to the other, wondering at their obvious hostility. His exhausted and aching mind then remembered that, not twenty-four hours ago, Miles had called Cardassians "Cardies." He, quite obviously, had his problems with the often militant race. He cleared his throat. "What . . ."

Lucas's voice suddenly trailed off as one of their captors glanced their way. However, after watching the trio exchange chemicals and mix the chemicals as ordered, the alien looked away.

But the alien's attention focused on a Bajoran who looked to be in even worse shape than Lucas. The man was battered, every inch of his skin bruised or cut. He could barely walk in a straight line. Lucas watched as the alien jailer focused its attention on the man, who looked about ready to collapse.

He swallowed hard, wondering if there was something he should do.

He was just moving towards the Bajoran, his own aching body protesting every motion, when O'Brien's Cardassian companion clamped a hand to his arm. The Cardassian subtly shook his head, then nudged Lucas back towards him.

Confused, Lucas obeyed; he didn't have much choice in the matter, though, for the Cardassian's grip was steel. But he had just about had enough of people holding him back from doing what he felt--no, what he *knew* --was right. Lucas's eyes narrowed. Angrily, Lucas hissed into the Cardassian ear, turning fiery eyes to the man, "Look . . . I don't know who you are, but that person needs help . . . and I plan on helping him right . . ."

The man shook his head, placing a quieting finger over Lucas's lips. Enraged, Lucas watched as O'Brien and the Cardassian briefly exchanged looks. He then watched--even more confused than before--as they turned their backs on the scene. Seeming to sense his anger, the Cardassian drew an arm around Lucas's shoulder, effectively stilling him . . . despite Lucas's every attempt to escape.

O'Brien and Garak passed beakers and vials of chemicals back and forth, silently doing their jobs. Garak kept his right arm over Lucas's shoulders, though, holding him solidly in place.

A tortured scream soon erupted from behind them. The voice echoed through the cavern, bouncing off the walls and striking back at Lucas from several directions. He twisted around several directions in Garak's grasp, but the Cardassian would not budge.

Tears sprung from Lucas's eyes as he finally twisted enough to see what had happened.

*Expendable.*

O'Brien had said they were expendable.

The Bajoran's gaze stared lifelessly at the ceiling. A smoking hole burned through his chest. This same Bajoran had only moments ago . . . moments . . . ago . . . walked . . . moved . . . breathed . . .

Lived.

God.

Slowly, Lucas started shaking. The trembling began in his fingers, then traveled to his arms, then down towards his legs. The shaking tore through him, gaining momentum as every muscle in his body started collapsing on him, quivering with shock. He stared blindly around him, mind unable to face the horror--yet another horror--he had just seen.

Just . . . just like . . . like that . . .

Seconds ago, that man had been working.

And now . . . now . . . he was dead.

Pain burned in his arm, and he looked up, horrified--terrified--to find Garak wrenching him around toward the chemicals and pressing an empty vial in his hands. Seconds of strained silence passed between them.

He was even more surprised when, moments later, a relieved sigh passed from the Cardassian's mouth.

Their eyes met. After a second's careful scanning of the area, Garak looked behind his shoulder. He nudged Lucas, and, puzzled, Lucas followed his gaze.

Behind them, not more than five feet away, stood one of their captors. The alien was swinging a bolt gun--Lucas assumed the same one that had been used on the hapless Bajoran--back and forth, back and forth . . . almost greedily.

Lucas swallowed, suddenly realizing what had almost happened. His trembling had drawn the guard's attention. The guard had come to . . . punish him for his lapse in concentration. To punish him, like yesterday, or perhaps worse.

If Garak hadn't twisted him around and stuck a vial in his shaking hands, he might very well have ended up just like that Bajoran: dead.

Lucas tried to sound his thanks to Garak, but found the words stuck in his frozen throat. He was grateful when Garak, looking at him intently, patted his hand.

He then mindlessly took the vial of chemicals O'Brien passed him. As they mixed chemicals back and forth, over and over, Miles looked around with wary eyes. They waited for the moment when their guards weren't looking, then surreptitiously dumped the chemicals into the ground and refilled the vials with harmless water.

Grateful, Lucas followed the charade. It was far better than yesterday had been, for, in this, O'Brien had suddenly agreed: they would no longer torture the victims stretched across those stone slabs. Their newest companion, Garak, seemed comfortable with the ruse, perhaps even relieved.

However, Lucas found his mind divided, his thoughts only partially focused on what they were doing. He found himself miserably trying not to think of the dead man lying several spans behind him . . . and trying not to wonder if he could have stopped that death had Garak and Miles only allowed him to do so.

Part 11

{TITLE, CENTERED} The Court of Lady Q: Part the First

Welcome, weary travelers! No, please do not be overly frightened, though imaginary voices are speaking to you even now . . . after all, good company is hard to find, and what better company can there be than the babbling voices of your own mind?

With . . . a few extra voices, too, of course, murmuring hauntingly within the confines of your teeming brain. But, Fair, Gentle Reader, please refrain from screaming for just one moment.

Look around yourself, and tell me what you see.

{PAUSE.}

Your eyes, oh Reader, travel across a world much changed since the last time you looked upon your surroundings. No longer are you in your own home, but you now find yourself, somehow, reclined lazily against a pile of velvet cushions and elaborate Persian rugs. Sprawled next to you are goblets of fine vintage wines, crystal perfume sprayers, decadent chocolates from every corner of the known world . . . jars overflowing with honey . . . vats of rich ruby mead, sparkling in the soft light trembling across the room . . .

Your eyes, quite surprised, focus on a new sight in front of you: sitting (rather uncomfortably, I might add) in a chair of hard edges and no cushions is the figure of someone . . . you seem to recognize, though as if from a dream. Your mind spins in concentration. Who could this be?

And why, why, is a scarlet napkin stuffed into her mouth?

Your ears perk as, suddenly, you hear a sound: "Mmmmwww wwaaass shhhh." Your eyebrows rise, for you do not understand the half-articulated mumble arising from this gagged person. Is this, perchance, an alien language? Again, the sound intrudes upon your peace: "Mmmmm wwwwiii nooowww!"

Caught between trying to understand this odd person sitting so uncomfortably in front of you . . . and tasting of the chocolate so invitingly tempting you . . . great surprise strikes your mind as yet another odd thing happens. Into the scene pops a new figure who, after glancing your way rather surreptitiously, proceeds to pose with dramatic flair.

The figure turns to you and says, loud voice filling the room, "Greetings, Reader! I am LINDA of Q: the weird, strange, odd, bizarre, insane ELF fanatic and Employer of the Mischievous Q . . ." More inarticulate bursts of outrage from the gagged figure. Linda Q grins mischievously, waving her finger at the gagged figure, as if scolding a naughty child. "Add evil and wicked . . . twisted . . . to that description. I am, of course, best known as . . . LADY Q."

Awareness gradually dawns on you. Is this not the same Lady Q who Q, that mischievous immortal, so grandly loves to annoy? You listen as Lady Q continues to explain your predicament: "This figure before us, the one who is currently gagged and sitting in that most uncomfortable of chairs, is SHERI. We are all here because of her."

You glare at Sheri. She, most audaciously, glares right back.

Grinning wickedly, as is her wont, Lady Q continues: "She is currently sitting before you because she has violated THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE OF ALL ELF WRITERS."

There is a dramatic pause, in which time Lady Q poses with hands raised and eyebrows arched. You begin to wonder if someone has tampered with your water to produce such odd and overly-dramatic hallucinations. This figment of your imagination continues to say, "What is that Rule? Why, Sheri Ann Denison has forced you, the Reader, to wait anxiously, impatiently, most annoyingly for her next installment of Infinity, that Crazy Crossover of Most Infinite Weirdness. Furthermore, she has persistently hinted at what shall be in the next installment, even as she refuses to produce the promised material."

Another dramatic pause. "As proof of this author's Most Terrible Crime, I offer Exhibit A." Lady Q waves her arms through the air, then snaps her fingers. Before you appears a replica email message, tauntingly floating just before your reach. On it reads the following:

So . . . what will happen? Will Lady Q fight off Bad Q for Sheri's rock?

Will aliens intervene?

Nope, well . . . maybe not the evil, gray aliens from "Infinity" which seemed to have disappeared off the face of the weird, multi-dimensional world which they inhabit (hint hint, Sheri)

Lady Q walks before you, a TOME OF DOOM within her hands. As you look closer, you see the words ELF WRITER’S CODE OF HONOR written across the cover in boldly glowing yellow letters. Lady Q flips to page 1,563, paragraph 5, subsection 2.5, and reads, "By no means shall an ELF writer taunt her audience ruthlessly with innuendo or non-subtle hints of what shall happen in future episodes, without immediately posting a segment of the said fiction within one week's time." Lady Q stops, looks my way, and snorts derisively. "Furthermore, if said ELF does proceed to conduct herself in such a hideously cruel manner, she shall be thrown before the Court of Lady Q and All ELFdom, who shall her punishment decide."

Lady Q snaps the book shut, grinning wickedly. "That, Dear and Most Patient Reader, is why you are here."

You move around excitedly upon your pile of luxurious cushions. Lady Q watches, then says, voice once more dramatic, "You must decide her Fate. Here's the challenge. Sheri must write a fully complete installment of Infinity with much humor and devious plotting . . ." A pause fills the air. "Or suffer the consequences she will . . ."

Now, you wonder if Lady Q realizes she sounds like Yoda.

"You must decide, O Reader, what torments Sheri, writer of Infinity, shall suffer for her trespasses." She grins. "And to help in your decision, I have compiled the following Trespass Torments from which you may select."

Lady Q waves her hands like a wacky magician, and at each flick of her wrist a bubble appears over her head, a glowing lightbulb within each bubble. "And first of the Trespass Torments shall be this . . ."

She snaps her fingers; your eyes widen, and widen, and widen . . . as the most bizarre scene ever to be witnessed plays before your dazed eyes . . .

{PAUSE. The scene suddenly disappears, just as you are able to see the whole picture . . . and now you find yourself back in your room, frustrated, wondering if what you saw was really there . . . or just a figment of your own imagination. Was it real? Was it a dream? Only time can tell . . .}

Suddenly, out of the thin air itself, a paper airplane spins towards you, heading directly for your head. You gasp. The paper airplane lands magically within your hand, then unfolds itself with a sounding of trumpets.

Your eyes widen. Before you burns a message, penned in flaming letters--literally flaming, for tongues of fire delicately wreathe across the surface:

Stay Tuned, O Reader, as the Saga continues in . . . The Court of Lady Q!

You groan, belatedly realizing that you should have expected this. After all, is it not printed within the ELF WRITER’S CODE OF HONOR that all ELF stories must have some sort of dementedly cruel cliffhanger?

Growling, you stomp away from the Burning Message . . . only to find yourself sucked into yet another crazy scene, this one on Deep Space Nine.

~*

Nathan Hale Bridger, Captain of the *Infinity,* sat staring at nothing. He frowned, lines marking themselves almost angrily into his skin. Before him, shaking his head with equal anger, was Captain Benjamin Sisko of Deep Space Nine. They were sitting in Sisko's office, realizing, for the first time, the depth of their problem.

Sisko agitatedly picked up his baseball--a battered relic of the twentieth century and one of his fondest tools for stress reduction--and shuffled it between his large hands, from time to time looking across his desk at his guest. Bridger continued to scowl, staring with fixed fascination at his own feet.

Finally, Bridger looked up. He broke the silence. "This is absurd. Ridiculous. Insane. In fact, there aren't any words for it. I just can't believe this." He paused, then exhaled loudly, trying to loosen his nerve-wracked muscles. After a second, he ran a slightly trembling hand through his hair. "I . . . just . . . *cannot* . . . believe . . . this."

Sisko sighed. He sympathized with the Captain, for he felt the same way. Who *could* believe it? It was the most idiotic thing he'd ever heard of. Hell, it was worse than one of the notoriously stupid jokes played by that immortal fiend Q. In fact, right now, Ben would give much for this to be just a joke played by Q; he'd even laugh himself to tears. However, he knew it wasn't a Q joke. Not even Q had this bad a sense of humor.

The truth was simple. This *mess* was their reality, and denying it did them no good.

After a blink and a shake of his head, Bridger tapped his com badge. He hated to do it, but he had no choice; he needed to talk to Krieg, and he needed to talk to the man now. Unfortunately, he also knew that Krieg couldn't zap himself into a shuttle and simply fly on over. No . . . nothing could be that simple around here.

Bridger momentarily wondered if both he and Sisko were cursed. It certainly appeared that way, given what was happening.

To make a bad situation even worse, for whatever reason, DS9's docking ring was currently refusing to operate. It plain would not operate: no ands, buts, or ifs about it. No ships could pull in, and no ships could pull out. According to Sisko, this catastrophe had been driving both his crew and DS9's customers insane for the last five days, but . . . well, since Sisko was missing his Chief Engineer, no one had yet been able to fix the problem.

Of course, the reason they just happened to be missing their Chief Engineer was anything but comforting. One week ago, Chief Miles O'Brien had, "coincidentally," disappeared just as he was transporting planet-side for a mission. Yeah, right: coincidentally. Bridger had never believed in coincidences, and he most certainly wasn't going to start doing so now. As he thought of the Engineer's mysterious disappearance, Bridger's voice was practically growling when he addressed Commander Ford. "Commander, beam Lieutenant Krieg over to Ops. Now."

There was a second's pause on the other side of the link; Bridger could almost imagine the Commander's mind racing with questions, most of them probably wondering just what Krieg had done to get himself into trouble this time. However, the Captain wasn't in the mood to clarify the situation. Not now. He didn't even want to admit that there was a situation.

"Aye, Captain." A brief silence filled the air before Ford announced, "Beaming him over right now, sir. He's all yours."

*Great,* Bridger thought with a mental sigh. He shifted in his chair, then watched through the open doors of Sisko's office as the static energy of a transport beam slowly coalesced into the figure of Lieutenant Benjamin Krieg. The man looked like a convicted felon about to face his own death sentence. Krieg was shifting nervously from one foot to the next, looking around him with wide eyes at DS9's Ops room. His eyes widened as he saw Major Kira Nerys glare at him with her fierce green eyes, her red head nodding him towards Sisko's office. Krieg's eyes widened, and he cautiously approached the office, a knight walking straight into the lair of a dragon.

Bridger snorted at this image. Krieg, a knight. Not quite. He'd be more like the thief trying to sneak up on the dragon to steal its gold.

As Bridger studied Lieutenant Krieg, he sighed. The man looked positively guilty, though he knew, in this, that Krieg had truly had nothing to do with the problem. He had just been the situation's unfortunate victim. However, Krieg's face reminded him of many a criminal about to face the executioner.

Sisko was staring at Krieg when Bridger turned to glance at DS9's Captain. Eyes rising towards the top of his bald head, Sisko asked, "That's him? The man that escaped from . . . wherever he was?"

Bridger could well understand his misgivings. Where Krieg was concerned, he usually felt them himself on at least a weekly basis. "Yeah, that's him." He nearly smirked at the stricken expression on Sisko's face; the expression was priceless. In fact, in Bridger's experience, almost all reactions to Krieg were priceless. "He's the one that escaped the aliens."

Sisko stared at Bridger, openly skeptical. Bridger really couldn't blame Sisko for the skepticism. What man looking at Krieg wouldn't wonder how on earth the man managed to keep himself out of the Brig more than three hours at a time? When considering that Krieg had most miraculously escaped hostile aliens no one else--from DS9 or Infinity--seemed able to even find, his escape seemed more of a . . . hallucination.

Of course, Bridger knew better. He knew that Krieg's escape had been orchestrated by someone else . . . and that that someone else was still in the hands of the aliens.

*If* he were still alive.

The longer he stayed in their hands, Bridger knew the more likely it was that Lucas Wolenczak might never reach come out alive.

Krieg jumped as the doors to Sisko's office closed behind him, then cleared his throat as he turned towards Captain Bridger. "Uh . . . sir . . . what can I do for you?"

"Well, Lieutenant, it seems Captain Sisko is in the same situation we are." He watched Krieg's eyes blink before elaborating, "They're missing a couple members of their crew. The crewmembers disappeared when they were transporting over."

Krieg's eyes widened as his face lost all color. After a moment, he swallowed hard, looking from one captain to the next.

"I'd like you to recount everything that happened. I'm hoping there might be some clues we've missed." Bridger sighed, really not thinking it would help, but more than glad to at least feel like they were doing something to solve the problem. "There could be something to help us find Mr. Wolenczak and DS9's crew."

Krieg nodded. As Sisko gestured him towards a chair, the lieutenant quietly sat down and proceeded to tell his story, covering everything from the frozen alien wasteland to the alien claws reaching for him from the suddenly melting rock. As he discussed his escape, Bridger frowned sympathetically; Krieg looked like he wished he could hit something, anything, to change what had happened. The fact that the escape hadn't even been his doing clearly troubled Krieg, considering he'd been the one to make it back to safety while his companion--the one who'd actually figured out how to escape the alien landscape--had been captured.

Sisko cleared his throat as the last of the story was told. He glanced briefly at Bridger. "I'm sorry this happened, Lieutenant. And I appreciate your telling me what happened, though I know it wasn't a comfortable tale to tell."

Krieg only nodded, his eyes trained on the floor.

After a second's silence, Sisko rubbed tiredly at his eyes, making Bridger realize just how tired he was, too. They'd been working non-stop on bringing Lucas Wolenczak back; he'd simply forgotten to eat or sleep for the past day. As thoughts of food suddenly snapped into his fatigued brain, Bridger's stomach growled.

"Well . . ." Bridger began, hearing his stomach growl once more. He noticed Sisko's partially hidden smile and tried not to roll his eyes. "I think our best bet might be to work together on this. Our missing crewmembers are most likely in the same place. And, from what Lieutenant Krieg has said, I'd say their time is limited. We need to get them back now."

"Agreed. We could start with . . . hmmm . . ." Sisko sighed, thinking. He shrugged. "I suppose we could start with the transporter logs. My crew's been combing them from top to bottom, looking for anything that might help, but my Chief Engineer was one of the ones taken. They simply might have missed something your Chief Engineer might notice."

"Yeah. I'll have Commander Hitchcock look over your records, just to be sure. I'll also have Dr. Westphalen run a cross-comparison analysis between the two records. With any luck, she may find something there . . ." Bridger yawned, wishing like hell he wasn't so tired. He had things to do, records to examine . . . lives to save. He didn't have time to be tired. This was especially true with more than one life on the line. "I'll have you download the information to my ship. We'll do the same for you. Any other . . ." Bridger stifled another yawn. " . . . suggestions?"

Sisko momentarily considered telling Bridger to get some sleep, but thought better of it; he knew Bridger was too much like himself to sleep when a member of his crew faced danger. Instead, he simply shook his head. "No, that should do it. I'll tell my people what happened to you, Lieutenant. Maybe they'll see something here that we've missed."

Krieg nodded, glad to feel they were, at least, continuing to work on the problem. He just prayed they found something.

"So . . . if there's nothing more . . . I guess that's it for now."

Bridger yawned, blinking his eyes to focus them. "No, nothing more. I'll keep in touch, Captain." With that, and an acknowledging nod from Sisko, the Captain tapped his com badge. "Commander? Two to beam over."

He was rubbing his eyes tiredly, wishing he could find a pillow upon which to lay his head, when the transporter kicked in. A warm tickle coursed through his body, and he waited for the transport to finish.

Seconds later, his skin prickled with freezing cold. Wind blasted against his thinly protected skin.

Bridger's eyes snapped open.

A familiar voice ripped into his thoughts. "No!" Krieg's voice shouted, fear ringing clearly through the man's voice. "No . . . no . . . *no!*"

Slowly, Bridger's eyes focused. He blinked, wishing what he saw would just disappear. But it didn't.

"This has to be someone's idea of a really bad joke," Krieg whispered at last, his eyes pleading for their situation to change . . . for someone to appear from nowhere and tell them this was just some holosuite projection. Unfortunately, Bridger couldn't lie to the Lieutenant. This was no holosuite projection. Krieg continued, "It's gotta' be."

No one's luck was this bad. However, Bridger suspected that this was no joke as, now fully alert, he looked around himself.

Darkness surrounded him, a night so black that Bridger wondered if it ever ended, if there ever were a time when light shined in this desolate world. Scraping up from the frozen ground were harsh gray rocks, each angled cruelly, as if some giant had been shaping the rocks into weapons. He heard the howl of winds as they bitingly blew what little warmth he had away . . .

His eyes suddenly shot wide open as he realized something. The howls weren't from the wind.

Bloody, bloody hell and damnation, those howls were coming from . . .

Bridger had no time to complete his thought, for, turning, he felt Krieg grip his arm and yank him after him. The two ran at break-neck speed, jumping across the jagged rocks in front of them. A rush of images blurred past Bridger's vision. Claws erupted from the earth itself, rock suddenly shattering . . . then melting into molten lava . . . as the claws grasped for their feet. They jumped over the claws raking at their legs, swerving desperately as they continued to run.

Krieg yelled in pain as a claw ripped into his leg. Claws abruptly covered his leg, each grasping at him from the broken ground, a hiss ringing through the air. Nails chattered against one another, gripping the Lieutenant's flesh and snagging against tender muscles and tendons.

Screams of agony, pain.

More agony filled the air as Bridger, too, felt the claws tear into his flesh . . . as his own blood oozed into the once-hardened ground . . . as blackness finally dropped upon him.

~~*~~

{Title, Centered} The Court of Lady Q: Part the Second

Welcome back, oh weary travelers, to the Court of Lady Q!

The scene is now familiar. Decadently luxurious pillows pile upon the floor, chocolates of every kind heap upon fine china, goblets of wine scatter in every direction. And, in the middle of the room, in the same uncomfortable chair, with the very same red napkin stuffed in her infuriating mouth, sits none other than SHERI . . .

She is growling, trying to convince all hearers that she really, really shouldn’t be tortured. She even tries to look innocent, though anyone can easily see that the "innocent look" works about as well on her as it does on the Cheshire Cat, that mischief-creating feline whose main target in life is to wreak havoc and mayhem upon all.

LADY Q suddenly arrives in a puff of fairy-dust laden smoke. She glances around herself, then--dramatically, making sure she has the audience’s full, undivided attention--snaps her fingers.

The room is overrun by all of ELFdom; a large and dauntingly insane looking crowd it is, too! A babble of voices assaults the air as ELFs from all corners of the planet (and even some from off world) speak at the same time. All is pandemonium. Over there sits CHANCE, trying (with mixed results) to keep ELFy seated and out of trouble. Over there is AT, who is hiding her "Weakest Link" manuscript from curious and rabid elves . . . sorry, ELFs.

Over there, trying to get into trouble, is AKIRA, whose Pickachu is, like Vader, up to some form of mischief. Mel is currently talking to her favorite wall, asking it for the exact center of the universe in a mad pursuit after spherical evolution--and fully expecting an answer. GHOSTGAL, SAILOR VULCAN, and the COW are whispering together . . . surely plotting some scheme? Judging by the grins upon their faces, the scheme is rather good. And over there is ALEXIA, who is being inundated with ELF snippets . . .

KATIE HITCHCOCK makes her grand entrance, eyes laughingly crinkled at the corners as she surveys the courtroom; behind her, dragging in three naughty ELFs accused of being late to their court summons, is SECURITY CHIEF CROCKER. The three naughty ELFs--SPARKY, MO, and SEA STAR--waltz in after Crocker, looking for all the mischief. Just as they are wondering if there are actually *more* ELFs in residence here, the doors crash open once more.

MARGARET and her fish Shadow enter the scene, rushing in with LUCAS and TIM chasing them, Shadow’s bowl sloshing back and forth as Margaret runs. However, as yet, no information has been forthcoming on why Lucas and Tim feel they must chase Margaret; hmmm . . . a mystery to be solved? KAREL races in a moment later, a funny grin on her face as she carries a box marked MYSTERIOUS STRANGE SIDEKICK (is it really Opus the Penguin? Hmmm . ..).

In the far corner, eyes gleaming in fierce defiance, is STARGAZR, who is currently battling off *seaQuest* pirates. MISSY and her pet muse Kirby soon join the fray, even as Missy gives her very best wicked cackle; unfortunately, none of the pirate seaQuesters seem overly concerned, for

they only grin in delight. BRIDGER fights Stargazr, sword in hand, as Stargazr prepares to lasso Bridger and his pirating crew. KRIEG battles Missy, a devious leer upon his face.

Doors originally invisible suddenly crash open. In stride HOLLY and ALICIA, both grinning wickedly as they approach Lady Q. For a moment, the room silences, as all eyes fall upon the trio. With eyes still glowing, Holly removes a gigantic scroll from her pocket (though, most interestingly, the pocket is far too small to contain the scroll). She hands the scroll to Lady Q.

With a dramatic pose, Lady Q opens the scroll. It unrolls . . . and unrolls . . . and unrolls, stretching, finally, across the entirety of the court room. Stargazr’s Pirate Bridger neatly trots around it, then continues to attack Stargazr, even as she tries to follow the conversation.

Lady Q clears her throat. "Today, oh fellow ELFs, we decide Sheri’s fate. But first, we shall review her crimes. I shall read only from the abbreviated version." Lady Q looks at the scroll. A pause of silence follows as everyone anxiously awaits the indictments against Evil Sheri.

"Here are her crimes, fellow ELFs." Lady Q’s index finger rises into the air with a flourish. A blazing bolt of lightening appears, and each indictment is written in true thunderbolt fashion. "1. Refusal to write on a regular basis." A thunderbolt rages through the court, distracting the audience for a moment. Lady Q continues, now producing two thunderbolts.

"2. Cheesy commentaries directed towards unsuspecting ELFs via email." Lady Q clears her throat on this one, glancing quickly towards Mel and Chance, who are snickering.

"3. Threats to torture and endanger other ELFs with the presence of her Evil Muse Vader." Again, Lady Q looks towards Chance, who gulps, immediately hiding ELFy behind her.

"4. Worse yet . . . the Cliffhangers of Doom." Lady Q directs a withering glare atSheri, then at all of ELFdom. Several ELFs (who shall remain anonymous) shift nervously under that glare. "Those are the crimes. Let us learn the punishments."

With a whip of Lady Q’s hand, a glowing bubble appears. Alicia grabs it--jumping up and down several times to reach its hovering form—before she slowly circles the courtroom. Within it is a picture of horrific incongruity . . . one that makes all ELFs shudder as one at the twisted imagination capable of producing such an idea.

For within BUBBLE NUMBER ONE, Q and Vader traipse along in terribly tacky tangerine tutu’s. Shrieks of horror fill the air as, slowly, Q and Vader begin line-dancing inside the bubble. Sheri sits in the middle of the bubble, forced to watch. She starts running madly as she, too, is drawn into the line-dance.

The bubble bursts, but not before Q’s ominous "Bwaaahaaaahaaa!" rings throughout the court.

Abruptly, uncontrolled giggles erupt. Sheri pales considerably.

It would appear that all of ELFdom *likes* Trespass Torment One!

And what will the next Trespass Torment be? Tune in, O Reader, next time for the full list!

:: Yet another cliffhanger . . . in the prequel itself! :: Moans and groans fill the air . . .

{Now, for even more insanity, allow me to drag you kicking and screaming back into the dark caves of Infinity . . . where monsters await . . .}

~~*~~

Bridger’s eyes slowly opened. Lights, shadows, strange tubes seemingly spiraling in a million directions . . . none of it made sense. He blinked his eyes, wondering if he’d hit his head. And then he noticed the gray shape hovering above him.

Something big and gray was staring at him. Something *extremely* big and gray. Dark eyes glowed at him, like a cat’s eyes spotted in the moonlight: an eerie, disturbing glow. A huge black robe draped across the creature’s figure, material seeming to float everywhere at once.

Perplexed, Bridger tried to move his arms, his legs, his neck--anything. But, most alarmingly, he found he couldn’t. He simply couldn’t move anything. Bridger crushed the feelings of panic even now beating at his mind, and looked back at the creature leaning above him. The gray thing made a sound, reaching down to remove a cover of . . . well, it wasn’t glass, but that was about the closest Bridger could describe it. It had extended over the length of him, glowing slightly with a strange luminescence. After a second, Bridger found the bindings holding him had been removed, too. He carefully sat up.

The creature made a sound, a cross somewhere between a hiss and a sibilant "th." Bridger watched, curious, as scales glittered softly in the half-light swimming throughout the room. The skin seemed gray, but, oddly, it had some sort of opalescence to it, making it seem almost multi-tinted, like a jewel.

Again, the creature spoke, this time moving its large claws quickly through the air. "Mhyaari lissskana shhsshhhorr," whispered the alien’s words. Bridger shivered slightly, finding the language’s sibilance almost frightening in its alien tones. He was used to alien languages; he even knew Klingon and a little Kardasi. However, he rarely had to work with alien languages themselves; the Universal Translator took care of that problem for him. Yet there certainly wasn’t a Universal Translator here. And he’d never heard a language like this, one where the "s" sound prevailed, almost seeming to slither across the ears of its listeners. "Mahasss tosssar sisss’eee’sss." (1)

When Bridger could do nothing but stare at him uncomprehendingly, the alien hissed, then looked around the room quickly . . . Bridger would have sworn, if he wasn’t misinterpreting the scene with his own human feelings and emotions, that the alien was nervous. The eyes darted several directions; the creature’s breathing quickened slightly; its claws moved up and down, up and down in distraction. For all he knew, the alien was propostioning him; however, he didn’t think so. The motions seemed oddly familiar, exactly like something a human would do.

And then it removed from the draped folds of its robe a heavily battered, scratched, somewhat malformed di-corder.

Bridger stared. This was the instrument . . . it had to be the same . . . the very same di-corder Lucas Wolenczak had used to contact the *Infinity!* It *had* to be the same one!

His eyes widened further as the creature, once more frantically looking around them, handed him the di-corder. Its black eyes watched him, apparently waiting for him to do . . . something.

Bridger tinkered with the little pad for a moment, pushing several of its buttons; he was relieved when the entry display lit up. It was, at least, working. He didn’t know if any of it was damaged, but it was working. That was certainly a plus.

As the creature continued to stare expectantly at him, though, Bridger suddenly wondered if it somehow had it in its head that he could run the damned thing. He could turn it on. He could turn it off. He could do a few other things with it, such as scan for dimensional activity and the like.

However, he sure as hell couldn’t program the thing. Only a rare few could do that. Most people just used it for scanning purposes, if they used it all.

In fact, the only one he’d known able to successfully *program* one of these darn things was Lucas Wolenczak . . . and he didn’t even truly *know* the boy. He’d only spoken with him over the comlink for a moment or two and yelled the ears off of Admiral Noyce about his unsolicited assignment aboard the *Infinity.* And damn all idiots to hell, but he sure hoped he still got the chance to meet him, considering the boy had been missing for a ridiculously long time in this forsaken wasteland of a planet.

The alien abruptly moved away from him, forcing Bridger to look up in alarm. However, the creature was simply leaning over another slab like the one he himself was sitting upon. Bridger watched as it removed the strange glass-like cover, then removed what looked like, from his angle, tubular bindings.

He heard a groan, then his eyes flew wide. He knew that groan. Lord knew he’d heard it enough after a certain Lieutenant indulged in the booze a bit too much, especially booze of the alien variety. It was Krieg.

Without waiting for permission, Bridger hopped down from his slab, di-corder in hand. He quickly reached the alien’s side and peered down. Yes, it was Krieg, looking almost as battered as the di-corder, but seeming okay other than the scratches running down his neck. Even they seemed to be in the process of healing. "Krieg? How do you feel?"

Krieg groaned, then mumbled something indistinguishable. Bridger leaned in, trying to catch the Lieutenant’s speech. "What? I couldn’t hear you there."

"Forrible," Krieg mumbled before clearing his throat. He suddenly coughed, then stared at the dirt that caked his fingers after coughing. He sniffled. "I . . . shmwpeel . . ." Krieg sputtered softly for a moment. "I *feel* like . . . I just ate a mud pie." Krieg coughed again. Bridger’s eyebrows rose as Krieg wiped more dirt from the corners of his mouth; Bridger knew he hadn’t woke up with dirt in the mouth. He suspected he was very fortunate, indeed. He remembered telling himself, as the claws drug them into the ground, not to breathe the dirt, knowing it could suffocate him. "Where . . . are we?"

Bridger looked at the alien standing beside him, then shrugged as it turned its unfathomable eyes upon him. "I have no idea. We haven’t exactly been able to establish a working alphabet." Bridger stopped abruptly, realizing that he was sounding a lot like Krieg. He breathed deeply, forcing the strained sarcasm from his voice. "Guess we’re somewhere in the alien . . . territory, I’d imagine. Judging by the beds here, I’d say a medical room or something."

Krieg sighed, playing with his tattered pants leg. He then looked back at his Captain. "Sir, is Lucas here? Any sign of him?"

"No, not yet." He glanced around at the row of beds. "He could be in here, though. Unfortunately, it’s hard to say."

After a second’s thought, Bridger turned to the alien. He gestured at himself and at the Lieutenant, then raised his hands to his face, trying to quickly suggest the face of another human being; finally, he lifted his hands in a questioning gesture. He repeated the gestures as the alien stared at him in confusion.

After a minute filled with strange gestures and varying degrees of confusion, the alien seemed to understand. Its scales suddenly clattered together--Bridger wondered if that was the alien’s version of an exclamation--as it gestured for Krieg to get up. Krieg instantly shot up from his bed, staring at the alien with the first hope he’d felt since waking up aboard the *Infinity* and discovering that Lucas was still in captivity.

Bridger and Krieg exchanged glances. Slowly, Bridger shrugged at the obvious question in Krieg’s eyes. Krieg was obviously wondering if this alien could be trusted. "He already gave me this," he said, holding up the di-corder for the Lieutenant’s inspection. Krieg’s eyes widened at the sight of his own di-corder. "I don’t think he’d give it to me if he wasn’t, for whatever reason, on our side."

Excitement glimmered in Krieg’s eyes. He grinned. "Let’s go! He’s gotta’ be here somewhere, Captain. He has to be!" Krieg stared at the alien, trying to keep his grin to a minimum for fear of scaring the creature. Who knew? To them, a grin could seem like . . . an insult. However, he wasn’t overly successful at hiding his elated smile. "Hang on, buddy, we’re coming . . ." He whispered, energy suddenly buzzing through every muscle in his body.

The alien gestured them to follow him, waving his claws in their general direction and walking towards a rupture in the wall in front of them. Bridger could tell, by the material composing it, that it was part of a cave wall. So. Their captors seemed to be cave dwellers. That could make escape a bit more difficult, but they’d think of something.

He hoped.

Suddenly, the alien stopped before the entry, gesturing for them, too, to stop. It looked surprised: its scales clattered loudly, sounding like a drum set crashing to the ground. Bridger and Krieg waited anxiously as the creature hissed something in its odd language. "Mwwar kon’tillsss ssissh onnn." The sounds drifted past their ears. "T’yyyrkkskr sslrsss!" (2)

Even Bridger could hear anger in the voice. The voice rose in pitch, "Myrorrikk!" (3)

And then new voices joined the fray. Two heads peered through the entry. "Shalor," spoke the new arrivals. Bridger could have sworn the word was a curse, judging by the anger resonating through it. "Shalor ooklakk. T’yyyrkkskr mir." (4)

Two more heads appeared, quickly uttering, "Shalor," even as they turned cold, impersonal eyes upon Bridger and Krieg. One of them even seemed to sneer. "Myorrikk mir nayl’essk’org. Nadali." (5)

Bridger and Krieg continued to stare. Cautiously, his mind telling him that things were looking progressively worse, Bridger stashed the di-corder beneath the back collar of his turtleneck, all the time praying the damn thing wouldn’t fall out on their way to wherever it was they were going. The four creatures entered the room, walking to their sides with great speed. Bridger noticed the clothing was no longer black, but green. Judging by the fact that all of them wore the same green clothing in the exact same cut, Bridger guessed that--all things considered--it was likely these green outfits were really uniforms. But uniforms for what? Really, that was the question. Were these aliens military? Were they spies, part of some intelligence network? Were they bodyguards? Were they . . . something entirely different?

Bridger’s throughts were quickly interrupted by an alien claw. "Nadali!" One shouted, then grabbed Bridger by the elbow. Another grabbed Krieg with a hissed, "Nadali mir!"

Before they could say a word more, Bridger and Krieg were wrenched away from the medical room. Looking back, his eyes wide, Krieg saw the large black-robed creature simply standing without motion, almost helplessly watching as they were dragged away.

Bridger glanced at the Lieutenant, then hissed as a claw dug into his shoulder--not enough to break the skin, but certainly enough to hurt. With a muttered curse to all of alien-kind and temporal anomalies, Bridger followed the creature as quickly as his legs would go. His curse intensified when he noticed that they were going further and further underground . . . and that the lighting was becoming increasingly dark.

He didn’t know where they were going, but, somehow, he suspected he wasn’t going to like it one bit.

As he trudged along beside Bridger, the only thought Krieg had on his mind was Lucas: was the boy here, too?

And if so, was he still alive?

Feeling something jab him in the side as he momentarily slowed down to catch his breath, Krieg sincerely uttered every prayer he had ever known in hopes that Lucas was still alive . . . and that they were heading right towards him.

~~*~~

Rough translation of alien phrases:

1) Mhyaari lissskana shhsshhhorr. Greetings, pale/light skin. Mahasss tosssar sisss’eee’sss. Do not frighten--safe [you are].

2) Mwwar kon’tillsss ssissh onnn. Mine [they are]. I take them. T’yyyrkkskr sslrsss! My right [it is]!

3) Myrorrikk! Fool!

4) Shalor. Doctor. Shalor ooklakk. T’yyyrkkskr mir. Doctor Ooklakk [his name]. Prisoners [they are] below.

5) Shalor. Doctor. Myorrikk mir nayl’essk’org. Fool prisoners come with me now [you will]. Nadali. Good-bye [to the Doctor].

Part 12

Krieg looked at the cavern they’d been shoved into. It wasn’t pretty, that much was for certain. Tall walls surrounded them on all sides: no entrances, no doors. Nothing. He wondered how the hell anyone got in and out of these caverns, then shook his head in self-disgust. Of course, there was only one way in or out, and that would, surely, be at the whim of their captors: they, obviously, could melt rock. Krieg only wished he could, too, so he could get his Captain and Lucas the hell out of here . . . after he found the boy (not "if," but "after").

Nervously, Ben paced, watching as Captain Bridger knelt to inspect yet another rock for what Krieg swore must have been the hundredth time. They’d been in here for . . . probably about three hours, if Krieg were any guess. So far, they’d managed to just about drive each other insane. Ben couldn’t stop pacing. He couldn’t help nervously walking around the room and hoping something would miraculously show itself as the perfect escape route out of here. He snorted mentally. *Yeah, right.* Next, he’d be asking for Q to pop in and solve the whole mess for him.

Of course, if that meant all of them were able to escape in one piece, perhaps calling Q wasn’t such a bad idea. But, the problem was, he’d already tried it: three times. Still no Q, unfortunately.

Captain Bridger flipped out the di-corder for yet another helpless inspection. Krieg sighed as silently as possible, wishing that one of them knew how to use the stupid thing. What good was a scanning device if no one but the truly intellectually elite could use it? After scowling at its unhelpful screen for several more minutes, Bridger lifted his hand to throw the di-corder against the nearest wall.

However, just as Krieg was sure the Captain would destroy the annoying little device, Bridger inhaled sharply and, carefully, placed it back in his turtleneck. He scratched at his chin, then looked at Krieg.

He was opening his mouth to speak when the cave wall to their immediate right suddenly dissolved. Bridger stared, struck completely speechless.

Two figures were shoved inside: one slender and blond-haired, standing several inches above his fellow’s shoulders; the other short and squat and . . . Bridger blinked, then truly stared. The fellow looked like a hedgehog with mottled skin. Even in the muted light of their cave, Bridger could see--almost blindingly--the glare of the . . . creature’s purple and hot pink striped jacket and neon green pants. The fellow just about glowed in the dark.

He glanced at Krieg, who also was staring. No, not even Krieg, the often tasteless wearer of shockingly bright colors, could top this one.

The two figures stumbled into the cave. Bridger could hear both of the men curse under their breaths, each nearly falling flat on the face. His ears perked as he heard one of them shout, "You won’t get away with this!" The voice strengthened, its owner’s arms flapping violently in the air. "The Captain will blow you and your blasted caverns away if you don’t let us go!"

The aliens, it seemed, were unimpressed with the man’s threat. The hole in the cave simply . . . transformed into solid wall.

Bridger approached the two men, looking from one to the other as they took note of their surroundings. As he approached, the hedgehog looked up at him, startled, then smiled. "Hello . . . hello there! See, Tom, there is another human being in this mess of caverns and . . . strange places . . . and unutterably dark, dank scenery!"

Bridger stared at this, brows shooting up in perplexity. Dank scenery? Was that all the man could think about when aliens held him in captivity in the middle of nowhere with little to no possibility of escape?

The blond caught the look and snickered. "Sorry," he apologized for the hedgehog, smiling affectionately but shaking his head all the same. "He’s the morale officer of our ship. He’s just having problems coping with serious morale deboosters right now . . ."

Well, Bridger supposed that was an understatement. Feeling someone standing at his right shoulder, he looked over to see Krieg, who was staring at the golden-haired guy with interest. Bridger sighed. "Well, I suppose introductions are in order here. I’m Captain Nathan Bridger of the Federation Starship *Infinity.* This is Lieutenant Ben . . ."

Suddenly, Ben interrupted, "I know you!" He looked from the blond to Bridger, who was staring at him with surprise. "I know him, sir. From the Academy."

The blond groaned. Bridger looked at him with surprise. With a seemingly nonchalant shrug of the shoulders, the man pointed at himself. "I’m Ensign Tom Paris, Chief Helmsman aboard the Starship *Voyager.*" Bridger’s brows rose even higher. By all accounts, the Starship *Voyager* and its crew were lost, purportedly in the Delta Quadrant. They’d been moving rather quickly through the Badlands outside Cardassia Prime and Bajor when they were, suddenly, struck by what seemed to be a spatial anomaly.

Abruptly, Bridger groaned. Damn. Not another anomaly. Hell, spatial anomalies seemed more common than normal space. Maybe the anomalies really were normal space, and normal space actually was the anomaly . . .

He shook his head, tuning back into the conversation. Ensign Paris was still speaking: "And, yes, you probably know all kinds of rude things about me. Son of Admiral Paris, Starfleet flunky, Maquis traitor . . . that about sums it up. So . . . if you’ve heard of me, that’s why."

Bridger stared at him, then glanced at Ben; if he wasn’t mistaken, there was a lot of similarity between the two officers. From what he’d always heard of Paris, the man could get into trouble under the most innocent circumstances. Of course, he was the Admiral’s worst-kept secret: everyone in Starfleet knew about that particular skeleton in the closet. Tom Paris was the Admiral’s Son who had lied about an accident, gotten caught flying for the Maquis, ended up in prison . . . and then ended up as a consultant in the hunt for Commander Chakotay, his one-time superior officer of the Maquis.

An interesting case, definitely; Bridger just hoped they could trust the man not to betray them to the aliens at the first chance he got.

As for Paris’s companion, Bridger just shook his head. He knew looks were often deceiving, but this . . . well, he wasn’t about to put his safety, or that of Lucas Wolenczak and Benjamin Krieg, in this creature’s hairy, garish hands.

However, there was certainly a plus side to all this: these two were, at the very least, on their side--assuming Paris didn’t try to sell them to the highest bidder, of course. These were two more people with whom they could plot their escape. Now, if only they could find Lucas . . . Bridger would feel much better about their prospects. At least Lucas knew how to program the damned di-corder.

"Ah," Bridger began noncommentally, meeting the Ensign’s heated eyes with calm. He smiled slightly. "I thought you were over in the Delta Quadrant . . . or something like that."

The hedgehog nodded excitedly, extending his hand towards Bridger. "Yes, most indeed, Captain!" He smiled, practically beaming goodness and cheer in the dark cavern. Bridger shook his head in wonder. "I’m Nelix, the *Voyager’s* morale officer and cook. And we’re definitely still in the Delta Quadrant, my home."

Bridger rubbed at his chin, looking the little man over--as if examining for drugs. The Delta Quadrant. How . . . ? A multitude of questions rumbled through his brain. The Delta Quadrant was seventy light years away. What he was hearing simply didn’t make sense. It wasn’t possible. You didn’t just cross seventy light years in a manner of minutes.

Finally, though, he sighed. "Unless I’m very much mistaken, this *isn’t* the Delta Quadrant. This is the good, old-fashioned Alpha Quadrant. How on earth did you end up here?"

Paris snorted, indignantly shaking his head. "Just like you. We got shanghaied by the damned aliens." Bridger had to admit, Paris had a point on that one. If the aliens could simply--whisk them away from their homes at any given time, who was to say they couldn’t also cross quadrants, eons, universes? It was possible. In fact, Bridger was beginning to think that anything initially sounding highly ludicrous was, truly, the essence of normality, at least as it applied to reality as a Starfleet Captain. "We were in the Delta Quadrant when we got yanked over here. How about you?"

"Alpha Quadrant. They seemed to steal us right through the transporters."

Paris nodded, sighing. He shook his head, then explained as he felt Bridger’s curious gaze on him, "Same here. The transporters seemed to be malfunctioning . . . again . . ." There was another universal similarity: transporter malfunction. If Bridger hadn’t been worried, he would have laughed. "We were ‘porting in from an Away Mission on an M Class planet, trying to get supplies. And then . . . we were here." Paris shrugged helplessly, agitation clear in his posture, in his eyes.

Bridger frowned. This left them with two possibilities . . . no, actually three: either they were in the Alpha Quadrant, or they were in the Delta Quadrant . . . or they were in someplace as yet unknown to humankind, some gray land stretching between dimensions and realities. He swallowed hard. He sure as hell hoped they were in one of the two, even if it were the Delta Quadrant. At least, there, they had a minute chance of getting home.

Before Bridger could share his speculations with his companions, he heard a strange wailing, almost clattering noise. He shivered, eyes looking around them in alarm.

And then he saw it: the wall behind them--interestingly, not the same wall as Paris and Nelix had entered through--suddenly turned into molten lava. He swallowed hard, watching as the lava dripped to the ground, very slowly flowing across the cavern.

He peered through the wall’s new entrance and saw two guards awaiting them. The guards hissed, their strange language echoing throughout the cave, completely incomprehensible to the human ear. "Mir nayl’essk’org!" spat the creature, its emotionless eyes staring at them, unblinking, unflinching. "Myorrikk mir nayl’essk’org!" (6)

Bridger blanched as the guards strode through the entrance and grabbed his wrist. He followed without complaint, feeling the claw begin to scrape at his skin. Whatever else might happen, he realized he couldn’t allow the claw to scrape him: it would paralyze him, perhaps even kill him. Now was *not* the time to stage a fight, not when they had no plan and no weapons.

He followed the guards into the cavern, encouraging his companions to do the same through his own example. He could hear them following him, each warily waiting to see where they would be taken.

Abruptly, painful light blared at Bridger’s senses. He blinked his eyes, now accustomed to the dark shade of their prison, and looked around. Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of gray slabs filled the room, lined up in rows, each slab holding an alien occupant. Large vats lined the cavern walls, steam flowing into the air, strange mists drifting ominously over the open containers. Shelves of chemicals, vials, test tubes, bowls, strange devices Bridger could only guess at . . . they were everywhere, a nightmare of jarring textures and projectiles.

Bridger swallowed hard, then turned to see Ben stop straight in his tracks. He followed the Lieutenant’s eyes.

And he found, standing several feet away, the young man he had only seen in pictures . . . the young man he had seriously wondered if he would ever meet: Lucas Wolenczak. Standing beside the boy on his right was . . . a Cardassian . . . and on his left was what looked to be, judging by his uniform, a Starfleet Engineer.

For the first time in days, Nathan Bridger’s spirits lifted. They were all together, at last.

Yet his mood plummeted towards depression when a new thought slipped into his mind: while it was very true that they had all finally met one another in this most insane and preposterous of chance encounters--they might have only met to die together.

 

Part 13