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The Raptor Chronicles

Part 3: Baptism by Fire

 

By Denim n Lace

 

 

   Disclaimer and Author Notes    Part 1: Rebirth    Part 2: The Path to Exile     Part 3: Baptism by Fire

 


 

The hydraulic ‘hiss’ of the ship’s sliding doors was so soft as to be almost inaudible, but to the wraith that slipped quietly into small, darkened room, it was still far too loud for comfort.  The shadowy figure remained frozen for several long seconds after the door slid open before moving again.  The process was repeated as the door slid closed once more.  It was only after the silent shadow had determined that the soft noises had not betrayed him that he dared to move forward toward his goal again.

 

This, he had determined, was the best possible time to secure his objective.  There was a little over an hour until the ‘graveyard shift’ surrendered the watch to the morning crew.  In those last few moments of the ships ‘night’, even the most vigilant security officer began to relax and wind-down, ready for the relief that the shift-change would bring.  Pretty much everyone else was either asleep or wishing that they were.  This short period, he had determined, was the best possible window of opportunity to put the plan that he had been nurturing quietly for the past week, into effect.

 

The wraith slid through the darkened room without the slightest hesitation.  He had been training for most of his adult life to operate under the cover of darkness.  After all, many of the tasks that he had been set by his ‘masters’ were not fit for the harsh and revealing glare of the light.  Darkness was his ally, and never more so than at this particular moment.  As he slid to a graceful, soundless halt in front of a small wall console, he knew that victory was within his grasp.  He would get in, undertake the illicit deed, and then remove all evidence of his crime.  No one would ever be aware that he had been there, let alone what he had done.

 

The sudden hiss of the door mechanism shattered the silence like a shout, and light suddenly pierced the protective darkness like phaser-fire.  The shadow whirled and was horrified to see an imposing silhouette against the light shining through the doorway.

 

“James Joseph Ellison,” Blair Sandburg growled menacingly, “you had better not be doing what I think you’re doing!”

 

Jim Ellison, ex-Ranger and security chief of the Raptor, shot one, last, soulful look at the replicator he’d been standing in front of, before dropping his head in defeat.  “Ffffffuck.” He sighed miserably.  So close, and yet so far…  He sighed again, and then turned back toward his partner.  He knew that he was doomed, but fixed his most defiant mask into place, determined to play this out like the trained operative that he was.

 

Unfortunately, the mask which he had always been able to hold effortlessly in the face of overwhelming odds, certain death, and even torture, had a very hard time maintaining itself in the face of the worst case of bed-head he’d seen for a long time.

 

Blair Sandburg had obviously just staggered out of bed in time to ‘save’ his Sentinel from himself.  He was standing with his feet braced and his arms crossed across his chest, but the menacing effect was ruined by the mass of curls that were sticking up from his head in every direction, and by the rapid blinking that indicated that he was still trying to get his sleep hazed vision into what passed for ‘focus’ for him.  The baggy trouse and t-shirt that he slept in completed his disheveled look.

 

In short, he looked far more like a sleepy puppy, than the guard dog that he was trying to be.  It was all rather ridiculous really, but like so many other things about his Guide, Ellison found it endearing. 

 

It was damned difficult to remain defiant in the face of someone that you just wanted to grin and go ‘Awww’ at, but Ellison was determined.

 

“Sandburg, if I want to have steak and eggs for breakfast,” Ellison growled darkly, “I’m damned-well going to have steak and eggs for breakfast.”

 

Jiiiimmmm!” Sandburg half-growled, half-whined, “We’ve been through all of this!  A heavy meal like that first thing is just going to slow you down!  And that’s not even going into what all of those saturated fats are doing to your body!” the young man paused then, and gave his partner a long-suffering look.  “Furthermore, I believe that Ensign Rease would agree with me when I say that you do not need the extra red meat, man.”

 

Ellison fought the urge to blush slightly at that.  Blair had been using that little incident against him all week.  Low tactics on the part of the little goober, because that really hadn’t been his fault.  Blair should have warned him what he was up to, damn it!  What was he supposed to think, when he arrived at the gym where he was supposed to be meeting his partner, half an hour late, only to find a very large stranger rushing at his prone Guide, brandishing a very large fighting stick?  Ellison had reacted immediately and instinctively.  He had leapt to his Guide’s defense, disarming and bringing down his attacker.

 

How the hell had he been supposed to know that Blair and the stick-wielder had been sitting around talking, discovered that they both had a fundamental knowledge of an Arysh religion that used stick combat as a way of disciplining the body, and had decided to engage in a practice session?

 

In any case, the stick-wielding Ensign Rease could count himself extremely fortunate that Sandburg had stopped the Sentinel before he had managed to get any further than disarming him.  Ellison allowed himself a small, grim smile as he remembered the look on the large computer technician’s face when he had explained what was likely to happen if the man was ever caught aiming a weapon at the science officer again.  Needless to say, Rease had been left with an understanding that the next time Ellison would break more than just his stick.

 

Ellison stubbornly pushed that little incident aside, determined to stay focused on the argument at hand.  “Sandburg…” he growled, only to be cut off.

 

“Ellison!” the young empath growled back, “I’m serious here, man!  You don’t need to be eating anything that heavy.  Particularly not this morning!  Today’s the big day, man!  We’ve gotta be alert, here!”

 

Ellison scowled darkly.  He was in a bad enough mood.  He had not needed to be reminded of that.

 

Today was indeed the ‘big’ day.  And that pissed Ellison off, no end.  Not because they were finally going to have to begin the mission they had been charged with, but because of the circumstances under which they would be beginning it. 

 

It had taken them twenty-one days to reach the outer edges of the Federation, and that had been mostly traveling at top warp speed.  The Federation was, after all, quite vast, and Earth Space was right in the heart of that territory.  They had known that the trip would be a long one.  Unfortunately, they hadn’t counted on the regular stops that they would need to make to deal with the multitude of minor problems that they encountered.

 

None of the problems really amounted to anything more than irritations, the kind of things that were likely to happen to any ship on it’s Maiden run, but with the specter of sabotage hanging over the ship, each and every minor problem had to be thoroughly investigated. Unfortunately, all of those minor interruptions added up to a serious loss of time.  They should have arrived at the outskirts of the Federation several days ago.  They had been due to spend a few days of desperately needed down time at Deep Space Station 5.  Unfortunately, when they’d docked at DS5 several hours ago, they had been informed that the crews few days of down time had been cancelled due to their late arrival. 

 

Ellison knew that Banks had requested several days’ grace.  After all, they were in the area now.  They could legitimately lay claim to beginning their mission by gathering intelligence on some of the scumbags that they were supposed to be hunting.  And with the constant concerns of sabotage hanging over their heads, the crew was in desperate need of some relaxation before they left the relative safety of Federation Space.

 

Banks’ request had been denied.  Admiral Oliver (the bastard) had sent through a message that it was the responsibility of the Raptor to be in the prearranged place at the prearranged time so that the treaty with the Romulans would hold.  As always, politics and the eternal requirements of ‘face’ in front of one’s enemies was being put in front of the lives of the ‘pawns’.  Ellison understood the game, and he understood how it was played, but it still pissed him off.

 

Ellison folded his arms across his chest, in a classic pose of immobility.  “I want steak and eggs for breakfast.”  He growled again.

 

Sandburg looked at him and huffed irritably.  He eyed the larger man’s unbending posture and stance, then looked darkly at the replicator.  “All right,” he growled, “you can have some poached eggs on toast, as long as you have an algae shake as a chaser.”

 

“I’ll forego the steak, but I’ll be having fried eggs, and the only chaser I’ll be having is coffee.  At least two cups.”  Ellison shot back.

 

Scrambled eggs, with one cup of coffee, and a vitamin drink.” Sandburg counter offered, then held up a hand warningly.  “But that is as far as I’ll go.”

 

“Done.” Ellison accepted quickly.  Blair looked at him and sighed, flicked his wild hair out of his eyes, waved his Sentinel over to the room’s small table, then made his way over to the replicator, bemoaning the evils of inappropriate breakfast foods under his breath as he went. 

 

Now that the daily breakfast war was over, Ellison moved quickly and rather meekly out of the way.  Blair had at some point decided that it was his duty to feed them both, and he took it very seriously.  It was the major reason for their morning battles.  Blair believed that breakfast was the most important meal of the day, and he felt that his partner didn’t take that seriously enough.  They went through this every morning.  Jim felt rather smug as he mentally reviewed this morning’s efforts.  He might not have got the steak he’d been craving, but he got scrambled eggs, and that was something of a treat.  When Blair came over to the table and set a large, steaming plate in front of him, Jim dug in with relish.

 

Breakfast was eaten in companionable silence.  Jim took the opportunity to covertly study his young partner.  Blair had not had a good night, which was somewhat unusual.  Blair embraced sleep with the same enthusiasm that he displayed toward everything else.  He seemed to be in perpetual motion while he was awake, when he went to bed, he squirmed a little until he was comfortable, but when he slept, he was utterly still.  The Sentinel and his Guide had fallen into the habit of sharing a sleeping platform, because it allowed them to connect empathically in their sleep, which made for a better night’s sleep for both of them.  Jim would have thought that with his hypersensitivity, trying to share sleeping space would have been impossible.  He would have thought that every change in either his Guide’s breathing or position would wake him up.  It had never been a problem, though, because once Blair was comfortable, he didn’t seem to move at all.  As long as Jim maintained physical contact with the younger man, Blair slept with a peaceful stillness that few people that knew the empath would even suspect that he was capable of.

 

Last night had been different though.  Blair had seemed incapable of settling.  Even when he finally drifted of into sleep, he had remained restless.  Several times during the night, his Guide’s distressed whimpering had awakened Jim.  Each time it had taken little more than his Sentinel’s reassuring voice to settle the younger man down, but being repeatedly awakened by the frightened noises that his sleeping Guide was making had left Jim edgy and irritable.  Blair didn’t seem to have suffered any ill effects from his restless night, but Jim couldn’t shake the feelings of possessive protectiveness that he’d been experiencing from the first time Blair’s soft cries had dragged him out of sleep.

 

Jim was almost half way through his cup of coffee before his young Guide spoke again.  “Hey, Jim,” Blair’s soft voice drew the older man’s attention immediately, “What’ll happen when we reach the Neutral Zone?”

 

Ellison snorted derisively.  “Probably nothing.” The Sentinel growled.  “The chances are that we’ll drop out of warp, let Starfleet Command know that we’re where we’re supposed to be, at the appointed time, and then we’ll spend the next few days just sitting there, getting all of the information that DS5 has on the low life bastards that we’re supposed to be hunting.  Something that would have been far easier to do if that son-of-a-bitch Oliver had just let us stay where we were.  Once we’ve got all of the information that DS5 can give us, we’ll make a decision on who we’ll focus on bringing down first, and start hunting.” Ellison finished his coffee in one long swallow, then shook his head dismissively, “I doubt we’ll see any action for a little while yet, kid.”

 

“Oh.” Blair frowned.  “That makes sense.  But if that’s the case, wouldn’t it have been far more time and cost efficient to just stay at DS5, for a while?”

 

“Kid,” Ellison smiled humorlessly, “anyone that tries to tell you that efficiency of any sort has any bearing on political decisions is a liar.”

 

“Ah.” Sandburg responded sagely before grimacing.  “It’s just a pain, you know?” the young man sighed, “I had some stuff that I was counting on getting done while we were there, man, and this has completely stuffed that up.”

 

“Yeah.” Ellison nodded, then raised his eyebrow in mild inquiry.  “What did you…?”

 

Ellison’s intended question was cut off by a chirping sound from his personal communicator.  The security chief grimaced slightly at the interruption, before hitting the communicator to open the two-way channel.  “Ellison here.”

 

“Commander Ellison.” The rich, husky voice of Ellison’s 2.I.C. suddenly filled the room.  “You wished to be contacted before we arrived in the neutral zone.  I just received word from Ensign DeSanto on the bridge that our ETA is in thirty minutes.”

 

Ellison nodded.  “Thanks Romanov.” He responded.  “Tell DeSanto that I’m on my way.”

 

“Will do.” Romanov responded with her usual brevity. “Romanov out.”

 

“We’d better get ready to go.” Ellison sighed as he stood up from the table.

 

“Finish your vitamin drink first,” Sandburg ordered almost absently, “and what’s the rush anyway? You said yourself that nothing momentous is going to happen.  We’ll just let Command know we’re here, and then we’ll hang around until DS5 can get us the information we need.  You don’t have to be on the bridge for that.”

 

“True.” Ellison acknowledged, even as he mentally sighed at not getting away with disposing of the vitamin drink.  ‘Damned kid needs to be teaching my people how to employ observational skills.’ He thought irritably, but kept his face neutral as he picked up the offending drink.  “I take it that there was something that you wanted to do instead.”

 

“Well,” Blair said carefully, his face deliberately neutral, “I did have an idea that I wanted to try out.”

 

“Really.” Ellison drawled, fighting to keep the smile off his face.  Blair was just so easy to read when it came to Sentinel matters.  In the weeks that had passed since they had left Earth space,  Blair had remained completely focused on developing his Sentinel’s control and skills.  There was hardly a day that went by that the young scientist didn’t manage to bully the older man into at least a few hours worth of sense related training.  Personally, Jim hated it.  He had never asked to be so different, and he hated that he had to spend hours out of every day working at something that everyone else took for granted, just so that he could function semi-normally.  He hated the necessity for it.  Hated that there was still so much that could cause him to lose his tenuous control.

 

The only thing that he did not hate about it, was Blair.  Even amidst some test that seemed to be designed to see how sick a scent could actually make a person, there would be Blair.  The young man’s presence was like a balm to his Sentinel’s spirit, body and mind.  Nothing seemed insurmountable when Blair was looking at him with those adoring, trusting eyes.  Somehow, Blair always knew what he needed to hear to be able to deal with a problem.  The kid always knew what to do.  And as much as Jim hated the tests that the kid subjected him to, he delighted in the look of excitement that seemed to light Blair up from within when he had an idea for furthering his partner’s control.

 

Blair had that look now.  As much as he was trying to play it cool, and to hide his enthusiasm from a partner that wouldn’t share it, Jim could see it.  And as much as he knew that the look probably heralded unpleasantness for him, it warmed him to know that once again, his Guide was focused on him completely.

 

Blair saw the look that his Sentinel was giving him and flushed slightly.  “Umm, yeah.”  The young man drew a deep breath, looked at his Sentinel with an odd mixture of earnestness and pleading and enthusiasm, and let loose, “Well, you know, I was kind of thinking… that… it-might-be-a-good-idea-to-put-you-in-a-room-with-asolutely-no-stimulus-to-one-of-your-senses-and-practice-using-your-other-senses-to-compensate.” Blair broke for air and looked at his somewhat dazed companion expectantly.  “What do you think?”

 

Ellison blinked.  “Well…” he began carefully, only to be cut off by his Guide’s earnest voice again.

 

“’Cause, see, it’s conceivable that you might get into a situation where one of your senses might not be working. I mean, we’ve already had that situation last week when your hearing spiked, and you turned the dial down reflexively, and it took a while to get your hearing back on line, and we know that you can see with only a little bit of light, but-what-if-you’re-faced-with-total-darkness-and…”

 

“Blair!” Ellison said sharply as the younger man picked up steam again, effectively derailing the oncoming verbal avalanche.  Sandburg blinked at the sharp tone, and looked at his Sentinel in confusion.

 

“What?” the scientist looked genuinely confused about why his Sentinel might want to interrupt him. 

 

Ellison had to fight the urge to grin.  ‘A Klingon could take lessons in single mindedness from this kid.’ He thought fondly. “Listen, kid, all of that is very interesting, and we’ll discuss it more a little later on.  Right now, I need to finish getting ready to start work, so I can head up to the bridge.  I’d like to be there when we drop out of warp.”

 

Sandburg’s nose wrinkled slightly in confusion.  “But why?  You’ve already said that nothing significant is liable to happen today.”

 

Jim nodded solemnly.  “The chances are that nothing will happen, chief.” He said quietly.  “But there’s always a possibility that something will.”  The security chief paused as dark images rose up in his mind’s eye.  Images of another mission and another crew who had gone to their deaths.  Some of those men had never even realized that they were in trouble.  They hadn’t even been nervous, because, that day when they’d dropped out of warp, they’d known from the intelligence they’d been provided with, that the Romulan forces they’d been going to undermine were nowhere near their position. 

 

Nothing significant had been liable to happen that day, either. 

 

Ellison forced those memories aside and took a deep breath.  He then stood up and began to clear the table.

 

“Jim?” Blair’s quiet voice drew his partner’s attention instantly, and he reacted to the worry in that voice instinctively.  Ellison reached out to touch his Guide’s shoulder reassuringly.  Blair caught the hand that he reached out between both of his and waited until his Sentinel was looking at him before going on.  “What’s wrong, big guy?”

 

Ellison really wanted to deny the dark emotions bubbling away below the surface, but if the older man had learned anything over the last few weeks, it was that there was no point in trying to hide anything that he was feeling from Blair.  The empath had a definite advantage when it came to working within the bond, and once he sensed emotional discomfort, the kid would become like a dog with a bone.  He wouldn’t let up until the problem had been uncovered and gnawed to pieces.  Ellison drew another deep breath and turned to meet the enormous, worried blue eyes of his Guide. 

 

“Blair, I know that things on the ship have run pretty smoothly for the most part since we left Earth Space.  All of the things that have gone wrong have been relatively minor, and easily explained.  But we can’t allow ourselves to forget how this mission started.  The Raptor was sabotaged repeatedly, and we have to stay on guard because of that.  There’s still the possibility that there’s a saboteur on board, waiting for an opportunity to strike.”  Ellison paused and sighed, his expression dark.  “When we come out of warp into the Neutral Zone, we’ll be faced with one of those windows of opportunity that a saboteur is liable to take.  If the motivation behind the sabotage is political, or even if someone just wants to make it look that way, they’ll try again soon.  What better excuse could the Romulans have of pulling out than to have the ship that’s supposedly going to be protecting this region of space destroyed from within, before we could even begin our mission.” Ellison broke off and shook his head.  “I want to be on hand when we come out of warp, Chief, just in case.”

 

Blair looked up at his partner thoughtfully.  “Is this likely to happen?” he asked quietly.

 

“Truthfully, no.” Jim acknowledged.  “The screening process we ran on the crew after that staffing screw up was pretty thorough.  As I said before, the odds are in favor of having nothing at all happening, but there’s always a possibility.”  Ellison gave his Guide a tired, grim little smile.  “I’m just being paranoid, but the last time I was in a situation like this, I went with the odds…” Jim felt his voice trail off.  He looked away quickly and cleared his throat.  “Things didn’t work out so good.”

 

Ellison wasn’t even slightly surprised when he felt his partner’s hand on his arm.  A wave of soothing emotional reassurance flowed over him, and he turned back to find the empath standing directly in front of him.  Blair’s eyes were warm with understanding and acceptance.  “Okay, big guy,” the younger man said gently, “how about this for a plan.  We’ll spend the first part of the shift on the bridge.  You can monitor the situation from up there, and I’ll start the process of compiling scientific data on this area of space, cause, I gotta tell ya man, our data bases are really lacking in that area.  Once I have that underway, and you’re feeling a little more comfortable, we’ll run a patrol of the ship, just to make sure everything is in it’s place.” Blair broke off then and gave a slightly mischievous smile.  “And when we’ve finished patrolling the ship, we’ll go and see Romanov, who should be back on duty by then, make sure she understands your concerns, and then well go and do that sense deprivation test I was talking about before.”

 

Ellison tried to scowl at the younger man, but he couldn’t quite manage it with Blair’s hand resting on his arm, and warm surges of trust and affection flowing to him through the bond.  “You’re not going to let that go, are you.”  He growled resignedly. 

 

“Oh course not.” Sandburg snorted.  “We have to keep working on developing your skills, Jim, because even if nothing happens for a while, it still won’t be long before you’re all caught up in bringing criminals to justice.  I know you man.  You’ll use every weapon at your disposal, which means that you will use your Sentinel abilities.  I need to know that you’re going to be okay with that.” Blair swallowed heavily, and Jim was surprised by the surge of dread that he experienced through the bond.  The possessive, protective feelings that he’d been wrestling with for most of the night welled up again, and Ellison took a half a step forward before he even knew that he was going to move.  Sandburg sensed his movement, and looked up to spear his Sentinel with a look that was so focused and determined that Jim could swear that he felt it physically hit him.

 

 “I need to know that you’ll be okay if you start using them without me around to ground you.”

 

Jim felt Blair’s fear then.  Felt the tightly controlled terror that something would happen to the fledgling Sentinel because of either his Guide’s absence, or his Guide’s inadequate preparation.  Normally Blair was able to control his end of the bond with a totality that irritated the hell out of the Sentinel, but at that moment, the young empath’s emotions slipped from his own grip for a moment, and Jim felt the younger man’s fear like ice water through his veins.  Instinctively, Ellison reached out to cup the back of his Guide’s neck, and tried to counter the younger man’s fear by sending his own feelings of trust and gratitude through the bond.  Jim felt the younger man begin to shake under the onslaught of conflicting emotions meeting inside him, and the Sentinel automatically used his hold on the younger man to draw him in to a fierce, protective embrace.

 

For a long minute they stayed like that.  The feral Sentinel that lay at the heart of who and what Jim was had been drawn closer to the surface than he’d been in a while by first Blair’s nightmare’s and now by his fear of somehow failing his Sentinel.  The instinct driven thing inside him demanded that he lock the doors and hide his young Guide away from the rest of the universe for a while.  The Guide was distressed, and that was unacceptable.  The highly trained officer fought the edicts of his inner self though.  Too many lives were at stake for him to hole up with the kid and hide.  Still, he needed to make Blair feel better.

 

“I’m okay now.” A small voice said from somewhere in the vicinity of the older man’s chest.

 

“You sure?” Ellison rumbled back.

 

“Yep.”  The Sentinel felt a small nod against his chest.

 

Ellison tightened his hold for a second before relaxing it, and allowing his Guide to move back slightly.  The younger man was looking a little embarrassed, so Ellison squeezed the back of his neck gently, and concentrated on projecting his understanding through the bond.  “It’s going to be okay, you know.”

 

“Gods, I hope so man.” Blair gave a tremulous little smile.

 

“It will be.” Ellison affirmed, then gave his Guide a small grin.  “I suppose that there’s not going to be any way of convincing you that I don’t need this test though, is there.”

 

“None.” Agreed the Guide.

 

“I suppose that you’ve got it all worked out and arranged.” Ellison made his voice as resigned as he could.

 

“The holodeck’s already been programmed.” The younger man admitted.

 

“Great.” Ellison mock sighed.  He eyed his Guide sideways for a moment, before giving a defeated sigh.  “Okay, Chief.  We’ll do it your way.  Bridge, then patrol, then torture session.”

 

Sandburg took another step backward and attempted his usual cheeky grin.  It didn’t quite come off, and left Jim feeling more protective than ever.  “I knew you’d see it my way.” The Scientist snorted.  Jim arched an eyebrow at him, and then gave up on his attempts at harsh expressions and just grinned.  The Sentinel reached out to cuff his Guide affectionately, then turned and went back to his own room to finish his morning preparations. 

 

When the older man was ready to go, he stuck his head back into Blair’s quarters to call him out.  He was met with the sight of his Guide sitting cross-legged on his sleeping platform, fully clothed.  His hair was tied back in a tight ponytail, his delicate, silver rimmed glasses were perched on his nose, and he was writing on the data-pad that he kept his ‘Sentinel Diary’ in.

 

“Ready to go Chief?” the older man called.

 

Sandburg looked up and regarded him across the top of the glasses that half-slipped off his nose yet again.  “Can you give me a moment man?” the scientist asked, “We’re not quite due to start our shift yet, and I really need to record some notes on yesterday while it’s fresh in my mind.  It won’t take a minute.”

 

Jim glanced at his chronometer and frowned. “I want to be there when we drop out of warp, kid, and we’ll have to hurry to make it now.”  The older man shrugged.  “I know I’m being paranoid but…”

 

“Jim, man, you’ve got to stop apologizing for doing what you think is right.” Sandburg looked at him seriously, then raised his eyes as a thought occurred to him.  “Why don’t you go on ahead, man.  That way you can be on hand when we come out of warp.  I’ll only be a few minutes here.  I’ll catch you up as soon as I’m finished.”

 

Jim scowled.  The logical side of his personality knew that this was a perfectly workable solution, but the feral Sentinel within him was still feeling distinctly over-protective.  The feral Sentinel did not want to go anywhere if it meant allowing his Guide to move out of easy reach.  The logical and the instinctual sides of his personality fought briefly over what he should do.  Once again, the logical side of James Ellison came out on top.  Jim wanted to be on hand on the bridge, and Blair needed to get his notes written down.  Blair wouldn’t take long in joining him.  “Okay.” Ellison said slowly, and was surprised to hear the reluctance in his own voice.

 

Sandburg evidently heard it too, because his face was suddenly creased by a gentle smile.  “I won’t be long, Jim.  I promise.”

 

“Yeah, yeah.” Ellison huffed.  “I know your ‘won’t be long’.  Try not to take all shift, Chief.”  Sandburg snorted derisively and waved him off.  Ellison forced himself to walk back out of Sandburg’s room and to make his way out into the corridor.   

 

As he made his way quickly toward the turbolift a the end of the corridor, he reminded himself that Blair wouldn’t be long, and that nothing was really likely to happen when they entered the Neural Zone.

 

Unfortunately, that irritating little voice at the back of his mind kept reminding him of what had happened the last time he’d been in a situation where nothing was likely to happen, and Jim found that he could not take comfort from the fact that Blair wouldn’t be long after all.

 


 

Considering that there was still a little over twenty-five minutes until shift-change when Jim Ellison arrived on the bridge, the nerve centre of the ship was surprisingly active.  Ellison looked around in confusion for a moment, before he realized that there were almost two full shift crews milling around the room.  The security chief stifled a smile as he noticed that he wasn’t the only senior crew member that had wanted to be personally on hand when the Raptor came out of warp. 

 

As Jim stepped forward onto the bridge, a couple of the more tired-looking crew members broke away and trudged toward the turbolift.  The junior crewmen, obviously being relieved early by their ranking shipmates, nodded weary acknowledgement at the security chief as they passed him.  Ellison nodded back at them, and then moved toward his own junior staff member.

 

Ensign DeSanto saw his chief coming and stood quickly to attention.  The human was young, and lacking the experience that many of his teammates possessed.  Still, he was a level headed young man, who followed orders to the letter.  With some seasoning, he’d make a good security officer.  Ellison nodded at the younger man gravely as he approached.

 

“How’re things looking?” he asked as he came to a halt in front of the younger man.

 

“I’ve run unscheduled checks on the security systems in both the weapons room, and the engine room, as per your orders Commander.” The young man said with the stiff formality that seemed to always mark his speech.  “Nothing out of the ordinary to report, sir.”

 

“Good to hear.” The older man nodded his approval, then ran a critical eye over the younger man.  “I take it that it was something of a long shift, Ensign.”

 

The young Spaniard flushed slightly and ducked his head in embarrassment.  “Err, yes sir.” The Ensign mumbled, before looking at his commanding officer earnestly.  “It was just that first you, and then Lieutenant Romanov were both so adamant that I should keep my eyes open for trouble.”

 

Ellison nodded his understanding and smiled slightly.  “And a shift can be a very long time when you’re expecting trouble, can’t it Ensign.” Jim clapped the tired younger man on the shoulder firmly.  “Okay, Ensign.  That’s enough for one day.  I know it’s a little early, but you’re dismissed.  Go get some rest.”

 

“Thank you, sir.” The younger man nodded, before stepping gratefully down from his station and moving toward the turbolift.

 

Ellison watched the young man leave, then glanced around to see whom else was trading places on the bridge.

 

Evidently Lieutenant Torvok didn’t see any necessity for personnel changes, because there was a young man that Ellison only vaguely recognized sitting at the computer tech’s console.  Lieutenant Commander Bli’inkavari was still at her station; her alien physiology allowed her to live far longer than a human would, and also allowed her to work double shifts without becoming even slightly weary.  He wasn’t particularly surprised to see Curtis settling himself at the communications console.  Ellison smiled grimly to himself as he eyed the Englishman.  The tightly disciplined young man was too soon out of the ‘game’ to not assume that something would go wrong. 

 

Likewise, Ellison was unsurprised to see Chris Keel sitting at the helm.  Ellison had reviewed the young helm officer’s file when the computer had tagged it as having multiple references to erratic behavior.  Ellison had spoken at length with Banks over his choice in Chief Helmsman.  In the end he had accepted his Captain’s decision, but had quietly kept an eye on the young man anyway.  He’d been pleased to note that the helmsman had gravitated to the communications officer in his off duty hours.  At first he’d been unable to fathom what the two men had found in common, but then he’d thought about his own partner, and realized that it really didn’t matter.  It was enough that the obviously hot-headed young man had found someone steady to balance him.  Considering the fact that the communications officer obviously had a strong influence over Chris Keel, and the horrific lose he had suffered the last time a ship he had been serving on strayed near the Romulan Neutral Zone, it was really only logical that Ellison would find him here

 

More surprising to Ellison was the presence of Lieutenant Richards.  Richards was the most cheerful, laid-back officer that Ellison had ever served with.  He was universally popular, and something of a practical joker.  Normally Ellison did not approve of humor at someone else’s expense, but Richards had at no point been malicious in his jokes, and had, on the rare occasions that he had fallen victim to someone else, proven that he could take what he dished out with the same good humor that he usually displayed.  Blair liked the man too, which inevitably earned him points in Jim’s book.  The young man was so casual in his attitude though that Jim just couldn’t work out why he’d want to be there for an event that would probably be spectacularly uneventful.

 

There was a Yulgonian lieutenant monitoring the science station in his Guide’s absence that Ellison had seen several times in the main science labs when he was either picking his Guide up at the end of a shift, or looking for his help in regards to some new sensory difficulty. Jim didn’t know enough about the exceptionally tall, red-skinned alien species to know whether the lieutenant was a male or a female.  Jim didn’t suppose it mattered.  All that mattered was that the lieutenant had his Guide’s respect.  That was really as much as he needed to know about the Yulgonian.

 

He was somewhat surprised to see that Serena Chang was on hand.  As ship’s councilor, the doctor wasn’t required to do regular shift’s on the bridge.  She was really only required to be on the bridge when summoned there by the Captain.  He decided that her presence was most probably the result of curiosity.  The doctor would never have seen this sector of space before, having spent her career in legitimate positions.  Ellison had seen the sector before.  If curiosity was what drew her to the bridge then she was doomed to be disappointed.  It really wasn’t anything special.

 

Ellison noted Commander Connor’s position in the command chair, and was deeply surprised by Banks’ absence.  He was about to query whether the Captain had been summoned when the turbolift doors opened again, and Banks himself came stalking out.  Connor threw a look over her shoulder as the Captain stepped onto the bridge, and automatically stood to face him.  “I was just beginning to think that you weren’t going to get here in time, sir.” The woman grinned as she surrendered command to him, and moved to stand to the right of the chair.

 

Banks snorted irritably as he stepped up to the dais his chair was mounted on and sat down.  Ellison turned to glance quickly at the security console in order to hide his grin.  Banks was definitely not a morning person, and it looked very much as though he hadn’t managed to get in his mandatory three cups of coffee before heading to the bridge.  The man was going to be a bear all shift.

 

“Can I get you a cup of coffee, sir?” Connor asked drolly from where she stood at parade rest at the right hand shoulder of the chair.

 

Banks looked at the young woman irritably.  “No Commander, I do not need a cup of coffee.” He growled.

 

“Just checking, sir.” The First Officer dead panned without taking her eyes off the viewscreen.  Ellison felt his grin getting wider, so he leaned down as though checking something on his security read outs.  Out of the corner of his eye, Ellison saw the Captain glare at the woman beside him again, and then turn himself to the front.

 

“Mr Richards,” the tall Captain barked as he settled himself in the captains chair, “how long until we reach the Neutral Zone?”

 

“Well Cap’n,” the lanky red-head began in his usual, laid-back drawl, “technic’lly we’re already in th’ Neutr’l Zone…” The man trailed off as he glanced back over his shoulder as saw the glare that his Captain was leveling at him.  The young man raised his eyebrows and shrunk into his seat a little bit.  “O’ course, technic’lly that’s prob’ly not what y’ wanna know, is it?”  The tall Navigator turned his eyes back to his console for a moment.  “Umm, ou’ ETA f’r arriv’l at the coord’nates we were giv’n is abou’ four minutes. Sir.”

 

Thank you, Mr. Richards.” Banks smiled sarcastically, then looked around.  Ellison suddenly felt Banks’ eyes come to rest on him.  “Commander Ellison, where’s our science officer?”

 

Ellison turned to look at his old friend sharply, the sense of protectiveness that he’d been wrestling with all morning coming leaping to the fore.  He saw no hint of censure in Banks’ dark eyes though, and forced himself to calm down.  The man was not attacking his Guide, he was merely asking a question.  Jim knew this rationally, and yet was unable to keep the defensiveness he felt completely out of his voice.  “Sandburg’s not due to come on shift just yet, sir.  There were a few things that he needed to take care of before he came to the bridge.  He won’t be long, sir.”

 

Banks’ dark expression mellowed somewhat at his security chief’s rather stiff answer.  “Calm down, Commander.” The older man said mildly.  “I’m just a little surprised to see you up here when he isn’t is all.”

 

Ellison pulled a wry face.  “Yes sir.” He agreed.  “I’m a little surprised to find myself up here without him.” the ex-Ranger admitted with a self-mocking little shake of his head.

 

Banks gave his old friend a surprisingly understanding look, smiled slightly, and then turned back to the main view screen.

 

Silence reigned on the bride of the Raptor for several minutes then.  Ellison was far too busy reviewing information from the security sensors around the ship to worry about what everyone else was doing.  Jim knew that the normal readings he was seeing should reassure him and help him to kick the worry that had been gnawing at him all morning, but it didn’t.  Ellison’s gut told him that something wasn’t right.  He wished that his Guide would hurry up and arrive.

 

Ellison was busily reviewing readouts from the corridors on the engineering deck when the silence that had settled over the bridge was broken.

 

“Cap’n,” Richards said suddenly, “We’ll be droppin’ outta warp in… thirty seconds.”

 

“Thank you, Mr. Richards.” Banks nodded, and then turned back toward the communications console.  “Mr Curtis, I want you to be ready to send simultaneous confirmations of our arrival at the agreed upon coordinates to both Starfleet Command and the Romulan Military Command on the Romulan home world when we drop out of warp, and at my command.”

 

“Aye, Sir.” Curtis nodded his understanding with the same cool efficiency that he always displayed.

 

“Droppin’ outta warp in… 5…4…3…2…1…Deceleratin’ now.” Richards warned.  Instantly, the subsonic whine that Ellison had been force to tune out almost constantly for the last three weeks, died.  The vibrations through the deck that most sentient beings could not feel, eased.  All Ellison had to deal with suddenly was the far more pleasant rumbling throb of the impulse engines.  A small sigh of relief escaped the tall man.  Thanks to Blair, the subsonic noises that most beings weren’t even aware of were no longer painful or distracting, but it was an undeniable relief that he wasn’t going to have to devote a part of his mind to tuning them out for a while.

 

Ellison turned toward the view screen that was the absolute centre of attention on the bridge at that moment.  Their first real view of the Romulan Neutral Zone.  Ellison allowed his eyes to roam the screen with clinical detachment.  The view wasn’t all that different to any other sector of space.  There were a multitude of stars, the brightest being the enormous red giant at the centre of the closest solar system.  The system was referred to as PV 17 on the star maps, and the intel they’d received told them that the system had no habitable planets.  The information from the Intelligence sector didn’t mean much to Jim, as he knew perfectly well who had provided them with it.  The few planets the he could see from their position certainly looked inhospitable though.  The edge of the solar system was surrounded in a ring of debris, as though, at one time, the system had possessed another planet, but it had been destroyed, possibly by an asteroid, and all that was left were the crumbled remains, floating endlessly in orbit, a mockery of it’s former existence.  Jim couldn’t help but wonder if anything had been living on that planet when it met it’s untimely fate.  He stared at the asteroids grimly for a moment before forcing himself to move on.  The view screen showed him space debris and if he focused hard enough, he could see all three of the small, satellite moons around the planet just in from the asteroid belt…

 

Ellison jerked back.  He’d seen something.  When he’d focused his eyes to identify each of PV 17-6’s moons, he’d seen something.  He glanced around quickly.  No one else seemed alarmed.  Ellison turned quickly toward his console and quickly turned all of the outside sensors up to their most sensitive settings.  He stared at the information that the sensors gave him. 

 

Nothing.  According to his sensors, there was nothing out there but floating bits of space junk that the view screen was displaying.  Ellison whirled back toward the screen.  Dimly he was aware that Banks was saying something. Probably announcing to the crewmembers that were not on the bridge that they had arrived and that everything was looking good. 

 

But it wasn’t looking good.  Not to Ellison.  He’d seen something.  He knew that he had.  As he looked now, with his vision set to ‘normal’, he saw nothing.  But there was something there.  He knew it.

 

Ellison also knew that he could see it again, if he focused his sight.  Unfortunately, the mere thought of that sent ice-water through his veins.  This wouldn’t be idle play, such as looking for the moons of a distant planet.  This was going to require focus and attention.  This could cause him to zone, and there was no Guide here to discreetly call him back.  There was no Guide here to help him to focus and to direct his efforts.  Everything inside him screamed that to do this was wrong, and foolish, but unfortunately, his Guide was not here, and he was.  He was in charge of the security of the ship, and he would use whatever weapons he had to ensure the safety of the crew and the ship that had been placed in his care.  For a split second, Blair’s outburst from only a half an hour ago flitted through the Sentinel’s mind, and he mentally made a note to apologize to his Guide for this later.  Then he began to concentrate.

 

Jim focused his eyes on the small planet visible through the asteroid field.  He zeroed in on the planet, and then further in on the small yellowish moon peeking out over the top.

 

‘Jim, man, you have got to remember to distract yourself when you’re focusing on a specific sense.’ Blair’s voice suddenly whispered in the back of his mind.  Only a memory of one of their training sessions, but with a clarity that made the Sentinel feel that his Guide was beside him.  The Sentinel relaxed slightly as that memory continued to whisper in his ear.  ‘If you don’t give your mind something else to process, you’re going to zone, man…’ Jim nodded slightly at his absent Guide’s instructions, and reached out blindly to run his fingers across the soft fabric off the seat beside him.  Distantly he heard Banks give Curtis the order to send the confirmations on their position to the powers that be.  Ellison’s focus remained on the view screen.

 

There.

 

Jim could see it then.  Like a ghost.  More like a malfunction in the forward video sensors than a real object. It shimmered and wavered like a heat mirage, and yet was so subtle that he was sure that no one else on the bridge could see it.  Ellison grimaced with the effort of staying focused on a spot that was almost invisible, even to him.  It was there, though.  It had a shape, though he could barely perceive it.  And there was something familiar about that shape.  Something he knew…  Something…

 

“Commander Ellison, are you all right?” The soft touch to Ellison’s arm felt like a heavy blow, and the soft voice that dragged his attention back to the present made him wince in pain.  He was vaguely aware that the small Toriishi engineer had left her post and was looking at him in concern, but in the instant that he was dragged back from the edge of his zone out, he knew with terrible clarity that he did not have time to reassure her.  He whirled back to his console, blinking the pain induced mistiness out of his eyes and looked at the scanners again.  There was still no movement, but at the very bottom of the chemical sampling readings that were being flashed on the environmental monitoring display from the science station he finally saw what was out of place.

 

The sensors detected ion.  It was either a freakishly rare natural phenomenon or…

 

“Captain, both of the time and coordinate confirmations are away.”  Curtis said calmly from the communications console, even as the vague recognition of the shape that Ellison had seen on the screen solidified in his mind.  The ex-Ranger stopped thinking then, and fell into the instinctual.

 

“SHEILDS UP AND TO FULL POWER!” Ellison roared as he hit the security override on his console. 

 

Banks whirled to face his Security Chief, “Wha…” he began, only to be cut off by a hissed exclamation from the helm.

 

“SIR!” Keel snarled, “We’ve got a Romul… AWWW SHIT!!! THEY’VE OPENED FIRE!!!”

 

Banks didn’t even waste time looking back to confirm the presence of the enormous Romulan Bird of Prey that had suddenly de-cloaked in front of them.   He merely hit the communicator on the edge of his chair and roared “ALL HANDS BRACE FOR IMPACT!”

 

A split second later the floor spun out from under them as torpedoes detonated against the forward shields.  Ellison grabbed hold of his console in a desperate bid to stay on his feet.  He was dimly aware of the short, ugly curse that was emitted from the helmsman, and Commander Connor’s grunt of pain as she impacted with the floor.  The second the ship’s impulse engines cut in to counteract the blow from the torpedoes, and gravity stabilized, Ellison yanked himself upright and focused on the tactical console.  He swore viciously at what he saw.

 

“They got us head on,” he snarled.  “Forward shields to fifty percent.”

 

“Would’ve been a fair sight fucking worse if you hadn’t raised the shield when you did, Ellison.” Keel hissed as his hands flew across his console, undoubtedly disengaging the helm from navigation.  He glanced up at the view screen again and drew a quick breath through his teeth at what he saw. “Fuck!  They’re moving in to attack position again!”

 

“Curtis, initiate Code Red protocols across the ship.” Banks ordered, then turned back toward the helm.  “Give us some breathing room, Mr. Keel!”

 

“You got it.” Keel’s hands leapt into motion again and they were moving.

 

“Taggart!” Banks hissed as he hit his personal communicator.  “We’re under attack by a Romulan Warship.  I need all the power you can give me.” The Captain broke off and looked over at Lieutenant Commander Bli’inkavari .  “Blink, get those damned shields back up!”

 

“Already on it.” The little Toriishi growled back.

 

“Ellison!”  Banks barked. 

 

“Phasers are on full and I’ve got an array of photon torpedoes locked on them.”  Ellison snapped back.  “Waiting on your word.” Ellison’s eyes widened suddenly.  “They’re firing again!”

 

“Keel!” Banks roared.

 

“Hold on!” warned the helmsman as the whole ship shuddered under the strain of a sudden course change.  The view screen showed that they were shooting straight up at a ninety-degree angle from their previous course.  Ellison was watching his sensors like a hawk, and saw that the torpedoes were following them.  With a wordless snarl, Ellison locked the forward phaser array on to the rapidly gaining torpedoes, then dropped the shields just long enough to fire on them.  He gave the phasers a short burst, then raised the shields again.  The torpedoes were destroyed before they could detonate on the shields, but the debris from the weapons impacted against the shields with enough force to make them shimmer.

 

“Shields holding.” Ellison growled.

 

“Let’s give them some of their own back.” Banks snarled.  “Ellison, get their attention.”

 

“My pleasure.” Ellison rumbled, even as his hand dropped to the shield controls again.  “Firing torpedo tubes one through four.” He warned as he flicked off the shields just long enough to let the torpedoes through.

 

“They’re firin’ again.” Richards warned.

 

“Shit.” Swore Keel, as he sent to the ship into a dive in an effort to put more distance between them and the rapidly approaching missiles.  Ellison watched his screens intently.  He watched as the much larger ship attempted to dodge the Raptor’s return fire.  The enemy ship, while being larger, was obviously less maneuverable, and they didn’t have time to drop their shields and pick the missiles off with phaser fire. Ellison felt an unpleasant grin cut across hiss face when the volley he’d sent off detonated against the larger ship’s shields. 

 

“Direct hit!” he reported sharply, then frowned as he noted the position of the chasing missiles.  “Keel!  Those things are gaining!” 

 

“I know!”  Keel hissed,  “Ellison, we got room to use the phasers on those things?”

 

“Negative!  Too many missiles, too close.  I’d never get them all in time.” Ellison barked

 

“We take another direct hit, and we could loose the shields!”  Warned the little Toriishi engineer.

 

“We don’t have room to shake the bastards!” Keel warned.

 

“We could try to use that asteroid belt as a shield.”  Connor suggested from beside the helm.

 

“Too dangerous.” Banks growled. 

 

“What ever we’re going to do, I suggest we do it fast.” Keel snarled.  “I can’t keep ahead of these things forever!”

 

“Richards, could you get a really fast tractor beam lock on one of those asteroids if I drop the shields?” Ellison demanded suddenly.

 

“Yes.” Richards said with unusual succinctness.

 

“Blink…” Ellison began, only to be cut off but the small alien. 

 

“Yeah, I see where you’re going,” she grinned, her hands already in motion.

 

“So do I.” Banks nodded.  “Get ready it do it on my mark, people… Mark!”

 

Instantly, Ellison dropped the shields.  Richards had the ship’s tractor beam locked onto the largest of the nearby asteroids within seconds, and activated the beam as quickly as he could.  Blink, meanwhile, was rerouting as much power as she could without depriving the impulse engines into the tractor beam.  The beam hit the asteroid, and pulled the massive hunk of rock and metal toward the Raptor at an enormous speed for exactly three seconds.

 

“BREAK!” roared Richards suddenly as the navigator judged the asteroid to be close enough and broke the tractor beam.  Instantly, Ellison raised the shields, and Keel forced another ninety degree change of course, firing all of the lower thrusters at full power to send then hurtling straight up.  The sudden high speed direction change caused an instant increase in gravitational forces on the Raptor, pushing everyone deeper into their seats, and sending the unseated Commander Connor to her knees.  Ellison could hear the ship groaning under the stress of the change, but his eyes remained glued to the sensors on his control panel. 

 

The asteroid, unfettered by the constraints of gravitational forces in deep space, continued to hurtle in the direction that the tractor beam had sent it without slowing down.  Ellison held his breath as the massive lump of debris tore through the place that the Raptor had been only a second before… and directly into the path of the six oncoming missiles.  The missiles were already in the act of turning to follow their ion trail when the asteroid tore straight through them.  Ellison watched the collision through his sensors, and then swore bitterly. 

 

“We got five out of the six, but number six is still…”

 

“KEEL!!!” shrieked Connor suddenly in warning, as their attackers suddenly let loose with their phasers.  Keel swore violently, even as his hands blurred on the controls.  The Raptor performed a smooth barrel roll under Keel’s expert guidance, and instead of striking them, the incoming phaser fire simply bracketed the ship.  The danger of being hit by their enemy’s phasers had been the focus of everyone’s attention for a moment, but Ellison, still glued to his sensors saw the approaching danger that had been momentarily pushed from everyone’s minds.

 

“BRACE FOR IMPACT!” Ellison roared.  Keel’s maneuvering had allowed them to avoid the phaser fire, but had slowed them down sufficiently for the last of the chasing torpedoes to catch them.  A split second after Ellison’s warning, the floor dropped away, as though a giant hand had caught hold of the ship and had swung it violently downward.  Ellison clenched his teeth against the curses that wanted to spring forth as he desperately grabbed hold of his console as he came flying out of his seat.  The lights flickered and there was another sharp cry of pain.  The Sentinel’s quick reflexes had saved him from being thrown too far, but half of the rest of the bridge crew were trying to drag themselves up from the floor.

 

“BLINK!”  roared Banks, “What’s the status of those shields?”

 

Ellison glanced over at the consoles next to him, and was vaguely surprised to see that he was alone.  The Sentinel turned in time to see the Toriishi limping back to her station.  Dr Chang was already kneeling next to the still figure of the young officer that had been manning the comp. tech’s console.  Commander Connor had apparently hit the deck before she could be thrown down this time, and was helping Richards back up.  Banks was climbing back into his seat, his lower lip bleeding from where he’d smashed it against something when he’d been unseated.

 

“We’ve lost the aft shields.” Blink said tightly. “I’m rerouting power now to try and get them back on line, but forward shield are already at only forty percent.”

 

“Don’t take anything away from the thrusters.” Keel warned sharply.  “The only thing we’ve got going for us here is our maneuverability.”

 

“They’re moving into attack position again.” Ellison warned.

 

“I know!” Keel snarled, “I see them!”

 

“Did we do them any damage with those photon torpedoes?” Banks demanded.

 

“Yeah.” Ellison responded with a certain amount of satisfaction.  “Their shields are down to fifty percent.  Let’s bring ‘em down further.  Firing torpedo tubes four through eight.”  Ellison locked the weapons onto their attackers impulse engine energy emissions and then fired.  With no aft shields, it wasn’t necessary for him to worry about his timing.  Ellison looked back to his monitors and blinked. “They’re firing phasers again!”

 

Keel didn’t bother to reply.  He merely sent the ship into a dive to avoid the fire that had the gravitational generators struggling to maintain the ship’s normal gravitational environment, and the ship’s structure groaning to maintain integrity.

 

Ellison gave a snarl of triumph as he watched the larger ship attempt to avoid their last missile volley and fail miserably.  “Another direct hit.” He growled.  “Their shields are in as bad a state as ours are in now.”

 

“Good.” Banks nodded grimly.

 

“They aren’t backing off though.” Connor pointed out.

 

“Something tells me that they aren’t going to back off until we’re all dead.” Dr Chang growled grimly without raising her eyes from where she was working on the comp. tech with the bridges medical kit.

 

“Well they sure as hell don’t want us contacting anyone.” Curtis’ voice was a study in frustration.  “They’ve ignored all my attempts to show them our authorization to be here, and they’re doing a bloody good job of jamming all my attempts to contact DS5.”

 

“They’re trying to pen us in against the asteroid belt.” Connor’s voice was almost dispassionate in her prediction.

 

“They’re also moving into attack position again.” Ellison warned.

 

“They’re not even being particularly cautious about it.” Keel growled, as though this were some type of personal insult to him.

 

“Well,” Richards drawled sardonically, “they’re about twice our size and one hell of a lot more powerful than us.  I can’t imagine why they’d be feelin’ cocky.”

 

“They’re bigger and more powerful than us,” Banks agreed, “but we’re faster and we’ve got pretty damned big teeth for a small ship.  They’re never going to let us withdraw, so we’d better start using what we’ve got.”  Banks hit his communicator then. “Taggart, how are we holding up structurally?”

 

“We’re holding,” Taggart’s disembodied voice said grimly, “but we’re not going to be for much longer if you keep heaping abuse on the ship.”

 

“Can you give us more power?” Banks demanded.

 

“The Lieutenant Commander and I have already rerouted some of the systems to draw off the warp engines, to try and get the shields on line, but it’s dangerous.” Taggart warned.  “We keep up low level siphoning without powering up the warp drives properly, and we’re liable to damage the Dilithium crystals.”

 

“Can we keep it up for a while though?” Banks demanded.

 

“Yeah,” Taggart acknowledged reluctantly, “for a litt…”

 

“Incoming torpedoes!” Ellison snarled suddenly.

 

“Blink, you got those shields up?” Banks demanded sharply.

 

“Yeah, but only just.” Blink hissed.  “Another direct hit and we’ll lose ‘em for good!  Worse, we’ll take structural damage”

 

“Captain…” Connor began desperately, only to be cut off by Banks’ voice.

 

“Yes Commander.” He said with grim resignation.  “I agree.  We’ll have to risk it and hope that the shields that we’ve got will be enough.” Banks’ eyes cut across the helm again then.  “Keel, take us into the asteroid belt.”

 

“You got it.” Keel said grimly.

 

“Those torpedoes won’t be able to follow us through that mess.  All we can do is hope that partial shields’ll be enough to deflect the small debris, and that Keel’s as good a pilot as he bragged he was when he applied for the position.” Banks said quietly, causing Keel to smirk.

 

“Just watch me,” he responded with a slightly manic grin, and then turned the ship into the asteroids.

 

Ellison steadfastly ignored the desire to turn to face the view screen, keeping his eyes locked on his sensors instead.  A second later and they slipped into what was virtually a river of space debris.  Ellison watched tensely as the ship slowed and began to move smoothly between the largest of the slow moving asteroids.

 

“How’re those shields holding?” Banks asked tightly from behind Ellison.

 

“We’re taking multiple minor hits from small debris, but it’s nothing we can’t handle.” Blink responded.

 

“Hold on, people.  Here come those torpedoes.” Ellison called as he watched the incoming missiles approach the asteroid belt.  The tall security chief held his breath as the array of six torpedoes entered the asteroid belt.  For a moment, the explosive devices continued on their path unchecked, before one of those slow moving asteroids finally rolled into the path of two of the missiles.

 

The results of those missiles hitting the asteroid were nothing short of spectacular.  The asteroid that the missiles hit shattered, and the force of it was enough to send debris spinning at high speeds in every direction.  From there it was like dominoes.  As rapidly moving pieces of rock and metal knocked into other asteroids, they in turn sent the asteroids they bumped spinning off.  Without gravity to slow down their momentum, asteroid crashed into asteroid, and so on, creating a ripple effect that spread through the belt.  The suddenly unstable asteroids crashed into each of the following missiles, which in turn exploded and intensified the effect.  It only took Ellison a second to realize that the effects of those missile strikes were moving and spreading out far more rapidly than the Raptor was moving.

 

“Keel, get us outta here!” Ellison warned as his sensors showed the ripple effect moving closer.

 

“I’m working on it.” The young pilot responded tersely as he sent the ship into a barrel role to slide between two, slow moving asteroids.

 

“We’re almost a’ th’ edge o’ the belt.” Richards confirmed.

 

Ellison suddenly felt a warmth at his shoulder, and realized that Commander Connor had moved to his side to monitor the situation on his monitors.  “We’re not close enough!” she warned, then ducked away, headed toward the fallen comp. tech’s seat.  Ellison had to agree.  When one of the explosion propelled asteroids smashed into a large hunk of floating rock behind them, which in turn was sent hurtling forward…

 

“UP Keel!!!” Ellison roared, just as the pilot fired the lower thrusters, sending the ship straight upward.  Keel’s eyes were locked onto his own sensors, and he swore violently as another fast moving asteroid shot toward them.  He flipped the ship onto it’s side to allow the projectile to miss the ship.  A second later they were traveling straight down to avoid yet another high speed asteroid.  The whole ship shook as they crashed into a smaller asteroid to avoid a larger one, and then they were off again, rising and falling as though on a roller coaster as the helmsman tried desperately to keep them from being pulverized before they could get out.

 

“Keel get us out of here!” Blink snarled, “We’re taking too many hits!”

 

Keel ignored her and remained utterly focused on reaching the edge of the belt in one piece.  Ellison watched with his heart in his throat as they pulled closer and closer to the dubious safety of open space.  A moment later, they pulled free and a collective gasp of relief sounded across the bridge.

 

Which was, of course, when Ellison realized that they had another problem.

 

“Shit!” he swore, “The sons-of-bitches cloaked again!”

 

“Ah, fuck, were are they?” Richards demanded tightly.

 

“I vill aaatempt to traaace Iiiion traaail.” The immensely tall Yulgon scientist said as quickly as it was able in the common language.

 

“Good.” Banks nodded warily.  “At least we know that they’ve got to de-cloak before they…”

 

THERE!!!” roared Ellison as the enormous warship de-cloaked directly in front of them.  Jim, who had turned to the screen to attempt to locate the hidden ship using his senses, as he had before, spun back toward the tactical console in an attempt to reconfigure the shields, but it was already too late.  The warship was directly in front of them, and the security chief had seen the ship open fire the moment that they had de-cloaked.  Ellison managed to focus the shields forward, while the Toriishi engineer battled to channel more power to the shields, and Chris Keel made a valiant effort to put some space between them and the incoming missiles, but it was already too late.

 

The view screen lit up with a blinding flash as the leading missile detonated against the already weakened shields.  A split second later and the ship was rocked by the first explosion. 

 

Jim felt the floor drop away from him yet again.  This time though, the drop was so violent, that he did not stand a chance of catching himself.  For a moment, the security chief was suspended in mid air, without any real concept of direction or time.  Then the next missile hit, and everything was moving again. 

 

Jim felt, rather than saw, the floor rushing up to meet him, and Ranger training kicked in.  The Sentinel’s body went completely limp, as he landed with a bone-jarring crash.  Above him, there was a burst of light, an explosion, and a shock wave rolled over him.  Someone screamed in agony.  There was another explosion, and Jim was once again air born.  A second later he was slammed against the floor like an unwanted rag doll.  Something hit him in the back.  Vile smelling white foam settled over him, making his skin itch and his nose burn.  Bursts of light blinded him, the scent of scorched flesh hit his nose, his body ached from being battered against the floor, his ears were assaulted by hissings and poppings and the buzz of frying circuits.  And beyond that, by the terrible sounds of screams and panic from deep within the ship.  His senses were assailed beyond his ability to cope with it and though he fought against it desperately, he felt the darkness of a zone out swirling around him and drawing him down.

 

…“Jim!”…

 

Blair. 

 

From somewhere deep in the ship, Jim’s hearing focused itself on the voice he always listened for unconsciously.  In his Guide’s voice, he heard fear and confusion, and the instinct driven creature within him came automatically to the fore.  The Sentinel mentally grabbed hold of the ‘over ride’ dial that his Guide had made him visualize and twisted the dial viciously down, until everything was muted and dull.  From there, the Sentinel forced himself up to his hands and knees.  The Guide needed him.  He could not afford to simply lie there.

 

The Sentinel raised his head and looked around.  The bridge was now smoky, and covered in the fine, white fire suppression mist that would have been activated as soon as the ships internal sensors had picked up on the explosions he had heard after the missiles had hit.  Across the floor from him was the Yulgonian science officer.  The creature was obviously dead; yellowish blood pooled on the floor around it, and there was a significant portion of the creature’s face, neck and hands missing.  A quick glance at the science station revealed why.  Some internal malfunction had caused an explosion in the console itself.  The Sentinel felt a flash of selfish relief that his Guide hadn’t been with him then.  Because if Blair had come to the bridge, he would have been seated at the science station.  It would have been Blair’s body that he would have seen upon raising his head.

 

And he would now be descending into madness.

 

Jim mentally touched the bond, and was relieved that it was still functioning properly.  Through it, he could sense Blair’s fear and confusion, and also pain, which worried him, but as soon as the Guide felt his Sentinel reaching for him along the link, he responded with reassurances.  Ellison allowed his Guide’s mental presence to sooth his overloaded senses for the space of several heartbeats.  As soon as he was sure that he was in control of himself again, he forced himself to his feet.  Right at that moment, both he and his Guide were still alive.  It was up to the Sentinel to keep them that way.

 

Around him, the emergency lighting had come on, and the crew were trying to pick themselves up.  Ellison’s eyes darted to the view screen, but it was dead.  Ellison staggered toward the tactical console.  A snarl escaped him as he looked at his screens.  Nothing.  They were badly wounded and essentially blind.  He had no way of knowing where their enemy was.

 

“Chris?” the communications officer suddenly called out groggily.

 

“Yeah.” The young pilot groaned in response.

 

“You okay?” Curtis demanded.

 

“Peachy.” Keel growled.

 

“Keel, is the helm still responsive?” Banks demanded suddenly, and Ellison glanced around, just in time to see Banks pick himself up from behind his chair.  The Captain looked like hell.  In addition to his split lip, there was now a gash across his forehead that was bleeding heavily.

 

“Yeah.” The pilot growled, “but that isn’t going to do us any good, ‘cause we can’t see where we’re going!”

 

“We’ve got to get the outside sensors working!” gasped Dr Chang as she staggered over toward the comp tech’s panel.  The woman looked pale and pained, but determined.  “I don’t think our comp. tech’s going to regain consciousness anytime soon, so,”

 

“You go’ any experience wi’ this stuff?”  Richards demanded groggily as he staggered over to join her. 

 

“Not really but I’ve always been good with computers.” Chang acknowledged.

 

“Then you c’n assist me,” Richards growled, “ ‘cause it just so ‘appens tha’ I do ‘ave some experience.” And with that, the red-head pulled off the tech panel and levered himself underneath.  Chang automatically moved to retrieve the emergency tech tools from their storage place.  Meanwhile, Commander Connor took Richard’s place at navigation, and Lieutenant Commander Bli’inkavari dragged herself up and limped as quickly as she could toward Ellison.  The security chief could see from where he was standing that the little creature’s arm was stuck out at an unnatural angle, and he move to assist her.

 

“Ellison,” she hissed though her teeth, her mauve eyes dull with pain, “I have to make sure that we have enough power in the impulse engines to get us out of here.  I can’t do that with one arm.”

 

“Right.” Ellison nodded in understanding.  He quickly grabbed hold of the little Lieutenant’s dislocated arm and with a mighty yank, popped it back into its socket.  The Toriishi gasped and swayed, before pulling herself together and grunted something that might have been a thank you.  Ellison then picked the small creature up bodily and moved her to her station.  Dimly, he was aware of the Captain trying to determine the extent of the ship’s damage, but being thwarted by the lack of working stations.  He himself could do nothing at the tactical station, but he might be able to assist Blink.  Anything was better than just sitting waiting to die.

 

THERE!” Richards bellowed suddenly.  “Connor, is tha’ navigation console workin’?”

 

YES!” Connor bellowed back.

 

“Are the sensors picking up that Bird of Prey?” Banks demanded as he strode over to look over her shoulder.

 

“Yeah.” Connor responded grimly.  “The fuckers are moving into position to finish us off.  bastards aren’t even trying to hurry about it.  They know we’re stuffed.”

 

“Keel, can you get us out of here?” Banks demanded suddenly.

 

“The thrusters are working, and now that I can see where I’m going I can try, but there doesn’t seem to be much power available.  I can move us, but we aren’t going far.” The helmsman said quietly, his face a study in frustration.

 

“Blink, can you get power restored to the thrusters.” Banks demanded.

 

“Maybe, but with the damage we’ve taken, I don’t think we’re going to be able to out run any torpedoes.  The whole ship’ll probably come apart.” The Toriishi grimaced.

 

“Ellison, anything you can do?” Banks demanded.

 

“My sensors are out, and neither the phasers nor the torpedoes are responding to commands.” Ellison growled in frustration.

 

“There’s got to be something that we can do, other than just sit here and wait for them to kill us!” Dr Chang practically snarled.  “Is there anything working?”

 

“Helm has control of the thrusters. The navigation sensors are now working, and,” Connor frowned for a moment and then lifted her eyebrows in surprise, “the tractor beam’s diagnostic says that it’s working.”

 

“Tractor beam.” Ellison gasped, and his eyes flashed to meet the Captain’s suddenly determined gaze.

 

“Where are we in relation to the asteroid field?” Banks demanded.

 

“It’s right in front of us.” Connor grinned maniacally as she saw where they were going.

 

“Blink, can you reroute the power from the thrusters into the tractor beam.”

 

“With Commander Ellison’s help.” She affirmed.

 

“Do it!” Banks ordered.

 

“And try to hurry it up,” Connor frowned as she watched the navigation console, “those Romulans are just about in position here.”

 

For a moment, Ellison tuned out everything except Blink’s instructions as the pair struggled to get the power rerouted through the damaged ship.  Dimly, the Sentinel was aware that Richards was telling Commander Connor that navigational trajectory simulator was back on line, but dismissed that as being unimportant at that moment.  A moment later, Blink tapped his arm and turned away.

 

“I’ve got as much power as there is available going to the tractor beams, but it’s not a lot.  The impulse engines are down, and all but one of the main generators are fried.  I can’t even tap in to the generator that’s working, because it’s exclusively for life support and you can only get into it through the engine room.”

 

“Is there enough juice to grab one of those asteroids and swing it at the Romulans?”  Banks demanded.

 

“I doubt it.” Blink answered honestly.

 

“Is there enough power to hit an asteroid, and knock it away really hard.” Curtis suddenly demanded.

 

“Yes, but the asteroids are in front of us, and the Romulans are coming in from the port side.  What good would pushing an asteroid away do?” Blink demanded.

 

“You’ve obviously never played pool.”  Curtis said quietly, causing every human on the bridge to gape at him.

 

“Of course!” Connor gasped, and turned her eyes toward her console almost frantically.  “There!  Keel!  Whatchya think?”

 

“Yes.” Keel nodded.  “Do it!  They’re in position, and we’re only gonna get one shot at this!”

 

“ ‘Ang on, you lot.  I think this’ll give us back the screen!” Richards shouted suddenly from under the console.  The darkened wall at the front of the room suddenly lit up with a burst of static, and then smoothed out to reveal the asteroid belt that they were floating impotently in front of.

 

“Switch to port side video sensors.” Banks demanded.  Instantly, the image flickered and changed.  There was another burst of static, and for a moment, Ellison thought that they were going to lose he picture again, but then it settled and revealed a horrifying image.  The enormous Bird of Prey, obviously damaged, was gliding toward them, slowly and implacably, certain of its kill.

 

“Move it, Megan!” Serena hissed.

 

“Right.” Connor whispered, frantically lining up the tractor beam and reversing its polarity.  “Ready!”

 

“Black ball in the side pocket.” Whispered Keel as he reached over and hit the tractor beam switch, undoubtedly knowing, even as Ellison did, that whether the ‘ball’ was sunk or not, the game, such as it was, would be over.

 

With the video sensors locked on their approaching doom, it was impossible to see the results of the tractor beam strike, so Banks, Ellison, Chang and Curtis leapt to the navigation console in an effort to follow what was happening by watching the information that the sensors were gathering over Connor’s shoulder.  Ellison stared at the chain effect that they had set in notion.  The large asteroid that they had hit shot back into the belt, knocking against the edge of an even larger asteroid as it went.  With physics being what it was, and a singular lack of gravity to slow down the effect, the larger asteroid went shooting off at a new angle, straight out of the asteroid belt.  Ellison watched with his heart in his throat as that enormous asteroid spun out toward their attackers.

 

“There it is.” Blink hissed, and as one, the rest of the crew turned toward the view screen.  There was not a sound on the bridge as they watched the enormous asteroid appear and go speeding toward the Romulan warship.  The warship suddenly fired its forward thrusters as they finally saw what was coming, and tried to get out of the way.  Unfortunately for them, they’d already been traveling toward the disabled Raptor.  They couldn’t use their forward momentum without smashing straight into the Federation vessel, something that a ship without shields would never survive.  That meant that they had to change direction, and for a vessel as big as the warship, that wasn’t something that could be done all that quickly.  Ellison watched with his heart in his throat as the Bird of Prey began to move up and out of the way, but the asteroid was moving too fast, and without even minimal shielding to protect the Romulan warship, it was all far too late.

 

In a surreal silence, the bridge crew of the Raptor watched as the asteroid tore directly though first one wing of the warship, then its belly, and then bounce away as it hit the great ship’s other wing.  As the momentum of the hit sent the warship corkscrewing off to the side, the bridge came back to life with a screaming, triumphant roar.

 

“YESSSS!!!!” shrieked Dr Chang as she leaned forward to wrap her arms around Keel’s neck and impulsively planted a victory kiss on the laughing young pilot’s face.  Curtis smiled slightly and thumped both Keel and Connor on the shoulder.  Richards let out a war whoop that would have made a Klingon proud. 

 

“Weren’t as ‘dead in space’ as ya thought, were we ya cocky bastards!” Connor crowed.  Blink gave a soft sigh of relief, offered Ellison a pain-filled smile, and then turned back to her console to try to coax it back to life.  Banks nodded in satisfaction, his lower lip too swollen to even attempt to smile.

 

For himself, Ellison simply felt relief.  He was alive.  His Guide was still alive.  Everything else was, as they say, gravy.  All that remained now was to go find his Guide, and then begin the process of cleaning up this mess.  One thing was for sure though.  He wasn’t going to let Sandburg out of his sight again until they got back to DS5.  Possibly not even for a while after that.

 

Ellison turned toward his Captain wearily.  “Permission to head down to security to get my people organized?” the Sentinel asked Banks quietly.  Banks turned to respond, but before he could, Connor raised he voice again and instantly had everyone’s attention.

 

“Whao, whoa, whoa! Everybody hold up!” the woman growled as she leaned over the navigation console again.  “The Romulans just stabilized their spinning.  They must have fired their side thrusters!”

 

“Shit.” Keel snarled as he leaned over to study the sensor readings that she was looking at.

 

“Switch to aft video sensors!” Banks called sharply.  Once again, the view screen flickered and threatened to go out completely, before recovering and displaying the requested view. 

 

The damaged warship was floating in the bottom right hand corner of the screen.  Even from the distance they were viewing the ship from, the damage was obviously profound.  In spite of this, the ship had evidently pulled itself out of the spin the asteroid had knocked it into, so someone was still alive on the thing. 

 

“Is there any way that we can determine their status?” Banks asked quietly.

 

“I could always send a signal off and ask them.” Curtis said drolly, “but considering the fact that they’ve ignored every other attempt I’ve made to signal them, I don’t really hold out much hope as to them responding.”

 

Banks leveled a quelling glanced at the Englishman.  “Any other way?” he asked sarcastically.

 

“No, most of the sensors are still down.” Blink responded.

 

“Co’ on, Chang!”  Richards leaned over and slapped the psychologist’s arm, “We’d be’er ge’ back t’ work then.” And with that, the navigator walked over to the tactical console and pulled off the maintenance panels.  Chang nodded and went to collect the tools that they had been using while working on the view screen.

 

Ellison cast a professional eye over the ruins floating aimlessly through space behind them.  The asteroid had totaled the ship’s warp nacelles.  A good section of the hull had been breached, exposing the insides of the ship to the vacuum of space.  Even if the exposed areas of the ship had been cut off by the ship’s anti-vacuum defenses, there would be significant amounts of the ship that the crew would not be able to access.  From a tactical perspective, the most important factor though was the loss of the ship’s phasers and lower torpedo tubes.  While it was true that the Raptor had successfully taken out the larger ship while in a similar state, he felt that the danger had been pretty well minimized.  Besides, the Sentinel within him was screaming that it was time for him to go and find his Guide. 

 

The Security Chief turned back toward Banks.  “Captain…” he began, only to be cut off by a raised hand.

 

“Hold up, Commander.” Banks said quietly. “I know that you want to go get your people organized, but wait a moment.  Let’s see if Mr. Richards and Doctor Chang can get anything on that tactical console working again.  I’m not going to make the same mistake that they made with us.”

 

“Yes Sir.” Ellison responded stiffly. The security officer locked his jaw against the frustration eating at him.  He wanted to go find his Guide now!!!

 

For long moments, there was silence except for the sounds of Richards and Chang working on the tactical console, and Curtis working at the communications console in an effort to restore intra-ship communication.  Ellison fought his impatience by focusing on remaining perfectly still.  Ellison focused on remaining still until he felt as though he would explode with the need for action.  Then, just as he was certain that he was going to have to go in search of his Guide, or go mad from the frustration of waiting, the tactical console suddenly flared to light.  Serena made a pleased sound, and Richards pulled himself up to see what had happened, even as Banks and Ellison descended on the station.

 

“Shit.” Richards grimaced as he looked at the results of his labors.  “I w’s tryin’ t’ get th’ bloody external sensors workin’.” He growled irritably.  “Ah well doc, let’s try again.” And with a resigned sigh he dropped down and began working his way under the console again.

 

“Wait.” Hissed Ellison as he took another step forward, his eyes glued to the console.

 

“Wha?” Richards demanded from where he lay on his back looking up at the security chief.

 

Ellison stared at the readings for a moment, before turning toward the view screen and looking out at their enemy once more.  “Son-of-a-bitch.” He whispered. He looked grimly at his Captain, and then pointed back at his console.  “That’s an internal alarm.  It’s tripped by the type of power surge that can only be created by a transporter.” Ellison looked grimly back at the damaged ship on the screen.  “They’re no more finished than we are.  They may not be going anywhere, but at least their transporters are working.  Since their ship’s not going any further than ours is, and they can’t finish us from without, they’re going to try it from within.”  Ellison turned and stalked toward the communication console.  “They’re boarding us.” He growled darkly.

 

“Is there any way to track where they are on the ship?” Banks demanded as he leaned over the console.  Richards levered himself back up to his feet and looked at the information being displayed. 

 

“No’ yet.” He growled.  “We’ll work on it.” And with that, the lanky red-head dropped down and wriggled back under the console.

 

“Curtis, how are you doing with getting the ship’s communication lines open?” Ellison demanded as he pulled up in the station.

 

“I think we’ll be able to open a station to station line.” Curtis grimaced.  “I haven’t managed to get the computers back on line to the point that the interpersonal communicators would be able to isolate an individual officer.”

 

“Station to station’ll do.” Ellison decided, then leaned over to open a line.  “Bridge to security.” The Sentinel called.  “Security, can you hear me?”

 

For a second there was silence, and Ellison felt his heart begin to sink, but then there was a burst of static, and though it, Ellison clearly heard Lieutenant Romanov’s voice.

 

“Good to hear you Commander.” Romanov said through the crackling.  “I was beginning to worry that we’d lost you.”

 

“Lieutenant, any of our officers that are still alive will be trying to make their way there for orders, since communications have been down.” Ellison said quickly.  “When they get there, arm them.  I want you to initiate protocols associated with a code I.  Did you get that?”

 

“Yes Sir.’ Romanov’s voice had the hard, flat quality that he had begun to view as her ‘working’ persona then.  “I understand.  The only difficulty that we may face is that it’s taking our people a while to get here.  Turbo lifts are out.  The only way between decks is through the maintenance passages.”

 

“Understood.” Ellison nodded.  “If you need to communicate with anyone, Curtis has got the station to station communication panels working.  I’m headed your way now.  I’ll be out of communication until I get there.’

 

“Understood.” Romanov echoed.  “Security out.”

 

Ellison turned to Banks then.  “I need to get going now Sir.”

 

Banks nodded.  He looked at the view screen, and then looked across at Commander Connor, who in turn was watching him intently.  “Commander Connor, I want you to contact all of the stations on the ship.  Warn as many people about the intruders as you can.  I need to get down to engineering to see what can be done about restoring our shields, because we’re sitting ducks without them.  Until I get back, Commander you have the con.” Banks looked back toward Ellison and nodded.  “All right, Commander,” Banks said firmly, “let’s go.”

 

Ellison didn’t need any other encouragement than that.  There were intruders on his ship.  The Sentinel had to find the Guide, and once he had, the hunt would begin in earnest.

 

James Ellison walked to the hatch that led to the maintenance crawlway, threw it open, and disappeared into the darkness below.

 


 

Katrine Romanov stepped away from the communications panel and shot the young Ensign watching her expectantly a long, measuring look.  Ensign DeSanto had arrived shortly before the shit had hit the fan.  He’d informed her that the Commander had relieved him, which she’d been expecting, and had then begun the process of signing in his phaser, since he was going off duty.  He’d only just left when the Captain had issued the imminent impact warning, and the ship had bucked wildly for the first time.  The young Ensign had crawled back to make himself available when things finally calmed down.  At that moment, the kid was looking pretty banged up; he’d broken an arm when he’d hit the desk hard during those final series of explosions.  Still, she was glad of his presence.  The Commander had declared a code I.  That meant that she had more important things to be doing than waiting around for security staff to arrive for their orders.

 

All Starfleet ships had essentially the same sets of codes and protocols.  However, given the nature of their assignment and their mission, Ellison had decided that they had better get their crews ready for some eventualities that the larger starships, which cruised within the relative safety of Federation Space might not have to think about.  She and Ellison and a few of the other more experienced security officers had sat down and determined the courses of action that were to be taken if some of those less likely eventualities occurred.

 

The code I was one such eventuality.  Since they were going to be working in relatively uncharted space, and dealing with experience pirates, who had no real fear of reprisal from the Federation, Ellison had decided that it was necessary to have a plan in place in case they were ever boarded.  Romanov had agreed that it was a good idea.  It certainly always paid to cover all of one’s bases, and not to take anything for granted.  However, she certainly hadn’t been expecting to have to initiate those protocols so soon.

 

Romanov walked back to the young Ensign, and regarded him solemnly.  “How are you feeling now?” she demanded.

 

“I’m all right, Lieutenant.” The young man said gamely, and she had to admit, he did look better since she’d used the security medical supplies to deaden the pain in his arm and to construct a splint for it.  The young man still looked pale, but she wasn’t really worried about him now.  He’d be okay until they could get him some proper medical treatment.

 

“Good.” She said decisively. She then walked over to the weapons lockers and entered her code.  For a moment, the Russian was worried that the locking mechanisms would fail, but they did eventually slide open rather jerkily.  She nodded in satisfaction as she pulled out a number of items.  She then moved quickly to the door that lead to the locker rooms.  She repeated the process at her locker and once again pulled out what she would need.  It was here that she kept the tools of her previous trade, kept in her locker, rather than her room as a sign of good faith toward her Commanding Officers.  An unspoken pact that her skills would only ever be used for them, never against them.

 

In a moment she had stripped off her security tunic.  The bright red security markings across the shoulders would be too visible.  She left her black pants, boots and undershirt on.  These would be less visible in the emergency lighting that the ship seemed to be reduced to.  She then began to smear black body paint across the exposed whiteness of her skin with quick efficiency. Finally, she slipped on the special harnesses that she used to carry her weapons.  Pulling on the tools of her trade allowed her to put on the necessary mindset to be the person she used to be.  When she walked back out into the main security office, there was nothing left of the efficient security officer, the noble protector, she’d been.  Now she was a hunter, ruthless and focused.  She saw the difference reflected back at her in DeSanto’s stunned gaze when she walked back into the office.

 

“I want you to send the next officers to arrive to defend engineering, and specifically, environmental control.  We’re operating under a code I now.  I need you to make sure that all of the essential areas of the ship are protected.  You need to make sure that anyone who comes in is armed properly and sent to where ever they’re needed.  Make sure that they understand the situation.  I don’t want anyone taken unaware.” Romanov had already sent several officers to assist Doctor Baccus in retrieving patients before Ellison had called her.  She regretted that now, but there was nothing that she could do about it, so she put it from her mind.  All of the security staff of the Raptor knew what to do in this eventuality.  They knew which parts of the ship needed protecting.  Most officers would be assigned to an area, and then go there to defend the area and it’s staff, in case the invaders turned up.  There were, however, a few officers whose skills would be better put to use in other ways during a situation like this.  Those officers knew who they were.  She was one of them.  Those officers would leave defending to their colleagues.  She and the other warriors like her, had another task.

 

She would be stalking the stalkers themselves.  Her task was not to apprehend, it was to exterminate.  She would, if possible, deal with the intruders, before they could further threaten the ship.  To do that though, she needed to get going.  That meant leaving DeSanto to coordinate the troops.  She walked up to the desk he sat at and looked down at him.

 

“The station to station lines are open. Talk to the area’s that are priorities, and make sure that our people are spread evenly.  Remember, if anyone comes under attack and needs reinforcements, the turbo lifts aren’t working, so to get help to an area fast, you’ll need to contact another area on the same level.  Don’t leave any place unattended though.  Collect data on structural damage from anyone that comes in here.  You’ll need to know if a corridor is impassable before you try to send troops through it to another area.  Knowing where the damage is at it’s worst will save both time and lives.  Finally, and this is important, so listen carefully,” Romanov leaned over then and looked the younger man straight in the eye, “if someone comes through that door that isn’t wearing a Starfleet uniform, don’t try to stun them, or force them back or capture them.” Romanov very deliberately placed a phaser on the table in front of the young man.  “Just kill them.”

 

And with that, Katrine Romanov turned, and went to engage in what she did best.

 

Hunting.

 


 

Blair Sandburg had been on his way to the bridge when all hell had broken loose.  He’d been walking toward the turbo lift when Simon Banks voice had blared out through the ship’s speakers that an impact was imminent.  As he had been in a corridor without anything to grab hold of, he had dropped quickly to his knees.  It was just as well that he had, because a split second later, the floor had dropped away from him.  The young scientist had been unable to stop the stunned gasp at suddenly finding himself airborne from escaping, any more than he could suppress the pained grunt that had escaped when he came slamming back to the floor.

 

The stunned young man had found himself lying on the floor, trying to catch his breath and work out what had happened.  A second later when the scientist was working himself up into a sitting position, the announcement had come over the ship’s communications network that a Code Red had been initiated.  Blair tried to process that.  A Code Red meant that they were under attack.  He had been unable to wrap his mind around how it could be that they were under attack when they would barely have had time to drop out of warp. 

 

Even more problematic to the empath was that the declaration of a Code Red meant that he was supposed get back to his quarters until the emergency was over, because he was not yet officially on duty.  Unfortunately, going back to his quarters meant that he would be moving away from his Sentinel, and that was unacceptable to the Guide within him.  Some deeply buried instinct had dragged itself to the surface and told him that he needed to find his Sentinel.  If they were under attack, then they were in danger.  If they were in danger, then he should be at his Sentinel’s side.  The young man’s instincts demanded that he go in search of his Sentinel.  Unfortunately, the rational Starfleet Officer within him knew that the only way to get to his Sentinel was via the turbo lift, and the turbo lift was the last place that he wanted to be if the ship was rocked by another explosion like that.  He couldn’t help his Sentinel if he were dead.

 

Unable to go either back or forward, Blair had been held in stasis in the corridor.  The young man waited breathlessly for what would happen next, and he had not had to wait long.  The ship’s gravity suddenly grew heavy, and he was pushed into the floor for a moment.  They were probably, the rational scientist within him observed, engaging in evasive maneuvers.  A high-speed dive or climb, or a sudden change in direction always put strain on the generators that provided their artificial gravity.

 

A moment later and the ship bucked violently again.  Blair once again cried out in stunned surprise as he was picked up and slammed back to the floor hard.  The back of his head made sharp impact with the unyielding deck, and for a moment his vision clouded over.  He tried to pull himself back into a sitting position, but his body felt sluggish, and didn’t want to respond to his orders.  For a moment, all he could do was lie there stunned.  He was vaguely aware of small changes in the air pushing down on him for a moment, but couldn’t organize his thoughts sufficiently to even try to determine what that might mean.  He would have been content to just lie there and get his bearings back, if not for the pervasive, gnawing worry that ate at him.  He focused on that feeling, trying to identify it, and after a moment realized that what he was experiencing was anxiety for Jim.  His thoughts of Jim were enough to force him to pull himself together enough to roll onto his stomach and push his hands under himself to lever himself up to his hands and knees.  The young Guide determinedly pushed himself onto his haunches, and leaned heavily against the wall until the spots stopped dancing in front of his eyes.  He was just about to attempt to climb to his feet when the Gates of Hell threw themselves open and sucked the Raptor down into it’s nightmarish depths.

 

The groggy empath was suddenly thrown upward with such force that he was certain that he was going to hit the ceiling.  A moment later and he was falling inelegantly, flailing around in a desperate attempt to slow his fall.  He landed on his side, and the agony that shot through his elbow and ribs almost blotted out the pain of having the air driven from his lungs.  He vaguely realized that the lights had gone out, and then the ship bucked again and he was suspended in darkness.  He did not know which way was up, or down, until he hit what he hoped was the floor, and went sliding across it.  He did not know where he was, what was happening, or where he was being thrown.  All around him, he could hear screams and shouts of confusion and pain and terror.  Fear crowded in on him.  He could find no point of stability within the chaos.  Worse still was the sense of falling away from reality that seemed to be dragging at the back of his mind.  The urge to panic was strong, and he fought it by instinctively reaching for the connection that he shared with his Sentinel. 

 

Unfortunately, when he reached for the bond, he discovered that it was the bond itself that was the source of the disturbing ‘falling’ sensation, and the knowledge that there was something wrong with his Sentinel terrified him more than anything else that had happened so far.

 

JIM!!!” He screamed at the top of his lungs, reaching out to his soul mate with his voice, as he could not reach out to him with his hands.

 

And somehow it worked.  The sense that his Sentinel was somehow falling away from him ceased with an almost violent tug at his mind.  Blair clutched at the link like a lifeline amidst the fear and pain and the overwhelming darkness.  A moment later, Blair felt the mental surge that he associated with Jim initiating use of the link between them.  Instantly, emotions and sensations flooded through the bond; so many, in fact, that it was difficult to sort through them.

 

The empath felt his Sentinel’s discomfort, and a relief mixed with revulsion that he didn’t really understand.  He felt a deep concern and uneasiness that told the young man that they were a long way from being safe yet.  Central to absolutely everything that the Sentinel was feeling, though, was the same pervasive worry for his Guide that Blair felt for his Sentinel.  Blair deliberately pushed away his own pain and fear to focus on reassuring his partner.  Up on the Bridge, Ellison was in the thick of whatever was happening.  He needed to stay focused and alert, not just for his own sake, but for the sake of the entire ship.  Blair knew instinctively that Ellison would no more be able to focus on the task at hand if he was worried about his Guide than Blair would be, if their positions were reversed.  So Blair pulled himself together and sent his Sentinel every reassurance that he could think of that he was all right.  That he would remain all right.  That Jim had nothing to worry about as far as his Guide was concerned.  That all Jim needed to focus on was getting them out of whatever situation they were in, in one piece.

 

It seemed to work.  Jim’s presence lingered in his mind for a long moment, drawing reassurance and comfort, and by his very presence, giving it in return.  And then the Sentinel was gone, his presence just a soft thrumming in his Guide’s soul, that settled into the background where it usually was, and Blair was left feeling alone and afraid.

 

The darkness remained all encompassing, but at least he was no longer sliding.  Blair attempted to push himself up into a sitting position again, but a sharp pain knifed through his elbow, causing him to suck in a great lung-full of air.  This too proved to be a mistake.  Blair folded in on himself in an attempt to escape the pain that lanced through his side, but it was to no avail.  The young man lay in the darkness, curled in on himself, his short, shallow, panting breaths sounding far too loud to his own ears.  For long moments he continued to lie there, not willing to move, lest he discover yet another injury.  His mind refused to work, apart from focusing on the fact that this was not right.  He should not be lying alone in the darkness.  He should be with his Sentinel.  His Sentinel should be with him. 

 

They were not together though.  They were each alone and vulnerable, and within Blair’s dazed mind, he could not get past the fact that this was somehow his fault.

 

He had known that Jim was edgy that morning.  If he were honest with himself, he would have to acknowledge that he had been edgy himself.  He had had such strange dreams, full of unseen menace.  Looking back, the young Guide could see the warnings inherent in both his own discomfort, and the discomfort of his Sentinel.  He had ignored the signs though.  Instead of going with Jim, he had taken the time to write in that damned journal.  He had not gone with his Sentinel, and now all of the things that he feared were coming to pass.  Ellison was alone.  He would use his Sentinel abilities if he perceived any advantage that could be gained in using them, and without his Guide on hand to monitor and anchor him, he was susceptible to zone outs, and all of the other potential draw backs of his abilities. 

 

Bad things could happen to the Sentinel because the Guide was not with him.  The Guide had been remiss in his duties.  The Guide deserved to suffer, because his failure to do his duty might yet result in the death of everyone on the ship.  Despair settled over the young man, even as he fought to keep his partner from sensing it.  He was the Guide.  He had brought this on himself.  He had brought this on himself by not remaining with his Sentinel. 

 

As the empath lay in the dark, trying to gain control of both the pain in his body, and the dazed confusion of his mind, he made himself a vow that he would never make that particular mistake again.  From now on, he would stick to Ellison like glue.  No matter what.

 

Of course, in order for him to make good on his vow, there would have to be a next time, and the longer that he remained separate from his Sentinel, the less likelihood there was of that happening.  Blair grit his teeth, and forced himself to sit up, ignoring the bursts of pain that his movement caused in his body.  He had to get to Jim, and he couldn’t do that by just lying there.

 

Blair forced himself to straighten his left arm, and focus on the resulting pain.  The pain was sharp, but not unbearable.  He had a ‘pins and needles’ sensation in the lower part of his arm that suggested to him that rather than having broken either his arm or his elbow, he had simply jarred it pretty badly.  Hopefully, the pain would settle down, eventually.

 

His ribs were another story.  Every breath caused pain.  He was pretty certain that if they were not broken, then at least a few were cracked.  That was irritating, but not insurmountable.  He could still walk with broken ribs.  However, before he could think about going anywhere, he would need to get himself back under control.  Blair carefully pulled himself into cross-legged position that he could meditate in.  Sitting like that was hard on his ribs, and it took a lot more effort to place himself into a light meditative trance than it usually did, but he eventually got there, and from there he began the task of getting himself sufficiently back together to take on the task of getting to his Sentinel.

 

Blair had learned that the mind could effect the body in childhood.  He and his mother had still been living with the Naturalists when one of the men in the village had knocked another man down and killed him in anger.  The village Shaman had been called in to pass judgment on the murderer, and the Shaman had proclaimed that he should die.  Blair had been very young, and had really had no idea what might happen next.  Looking back on his vague memories of the event, he should have foreseen violence.  None was forthcoming though.  The villagers had simply turned away as though it were already over.  In a way it had been.  Over the next few days, Blair had seen a perfectly healthy man die, simply because the ‘holy’ man had told him that he would.  Blair had asked his mother if the old shaman truly possessed the magic to make someone die.  His mother had told him that, yes, in a way he did, because both the shaman and the man that he had condemned believed that he did.  Belief, she had told him, was the key to any magic.  The mind could create one’s reality though its belief.  It hadn’t been long after that that a ship had landed on the planet looking to do trade, and Naomi had decided that it was time for her to broaden her horizons once more.  Naomi’s decision had been the start of the nomadic phase of his childhood, but he had never forgotten his early lesson on magic and the power of belief.

 

Blair worked himself though one of the mental exercises that he had taught his Sentinel.  He allowed himself to embrace his pain, and then pushed it into the background.  He focused on believing that the pain was unimportant, and by doing this, it became so.  Medical doctors that he’d worked with had openly scoffed at his explanations of how he managed pain without taking medication for it.  While Naomi had moved on and embraced new beliefs and ideas, Blair had never really forgotten his early childhood, and retained some of the Naturalist beliefs.  He avoided modern medicine where he could.  He had never been able to make his colleagues understand that belief was its own kind of magic.  If one believed something strongly enough, then sometimes the universe would bend to accommodate that belief.

 

That thought brought a small smile to the young man’s lips.  While all of his teachers and mentors had told him that Sentinels were nothing but myths, he had believed that they were real and that he would find one.  And because he had believed it with his whole heart, he had. 

 

When Blair finally opened his eyes, he felt calm and centered.  To his surprise, he found that the ship’s emergency lighting had finally kicked in.  He could still feel the pain of his injuries, but they were no longer able to distract him from his goal.  He would now be able to go in search of his Sentinel.

 

Blair climbed carefully to his feet and then looked around to reorient himself.  He could see the turbo lift that he’d been heading toward when they had come under attack at the end of the corridor.  He walked toward it quickly.  He knew that there was no way in hell that it would be working, but he also knew that the maintenance shaft that led to the bridge ran parallel to the turbo lift shaft.   And as much as he really despised heights, Blair knew that since that was the only way for him to get to the bridge, then that was the way he would go.

 

It took the scientist a few minutes to find the access point, and then a few minutes more to find the emergency technician kit that was stored near every access point so that he could get the panel open.  Once he’d removed the panel, he leaned in to very carefully peer up and down the tunnel.  It was dark in the shaft, as he had suspected that it would be.  The dim red glow provided by the sparingly spaced emergency lighting gave the tunnel an eerie, sinister look.  A look downward told Blair more than he really wanted to know about how deep the tunnel was.  If he were to fall in there, he would have no chance at survival.  Blair swallowed heavily and looked up.  He was only three levels from the command deck.  He could make it that far.  He knew that he could.

 

As long as there were no more of those sudden drops.

 

Blair grimaced as that thought occurred to him.  That was really not the way that he wanted to go.  He had no way of knowing whether the battle they had been engaged in was over or not.  Jim would know though.  The empath drew a deep breath to center himself, and then reached out to touch the bond with the lightest mental touch that he could manage.  He really didn’t want to distract his Sentinel if they were still involved in something hairy.

 

To his relief, all that Blair could sense through the bond was elation mixed with frustration and irritation.  There was no sense of impending disaster or fear.  The Guide read his Sentinel’s emotional state to mean that they had won, although not as cleanly as the Sentinel would have liked.  That was good enough for Blair.  He quickly secured the technician’s kit over his shoulder and torso, in case he required it again. He then eyed the ladder that ran up the side of the shaft, carefully judging how far that he would have to swing himself out to reach it, licked his lips nervously, and then stepped out into the darkness.

 

As soon as his feet and hands were on the ladder, he forced himself to become still, and to calm his breathing.  Blair hated heights with a passion, but this was really not the time for a panic attack.  Unfortunately, the power of belief could work just as easily against a person, as it could work for them.  If he thought too much about his fear of falling, then he would.  So the young Scientist focused on the feeling of the ladder beneath his hand and feet.  Once he had narrowed his awareness down to those two sensations, he very deliberately reached up and grabbed the next rung of the ladder.  A moment later, he was beginning to move steadily upward.

 

Blair’s progress up the ladder remained steady and even, but it was also very slow.  He might have dulled his awareness of his own pain, but it still existed, and it existed for a reason.  The young scientist knew that while he could use his left arm without wincing, his elbow was still damaged, and therefore, weaker.  If he pushed himself too quickly, he might loose his grip at an inopportune moment and fall.  Similarly, Blair knew that his ribs were still damaged.  If he were to damage them further, by putting too much pressure on them, then conceivably, he could puncture a lung and also die.  Neither option would help his Sentinel in the least.  For this reason, he ignored the frustrated Guide instincts, which were screaming at him to go faster, and focused instead on actually making sure that he just got there.

 

For a while, Blair’s single-minded focus allowed him to experience his own type of zone out.  One hand up, one foot up.  The other hand up, the other foot up.  With his focus so totally on the ladder in front of him, and on keeping his body balanced, he quickly lost track of where he was.  The universe was so reduced for him, that when a shrill scream pieced the walls of the tunnel somewhere nearby, he was so shocked that he came very close to losing his grip on the ladder.

 

As soon as Blair regained his balance, he reaffirmed his grip on the ladder and looked around desperately for the source of that frantic sound, his heart pounding from more than just the adrenaline rush of his near fall.  Someone nearby was in trouble.  He scanned the tunnel above him quickly, and then carefully looked back over his shoulder.  Just below him was a tunnel access point.  Given how loud the scream had been, and that the only place where the tunnel walls would not be thick enough to muffle a sound like that almost completely was an access point, he decided that the terrified sound had probably come from there.

 

Blair bit his lip.  Someone obviously needed help, and he very well might be the only help that they had available, but it meant going backward, and his Guide instincts were still screaming at him to get to his Sentinel.  Blair grimaced and carefully reached out with his mind and touched Jim’s mind once again through the bond.  Ellison was tense, and not very happy about something, but he was well, and that was obviously more than could be said for who ever had screamed.  His decision made, he sent out a silent apology to his Sentinel and resolved himself to help the frightened soul below him as quickly as he could.

 

Blair carefully lowered himself down the few steps necessary to reach the access point.  He regarded the rectangular hatch thoughtfully for a moment.  On a ship that had taken as much damage as he had suspected that they had taken, there were any number of things that could be happening that would inspire the terror inherent in that scream.  He would do no one any good by rushing out and getting himself in the same predicament as the person he was intending to rescue.  He carefully touched the hatch and was relieved to find it cool to the touch.  That ruled out fire.  Nor could he hear the whistling sounds associated with a ship’s environment escaping through a breach in the hull.  He could, however, hear strange whistling sounds that seemed vaguely familiar to him, although he couldn’t put his finger on exactly why. 

 

Blair grimaced.  What ever it was, he’d find out about it soon.  Unchecked fire or a hull breach were the two main things that one had to be cautious of in a situation like this.  With those two possibilities looking unlikely, there was no real need to hesitate.  Someone needed help, and he’d better get about providing it.

 

Blair looked up and down the edges of the hatch.  Although the small release mechanism that opened the hatch from inside the tunnel was difficult to see in the dim light, he actually found it rather quickly.  He bit his lip as he cautiously leaned across to hit it, and fervently hoped that it would work.  To his relief, the hatch did slide out slightly.  He leaned across and kicked it to push it out of his way.  As expected the door fell down into the hallway, but something muffled the expected thud as it hit the floor. 

 

Blair frowned, then leaned over to check out what was happening in the corridor beyond the passage.  A quick glance revealed that he was alone.  The corridor was dimly lit by the red emergency lights, and there was a faint hint of smoke swirling around the lights at the top of the walls, although the environmental system seemed to be gradually sucking the smoke into the air filters in the ceiling.  There was a particularly foul odor in the air, like scorched flesh.  Blair swallowed heavily and fought back a wave of nausea.  For him to be smelling that so strongly in an empty corridor, then one hell of a lot of people had been badly burned or incinerated on this level.

 

At least, that was what he thought until he went to climb out of the shaft and looked down. 

 

Blair immediately saw what had muffled the sound of the hatch door falling.  Blair cursed as he realized that the door had come down on a person.  The scientist scrambled out of the shaft and quickly lifted the hatch door aside.  The fallen man was lying very still, face down on the floor, and Blair quickly placed a sensitive hand to the officer’s carotid artery.

 

Nothing.

 

Not quite ready to give up, he carefully laid his head over the man’s back and listened.  He waited a moment and sighed.  No heartbeat.  No pulse.  Worse still, the smell of burnt flesh was almost nauseatingly thick around the man.  Blair grimaced slightly, then grabbed hold of the man’s shoulder to turn him over.  The officer was beyond having any further injury done to him, and if he had died of burns, Blair needed to know what kind of a hazard he was dealing with.  Mindful of his damaged ribs, Blair carefully heaved the man over…

 

…and found himself faced with a nightmare.

 

On a ship that had been attacked and had been badly damaged, there were any number of ways that a person could acquire chemical burns, electrical burns, radiation burns or plain old heat burns, but there was really only one way that a person could come by the burns he saw on the poor man that lay in front of him.

 

The chest cavity of the human male in front of him had been eaten out by phaser fire. 

 

Which meant that they had been boarded.

 

Blair stared at the body in front of him numbly for a long moment.  Somewhere nearby there were hostile life forms.  They had attacked the ship, and were now hunting the crew.  As this fact worked it’s way into the stunned science officer’s mind, he suddenly became aware of the overwhelmingly loud noises that his heart was making as it slammed into his chest; of the harshness of his own breathing in the dim silence.  Of the fact that he was kneeling there in plain view of anyone passing the corridor with absolutely no idea of what was going on behind him.

 

Blair slowly raised his head so that he could glance over his shoulder.  Nothing.  Blair’s tongue ran across his lower lip nervously as he looked back down the corridor in front of him.  There was still nothing there either.  The young scientist suddenly knew what those familiar-yet-not-familiar sounds were.  Phaser fire, dampened by the walls of the maintenance tunnel.  Blair knew that he should climb back into the maintenance shaft and go in search of his Sentinel.  If the ship’s sensors were down, Jim may not even be aware of the invaders’ presence.  He could help Jim to use his sentinel abilities to track the bastards down.  He was just turning back toward the hatch, when another scream rang out, followed by more phaser fire, and Blair froze.

 

In that instant, something broke wide open within Blair Sandburg. 

 

From the moment that he had first begun to read about sentinels, he had known that he had to find one.  The concept of a tribal guardian had always struck a chord in him that no one around him had ever truly been able to understand.  He had always felt that somehow, in some small way, he needed to be a part of that.  And in the instant that he heard the phaser fire that threatened the crew of his ship, an instinct that had been a part of every Sentinel and Guide that had ever been, reared up within Blair and demanded that he do what he must to defend the tribe entrusted to him. 

 

Any thoughts of returning to the relative safety of the maintenance tunnel fled as the scientist looked around desperately for something that he could use as a weapon.  Blair cursed as he realized that the area around him was clear of anything useful.  The young man gnawed at his lip as he tried desperately to think of something to use to defend the crewmembers that the invaders were hunting.  A sudden thought occurred to him, and Blair quickly dragged off the technician’s kit that he had strapped over his shoulder.  He rummaged for a moment, and was forced to try to muffle his small cry of triumph as he pulled out a long, thin, metallic probe.  The Guide gave the makeshift weapon an experimental flick with his right hand, as he once again hoisted the technician’s kit with his left.  The probe arced up, turning in an almost lazy circle, before landing back in Blair’s palm with a satisfyingly solid slap.  The young man gave a small nod of satisfaction before powering off his knees and bolting toward the end of the corridor.

 

Blair found himself drawn through the darkened passages of the ship toward the sounds of screams and phaser fire, pausing only briefly to see if any of the still figures that he passed had any small spark of life left in them.  The invaders though, whoever they were, were horrifically efficient in their murderous passage through the ship.  No one that they came across was left alive.  In a small corner of his mind, Blair was very aware of the insanity inherent in the decision to run toward such danger, instead of away from it, but the Guide within him was in control now, and he simply could not bring himself to care that he was behaving irrationally.  His tribe needed him, and that was all that mattered.

 

His thoughts were interrupted by a shrill scream directly ahead of him.  Blair came to a skidding halt at the sound.  He froze and listened.  He could hear rapid footsteps and frantic, sobbing breaths.  Beyond that, he could hear heavier footfalls.  And they were all coming in his direction. 

 

Blair threw himself against the wall, right beside the corner.  He tightened his grip on the probe that he still held in his right hand.  A spit second later, a wild eyed young woman came flying around the corner at a flat out run.  The woman gave a muffled scream and threw herself to the side when she caught sight of him, unable in that moment to distinguish friend from foe.  Her sudden movement at such a great speed threw her off balance, and she tripped, slamming heavily into the wall.  Blair had no time to reassure her though, or make sure that she was unhurt.  He could hear those that had been chasing the woman approaching, and knew that the time to act was upon him. 

 

In one smooth movement, Blair Sandburg stepped out from behind the wall and drew back his arm.  He found himself facing two heavily armed Romulans, but he could not afford the luxury of being stunned by this development.  The Romulans instinctively tried to stop their headlong dash when they were suddenly faced with a new foe, and one that was evidently not afraid of them.  In that split second of hesitation on the part of his enemies, Blair judged the distance between them, stepped forward and released his deadly projectile.

 

Blair had always had an amazingly accurate throwing arm, and he had learned to use that skill to assist him while hunting with some of the less advanced peoples that he had lived with over the years.  The probe spun end over end as it flashed across the space that separated him from the Romulans and tore directly through the lead invader’s throat.  The creature dropped like a rock, convulsing and choking and clutching at the thing that had effectively ended his life.  Blair did not allow himself to watch, or even think about, the Romulan’s gruesome death throws.  Instead, he threw himself directly into the soldier that was still standing, bringing him down in a tangle of bodies and limbs before his enemy could bring his phaser to bare on him.

 

Blair mentally clamped down on the surge of pain through his ribs and elbow, and dragged himself up and away slightly before the Romulan that he was tangled up with could get his bearings.  He looked around desperately for one of the phasers, and saw instead the crewman that he had saved staring at him through wide, horrified eyes.

 

Run!!!” He hissed furiously.  The woman looked undecided for a split second, and then disappeared.  Blair looked down and saw the phaser of the Romulan that he’d just tackled, off to his right.  He tensed to dive for it, but before he could get any further, he felt a hand clasp on the back of his uniform, and he found himself being hurled backward. 

 

Blair skidded into the nearby wall with enough force to have caused pain even without damaged ribs.  For a second, the world exploded red behind Blair’s tightly closed eyes, and it was only through a supreme act of will that he didn’t pass out.  He forced himself to continue to breathe shallowly and he forced his eyes open again.  Through his pain and the dim red light, Blair saw that the Romulan was scooping his weapon up again and was coming back to his feet.  This, Blair decided, was not good.

 

Blair almost considered throwing himself at the Romulan in an attempt to take the bastard down again, but he knew that the impulse was a foolish one.  While he knew himself to be surprisingly strong for a man of his height and build, part of his Vulcan legacy, he also knew that the Romulan’s shared the same heavy-gravity evolutionary advantage as the Vulcans.  Further more, the mixture of human physiology that he’d inherited from his mother didn’t dilute and weaken the Romulan. Blair would never survive a physical battle with this creature at his best, let alone now.  And since he couldn’t see where his earlier victim’s phaser was, it was time for discretion to be the better part of valor.

 

Blair lurched off the ground and took off running.

 

He took off in the opposite direction to the crewman that he’d saved, certain that the Romulan would follow the greater threat.  He dived head long toward another passage, just as he heard the high pitched whine of phaser fire once more.  He refused to think about what the sensation of heat across his back meant in the split second before he reached the temporary safety of the side passage, and then when he hit the ground, he was in too much pain to think of anything.

 

The empath couldn’t suppress the small cry of agony that worked its way from between his tightly clenched teeth when he landed belly down on the floor.  Fortunately by now , his entire system had been flooded by adrenaline, and his body’s natural defenses were helping to keep the pain controllable, so he forced his knees up under him, forced his hands under his chest to lever himself up, and took off running again.

 

The next few moments were a nightmare of dimly lit passages, tight turns and pain.  He knew the Romulan was chasing him, because every thirty seconds or so, he’d hear another phaser blast, and the resulting explosion as it crashed into something that was not him.  Every few shot’s he’d catch sight of the tell tale beam of light that informed him that the Romulan’s shots were getting very close to finding their mark.  Still Blair continued to run, dodging and changing direction until even he had no idea where they were.

 

After a few moments, Blair’s lung’s were burning, his chest was aching, and his legs were threatening to just give in.  He instinctively knew that the Romulan was getting close to firing that damned phaser at him again, and so he caught hold of a corner and used it to rapidly change his direction.  Just as he swung into the corner, he heard the phaser again and looked over his shoulder in time to see the destructive beam cut through where he’d be running a second before.  Blair turned back to face forward in his headlong dash… and tried to apply the brakes on his forward momentum so hard that he skidded back onto his butt.

 

The hallway in front of him was damaged.  Part of the roof had caved in, and there were a jungle of wires and cables hanging down like vines, sparking with the power that was still trying to run through them.  Blair knew that to attempt to go through them would be death.  He scrambled to his feet and looked back down the corridor in horror.  The Romulan would turn that corner at any second.  If that happened, without anywhere to hide, then he would also die.  Blair looked around desperately, and spotted a door a little way back up the corridor.  He raced toward it, hit the door mechanism and prayed.

 

It worked.  The door slid open and Blair dashed inside.  The scientist hit the door button again before it had even had a chance to open properly, and instantly the door slid shut behind him.

 

“Come on, come-on, come-on-come-on.” Blair chanted under his breath as the door continued to slide shut.  The damned thing was obviously damaged, or it would have worked a lot quicker.  The science officer made an almost sub-vocal sound of triumph as the door slid closed, and his hand snaked out to hit the locking mechanism.

 

Nothing.

 

Blair’s mind went blank with horror, and he hit the locking mechanism again as though he were on auto-pilot.  Again nothing happened.  The lock was broken.  He had no way of keeping the enemy that was stalking him, out.

 

“Oh shit.”  He whispered in horror, then whirled around to look around the room.  It was an office.  Someone’s office.  There was nothing in it but a table with a computer monitor, a bench, and a chair.  Nothing to hide behind.  Whoever owned the office obviously didn’t believe in personalizing their space, because there weren’t even any nick-nacks that he could turn into weapons.  There was just nothing.  “Oh shit.” He whispered again.

 

The Romulan was coming.  He knew it.  He backed away from the door, then whirled, and dashed behind the desk.  He dropped to the floor, out of easy sight, and quickly pulled the technician’s kit from his back again, desperate to find something else within it that could be used as a weapon.  Unfortunately, the moment that he had placed the kit on the ground, Blair heard the damaged door begin it’s ponderous journey open and he froze.  His time was up.  The Romulan had arrived.

 

Blair watched the booted feet step into the room from under the desk.  He glanced down at the kit that he could barely see in the dim light, desperate to find something in it to save himself.

 

“Hello little Vulcan.” A soft voice said in the common language, and Blair felt the fine hairs on the back of his neck rise as he froze again.  The scientist slowly raised his eyes, and found himself staring at the business end of a phaser.  Beyond that was the cruelly smiling face of the Romulan.

 

‘Oh Jim,’ Blair thought miserably. ‘I’m sorry.  I tried…’

 

“You cause me trouble, Little Vulcan.” The Romulan said with the jerky effort of someone that did not speak a language often.  “I do not like Vulcan, I do not like ones that cause me trouble.  You are in both of these category.”  The creature gave a chilling smile.  “I think that I may want to hurt you before I kill you.”

 

“What would be the point?” Blair practically spat.  “We both know that you’re going to kill me.  All taking your time would do is slow you down.  I already know that I’m going to die here.  It’s not like torturing me is going to make me any more frightened.”

 

“No.” The Romulan agreed, “But I will enjoy it.”

 

“Great.” Blair breathed, and then exploded off the ground like a tightly coiled spring.  If this bastard was going to kill him, then he was going to make damned sure the son-of-a-bitch was at least a little less capable of causing further harm to this ship and its crew.

 

The sudden aggression from a seemingly defeated foe caught the Romulan off guard, and Blair felt a surge of triumph as his sudden rush sent the phaser flying.  For a moment, the young scientist thought that he might stand a chance, but then the larger alien shook off his surprise and struck back. 

 

The sudden, savage blow from a fist in his damaged ribs sent the empath to his knees.  He tried desperately to shake off the pain, but before he could do so, he was sent sprawling onto his back as a heavy weight settled on his body.  A wave of hatred so intense that the young man could practically taste it in the back of his throat battered viciously at his empathic barriers.  Blair tried desperately to shove upward against the heavy body that was straddling him, pinning him down.  He heard a grunt of effort, and then powerful, long fingered hands latched around his throat, choking off his ability to breath. 

 

Blair heard a desperate whimper as he struggled to get a grip on the hands that were suddenly choking the life out of him, and suspected that it may have come from himself, although at that point, he was too busy to care.  He felt his own fingernails gouging into his throat as he fought to get them underneath his attackers fingers.  Hate ate at his barriers, until it was able to slip inside; a parasite that gnawed at his mind and soul.  A lack of oxygen, caused darkness to gather at the edges of his thoughts, and he forced his eyes to open in an effort to combat it.

 

Instead of the light that he needed though, Blair found himself staring into a face contorted with effort directly above him.

 

“You are… not… like other…Vulcan.” The monster killing him grunted.  “I… sense… your… fear.  Your… rage.”  The thing looking down on him smiled ghoulishly.  “I like… this… better than…killing… other Vulcan.  More…satisfying.”

 

Darkness swirled around the young empath.  He could feel the creature holding him’s pleasure at his impending death.  It bordered on ecstasy.  Blair had no defenses left.  His chest burned from a lack of oxygen and from the pressure on his damaged ribs.  His throat was being crushed.  His mind was being assaulted by the vile emotions of his murderer.  He wanted to call out to his Sentinel, but there was no way for him to make a sound.  Blair’s vision faded, and the stubborn determination within him to cling to life as long as possible began to fade.

 

And then suddenly, the pressure on his throat was torn away, and there was air again.  Blair let out a hoarse cry as he sucked in a great lung-full of it.  Tears streamed from his eyes as he fought desperately against the pain in his throat and the pain in his chest to take in the oxygen he needed so desperately.  Dimly, he heard a frightened, desperate sound, and a deep growling, but he could not focus past the sound of his own wheezing breaths to determine the sources of those noises.

 

Suddenly, the fearful sound rose to sharp screams.  There were loud noises above his head, accompanied by dull thumps and wet, tearing sounds.  The screams rose in pitch and desperation, and Blair forced the pain and the horror of the mental assault that he had suffered away, and made himself turn over.  Before he could make his eyes open though, the screams abruptly stopped.

 

Blair opened his eyes and forced his knees up under himself.  He clamped down against the pained noises that fought to escape from him, and then used his arms to force himself back onto his haunches.  The world spun around him sickeningly, but Blair forced his eyes to open in spite of this.

 

James Ellison was crouched over what was left of the Romulan, directly in front of him.  Dark green blood stained the Sentinel’s face and hands.  Blair noticed somewhat hysterically that in spite of the phaser that sat at his hip, the Sentinel had killed the Romulan with his bare hands.  Blair couldn’t even wrap his mind around the fact that a human had just overpowered and killed a warrior of a much stronger species without even the most rudimentary of weapons.  At that moment of course, Jim Ellison did not look particularly human.  Not that that mattered even slightly to Blair.  All that mattered to Blair was that he had needed his Sentinel, and his Sentinel had come for him.

 

Blair tried to call out to his soul mate, but all that would come out from his damaged throat was a somewhat incoherent noise.  It was enough to reclaim the Sentinel’s attention though.  Ellison’s ice-blue eyes snapped up and focused on the younger man.  Blair wanted to ask Jim to come to him, because his shredded barriers needed the support the older man’s touch always provided.  His voice would not work though, and he found himself reaching out toward the older man mutely.  Ellison’s ice-cold eyes thawed and became human once more as he took in his Guide’s helpless gesture.  Blair swayed toward his Sentinel, and suddenly Ellison practically teleported across the distance between them. 

 

Blair felt strong arms enfold him gently, and his Sentinel’s soothing presence fill his battered mind, and he knew that it was finally safe to let go.  The Guide leaned into his Sentinel’s solid warmth and let go of consciousness.

 


 

Simon Banks came to a skidding halt as he raced into the room that the ungodly screams he’d been following had led to.  He’s been too surprised to do anything more than follow when Ellison had suddenly bolted when they’d reached this level.  The security chief had been moving too quickly for the Captain to keep up with though, and he’d promptly lost sight of the younger man.  He’d been checking over the body of a crewman that had obviously fallen victim to their intruders and thinking of all of the unpleasant things that he was going to do to Ellison for disappearing on him, when a distant screaming had filled the air.  The sounds of those screams had made the Captain’s blood run cold, and Banks had taken off in the direction they were coming from with all of the speed that he could manage, fearful that those horrendous noises were coming from a member of his crew.

 

They had not been.  That much had become obvious the moment he’d entered the room.  Dark green blood garnished the walls and floor of the room, and the small space already reeked of violent death.  Banks spared a glance for the Romulan that was the source of the gore decorating the room, but a glance was enough for him.  Even the little bit he could see protruding from behind the desk was enough to let the tall Captain know that he really didn’t want to see any more.  Obscurely, Banks felt a certain amount of relief that this intruder would be doing no further damage to either his ship or his crew.  However, his more pressing concern at that moment was determining who or what had managed to reduce a Romulan Warrior to so much ground meat, and where said killer was now.

 

Banks was about to take another step into the room to look around, when the sound of movement behind the desk made him freeze.  The Captain carefully lifted the phaser that Ellison had armed him with before they’d left the bridge and began to move forward as cautiously and as silently as possible.  Banks kept his phaser low and his hands steady as he moved slowly around the desk, trying to focus past the sound of his own breathing to get a fix on who or what was behind the desk.  A few steps later he rounded the desk and had his answers as to who and what, and almost wished that he didn’t.

 

From the gore that covered James Ellison’s face, hands, and uniform, it was exceedingly obvious that it was the Security Chief that had killed the Romulan.  And if the look of the pale and silent figure that Ellison was so gently supporting was anything to go by, it was also obvious why the Security Chief had felt compelled to exercise such excessive force in taking the Romulan down.  Blair Sandburg looked as though someone had drained all of the blood from him, he was so pale.  The young science officer’s long, curly hair had mostly escaped from the ponytail he often used to keep the unruly mop out of his face, and his uniform was dirty, singed and torn in several places. Ellison had not taken his eyes off the figure that was sprawled across his lap and resting against his chest, yet somehow, Banks knew that the other man was aware of his presence.  The Captain slowly put his phaser back into his weapons belt, aware that sudden movements were probably not a good idea around a man that had recently felt compelled to tear a Romulan limb-from-limb with his bare hands.  Once the weapon was stored, the Captain slowly knelt on the floor about a meter away from his two men.  When he spoke, he took great pains to ensure that his voice was as quiet and unthreatening as he could manage.

 

“How is he?” Banks asked.

 

Ellison grimaced without looking up.  “His heartbeat is rapid and erratic, and so is his breathing.  His pupils are dilated and his skin is cold and clammy.” The big security officer sounded blessedly sane and in control, but there was a grim darkness in his voice that negated the relief that Banks wanted to feel at knowing his friend was back.  “He’s going into empathic shock, sir.”

 

Banks’ jaw tightened in response to the grim pronouncement.  He didn’t know too much about empaths, but he knew enough to understand just how bad empathic shock could be for one.  empathic shock could lead to death if not handled quickly enough.  Banks tried to visualize where they were in relation to the med. center and mentally plotted out the fasted route there.  “We’d better get him to sick bay…” Banks began, only to trail off when Ellison finally raised his head and speared him with an icy glare.

 

“With what’s happened on this ship, the sick bay is the last place that I can take Blair.”  Ellison growled.  “Baccus and her staff will be flat out trying to cope with the injuries, and they’ll have triage protocols in place.  The med. center will be overflowing with injured, dying, frightened and confused people right now.  If I take him into that, with his barriers shredded, and then leave him there, it’ll kill him.”

 

“Well what would you suggest we do?” Banks demanded, trying very hard, yet not entirely succeeding, at keeping the sarcasm from his voice.  “We can’t just leave him here, because unless I’m very much mistaken, that’d kill him too.  And in case it’s escaped your notice Commander, we are still in the middle of a siege.  There are more lives on the line here than just Sandburg’s.”

 

When Ellison met his eyes this time, the ice-cold anger had melted away, and in its place was an odd mix of soul-deep worry and grim determination that surprised Banks somewhat. 

 

“I’m aware of that Captain.” Ellison’s voice broke off and his eyes became vaguely unfocused. “I’m probably more aware than you are of just how many lives are in danger right at this moment.” Ellison’s unfocused gaze turned upward and his head cocked slightly to the side.  With a start, Banks realized that he was listening.  The security chief could actually hear the distress of his crew.  Banks felt both nauseated by the thought of being forced to hear people all around him in need of assistance and knowing that he was not going to be able to provide it, and awe at Ellison’s unconscious display of his abilities.  The ex-Ranger suddenly gave himself a shake, and turned his eyes back onto his Captain again.  “Sir, I’m aware of the fact that we’ve got to get this situation under some semblance of control, here.  The thing is, sir, that with the ship’s sensors down for the most part, I’m the best chance we have of tracking down the intruders.” Ellison’s eyes became cold and grim, and his voice roughened.  “I’m a Sentinel.  They won’t be able to hide from me.  But in order to track them, I’m going to need my Guide.”

 

“Ellison,” Banks growled in frustration, “your Guide is presently lying across your lap, so far gone in empathic shock that he’s no longer conscious.  I don’t think that he’s going to be able to help you.”

 

The worry in Ellison’s eyes suddenly swamped the determination that it had been co-existing with.  “Yes he will.” Jim said softly.  “His barriers are fried at this point, but I can help him to reconstruct them, and as long as I stay with him, he should be able to maintain them.  As for the shock, that can be managed chemically, and we shouldn’t need anything that isn’t found in the emergency medical kits that are located around the ship.  I’ll just need to consult with Baccus to make sure that I remember the dosages right.” Ellison evidently saw his Captain’s surprise at this comment, because a smile totally lacking in either warmth or mirth cut across his features.  “In addition to being the CO of the Ranger team I led, I was also the medical technician.  I had a team member that had some Betazoid in his background.  He wasn’t empathic - wouldn’t have been able to do his job if he was - but he still had some specialized medical needs so I got taught how to deal with an injured Betazoid.  The subject of empathic shock came up.” Ellison shrugged.

 

Banks snorted.  That was James Ellison for you.  Starfleet officer, Sentinel, and general over achiever.  And people had wondered why he’d been so adamant that he’d wanted Ellison in the position of Security Chief on his ship. “Okay, let’s get moving then.  I need to get to the engine room to speak with Taggart, and you need to start hunting down the sons-of-bitches that are decimating my crew.”

 

“Alright.” Ellison nodded, then shifted his hold on the unconscious man to be able to rise slowly to his feet, with the young empath held carefully in his arms.  “The first thing we need to do is find a station with a functioning computer terminal, so I can use the station-to-station communicator to consult with Baccus.”

 

“Let’s move then.” Banks said grimly as he stood up.  “We’re on level 2, so there are mainly crew quarters around us.  There are a few offices around here, though.  I think our best bet is to try to get to Curtis’ office.  It’s on this level.  Adjoins his personal quarters, from memory.  Should be back along the main corridor, but we’ll have to go right, instead of left at the junction.”

 

“Agreed.” The security chief nodded, although he didn’t move out right away.  Instead, he cocked his head slightly to the side again, and once more took on that vaguely unfocused look.  Banks might have been mistaken, but it seemed to him that Jim clutched the unconscious young man even more tightly to his chest as he listened.  Banks watched, fascinated, until the Sentinel came back to himself with an angry grimace.  “Oh sir.” Ellison’s pale blue eyes swung toward him and locked with his intensely, “You might want to keep your weapon drawn.  There aren’t only crew on this level.”

 

Banks swore viciously and yanked out his phaser again.  “Christ!” he swore, “How many of these bastards are there?”

 

“Impossible to say.” Ellison growled as he tipped his head, indicating that the Captain should proceed him.  “I head a transporter whine, so they’re conceivably going to just keep sending warriors at us until either we get our shields up again, or one of the ships is destroyed.”

 

Banks clenched his jaw and cautiously peered out into the corridor.  It looked clear, and Ellison wasn’t saying anything to the contrary, so he slipped out of the room and began advancing toward the main corridor.  The two men remained silent as they moved though the eerie gloom of the emergency lit corridors.  Ellison’s solid presence was reassuring at the Captain’s back, and although he knew that he should devote his entire attention to getting them to the communications officer’s quarters, he couldn’t quite give up turning their present predicament over in his mind.

 

Lieutenant Commander Bli’inkavari had already warned him that it was going to take some serious repairs to get their shields up and running again.  The ship’s power was seriously depleted, and she strongly suspected that the last hit that they had taken had done structural damage that would effect the shield generators.  So the chances were very good that they wouldn’t be able to get the shields up.  That meant that they were going to have to come up with a way to destroy the Romulan ship to keep any more invaders from making their way on board.  Banks wondered how Richards was getting on with getting the weapon’s console back on line.  He hoped that someone from engineering had managed to make their way safely to the bridge to further the navigator’s efforts.

 

The thought of his laid-back navigator reminded Banks that he was going to have to see about getting him a commendation for his efforts during the earlier disaster.  Hell, if they survived this, he was going to have to see about getting all of his bridge crew commendations.  No one would ever believe that a crew that had never worked together under fire before could have worked together so well.  They had responded to each new twist in the crisis like a well-oiled machine.  Each and every one of them had shown both a remarkable cool headedness under incredibly trying conditions, and a willingness to think outside the boxes that modern Starfleet training seemed so totally focused on sticking its officers in to.  They had responded to the crisis with the courage and innovation that one would have expected to see in the pioneering crews of the Federation, rather than the automated rule following that was encouraged in today’s fleet.  Back when Banks had been putting together his crew, he’d felt as though he were being manipulated.  Of the choices he’d been given, only the crew that he’d selected had possessed the qualities he’d been looking for.  Banks was still pretty sure that he’d been supposed to select the officers he’d chosen, but if that manipulation was the work of those shadowy figures determined to see the Raptor destroyed, then it had backfired quite spectacularly.  Another crew would have fallen.  Hell, another crew would probably never have picked up the cracked crystals before they’d made their first warp jump.  If they all survived this mess, then he’d tell them so.

 

Ellison’s foot catching the back of his leg drew Banks out of his thoughts.  Banks glared back irritably, only to find Ellison’s focus was elsewhere.  The grim faced aggression on the security officer’s face suggested that the kick he’d received had been deliberate.  Banks silently raised his eyebrows, and Ellison nodded sharply at the intersection that they were about to come to.  The ex-Ranger gestured to the right with his chin and then very deliberately blinked twice.  ‘Ah,’ thought Banks, ‘two of them, down there.’  Banks gestured to himself to indicate that he would deal with it.  Ellison shifted the inert young man that he was carrying in his arms, and then nodded with obvious reluctance.  The security officer portion of Ellison’s personality, which wanted to protect the Captain, had obviously been over ruled by the Sentinel part, which wanted to protect the Guide, and the man’s internal struggle with that fact was very obviously still giving him some grief.  It didn’t really matter to Simon though.  Banks would have made it an order if he had to.  He wanted a shot at the bastards attacking his ship himself.  Not very Captainly of him, perhaps, but nothing pissed Simon Banks off more than a threat to his ship and crew.  He didn’t usually get a chance to deal with such a threat first hand, and since he now had it, he was going to take it.

 

With his phaser at the ready, the tall Captain slid silently along the wall until he reached the corner, where he paused to listen.  Somewhere in the darkness of the corridor beside him, Simon could hear the stealthy sounds of carefully placed footfalls.  They were being cautious, but they hadn’t paused in their advance, so they probably hadn’t heard the Captain’s approach.  Banks listened carefully, and judged the intruders to be about two-thirds the way along the corridor, coming towards him.  ‘Good enough,’ he told himself, drew a deep breath, and then stepped around the corner.

 

Banks had lined up the closest Romulan and fired before the warriors he was facing had time to do more than realize that he was there.  The creature crumbled with an agonized shriek, but Simon didn’t really have time to pay attention to the warrior’s death-throws.  He was too busy drawing back behind the relative safety of the corner before the surviving Romulan could line him up to take a shot at him.  The Captain winced as the shrill scream of a Romulan phaser rent the air, and a slight warming of the right side of his face told him that a shot had fired at the corner.  Banks glanced at Ellison, who seemed to be listening intently to something.  Ellison looked back at Banks and nodded sharply.  Banks didn’t give himself time to think about the fact that he had just given himself over to his security officers bizarre senses.  He just stepped around the corner and fired.

 

The blast took the Romulan full in the face, only meters away from their position.  He had obviously used his own fire to advance on his enemies.  The Romulan’s look of surprise disappeared as the destructive beam ate into his face, and the force of the impact threw the invader backward onto the floor.  Banks kept his phaser trained on the warrior warily as it kicked its heels convulsively as it died.  On one level, the compassionate human that Simon Banks prided himself on being was horrified at the pain and indignity that a fellow sentient being had just suffered, but the Starfleet officer within him coolly pushed that part of himself to the back to be dealt with later.  Right at that moment, all the Captain within him was concerned about was that the warrior that he had just killed had not killed him, and that it could kill no more of his officers.  As soon as the Romulan had stopped twitching, the Captain turned back to Ellison, who nodded calmly.

 

“Clear.” The security chief rumbled, nodding to indicate that they should proceed.

 

“How’d you know that they were Romulans moving around in that corridor, instead of some of our people?” Banks asked quietly as he continued to move up the passage.

 

“Their heartbeats.” Ellison responded quietly.  “I had plenty of opportunity to memorize what a Romulan heartbeat sounded like on my last mission as a Ranger.”

 

Banks thought back to the limited information that he’d been given concerning the disastrous mission that had resulted in the birth of Ellison’s Sentinel abilities.  Eighteen months of constant warfare with Romulans would have certainly given him an edge in detecting them, particularly when coupled with the man’s abilities.  Just as soon as they got the kid stabilized, he was going to give Jim Ellison free reign to use that ability to hunt out and exterminate the rest of the bastards that had invaded his ship.

 

They reached Curtis’ office without further incident, and Banks quickly entered the over ride code for the door lock.  To Banks’ unutterable relief, the door swung back and let them enter.  The door mechanism working was a good sign.  There was at least a chance that the communications console in this office might be working.  The Captain waited for the Sentinel and the still young man that he held to enter, and then slipped in after them.  He waited for a moment for the door to close, but then remembered that most of the ship’s sensors weren’t working, and reached over to hit the mechanism that would shut the door manually with a frown of irritation.

 

By the time Banks had turned around, Ellison had already laid his Guide on Curtis’ sleeping platform, and had moved over to one of the room’s other doors.  Banks walked over to join his security chief as the man entered the over ride on the lock on Curtis’ office.  Ellison glanced back at his Captain over his shoulder as the taller man approached.

 

“Sir, I’m going to need you to go grab one of the ship’s emergency medical kits for me.” The ex-Ranger said quietly.  “There should be one at the end of the next corridor over to the left.  I can’t hear anymore Romulans in the immediate vicinity, but I can hear some of the crew moving around over that way.  You might want to tell them to find a secure position and hide if they aren’t security.  There’s no telling when the next lot of Romulans will transport in.” Ellison paused, and then grimaced.  “If they are security, please tell them for me to get their asses to the nearest high risk area.  We’ve got too many vulnerable positions on this ship at the moment for anyone to be wandering around aimlessly.”

 

Banks fought the urge to smirk at the distracted officer.  Technically it was Banks that was supposed to be giving the throw-away orders, but Ellison was stressed right now, so he’d forgive the little break down in the chain of command.  Besides, Banks had come from a security background himself, but had been given only the most basic medical training.  If someone was going to be needed to discuss Sandburg’s situation with the medical officer, it made more sense that the trained technician do it.  “You got it.” The older man shrugged, then turned and jogged back the way he’d come.

 

Banks took a little longer to get back than he’d anticipated.  The engineer he’d encountered first had evidently received some sort of head injury during the initial fight with the Romulans, because he’d been extremely confused and disoriented.  Banks had been forced to drag the young man (who’d become fixated on the fact that he was supposed to get to his quarters… wherever they were) along with him while he looked for another crew member able to get the injured man to sick bay.  Banks had then discovered that the med. kit he’d been hunting for had already been taken.

 

Banks had been on the verge of giving up and dragging the almost incoherent young man back to Ellison with him, when he’d heard some noise and, upon investigation, discovered where the missing med kit had gone.

 

It seemed that a Doctor who had been off duty when the shit had hit the fan, had decided he’d be better off staying on this level, rather than trying to get to sick-bay to report in, as all of the turbo-lifts were out, and anyone badly injured wasn’t going to be able to use the maintenance shafts to get there.  The young doctor was trying very hard to treat a variety of injuries with the most basic of equipment.  Banks had been pleased to see that an armed security officer was there, though.  It seemed that he’d been on duty at the time of the incident that had resulted in this chaos.  He’d started out hunting for injured people for the doctor, but when he’d come across some bodies of crewmembers that had obviously been killed by phaser fire, he’d come to the correct conclusion about what was happening, and had come back to guard the doctor’s little clinic.  The doctor had been able to tell Banks where he could find another med. kit, and the tall Captain had hurried off, leaving the injured engineer in the healer’s care.

 

 Banks knew as soon as he got back to Curtis’ office that Ellison had managed to get the communicator that was located there working, because the security chief was already engaged in a heated argument by the time the Captain entered the room.

 

“…don’t care what your fucking text books say, Baccus, I’m telling you that removing Sandburg from my presence and putting him into stasis will do him one hell of a lot more damage than doing it my way!” Ellison bellowed at the communication panel.

 

“Oh, I’m sorry, Doctor Ellison, I wasn’t aware that you knew more about the medical needs of the crew than I do.  Seeing as you’re better qualified than I am, why don’t you come down here and oversee the patching up of the crew, while I come up there, wave phasers around, and give shit to people who are too damned busy to put up with it!!! Baccus’ tinny voice shrieked back.

 

Banks sighed and moved over to the communication panel.  Ellison and Baccus were never going to listen to each other.  From their first meeting, Baccus had pegged the security chief as a potentially dangerous lunatic, and Ellison had decided that the doctor was an incompetent pain in the ass.  They were both partially right about each other.  Ellison was potentially dangerous, and Baccus was a pain in the ass, but they were both extremely good at their jobs.  Unfortunately, the high levels of stress that they were both under meant that their tolerance levels for one another had dropped to an all time low.  They were never going to listen to each other at the moment, so it was undoubtedly going to be up to him to make them work together.  Banks silently added Make Ellison and Baccus deal with their issues to the mental list he’d been compiling of things to do if they ever got out of this mess alive.

 

Ellison was drawing a deep breath in preparation for starting in at the doctor again when Banks calmly elbowed him out of the way.  Banks ignored the dark look that his security chief shot him and spoke calmly into the communicator.  “Dr Baccus, this is Captain Banks.  What seems to be the problem?”

 

“The problem?” Baccus hissed back, “the problem is that from what Ellison’s told me, you two have an empath there that is in empathic shock.  He won’t be able to put up the necessary mental barriers to stove off the emotions of others.  He’ll go insane, or die if he isn’t put into stasis as soon as possible, until we can get him to a better equipped medical center!”

 

“I understand your concern Doctor, but there are three things that you need to consider in this.” Banks responded calmly.  “Firstly, the stasis tubes are on the medical center level.  How are we supposed to get an unconscious man there while the turbo-lifts are down, and the only inter-level access we’ve got is the maintenance shafts?”  Banks waited for a moment, and decided that the frustrated silence that came from the communication panel spoke for its self.  “Secondly, in spite of your early concerns about Dr Sandburg and Commander Ellison’s mental health, they have repeatedly proven that Dr Sandburg’s diagnosis of Ellison’s condition was accurate.  Considering the… rarity… of that condition, I seriously doubt any of the files in the medical computer deal with the medical needs of Sentinels and Guides.” Banks caught Ellison’s disbelieving look out of the corner of his eye, but ignored it.  Neither Ellison nor Sandburg would have been aware that the price Banks had been forced to pay for the medical chief’s continued silence was complete disclosure of the facts as Banks knew them so that she could monitor the situation.  As far as the Captain knew, she was the only person other than himself and Dr Chang that knew the truth about what was happening between the two men.  Banks ignored Ellison’s vaguely panicked expression and continued. “In fact, as far as I am aware, the only expert on their condition is Dr Sandburg; although I’m sure that you’re aware of how much time Dr Sandburg had spent with Commander Ellison bringing him up to speed with what’s happening to them.  That means, as Dr Sandburg is presently incapacitated, Ellison is the closest thing to an expert that we have available, wouldn’t you say, Doctor?”

 

“Yes, Sir,” Baccus sounded as though she were talking through clenched teeth, before continuing defiantly, “although Sandburg is still an empath, and as such has very specialized needs…”

 

“And Commander Ellison is a trained med. tech., and has undoubtedly taken those needs into consideration.” Banks continued smoothly, effectively cutting the woman off mid-rant.  “Thirdly, and this is my major concern, most of the ship’s sensors are down, as you are undoubtedly already aware.”

 

“Yes Sir,” Baccus responded, and for the first time, Banks was allowed to hear some of the level of weariness and frustration that she must be feeling in her voice, “My people are all being forced to use hand held medical tricorders to assist in making diagnosis’s.  The med computer is pretty much non-functional.  Only the portable equipment is working, and even some of that was damaged during the initial attack.  I’ve got an engineer down here who’s jury-rigged some of the stasis tubes to a functioning portable generator, to take the worst of the injured but…” The woman sounded exhausted as she trailed off, and Banks felt his heart go out to both her and her staff.  Things couldn’t be easy down there at the moment.  Out of the corner of his eye, Banks could see that Ellison was looking vaguely uncomfortable.  Baccus was right.  She did have better things to be doing than arguing with them.  “…we’re not having a hell of a lot of fun down here, Captain.” Baccus finished miserably.

 

“I know.” Banks affirmed gently, “And that’s the main reason that I need Sandburg conscious and functioning.  Ellison’s proven how effective his enhanced senses are at tracking and exterminating the invading forces that are adding to your workload, but in order for Ellison to be fully functional, he needs Sandburg.  I’m aware that there are probably risks associated with what I’m asking you to help us with, but right now there are a great many more lives on the line than just Blair Sandburg’s.”

 

There was silence for a moment, before Baccus responded icily. “Just as long as it goes on record about how uncomfortable I am with this.” The doctor’s tinny voice sounded unspeakably angry again suddenly.  “And as long as you two are both aware that this could, conceivably, kill him.”

 

Banks saw the gut-wrenching worry in his security chief’s face at the doctor’s grim announcement and went on quickly, before the ex-Ranger could change his mind.  “I understand, Doctor, and I’m taking full responsibility.  I need Ellison and Sandburg functional.  What do we have to do?”

 

“Put Ellison back on.” Baccus ordered gruffly.  Banks stepped aside and indicated that the security chief should take his place.  Ellison did as he was bade, but there was a look of near reluctance as he did so.

 

For the next few moments, Baccus and Ellison spoke at each other in what sounded like a foreign language to Banks.  He had the basic medical emergency training that all Starfleet officers were required to have, but the discussion that took place between his security chief and his medical officer went completely over his head for the most part.  Banks watched as Ellison made a few notes on a data pad that he’d swiped off of the communications officer’s desk.  The look of worry and determination that he’d been wearing since he outlined his plan was now liberally mixed with guilt, and the over all effect was that the ex-Ranger now looked pale and almost queasy.  Jim stopped writing after a moment, and stood, reviewing his notes almost grimly.

 

“From memory,” Ellison said quietly, “this should work pretty fast, right?”

 

“Almost immediately.” Baccus agreed.

 

“And you’re sure that this level of Quytharamine won’t block his empathic pathways completely?  I just want them dampened to make it easier for us to keep him from being overwhelmed.” Ellison pressed.

 

“I’m sure Ellison.” Baccus said firmly.  “Just, for God’s sake, if he shows any signs of a bad reaction to the drugs, nausea, blurring of vision or excessive weakness, just bring him straight to the med. center.  I’ll put him in stasis immediately.  And remember what I said about the anti- inflammatory drugs for his elbow.  Exactly the amount I said, or you’ll risk a negative reaction with the chemical ‘kick-start’ we’ve given him.”

 

“Affirmative.” Ellison nodded.

 

“Good.” Baccus snapped.  “Now, if you gentlemen have finished talking me into doing things that go against my professional judgment, I have a med center full of people that need my help.  Baccus out.”

 

Banks stared at the Communications Panel for a second before snorting.  “Pleasant soul, isn’t she?” he grimaced.

 

“Sir,” Ellison began, before Banks could wave him away.

 

“Go.  See to Sandburg.  I have to try to contact engineering and the bridge, anyway.”  Banks dismissed the anxious man.  Ellison nodded and then ducked out the door, leaving Banks alone with the communications panel and his thoughts.

 

A few moments later, Simon was listening to his chief engineering officer give him a run down of their present situation as far as the ship went.  The information his old friend gave him didn’t really do much to improve his mood.

 

“…going to take five, maybe six days to shore the ship up enough structurally for us to go anywhere.  Although, the good news is that the environmental controls and generator weren’t damaged at all, and the Dilithium crystals are still stable, so we don’t have to worry about a warp core breach.”

 

“Well, that’s something, anyway.” Banks sighed tiredly.  “You had any trouble with our unwanted guests?”

 

“I’ve heard some shooting out in the corridor a few times, but so far, no one’s managed to get past the security guards that are out there, and no one’s transported directly into the engine room, so there’s been no further damage down here.”

 

“Good.” Banks nodded, then pursed his lips thoughtfully.  “Joel, the torpedo tubes are only one level below you.  Would it be possible to send a technician…”

 

“Way ahead of you Simon.” Taggart said rather grimly.  “Tubes four through eight were destroyed by the impact of that last round of enemy fire.  The emergency bulkheads have come down all through that section of levels six and seven.  I can’t send technicians in there.  The only way of reaching that section of the ship is to send someone out through the docking bay doors in an environmental suit.  Under the circumstances, I’m not willing to take that kind of a risk with any of the people that I have left.  As for tubes one through four, the technician I sent down there reported damage to tubes one, two and three, but she ran into one of those Romulan hunting parties before she could check out four.  Based on her finding before that though, I’d suggest attempting to use tube four would be a bad idea.  If we did get a photon torpedo in the tube and managed to fire it, it’d detonate before leaving the ship if the tube had any damage at all.  It’s just not worth the risk.”

 

‘Fuck.’ Thought Banks miserably.  “That technician make it back in one piece?” he demanded.

 

“No Simon.” Joel replied darkly, “She didn’t make it back at all.”

 

“Fuck!” Banks roared furiously.  “We have got to keep those bastards off this ship!  Are you sure that we can’t reconstruct even partial shields, Joel?  Even if we could get the shields facing the enemy ship partially on line, they wouldn’t be able to get through!”

 

“I know, Simon, but the generators overloaded.  I’ve got people working on it but it’s going to take more time than we’ve got.”  Joel’s voice was gentle with understanding over his Captain’s frustration.

 

“Damn.” Banks pinched the bridge of his nose in vain attempt to stave off the headache he’d had since he’d first woken up that morning.  “Joel, see if you can get those layouts showing the worst of the damage done before I get there.  I need to see what I’ve still got available to me,  I have to come up with a way of keeping those bastards out, at very least.”

 

“Will do, Simon.” Taggart assured him, then quickly signed off.  Banks sighed deeply, then reached out to reactivate the com panel again.

 

“Bridge, this is Captain Banks.  Please respond.”  Banks waited, but received only silence in reply.  The Captain frowned.  “Curtis? Respond!”  Again, nothing but silence greeted his calls, and a desperate unease took hold in the pit of the Captains stomach.  “Connor!” he snarled, “Respond!!!

 

“Here Sir!” Curtis sounded viciously angry and out of breath, but no music had ever sounded sweeter to Simon Banks’ ears than the young man’s cultured voice across the com speakers.

 

“Curtis, where the hell were you?” Banks snarled.

 

“Trying to keep from getting his head blown off!”  Keel sounded distinctly pissed off, but before Banks could respond to the tone of the young man’s voice, he heard a muffled ‘ouch’ followed by an equally muffled “Well piss off outta my station then, ya dopey git.” And then a long suffering sigh.  “Bloody Yanks.”

 

“Curtis, would you care to explain that comment of Keel’s?” Banks asked with a forced cheerfulness that boded no good for anyone.

 

“Sorry, Sir.” The young Englishman sighed.  “We just had a spot of drama up here.  We had a party of Romulans transport onto the bridge, just before you called.”

 

Banks felt his blood run cold at the thought of armed invaders suddenly appearing on his bridge.  “Is everyone alright?” Banks demanded harshly.

 

“Yes Sir.” Curtis soothed.  “We’re all in far better shape than the Romulans just now.  Commander Connor as a phaser burn on her left arm, but other than that we’re okay.”

 

“Put Connor on.” Banks snapped.

 

A moment later, Commander Connor’s voice rang out from the com speakers.  “Here, sir.”

 

“How’s the arm?” he demanded.

 

“Hurts like hell, but I’ll live.” The woman growled. “No more than I deserve though.  Should’ve ducked faster.”

 

“Did they cause any further damage to the bridge?” Banks asked quietly.

 

“Like they could do much more damage than they’ve already done, the bastards.” Connor sounded even pissier than Keel at that moment, and that was saying something.  “But, no sir, we took no further damage.  bastards didn’t have time to fire off more than one shot apiece before the crew took’em apart.  They made a bit of a tactical error transporting onto this bridge.” The young woman sounded almost smug as she finished, and it forced a reluctant smile from the Captain.

 

“All right, Connor, don’t get cocky.” He growled, but his heart wasn’t in the reprimand, and he had no doubt the woman could hear the smile in his voice.  “How are things going up there.”

 

“The enemy ship hasn’t moved, sir.  From the limited number of sensors we’ve managed to get working, we figure she’s showing no more signs of coming back to life than we are, and she may even be in worse shape than us.  We finally got some technicians from engineering through.  They’re assisting Richards now.  He says that he might be able to get the tactical console up and running with a little more time.”

 

“Tell him not to bother.” Banks grimaced.  “I’ve just been talking to Taggart.  The torpedo tubes are all damaged. We’re going to have to think of another way to take these guys out.  Tell Richards and those technicians to focus on getting the external communications gear back on line.  We’re going to need some help here, and the sooner we get it, the better.”

 

There was a long silence from the communicator, and then Connor said slowly,  “Sir, we were talking amongst ourselves up here, just before our uninvited guests showed up...”

 

“Oh?” Banks encouraged the woman to continue.

 

“Yeah.  Mr. Keel had an interesting thought, and seeing as you say there’s no hope of resurrecting the torpedo tubes, I’m thinking about giving him the ‘go ahead.”

 

“To do what?” Banks demanded.

 

“To go down and check the shuttle bay.” The woman replied.  “Seems he’s got a bit an idea that involves a shuttle and a whole shit load of explosives.”

 


 

James Ellison slid the last drug tube into the hypo that he was holding, carefully entered the dosage that needed to be administered, and then drew a deep breath.  He’d been very careful to keep from thinking about what Baccus had said while he was administering the other drugs.  He could afford neither shaky hands nor panic induced sensory spikes just at present, so he focused on the fact that the drugs he was administering would help his Guide.  And they had.  Within seconds of the first drug being administered, Blair’s heartbeat became steadier.  Now, with only the chemical ‘kick-start’ left to be given, the only remaining signs that his Guide had suffered a near total physical shut down were the continued pallor of the young man’s skin, and the desperate empathic ‘hold’ that Blair had maintained on him since he had rescued the younger man from the Romulan, although even that had diminished when he had administered the dampener.

 

The Sentinel was desperately unhappy with the situation as it stood.  Instinct was once again at war with logic within him.  The feral part of his persona was demanding that he take his Guide someplace safe and lose himself in the bonding that the younger man so desperately required until he had recovered sufficiently to be able to help his Sentinel track down the intruders within their territory.  The Starfleet officer knew that waiting on Blair to be well would take a length of time that no one on this ship had right now.  The only things that both the primitive and the modern within him agreed upon was that the intruders needed to be dealt with, and that he required Blair at his side for that to happen.  With these two things firmly in his mind, Ellison had decided on a course of action that would allow him to track down and destroy his enemies, but which involved a risk that nothing within him was happy with. 

 

Even as the ex-Ranger carefully placed the hypo to his Guide’s pale skin, he could feel the feral creature within him clawing at his tightly held control.  The instinct driven part of him was shrieking that this was wrong.  The Guide needed to be allowed to recover naturally.  The only thing that gave Ellison the strength to continue, and press the button on the prepared injection was the knowledge that if he did what the primal Sentinel demanded, and let the intruders continue unchecked until the Guide was stabilized enough to partake in the hunt, then the chances were good that they would both still die when the Romulans finally succeeded in destroying something vital in their rampage, and their whole tribe would die with them. 

 

Ellison knew that Blair would never forgive either his Sentinel or himself if innocents died because his partner had chosen to let him sleep.  So he continued with the final injection, and prayed that he wasn’t sentencing them both to death anyway.

 

Sandburg’s response to the injection was almost instantaneous.  The young empath’s eyes flew open on a gasp, even as his body seized up almost convulsively. 

 

“Blair!” Ellison practically threw the hypo aside and reached out to grasp at the younger man’s shoulders.  Blair reached back for him blindly, instinct driving him to seek the comfort and protection of his bond mate as his body and mind grappled with the disorientation and pain of being forced back to consciousness prematurely.

 

“Jim..?” Blair blinked rapidly and turned his head in restless confusion as he dazedly tried to work out where he was and what had happened to him.  The fear and weakness in his Guide’s usually strong and confident voice elicited an instinctual response within the Sentinel in turn.  Before he could think about what he was doing, Ellison had lifted the scientist’s twitching body off the bed.  It was almost a surprise for the Sentinel to find himself sitting cross-legged on the floor of Curtis’ living quarters with his Guide lying across his lap.  Jim wrapped his arms around his bond mate’s shoulders and wordlessly encouraged the obviously frightened young man to press his face into his Sentinel’s neck.  The hard-assed ex-Ranger knew that his tough guy image would have been forever destroyed if someone had walked in on him right then and found him rocking another ship’s officer as he crooned wordless sounds of comfort, however he simply couldn’t bring himself to care.  All that mattered to James Ellison at that moment was that Blair Sandburg needed his protection and reassurance, so that was what he was getting.

 

After a moment, Jim felt the warm wash of his Guide’s presence through the bond as Blair sought to empathically ground himself on his Sentinel.  Instantly, both men stiffened in shock. 

 

“Jim?” Blair drew back, his hands coming up to clench convulsively at the bigger man’s shoulders, his enormous blue eyes seeking his bond mate’s fearfully.  Jim understood the younger man’s fear.  Blair’s mental ‘touch’ through the bond felt wrong.  It was as though someone had tied a pillow over a speaker that had always sounded clear and true in order to muffle the noise it made.  Rationally, Jim understood that it was only the effects of the Quytharamine that he had injected into his Guide.  He knew that he had needed to dull the part of the young man’s mind that allowed him to read the emotional energies of others, because they didn’t have time for Blair to heal enough to rebuild his shattered mental ‘shields’.  The rational Starfleet officer knew and accepted that giving Blair those drugs was the only way to ensure that Blair didn’t overload on the extreme emotions that would be streaming at him from every corner of the ship, even with the help that Ellison could offer him through the bond.  The Primal Sentinel, however, raged that The Guide ‘felt’ wrong. That the Guide had been ‘damaged’ somehow.  That part of James Ellison really wanted to kill someone right at that moment.

 

“Blair, it’s okay.” The Sentinel swallowed against the howling fear and fury of his primal side and focused on reassuring the frightened young man that he held.  “You’re okay.”

 

“Jim, what happened?” Blair gasped, “What’s wrong with me?” Again Jim felt that muffled push against his mind, and watched the empath’s eyes grow wide in frightened confusion.  “Why can’t I feel you properly?”

 

Even though the connection between them was muffled and distorted, Jim could still sense his young friend, in more ways than one.  He could feel his Guide’s mounting fear and confusion, despite the fact that the sensation seemed to be coming from a great distance.  Furthermore, he could hear the young man’s pulse speeding up and his breathing become erratic again, even as the warm, soothing scent that Jim Ellison associated with his bond mate took on the sour overtones of fear.  Rapidly, Jim brought one hand up to the distressed empath’s face to push the wild curls away from the younger man’s eyes.  He gently but firmly forced the scientist to look at him in a desperate attempt to stave off his growing panic.

 

“Blair, it’s okay.” he said firmly,  “You had a really bad overload, and I’ve had to give you a drug to dampen your empathic abilities.  They’re just dampened.  You can still ‘feel’ me, and I can still ‘feel’ you.  It won’t last forever.  It’ll only be until the drug works it’s way though your system.  It’s okay Blair.”

 

“Drugs.” Blair parroted frantically, as he latched on to the explanation, his heart rate slowing as he unconsciously reacted to the firm assurance in his Sentinel’s voice. 

 

“Just drugs.” Jim continued to assure the younger man, even as he made a conscious effort to broadcast reassurance through the bond.  The bond might not have been functioning properly, but it was still functioning, and Jim had to fight hard to suppress a sigh of relief when Blair felt him pushing, and relaxed further.  Jim forced himself to smile gently at the confused young man, who began to allow himself to relax back into his Sentinel’s supporting arms, even as his brow furrowed with the effort to remember what had happened.  Jim would have preferred that the Blair focus on simply regaining his equilibrium.  Unfortunately, he knew Blair well enough to know that he would want to remember how he had got into his present state, so Ellison was prepared when the younger man gasped and tried to sit bolt upright again.  “It’s all right!” the Sentinel said quickly, “He’s dead.  I killed him and he can’t hurt you anymore.  He’s dead, Blair.”

 

Ellison continued to voice reassurances to his rigid Guide, even as he brought the arm that had been supporting the younger man’s back around to rub soothingly at the empath’s tense neck and shoulders.  He continued until the sent of fear left the younger man, and his heart rate became more acceptable to the Sentinel.  Still, none of the tension left the young man’s body.  The scientist was practically quivering with it, and that worried the Sentinel deeply.  Ellison tried to pull back slightly, so he could see the expression on he young man’s face, but Blair ducked his head so that his expression remained hidden behind the curtain of his hair.  Ellison grimaced, and without thinking, mentally reached for the connection that joined them.  Unfortunately, all he could determine through the muffled bond was that Blair was deeply upset. 

 

Ellison scowled in irritation.  He could have worked that much out all on his own.  It distantly occurred to him just how much he’d come to rely on that clear, strong connection to his Guide’s thoughts and feelings.  It also occurred to him that this was the worst possible time for the connection to be out, but he dismissed the thought.   Right now he’d have to work on the Ranger mindset.  You made do with the tools available to get the job done.  Fretting that conditions weren’t ideal benefited no one. 

 

Jim sighed and tried to brush the hair out of his Guide’s face, in an attempt to work out what was going on in Sandburg’s head with the help of his expressive face, but the younger man flinched back from him slightly, and that stunned Ellison more than anything else that had happened.  He needed to find out what the problem was, and since using the bond was out, he was going to have to fall back on his least favorite option.

 

He was going to have to talk about it.

 

“Blair.” Ellison took pains to ensure that his voice was quiet and calm, and betrayed none of the anxiety that he was feeling.  Blair pulled away slightly, and shifted to move out of his partner’s lap, but Jim quickly wrapped his arms around Blair and drew him firmly back against his chest, ignoring the younger man’s continued tension.  Normally, he’d be worried that he was making his Guide feel trapped, but as strained as the bond was, something that Jim was picking up from it told him that distance was the last thing Blair needed at this point.  “C’mon Chief,” he coaxed, “tell me what’s going on.”

 

For a long moment, Blair remained utterly still and stiff within his arms.  He felt his partner tug weakly at his hold, but Ellison just tightened his arms and hung on.  The Sentinel was beginning to fear that the younger man was going to continue to fight him, when the empath gave a shivering sigh and hung his head.  Ellison curled around Blair in an instinctive attempt at sheltering him from whatever was hurting him.  When Blair finally spoke, it was so softly that Ellison doubted that he would have heard it if he hadn’t been a Sentinel.

 

“Why?” he whispered.

 

“Why what, kiddo?” Jim whispered back.

 

“Why did he hate me so much?” Blair asked softly.  “He didn’t know me.  I stopped him and his partner from killing someone, and I know I killed his partner, but that… what he felt… it was… so much more,” Blair broke off with a shudder that seemed to wrack his whole body.  “How could anyone have that much hate in them?”

 

‘Aw kid,’ Ellison thought miserably as he looked down at the figure in his lap.  The boy was so tight with pain over this, that Ellison was struck with the insane desire to go down and kill that Romulan all over again for bringing this onto his Guide.  On some level, Jim knew that what he had done to the Romulan was excessive, and if they all survived this, then he’d be called up to answer for the brutality of the killing, but he suspected that the total shut down of his rational side may well have been caused by the anguish his bond-mate had been projecting at the mental assault that he had suffered, even more than from the physical assault.  Jim knew that Blair was going to need his help in dealing with this, but he really had no idea what to say.

 

“It wasn’t anything you did Blair.” Ellison said gently, then snorted in anger.  “That’s just Romulans for you.”

 

Blair went even more still, if that were possible, and seemed to draw even further into himself at Jim’s words.  “Are all Romulans that full of hate?” he whispered, and Jim felt something fearful shivering along the bond, but because of the dampening it had suffered, he couldn’t quite pin down the source of the emotion.  In any case, Ellison knew that he’d said something terribly wrong, and now he was going to have to fix it.

 

“No Blair.” He sighed deeply, and then scrunched up his nose.  “Well,” he amended, “they are, but it isn’t a racial trait, or anything like that.  It’s really got nothing to do with the Romulans themselves, and everything to do with conditioning.”

 

“Conditioning?” Blair asked faintly.

 

“Yeah, kid.” Ellison sighed and gave the small figure in his arms a reassuring squeeze. To his relief, Sandburg responded by relaxing ever so slightly.  “And Romulans aren’t the only ones that suffer from it.  If you’ve ever studied Earth history, you’d know that we’re just as guilty of it as the Romulans, or the Klingons, or about a thousand other races if it came down to it.”  Ellison broke off with a sigh, and paused to get his head together enough to explain this.  He knew that on some level, Blair knew all this, and probably better than Jim did, but for some reason, something about that Romulan had taken what had happened out of the realm of rational thought, and into the grey area of the emotions.  Jim knew that he just needed to put it back into perspective for Blair, so that he could deal with it rationally again.

 

“Look Chief,” he finally continued, “for thousands of years, human beings tried to commit genocide on each other, for more reasons than you could count.  They killed each other off because they looked different from each other, or because they had different theological ideas, or even because they had different political ideas.  They hounded and persecuted each other, because all of them believed that their way of being and looking and praying was right.  To acknowledge that something different could be equally valid, seemed to threaten foundations of everything they believed about themselves, so they killed each other rather than have to deal with that.  The Romulans are no different.  They have different values and a different way of looking at things.  There are just as many humans that hate Romulans because they can’t understand them as there are Romulans that hate humans.” Ellison broke off and sighed again.  “Chief, that Romulan did hate you, I have no doubt about that.  But it really wasn’t personal.  It was just that his race are afraid of what you represent.”

 

Blair lay quietly against Jim’s chest for a long minute, but Ellison was pleased to note that the tension was slowly leaving the body that he held. 

 

Eventually, Blair sighed sadly.  “I knew that.” He admitted in a small voice.  “I did know that.  I spent most of my years growing up being hated by someone or another because I was different.  No one ever seemed to accept that I wasn’t doing something wrong by just being me.  It always seemed to take so long to work out the rules, you know?  Work out how they wanted you to be.  Just when I’d figure it out, we’d move, and I’d have to start all over again.  I mean, I’m an anthropologist, right?  I’ve been studying people and how they interact my whole life.  I knew all of that, but that Romulan…  I just couldn’t understand how much he hated me, you know?”

 

“I know.” Jim acknowledged gently, giving the smaller body resting against him another reassuring squeeze.  Blair rested against him quietly for a few more seconds, before he shook himself slightly and reached up to gently thump his Sentinel’s chest.  Jim grinned slightly at the wordless message that it was time to let go now.  Jim relaxed his arms, and Blair climbed out of his lap to sit cross-legged on the floor in front of him.  The Sentinel was a little surprised by the surge of discomfort that he felt when the younger man moved out of physical contact with him.  It almost felt like he was back in those first few hours of their bonding, in which he had been made uncomfortable by any loss of contact between himself and his Guide.

 

Blair, meanwhile, was apparently feeling it too.  He grimaced unhappily as he settled himself opposite his Sentinel.  “I hope those drugs you gave me wear off soon, man.  I don’t really like not being able to feel you properly through the bond.”

 

“I don’t like it much either,” Ellison shrugged uncomfortably, “but don’t go wishing the effects gone too soon.  I never would have been able to risk waking you up without the dampener drugs.  Your empathy got seriously overloaded, kid.  You couldn’t maintain your barriers on your own at the moment, even with me to back you up.  I needed to blunt the input you were taking, or risk you being permanently damaged, which wasn’t really an option.”

 

Blair sighed.  “Yeah, okay.  I can see that.  I just don’t particularly like it.”

 

“Just remember that I’m not particularly thrilled about it myself.” Jim grimaced.  “If we get out of this mess, we’re going to have to lock ourselves away for a few days so that you can repair any damage that you’ve taken.”

 

“Sounds like a plan.” Blair smiled slightly.  “Of course, the first step in carrying out that plan is getting out of this alive, so you’d better fill me in on what’s going down.”

 

Jim nodded and opened his mouth to begin, when something from the other room caught his attention, and he paused, his head tipping to one side as he concentrated.

 

“Jim?” The security chief heard his bond mate whisper, and felt the younger man’s hand touch his arm in an attempt to anchor his sense of touch.

 

“Wait!” Jim hissed sharply, but then relaxed again.  He saw the questions in his Guides eyes, and smiled reassuringly.  “It’s okay.” he shrugged.  “Simon was just having a hard time raising the bridge crew, but they’re on the line now.  Where were we?”

 

“Quick recap on what went wrong.” Blair prompted.

 

“Right.” Jim nodded, and launched into a condensed recount of how they’d ended up in their present circumstances.  Blair questioned him closely on his ability to see the Romulan Bird of Prey while it was still cloaked, and seemed rather excited by the idea at first, although he suddenly became withdrawn in the middle of Jim’s explanation of how difficult it had been to pin point what it was that he was sensing.  Blair’s sudden withdrawal disturbed Jim, but Blair demanded that he push on with his run down of what had happened.  By the time Jim had finished, including filling Blair in on the measures that he had taken to ensure his Guide’s return to consciousness, the young empath looked to be fully alert once more, although he still seemed to be too pale for the Sentinel’s liking.  As Jim’s voice trailed off, the scientist pursed his lips and shook his head in amazement.

 

“I can’t believe that the Romulans would do that, man.  I mean, it’s like the whole thing’s been a set up, right from the beginning.  Why would they go to all of this trouble?”

 

“I’ve got a theory on that.” Ellison said darkly.  “Even taking the political pressure that was being exerted by the Romulan traders, who have been losing money to the raiders and pirates hiding in the Neutral Zone, out of the equation, the Romulans knew that the Federation and the Klingons were on the verge of going ahead with the Neutral Zone Agreement without them.  If that had happened, it would have effectively cleaned the scumbags out of that section of space, and concentrated them on the Romulan borders.  The Romulan Empire is pretty shaky economically right now, and an influx of thieves and pirates into the area would have seriously damaged the revenue that the empire takes from the out lying colonies.  The Romulans really couldn’t afford that right now, so they needed to get themselves in on the agreement.  Now, I also happen to know of an illicit project that they’ve had on the burner for a while.” Ellison said quietly, thinking of the people of PV-32, and the potential outcomes that this little drama might yet have on them.  “The Romulans have had a problem with it though.  There’s a world in the Neutral Zone that they could get a quick influx of much needed energy and credits from, if they could get a foothold there.  So far, the indigenous people of that planet have been able to hold them off, which has frustrated the hell out of the Romulans. They can’t strip what they want from the planet without securing it, and they can’t secure it without bringing in a larger military force, which would result in a war with the Federation.  That means that up until now, they’ve been in a ‘no win’ situation.

 

Suddenly, they’ve got this agreement going, and that means that the Federation is going to be cruising the Neutral Zone, which should effectively put an end to their little takeover bid on this planet.  Unfortunately the Romulans, as we all know, don’t easily give up on anything that they’ve decided that they want. The sons’a’bitches in power in the Empire at present would still want the credits that they could get out of that planet, and they’d be threatening that heads would roll if they don’t get what they want.

 

Now initially, they would have been focused on causing a delay.  Something that would have bought them some more time to take over that planet.  Something that would have caused the Federation to lose face.  The only problem is that things didn’t work out on the sabotage front, and once we were wise to what was going on, it became really hard to get at us. 

 

Once they were faced with the loss of the delay option, it wouldn’t have taken long for some bright spark in their military to have worked out that there was a way to turn the debacle of having the Federation on their doorstep to their own advantage.”

 

Ellison trailed off for a moment, mentally reviewing the events that had led to them being here, and fitting together a potential scenario that covered it all. It didn’t take long to compose his thoughts, and as soon as he had it figured out in his own mind, he drew a deep breath and continued.

 

“Imagine this.  The Starship assigned to patrol this region of space turns up and is, immediately and mysteriously, destroyed.  When we failed to make our next check in, long range scans from the Federation would have located our wreckage.  The Federation would, as per the agreement, notify the Romulans of the incident.  Warships would have rushed to the area from both sides of the border to track down the parties responsible for our destruction.  The Federation would have focused all of its attention on the area of space where we were destroyed, while the Romulans would have offered to look further afield.  The Romulans would have had a legitimate excuse to bring a large military contingent into the Neutral Zone, while the Federation’s attention would have been somewhere else.  With a large force, and no concerns about the Federation actually noticing, the Romulans could have subdued the locals on that planet that they were after quickly.  They could then put forward one of the pirate ships in the area as the culprits behind our destruction, and it wouldn’t have taken much effort to insure that said murdering pirates were destroyed during the apprehension process.  That would take care of the potential problem of the truth coming out at a trial.  The Federation would withdraw and arrange the creation of a new patrol ship, and both sides would agree to push the start date of the agreement back until the new ship was ready and the Federation could hold up its end of the agreement.  In the mean time, the Romulans could sneak in a much smaller mining contingent to strip mine the planet they’ve been after, and the Federation would eventually return, thereby insuring that their own Neutral Zone would have protection from the constant monetary drain of pirates and raiders.  The whole thing would work out rather sweetly for the Romulans.  Only problem is, that we didn’t die like we were supposed to.”

 

Blair looked at him for a long moment, before shaking his head.  “If you’re right, then they’ve made an expensive mistake by screwing up the ‘killing us’ part of the plan.” A strange, slightly bitter smile touched the younger man’s face for a moment then.  “Well,” he amended, “they didn’t so much screw it up, as you screwed it up for them.  Good work, man.”

 

Ellison frowned at his partner.  There was something in the empath’s expression that worried him, but Blair’s eyes slid away from his own before he could voice his concern, and even the limited information he’d been getting from the dampened bond shut down.  Ellison pursed his lips as he regarded the young man who was presently examining the floor.  Shutting down the bond couldn’t have been easy for him with his barriers totally fried, but he’d managed it anyway, which suggested very strongly to Jim that Blair was not going to be willing to communicate what it was that was worrying him just yet. That was all right, Ellison decided after a moment.  He could wait.  It wasn’t in Blair’s nature to keep things hidden for long.  Sooner or later he’d have a moment of weakness, and Jim would be right there to drag it out of him.  Jim could be patient when it came to his Guide’s well being. 

 

That decided, Jim felt that it was time to cut the kid some slack.  “It was an expensive screw up in more ways than one.” The Sentinel agreed slowly.

 

“Oh?” Blair glanced up and raised his eyebrows questioningly.

 

“Yeah.” Jim grinned coldly.  “I think that they revealed their mole.”

 

“They did?” Blair blinked in surprise.

 

“Yeah.” Jim’s eyes glittered in feral pleasure.  “Who was it that was so very insistent that we had to be at just this place at just this time?” Jim looked at his Guide with dark amusement.”

 

Blair thought for a moment, and then his eyes widened with shock.  “Oliver?” the empath practically squeaked, “I mean, he’s an asshole, but… Man!  He’s, like, one of the top people in Intelligence!”

 

“I know, the prick.” Ellison growled darkly.  “I thought that he was just being an asshole making us miss out on that down-time, but that wasn’t it at all.  The son of a bitch had to make sure that we were where we were supposed to be for the ambush to go ahead.”

 

“That’s going to be pretty hard to prove.” Blair warned him quietly.

 

“I know.” Jim admitted, “But that isn’t our main concern right now.  Our main concern right now is the survival of this ship and it’s crew.  You up for a bit of hunting, kid?”

 

“Always.” Blair said firmly, despite the fact that he still looked pale and shaky.

 

“Good.” Ellison gave his Guide a gentle smile, and then grimaced slightly as he forced himself back to his feet.  “The Romulans left on this ship’ll never know what hit them.”

 

“Man, I hope not.” Blair snorted inelegantly as Ellison reached down to pull the young man back to his feet.  As Blair came fully upright, he paled and swayed slightly.  Jim automatically stepped closer and caught hold of his Guide’s shoulders.

 

“You okay kid?” he demanded as Blair swallowed and blinked rather owlishly as he sought to regain his internal balance.  Jim frowned when the empath remained silent, his head bowed, for a long moment.  However, just as the Sentinel was about to insist that the younger man sit down again, Blair gave a self-mocking snort of laughter, and looked up with a smile.  The empath’s grin was rather weak and lop-sided, but it was still a smile, and Ellison felt something tight and uncomfortable within his chest loosen in relief at the sight of it.

 

“Yeah, Jim,” Blair nodded, “I’m okay.  Just wasn’t ready for the head rush, ya know?”

 

“Good.” Ellison growled huskily, then reached out and cuffed the younger man so gently, that he would have barely felt it. Sandburg snorted again, and batted at his hand.  Jim smiled slightly, but had to acknowledge to himself that he still wasn’t happy with the way his partner looked.  He was still too pale for his Sentinel’s liking or comfort.  Ellison reached out and caught the younger man’s chin with his hand and turned his face up so that Blair couldn’t look away from him.  Blair raised his eyebrows in silent inquiry.  Jim looked at his bond mate gravely for a moment, so that Blair could see the importance of what he was about to say in his eyes before continuing.  “Listen up, Sandburg.” He growled.  “If you find yourself suffering from any of the symptoms that Baccus told me about, I need you to tell me immediately.”  Ellison grimaced and let out a weary sigh.  “I need you, kid.  I’m going to need you to help me track down those invaders.  In spite of that, I’d still rather risk tracking them down alone, rather than see you suffer a bad reaction to those drugs.  You notice any nausea, or that your vision is blurred or weakness, and I need you to tell me so that we can get you into stasis.  Okay?”

 

“Jim,” Blair sighed, a small smile playing at the edges of his mouth, “weakness and nausea are common side effects of empathic overload.  In case you failed to notice, I suffered one of those recently.  Weak and nauseous is my world at the moment, man.” Blair’s smile grew wider then and he gave a self-mocking little shrug.  “And I hate to remind you, but we’ve already established that I’ve got that whole ‘blurred vision’ thing going on at the best of times.  Those symptoms are, like, sooo not going to help me in self-diagnosis.”

 

Ellison blinked.  He hadn’t thought of that.  “Maybe I ought to do what Baccus said and just put you into stasis anyway.” He mused aloud.

 

“Not going to happen man.” Sandburg said firmly.  ‘I’ll monitor myself as best I can, but I’m not leaving you.”

 

“Chief…” Ellison began cautiously, only to be cut off when the door to Curtis’ office slid open and Banks came striding out.  The Captain pulled up as soon as he caught sight of them both, and gave Blair a long, up-and-down look, as though surprised that the young man was actually back on his feet, and was trying determine what the chances were of him staying on his feet.

 

“Sandburg, you look like shit.” Banks said gruffly.

 

Blair snorted and gave another weak, lop-sided grin.  “Thanks Simon.  It’s good to see you too man.”

 

“Ellison filled you in on what’s going on yet?” The tall man demanded without preamble.

 

Blair glanced at Jim quickly before replying.  “Yeah.” He acknowledged quietly.

 

Banks nodded and gave his science officer another assessing stare.  “So, you going to be able to help Ellison get those bastards off my ship?”

 

“Yep.” Sandburg said simply, and Ellison felt a little burst of pride in his Guide, that as weak and as pale as he looked, the kid was still ready to put it all on the line to get the job done.  The younger man could have taught some of the Rangers he’d worked with a thing or two about dedication to duty.

 

Banks looked at the empath for a long moment, as though trying to decide whether he really was up to the hunt that he needed the Sentinel and Guide to engage in.  After a moment though, Banks just sighed and looked away, a vague discomfort and unhappiness on his face.  Ellison would lay money on the fact that Banks had decided that the kid really wasn’t up to it, but needed him to help his Sentinel too badly to argue the point.  “Good,” the Captain said roughly without looking at the empath, “because I need the pair of you to do something for me.”

 

Ellison looked at his Captain carefully.  There was a tension within his old friend that suggested that he’d decided on a course of action, but wasn’t really one hundred percent happy with it.  “What do you need, sir.” Ellison demanded.

 

“I need the pair of you to get down to the shuttle bay and determine whether it survived the attack.  If it did, then I’m going to need you to clear out any Romulans between the shuttle bay and the bridge, and get our helmsman back down there in one piece.” Banks said darkly.

 

“Why?” Sandburg demanded.

 

“Because he’s come up with a way to keep any more Romulans from coming over here.” Banks growled.

 

Jim watched his Guide’s face screw up in confusion for a moment, before his eyes widened almost comically in surprise and dismay as he suddenly realized what Keel had volunteered to do.  “Uhhh, Simon, are our transporters working?” The empath asked cautiously.

 

“Not yet, but I’m heading over to engineering now to see what Taggart can do.  I’d rather not have my people volunteering for any suicide missions.” Banks grimaced before refocusing his attention on Ellison again. “If you get down to the shuttle bay and it is in tact, call your department and tell whoever’s manning the security office to start moving explosives to the shuttle bay.  Connor’s already spoken to your people and they should be getting ready in case the mission is a go.  Oh, and you’d better give Connor a ‘head’s up’ too so that she can warn Keel to get ready.”

 

“What about you, sir.” Ellison growled.  “I’m not happy about you wandering around the ship unprotected.”

 

Banks gave a small, nasty smile.  “Don’t worry about me, Commander.” The Captain laughed shortly, and it wasn’t a pleasant sound.  “I know my way down to engineering, and I’m still pretty good with this.” The Captain hefted his phaser for emphasis.  “The Romulans have a lot more to worry about from me, right at the moment, than I have to fear from them.”

 

Ellison grimaced but said nothing.  It went against his grain to leave his Commanding Officer vulnerable, but Banks was very capable of looking after himself, and he understood why the Captain wanted them to get to the shuttle bay as quickly as possible, so he kept his mouth shut.

 

Banks looked searchingly at his men again for a moment, before suddenly scowling.  “All right.  Get moving you two.  We don’t have enough time for us to be standin’ around staring at each other.”

 

Ellison grimaced, and glanced across at his still-pale Guide.  He wasn’t happy about heading off before he and Blair had resolved the issue of how the empath was going to monitor his own condition, when the markers that Baccus had advised the Sentinel of as a warning against an impending drug reaction, didn’t apply.  Sandburg must have picked up on his bond mate’s expression though, and before the Sentinel could say anything to their Captain, the young man stepped forward toward the door. 

 

“We’re on it, Simon.” Blair said firmly as he moved toward the door.  “C’mon Jim.” He added almost as an after thought back over his shoulder.  Ellison opened his mouth to say something appropriately scathing, except that he suddenly noticed that his view of his Guide’s back was revealing something he hadn’t noticed before.  There was a scorch mark across the back of Blair’s uniform.  Ellison’s mind went completely blank at the sight of that mark.  He didn’t even want to think about how close phaser fire would have had to have come to leave a mark like that.  Jim looked across at his Captain, and noticed that the tall man also looked a little nauseous at the sight of the burn mark.  Banks turned toward him then, and for a moment the two old friends’ eyes met.  Jim could see the request in Simon’s gaze that he not let his Captain down.  The Sentinel swallowed back a sigh and nodded gravely, before jogging toward the door that his Guide had just disappeared through.

 

Jim wasn’t a happy man as he fell into step along side his partner, but then, he sincerely doubted that with the situation as it stood, that his mood was going to improve any time soon.  All he could do was monitor Blair as closely as he dared with his senses and hope that it would be enough.  He just wished that the feeling that he had in the pit of his stomach would stop trying to convince him that he had just made a horrible mistake somewhere along the line.

 


 

Blair Sandburg felt awful.  There was really no other word that could even come close to describing it.  He was bruised and battered, although the drugs his Sentinel had pumped into him had relieved him of the worst of the pain.  Blair grimaced at that thought and mentally vowed that if they survived this nightmare, then he and Jim were going to have sit down and go over some rules for the use of drugs.  He was a Naturalist, after all.  He might be going to have to change his records on that front so that there were a wider range of medical options open to doctors if anything really bad happened to him, but for the most part, his beliefs as a Naturalist remained unchanged.  In fact, his attitudes may well have been strengthened by all of this.  Almost automatically, Blair felt along the dampened bond at this thought, and for what felt like the thousandth time, grimaced when he couldn’t made his drug-addled empathy respond properly. It was like a scab that he couldn’t help but pick at.  Blair knew why his Sentinel had given him the drugs that he had, and on one level, he even appreciated it.  It was certainly easier to move now that his ribs had been synthetically repaired, and the swelling was gone from his elbow.  He even knew that Jim had only given him the dampener drug to protect him, but empathic shock or no, he couldn’t condone anything that interfered with his link to the Sentinel. 

 

Blair bit down against the almost overwhelming urge to sigh miserably.  He could not feel his Sentinel properly, and the lack of clear contact terrified him on some very fundamental level.  Without the clear link between them, Blair wasn’t sure that he could ground the taller man effectively.  The idea that his Sentinel might zone because he was not up to doing his job properly was horrifying to the young scientist.  As horrifying as the knowledge that he really had caused this mess.  That he really had been responsible for the deaths of all of the crewmen that had fallen both during and after the attack. 

 

Blair had wanted to curl up and die when Jim told him what had happened on the bridge just before the Romulans had commenced their attack.  It was one thing to feel that things might have gone differently had he been there, but it was another thing entirely to hear damning truth from his Sentinel’s own lips.  The empath knew that it had not even crossed the Sentinel’s mind to blame his Guide for what had happened, but Blair knew the truth.  He knew that had he been there to help his Sentinel in focusing the gift he was still so new to, then they would have been able to identify the Romulan ship before it had attacked, and none of this would have happened.  As it was, he was prouder than he could even begin to express that Jim had performed so well without him there to ground him, but he knew that he would carry the responsibility for the deaths that had occurred, in his heart for the rest of his days.  And to make matters worse, he still couldn’t help his Sentinel properly, because he’d gotten himself hurt by ignoring the instinct that told him that he needed to go to his bond mate.  If Jim zoned at a critical moment and was harmed because Blair could not do his job properly…

 

The empath ruthlessly cut his thoughts off at the knees.  Jim would not zone because Blair was going to stick to him like white on rice until this was over, no matter what the cost to himself.  Sandburg was determined and focused, but he couldn’t stop himself from stealing a worried glance at his Sentinel at the thought of something going wrong.  They hadn’t spoken since leaving Curtis’ quarters, and the nagging fear that the Jim would zone was eating at the younger man.

 

Jim’s face seemed even more granite-like than usual in the harsh emergency lighting.  The big man was doing his absolute damnedest to appear focused and unemotional, but Blair could still feel the faint discord of his worry through the bond, and it hadn’t taken long to realize that all of the ‘accidental’ bumps and nudges that Ellison had been giving him were anything but accidental.  The security chief was using the fleeting contact to frisk the empath with his senses, so Blair knew that Jim was at least as disturbed by the difficulties that they were having in ‘feeling’ each other as he was.  And none of this would have either happened or been a problem if the Guide had been where he was supposed to be, at his Sentinel’s side that morning.

 

“Chief?” Jim’s quiet voice broke the younger man out of his dark thoughts.  Blair looked around, and realized that they had stopped just down the hall slightly from the maintenance tunnel door that he had entered this level through, some unknowable time earlier.  He knew that it was the same one, because he recognized the body of the crewman that was lying under it. 

 

Blair looked at the unmoving figure, and felt an almost uncontrollable surge of guilt and grief well up inside him.  ‘My fault…’ the words echoed through his head like a mantra.  ‘My fault.  My fault.  My fault my fault myfaultmyfault.’

 

“Blair!”  Jim’s voice, louder this time, and accompanied by a strong pair of hands grabbing his shoulders.  The scientist blinked in surprised confusion as he dragged himself back from the abyss that yawned before him once again, and found himself staring up into the pale blue eyes of his bond mate.  Eyes that were clouded and tortured by worry.  “You with me here, kid?”

 

“Yyyeah.” Blair breathed slowly, and then took a deep breath, resisting the urge to look back at the body of the crewman down the hall.  “Yeah.” He said again, his voice sounding stronger this time.  “I’m with you.”

 

Blair half expected Ellison to let go of him then.  He didn’t though.  If anything, the Sentinel’s grip on his arms grew tighter.  “You weren’t.” The taller man said quietly.  “I minute ago you weren’t with me.  Are you alright, or do I need to get you to sick bay?”

 

Everything within Blair blanched at that suggestion. ‘Oh yes,’ he wanted to say, ‘I’ll just go down to sickbay and go quietly into stasis so you can go and get yourself killed.  What’s one more death on my conscience?’  Instead, he managed to say in a steady voice.  “No.  I don’t need to go to sick bay.  I’ll be okay.  It’s just that it’s taking me a while to get used to being drugged to the gills.  It’s not a nice feeling, man.”  Blair broke off then, and forced a wry smile to his lips.  “Besides, it’s not like Baccus would be able to help me with what’s essentially a Guide problem, would she?”

 

Blair expected an answering smile in return, but instead, Ellison grimaced, and looked exceedingly uncomfortable about something.  For a split second, Jim looked as though he wanted to say something, but then cleared his throat uncomfortably and looked down the passage at the maintenance tunnel.  Blair automatically mentally filed the strange reaction away to examine at a later and more convenient date.  When Jim looked back, the discomfort was gone, but the worry remained.  “How are your ribs and elbow holding up?”

 

Blair shrugged.  “Tender,” he admitted, “and my arm’s still a little weak, but they’re both better than they were the first time I climbed into that tunnel.”

 

Ellison nodded thoughtfully, before reaching out to grasp his Guide’s chin in a firm but gentle grasp.  Blair didn’t resist as his partner carefully tilted his head back and ran the fingers of his free hand gently over the empath’s throat.  “Swelling’s down there too.” Ellison reported absently as he allowed the younger man to drop his chin.  Jim looked down at his partner for a moment before cocking his head to one side and taking on the peculiarly focused expression that he wore when he was using his senses.  Blair waited patiently while he was scanned.  A moment later, Jim’s eyes ran over him one last time before he frowned.  “Okay kid.” he sighed, “We need to get down to the shuttle bay, and that’s four decks below us.  I’ll go into the tunnel first.  You can come in after me.  If you feel weak or dizzy at all, I want you to tell me immediately.  I’ll support you until the spell passes, or get us out of the tunnel if it looks like continuing.  Got it?”

 

Blair was tempted to make a smart-assed remark about the fact that he already had a mother, but the worry in Jim’s eyes, and the fact that he was privately relieved that he was going to have a safety net of sorts when he tackled the tunnel this time made him bite his tongue.  “Got it.” He nodded.

 

Ellison sighed, and then indicated with his head that they should continue.  Blair did as he was bade, but was very careful to keep his eyes off the poor man that he had encountered when he first reached this level.  He really couldn’t afford to focus on his guilt right now.

 

A moment later, Blair was watching his Sentinel climb gracefully through the hatch that led into the darkness of the maintenance tunnel.  Blair kept his gaze determinedly on Ellison, and hadn’t failed to notice the sad, thunderous expression that had passed over the older man’s face when he had paused beside the dead man under the opening.  The empath had always held the belief that a Sentinel, as guardian of a tribe, would take any losses to that tribe very personally.  Blair sadly noted that once again, his romantic, idealized notions had proven accurate in regards to his bond mate, and faced with the confirmation of his belief, he wished that he had been wrong.  A cold, heartless Sentinel could not have been hurt by the death of someone that he did not know.  A lesser man would not have felt the loss of a life and held himself accountable because he could not have prevented it.  A less dedicated man would not have felt guilt when the guilt was not his to feel.

 

It belonged to his Guide.

 

Blair clenched his teeth against that thought and ordered himself not to go there.  He couldn’t afford to right now, because if he did, the knowledge of what his mistake had cost would suck him down and swallow him whole.  No, Blair would have to wait until his Sentinel and their tribe were safe before he went anywhere near those thoughts.

 

“Come on, Chief.” Jim’s voice echoed hollowly from inside the tunnel, once again dragging the Guide back to the present.  Blair bit his lip and forced himself to move to the entrance and reach in to grab the ladder.  He carefully swung himself inside, and once again waited until he felt balanced and focused before allowing himself to look around.

 

The tunnel was just as eerie and claustrophobic as he remembered it being.  The sparsely placed red emergency lights giving the tunnel an even more unpleasant feel.  This time though, when he forced himself to look down, Blair was not faced with a gaping hole that seemed to go down forever into the darkness.  Instead, he was met with his Sentinel’s concerned gaze.

 

“You okay, Kid?” the larger man asked quietly.  “Your heart rate picked up a bit there.”

 

“Yeah.” Blair whispered back, a shy smile tugging at his mouth in spite of himself.  “Just not real fond of heights, ya know?”’

 

Ellison nodded his understanding,  “Okay Chief.  But remember what I told you.  I don’t want to have to try to catch you if you play the hero and fall.”

 

“Yeah, yeah.” Blair grumbled.  “I promise already.  Can we get on with this please?”

 

“Okay kid.” Jim gave a faint smile. “Just go at your own pace.  I’ll work around you.”

 

“Thanks, man.” The empath nodded, and just like before, began to cautiously work his way along the ladder, making sure of each foot and handhold before releasing and searching for the next rung down.

 

Just like on his first trip into the tunnel, the young scientist found himself in his own type of zone out as he focused on climbing.  Unlike the last time though, he was not accompanied only by the sound of his own breathing, amplified by the close quarters.  This time he had, along with his own, the sounds of Jim Ellison moving just below him, and those quiet sounds reassured and steadied the Guide, making the situation far easier to take.

 

Blair quickly lost all sense of time as he focused solely on making his way safely down the ladder.  It hadn’t taken long to realize that there was a real disadvantage in the drugs Jim had given him, for this situation as well.  The last time he’d done this, he’d had the advantage of his own form of self-hypnosis to help him.  The drugs that Jim had given him to get him back in working order had certainly dulled the pain that he’d been experiencing, but it was also blurring his ability to concentrate.  As a result, it wasn’t long before the aching in his arms and legs, and the cramping of his fingers began to seep into his consciousness, and unlike last time, he was having difficulty dismissing the unpleasant feelings. 

 

Blair was so caught up in working through and around the various aches and pains he was experiencing during the long climb that he failed to notice when Jim stopped climbing abruptly.  The first that Blair knew of it was when he felt his leg slid past Jim’s arm when he took his next step down.  Blair felt something cold grab at his gut at the contact.  Jim had been so careful to stay just below him.  Blair turned his upper body awkwardly to look down at his Sentinel.  “Jim!” he hissed, suddenly terrified that the larger man had zoned.

 

“Shhh!” Ellison hissed back.  For a split second, Blair felt relief wash over him, before he noticed the Sentinel’s focused expression.  Blair bit back the desire to curse.  Jim was obviously using his senses, and he knew perfectly well that the two of them had really not practiced working in conditions like these.  The last thing either of them needed was a zone-out here.  Blair bit his lip and continued to climb down carefully, focusing on maximizing the physical contact between them.  Blair carefully insinuated himself between Jim and the ladder, and to his relief, Jim automatically moved to accommodate him.  Blair didn’t speak again until his back was pressed firmly into Ellison’s chest, and their legs were brushing against each other.  Blair focused on using the contact to ground the taller man, then began to direct his senses.

 

“Which sense are you using, man?” Blair asked quietly.

 

“Hearing.” Came the expected reply, along with the anticipated edge of frustration.  “Except that the tunnel is messing around with the sound.”

 

“I’ll bet.” Blair soothed.  “I want you to keep part of your attention focused on me here.  We can’t afford you to get lost right at the moment, big guy.  Got it?”

 

“Got it.” Ellison affirmed in the slightly distant manner that he had when he was being guided.

 

“Good.” Blair nodded.  “Now focus on the tunnel’s echo effect.  That’s what’s messing you around.  Mark it, then dismiss it.  Focus on the sound that you want to hear, and follow it back to its source.  Just don’t let go of your ‘hold’ on me man.”

 

“Right.” Jim’s eyes became unfocused for a moment, and Blair shifted awkwardly again to keep a closer eye on his bond mate.  He tried to feel along the bond, to catch the first signs of a zone, as he usually did, but this time he couldn’t feel anything specific enough to be useful.  Blair quickly stamped down on his irritation and looked around for another way to monitor him.  Blair’s gaze settled on the larger man’s hand, and settled for placing his own hand over the top.  That way, if Jim zoned, and his body started losing its grip on the ladder, the Guide would know about it immediately.  Blair had barely had time to tighten his hand around Jim’s when the Sentinel returned to himself with a shudder.

 

“There are Romulans on the level above us.” He breathed into his Guide’s ear.  “They’re next to the tunnel entrance.  Don’t move.”

 

“Kay.” Blair breathed back.  The young scientist peered into the dimness above him for a moment, before he felt a gentle tug, and released his Sentinel’s captured hand almost sheepishly.  The empath could feel the tension in the older man’s body, and heard the unmistakable ‘click’ of Ellison’s weapon belt being unfastened echoing with unnatural volume around the tunnel. 

 

Jim adjusted his grip on the ladder, bringing the hand holding the ladder around so that he was gripping the middle of the rung, effectively trapping his Guide in an unintentional embrace, and then shifted slightly to extend his free hand up.  Blair took in his partner’s unwavering aim and knew that even though he could not see it with his ordinary senses, Jim had set his sights the entrance hatch above them, and was ready to do battle should the need arise.

 

“If they pop that hatch, be ready to dial your sight back.” Blair hissed as a thought occurred to him.  “The lighting is a little better on the decks.  Don’t let it blind you.”

 

“Got it.” Ellison breathed into his ear again.

 

For a long moment, silence descended in the tunnel.  The Guide licked his lips nervously and tried not to grasp the rung in front of him too tightly. The silence was so profound, that when a loud metallic clang rang out through the tunnel, Blair flinched so badly that he almost lost his grip on the ladder.

 

“Easy.” Jim’s whispered voice soothed.  “They’re getting ready to pop the hatch.  Get your head down and don’t look at my hand.  You’re too close to my phaser.  Don’t want you getting retinal burns on top of everything else.”

 

Blair nodded wordlessly and lowered his head.  Above him he could hear scrabbling noises, and the young empath knew that within seconds the Romulans above them would be in the tunnel with them.  Blair felt his heart slam into his chest almost painfully at the thought, and the image of hate-filled eyes staring down at him in manic delight filled his mind’s eye. Blair bit down hard against the whimper that wanted to escape and flinched back instinctively. 

 

Blair’s unthinking movement backward immediately brought him back into contact with the warm, hard wall of Jim Ellison’s chest.  Touching his Sentinel somehow forced the rapidly growing sense of panic that Blair had been feeling to fade enough that he could focus on his bond mate.  Blair felt the rock steadiness of the body that practically surrounded him, and felt the evenness of the taller man’s breathing against the back of his neck and his cheek.  The calm focus of his Sentinel shook him out of the grasp of his panic and allowed him to draw a calming breath of his own.

 

They would be all right here.  Jim would see to that.

 

Blair waited for the sudden brightness that would warn him that the Romulans were about to make their entrance, but it never came.  Instead, he heard a strange, muffled sound, and felt his Sentinel relax profoundly behind him.

 

“What?” Blair demanded in a whisper, knowing that his Sentinel would understand his question. 

 

“Looks like Romanov initiated code I procedures.” the Sentinel chuckled.  “My people are hunting down our unwanted guests.” There was no mistaking the pride in Ellison’s voice as he extended his focus upward.  “Hmmm.  Triple heartbeat.  Must be Cor’rins’ii.  I’ll have to congratulate the man on his timing later.  I wasn’t really looking forward to a phaser fight in these close quarters.”

 

“Agreed, man.” Blair breathed on a shudder, relief washing through him like wave.

 

Ellison shifted his weight, and Blair knew that he was re-securing his weapon to his belt again.  “You still okay there?”

 

“Yep.” Blair nodded.

 

“Good.” Ellison sighed.  “C’mon kid.  Let’s go.  We’re almost at the hatch.  A couple more minutes and we’ll be outta here.” 

 

“Well get a move on then, man!” Blair forced himself to grin.  “I am waaaaay ready to be off this ladder!”  Blair felt Jim’s distracted nod against his hair, and then felt the solid body that had been practically surrounding him move away.  The young empath was once again slightly surprised at the sense of loss that washed over him as he lost direct contact with his Sentinel again.  Blair smothered the urge to sigh once more, and instead focused on moving down the last section of ladder.

 

After several minutes, Blair heard the unmistakable ‘clang’ then ‘pop’ of the hatch being opened, and pale reddish light suddenly filled the narrow passage from below him.  “I hope you dialed back before you did that, man.” Blair muttered sternly at his Sentinel.

 

“Yes. Mother.” Jim Ellison’s voice, laced with amusement, spoke from below him, and Blair grinned in spite of himself.  A moment later, he felt his Sentinel’s strong hand catch at his elbow and guide him out onto an open deck.  The scientist gave a small sigh of relief as he sank against the wall for a moment, and stretched his cramped and painful arms in front of him.

 

“Better?” Ellison asked.

 

“You know it, man.” Blair responded with quiet fervor.

 

“C’mon kid.” Ellison tugged slightly at his sleeve, and Blair allowed himself to be dragged forward again, steadfastly ignoring the protests from his sore limbs and stomach muscles.

 

A moment later, Blair found himself half-jogging in an attempt to keep up with the taller man.  The empath’s eyes were well adjusted to the poor lighting by this stage, and it was easy to see that a Romulan party had been through that section of the ship.  The scorch marks of hand held phasers were scattered across the walls and floor.  To the scientist’s infinite relief though, they had yet to encounter any more bodies of Starfleet crewmen. Blair was just in the midst of wondering what had happened when he rounded a corner, and almost fell over his Sentinel.

 

Blair caught himself, and then leaned over to see what Jim was looking at.  To his surprise, he found that his partner was leaning over the body of a Romulan.  A quick glance along the corridor revealed two other Romulan corpses several meters away.  Jim, meanwhile, had carefully pried something loose from the body that he was looking at, and held it up for Blair to see. 

 

It was a small flat disk, and it was covered with dark green blood on one side.  Blair didn’t recognize the object, but was willing to guess that it was a weapon of some kind.

 

“Romanov’s on this level, somewhere.” Ellison growled by way of explanation.  “These babies are her calling card.” He dropped the little weapon with a grimace of distaste, then looked around thoughtfully.  “Wonder what she’s doing all the way down here.  Would have thought she’d focus on one of the more vulnerable decks.” The Sentinel’s eyes narrowed, and his head tilted slightly to one side as he focused.  After a moment, the big man shrugged slightly.  “Ah well.  She’s nowhere nearby, so I’ll have to ask her later.”  Ellison turned and glanced at his Guide. “Let’s go.  The shuttle bay entrance is just down here.”

 

Blair nodded and followed after his partner.  Jim moved determinedly down the corridor, then paused at the door that blocked the end of the passage.  Blair automatically raised his hand to rest against the taller man’s shoulder as he came to a stop behind his partner.  For a long moment, Ellison’s body practically quivered with tension.  Blair had begun to rub soothing circles into the tense muscles beneath his hand, when the Sentinel made a low sound of triumph and reached out suddenly to slap the door release.  The mechanism rolled back instantly, and Blair found himself staring into the largest room on the ship.

 

In the dimness of the room beyond, Blair could see the shadowy outline of the Bay Master’s station and the bulky shapes of the shuttle bay’s tractor beam generators.  And standing in the center of the large room, locked into position by their docking clamps, were the Raptor’s three shuttles, looking for all the world like none of the disasters that had befallen the ship and its crew since just before the watch change this morning, had even happened.

 

“Finally.” Ellison breathed, then shook himself.  “Now where’s the station communicator located down here.”

 


 

“OOOWWW!” Commander Megan Connor glared darkly at the woman attempting to change the dressing on her arm.  “Do you mind?  I know it’s damaged, but it is still attached you know!  I was thinking that I might want to use it again later!”

 

“Oh, suck it up, Connor.” Serena Chang responded evenly.  “This is what you get when you’re stupid enough to stand out in the open in a phaser fight and offer yourself up as a target.  Be grateful you’re able to feel anything at all.”

 

“I didn’t do it on purpose.” The Commander growled indignantly.

 

“But you did give the Romulans something delightfully obvious to shoot at while the rest of us were picking them off, though sir.” Curtis smirked from where he was kneeling, half under his station.  Once the excitement of having four Romulans suddenly materialize in their midst had passed, they had all gone back to fighting the losing battle to get the ship functional again.  Connor glared across at the Englishman briefly before looking over at where Richards was fiddling with a circuit board.

 

“Yo Richards,” she called, “are the bridge recording sensors working at all?”

 

Richards looked up resignedly.  “Um… no.  Th’ bridge recorder sensors ‘ave gone the way o’ th’ dodo, like most o’ th’ other sensors on this bloody ship.”

 

“Good.” Connor smirked, then turned around and responded to Curtis’ previous statement with a one-fingered salute.

 

“Am I to take that as an order, sir.” Curtis snorted, his green eyes flashing in amusement.

 

“You can take that any way you want to, Mr. Curtis.” Connor grinned, then looked back at where Chang was tying off the new dressing.  “Thanks ‘Rena.”

 

“You’re welcome.” The councilor sighed.  “It’s really not too bad, but I’d feel better if we could get it treated properly.”

 

“You know that I can’t leave the bridge right now.” Megan reminded her friend gently, “Besides,  the med center would be so overcrowded with people suffering a lot worse injuries than mine, that I’d never get treated.”

 

“I know.” Serena grimaced.  “There’s no rule that says that I have to be happy about seeing a friend in pain though.”

 

Megan smiled reassuringly at her empathic friend, then turned back toward Richards to ask for an update.  Before she could do more than open her mouth though, the com panel beeped, and brought Curtis launching back up to his feet.

 

“Ellison to bridge.” The slightly distorted sound of the security chief’s voice rang out across the bridge, and Curtis leaned in quickly to respond.

 

“Bridge here.” The Englishman’s voice was the picture of unruffled efficiency, and it brought a small smile to the Commander’s face.  No one hearing that voice would guess that the man speaking was disheveled, filthy from fire suppressant, grease and other machine related lubricants, and coming down off a fire-fight induced adrenaline high. The man, Connor decided, was a freakin’ machine.

 

 “Tell Connor that we’re putting Keel’s plan into effect.  Sandburg and I just checked, and it looks like a viable option as far as exterminating that rat’s nest that’s been causing us so many problems.  I’m coming up to escort Mr. Keel back down here.  Tell Connor to get my crew moving with their part of the plan.”

 

For a long moment, silence reigned on the bridge, before Megan hauled herself to her feet and stalked over to the com panel.

 

“I heard you, Ellison.  I’ll get your people moving.” She said quietly.

 

“Good.” Ellison responded. “I’ll be up there as soon as I can.”

 

“Wait.” Curtis said abruptly.  Connor looked at the Englishman sharply, and was vaguely surprised by the intensely determined look on the young man’s face.  “Ellison, you got any objections to supervising things where you are?  I’d like to escort Keel down there.”

 

“Curtis…” Connor began, only to be cut off by the communications officer.

 

“Commander, we both know that I’m never going to get the subspace radio working.  It’s too badly damaged.” The Englishman turned to look his commanding officer square in the face, and Connor was surprised by the fire that burned within Curtis’ normally cool green eyes.  “Anyone here can answer the com panel.  What we need is someone that can ensure Keel’s safe arrival in the shuttle bay.  Trust me, sir.  I’ve played this kind of hide and seek so many times and in so many ways during my… previous career… that I could do this in my sleep.  I’d like to be the one escort Mr Keel.”

 

Megan looked at the young man for a long moment, before nodding sharply.  “All right.” She agreed, and Curtis nodded his thanks.

 

“I have no objections either.” Ellison’s voice crackled from the com panel.  “Actually, that works better for me.  I’ll head over and assist my people in getting the cargo Mr. Keel will be carrying, back here.  Give us fifteen minutes to get over to where we’re going to need to go, then send Mr. Curtis and Mr. Keel down.  We’ll try to get things ready as quickly as possible.” Ellison trailed off for a minute, before continuing.  “Just be careful on the way down, Curtis.  We’ve got uninvited guests all over.  My people are doing what they can, but stay alert.”

 

“Will do.” Curtis agreed.

 

“Good.” Ellison sounded grim. “Ellison out.”

 

For a long moment, there was silence in the wake of Ellison signing off.  It was Dr Chang who threw off the pall that seemed to engulf the group that had been in such high spirits after their victory over the Romulans.

 

“Well,” the woman said quietly, “that’s it then.”

 

“Yep.” Commander Connor said in a carefully neutral voice, and then leaned over Curtis to hit the com panel.  “Bridge to armory.”

 

“Armory here.” A voice Connor didn’t recognize responded immediately.

 

“Armory, this is Commander Connor.” Megan said quietly.  “Tell Lieutenant Commander Ryalc that the contingency plan we discussed is about to come into effect.  Tell him to get whatever and whomever he needs ready.  Your Chief will be heading over to escort the Lieutenant Commander and the cargo to their destination soon.”

 

“Understood Commander.” The voice responded grimly.

 

“Very good.” Connor nodded.  “Bridge out.”

 

“Well,” Chris Keel said with a sigh from where he was lounging against his station.  “At least something looks like working.”

 

“Oh yes.” Chang said pleasantly.  “It was a marvelous little plan that you came up with.  If only it didn’t have that potentially fatal flaw in it.” The councilor finished with a hard glare at the lean young helmsman.

 

“I don’t see any problem with it.” Keel replied coolly, but Connor noted that he wouldn’t meet the councilor’s eyes when he spoke.

 

“It brilliant.” The normally unflappable psychiatrist agreed with a derisive snort.  “For a suicide mission, anyway.”

 

“And here I was thinking that we’d cured you of that little obsession.” Curtis added in a deceptively mild tone of voice, that betrayed none of the dark disapproval that was so very evident in his grey-green eyes.

 

“Listen, we needed a plan to get rid of the Romulans, and I came up with one.” Keel said sharply, his blue eyes beginning to narrow defensively.  “I don’t see what everyone’s problem is.”

 

“The problem, you barmy git,” Richards growled, “is that our transporters aren’t workin’.  You go flyin’ a shuttle full of explosives into th’ Romulan ship, and there ain’t no way for us to pull off any remarkable last minute rescues.”

 

“You’ll be dead.” Serena clarified with a chilly little smile.  “And what’s worse, with our sensors down, there’s no way to guarantee that the damage to their ship was great enough that a shuttle exploding against them would finish them off.  You could die for nothing!”

 

“Well, actually,” the little Toriishi engineer said thoughtfully as she sat gazing up at the view screen, “with the placement of that hole the meteor tore through the Romulan ship, I’d say that if you flew a shuttle through the hull breach, and exploded it against the bulkheads inside the ship, you’d be close enough to the warp core to be able to guarantee that you’d destroy them…” The engineer trailed off as she became aware of Dr Chang’s dark glare.

 

“You’re not helping, Blink.” Serena said flatly.

 

“Oh.” The Toriishi woman grimaced as though she’d just caught up with what the conversation was really about, and shrugged sheepishly.  “Sorry.”

 

Serena gave the small alien a long last glare, before tuning back to the subject of her concern, “Chris…” she began, only to have the Helmsman cut her off.

 

“I know Serena.” He assured her forcefully.  “I do know.  And if I could think of some other way, I’d take it.  But this is the best that anyone has been able to come up with, and there are one hell of a lot more lives at stake here than just mine!”

 

Serena looked into the young helmsman’s intense and serious blue eyes for a long minute, before sighing and nodding unhappily.  “I know.” She acknowledged quietly.  “And I understand.  I just hate the thought…” she trailed off miserably, he eyes conveying her helplessness in this situation.

 

Chris gave the unhappy woman a small smile.  “Thanks.” He nodded his appreciation of her concern.

 

“Anyway,” Bli’inkavari put in thoughtfully, “it might not be a suicide mission.  I mean, the tractor beam’s working.  It wouldn’t be that hard to reroute the power into the transporter and actually get it functional.”

 

“But that’s not goin’ t’ do anybody any good if th’ bloody sensor’s ain’t workin’” Richards huffed tiredly.

 

“True.” Bli’inkavari nodded unhappily.  “I mean, without the capacity to pick out the coordinates that you were at, a functional transporter wouldn’t really help.”

 

“Would there be any way to work out the coordinates that you’d have to pass through on the way through the hull breach on the Romulan ship, so we could have them preset into the transporter to pull you out when you got to them?”  Ensign Kwan pulled his head out from inside a consul to ask. The computer technician, who’d been knocked out during the original battle, had regained enough of his awareness to be helping Richards, but had been so quiet up until now that Megan had almost forgotten that he was there.  The Commander thought about the earnest young man’s suggestion for a long moment before shaking her head skeptically

 

“God!” she snorted.  “With the sensors down, that’d take one hell of a mathematician!  What do you think, Blink?  Would it be possible?”

 

Bli’inkavari stared at the distant ship for a long minute before nodding slowly.  “Yes.” She said thoughtfully.  “I think that I could triangulate exact coordinates.  As long as Richards and Kwan could get my station panel working well enough to give me the distance to the Romulan ship.”

 

“I can do that.” Richards said confidently.  “I’m almost there now!”

 

“But that won’t do me any good.” Keel said almost gently.  “I won’t be able to dodge debris out there, maneuver the shuttle into the exact right position, and tell the transporter bay exactly when I’m going to be passing through the coordinates Blink works out, all at the same time.”

 

“You couldn’t do it by yourself.” Curtis agreed calmly.  “You’d need someone along to keep in contact with the shuttle bay for you.”

 

Keel looked at the communications officer sharply.  “No.” he said forcefully.

 

“It’s not your call.” Curtis responded with cool self-assurance.

 

“The odds against it working would be astronomical!” Keel growled.  “Giving up one life is bad enough, but sacrificing yourself needlessly…”

 

“Oh, so it’s alright for you, but not for me?”  Sam’s voice remained cool, but there was a fire flashing in his icy eyes that would have intimidated a lesser man than Keel.

 

“That’s not what I mean!” Keel snapped back.

 

“All right that’s enough!” Connor snapped irritably.  She glared at the two men for a second before glancing back toward Blink.  “Would Kwan’s idea work?” she demanded.

 

“Maybe.” Blink shrugged.  “It’s certainly worth a try”

 

“Good enough.” Connor nodded.  “Curtis, you can go with Keel.”

 

“But Sir..!” Keel began to protest hotly, only to have the Commander glare at him.

 

“I’d rather send two men on a risky mission, than one on a suicide mission.” Connor growled.  “Particularly when the second man volunteered.  Deal with it Keel.  You’re going to have a passenger.  Now I suggest that the two of you take this opportunity to rest.  You won’t get another chance until this is all over, one way or another.  Serena, go help Richards and Kwan.  Blink, get started on determining how you’re going to work those coordinates out.” Connor glared around for a minute before nodding sharply and turning back to the com panel.  The Commander reached out and punched up a link to engineering.  “Bridge to engineering!” she snapped.

 

“Engineering here.” A female voice responded. 

 

“This is Commander Connor.” Megan said forcefully.  “I need to speak to Commander Taggart.”

 


 

Jim Ellison slid along the darkened corridor like a shadow.  After a moment, he reached the next corridor junction and paused to let his Guide catch up.  The tall security chief grimaced as he turned to face his partner.  Blair looked too pale for the Sentinel’s liking, and even the dimness of the corridor’s lighting did nothing to soften the dark smudges of exhaustion and pain around the younger man’s eyes.  Ellison had to quash the urge to reach for his soul mate along the bond.  The diminished contact would only serve to upset the Guide further, and that was the last thing that Jim wanted to do.

 

The Sentinel knew that his Guide was unwell.  He had wanted Blair to remain in the relative safety of the shuttle bay while he climbed back up a level and collected his people and the explosives that they would need to carry out Keel’s plan.  He’d figured that it would be a straightforward trip, with no real Sentinel related difficulties to deal with, but Blair wouldn’t hear of it; had actually damn near panicked when Jim had suggested it.  The security chief had been forced to swear that he wouldn’t go anywhere without his young Guide before the empath would even begin to calm down.  Jim didn’t know what had caused the severity of his partner’s reaction, but there was no time at the present to get to the bottom of it either.  Ellison had been forced to place working out what was going on with his partner on his ‘to do’ list, and get on with the mission as best he could.

 

Now, after climbing back up a level and making their way through the maze of darkened corridors toward the armory, Jim was really beginning to wonder whether he should have just called his people and told them to come to him.  It would have been a risk, considering the Romulans wondering around, but it would have been easier on his Guide. 

 

“How you doin’, Chief?” he asked softly as Blair drew even with him.

 

“Fine.” Blair lied gamely for the dozenth time, and Jim had to struggle to suppress the urge to sigh.  The younger man swallowed rather heavily, then peered cautiously around the corner beside them.   “We almost there, man?”

 

“Yeah.” Ellison nodded.  “It’s just…” Jim’s voice trailed off as he heard a familiar sound nearby.  He felt his head cock automatically to the side as he attempted to focus in on the sound that had caught his attention.  For a second, it eluded him, but then he felt the warmth of Blair’s hand against his shoulder, and the grounding touch freed his senses to roam.

 

He focused in on it immediately.

 

“What is it, Jim?” Blair breathed so softly that Jim doubted that anyone but another Sentinel could have caught the whisper.  Ellison felt his jaw tighten as he glanced down into his Guide’s large, dark eyes.

 

“Romulans.” Jim leaned forward to breathe the word into his Guide’s ear.  Blair jerked back in response and glanced toward the corner, his eyes full of concern.  Jim quickly caught hold of Blair’s shoulder and squeezed.  Once he was sure that he had his partner’s full attention, he shook his head, and gestured that they were further along.  Blair nodded his understanding and raised his hand to rest soothingly against his Sentinel’s arm.

 

With Blair touching him, it was easy to hear his enemy’s movements; the stealthy tread of their feet, the harshness of their breathing, and the dull, fleshy thud of their heartbeats.  He could hear where they were, and he knew where they were heading.  Ellison had to stifle the urge to swear.  He cast another worried look at his Guide, but Blair, as always, seemed to sense what the problem was, before he had to verbalize it.  The young empath just looked up at him reassuringly, and squeezed his arm.

 

“I’m okay.” he whispered almost sub-vocally to his Sentinel.  “Let’s go.”

 

Ellison grimaced and hesitated.  He didn’t particularly want to be dragging his partner into a battle in the state that he was in, but he already knew that the empath wasn’t going to agree to be left behind.  Besides, the Sentinel couldn’t help but feel that the safest place for his Guide right now was directly behind wherever he was.  At least then Jim would be able to make sure that he was protected.  Ellison looked down into his partner’s earnest face and nodded, although he had no doubts that his unhappiness with this whole situation was very visible in his own face.  He extended his senses to check the corridor beside them, then led Blair swiftly down the dim passage.

 

Ellison came to a silent halt at the end of the passage and quickly reached for the phaser on his weapon belt.  He glanced automatically over his shoulder to visually confirm that his Guide was with him, then extended his hearing to confirm the whereabouts of his enemies.  In spite of his very obvious exhaustion, Blair must have been monitoring his Sentinel as well, because the instant that he began to extend himself, Jim felt his Guide’s warm hand against his back.  As always, the distraction of his Guide’s presence was enough to keep him from zoning as he focused on his hearing. 

 

Almost dispassionately, he noted that he didn’t really have to dial his hearing up that much to focus in on the Romulans, which would indicate that he was keeping his hearing dialed up too high.  He decided that this would certainly explain the slight headache that he was developing.  If the bond was working properly, Blair would have picked up on that by now and would be kicking his butt over his lack of attention to his senses.  Ellison quickly slammed the door on the almost wistful turn that his thoughts were taking and forced himself to focus on the task at hand.

 

Jim could hear the stealthy movements of his prey quite easily.  He could also hear the activity of the crew that the Romulans were in their own turn, hunting.  Ellison grimaced as his hearing pinpointed the location of his people.  This, he decided, might prove a little hairy.  He glanced sharply over his shoulder at his Guide.  Blair looked up at him expectantly, obviously waiting to hear the plan.  Jim felt a grim little smile touch his face as he looked down into the earnest, exhausted eyes of his partner. He was going to share the plan all right, and he had no doubt that Blair wasn’t going to like it.  He leaned in until his lips were almost touching the younger man’s ear before divulging what he wanted from his Guide on a whisper.

 

“No matter what happens, Chief, you stay here behind the corner.” Ellison breathed.  “I’ll deal with this.”

 

Ellison pulled back just enough to see the energizing flash of rebellion that lit his young Guide’s eyes at his words, and the stubborn set of defiance that entered Blair’s jaw and shoulders.  The scientist started to draw a deep breath to argue, but before he could, Ellison moved to head him off.

 

Quick as a striking snake, Ellison’s free hand lashed out and buried itself in the thick curls behind his partner’s neck.  He clenched his hand around the silky stuff, close to his partner’s scalp, and forced his Guide’s head back, even as he moved in to tower over Blair.  Jim felt vaguely nauseous at his bond-mate’s wince of pain and automatic flinch at finding his body in someone else’s control, but he deliberately quashed his own reaction to the other man’s distress.  The deep breath that Blair had been drawing became an almost silent gasp, and the empath’s eyes widened as the Sentinel brought them nose to nose.  Jim gave his captive a quick, emphatic shake to ensure that he had his absolute attention before speaking again. 

 

“I mean it, Blair!”  He hissed, his voice low and his eyes boring into those of his partner. The look on Blair’s face almost made him loosen his grip, but the fear of losing his bond-mate managed to over-ride the Sentinel’s guilt over his rough treatment of his Guide.  “You.  Do.  Not.  Move. No matter what.  Understood?”

 

Blair’s eyes, while surprised, maintained a spark of defiance.  Still, the empath must have picked up somewhat on the Sentinel’s fear through their diminished bond, because he nodded anyway.  Jim was flooded with relief, and automatically, the confining grip that he had maintained on his Guide gentled.  The Guide must have felt the change in his Sentinel, because he shifted his weight slightly so that he was no longer pulling against Jim’s hold.  Ellison kept his expression neutral, but used his grip on the Blair’s hair to haul the empath in and tuck his face into his Sentinel’s shoulder for a moment.  Ellison breathed deeply, taking his Guide’s scent into his lungs, then quickly tuned his head and feathered a quick, gentle kiss against his partner’s temple by way of apology for his behavior.  He then released Blair and took the two steps necessary to bring him into position.

 

Ellison readied himself for what he had to do, and almost instantly, felt his Guide’s hand come to rest on his back as an anchor.  Ellison felt himself relax slightly in reaction.  Sandburg was undoubtedly unhappy about his Sentinel’s heavy handedness, but that wasn’t going to stop the younger man from doing what he could to support his partner.  The gentle hand on his back helped him, as always, to focus, and he knew the instant that he was going to have to make his move.  He had a split second to hope that whoever was in the passage beside him knew about his golden rule, and then he was in motion.

 

Ellison swung out from behind the corner and recognized the two men standing guard at the entrance to the armory immediately.  The two security guards swung toward him, weapons raised, as they detected his sudden appearance out of the corners of their eyes.  Ellison swung his own weapon up and took aim.  The faces of his men registered both recognition and confusion as they focused on him.  Ellison responded to the surprised uncertainty in their faces with a single word.

 

Drop!” he barked.

 

The younger of the two guards blinked at the abrupt command, but the older was moving before the word had finished leaving Ellison’s mouth, and thankfully, he had the presence of mind to draw his partner down with him.  As the two men dropped out of their Commander’s way, Jim focused his sight on the far end of the corridor and fired.

 

The attacking Romulan had not even managed to get half way around the corner when the side of his face disappeared in a stream of destructive light.

 

Ellison heard the curses of his men, but was really only vaguely aware of them.  He was far too focused on the aliens hiding around the corner from him.  He heard their hushed voices, listened to their movements and their hastily rethought plan.  And as a result, he was ready to move in the instant before they were.

 

As expected, Ellison saw the second Romulan dive out over the body of his fallen comrade.  The invader rolled and came up in a crouching position, ready to take aim at the defender that had taken out their point-man… only to find the security chief’s phaser fire waiting for him.  

 

Ellison did not stop to watch the Romulan’s body thrown back by the shot that took him in the chest.  Nor did he waste time watching the creature’s agonized writhing.  He was far too busy executing his own diving roll, in order to get out of the way of the third Romulan’s fire.  The third invader had stepped out of hiding even as his teammate was diving across the corridor.  The shot that the alien snapped off at the Sentinel passed close enough for Ellison to feel the heat of the deadly beam, but his quick movement was sufficient to keep him from taking a hit. 

 

Ellison came out of his roll, crouched and ready to fire.  The Romulan had already moved to fire again, but before he could, two beams of light drilled into the alien’s body; one in the chest, the other in the abdomen, and sent the creature flying several meters down the corridor.  Ellison remained poised and focused for a long second, then relaxed as he confirmed that there were no more of the enemy in the immediate area.  He straightened and then turned to where his people were crouched expectantly.  As his two men realized that their leader was standing down, their stances also relaxed.  Ellison reattached his weapon to his belt and watched as the younger of the two men turned awed and vaguely confused eyes on him.

 

“Good timing, sir.” Ensign Rafe said in the most steady voice that he could manage as he re-clipped his own phaser to his belt.  “How did you know those guy’s were even there?”

 

Before Ellison could answer, the second of his men leaned in and slapped a friendly hand on the younger man’s shoulder.  “Babe,” Henri Brown drawled in the unflappable, cheerful manner that Jim had come to expect from him, “there’s a reason that he’s the boss, and we are but the grunts.  In fact, it’s the same reason that we security officer’s do what he tells us, straight away, without question.”  Brown raised his eyebrows at the younger man, and Rafe responded by going slightly red in the face. 

 

Jim smiled slightly at his officer’s gentle teasing.  Rafe, however, straightened and turned to his Commander, his expression miserable.  “Sorry, sir.” He murmured, his embarrassment over his less than stellar response time to his Commander’s order when he’d first entered the hall painfully obvious.  Ellison looked at Rafe carefully.  Theirs was a dangerous job, and there was a damned good reason that Ellison’s Golden Rule was that in a combat situation, his people were to obey his words absolutely and without question.  Rafe was young, and inexperienced.  Not a good combination under the present circumstances.  Still, the young man was embarrassed enough that Ellison was fairly sure that he would not make the same mistake again.  Besides which, Brown had done an admirable job of watching his young partner’s back, and there seemed to be a genuine affection developing between the two men.  All in all, Ellison decided that it might be best to let the slip go.  The security chief shrugged as he looked the ensign over.

 

“The first time an officer faces a situation like this is unnerving.” Ellison acknowledged.  “Just don’t let it happen again.  You didn’t just put yourself in danger, you put your partner in danger as well.”

 

Rafe’s flush became more pronounced.  “Aye, sir.” The young man said miserably.

 

“Don’t dwell on it, kid.” Ellison shrugged, then glanced over at the older member of the partnership.  “Is Ryalc ready for me?”

 

“If he’s not, then he should be almost there.” Brown shrugged  “I’ll let him know you’re here.” The seasoned soldier turned and walked toward the door.  The man paused for a split second as he passed his partner, slapped him lightly on the shoulder, and said “Stay alert, my brother.” in a voice so quiet that Ellison would not have heard it if he weren’t a Sentinel.  He then disappeared into the armory.  Ellison would have joined him, except at that moment, it finally dawned on the Sentinel that the Guide had not reappeared once the enemy were vanquished.  Jim cursed, drawing a startled, apprehensive look from the Ensign, then turned on his heel, and stalked back to the corner that he had left his Guide to shelter behind.

 

He found Blair leaning against the wall, with his arms crossed defiantly across his chest.  He glanced up as his Sentinel charged around the corner and arched an eyebrow at his bond-mate. 

 

“Come on, kid.” Ellison half-growled as the young man continued to slouch against the wall and stare at him.  “We’ve got equipment to check.”

 

“I thought you wanted me to stay here.” Blair shrugged. The hooded expression in the young man’s eyes practically screamed to the Sentinel that he was in big trouble.  Ellison sighed and hung his head.  They didn’t really have time for this right now, but as much as he wanted to avoid this conversation, he already knew his bond-mate well enough to know that Blair would be unwilling to move forward until he’d had his say in this matter.  Besides, Jim knew that the empath would stew over his anger until he was given an opportunity to express it.  As shaky as his Guide looked, Ellison wasn’t going to cause him any more stress needlessly.

 

“You know why I told you to stay here, Chief.” Ellison sighed wearily.

 

“Yeah, I do.” Sandburg admitted quietly.  “And I really do appreciate that you want to protect me.  But I’m your Guide,” the empath paused, looked down, and sighed resignedly before continuing, “well… I’m supposed to be your Guide, anyway.  The problem is that I can’t Guide you properly if you keep leaving me behind whenever you go into battle.  Sooner or later, man, it’s going to get you killed, and then it won’t matter where you’ve got me stashed away, I’ll be dead too.”  Blair raised his head and stared at his Sentinel with a determined intensity that hit the older man like a physical blow.  “I wouldn’t even try to survive without our bond.  So doesn’t it make more sense for us to stay close to each other, so that we can watch out for each other?  It’d improve the life expectancy for both of us, man.”

 

Ellison stared at his young partner, and tried to work up the spit to swallow.  Blair’s pronouncement that he would not survive the security chief’s death had made his mouth go dry and had come very close to provoking a panicked denial from the older man.  Unfortunately, the intensity of the younger man’s gaze told Ellison that Blair meant it.  The Sentinel drew a deep breath to help him to get his fear under control, then another as he tried to explain his stance in a way that Blair would understand.  He willfully ignored the little voice in the back of his mind that told him that he was never going to be able to get his partner to acknowledge that the Sentinel was right, and plowed on anyway. 

 

“Chief, I know that you’re not happy with this.  And to tell the truth, kid, I’m not all that comfortable with using my senses without you.  But right now, you aren’t in any shape to back me up in a fight.  You’re not yourself, kid, and with the bond not working properly, I can’t get you to ‘listen’ to my emotions to help you to decide what to do.  Hell, Sandburg, right now you look like a strong wind would knock you over.  I can’t deliberately put you into a combat situation while you’re like this.  Because you aren’t the only one that would die if anything happened to your partner.”

 

Blair looked up at him for a long minute, and then sighed.  “Ahhh, Jim man.  I know I’m not well, and I know that the bond isn’t working properly.  But don’t you see that that’s even more reason to keep me close.  With the bond not working properly, there’s just so much more risk of a zone out!  Right now you need me as close as you can get me, not have me hide around the corner, while you take out the Romulans.  We have to stay together, or something terrible’s gonna happen, man.  I can just feel it.”

 

Ellison looked down into his Guide’s imploring blue eyes and saw the fear in them.  He responded to the younger man’s distress instinctively, stepping close to the empath and resting his hands on his Guide’s tense shoulders.  Automatically, Jim began to massage the tight muscles soothingly, even as he leaned forward to rest his forehead against that of his Guide.  “It’s gonna be okay, kid.” Ellison said softly.  “We’re gonna be okay.  Nothing terrible is going to happen.  We’ll get through this and we’re gonna be all right.  Both of us.  We’ll get through this together.”

 

“Does that mean you’re gonna stop hiding me behind corners?” Blair asked quietly, his deep blue eyes gazing earnestly up into those of his Sentinel.

 

“Blair,” Jim sighed, “you’re going to have to get used to the idea that I’m going to want to know that you’re safe when there’s trouble.”

 

Blair looked up at him for a long moment, before suddenly pulling away and stepping back.  “Then nothing’s been resolved.” he said sadly.  “And it won’t ever be until you can wrap your head around the idea that I need you to be safe, just as much as you need me to be.”  The empath looked so deeply disappointed, that Jim automatically stepped forward to bring himself into contact with his Guide again.  To his surprise and dismay though, Blair simply backed up another step, and shook his head.  “Come on, man.” Blair sighed without looking at him, “Ryalc’s gonna be waiting for us.”  And with that, the young Guide stepped around his Sentinel and began moving toward the armory, leaving his confused partner staring after him.

 

As James Ellison watched Blair walk away from him, he couldn’t help but feel that he’d just made a huge tactical error.  The Sentinel growled deep in his throat and then turned to stalk after the empath.  ‘We’re going to have to have a re-run of that conversation, very soon,’ the Sentinel decided irritably.  And since James Ellison prided himself on never making the same mistake twice, he knew just what to do to make the next conversation run much more smoothly, and make his Guide happy, at least for the short term. 

 

Next time, Ellison decided irritably, he was just gonna lie about it.  At least with the bond muffled, the kid couldn’t pick him up on it straight away.

 

This decided, Ellison picked up his pace and fell in beside the empath, just as he reached the armory door.

 


 

Blair was still quietly fuming when the Sentinel caught up with him.  He deliberately kept his eyes on the armory door as he felt the older man fall into step beside him.  Why couldn’t Ellison see the importance of keeping his Guide close to him?  Why couldn’t he see that they were both so much more vulnerable when they were separated?  Was he truly such a failure as a Guide that Ellison saw him as a liability?  A short time ago, Blair wouldn’t have thought so.  Did Ellison realize now that his Guide had failed their tribe by not being at his Sentinel’s side back when the disaster could have been averted?  And if so, had he lost faith in his bond-mate?  Blair’s thoughts spun around in his head like a dog chasing its own tail as he entered the armory.  His focus had descended so far inward that the sudden growling of a rough, guttural voice directly in front of him made the young scientist flinch back in shock.

 

“Think too much, you do, young’un.” The powerfully built, leathery-skinned alien stated bluntly.  Blair looked up with a start and found himself caught in the glittering regard of beady, coal-black eyes.  The creature was not a lot taller than Blair, but almost twice as broad, a testament to the extreme heavy gravity of the Tellorite home world.  The alien’s face was the color of deep mahogany, and utterly featureless, with the exception of it’s small eyes, the slits that marked the creature’s nose and mouth, and the jagged, ugly scar that ran from the creature’s forehead, down along it’s face and neck, and disappeared under the alien’s uniform.  Ryalc was the ship’s chief weapons technician, and one of the security officers that Blair had gotten along well with from the very beginning.  Right at that moment, though, the alien’s eyes were regarding him almost clinically.  After a moment Ryalc gave the Tellorite version of a snort of disgust.  “Here, what are ye doing?  Sick bay should ye be.  Fall over, would ye, if breathe on ye hard did someone.”

 

“I’m okay, Ryalc.” Blair tried to smile reassuringly, but the darkening of the alien’s eyes suggested that his attempt hadn’t been overly successful.

 

“He’s not okay.” James Ellison’s voice corrected him gruffly, causing the scientist to turn and glare at the older man. “Unfortunately, with triage protocols in place, he’s not liable to get the treatment that he needs, so I’d rather keep him someplace that I can keep an eye on him.”

 

The Tellorite looked his commanding officer up and down, before the alien’s nose and mouth slits pressed tightly together, causing his face to bunch up like an outsized raison in the Tellorite version of a broad grin.  “Rolling on yer kills, it looks like ye have been, Ellison!” The weapons tech huffed in amusement.  Ellison had the grace to scowl in embarrassment at that.  Blair looked at the taller man, and had to acknowledge that the Big Guy did look pretty gruesome.  Despite the fact that he had evidently made an effort to wipe away the gore, there was still dried green blood all over his uniform, and there was still dark, stiff patches in the older man’s hair.  Blair briefly considered making a joke about it at the Sentinel’s expense, but then he remembered how the security chief had ended up in that bloody state, and suddenly it didn’t strike him as being particularly funny any more.  Ellison cleared his throat, and then demonstrated his discomfort with his appearance by gracelessly changing the subject.

 

“You ready to move out?” Ellison demanded.

 

If anything, Ellison’s attempt to change the subject made Ryalc’s ‘grin’ even more pronounced.  “Yes.” The Tellorite huffed in a husky version of a laugh.  “Would be, I told you.”

 

“Good.” Ellison growled. “Where’s our cargo?  We’ve got to get moving.”

 

“In the packs, it is” Ryalc gestured to a series of carry-alls that were lined up against the wall on the far side of the room.  “More efficient would it be to have larger explosives, but since to the shuttle bay we have to carry it, small explosives we’ll have to stick to.  More of them we will need though.”

 

Blair watched his Sentinel take a few steps toward the carry-alls, his face set in it’s usual impassive mask.  Blair could almost hear the wheels turning in his Sentinel’s head.  He had no doubt that the taller man was trying to decide if the three of them could manage on their own.  Considering that they were going to have to use the maintenance ladders again, and someone was going to have to be ready to act as defender in case they should run into another enemy patrol, Blair doubted that they could.

 

After a moment, Ellison grimaced and shook his head. “We’re going to need some extra people to help us to carry all of this.”

 

Ryalc gave his superior a long-suffering look.  “Knew this already, did I.” Ryalc growled.  “Know that they are coming with us do Uuul, Rafe and Brown.”

 

Ellison looked at his head weapon’s technician sharply.  “Rafe and Brown already have a task.  The armory still has to be guarded.  The quickest way for the Romulans to destroy this ship would be to get someone in here.”

 

“Know that too, do I.” Ryalc snorted.  “No better than ours, must the Romulans sensors be working, or fend off more attacks would we have had to.  Come with us can Rafe and Brown, because how to use the weapons that they service, my people know.  Fend off any trouble would they be able to.  Besides,” and here Ryalc broke off to throw an assessing look Blair’s way, “unable to do more than hold himself upright, our young doctor looks.  To carry such heavy packs down a ladder at the moment, I doubt that he’d be able.”

 

Blair felt his face grow hot at the stocky alien’s words.  ‘Marvelous,’ Blair thought miserably, everyone thinks that I’m a liability.’

 

“Told you, did I, that you think too much.” Ryalc’s gruff voice made the Blair look up sharply, and he found himself under the intense scrutiny of the alien’s beady black eyes.  Blair’s face grew even hotter as he realized that the weapon’s technician had been watching his reaction to the words spoken about him.  “Hurt, have you been.  No shame is there in acknowledging your limitations.  Its own time and place has bravery, but never should you mistake pride for courage.  Put yourself and others at risk pointlessly will your pride.  That you should not be carrying heavy packs, admit to yourself.  For when it will do some good save your bravery.”

 

Blair stared at the leathery creature for a long moment before nodding and ducking his head quickly.  Something in the odd creature’s kind eyes had made his throat close up and his eyes sting.  He stared determinedly at the floor for a moment, until he suddenly felt a heavy hand drop down onto his shoulder.  The tingling that shimmered through his damaged empathic pathways told him exactly who it was that was standing beside him.  Blair risked a quick glance up through the hair that had escaped his pony-tail yet again to find that Jim’s gaze was fixed firmly on the weapon’s technician.  The gentle, soothing stroking of the Sentinel’s thumb behind Blair’s shoulder, though, told him where the majority of the older man’s focus was, and perversely, Blair couldn’t decide whether that made him feel better or worse.

 

“Get some of your people organized to replace Rafe and Brown at the door then, Ryalc.  The sooner we get this done, the sooner the Romulans cease to be a threat.”

 

“Aye, Commander.” Ryalc nodded with a little more formality than he would normally have used.  As the Tellorite turned away, Ellison turned back toward where Brown was waiting expectantly.

 

“Okay, Brown,” the Sentinel nodded, “go get your partner.”

 

“You got it.” Brown nodded, then moved rapidly to the door.

 

Finally, with Brown and Ryalc gone, Blair found himself under the regard of Ellison’s pale blue eyes.  “You doin’ all right there, Chief?” the taller man asked gently, and Blair was struck once again by the feeling that he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to hug the taller man, or punch him.

 

“I already told you that I’m okay.” he muttered irritably.

 

To his surprise, Ellison’s eyes lit up with fond amusement.  “You’re such a liar, Chief.” He chuckled, before his eyes became gentle again.  “But like I told you before, you will be.  We both will be.  Trust me, kid, we’ll get through this.

 

“I do trust you, Jim.” Blair sighed resignedly.  In that moment, Blair Sandburg understood that Jim was never going to be able to come to terms with the fact that sometimes the Guide was going to need to risk himself to protect his Sentinel. And that was okay, the empath realized.  Jim’s inability to come to terms with what Blair needed to do wasn’t going to stop him from doing it.  It was going to cause some spectacular fights, Blair realized with something close to amusement, but eventually, he might be able to resign his Sentinel to the way it was going to have to be, even if the older man still didn’t want to accept it. 

 

The return of Brown and Rafe effectively put an end to any further discussion.  Blair watched as the fondness and gentleness bled away from Jim’s face, to be replaced by the security chief’s command persona.  As Ellison turned away to organize his people, Blair was struck by the realization that he was still the only person allowed to see the security officer’s more vulnerable side.  This realization soothed the troubled young man somewhat.  After all, if Jim still trusted him enough to give Blair access to the ‘vulnerable’ parts of who he was, then surely something must be salvageable within the situation.  Blair knew that he had failed his Sentinel, but perhaps Jim would be willing to push past that and give the younger man a chance to redeem himself.   And perhaps in time, Jim really would be able to accept Blair’s place as his Guide was directly beside where ever he was.  Perhaps…

 

Within a few moments, Uuul, Rafe and Ryalc were loaded up with the packs of explosives that Ryalc had prepared.  While Ryalc and Uuul, an amber furred Meloorbi, looked perfectly comfortable under their heavy loads, Rafe looked decidedly uncomfortable.  Blair could sympathize.  Federation starships were generally set up for humans, gravity-wise, but there were times when that worked more in the favor of officers from heavier gravity planets than it did for the humans.  Blair was about to offer to take some of Rafe’s burden, when Ellison clamped a heavy hand across his shoulder to prevent him from leaving the security chief’s side.  Blair turned slightly to glare up at his partner, and found Ellison watching him sternly, the warning in the Sentinel’s icy eyes to stay put, very clear.  Blair felt another wave of rebellion well up within his soul, but quickly quashed it.  It was for the best this way, he told himself firmly.  This way, he would be able to stick closer to Ellison. 

 

Blair turned away from his Sentinel and carefully suppressed the sudden smile that wanted to break loose.  The empath knew perfectly well that the only thing that his Sentinel was thinking of in preventing him from helping Rafe was his Guide’s well being.  He really didn’t have the slightest inkling that he was assisting Sandburg in his secret plan to stick close to the Sentinel, no matter what went down.  For the first time the muffled bond worked in Blair’s favor.  The Guide knew perfectly well that if Jim Ellison had had any clue about his plans, he would have given him some of Rafe’s packs himself, just to slow the empath down.

 

“Alright people,” Ellison said suddenly, drawing Blair away from his musings, “you all know where we need to go, and you all know what’s liable to get in our way.  The sheer amount of explosives that Ryalc, Uuul and Rafe are carrying makes our task that much more difficult.  We can’t afford for any of you three to be anywhere near a phaser fight.  One misplaced phaser strike would probably spell the end of the whole ship with the state she’s already in.  With that in mind, I don’t want any heroics.  We’ll avoid any confrontation if at all possible, and if avoidance isn’t possible, then you three will get the hell out and leave dealing with the enemy to myself and Brown.  Clear?”

 

“Crystal.” Rafe murmured, although he looked vaguely unhappy with it.

 

“I’ll be taking point.” Ellison continued.  “Sandburg will follow me.  Ryalc, Uuul and Rafe will stay behind Sandburg, and Brown’ll cover our six.  Everyone does what I say, and when I say to do it.  If we hit trouble, Ryalc, your first and foremost responsibility is to get these explosives to the docking bay, and to set them up on one of the shuttles.  If Brown, Sandburg and I get caught up with dealing with hostiles, protecting Ryalc and the explosives falls to you Rafe.  Uuul will of course assist Ryalc. If you do find yourself in the position of guarding the others Rafe, make sure that you keep in mind the fact that these guys are still transporting onto the Raptor, and they could appear anywhere at any time.  Got it?”

 

“Yes, sir.” Rafe nodded, despite looking even more deeply unhappy with the situation than he was before.

 

“Good.” Ellison nodded, and then drew his phaser.  “Let’s move out people.” The tall security chief said calmly, as he turned and led his people back into the war zone that their ship had become.  Blair moved quickly to catch up, and in a moment, was moving as quietly as he was able down the dimly lit corridors once more.  As he moved back into easy touching distance with his Sentinel once more, Blair felt a shiver of apprehension crawl up his spine.  The sensation unsettled the empath, and once again he was almost grateful that the bond was not working enough for Jim to sense his disquiet.  At least this way, Blair was unable to distract his Sentinel at a time when he desperately needed his concentration to be focused.  Blair had no idea what his feelings of unease meant, if indeed, they meant anything at all.  But whatever it meant, there was one thing that Blair Sandburg did know.

 

This time he was going to be the Guide his Sentinel deserved.  He was going to watch over his Sentinel, or he was going to die trying.  With his reserve firmly in mind, Blair focused entirely on keeping up with his Sentinel, and forced the pounding in his head, the aching of his body, and his continued sense of unease from his mind.

 


 

Simon Banks was feeling particularly vulnerable as he crouched in the dimness of the corridor, waiting for the engineers that he had accompanied, to finish their task.  The silence was both overwhelming and unnerving.  The main engineering deck contained no crew quarters, so all of the ship’s survivors from this level had concentrated themselves in one of the conference rooms on the far side of the deck, or reported for duty in the main engine room.  This corridor was pretty much deserted.  The only sounds that Banks could hear were the muted movements of the engineering personnel inside the maintenance tunnel that he was guarding, and the harshness of his own breathing as he waited for some sign that an attack from the invaders was imminent.

 

Not for the first time, Simon glanced at the chronometer on his wrist and grimaced.  The small instrument continued to insist that it had only been three and a half Earth-Standard hours since this nightmare had begun, and that it had really been only a few minutes since he had last glanced at his chronometer.  However, to the beleaguered Captain, each of those moments had seemed to take an hour to pass.  Silently he willed Taggart to hurry.  It had been almost twenty minutes since Connor had contacted Taggart to offer up a potential alternative to simply sending the ship’s chief helmsman to his death.  By this time Curtis and Keel would be on the move, heading toward the shuttle bay, and Ellison should have the explosives necessary to destroy the enemy that floated out in space, so close to their own ship.  If they were going to put the plan his bridge crew had suggested into effect, then they were going to have to do it now.  Because in another twenty minutes, it was all going to be too late.

 

The Captain’s dark thoughts were suddenly derailed by a ‘clanging’ noise from within the tunnel.  Instinctively, Banks’ hand tightened on his phaser, even as he half turned toward the sound.  The sight of Joel Taggart’s large hands emerging to grip the end of the tunnel entrance allowed Banks to relax somewhat.  However, the knowledge that he might not be the only being capable of hearing Taggart's re-emergence from the tunnels, kept the Captain from relaxing his grasp on his weapon.  Banks remained firmly focused on his present role of protector until Taggart was standing beside him once more.  Only when he was certain that nothing alive lay concealed in the deep shadows of the corridor did Banks turn to face his old friend.

 

“Okay.” Taggart nodded wearily.  “It took a bit of jerry-rigging, but we can now reroute the power from the tractor beams through the transporter.  That’ll take about five minutes to complete when I get back to Engineering, but it’ll be done in time.”

 

“Good.” Banks sighed.  “Something had to go our way today.”

 

“Simon, having the transporter functional may not do those boys a whole lot of good.” Taggart reminded his Captain gently, even as he bent down to pull a cleaning cloth from his tool kit. “For one thing, jerry-rigging a system like that won’t allow it to last for long.  With the limited power we’ve got left to draw on, we’re only going to get one shot at this.  And if my team can’t get the transporter sensors at least on line enough to differentiate organic matter from the interior of the shuttle within a specific area, it’s not going to work anyway.”

 

“I know Joel.” Banks sighed, “It’ll only work if the system holds itself together, and if we can get those sensors working, and if Bli’inkavari can work out the exact co-ordinates that the shuttle is going to have to pass through, and if Keel can fly though those exact co-ordinates, at the exact time.  But, dammit Joel, I’d rather those men have a slim chance, than no chance at all.”

 

The large engineer looked across at his slightly taller captain and sighed, his kind eyes showing both his understanding and his agreement.  Taggart calmly finished cleaning his hands, then reached across and clapped his Captain on the shoulder.  “C’mon Captain,” the engineering chief said gruffly, “let’s get back to engineering.  The sooner we’re back there, the sooner I can get the power transferred over, and the sooner you can check up on how Blink’s goin’ with her calculations, and how the team in the transporter room’s doing getting those sensors back on line.”

 

“Agreed.” Banks nodded.

 

Taggart quickly retrieved his tools, and slid his work pack back across his shoulder.  A wry grin touched his face as he straightened, causing the Captain to raise his eyebrows in silent inquiry as to what the other man found so amusing.  Taggart shook his head ruefully.  “I was gonna say that it was all gonna work out, cause we had to catch a break at some point in this mess, but all things considered, I’m not gonna do that.  I’d hate to jinx us.”

 

Banks stared at his old friend for a moment, before a matching sardonic smirk flitted across his own face.  “Oh, yeah, Joel.” He snorted.  “By all means, keep that thought to yourself.”

 

And with that, the Captain turned away, and focused once more on his task as protector.  He listened carefully for a moment, and in the back of his mind, the thought that Sandburg had been right, that extra sensitive ears would have definite advantages right about now, occurred to him.  He listened for a moment more, and when he heard nothing, he began to lead his chief engineer back to the relative safety of engineering.

 


 

By the time that Blair climbed off of the ladder and out of the maintenance tunnel, he was having a hard time concealing either his pain or exhaustion.  Not that he thought for a moment that he was in any way fooling his Sentinel, but pride dictated that he not appear to be a complete wimp in front of his Sentinel’s men.  Blair felt like he was on the verge of collapsing in a heap, but ahead of him, Ellison looked as focused and deadly as ever.  Such was to be expected of the security chief, of course, but the scientist did have to admit that it was a little humiliating when first Uuul, and then Ryalc climbed out of the tunnel, not even looking a little puffed, despite their heavy burdens.  Rafe, however, wasn’t looking too good when he climbed off of the ladder, and that made Blair feel a little better.  A half a moment later, Brown reappeared, and Ellison motioned that they were to move out again.  Blair grit his teeth against a wave of nausea, and mentally ordered his feet to start walking. 

 

The silence of the corridor was overwhelming, with the exception of the sounds of their footfalls and their breathing.  Blair tried to use the monotony of his footsteps to distract him from the pounding in his head, but before he could work himself into the proper state of self-hypnosis, Ellison suddenly stopped dead still, directly in front of him.  The empath glanced around in surprise to see what the problem was, but nothing was immediately obvious.  Still, something about the set of the Sentinel’s shoulders sent a renewed chill of apprehension up his spine.  Something was wrong here, he could almost feel it.  Judging by the absolute silence radiating from behind him, the rest of the party could feel it too. 

 

All of these observations came to him in the time it took him to draw a single breath.  By the time he began to draw the next, Blair was moving, headed forward to anchor his Sentinel as best he could with his empathy as blighted as it was.  He had barely taken half a step forward, though, when Ellison jerked and spun toward him, an almost nauseating panic written across his face.

 

LOOK OUT!” Ellison roared, even as he pounced.  Blair didn’t even have time to flinch before the solid weight of his Sentinel slammed into him from the front, sweeping him sideways and backward and into the solidity of the corridor wall.

 

The sensation of being ‘sandwiched’, and the solid hit the back of his head took when it bounced into the wall sent his headache soaring to new levels.  The resulting dizziness and pounding in Blair’s ears made the rest of the world fade to a distant grayness that he could not quite connect with for a moment.  He was vaguely aware of the heat and weight of his Sentinel, keeping him upright, and a strangely familiar sound, but he couldn’t quite get anything beyond those things to register.  Then suddenly his Sentinel’s voice roared something indecipherable in his ear, and the supporting solidity of James Ellison’s body before him vanished, taking away even the option of remaining upright.  Blair’s legs gave out, and he plummeted to the ground.

 

The jarring of the floor suddenly connecting with his backside was enough to shake off the worst of the shock.  Despite the continued throbbing of his head, Blair drew a deep, gasping breath, and looked around in stunned surprise.  The fog that had descended over him lifted, and he found himself suddenly faced with a scene from a nightmare.

 

Directly in front of him was a tangled mass of bodies, of which only one was human.  Romulans.  There were Romulans in the hall with them.  The analytical portion of Blair Sandburg’s mind instantly kicked into high gear and began to rapidly fit the information that he had together.  Jim had sensed something.  Jim had knocked him out of the way.  He had heard a noise that had been vaguely recognizable to him.  A party of Romulans must have transported into their midst.  And somehow, James Ellison had sensed that they were coming before their appearance.  The scientist within Blair that had always wanted to understand how Sentinel’s worked and what they could do, distantly wondered which sense had alerted the Sentinel to the danger, or if indeed the man possessed a heightened sixth sense on top of everything else.  The Guide within him though had only one concern, and that concern over-rode all else.

 

Jim Ellison had tackled the group of Romulans before they could get off a shot, in order to protect the group, and by extension, the rest of the ship.  The Sentinel was in danger.  The tribe were in danger.  It was time for the Guide to act.

 

Blair scrambled into a crouching position, and threw a desperate glance at Henri Brown, who had already pushed himself to the front of the group, weapon drawn.  “No, H!” he gasped.  “Take ‘em on!  Get ‘em through to the shuttle!  Just get out of here, now!” and with that, Blair gathered his remaining strength and threw himself forward into the single Romulan that had managed to begin extracting himself from the tangled mass of bodies that Jim had taken to the ground.

 

Blair’s desperate lunge sent him slamming into the larger Romulan just as it began to straighten its legs. The Guide caught it around the neck, and the young man’s full weight slammed into the enemy warrior, dragging it back to the ground.  The sudden impact with the floor sent a jolt of pain through the Guide’s still tender ribs and elbow, and the vague sense of fear and pain and hate clawed at his deadened empathic pathways from the grip that he had on the Romulan.  Sandburg gritted his teeth against the discomfort, and held on grimly as the Romulan warrior began to force itself back up to its knees, attempting to throw off Blair’s weight.  The shifting warrior dragged the young scientist back up to his knees as it climbed back onto its own hands and knees.  As soon as Blair felt the solidity of the floor beneath his knees, he tensed and threw himself sideways to latch onto the juncture of the creature’s neck and shoulder, and prayed that he still had the strength to make his plan, such as it was, work.

 

As soon as his fingers connected with the Romulan’s body, the tips of his fingers dug down viciously, seeking the right spot.  The Romulan must have had some inkling of what the scientist was up to, because he tried to twist sideways frantically.  It was too late though.  Blair had found the spot that he was after.  As his fingers dug into it, the Romulan stiffened, his whole body becoming rigid, and then slumped face first on the ground, dragging Blair down with him.

 

Blair grunted as the he slammed into the unconscious invader below him, when the floor stopped his enemy’s downward momentum.  The vague thought that he was going to be unspeakably lucky if he got away with not breaking his ribs again flitted through his mind as he automatically brought his knees under himself to push upright again.  Unfortunately, he had barely had time to shift his weight backward, before a large hand latched onto a handful of hair at the back of his scalp and dragged him backward.

 

Sandburg let out a half startled, half-pained yelp as he was dragged upright and arched backward.  The unexpected pain had his eyes watering, and he barely had time to focus on the Romulan shaped blob looming over him, and register the fact that the creature was holding something suspiciously knife shaped in its free hand, before a second shape appeared behind the Romulan.

 

Blair watched helplessly as James Ellison latched onto the upraised knife-hand of the Romulan that held him, and in one smooth movement, diverted the falling weapon from its intended target, and back into the belly of Blair’s attacker.  The young Guide gasped in agony as the sudden pain of the deadly blow caused the Romulan’s grip on his hair to tighten convulsively.  The Sentinel’s response to his Guide’s pain was instantaneous.  He tore the dying Romulan away from the younger man as though the warrior weighed nothing at all, and heaved him off to one side.  Blair whimpered slightly, and dazedly watched the creature that had been set to kill him as it fell, wondering how much of his hair the alien had taken with him.

 

Out of the corner of his eye, Blair saw Brown hustling the rest of their party up the corridor, in a desperate attempt to get them out of the line of fire, and toward the shuttle bay.  One portion of Blair’s pain-dazed mind registered the fact that Brown and the others couldn’t be happy about leaving them there, and that if they all survived this, he was going to have to make damned sure that the others knew that they’d done the right thing in leaving them.  Unfortunately, before that thought could even finish forming, Blair felt a distant burst of reflective fear along the bond, and whirled to identify what had caused it, even as Ellison let out a barely human roar of rage and leapt.

 

In the split second that Blair had before Ellison cut off his view, he saw that one of the Romulan’s that had been knocked aside in Jim’s original charge, had returned to its senses and was presently bringing a phaser to bear on the group fleeing down the corridor.  Sandburg felt his gut freeze up at the sight of it, but before he could do anything, the Sentinel was there, reaching for the Romulan’s upraised phaser, even as he imposed himself between the weapon and the group that it was aimed at.

 

The scream of a phaser being fired coincided with both an almost feral scream of pain, and a sudden stabbing along the bond. 

 

Hit.

 

Jim was hit.

 

NO!” Blair’s scream of denial was torn from him, even as Jim Ellison dropped to the ground.  On some level, Blair was aware of the fact that the Romulan was trying to free itself from the tangle it was in with the Sentinel, but Blair could focus on nothing but the fact that his bond mate had suffered harm at the creature’s hand, and his next move was one of pure instinct.  As adrenaline flooded his system, the Guide whirled toward the body of the dying alien beside him, and latched onto the knife that was still embedded in the Romulan’s belly.  With a strength born of fury and desperation, Blair yanked the weapon free and whirled back toward his enemy, powering up to his feet as he did so.

 

The Romulan had pushed Jim to one side and was staggering upright yet again when Blair turned back.  He took no time to think about what he was doing, he merely flicked the knife in his hand up, caught it by it’s blade, stepped forward, and without ever taking his eyes off of his enemy, swung his upraised arm down sharply and let the weapon fly.

 

Once again, his aim was true, and this time the spinning weapon buried itself in the Romulan’s chest.  The creature’s grip on its weapon tightened convulsively as the blade tore into it, and Blair ducked automatically as a bright beam of destructive light shot over his head.  Then the Romulan was falling back, and Blair Sandburg was racing forward toward his fallen Sentinel.

 

Jim was not dead.  He knew it. Chanted it to himself as he collapsed to his knees beside the larger man.  He could feel the Sentinel’s pain and confusion distantly through their damaged bond, and he embraced that pain.  It meant that Jim was still alive, and therefore, so was he. 

 

“Jim!” he gasped as he caught hold of the older man’s shoulder, and turned the Sentinel to face him. 

 

“Get out of here, Sandburg!” Ellison hissed, his whole body tight with pain.

 

“Not a chance, big guy.” He responded calmly as he glanced from Jim’s face, to the ceiling, and back.  It could have been a lot worse, Sandburg acknowledged to himself.  There was a nasty looking burn up the left side of the Sentinel’s face.  It had only just clipped him as he’d pushed the weapon up, Blair guessed, and he’d gotten unspeakably lucky when it had just missed his left eye.  The left side of Jim’s face was a mess of weeping flesh and blackened scorching, but it didn’t look like anything that couldn’t be undone.

 

“Sandburg!” Ellison hissed sharply.  “The others!”

 

Blair swore, even as he whirled toward the other Romulans.  Blair heard a small, desperate sound break loose from his own throat as he realised that there were two more Romulan’s shaking off the effects of Ellison’s initial attack, and one of them was reaching for its phaser.  He glanced down desperately, and then threw himself at the weapon lying beside the Romulan that he’d just killed.  He let out a cry of triumph as he felt his hands latch onto it, and he lifted it to set off a few, desperate shots at their enemies.  He missed entirely, but it was enough to send the two groggy Romulans flat on their faces in search of cover. 

 

Sandburg scrambled back to his feet, sending off yet another round of shots, and edged himself backward until the back of his leg made contact with the Sentinel, who was also trying to drag himself back to his feet.  Blair reached back blindly and caught desperately at his Sentinel’s sleeve.

 

“C’mon man, it is way past time to go, here.” Blair hissed frantically.

 

“You’re gonna have to lead them away, Sandburg.” Ellison gritted out from behind him.

 

“You’re not that badly hurt, man.” Sandburg snarled as he fired off another shot.  “It probably feels like half your face is gone, but just find the dials and…”

 

“I can’t see.” Ellison’s flat, harsh voice cut him off, causing Blair to spin toward him in surprise.

 

What?” Sandburg hissed in horror.  Unfortunately, his moment’s distraction could not have been more poorly timed.  The word had barely had time to escape his mouth, before a terrifyingly familiar whine filled the air, and Blair became conscious of a heat near the small of his back.  Blair yelped in surprise, and automatically moved forward into his Sentinel, nearly knocking the older man off balance.  Blair caught hold of the Jim’s arm, even as he swung around slightly to snap off another shot of his own.

 

“Run, Sandburg!” Ellison demanded, his voice tight with determination and pain.

 

“Not fucking likely.” The scientist snarled back.  “There’s a corner, three meters back and to the right.  MOVE Ellison.  The corridor between here and there’s clear.  You’re a fucking Sentinel!  You saw the corridor, you should be able to visualize it.  I’m not fucking leaving you here so MOVE!”

 

With that, Sandburg let off a few more shots, even as he felt his partner stagger away from him.  Blair was forced to duck, even as he backed up, as the Romulan’s returned fire.  The Guide glanced over his shoulder and saw his Sentinel feeling his way toward the corner , but was terrified by the immense target the other man represented.  With a snarl of fear and determination, Blair turned his back on his enemy, and burst into a sprint across the short distance that separated him from his Sentinel.  With a final burst of speed and strength that he had not know that he still possessed, he launched himself at his bond-mate, and sent them both tumbling back behind the dubious safety of the corner, even as he heard phaser fire fill the corridor behind him. 

 

Blair scrambled away from his Sentinel, cursing with fear and pain, as he dragged himself back to the corner and sent a few shots back the way he had come in the hopes of slowing them down.  By the time he pulled back again, Ellison was using the wall to guide himself back to his feet.  Blair swung toward his Sentinel and caught his chin.  His face was a mess, but there was no obvious damage that would be causing the taller man’s blindness… And then it came to him in a nauseating flash of insight. 

 

A phaser had been fired in the face of a Sentinel in full battle mode.  The odds were good that he’d had everything dialed up slightly.  If his eyes had been open when the shot went off, he’d probably received retinal burns.  Fuck.  Oh fuck.  That could be serious.

 

“Close your eyes, Ellison!” he hissed.  “I mean it!  You close your eyes and don’t you fucking even think about opening them.  Dim as the lighting is at the moment, we’ve got to limit your eyes to any other exposure to light until we can get you to Baccus!”

 

“Forget about me, Sandburg!” Ellison hissed.  “We’ve got to keep those assholes from going after Ryalc and those explosives.  You’re going to have to take them out.”

 

With what?” Blair hissed frantically.  “This phaser?  You’ve been fucking blind since I picked it up, man, so one nasty little factoid has probably escaped your attention.  I suck at using these things!  I couldn’t hit the broad side of fucking stardock with this thing!!!

 

“Shut up Sandburg!” Ellison suddenly hissed back, his head dropping to one side, and his mouth opening slightly as though he were trying to taste the air.  “They’re coming!”

 

Blair swore, and then reached around the corner to fire off a few more shots.  “We’ve got to get outta here!”

 

“You’re never going to lose them, and you’d make better time without me.” Ellison growled.

 

“Since we’ve already established that I’m not going anywhere without you, would you fucking drop it alr…e…ad…y…”  Blair’s voice suddenly trailed off to a whisper and his eyes suddenly went very wide.  “ohmygod… Of course!!!

 

“What?” Ellison demanded.

 

“Come with me!” Blair hissed.  “Move with me.  I won’t let you fall.  I know where we have to go.  It’s not far, we can make it.”

 

“There’s nowhere to hide down here, Sandburg.” Ellison hissed back, even as he allowed the empath to drag him forward at a speed that was obviously deeply uncomfortable to the blinded man.

 

“I know that.” Sandburg nodded as he glanced nervously over his shoulder.  “You’re not trying to see there are you? Good.  No, we don’t need to hide.” Blair continued, his voice a frantic, desperate whisper.  “What we need is to even up the odds.”

 

“How the hell do you propose that we do that?” Ellison snarled as Blair swung him around sharply to keep him from jogging into the wall at the end of the corridor.

 

“We’re on the shuttle bay level!” Sandburg gasped, in a tone that made it clear that this should explain everything.  “And there are only three things on this level!  The shuttle bay, some storage rooms and…”

 

“The holodeck.” Ellison finished with a growl.

 

“Exactly!”  Blair beamed.  C’mon man, we’ve gotta move!”

 

“I’ll say.” Ellison hissed though gritted teeth.  “They’re coming.”

 

“Faster, big guy.” Sandburg urged, tugging impatiently at his Sentinel’s sleeve.

 

“I am going faster!” Ellison growled back.  “And how the hell is the holodeck…”

 

“Less talk, more speed!” Sandburg growled back.  “I’ll tell you when we get there.  For now, let’s just get there, okay?”  And with that, Sandburg effectively headed off any further conversation, and focused his entire attention to getting them where they needed to be, alive.”

 


 

“Sam?”

 

Sam Curtis looked up through the gloom of the emergency-lit maintenance shafts at the rather dim blob above him. “Yeah?” he grunted, pausing for a moment to flex and clench his hands one after the other, in an attempt to stave off cramping.

 

“In spite of the fear of sounding kinda juvenile, I gotta ask…  Are we there yet?”

 

The young Englishman glanced down and shook his head, smirking at the whiny, adolescent tone that had entered the American’s voice.  “You’re parents must have hated traveling with you.” Sam drawled sardonically. “We’ve only been on this ladder about quarter of an hour.”

 

“I know.” Keel growled softly.  “And that’s been about twelve minutes too long.”

 

“Ah well,” Curtis shook his head in amusement.  “Never fear, Chris.  We’re almost there.”

 

“Oh, goody.” Sam could almost hear the sarcastic grin in his friend’s voice. 

 

“Perhaps we should be slowing down, though.” Sam said, suddenly serious.  “I’d like to give everyone as much time as possible to come up with some way of ensuring our survival.”

 

“That doesn’t sound much like you.” Keel responded, his voice pitched carefully low.

 

“Keel, I know that there is this widely held, but entirely erroneous, belief amongst our colleagues that I don’t really care whether I live or die, but really, Chris, you of all people should know better.” Sam admonished his friend quietly.  Through the dimness, Sam could see his partner looking down at him.  When Sam had met Chris eighteen months earlier, they had both been newly recruited to a special anti-terrorist, anti-crime force within Starfleet Intelligence.  They were both to be part of an elite group, known only by, and answerable to, Admiral Harry Malone. 

 

Malone had looked at their records and seen only ‘the facts’.  He saw that both men were resourceful, resilient and creative when it came to finding ways to get the job done.  He had seen that Sam Curtis was a cool and careful planner, so lacking in emotion that there was some concern about him amongst the psych’s attached to Intelligence.  He was ruthless and driven, and many of his previous CO’s had been more than a little afraid of him.  Chris Keel on the other hand was Curtis’ exact opposite in every way.  Keel dealt best with the ‘spur of the moment’ decisions that were required if an assignment went to hell.  He was fiery and passionate, and driven by the desperate rage of having lost what he had loved most, unnecessarily.  In spite of his anger and rebelliousness, he was a deeply humane and compassionate man, and this sometimes caused Keel as many problems as Curtis’ lack of emotion had caused the Englishman.  Malone had looked at those facts and decided that the two men would balance each other out… assuming that they didn’t kill each other in the process.

 

Neither man had been happy with the pairing at first, but gradually something had happened that Malone had not foreseen.  Somehow, despite their differences, the two men had begun to trust each other.  Chris Keel had somehow tapped into the humanity that Sam Curtis had tried to separate himself from, and Sam Curtis had, in his own way, become a replacement family to Chris Keel.  Over their time as partners, they had taught each other any number of important lessons, but the most important lesson of all had been learned together…

 

Life was, essentially, a very good thing, and that it should never, ever, be traded away cheaply.

 

When Malone had handed them this assignment weeks ago, Curtis had felt that it would be a fairly routine one.  They would go in as part of the ship’s crew, and determine whether or not there was a saboteur on board, and if so, they would neutralize that person or persons.  What neither he nor Keel had expected was to find themselves confronted by such of an assortment of creatures, from every walk of life, who all had something very profoundly in common with the two of them.

 

All of them had learned late in life that living was a worthwhile exercise, and they were all doing the best they could to allow themselves to embrace that.

 

Over and over, Sam and Chris had heard the same story.  This assignment was generally considered a fool’s mission, and yet the crew of this ship had, to a large degree, embraced it as a last ditch shot of getting themselves free of their pasts.  Sam could understand that.  He could respect that.  He knew that Chris could too.  Neither one of them had expected to care so deeply about the people of this ship, but they did.  And neither one of them considered trading their lives for another chance for these people to live theirs, an unfair exchange.

 

But that didn’t mean that Sam was above giving the pair of them every chance at survival that they could get.

 

“We have to get this over with, Sam.” Keel reminded him quietly.

 

“I know.” Sam admitted.  “Every moment that we delay, is more lives lost.”

 

“And, hey, if anyone could possibly come through for us, it’d be Richards, Blink and Taggart.” Keel reminded his friend.

 

“I know.” Sam agreed, then shook his head, a small, self-mocking smile on his face.  “I just can’t wrap my head around going off without a backup plan in place.”

 

“I keep telling you Sam, that there are drawbacks in thinking so much.” Keel grinned.

 

“Well one of has to do it,” Curtis responded haughtily, “and since you have such a terrible problem with using your head, it has to be me.”

 

“Yeah, yeah.” Keel smirked.  “Well, mighty thinker, how’s about workin’ out a way for us to get off this ladder then.  My hands are blistering up here, and I still need them for flying the shuttle.”

 

“We’re almost there now.” Sam said again, with another look below him.  “Just stay quiet from here on out.  I need to keep my ears open, and that’s a little hard to do when I’m talking to you.”

 

“Still playing the protector?” Keel snorted, obviously less than amused.

 

“You’re the only one here that can pilot that shuttle,” Curtis reminded him sharply, “and with the number of lives depending on you doing just that, then yes, I’m here to look out for you.  So if we run into any trouble, you will bloody well keep your head down, or when we get out of this, I will bloody well knock it off for you.  Got it?”

 

“You’ve been hangin’ out with Malone again, haven’t you.” Keel snorted.

 

“I mean it, Keel.”  Curtis growled.

 

“Yeah, yeah.” Keel snorted.  “Just get movin’, will ya?”

 

Sam glared up at the Keel shaped blob above him, and then sighed.  All he could really do was hope that Chris had the good sense to do what he told him to.  If Chris thought about what was going on for a moment, he would be forced to acknowledge that his partner was right about this.  Unfortunately, Chris spent way too much time using his heart instead his head to make his decisions, and the American, ridiculous as it was, had always been a little… protective… of his partner.  Sam shook his head in frustration, then continued to lead the way for the last part of their descent.

 

A few moments later, Sam found himself approaching the opened hatch of the shuttle bay level.  Sam was an expert at moving like a ghost, and had, over the course of their partnership, taught Keel enough about stealth to not have to worry that the American would betray their presence.  The Englishman paused just out of sight of the hatch, and listened carefully.  Curtis tensed as he heard rapid footsteps echoing toward them.  Carefully, Sam drew his phaser, and waited.  His main objective was to get his partner to the shuttle bay in one piece, so he was more than content to let whoever was out there go past without ever revealing their presence.  He would only shoot if whoever was out there made the mistake of climbing into the tunnel with them.

 

For a moment, the footsteps continued toward them, but then a startled shout echoed up the tunnel, causing Curtis to tighten his hold on his weapon.  Someone out there was cursing in Romulan.  The sudden whine of phaser fire filled the air of the corridor, followed by a scream and a heavy thud.  After that there was silence.

 

For several long moments, Curtis remained perfectly still, listening for some sound to betray what had happened out in the corridor.  There was nothing though.  Not a sound.  Sam grimaced.  They needed to get to the shuttle bay.  In order for that to happen, they needed to get out of this tunnel.  With a silent sigh, Curtis reached up and caught at Keel’s ankle.  He squeezed the captured limb firmly, his message to his partner clear.  ‘Stay put’.  With that, Sam turned around so that he was facing away from the ladder.  He judged the distance carefully, then slid cautiously down the ladder another two rungs, the awkwardness of climbing with the ladder to his back making him extra cautious.  When he was within range, he bent his legs slightly, and then dived headfirst toward the hatch. 

 

Sam hit the floor with his free left hand first, then curved gracefully into a forward roll that brought him right way up crouched beside the far wall of the corridor.  He spun so that his back was to the wall, and brought his weapon up, ready to fire upon anything that moved.

 

Nothing was moving though.  About three meters from him, there were two Romulan corpses, lying with their heads pointing his way.  Sam raised his weapon and took careful aim, as he suddenly became aware of a shadow that did not belong there, further down the corridor.

 

“Well, well, well.” A throaty female voice suddenly chuckled, and the ‘shadow’ moved into the light.  “It really is a small universe, isn’t it English?”

 

Sam Curtis stared speechlessly for a moment, before shaking his head in wonder.  “Are we clear?” he demanded of the tall woman that stood before him.

 

“For the time being.” Katrine Romanov shrugged.  “There are more of them coming in all the time.  Heard some shooting closer to the shuttle bay a minute ago, but we’re clear here.”

 

Sam nodded, then took a step toward the opened hatch.  “It’s clear!” he called to his waiting partner.  A moment later, Chris Keel practically vaulted out of the tunnel, clenching and flexing his hands.  The young American glanced up at his partner, spotted the woman standing just beyond the Englishman, and immediately turned on the smile that had broken hearts all over the universe.

 

Sam rolled his eyes.  Keel was so pitifully predictable when it can to beautiful women.  “Forget it, Chris.” He admonished.  “You’d be getting in over your head, and I’m not going to extract you, when you get yourself into to trouble.”

 

Chris’s smile melted into a resigned grimace.  “Friend of yours, huh?” he demanded, looking from his partner to the Russian woman and back again.

 

“Sort of.” Curtis snorted.  “We’ve, errr, worked together before.”

 

“Ah.” Keel responded sagely.

 

“And as of right now, we’re working together again.” Sam said firmly, as he turned back toward the tall woman.  “Kat, I need to get Chris to the shuttle bay.  We’re going to see if we can’t do something about all of these Romulans.  If you’ve heard phaser fire from that direction, I might need your help in getting him through.”

 

The woman gave a small smile that could have frozen Mercury.  “Just like the old days, eh English?  Sounds like fun.”

 

“Fun’s probably not the word I’d use.” Sam admitted wryly.

 

Romanov shrugged slightly then tipped her head slightly as an indicator that Curtis should take point.  Sam sighed, then caught the curious look that Chris was passing back and forth between the two of them.  “Later.” He said sharply to his partner as he passed him. 

 

Chris responded with a shit-eating grin.  “I didn’t say a word.” Keel smirked as he fell into step behind his partner.  Romanov fell easily into step behind the two of them, and Sam could almost feel the woman’s knowing smile and amused eyes boring into the back of his head as he led them toward the shuttle bay.  Deliberately, Sam quickened his footsteps, so that there would be no further chance for conversation before they reached their destination. 

 

He could do without Chris and Kat comparing notes on him.

 


 

Jim Ellison forced himself to keep putting one foot in front of the other, as the hand on his arm kept urging him forward into the total darkness that surrounded him.  The pain from his injured face was dizzying, and he could feel a hot wetness sliding down his chin and neck that was more than a little distracting.  His inability to see had caused him to dial up his other senses in a reflexive attempt to gain more information about the suddenly darkened world around him.  The information that action had netted him wasn’t making him feel any better about his current situation.

 

His Guide, for all his confident talk, was deeply afraid.  He could smell it in the ammonia of his sweat, and hear it in the harshness of his breath and the hammering of his heart.  There were still two Romulans following them.  He could hear the sound of their rapid footfalls.  The invaders were catching up to them.  About the only thing that had saved them from being caught already was the fact that the Romulans were slowing down and approaching the corners carefully, in case he and Sandburg had set up an ambush around one of them.  In another minute, the invaders would have them, and everything he was as a Sentinel and a Starfleet officer was telling him that he should be pushing Sandburg ahead, protecting him and covering for him.  Unfortunately, The young Guide’s grip on his arm was both solid and completely unbreakable, and the very strangeness of suddenly being in a world without visual references, made Ellison reluctant to give up the single point of reality that his bond-mate’s hand provided.  Furthermore, his dialing up of his senses made the pain of his scorched face, and the nauseating scent of burnt flesh and congealing blood all the more obvious to him.  Blair’s grip on his arm, despite the faintness of the bond, was the only thing really allowing him to keep it together.

 

They were still going to have to do something about those Romulans though.  Ellison had just opened his mouth to suggest that it was time to set up an ambush, when Sandburg suddenly hissed, “Slow down, we’re changing direction.” A heartbeat later, Blair had tugged at his arm, and drawn him off their original course at right angles.

 

“Stop there, man.” Sandburg whispered.  “I gotta try to get this door open.”

 

Ellison nodded wordlessly, and steeled himself against flinching when his one real point of contact with the world around him was suddenly withdrawn.  The Sentinel could hear his partner tapping on a key pad, and could hear the whispered entreaty the young scientist was letting loose in a continuous stream under his breath.  “Come on,” he whispered, “come on, come on, comeoncomeon comeon…”  The sound of a door sliding back was accompanied by a small sound of triumph from his Guide, and then that steadying hand on his arm was back, and he was being drawn forward once more.

 

A door closed behind Ellison, and the warmth generated by his Guide’s body shifted until it was directly in front of him.  “Okay, Jim, we’re in the holosuite.” Blair whispered, “We don’t have much time.  The first thing that we need to do is get you completely back in control, here.  I’ll bet when you realized that you couldn’t see, you dialed everything else up to compensate, and now you can’t think past the pain in your face, right?  Yeah, I knew it.  You wouldn’t have followed me so docilely if you were still capable of formulating a plan yourself.  Damn it, Jim!  There’s a reason we spend all that time drilling you on dialing your senses up and down! Where’s the touch dial now?”

 

Ellison hesitated, trying to take in everything Blair had just said.  The kid talked fast at the best of times, but the security chief couldn’t help but feel that his young partner had to have broken some kind of record with that little dialogue.  “Uh, it’s at seven.” Ellison almost stammered out as he realized that his Guide was waiting for a response.

 

Sandburg sucked in a breath through his teeth in sympathy. “Ouch.” Blair murmured.  “Okay, we’re going to need to take that back to about a two.  You still need to be aware of that pain, man, it’s there for a reason, but you also need to be functional.” Suddenly, Jim could feel the warmth of Blair’s hands against the uninjured side of his face, and against the center of his chest.  “Okay Jim, just like we’ve practiced.  Take hold of the touch dial and bring it down.”

 

Automatically, Jim did as he was instructed.  He submerged his functional senses in the presence of his Guide; the scent of him, the sound of him, and even the faint tang in the air, detectable only to a Sentinel’s acute sense of taste that he associated with his Guide.  And at the same time he began to reach along the bond.  Jim’s head snapped up, and his eyes began to open, only to have the gentle hand against the side of his face come across to shield them.

 

“I told you not to do that, man.” Blair’s voice was somewhere between vexation and panic-laced worry.

 

“I can’t feel you through the bond properly.” Ellison hissed.

 

“I know.” Blair agreed, his voice almost apologetic, “But you really don’t need to.  You’ve got the levels set in memory from the last time we did this.  The information’s still there, it’s always just been easier for us to reset them together.  So this time, I want you to listen to my voice and relax.  Relax, and focus on the dial.  I need you to take hold of it and start bringing it down.  Turn it down to six, down past five, past four and three, and keep turning down until the dial reads two, got it?”

 

Ellison released a sigh of relief.  “Yeah.” He breathed.

 

“Good.” Blair’s voice sounded relieved.  “Okay, now where are those Romulan’s? Dial up a bit, if you need to, but only the dial for hearing.  Do you have them?”

 

“Yeah.” Ellison growled, even as he cocked his head to one side. “They’re in the corridor outside.  They’re trying to decide what we were hoping to achieve in coming in here.  They’re pretty skittish.  They’re arguing about it, but I think that they’ll be coming in after us soon.”

 

“Shit!  We don’t have much time then!” Blair gasped.  “Okay, listen up.  I brought us here because the damage down on this level isn’t as bad as on the levels above us, and I was hoping that the holosuite might still be in one piece.  I was right, and thankfully, the holosuite generators seem to be okay too.  Whoever was in here last had a nice garden program going, and I know that the images aren’t as multi-sensory as usual, and it’s kinda flickering here a little, but it’ll provide us with some cover when those Romulans come in.  I’m going to leave you over here.  There’s an image of a hedge between you and the door, so they won’t see you.  I’m going to go over to the manual over-ride panel at the front to the room.  They shouldn’t see me, and as soon at they’re both in here, I’m gonna change the program that’s running.  You remember this morning, when I was trying to convince you to take that test with me?  How I told you that I had come up with a program to simulate conditions where one of your senses wouldn’t work?  Well, the program’s gonna send this room into total darkness, and as soon as that happens, they’re gonna be the ones at the disadvantage, not you.  Got it?”

 

Ellison took all of this in, and then slowly nodded.  “Got it, Chief.” He growled. 

 

“Good.” Blair hissed.  “Now wait here.  You’ll hear when the lights go out.”

 

Ellison nodded again wordlessly, and felt his young Guide’s hands slip down to catch at his own hands.  “Be careful, big guy,” he whispered quietly, and then he was gone, moving away from Jim, and the Sentinel found himself alone in the darkness.  And so Jim waited…

 

He did not have to wait long.  It seemed to Jim that the silent solitude of the darkness had only just enfolded him before he heard it.  The sound of a door mechanism.  With that soft sound, all of Jim’s instincts as a Sentinel and tribal protector came on line, and the civilized man let go of the reins.  His hearing focused on them, he could hear their heartbeats, elevated for Romulans, betraying their nervous tension.  He could smell them, hovering just outside the holosuite, undoubtedly confused and undecided as to what type of a trap the Federation men that had disappeared in here, had laid out for them.  Ellison grinned slightly, despite the fact that the movement pulled at the injuries to his face.  To tell the truth, he didn’t really notice.  All Jim Ellison was aware of at that moment was the hunt, and the primitive creature within himself that reveled in it.

 

Ellison was patience personified as he waited, knowing full well that the Romulans would come in to him soon.  The two warriors knew that one of the pair they had been chasing was wounded, and it was very obvious that the second of the pair was no warrior.  When no trap was immediately sprung, they would believe that the two men had come into the holosuite to hide.  Ellison could hear one of the Romulans prodding at the access panel on the wall.  This confused Ellison for a moment, but the small, irritated noise the creature made after a few buttons had been pushed told the Sentinel what it was that the enemy had been doing.  The creature was trying to shut down the suite.  ‘Good luck.’ Ellison thought derisively.  ‘With the voice sensors down, the only way to turn this room on or off is on the over-ride panel, and that’s in here with us.  C’mon, you bastard, come and find it…’

 

The Sentinel knew the instant that the invaders made the decision to come forward.  It was there in their heartbeats and in the sound of their breathing.  By the time he heard them take their first steps forward, the Sentinel was ready to act. 

 

He heard them entering the room cautiously.  The sound of their footsteps betrayed their attitude. They were being cautious, but they were still fairly certain of their victory.  Over his time on PV-32, Ellison had become very familiar with the scents that Romulans produced, and there was nervousness, but no real fear yet in their scents.  One step, then two, then three into the room.  Ellison heard the faint sound of the door sliding shut automatically as it reached it’s programmed time limit.  The Romulans would be trying to cover everything at once.  The almost imperceptible ‘whoosh’ of air as they brought their phasers around in a steady sweep of the room betrayed their movements. One more step, and then another.  And then the sound Jim had been waiting for.

 

The sudden beeping of Sandburg changing the program. 

 

All of Ellison’s muscles tensed, even as he heard the sudden acceleration of every heartbeat in the room, and the sharp movements of air as the two Romulans brought their phasers around to bare on the place that the noise had come from.

 

Now, Jim!” Sandburg’s breathless voice rang out, even as whine of phaser fire assaulted his ears.  A snarl of rage escaped the Sentinel, even as he powered forward, determined to take these enemies down before they could harm his Guide.

 

The first one came down with almost pathetic ease.  Ellison had his exact position pinpointed, in the instant the invader had fired his weapon.  And while the sudden darkness confused and slowed the creature that he was hunting, the Sentinel was more than able to compensate for his disability.

 

With no more than a half a dozen running strides he was on the creature.  The frenzied sound of air being sucked in to lungs told the Sentinel exactly where the creature’s face was in the darkness, and the dull echoing of oxygen running down the intruder’s windpipe led him unerringly to his target.  The invader made a horrified, desperate sound as it realized all too late that death lurked there in the darkness with him.  The Romulan tried to turn toward him, but Ellison caught a fist full of the creature’s hair to hold it in place, and in one sharp, powerful move, drove the locked fingers of his right hand hard into the Romulan’s throat. 

 

Even with his sense of touch deadened, Ellison felt cartilage shatter under the blow, and felt the heat of blood beginning to pool.  The Romulan reached up to grab at it’s throat, the sounds of it’s desperate attempts to draw breath, hideous.  Knowing that the creature was already as good as dead, Ellison began to step back, even as he heard a mechanism being activated, and felt white-hot heat cut across the edge of his left bicep.

 

The Sentinel responded to the threat by throwing himself away from the pain and further into the darkness of the room.  He carefully tuned out the sounds of the first Romulan’s death, and focused instead on the life signs of his remaining enemy.  The creature’s scent was now heavily laced with the stench of fear.  Its heart was hammering in its chest, and its breathing was coming in uncontrollable rushes.  The sounds of its soft, hesitant footsteps told the hunter that his enemy was attempting to move away from him.  Back to where it thought that the door was.  It already knew that it was too late.  The Romulans had behaved imprudently, and knew they would pay for that mistake.  Cautiously, cat-like, the Sentinel began to stalk his opponent.

 

Ellison moved with the silent efficiency of the predator that dwelled within his soul.  He listened to the frantic sounds of his quarry and moved ever closer.  He paused only briefly in his approach, when he sensed that the desperately clutched phaser had been swung his way.  The creature knew that it was being stalked, but did not know from where the attack would originate.  As soon as the weapon began moving again, the Sentinel was once again in forward motion, knowing that he would have to take this opponent soon.  The Romulan’s nerve would soon break, and he didn’t want his Guide being harmed by random phaser fire.  He began to move in for the kill… a half a moment too late.

 

The Romulan panicked.  It gave a half strangled scream and began to fire its weapon randomly, obviously hoping to get in a lucky shot.  Ellison stifled the urge to curse.  The shots were going nowhere near him, but the brief illumination that each shot produced may be enough to betray his location.  The Sentinel launched himself away from where the phaser was being fired.  He landed crouched down, used his hands to steady him for a moment, and then lunched himself at the place that the weapon was being fired from.

 

The creature screamed as he came barreling into it from behind.  Ellison heard the clatter of a weapon falling from the Romulan’s lost grip.  The pair landed with a bone-jarring thud.  Instantly, the Romulan tried to lash out.  It struck a glancing blow off the injured side of the Sentinel’s face, and the touch dial threatened to spin out of control at the sudden pain.  Ellison gritted his teeth against the urge to howl, and instead caught hold of the alien’s head in both of his powerful hands.  He drew a deep breath, resting his weight across the squirming Romulan’s upper chest, and then twisted the head he held sharply.  He both heard and felt the snapping of the creature’s neck.  The Romulan stiffened slightly, let out a long, rattling sigh, and then became still under his hands.

 

And then there was silence.

 

“Sandburg?!?” Ellison called out instantly, his face turning toward the soft heartbeat that acted as the center of his universe, his nostril’s flaring as he tried to determine whether or not the younger man was injured.

 

“I’m here, Jim.” Blair’s quiet voice spoke to him, soothing his fears.  Ellison heard a soft beeping, and an end to the continuous ‘whir’ of the holosuite in operation.  Blair must have switched off the program.  A moment later, the beloved heartbeat was moving slowly toward him, a slight limp clearly audible in his step, and then the reassuring touch was back against his face and his arm.  “I’m here.” The voice repeated soothingly.  “You did it.  We’re safe now, Sentinel.  You protected us.”  Blair’s gentle, reassuring hands urged him upward then.  Up and away from the Romulan that he had just killed.  As Ellison staggered to his feet, he suddenly found his Guide’s strong arms locked around him, and Ellison returned the embrace, both giving and receiving much needed comfort for several long moments.

 

And in those moments, Jim discovered that neither the darkness nor the silence really had the power to disturb him any more.

 


 

YES!” Lieutenant Commander Bli’inkavari leapt up out of the station that she was currently occupying, data pad in hand, her face triumphant.

 

“You got the coordinates.” Serena Chang’s voice made her comment a statement, rather than a question.

 

Richards pulled himself out from underneath a nearby panel, and reached over to thump the tiny Torishii Engineer on the leg.  “Good on ya, luv.” He grinned up from his position, still flat on his back near the computer console.

 

Megan Connor leapt from the command chair and practically vaulted to the communication station.  “Blink, get over here and give the transporter bay those coordinates.” She demanded.  The small engineer scrambled from behind the chair she’d been occupying to comply. The little creature hurried over and reached the com station, just as Connor finished raising the transporter room.  The engineer hoisted herself into the seat, wincing slightly as she jostled the shoulder that she’d dislocated in the initial attack, then leaned forward to begin providing the waiting technician with the coordinates that she’d just worked out.

 

As the Torishii engineer spoke slowly and precisely, to ensure that no mistakes were made, Commander Connor stepped back out of the way.  A moment later she felt a presence at her shoulder, and was not at all surprised when she looked across to find Dr Chang standing there.

 

“Thank God.” Serena muttered so softly that only her old friend could hear her.  “We were running out of time, there.  I was beginning to think that Blink wasn’t going to work that out before Curtis and Keel left the ship.”

 

Megan raised her eyebrows in silent agreement, then crossed her arms across her chest with a sigh.  “Once she’s finished making sure that the transporter room has the coordinates, I’ll get her to call them through to the shuttle bay.  Curtis and Keel should just about be there by now.” The Commander shook her head slightly and pursed her lips.  “We’re not in the clear yet, though.” She asserted quietly.  “We’ve got the coordinates, but that won’t mean anything if Taggart’s people can’t get the transporter sensors working enough to differentiate organic matter from non-organic matter.”

 

Serena sighed and rubbed tiredly at her forehead.  “God.” She murmured tiredly.  “When is today going to end?”

 

“Soon.” Megan replied quietly.  “I’ve got a feeling that it’s going to be over soon.  One way or another. ”  The two old friends exchanged a long look, and then both women lapsed into silence.

 


 

Blair rested against his Sentinel for long moments, allowing the larger man’s physical proximity to soothe the pounding in his head and the aching in his body.  God, he was so tired!  He just wanted to find a nice, quiet, dark corner, curl up in it, and let the rest of the world look after itself for a while.  The flood of adrenaline that had allowed him to go so far beyond whatever reserves of strength and endurance he’d thought that he’d had left, had now abated to the point that he had no idea how he was ever going to raise his head from Jim Ellison’s broad chest.  Still, the instinctive need to take care of his Sentinel was beginning to rear it’s head again, and after a while, Blair forced himself to push away from the bigger man,

 

As he pushed himself back, Blair was forced to close his eyes against the resulting wave of dizziness.  The young Guide re-opened his eyes in time to see his Sentinel frown, his head cocking to one side.

 

“Chief?” The big security officer’s voice was gravelly with fatigue and sudden alarm.  “What’s wrong?  Are you hurt?”

 

“Don’t you even think about opening those eyes of eyes of yours, man.” Blair growled.  “I am not having you permanently damaging your eyes here.”

 

Ellison grimaced as much as his damaged face would allow.  “Well, tell me what the problem is, then.” He growled back.

 

“The problem, man, is that I’m exhausted.” Blair sighed.  “One of those Romulan’s came a little bit close for comfort with a phaser blast.  I’ve got a burn on my thigh, but it’s not bad.”  Sandburg paused then and gave his Sentinel a look that was part affection and part exasperation.  “But do not think I’m gonna be showing it to you.  It hurts enough without you prodding at it.”

 

“I knew I smelled blood.” Ellison looked deeply distressed, and Blair the tiny amount of information that he was able to take in through their dampened bond suggested at a fear for his Guide that bordered on out and out panic.  Blair responded by pushing his own discomfort away to sooth his Sentinel.

 

“I’m not hurt badly, big guy.” He almost crooned, stroking his Sentinel’s arm soothingly.  And as far as Blair could tell, that was true.  The phaser really had only just singed him.  His thigh was sore, but the pain was nowhere in the same league as the pounding of his headache.  Jim’s hands came up and wrapped themselves in his Guide’s hair, his fingertips moving gently over the younger man’s scalp in what would have seemed like a gentle scalp massage designed to soothe, to anyone else.  Blair wasn’t fooled though.  He knew that his bond-mate was hunting for injuries that his Guide might be trying to keep hidden.  Not that it was going to net him one hell of a lot of information with the ‘touch’ dial turned down. 

 

Blair frowned suddenly.

 

“You aren’t turning the ‘touch’ dial up, are you Ellison?” Blair demanded with as much menace as he could muster.  “You know that the reason we turned that dial down was to keep your pain levels manageable.  I don’t know that I have it in me to pull you out of it, if you zone on pain right now.”

 

The Sentinel’s face darkened slightly in the dim light, and Sandburg took that as confirmation of what he’d been up to.  “Jim!” Blair growled in exasperation.

 

“What do you want from me here, Sandburg?” Ellison growled back.  I can’t see you, and sometimes you don’t look after yourself as well as you should.  I… I just needed to know alright?”

 

Blair softened at the worry that was so very audible in Jim’s voice.  He ran his hand up the Sentinel’s arm soothingly.  “I know.” Blair soothed.  “ I know that you do.” And he really did.  In that moment, Blair really did understand that Jim needed to protect his Guide.  He needed that more than anything else, up to, and including, the need for a tribe and territory.  He understood, because his own need to protect the Sentinel mirrored the Sentinel’s need.  The need to look after his injured partner was more important than anything else, including his own discomfort.  “I’m fine.” He soothed again, then reached over to brush his fingers lightly over the blood that now darkened the Sentinel’s sleeve. “It looks to me, big guy, that you took a much worse hit than I did.”

 

“To tell the truth, I hadn’t really noticed it too much while I had…” Ellison trailed off rather sheepishly.

 

“While you had the dial turned down, huh?” Blair smiled weakly.  “Bet you’re noticing it now though.  I want you to turn that dial back down where it was, Jim.” The young Guide lay his hand gently on his Sentinel’s chest and deliberately dropped his voice to the quiet, soothing tone that Ellison seemed to respond to best.  “Visualise the dial, and turn it down.  Turn it all the way back down to two.  Don’t go down further than two.  A little pain is good for reminding you that you aren’t going to be able to function at one hundred percent.  Are you at two yet Jim?”

 

“Yeah, Chief.” Jim exhaled slowly.

 

“Good.” Blair sighed, then carefully moved to remove his uniform tunic.  Ellison’s head cocked to one side as he tried to work out what his Guide was doing.  The scientist had to fight against a wave of nausea as he pulled the tunic off, and swallowed convulsively as he tried to keep from losing whatever was left of his breakfast.  His body found the temperature of a Starship a little on the cool side, and it was much worse once he found himself in only his black under-tunic.  Still, what he had to do was important, so he figured that he could deal.

 

“Blair?” Ellison’s voice was heavily laced with concern again as he responded to the signs of illness in his Guide.

 

“It’s okay, big guy.” Blair said quietly as he inspected the garment that he had just removed.  “I’m just coming off an adrenaline high, here.  On top of that overload I suffered earlier, I’m just feeling a little nauseous.  It’s nothing to worry about really.  Nothing more than I’d expect.”

 

“Well what are you doing then?” Ellison’s frustration with his inability to see was all too obvious.

 

“Making some bandages.”  The Guide responded quietly, even as he gathered his strength and ripped one of the sleeves off of the garment that he held.  Once he had the sleeve free, he reached up to carefully place the makeshift blindfold across his Sentinel’s eyes.  “I know you Ellison.  It won’t matter how often I say to keep your eyes closed, sooner or later you’re going to get frustrated with not being able to see, and you’ll start opening your eyes, just to see if its any better yet.  I’m not having you do any damage to yourself if we can avoid it, man.”  The young man frowned irritably as he looked up at his much taller partner.  “Come here, will ya so that I can tie this thing off.”  He said as he pulled the blindfold away and grabbed hold of the front of the security chief’s tunic to pull the taller man down toward himself.

 

Jim smiled as much as he was able with his damaged face, and leaned down carefully toward his Guide.  Blair refitted the blindfold carefully across the Sentinel’s eyes, and then Jim lowered himself down until his forehead was resting against his Guide’s shoulder.  Blair carefully tied the blindfold off behind his head.  The scientist smiled a little at their impromptu embrace, and unselfconsciously stroked the close cropped hair at the nape of his Sentinel’s neck in wordless reassurance to the older man.  It humbled Blair all over again that such a man as his partner could trust him so implicitly that he would willingly and even thoughtlessly, make himself so vulnerable to his partner.  Jim waited patiently until Blair patted him gently on the shoulder before he drew back. 

 

Blair reached up and checked that the blindfold was neither too tight, nor too loose with gentle fingers.  When he was satisfied that it was just as it should be, he began to step back, but was halted by the big hands that suddenly cupped his shoulders.  Blair looked up in surprise, but the Sentinel wordlessly drew him back until his head was resting against the bigger man’s chest once more.

 

“Stop worrying about me for a minute, kid.” Jim said quietly.  “Tell me the truth about how you’re doing’.”

 

“Truthfully,” Blair sighed.  “I’ve been better.”

 

“Then I want you to climb back up to the medical level and let Baccus put you in stasis.” Ellison said, gently but firmly. “I told you going in that we weren’t going to be taking any chances here.”

 

Blair tensed up, but his larger partner would not let him pull away.  “I said I’ve been better, not that I’m in danger of dropping dead, Ellison.” Sandburg growled back, panic gnawing at his guts at the thought of being sent away from his Sentinel.  “I’m staying here.  Or if you’re absolutely determined to get me to the medical center, you’ve got to come with me.  That way I won’t have to suffer the humiliation of going up there and begging Baccus to take me in on my own.”

 

Jim chuckled weakly in his Guide’s ear.  “Sorry, kid, but without being able to see, I don’t think I’m going to make it all the way up to the medical level.”

 

“Just between you and me, man, I don’t think that I’ve got another climb up that ladder in me, either.” Blair smiled weakly.  “That’s just exhaustion talking though,” he hastened to assure his partner, when he felt the bigger man tense up.  “I’ll tell you what man.  Let’s just go see Keel off.  When the Romulan ship is destroyed, we’ll go find somewhere to rest until a doctor can come to us.  What do ya say?”

 

“Sounds like a plan, Chief.” Ellison agreed quietly against his partner’s hair.  “But only if you’re sure you’re okay.”

 

“I’m sure.” Blair whispered back ‘Sure that there is no way in hell that I’m leaving your side again.’ He thought fiercely to himself.

 

“Okay partner.  As long as you’re sure.” Ellison sighed tiredly, then pulled back slightly.  “Do you think that you can lead us to the shuttle bay from here?”

 

“Sure, man, as long as you can keep us from running into any more Romulan patrols.” Blair quirked a small smile at his Sentinel.  “I don’t think that either of us are up to another round of ‘shoot ‘em ups’.”

 

Ellison cautiously reached up until he found his Guide’s cheek.  Once he had located it, he gave it a gentle pat.  “Agreed, Chief.” The tall man gave another wincing smile.  “You ready to go kid?”

 

“Any time you are man.” Blair nodded.

 

“Then ‘Lay on, MacDuff’.” Ellison quoted and offered up his arm.  Blair smiled, forced himself to concentrate past the pounding within his own skull, took hold of his companion’s arm, and then carefully led him out of the room.

 


 

“Well,” Simon Banks muttered darkly as he leaned back away form the communications console on the wall of the transporter room, “that’s torn it.”

 

“My people will have the situation under control, Simon.” Joel Taggart said reassuringly, although there was a tension around his own eyes that he couldn’t quite disguise. “As soon as I’ve finished here…”

 

“Sorry Joel.” Banks shook his head.  “You’re going to have to leave this to your technicians.  I need you overseeing the repairs in life support.  This work could conceivably save the lives of two men.  If things go wrong down in life support, we could loose the whole crew.”

 

Joel grimaced, but nodded his understanding.  He had just opened his mouth to make a reply to this, when the com panel beeped.

 

“Christ.” Banks muttered as he leaned forward to open the line, “What’s gone wrong now?”

 

“Shuttle bay to Captain Banks.” Chris Keel’s voice cut through the speakers.

 

“Banks here.” Simon responded quickly.  “Go ahead shuttle bay.”

 

“Things are looking surprisingly good here, sir.” Keel reported quickly.  “I would have been willing to bet that the docking clamps wouldn’t have held the ‘Bucket’ given the shaking around that we took, but all three ships seem to have come through in good shape.”

 

Banks nodded thoughtfully, visualizing the three shuttles the Raptor possessed.  Only one of the three was a standard Federation runabout.  Given the nature of their mission, the other two small vessels very previously confiscated smuggler vessels.  There was the ‘Bucket’ as the ship’s pilots affectionately called her.  A largish shuttle, designed to carry cargo.  It was big, ungraceful and ugly, but it had more secret compartments for smuggling than Banks had ever seen on a single ship before.  Surprisingly, the ‘Bucket’ could also turn on the speed when she had to.  The other ship was a heavily modified cutter.  The ship was incredibly fast, and had better defenses than some small planets that Banks had run into.  As he thought about the three ships, a thought suddenly occurred to the Captain.

 

“Keel, is the communication equipment in the runabout working?” Banks demanded.

 

“Hang on a minute, sir, and I’ll find out for you.” Keel said quickly.  The com panel went dead for several long moments, before another beep signaled that the shuttle bay was trying to raise them again.

 

“Well Keel?” Banks snapped.

 

“Curtis this time, sir.” The Englishman’s smooth voice responded unflappably, “and in answer to your question, the runabout’s communication gear seems to be in perfect working order, although something is interfering with the equipment’s signal.”

 

“Could the Romulan’s be jamming us?” Banks demanded.

 

“I doubt it, sir.” Curtis replied.  “I think that the problem is much more likely to lie with our proximity to that asteroid belt.  Asteroid belts are infamous for housing all sorts of strange minerals and materials, and the communications equipment on a shuttle are no where near as powerful as the equipment usually carried by a Starship.  I think there’s something in the belt interfering with the signal.  I also think that if a pilot were to take her off the ship and further away from the belt, we’d be able to use her to get a signal through to Deep Space 5.”

 

“And even if that didn’t work, runabout’s have warp capacity.  The runabout would still be able to get to DS5 and get help faster than we could expect it if Starfleet had to notice that something was wrong first.” Banks concluded.

 

“Ahh, Sir.” Keel’s voice suddenly cut in.  “As much as I hate to say it, even I was to take the runabout out and contact the station, it’ll still be a good four hours before we could expect help.  With the rate those bastards are beaming warriors over, we may not have that much time.”

 

“Truer words were never spoken, Mr. Keel.” Banks growled.  “I just received word that a team of invaders just transported into life support.  Security put them down, but there was some damage done to the air recycling unit.”

 

Keel’s sharp hiss of distress was clearly audible.  “Is it repairable?”

 

“Taggart’s people think so, but the repairs are only going to be of a temporary nature until they can get back to a space station.” Banks sighed.  “I’m going to have to ask you to go ahead with your mission anyway, and send someone else out to raise DS5.  We can’t afford to take a chance on the Romulan’s damaging something irreparably if they continue to beam on board.”

 

“Understood, Sir.” Keel agreed grimly.  “That works out okay, because I was planning to take the cutter anyway.  More chance of it getting through the debris out there without being damaged.  If I may ask, sir, how are the repairs to the transporter coming along?”

 

Banks grimaced.  “They’re still coming.” He admitted grimly.

 

There was silence for a moment, before Keel’s voice came back.  “Understood.” He acknowledged without inflection.

 

“How much longer before you’re planning to leave.” Banks asked quietly.

 

“Not long now, sir.” Keel replied.  “I’m about to start my pre-flight checks, and as soon as Lieutenant Commander Ryalc is finished securing the explosives, we’ll be ready to go.”

 

“Understood Lieutenant.” Banks nodded.  “Have Lieutenant Commander Ryalc contact me again when you’re ready to go.”

 

“Will do, sir.” Keel responded quickly.

 

“Good luck, Mr. Keel.” Banks said quietly.  “Banks out.”

 

“Simon,” Joel Taggart’s voice said quietly, “my people have things under control in life support.  Give me a few more moments here.  I think I know what the problem is with these sensors.”

 

Banks looked at the pleading eyes of his chief engineer and sighed.  “Okay, Joel.” He said quietly.  “A couple of minutes.  But as soon as you’re done there, I want you over in life support, not matter what the outcome is.”

 

“Understood, Captain, Joel grinned, and then wasted no time in levering himself underneath the transporter console yet again.  Simon watched his friend get back to work and sighed.  He hoped that Joel could work this out, because if he didn’t, he’d be losing two damned good officers.

 


 

Chris Keel sighed as the monitors flashed up the last of the readouts from the preflight checks.  Everything had checked out as functional, and the cutter’s warp coil was almost finished it’s warm-up cycle.  They would soon be capable of lifting off. 

 

Keel cast one more look at the readouts that the cockpit’s monitors were giving him and then levered himself up out of his seat.  He carefully eased himself out between the seats of the cramped little cockpit area and then stepped out into the slightly more spacious area beyond the door.  The cutter, like many illegally modified vessels, was in no way a comfortable little craft.  What it was though, was fast and heavily defended.  Chris had been wanting to have a shot at flying the craft since he’d first been shown around her at the orientation all of the pilots had attended.  It seemed a damned shame to the young helmsman that he was going to have to fly her to her destruction.  Of course, there was a very strong possibility that he’d be flying her to his own destruction as well, and that thought kept him from feeling too badly about the ship’s up-coming demise.

 

Keel moved quickly through the former smuggler-vessel’s small cargo area and opened the door to the engine area.  He caught hold of the edge of the door and half-swung himself inside.

 

“Hey, Ryalc,” he called, “How’s it comin’?”

 

“Finished momentarily will we be.” The stocky alien called back without looking up from what he was doing.  “When finished strapping down these explosives we are, no worries will you have about anything exploding prematurely.”

 

“Good to hear, sir.” Keel replied with a wry little smile.  “I’m finished with the preflight checks, so as soon as you guys are finished, and that warp-coil has warmed up sufficiently, we’ll be ready to go.  I’d better go get Curtis.”

 

At these words, the leathery skinned alien finally turned away from his task and fixed his beady black eyes on the young helmsman.  “Always is it a difficult thing to go into battle when the odds are against you.” The Tellorite said quietly.  “Good luck, Lieutenant.”

 

Keel allowed himself a small smile at the alien’s words, nodded his thanks, and then turned to make his way back to the open entry hatch.

 

It seemed supremely ironical to the American that after all the time that he had spent, chasing his own death through one impossible mission after another, that he was finally looking like getting his wish after he had stopped wishing for it.  Chris Keel had loved his wife very much.  He had been an only child, and after the death of his parent’s, his wife had been the centre of his entire universe.  When he lost her, all he could focus on was the possibility of joining her again, be it in an after-life, if such a thing were possible, or, if not, then in the silence and peace of death. 

 

It had taken Sam Curtis a good three months to knock that attitude out of him when they had been assigned as partners.  Sam was the brother he’d always wanted, and that connection had been enough to ground him back to a life he’d thought he’d no longer really wanted. Curtis had proven to him that there were still worthwhile things to be done.  New experiences to challenge him, and make him grow as a person.  Most of all, though, Sam had shown him that he could honor his wife and parents far better by staying alive.  He had finally begun to embrace that fact, but now seemed as though all of that concentrated focus on death was finally catching up to him.  Even worse, it had caught up to his partner as well.  All Chris Keel could really hope now was that Sam was right.  That there was no karma; that what he had wished for before could not possibly have an effect on what was happening now.  That their chances of survival had everything to do with the efforts of they’re colleagues on this ship, and nothing to do Gods, or fate, or any other such ridiculous notion of Chris’s.  Sam believed in nothing that he could not see or touch or prove.  He believed in himself, and he believed in his partner, and very little else.

 

For once, Chris Keel wished that he shared his partner’s cynical view of the universe.  Maybe then he wouldn’t be filled with such a superstitious dread that his past folly had finally caught up with him, and that the payment the universe would extract for his stupidity would be collected with interest.

 

Keel stepped out through the hatch and wandered down the walkway.  He could see his partner sitting on the edge of the com panel, deep in discussion with that Russian security officer that they’d run into when they’d first reached this level.  The two other security officers they’d met when they’d arrived at the shuttle bay, Brown and Rafe, had set themselves up in defensible positions between the docking area and the shuttle bay doors, ready for the possible entry of more Romulans.  He was just about to turn his attention back to his partner, when he noticed a green light suddenly switch on in the door’s locking system.

 

“Head’s up!” Called Henri Brown, almost at the same instant. 

 

Keel leapt from the walkway and dropped into a crouching position, his phaser already drawn and ready to be fired.  Out the corner of his eye, the American saw his partner and the Russian drop into battle ready positions behind the com panel.  A second later, the shuttle bay doors swung open, and five phasers came up and to the ready…  Only to be dropped again in stunned amazement.

 

It was the security chief and the science officer.  They entered without a word, merely pausing inside the doorway so that everyone could see who they were and that they were not a threat to the Starfleet officers working in the bay.  Hell, in their present state, Keel couldn’t see how they could be viewed as a threat to anybody!

 

That the pair of them had seen heavy action at some point since he’d last seen Ellison was immediately obvious.  They both looked like death warmed over.  Ellison’s face was a bloodied mess, and his eyes were crudely bandaged with what looked like the sleeve of his companion’s uniform tunic.  There was a scorched area across his left bicep and the material of his uniform directly under the injury was dark with dried blood.  Furthermore, the man was literally covered with what was unmistakably Romulan blood.  Keel winced inwardly at the thought of the kind of hand to hand battle that could have produced such a gruesome result. 

 

The young science officer didn’t appear to be in much better shape.  It was hard to tell whether the young man was leading the security chief by his good right arm, or leaning on it for support.  The scientist was exceedingly pale, and his enormous blue eyes were made to look even larger by the dark shadows that underscored them.  With his uniform tunic removed, the bruises around his throat were lividly obvious, as were the bruises on his hands and arms.  The young man was limping heavily, evidently the result of a glancing phaser hit.  Perhaps more worrying than any of the more obvious injuries was the overall general shakiness of his appearance.  Keel had seen enough shock victims in his time to recognize the signs of it in this young man.

 

Keel was forced to wonder how the hell the two of them had found the strength to keep on their feet, let alone make their way to the shuttle bay.

 

Sam Curtis was moving toward the pair before anyone else could shake off the shock of their appearance.  The Englishman’s sudden movement was enough to break everyone else in the room free of the stasis that they had been locked in.  Brown and Rafe leapt up to move to their chief’s aid, but Ellison stopped their progress with one sharply raised hand.

 

“Brown?  Rafe?” The big security chief growled gruffly.

 

“Uhh… Yes, sir?” Brown responded, while eyeing his chief nervously.

 

“Stay where you are.” Ellison growled.  “I take it that the pair of you set yourselves up to protect this area?”

 

“Of course, Sir.” Brown shrugged.

 

“Then you’ve done the right thing, and you stay there.” Ellison growled back.

 

Curtis and Romanov, meanwhile, continued to move forward.  The Englishman reached the pair first, and after an almost undetectable pause, moved toward the scientist.  “Hello there, Dr Sandburg, Commander Ellison.  Glad that you could make it.” Curtis said smoothly, while pausing just beyond arm’s reach of the pair.  “Dr Sandburg, would you object to me giving you a hand there?”

 

“Commander Ellison is hurt much worse than I am.” The young doctor asserted quietly.

 

“Be that as it may,” Curtis continued smoothly over Ellison’s growl of protest at his young friend’s words, “Commander Ellison is looking rather steady on his feet, and you have a leg injury that appears to be making walking difficult.  May I help you?”

 

Dr Sandburg looked at the Englishman much like a startled animal, uncertain of how to extract himself from the situation that he was in.  Blair looked from Curtis to the approaching Russian woman, to Ellison, and then back again before nodding slightly.  Curtis moved forward quickly and caught the smaller man’s arm carefully.  The Russian security officer moved up toward Ellison, but before she could say anything, the tall security chief turned his face toward her and cocked his head slightly to one side.

 

“Romanov?” Ellison demanded.

 

Keel couldn’t see the Russian woman’s face from where he was standing, but he could see the way her back stiffened in surprise.  Keel could feel his own eyebrows climbing toward his hairline.  How the hell could he have known who it was that was approaching him?  Keel shook his head slightly.  Curtis had told him that the ship’s security chief was awesomely perceptive, which was effusive praise indeed from the rather cynical and understated Englishman.  However, it seemed as though his friend had not gone far enough in his praise, if the man could identify members of his staff without even being able to see them.

 

“Yes, Sir.” Romanov responded immediately to her commander’s questioning voice.

 

“What the hell are you doing here?” Ellison demanded.  “You’ve got your orders…”

 

“If you’ll allow me to assist you, Commander,” The Russian woman said respectfully, “I’ll explain exactly how I came to be here.”

 

Ellison inclined his head slightly, and Romanov immediately fell in beside him.  The tall woman took her Commander’s arm and all four officers began to walk slowly toward the shuttles.

 

“Well, Romanov?” Ellison growled.

 

“Oh,” Romanov shrugged, “I came down to this level to make sure some clever bastard didn’t try to take us out by sabotaging the warp coils on one of the shuttles.  I’d been patrolling the area when I ran into Mr. Curtis and Mr. Keel.  I decided that I should escort them to their destination, and here I am.”

 

“Good thinking about the shuttles.” Ellison complimented his officer. “It wasn’t an obvious priority area to defend during an attack.”

 

“Thank you sir.” Romanov ducked her head graciously in acknowledgement of the compliment.  “But I acknowledge, my concern about the shuttles came from personal experience.  I’ve seen the devastation that can be caused by an exploding shuttle.”

 

“Seen it on a ship that you were serving on, have you?” Keel asked curiously as they approached.

 

“In a sense.” Romanov replied serenely.

 

“Kat, unless I’m mistaken, this is the first ship that you’ve ever served on.” Curtis eyed her curiously.

 

“True.” Romanov gave a cold, nasty little smile.  “But I worked for Starfleet Intelligence, and I saw the insides of many ships in that capacity.  They just weren’t Starfleet ships.”

 

Keel felt his eyebrows raise slightly at her words and the unspoken implications of them.  The helmsman cast a quick look at his partner, who was studiously looking absolutely everywhere except at him.  Not for the first time, Chris Keel was forced to acknowledge that Curtis had picked up some very questionable friends over the course his somewhat checkered career. 

 

Ellison, however, did not seem even the least put off by his second in command’s tacit admission.  He merely nodded his understanding, before turning his bandaged face toward Keel.  “Have you run the preflight checks yet?” The big security chief demanded.

 

“Yeah.” Keel affirmed.  “The engine’s almost finished it’s warm up cycle too.  We’ll be ready to go any moment now.”

 

“How’s Ryalc doing?” Ellison turned his face toward the shuttle as he spoke.

 

“Finished, Ryalc is.” The unexpected, gruff voice of the Tellorite behind him made Chris half turn toward the stocky alien in surprise.  The leathery skinned creature appeared at the top of the walkway, with his assistant at his shoulder.  The weapon’s technician looked Ellison and Sandburg up and down, before giving a somewhat disgusted snort.  “In one piece, I could hardly call you.” The alien growled, “Still; good to see you alive, it is.”

 

“Good to see you too.” Dr Sandburg gave the stocky creature a rather wane smile.

 

“At the med centre, you should both be.” Ryalc admonished, “Here, what are you doing?”

 

“We came to see Curtis and Keel off.” Ellison replied.

 

“And to wish them luck.” Sandburg added, with a surprisingly focused look that passed from Keel to Curtis.

 

“Then leave you to it, will I.” Ryalc growled, then looked at Romanov.  “Since nothing more useful have you to do,” the Tellorite snorted, “ help Uuul and I get our tools off the ship you can.”

 

Romanov shrugged, gave her commanding officer’s shoulder a quick squeeze to communicate the fact that she was about to let go of his arm, and then moved up the walkway to take one of the packs away from the two technicians.  Together, the three officers moved off toward the far side of the bay to stow the equipment safely out of the way, effectively leaving the injured officers in Curtis and Keel’s ‘care’.  Sandburg watched the security officers moving away for a moment, before turning worried eyes toward Keel.

 

“Have you heard how they’re going with the transporter?” The young man asked quietly.

 

“They’ve got the coordinates and they’ve rerouted the power,” Keel shrugged, “but when I last spoke to them, they were still working on getting the sensors repaired sufficiently to be able to pick us up.”

 

“Shit.” Sandburg sighed, then looked at his feet.  Ellison turned his damaged face toward the younger man slightly, and brought his good hand up to rest against the back of Blair’s neck.

 

“Chief?”  The older man said questioningly as he rubbed at the back of his friend’s neck.  There was a wealth of emotion invested in that single, softly spoken word, and to Chris Keel’s discerning ear, it conveyed both deep affection and worry.  Sandburg responded to his larger friend’s concern by reaching up to catch at his hand, and squeeze it reassuringly.  He then looked back from Keel to Curtis. 

 

“Taggart’ll fix it.” The scientist said with all of the strength and certainty that he could muster in his voice. “I know that he will.”

 

“Here’s hoping.” Keel agreed with a wry smile.

 

“So, you’re ready to go then.” Ellison said, turning his attention back to the helmsman and the communications officers.

 

“Looks like.” Keel nodded, with a quick glance back over his shoulder at the waiting cutter.

 

“Good luck, then.” Jim said as he carefully extended his hand.  Keel was again surprised by the fact that the blinded man knew exactly where he was.  Keel shook the commander’s hand, and then his partner followed suit.  Keel extended his hand toward Sandburg, who took it in a surprisingly steady grip, considering that the younger man looked as though he were about thirty seconds off simply passing out.

 

“When we’re gone, you two might want to just sit down and wait for medical assistance there, Doctor Sandburg.” Keel smiled gently at the younger man, and Blair responded with a shaky, but genuine, smile.

 

“That’s the plan.” The scientist agreed as the two men released hands.  Blair was just reaching toward Curtis, when James Ellison’s head came up sharply, and his whole body pivoted toward the door.

 

“Shit.” The tall man growled.

 

“Jim?” Sandburg, despite his pallor and shakiness was instantly back at his partner’s side, his hand moving to his friend’s shoulder, and his face questioning.

 

“Shit!” Ellison growled again, then raised his voice, “Brown!  Rafe!  Heads up!”

 

No sooner had the words passed the security chief’s lips, than door slid open.  Brown, Rafe and Romanov instantly brought their phasers up and to the ready, but instead of an enemy warrior coming flying through the door with phasers blasting, a small cylinder came rolling in. 

 

“Bloody hell!” Curtis gasped, even as Brown shouted a warning to his partner to get down.  Out the corner of his eye, Keel saw Romanov leap across the shuttle bay’s main console, and hit something in the docking master’s station.  Instantly, a spark leapt across Keel’s vision, followed by a translucent blue tinge falling across everything outside the immediate area that the shuttles were located in.  A split second later, a wall of fire ripped through the loading area of the Bay, and the concussive force of the explosion rocked the deck below their feet, sending Keel sprawling across the walkway, and knocking Sandburg off his feet. 

 

Keel scrambled upright almost in the same second that he landed on his back.  Somehow, Curtis and Ellison had maintained their feet, and the security chief was snatching the science officer up off the floor.  Sam was looking out across what was left of the loading area, his jaw set and his eyes ice cold.

 

“Grenade.” Keel snarled as he scrambled upright,

 

Curtis merely nodded.  “Kat got the docking shields up before it could go off.” He growled.  “They’re still holding, so the explosion mustn’t have destroyed the generators.”

 

Before he could say anything else, several figures leapt through the torn remains of the wall where the door had been.  Ellison made an almost inhuman noise of rage, and began to step forward, but Sandburg held tight to his arm and stopped him.  Not that they were going to be able to do any good, Keel mused.  As much as the shield had protected them, and continued to protect them, it also blocked them from leaving the docking area of the bay.

 

Helplessly, the four watched as the Romulans moved into the area from the far side of the room.  They were difficult to see clearly, through the smoke and the debris. More like shadows than solid figures.  Still, it was obvious that the enemy were headed their way.  Keel’s hand clenched in helpless frustration around his phaser, as he watched the shadows draw closer, and become more substantial.  There was nothing that he could do.

 

“Everyone in the Shuttle.” Growled Ellison suddenly. 

 

“What for?” Keel hissed.  “In case you missed it, the docking bay doors are still down!”

 

“Not for long.” Ellison replied grimly, even as he took a firm grip on the rather stunned looking scientist’s arm and drew the smaller man closer to himself.

 

“What do you mean?” Keel demanded in irritated frustration.  “There’s no fucking way to get those doors open from within a shuttle!”

 

Keels words were punctuated by the sharp whine of a phaser shot hitting the force field that separated the docking bay from the rest of the ship.  The four men half-ducked instinctively as the destructive beam shattered against the shield.  Curtis threw a disgusted look the Romulan’s way, and then turned back to Ellison.

 

“What are you planning?” He asked with his customary cool.

 

“I’m not planning anything.”  Ellison gave an almost vicious, lop-sided smile. “It’s just that…” Ellison’s words were suddenly cut off by another phaser shot, this time directed at the Romulan’s!  Ellison turned his face blindly toward the docking master’s area before continuing.  “Our people are alive out there.” He finished, even as several more shots were fired.  Within second’s the area beyond their safely shielded sanctuary had become a war zone, with shots being fired in all directions.  The security officer was forced to raise his voice to be heard over the sudden din.  “Ryalc’s going to lower the docking bay doors.  He and Romanov are hoping that we’re going to recognize the fact that they can’t risk waiting until this battle is over to let us out and then send you on your way.  If this fight goes against them, then we’d be at the Romulan’s mercy and the mission couldn’t be completed.  There are too many lives on this ship at stake for us to be taking that kind of a risk.  Sandburg and I are going to have to go with you and hope like hell that they get that transporter working.”  The big man turned slightly toward his Guide, who was all but leaning on him by now.  A strangely gentle look touched the security officer’s ravaged face as he tilted his head down toward the younger man.  “Sorry kid.” he muttered softly, obviously only talking to his friend now.  “Looks like that nice quiet corner that we were hoping for’s gonna have to wait a little longer.”

 

“How the hell can you know all that?!?” Chris erupted in frustration.  What was this guy?  Some kind of psychic?

 

“He just does, all right?” Sandburg immediately erupted back, with more force than Keel would have believed him capable of at that point.  Keel opened his mouth to make a come-back, when the sudden weight of his own partner’s hand on his shoulder stopped him.

 

“It doesn’t matter how he knows, Chris.” The Englishman’s voice was sharp, and there was a look in his grey-green eyes that stopped Keel cold.  Sam Curtis had been in the business of ferreting out secrets since the day that he’d left the academy.  The dark clouds Chris saw in his eyes now, matched exactly the look Sam had given him the day he’d explained to his eternally curious partner that some secrets should never be known.  The message Curtis was giving him was clear.  Back off…  It’s not important.  “Come on.  We’ve got to get ready to go.” And with that, Sam disappeared up the walkway. 

 

Keel gritted his teeth, gave Ellison and the defiantly glaring Sandburg a small nod, before following his partner.  Curtis trusted Ellison.  For now, that was going to have to be good enough for him.

 

Keel tore up the walkway and through the ship’s small cargo area toward the cockpit door.  As he moved through the door, he heard the sounds of the walkway drawing up into the ship and the hatch door swinging shut.  Evidently Ellison and Sandburg were behind him.  Keel slid between the seats and scrambled into the pilot’s chair.  Curtis was already in the co-pilot’s seat and was switching on the shuttle’s small com panel.  Keel leaned toward the panel that began the ignition sequences for the cutter’s thrusters.  All he could hope now was that Ellison was right in his predictions, or this was going to be the shortest flight in history.

 


 

Lieutenant Commander Ryalc, chief weapon’s technician to the Starship Raptor, was not happy.  Through the dim and smoking ruins of the shuttle bay, he could barely make out where the Romulan’s firing at them, all were.  Even more frustrating to the burly alien was the fact that he could not assist his officer, Uuul, or the tall human woman, in battling the invaders.  Ryalc had been left in charge of the docking master’s station, while Uuul and Romanov had moved to draw the enemy’s fire away.  Ryalc understood the logic behind it.  One lucky shot on the Romulan’s part would see the end of the mission to destroy the ship containing the invaders.  Still, it wasn’t in Ryalc’s nature to sit by idly. 

 

Though the dim lighting and smoke haze, the Tellorite looked up just in time to see a shadow that looked suspiciously like Romanov break cover long enough to fire off a couple of shots before retreating.  The last of the shots coincided with a pained scream, and Ryalc nodded in satisfaction. The Romanov woman was a damned good shot.  By his count that was two down, with two to go.  All Ryalc could hope now was that they could take those last two out quickly before any damage could be done to the shield generators.

 

The thought of the shield generators was enough to make the weapon’s expert glance over toward the docking area of the bay.  Again, Ryalc had to hand it to the female human.  If she hadn’t had the presence of mind to raise the docking shields, there was no telling what damage might have been done to the shuttles.  Through the blue sheen of the shield, Ryalc could see that the hatch was now closed, and the walkway withdrawn.  Ryalc felt some small surge of satisfaction at this, and he eased himself up from behind the panel carefully, and then leaned over to hit the docking bay communicator.

 

“Cutter Veloci, docking bay this is.  Respond.” Ryalc said quietly into the com microphone.

 

“This is the Veloci.”  Sam Curtis’ cool voice replied instantly through a burst of static.

 

“Your status, what is?” Ryalc demanded.

 

“Ready when you are, docking bay.” Curtis responded.

 

“Space doors disengaging now.” Ryalc warned, even as his thick fingers flew across the panel. Ryalc entered to three command codes necessary to open the shuttle bay doors, and for a moment, nothing happened.  The Tellorite snarled at the panel, but before the alien could express the violence he felt toward the machine in that moment, a distant clang reverberated through what was left of the shuttle bay.  For an instant the battle taking place in the enclosed area of the bay came to an abrupt halt, as everyone automatically glanced at the source of the sound that suddenly drowned out the cacophony of the phaser fight.

 

Ryalc’s mouth pulled tight in the Tellorite version of a grin as he spotted what he’d been hoping for.  A sliver of velvety darkness appeared at the bottom of the bay doors, and then grew like a gigantic mouth opening wide, as the doors drew back to reveal the space that lay beyond the bulkheads of the ship.  The weapon’s tech cast a knowing eye over the bay shields, and was pleased to note that they were holding steady.  What Romanov had used to protect the shuttles from an explosion, was now the only thing protecting them all from being sucked out into the vacuum of space.  Ryalc looked back again and was struck by the image of the bay’s three shuttles standing starkly against the darkness beyond.  For a second, he remained still, and simply looked.  He was drawn away from his thoughts by a phaser blast hitting the wall just above his head,  Ryalc ducked again, and then turned his eyes to the information on the docking masters console. 

 

Like most every other sensor on the ship, the docking sensors were out, so he wasn’t entirely sure whether the atmosphere in the small area had finished decompressing or not.  Ryalc’s instincts told him that it had though, so he began entering the next group of codes.

 

“Hear me, can you Curtis?” Ryalc demanded.

 

“We’re still here, Ryalc.” Curtis responded immediately.

 

“Disengaging docking clamps now am I.” Ryalc warned, and then matched actions to words.  Another loud clang told the Tellorite that the clamps had come away.  A split second later, the ships landing thrusters came blazing to life, briefly providing a flash of illumination in the dimly lit area.

 

“We’ve got it.” Curtis’ voice assured the Tellorite .  “Docking bay, please inform transporter room that if their going to do anything, they’d better do it fast.  Please inform them that we’ll be traveling through the specified coordinates exactly ten minutes from… Now.”

 

Ryalc hit the timer on his chronometer on Curtis’ mark.  “Understood.” Ryalc affirmed.

 

“Wish us luck.” The Englishman’s voice held a self-mocking note that suggested to Ryalc that the young man did not believe in ‘luck’.  Still, The Tellorite couldn’t help but turning to watch as the cutter moved gently up and backward as Keel skillfully piloted the little ship out of the bay doors.  For a second, the sleek little vessel hung out in the darkness of the void, as though suspended by some unseen wire, turning almost lazily to face out toward open space.

 

“Hyi Ma Stqita.” The Tellorite whispered the ancient blessing of his people under his breath as he watched the Veloci hanging there silently.  She remained motionless for a split second, then the forward thrusters blazed to life, and the cutter suddenly disappeared from sight.

 

Ryalc did not waste time staring after the departed ship.  Instead, he punched in the code to re-close the space doors, and re-pressurize the docking area.  As soon as he received confirmation that both processes were in place, the weapon’s tech gave a hard, nasty version of the Tellorite grin.  Since his part in getting the ship away was now done, he was free to join the action.

 

Ryalc drew his phaser, and began working his way to a nearby anti-grav sled that would provide him with excellent cover.

 


 

Blair Sandburg half-pushed, half-guided his blinded Sentinel to his seat and then pushed him into it.  The little ship had started moving while the two of them were making their way through the small cargo area of the cutter, and by the time they’d entered the cockpit, the ship had already been pulling out of the bay doors.  Blair wasted a moment and some of his precious strength by leaning on the pilot and co-pilot’s seats and trying to see how his friends were doing in their battle against the invading Romulans.

 

“Sit down, kid.” Keel ordered, his voice neutral as he carefully manipulated the ship out toward open space.  Blair grimaced and nodded wordlessly, acknowledging that it had been a futile gesture on his own part.  His eyes weren’t very good at the best of times, and between the headache that he was suffering and general exhaustion, he couldn’t see the hanger as anything more than a big, dark area, occasionally lit up by flashes of light, which he assumed were phaser strikes.  The young scientist quickly moved into his own seat behind the co-pilots chair and then squirmed into place using the limited maneuvering room that he had.  No sooner was he seated, than his Sentinel’s hand latched onto his wrist and squeezed to gain his attention.

 

“You okay there, Chief?” Jim asked quietly.  Blair couldn’t really see the expression on his partner’s face, given that the only real illumination in the tiny cockpit was coming from the monitors up front, and his eyes were particularly bad right at that moment, but he knew that his partner was concerned.  He felt terrible, so he could only imagine what his vital signs were doing. Blair didn’t bother even trying to waste the energy that a smile of reassurance would have taken, knowing full well that it would be lost on the blinded Sentinel.  Instead he put the energy into keeping his voice firm and steady when he spoke.

 

“I’m fine, big guy.” He said with an assurance that he did not feel.  Even he had to admit that he should probably be in the med. centre now, but considering this latest turn of events, letting everyone else in on that fact was fairly pointless.  Cutis and Keel did not need to be distracted at this point in time, and worrying his Sentinel with it would serve only to agitate the bigger man needlessly.  There was no way to get to med. centre now unless the ship’s technicians could come through for them at the pre-appointed time and coordinates.  Until then, he would stay very quiet and still, and let the men up front do their job.

 

Jim released his wrist, and instead latched onto his hand.  Blair smiled slightly in spite of himself, and turned his hand over so that they were resting palm to palm.  The bigger man automatically threaded his fingers through his Guide’s and gave Blair’s hand a reassuring squeeze.  Once upon a time, if someone had attempted to offer comfort like that, Blair would have found it almost ridiculous.  After all, what comfort was there to be gained in a situation like this?  They were, is all likelihood, going to die here.  But James Ellison squeezing his hand like that reminded the young Guide that no matter what else happened, he was not alone.  His soul was linked to that of another person, and that knowledge did more to comfort and strengthen Blair than anything else could have possibly have done.  Blair returned the squeeze, in an attempt to give back some of the support that he was receiving, and then turned his focus to the view-screen.  His Sentinel had lost the use of his eyes, which would have given him the most information right now.  Blair might not be able to see much, but he was going to share what he could with his partner, in an attempt to lessen the powerlessness that he must be feeling in not being able to rely on his senses.

 

Blair squinted around the side of the co-pilot’s seat at the view-screen.  “We’re turning now, Jim.” The young scientist whispered, his voice pitched for Sentinel ears only.  “Keel should be ready to take us forward in a moment.  Get ready for the pressure increase.”

 

A moment later, Keel did indeed hit the forward thrusters, and Blair felt himself being pushed further back into his seat, as the heavily modified little ship struggled to keep gravity levels constant under the pressure of thrusters that were far too powerful for a shuttle of it’s size.  For a second, the ship shot out into the darkness of open space, but then Keel brought them around to face the Raptor again.  From the position of the pale blob that he knew must be the Raptor, Blair guessed that Keel was piloting them in an arc that would take them under the belly of the ship.

 

“Christ, what a mess.” Curtis said quietly, his voice full of horror and disgust.

 

“Still could’ve been a lot worse.” Keel asserted, then swore softly under his breath.  “There’s a lot of debris out here.” Their pilot warned.  “Curtis, can you divert some extra power to the shields?  I can keep out of the way of the bigger stuff, but we’re going to have to fly straight through a lot of the smaller shit.  The last thing that we need now is for the shields to falter, and some of that crap to get through.  I don’t want to be piloting a damaged craft here.”

 

“Hang on.” Curtis grunted.  Blair could hear the communications officer playing around with the ship’s computer, and a moment later the Englishman reached across onto the pilot’s side of the console, hit something, and then asked, “How’s that?”

 

“Better.” Keel conceded.  “How’re we doin’ for time?”

 

“Seven minutes, forty-five seconds… now.” Curtis responded.

 

“Good.” Keel said crisply.  “That gives us a bit of time.  I’ll take a wider arc around the Raptor.  That’ll keep us clear of the worst of our debris.  Then all we’ll have to worry about is the crap we’re going to encounter when we get up close and personal with the Romulans.”

 

For a moment after that, silence reigned in the small vessel.  Blair watched the pale colored blob that was the Raptor draw closer, and then disappear at the top of the view-screen.  “We’re under the ship now, Jim.” Blair breathed the words under his breath to keep his Sentinel updated.  He squinted at the view-screen and then shook his head slightly.  “Keel wasn’t kidding about the debris, either.  It’s a miracle that the ship stayed in one piece…  well… relatively one piece, anyway.” The Guide amended his own words with a pained little grimace. 

 

A moment later, a new pale blob appeared in the corner of the view-screen.  They were still a long way away from it, but it was rapidly growing in size as the shuttle sped ever closer.  It was Blair’s first sight of the enemy that had caused them so much trouble, and he felt himself tense up slightly at the sight of them.

 

“How’s the asteroid belt looking?” Ellison suddenly demanded from beside him.  Blair glanced quickly in his Sentinel’s direction, but the man’s damaged face seemed impassive and unworried, so Blair craned his neck slightly to try to catch sight of the navigation monitor that Keel would be referring to.

 

“There’s still a hell of a lot more activity than when we first dropped out of warp, but it’s not as bad as it got when we shook things up earlier.  We’ve got a few rocks that’ve been thrown out of orbit that we’ll have to watch out for, but it’s not too bad.  The real trick’s going to be getting through the bits of that Bird of Prey that will be floating around.  That asteroid did a real number on her.  There’s gonna be crap everywhere out there, and we’re gonna have to go straight through the middle of it.”

 

“Oh joy.” Curtis muttered sarcastically.

 

“How’re we doin’ for time now?” Keel demanded suddenly.

 

“Five minutes from… now.” Curtis responded.

 

“Thanks.” Keel nodded his acknowledgement, and then glanced back at Blair over his shoulder.  “Listen, these seats have harnesses.  I think that we’d better use them.  Things are gonna get real bumpy in a minute, here.”

 

“Got it.” Sandburg acknowledged quickly, and then released his Sentinel’s hand to scramble up to help him in getting his harness on.  Ellison, however, batted at his hands, irritably.  The young Guide knew that he was hovering, and that Jim was perfectly capable of getting his harness on himself, but still he remained upright on somewhat shaky legs, half crouched over, watching his partner’s rather clumsy progress worriedly, unwilling to back away in case he was needed.

 

“Sit down, Sandburg!” Ellison growled, his own voice laced with concern.  “Just get yourself strapped in.  I’m fine here.”

 

“You sure?” demanded Blair, his hands clenching against his legs in a desperate attempt to keep from reaching out and adjusting his partner’s straps for him.

 

“I’m sure.” Ellison said firmly. “Just sit down and look after yourself.  Please.”  Blair glanced at his partner, and then carefully reached along their dampened bond.  Through it, he could sense his Sentinel’s deep concern for him, and with a little more clarity than he had been able to sense before.  It occurred to him that the drugs that he had been given might be beginning to wear off at last.  Still, one way or another, Blair knew that his bond-mate was just as worried about him as he was about his Sentinel.  With this in mind, the empath finally forced himself to move away from his partner and climb back into his seat.  The tilt of Jim’s head told Blair that his bond-mate was monitoring him closely, and so he quickly scrambled into his restraints, and fastened them with trembling hands.  No sooner had he finished, than Ellison reached across the space between them and calmly took his Guide’s hand firmly within his own again.  Blair gave Jim’s hand as strong a squeeze as he could manage, and then leaned back over to see the view-screen again.

 

By the time Blair could again see the monitors, the Romulan ship had grown until it filled the screen.  For the first time, Blair had a full appreciation of how much larger the Raptor’s opponent had been, and how well the Federation ship and her crew had done to remain relatively in tact.

 

“Okay.” Keel said suddenly, “I’m pulling right down on the speed.  We’re hitting the edges of the debris field now.  Sam, I’m gonna need you to keep your eyes open for the big stuff I’m going to need to avoid, and also to keep me informed of how we’re going for time.”

 

“Right.” Curtis acknowledged emotionlessly.  “We’ve got three minute’s from… Now.”

 

“Understood.” Keel responded calmly, before drawing a deep breath.  “Alright.  Let’s do it.” And with that, Keel dropped the ship into an arc that took them gently under a large pale object that Blair assumed was a piece of the enemy ship’s hull.  Blair closed his eyes then and hung on to his Sentinel’s hand that much more tightly.

 


 

Sam Curtis glanced down at the Navicomp, and then at the monitor that revealed what was happening along the cutter’s right side to see if he could spot the large object that the computer registered spinning into their path.  Just as he did so, something else floated in front of the camera on that side.  Curtis frowned as he attempted to work out what it was that he was seeing, and then grimaced as he realized what it was.

 

“More than I ever wanted to know about Romulan physiology.” He muttered to himself as he watched the vacuum ravaged remains of what had once been an enemy crewman float by.

 

“What?” Keel demanded without looking up from the Navicomp.

 

“Watch out for that strut thing over there.” Sam responded calmly, with an off-hand gesture  at the long metallic thing that was slowly tumbling end over end into their path.

 

“I saw it.” Keel responded in a slightly sharp tone of voice, even as he made a minute alteration to their course that took them over the strut, but under a piece of hull plating.  The pilot’s tone caused the Englishman to grin at his partner.  Chris had ever such a hard time accepting help; even when he’d asked for it!  In any other circumstances as these, Sam would enjoy winding him up.  Right now, though, Curtis wasn’t willing to risk distracting his somewhat temperamental friend.  There was just far too much risk of crashing into something if the American’s attention was diverted at the wrong moment.

 

Chris took them into a sudden, twisting dive, sliding between two pieces of the asteroid that they’d used to take out the Romulan vessel, and then coming up so sharply that Sam felt an increase in the pressure holding him in his seat as the American fought to keep the little craft from flying straight into what looked to have been a large anti-gravity cargo pallet.  Curtis inadvertently clenched both his teeth, and his hands upon the armrests of his seat, as the Navicomp showed the pallet brushing against their shields. 

 

“Good flying.” Sam gritted out as they once again ‘jinked’ hard to avoid another piece of the hull that was almost as large as their shuttle.

 

“Thanks.” Keel responded with an un-natural calm, which told Sam that his partner was mostly working on instinct at that point.  “Time?”

 

“One-forty eight.” Curtis responded with a quick glance at the timer that he’d activated on the console when he’d been talking to Ryalc.

 

“Too soon.” Keel grunted darkly.  “We’re here too soon.”

 

Curtis glanced up at the forward monitors.  Above and ahead of them, he could see the gaping darkness of the great hole the asteroid had torn in the Romulan ship.  The Englishman frowned and glanced at their shield status.  They were taking too many minor hits from objects too small to register on the Navicomp, and yet big enough to shake the small cutter.

 

“Bugger.” Curtis growled.  “Shields at sixty percent.  They may not be able to take another stroll around the block while we kill time.”

 

“They’re gonna have to.” Keel responded fiercely.

 

Curtis glanced toward his intensely focused friend, intending to make some sort of joke about the fact that if it wasn’t for their bad luck, they’d have no luck at all.  However, before he could even open his mouth, Keel pulled up to avoid a piece of decking, only to send them barreling into a chair which hadn’t been substantial enough to register on the Navicomp.

 

“Shit!” Hissed Keel as the one-time piece of furniture was practically evaporated as it smashed into the shields.  Curtis grimaced as the shields dropped by another point.  Keel pushed the nose of the shuttle down and rolled the ship gracefully between two large hunks of metallic debris, his timing on the application of the thrusters good enough to keep from clipping either piece with the shields.  Still, the sheer volume of space junk was putting the American under pressure, just to keep them in one piece.

 

Sam shot his friend a worried look, glanced back at the Navicomp… and then promptly froze in horror.  “Chris..!” He said quietly, straining slightly to keep his voice calm and even.

 

“Yeah, I see it.” Keel said tightly as he glanced at the forward monitors for visual confirmation of what the Navicomp had shown him.  “Shit.”

 

“What’s wrong?” Demanded Dr Sandburg from behind Curtis. 

 

Sam grimaced and looked up at the forward monitors himself.  “We have a small problem.” He muttered.

 

“Nothing I can’t handle.” Keel said tightly as he eased the forward thrusters almost back to nothing.

 

Sam glanced nervously at his partner, and then back at the Navicomp.  Unfortunately, what it showed him hadn’t changed.  Some of the free-floating wreckage of the enormous Bird Of Prey had, by a nasty twist of fate, corralled the little ship into a very effective trap.  Two large pieces of the outer hull had come to be spinning through the void almost parallel to each other, directly in front of them.  Some large, unrecognizable portion of the ship was coming up at them from behind, effectively blocking a retreat.  Ahead of them were a number of pieces of debris, too large to risk hitting, and close enough together to risk trying to slide through them.  Above them was a large piece of the asteroid which had caused all of the devastation around them, and directly below them, stretching out like a path, were a long string of cylindrical objects that seemed to be linked with each other by some type of machinery.  The overall effect was that they were effectively ‘boxed in’, so to speak.

 

Keel coolly studied the ‘trap’ that they found themselves in on the Navicomp, and then glanced around at the various external monitors.  “Okay…” Keel glanced back to the Navicomp.  “Well… This is fun.”  The young pilot carefully adjusted the thrusters on the little cutter so that they were maintaining a decent distance from each of the walls of their cage.  “How’re we doing for time?”

 

“One minute… Now.”  Curtis said coolly.

 

“Well, this little detour is going to have to count for enough of a stroll.  We’ve got to get moving again.”  Keel looked around at each of the monitors again and grimaced.  “Okay.  This is going to be tight.  Everybody hang on, ‘cause its gonna get rough.”  And with that Chris Keel put the shuttle back into motion.

 

The American hit the two downward thrusters on the nose, even as he hit the two upward thrusters on the tail of the ship.  The result was a sudden, sharp vertical spin that brought them tail over nose to face the opposite direction.  Keel took off the thrusters when he was part way around his spin, and then hit the forward thrusters hard as soon as he had a visual on the fast closing ‘door’ that they had both seen on the Navicomp.  The hunk of asteroid above them performing a slow downward spin which would connect with the wreckage below them, effectively sandwiching them in the middle.  There was, however, a fast closing gap between the rock and the hard place represented by the debris behind them.  Keel headed for that narrowing gap with all the speed that he could coax out of the little ship.

 

Curtis watched the fast closing patch of darkness that represented freedom, unconsciously gritting his teeth.  They were never going to make it… Not going to make it… Not going to… Not not not not… 

 

Keel let out a war cry as the nose shot through the gap.  The ship was thrown up wildly, forcing a startled cry from the Englishman and sending his hands forward in a desperate attempt to steady himself.  The restraints cut into his shoulders and chest, and the sharp increase in gravitational pressure made him feel as though someone had tossed his gut into a jar and then shaken it like hell.  He heard a frightened gasp from behind him, and a barely human sound of anger from Ellison.  For a second, Curtis’ vision dimmed and his ear drums felt as though they were being sucked back into his head in response to the shaking and the gravitational changes, but then, just as suddenly, the universe righted itself, and the Englishman could see and breath again.  From beside him, he heard a whoop of triumph.

 

“Made it!” Keel crowed victoriously.  “Time?”

 

“Thirty-five seconds you nutty bastard.” Curtis snarled back. “And the shields are down to twenty five percent thanks to you scraping along that bloody wreckage!”

 

“It’s okay.” Sandburg said tightly from the back.  We’re going to have to drop them soon anyway, or their not gonna be able to beam us up even if they did fix the transporter.”

 

“Fan-fucking-tastic.” Curtis growled softly.  “Shieldless amidst this bloody mess.  Thanks for the reminder.”

 

“Don’t make me come up there and hurt you.” Ellison’s voice warned darkly from behind Keel.  Curtis threw a dirty look over his shoulder at the supposedly blind man, but refrained from giving him the ‘finger’.  Somehow, he had a feeling that the security chief would know what he was doing if he did, and assuming that they all got out of this alive, he was probably going to find uses for all of his digits later on. 

 

“Time.” Keel barked again as he sent the cutter into horizontal spin to skim between some more wreckage.

 

“Twenty seconds.” Curtis responded.  He glanced at the forward monitor.  The Romulan ship was now dominating the view.

 

“Christ!” Keel hissed in frustration.  “If I’m gonna make these damned coordinates I’ve gotta come at this from a higher angle!!!” He hissed, then urged the cutter forward at an even greater pace to curve around and over a huge piece of decking.

 

“Fifteen seconds.” Curtis warned. 

 

“We’re almost there.” Keel replied, even as his eyes darted between the Navicomp and the monitor giving their coordinates.

 

“Ten Seconds.”  Curtis stated, even as Keel flattened out the trajectory of the ship.  Sam winced as the cuter was shaken by a sudden impact with a largish hunk of asteroid.  The shields dropped to fifteen percent.

 

“Five seconds.” Curtis hissed as the gaping wound that had incapacitated the giant and once deadly warship loomed before them.  Keel adjusted their angle slightly, his eyes now solely focused on their coordinates.

 

“Four.”

 

“Get ready to drop the shields.” Sandburg hissed and Curtis’ hand flashed out to hover over the switch to the shield generator.

 

“Two.”

 

“NOW!” hissed Sandburg as the ship shot into the Romulan ship’s decimated insides.

 

“One.”

 

MARK!”  Curtis heard both his own voice and that of his partner cry out simultaneously adrenaline and anticipation and fear making his very skin tingle…

 

…and then he felt nothing at all…

 


 

Simon Banks glanced up at the hatch that lead onto the bridge, and found himself faced with the business end of a phaser.  For a split second he tensed, but then he looked beyond the weapon and registered the surprised face of the person wielding it, and promptly relaxed.

 

“Any chance of a hand up, Commander?” He asked mildly from his rather awkward position on the maintenance ladder.

 

“Umm,” Commander Megan Connor grimaced as she looked from her Captain, to the phaser, and then promptly sheathed the weapon once more, “sorry sir.” The woman quickly leaned forward to offer the tall man her hand as he climbed out of the hatch.  “ I heard someone down there and wasn’t going to be taking any chances.” she explained almost sheepishly.

 

“Understandable, Commander.” Banks acknowledged, his eyes already sliding past the woman to the disaster zone that his bridge had become.  “What’s the status of the Veloci.?”

 

“You got here just in time, sir.” Dr Chang said quietly, her voice tense.  “Impact in… thirty  seconds.” The psychologist turned and fixed worried eyes on her Captain.  “How were the transporter repairs going, sir?”

 

Banks grimaced.  “They were incomplete when I left, but Taggart was on it.  If anyone can save Mr. Curtis and Mr. Keel, it’s him.”

 

“And Ellison and Sandburg.” Bli’inkavari put in grimly from where she was seated at her station.

 

“What?” Banks turned to face the little Toriishi sharply.

 

“We got word a few minutes ago from the shuttle bay.” Connor confirmed darkly.  “An ill-timed Romulan attack put those two on board as well.”

 

Banks turned to face the enormous view screen in horror and wondered how it could possibly be that those two could have got themselves into this as well.

 

“Ten seconds.” Serena Chang called, and suddenly everyone else on the bridge’s attention was fixed on the view screen as well.  The enormous Romulan ship hung silently in the void across from them, damaged and yet still menacing.  Banks wondered how his friends on the sleek little shuttle would be holding up right now.

 

“Five seconds.” Banks’ hands clenched behind his back, torn between the captain part of his persona, who simply wanted the threat to his ship and crew to be gone, the human being, who knew that within seconds, anyone left alive on the hulk of a ship that he was staring at would loose their life on his order, and the friend, who was acutely aware that he might lose one of his oldest and closest friends in the next few seconds, and wanted to howl at the terrible injustice of it.

 

“Three…” Chang counted quietly. “Two…  One…”

 

For a second, there was nothing but the silent stillness of anticipation.  And then it happened.

 

A bright, blossoming of light erupted, and was just as quickly snuffed out, just behind the centre of the ship.  This was followed by a series of smaller, sharper bursts.  And then, suddenly, the ship just came apart before their eyes.

 

The silence that the morbid spectacle produced was total.  Banks had no energy left for any show of triumph.  All he could feel at that moment was a profound relief that the worst of the danger to his ship had now passed.

 

It was Commander Connor that broke the silence a moment later.  “God.” She whispered.  “They did it.”

 

“But at what cost?” asked Doctor Chang quietly.

 

“There’s only one way to find out.” Banks replied with a calmness that he was a long way from truly feeling.  The tall Captain turned and walked quickly to the com panel.  He switched it on and hit the code for the station that he was looking for.  “Transporter room?  This is Captain Banks…”

 


 

Cheers and whoops of triumph and delight filled the air around Joel Taggart as the columns of light on the transporter pad solidified into four human bodies.  All of which promptly crashed to the ground from the seated position that they were in, now that there was no chairs underneath them to support their weight.  Curtis and Keel scrambled up quickly, the pair giving each other an incredulous look that melted into smiles of stunned pleasure.  Sandburg sat up from the floor of the transporter pad much more slowly, looking so pale Taggart was certain that he’d seen corpses with more color.  The young man looked sick and visibly shaky, and he was blinking with a frantic rapidness that suggested to the engineer that there was something wrong with the scientists eyes.  Taggart was moving forward to help the youngster that he’d developed such respect for before he could even think about what he was doing. 

 

He was already on the pad before he realized that Ellison hadn’t moved at all.

 

“Blair?” Taggart said gently as he crouched down beside the dazed scientist.  The young man simply blinked at him in owlish confusion. 

 

“Jim?” There was a plaintive note of worry in the scientist’s confused voice that pulled at Taggart’s heartstrings.  He glanced over his shoulder and noted that some of his technicians were moving in to try to help the still motionless security chief.  From the damage that Taggart could see, the big security officer was in a bad way.

 

Joel grimaced and then turned back to face the young man.  “He’ll be fine, Blair.” The engineer said with a confidence that he did not really feel.

 

Blair frowned at him, and then tried to shift sideways in an attempt to look around the large engineer.  Taggart had to move swiftly to keep the boy from falling flat onto his side again.  “Jim?!?” The young scientist called again, this time with an urgency that was terrible to hear.  “Jim?!?” Sandburg paused then, became very still, and half closed his eyes.  A split second later, Blair’s eyes snapped open, and a look of horror crossed his mobile face  “Oh no.” he whispered.

 

Taggart leaned in to try to reassure the obviously exhausted man, but before he could say anything, Blair was trying to force himself to his feet.  He barely got his feet under him, before he crashed again to his knees.  He was obviously in no shape to be getting up, and yet no sooner had he hit the floor, than he was pushing himself to get up again.  There was such a terrible look of concentration and determination on the empath’s face that Taggart couldn’t help but feel awed by it.  His respect for the young man actually deepened in that moment, even as he locked his own strong arms around the boy’s waist and he hauled the scientist upright himself. 

 

As he dragged Blair across the short distance to his friend, there was a slight commotion over at the transporter officer’s station.

 

“Sir!” Lieutenant Jefferson called out.  “Captain Banks is on the com!  He wants to talk to you!”

 

“Tell him that we got all four of them back, and that I’m kinda busy right now.” Taggart growled, even as he lowered Blair to the floor next to his friend.

 

“What’s wrong with him?” Keel demanded from where he was now crouched, up near Ellison’s head.  “He seemed fine in the shuttle…”

 

“Zoned.” Blair Sandburg murmured fretfully.  “With everything else, the transporter was too much.  And we never got to practice, dammit…” Blair broke off from his distressed ramblings as he reached out to caress his partner’s ruined face.  “It’s okay,” he crooned at the security chief.  “It’s over.  We’re here and we’re alive.  Hear my voice.  Follow it back, big guy.  It’s safe to come back now.”  The young man leaned down and gathered the security officer against him, lifting him with a strength that surprised Taggart, so that Ellison’s face was resting against Blair’s neck.  “Breath in, big guy.  You know my scent.  Follow it back. Come back for me now.”

 

Blair continued to croon softly, even as Taggart moved to help the young scientist to support Ellison’s weight.  Joel had no idea what was going on between the scientist and the security officer, but for some reason, he wasn’t surprised when Ellison twitched a moment later.  Taggart was watching closely when Ellison jerked within Sandburg’s arms suddenly, and his damaged, bandaged face screwed up as much as it was able, in pain and confusion.

 

“Chief?” The big man asked softly.

 

The look on Blair’s unnaturally pale face was almost luminescent with relief and joy.  “Jim.” He breathed, somehow conveying in that single word, such a wealth of emotions that Taggart had a hard time identifying them all.  For a second, a relief hung between the two men that was almost tangible, but then Jim Ellison’s burned and blood encrusted face suddenly took on an edge of panic.

 

“Sandburg!” He cried out, sitting bolt upright and bringing his arms up just in time to catch his bond-mate as he toppled bonelessly against Ellison’s chest.  Taggart moved to reach for the unconscious man.  He was stopped though as Ellison turned his ruined face sharply toward him.  “Stop!” The security officer snarled.  “He’s in empathic shock, and he’s reacting to the drugs he’s been given to combat that.  If you touch him, you’ll make it worse!  Everyone back off now!”

 

Taggart, and everyone else on the transporter pad with them, took several hasty steps away, certain that Ellison would kill them if they didn’t.  “Jim, what can we do to help?” Taggart forced his voice to remain calm, even as he backed up.

 

Ellison responded with a quiet desperation that seemed almost out of place coming from the usually ice-cool man.  “You can help me by telling me that you know the coordinates for the med. centre, and that there’s enough juice left in this damned machine to get us there.” He growled as he turned his face into Sandburg’s tangled hair.

 

Taggart simply nodded his understanding.  “I’ll see what I can do.” He vowed.

 


 

The first thing that Blair Sandburg became aware of was a delicious warmth that seemed to encompass his whole body.  It felt so good that for a while, he didn’t want to think about or acknowledge anything other than that sensation of comfortable well being.  Unfortunately, Blair was not naturally a passive creature, and after a while, other information began to filter through to his slightly sleep muddled mind, and piqued his curiosity about where he was.

 

He could hear beeping and the soft hum of machines.  Periodically, he could hear the scrapings and soft murmuring that indicated that people were moving around nearby.  There was a sharp quality to the air that spoke to the young scientist of immersion in a sterile environment.  And constant through out all of this, was a gentle pressure around his hand, that, if he focused on it, seemed to be the source of the marvelous warmth that he was so enjoying.  Blair’s curiosity about where he was and what was happening to him eventually ate away at his lassitude, forcing Blair to struggle out of the comfortable darkness that he had been resting in for so long.

 

The first thing that struck him when he forced his eyes open was that the lights were too bright, and he blinked rapidly in an attempt to cut down the glare.  As he moved his head to the side in an attempt to escape the painful stabbing at his sensitive eyes, a shadow fell across him, shielding him from the worst of it.

 

“Calm down, Sandburg.” A deep voice rumbled in his ear, before the shadow leaning over him moved away slightly, and the voice spoke again from slightly further away.  “Lights to half.”

 

Instantly, the light dropped back to a less painful level, and Blair decided to have another go at taking a look at his surroundings.  The first thing that was immediately obvious, was that he was in a medical center.  The second thing that was obvious to him was that he was not alone.  And the instant that his eyes focused on the face of the tall man leaning over him, the events prior to his collapse came crashing back, causing him to start violently.

 

Jim!!!” he gasped urgently, reaching up toward his partner in a combination of confusion and fright.

 

Ellison reacted instantly, reaching out to catch at the flailing hands.  “It’s okay, Chief.” He crooned reassuringly.  “It’s okay.  We’re okay.”

 

Blair stared anxiously up into his Sentinel’s face, trying to determine how the older man was.  He certainly looked better.  Jim’s ice-blue eyes were open and obviously tracking.  The side of his face where the phaser had burned him had a slightly flushed look that spoke to Blair of synthetic skin grafts, well on the way to healing properly.  The scientist tugged one of his captured hands loose and reached up to caress the Sentinel’s healing face.

 

“…Okay..?” he whispered, finding his mouth too dry and his throat a little sore for many words to escape.  It didn’t really matter though.  Ellison understood what Blair was trying to ask, and his face creased into a reassuring, if slightly exasperated, smile.

 

“Yes, Sandburg, I’m fine.” He smiled, before his face settled into slightly more serious lines.  “Question is, how’re you feeling?”

 

“Me?” Blair asked huskily, and then blinked in surprise.  He hadn’t really thought about it beyond the fact that he was warm and comfortable.  Still, the Sentinel obviously wanted an answer to his question, so the empath focused on devoting some thought to the subject.  “I feel…” he whispered thoughtfully as he focused on the warm comfort that he felt, “I feel…”  And then he realized what the source of his comfort was, and his eyes became very wide.  “I feel you!” He gasped.  “I can feel you,  through the bond again!”

 

And he could.  He could feel the comfort Jim’s presence always provided, with the faint undertones of his worry and affection.  And even below that there was a deeper concern and a kind of sadness that worried Blair when he ‘touched’ it with his empathy.  All of these things he could sense clearly, for the first time in what felt like forever.  It was such an unspeakable relief to be able to sense his Sentinel properly through their bond again, that Blair felt tears of relief flood his eyes. 

 

Evidently Jim viewed his young Guide’s suddenly leaking eyes as a bad thing, because instantly Blair felt a surge of worry and protectiveness through the bond.  However, Blair was quick to answer it with a ‘message’ of happiness and relief that made the Sentinel relax again.  Blair tugged at his bond mates hand, and the Sentinel responded by bending down over the bed and carefully gathering his Guide up against him in a gentle hug.

 

For a moment, all Blair was concerned about was the warmth and security of having his Sentinel in close, physical contact with him.  He didn’t need to think about maintaining empathic barriers, or even thinking.  Jim was there, and for a little while, that was all he needed.

 

He wasn’t really sure how long he rested against the Sentinel, but after a while, the scientist part of who he was reared it head and questions began to demand answers.  He shifted slightly, and instantly, Jim laid him back against the bed.  Blair smiled a little weakly at his Sentinel, and then cast his eyes around the little room that he was in.

 

“Where… are we?” He asked, swallowing against the dryness of his throat.

 

“The Medical facility on Deep Space 5.” Jim responded quietly, leaning over to gently brush some of Blair’s hair back from his forehead.

 

Blair frowned.  “When did we get here?” he asked, confused.  He knew that he’s been unwell, but he must have been in worse shape than he’d thought if he couldn’t remember getting here.

 

“A little over a week ago.” Jim replied, this time with a hard little edge creeping into his voice that would have worried Blair -- if he had been able to focus past the content of what his partner was saying to focus on it.

 

Over a week?” he gasped, struggling to sit up so that he could look into his Sentinel’s eyes to determine if he was telling the truth or playing games with him.  “That’s not possible!” he gasped.

 

“Yes it is.” Jim said flatly.

 

“I couldn’t have slept that long.” Blair asserted.  “I would have woken up at some point.  I’d have some memory of getting here.  I don’t remember anything.”

 

“The reason that you don’t remember anything is that you dropped back into empathic shock again when we got back on to the Raptor.” Jim said darkly, his eyes suddenly fiery and accusing.  “You had a bad reaction to the drugs and they started wearing off too fast.  Taggart had to beam us directly to the med. center, where Dr Baccus put you directly into stasis until we could get you someplace with a better-equipped medical facility.”  Ellison drew a deep breath then and his eyes became very hard, as though looking back on the events of the past week were both difficult and distasteful for him.  “Keel went back to the shuttle bay, which my people had successfully defended, by the way, took the runabout back toward DS5, and managed to contact the station partway there.  We got lucky at that point.  The Starship Yorktown was dropping off supplies when the message from Keel came through, and they pulled out all the stops and damned near beat Keel back here.  They evacuated most of the remaining personnel, and sent over materials and engineers to support our people.  The Yorktown brought everyone else back to DS5.”

 

“Oh.” Blair squirmed uncomfortably.  He could sense a growing anger in his Sentinel that he had a nasty feeling that he understood all too well. 

 

The Sentinel turned coldly furious eyes on him once more. “The real fun started, of course, when we got you back here.  The Doctors pulled you out of stasis, accessed your medical records, and immediately said that there was nothing that they could do for you, since your records indicated that you were a Naturalist, and that they were unable to engage in any intrusive medical procedures.  Not even to save your life.”

 

Sandburg winced.  “Shit.” He sighed as he dropped his head.  He could feel Ellison’s eyes boring into the back of his neck, and he peeked up at his partner again through his hair.  “Sorry ‘bout that, man.  I was gonna get that changed at our scheduled stop over here, remember?  But then those orders came through sending us straight out into the Zone, and there just wasn’t time.  I got all the forms and everything ready to submit over the com channels.  I just hadn’t counted on us getting the shit kicked out of us as soon as we got to the Zone, man.”

 

“Whatever you intended, Sandburg, the fact remained that they were quite willing to let you die because of your religious status.  I had to get them to put you back into stasis while I went all over the base, swearing black and blue to every high ranking officer that I could find on either the base or the hyperlinks to Starfleet Command that your wishes had changed.  Even that might not have been enough if I hadn’t managed to… convince… Baccus to get behind me.”

 

Blair gaped at his Sentinel incredulously.  “You convinced Baccus to support you?” he demanded.

 

Ellison nodded sharply. “With Simon’s help. Yeah.”

 

“Man, what did you have to do to…?” Blair began, only to be cut of by a sharp gesture from his Sentinel.

 

“What I had to promise isn’t important right now.” Ellison snapped.  “We’ll go into it later, when you’re feeling a little more up to dealing with it calmly.”  Ellison broke off with a grimace and then looked uncomfortably at the floor.  He released a barely audible sigh, and when his eyes raised to meet Blair’s again, the young scientist was stunned by how tortured and uncertain they had become.  “What is important right now is working out why you did what you did.  You almost died Blair.  I though that you were going to die.  You had to know that you were in bad shape.  I trusted you to tell me if things were going wrong.  And you didn’t.  You risked your life needlessly.” Jim broke off for a moment, and Blair saw in that moment all too clearly what kind of suffering his own near brush with death had caused his partner.  “I just don’t understand why you would do that to yourself.”  Ellison finished unhappily.

 

“I didn’t risk my life needlessly.” Blair contradicted his partner sharply.  “I would never do that.  There was a very great need for me to do what I did!”

 

“What?” Ellison exploded incredulously.  “What need? There was no need for you to do what you did.  I told you when I revived you that you were to tell me if you started showing signs of a bad reaction!  It was never worth your life, dammit!

 

“It was!” Blair exploded back.  “It was to me!  I had to stay with you!  I knew that you’d go on, whether I was with you or not!  I couldn’t leave you to try to cope on your own!  I was not going to let you down again!  I couldn’t!”

 

As he spoke, Blair watched his Sentinel’s expression shift from anger to frustration to confusion.  The empath’s sense of frustration that his Sentinel couldn’t understand something which seemed so very obvious to him, and the sense of disorientation which was a result of his prolonged sleep, worked together to make his head feel too heavy to lift.  Blair drew his knees up to his chest, locked his arms around them, and buried his face against his knees, residual exhaustion making him desire nothing more than to sink into the decking below the bed and stay there until he felt strong enough to actually have this conversation.  Because he didn’t feel up to it now.  The warmth that had sustained him in the beginning had long since faded, and in its place, all he felt was a tiredness so deep that it made his very bones ache.  Worse still, dealing with Ellison’s negative emotions, as well as all of the low level pain, fear and depression that was soaking in from every corner of the medical facility was giving him a headache.  He tried to focus on reinforcing his barriers, but after a week of sickness, machine and drug induced unconsciousness, he was finding it a little difficult to concentrate that hard.  At least, he was until a gentle hand descended across the back of his neck.  As always, Jim’s touch reinforced his empathic barriers.  Obscurely though, this only made Blair feel worse, because he still wasn’t feeling up to fighting right now, and it was hard enough trying to maintain anger at his bond-mate, let alone when he was feeling like crap and Ellison was shielding him.

 

“Blair.” Jim’s voice spoke gently from above his bowed head.  “Blair, look at me for a minute.”

 

The empath really wanted to ignore that entreating voice, but he’d already established that he couldn’t stay angry with his Sentinel, so he supposed trying to ignore him wouldn’t serve much of a purpose.  He raised his face from his knees, and instantly felt his bond-mate’s big hand catch his chin and gently force his face up until Jim could look into his eyes.

 

“Blair, what do you mean, you couldn’t let me down again?” Jim asked quietly, all of the anger now drained from his face and the emotions flowing through to Blair from the bond.  Now all Blair could sense in his Sentinel was confusion and worry.  “You didn’t let me down kid.”

 

“Yes I did.” Blair whispered, trying to turn his face away.  Ellison’s grip on his chin, while remaining gentle, would not allow his retreat.

 

“No, you didn’t.” Jim denied more firmly.

 

“Yes I did!” Blair growled, but his voice came out more grief-stricken than angry.

 

“When, Chief?” Ellison asked gently.  “Tell me what’s goin’ on in that head of yours, kid, because I can’t think of anything that you’ve done to let me down.”

 

“In the beginning.” Blair whispered harshly, jerking his face away from Ellison’s hand and burying it against his knees again.  “I let you down in the beginning.” He murmured into his legs.

 

“How Blair?” Ellison’s voice was genuinely confused, even as his hand came down to gently massage the back of his neck in what was undoubtedly an attempt to ease his Guide’s distress.  Blair couldn’t decide whether the care that Ellison was projecting toward him through both the bond and the gentleness of his touch made him feel better or worse.  It was a matter of soul-deep relief to him that his Sentinel cared for him so much, but on another level, he wished that Jim would just go back to being angry with him.  He deserved Jim’s anger.  He knew it, and couldn’t understand why his Sentinel didn’t.

 

“When you wanted to go to the bridge early on the morning we were due to enter the Zone, and I was too busy to come.” Blair groaned, pulling his knees up tighter to his chest.  “You’re instincts were telling you that you had to be there.  But I didn’t listen.  I was too damned focused on what I was doing.  I should have come to the bridge with you.  If I had, then none of this would have happened.” Blair drew a harsh, shuddering breath, before continuing his grief-stricken confession.  “All of those people died because I didn’t do my job as your Guide.”

 

“Blair, you can’t possibly be blaming yourself for everything that happened in the Raptor!” Ellison responded, his voice reflecting his horror that his Guide could even think such a thing.  “The Raptor was attacked on the order of someone who wanted to benefit from our deaths.  We were set up and ambushed.  How the hell can you possibly decide that that’s somehow your fault?”

 

“I wasn’t there!” Blair almost wailed against his legs.  “You told me yourself!  You saw the Romulan ship with your sentinel sight, but you couldn’t focus on it properly.  By the time you managed it, it was too late.  You got the shields up, but it was too late for a preemptive strike!  If I’d been with you, like I was supposed to have been, I could have helped you to work out what it was that you were seeing sooner and none of this would have happened!”

 

For a long moment, a stunned silence fell over the room, broken only by the harsh panting of Blair’s breath being sucked in against the barrier of his knees.  Blair clenched his eyes even more tightly shut and tried to make himself disappear into an even tighter ball.  After a moment though, the gentle hand against the back of his neck disappeared, and a large, strong hand gripped each of his own hands, forcing them away from his knees and carefully but inexorably forcing him to unwrap from his defensive pose.

 

“Blair, look at me.” Ellison’s voice was quiet, but it had the unmistakable ring of a command.  Blair tried to duck his head further away, but the larger man gave him a small shake.  “I mean it Blair.  Look at me.  Right now.”

 

Blair didn’t really want to look, but he wasn’t a coward.  He’d made his confession, and now he had to deal with the consequences of that.  He looked up slowly, until he could see his Sentinel sitting across from him, gazing down at him with eyes that were devoid of expression.

 

“Blair, I need you to listen to me now, okay?” The Sentinel waited for his Guide’s reluctant nod before continuing.  “I know that you know things about subjects that I can’t even conceive of, but I need you to really listen to me now, because this is one of those few things that I know.” Ellison paused, and then drew a deep breath.  “There is no point looking back on what’s already done and beating yourself up over a choice that you didn’t make.  I’ve been doing that for years on all sorts of subjects.  The problem is, that hindsight can’t call back the dead, and it isn’t always as clear as people say it is.

 

I know that you’re saying that things would have been different if you’d come to the bridge with me, and you’re right.  They would have.  But you’re only focusing on the possible outcomes that would have been better than what we got.  What about the possible outcomes where things went worse?”

 

“What..?” Blair muttered in confusion, totally thrown by the sudden change in direction that this conversation had taken.

 

Ellison continued to regard him through hooded eyes, and even the emotions coming through the bond to Blair were suddenly muted.  “What about the possibility where I was so busy focusing on you, that I didn’t see the Romulan ship at all?” he demanded.  “You didn’t sleep well the night before everything went down and I was worried about you.  If I had been focused on you, I might not have seen the ship at all, therefore I wouldn’t have managed to get the shields up, and the whole ship would have been destroyed in the initial attack.  Or how about the possibility that you came to the bridge, I saw that ‘ghost’, but by the time you’d moved over to me, we’d lost precious seconds, and we still didn’t realize what was happening until the last moment.  We undertook that self-same battle.  Did anyone tell you that the science officer on duty on the bridge was killed when his console exploded? If you had been there, it would have been you that died.  I would have dropped into a zone during the fight and would never have recovered.  Without us, Ryalc’s people would have been caught in a phaser battle in the bowels of this ship.  Who’s to say that a stray phaser shot wouldn’t have hit one of those explosives that they were carrying, and then the whole ship would have gone up.  Everyone would have been dead.  There are a thousand things that could have happened that day if either one of us had made other choices.  And if I recall things correctly, your preoccupation with training me with my senses saved both of our lives.  If you hadn’t been so focused on my training, you wouldn’t have set up that sensory deprivation program in the holosuite for that day, and with the state that we were in by the time we got to the holosuite, we would have both died if you hadn’t been able to even up the odds.  And if we had died before we got back to the shuttle bay, then the others wouldn’t have had the warning we provided before the Romulan invaders attacked. Then that grenade would have taken out the shuttle bay, and the shuttles, and when the explosives on the cutter went up, the whole damned ship would have followed.”  Ellison broke off then and shifted forward to frame his Guide’s face within his hands.  When he was sure that he had his bond-mate’s undivided attention, he continued.

 

“Blair, I acknowledge that there are undoubtedly ways in which things could have gone better for us, but there are a hell of a lot of ways in which they could have been worse.  As it is, the Raptor can be rebuilt.  We’re both alive.  We saved more lives amongst the crew than we lost.  And at the end of the day, if I’m right about the reason behind the attack, then by simply surviving, we saved a whole planet and the lives of all of its many inhabitants.”  Jim gently stroked the skin around his Guide’s eyes with his thumbs, “The result we got may not have been perfect, kid, but I’ll take it.”

 

Blair stared up into his Sentinel’s face, almost unwilling to believe the way in which his Sentinel was viewing the events surrounding their entry into the Neutral Zone.  “You aren’t mad at me?” he asked softly.  Ellison’s eyes became suddenly misty in the wake of his Guide’s question, and he carefully tugged Blair forward until he was resting within his arms.

 

“The only thing that I’m mad about is the fact that you risked your life needlessly because of some misguided sense of guilt.” Ellison whispered against Blair’s hair.

 

“It still wasn’t needless.” Sandburg asserted, even as he let the full weight of his head rest on the older man’s shoulder, and allowed his tired body to melt into the support his Sentinel was offering. “A Guide has to be there for his Sentinel.  While you needed me to anchor your senses, I had to stay at your side.”

 

“We’ll talk about that later, kid.” Ellison suggested quietly.

 

Blair snorted against his taller friend’s chest, even as he continued to relax.  “You won’t want to talk about it later.” He grumbled.

 

“Probably not.” Ellison agreed, the smile in his voice obvious.  “I doubt that a small detail like that’d stop you.”

 

“Probably not.” Blair smiled.  “I guess we’re both just gonna have to keep doing what feels right to us with all of this.”

 

“You mean, we’ll keep making it up as we go along?” Ellison suggested wryly.

 

“Yep.” Blair agreed solemnly.

 

“We can do that.” Jim decided quietly.  “But for the time being, your barriers are still low.”

 

“Uh huh.” The young Guide nodded against the broad chest he was resting on.

 

“So we bond.” Ellison decided, even as he gently began to lower the man in his arms back onto the bed.  For a moment, Blair lost physical contact with his bond-mate, and he made a small sound of protest at the loss.  A second later though the contact returned, as Jim climbed agilely up onto the small medical facility bed, and proceeded to wrap himself around his Guide.  Blair heard himself hum in contentment, even as he settled down, and felt the protective, warming presence of his Sentinel wrap around his mind, and the warmth of his body seep into the young half-Vulcan.  Blair felt himself drifting away on a wave of contentment.

 

The last thing he remembered, before drifting back into a deep, healing sleep, was a voice in his ear whispering.  “I’ll wake you up in about three hours.  I’ve made an appointment with a lawyer to change your religious status in your Starfleet records.

 

Blair smiled as he dropped off to sleep.

 

Gods his Sentinel was a managing bastard.

 


 

“Hey!” Sam Curtis’ voice rang out over the noise of the bar, causing Chris Keel to turn and hunt for the familiar face of his partner in the crowded bar.  It only took him a moment to spot the young Englishman striding toward the table that he and several of their ship mates were occupying.

 

“You’re late, Curtis!” he called back.

 

“And with good reason!” Sam called back with that note of bored amusement that indicated to Keel that his partner was in a particularly good mood.  “I just ran into Commander Ellison.  Dr Sandburg woke up earlier today.  He’s going to be alright.”

 

“Thank God.” Serena Chang sighed, and then shook her head.  “He’d been out of it for so long, I was beginning to worry that he’d done himself some permanent damage.” The psychologist grimaced slightly.  “Empathic shock is not something he should have been messing about with.”

 

“I doubt a choice he had.” Ryalc growled.  “There was much that needed doing.  Too much courage has he to hide in the medical centre, while dying are those around him.”

 

“Well, that’s three less to worry about today.” Bli’inkavari said cheerfully.  “That young security officer that got so badly damaged in the shuttle bay… What was his name?” She trailed off with a frustrated frown.

 

“Rafe.” Ryalc supplied fondly.

 

“Yeah!  Richards told me that he got released earlier today, and that poor engineer that lost a hand when the life support area got infiltrated got out of medical too.” The little Toriishi engineer nodded.

 

“S’pose they’ll be sending her to rehab, Earth-side.” Keel mused.

 

“Yeah, but at least the synthetics took.” Serena reminded him.  “In a couple of months, she’ll even be forgetting that it isn’t her original hand.”

 

“Here’s to the marvels of medical science.” Blink intoned, and then threw back another glass of Synthehol.

 

“Here, here!” agreed the rest of the party, and almost as one, the occupants of the table tossed back the contents of their glasses.

 

“Has anybody heard today about how the repairs to the Raptor are progressing?” Serena demanded as she lowered her glass.

 

“Spoke to Taggart today.” Blink informed the psychologist with a nod.  “Since I got the all clear from the therapist on my shoulder today, he wants me on a shuttle back out there tomorrow.  They’re ready to start moving her back to DS5, but they want to take it slow, at least until they’re sure that the shoring up of the bulkheads is going to hold.”

 

“Ah, great.” Smiled Serena.  “Could you tell Connor for me that I’ve found a little restaurant on the promenade here that she’ll love.  Tell her I’ll treat her to lunch when she makes it back here.”

 

“That ought to encourage her to speed up the progress of the repairs.” Blink smirked.  “I’ve never met a human with quite such an obsessive relationship with food before.”

 

“Obviously you’ve never spent much time around Curtis, here.” Keel drawled.

 

The occupants of the table cracked up with laughter at the American’s comment, and the perpetually cool Englishman merely raised an eyebrow at suddenly finding himself the object of the group’s humor.  He shook his head in an exaggerated display of long suffering patience. 

 

“Speaking of humorous concepts,” Curtis drawled as he cast a disparaging eye over his friend, “I don’t suppose that you’ve stuck your hand up to shout a round of drinks yet, have you?”  The rest of the table chortled at the communication’s officer’s question, and Keel pulled a sarcastic face at his friend.

 

“Come to think it of,” Ryalc chortled, “feared am I that he has not.”

 

“Your turn Keel!” Serena laughed.

 

“We tossed and you lost.” Blink agreed.

 

“Ha ha.” Snorted Keel.

 

“C’mon, mate,” Curtis smiled, “I’ll give you a hand.”

 

“Thanks dreadfully.” Keel huffed, as he stood up and began weaving his way through the thick crowd toward the bar.  It wasn’t until they were well across the room and out of earshot of their companions that Keel spoke again.  “Thanks for volunteering me.” He growled good naturedly at his friend.

 

“Any time.” Curtis nodded graciously.

 

“I assume that you need to talk to me about something privately.” Keel raised an eyebrow at his friend.  The Englishman merely gave a small smile, and caught at his friend’s arm.

 

“Let’s get out of here for a moment.” Curtis suggested evenly.

 

“Thanks to you, we’ve now got a table full of people waiting on us for the next round of drinks.” Keel reminded his partner, even as Sam steered him toward the door.

 

“With the Yorktown, the Kala Baara and that ore freighter all docked here at the moment, there are enough people in that bar that the others won’t be surprised by a bit of a delay.” Curtis replied serenely.

 

“Marvelous.” Keel sighed as the two of them left the bar and wandered down past several shop fronts to a small café.  The American followed his partner into the café, and toward a small booth at the back of the room.  The pair of them slid into the booth, and Sam calmly pulled out a small device, activated it, and placed it on the table.  Keel looked at the small anti-surveillance device on the table, and then raised his eyes incredulously toward his partner, who merely shrugged, Keel shook his head and smiled.  Sam was, without question, the most paranoid human being that he’d ever met.  It’d probably bother him, if it hadn’t saved both of their lives on so many occasions.  “So.” Keel turned curious eyes on his partner.  “I take it that you’ve been talking with the Old Man.”

 

“Yeah.” Sam confirmed in a drawl.

 

“So what did the old tyrant have to say?” Keel asked as he slumped down in his seat.

 

“He just confirmed that Starfleet Command has accepted the Romulan’s assertion that the Commander of the Bird of Prey that attacked us was a rebel opposed to a treaty between our two peoples, and that he was acting without orders by attempting to destroy the Raptor and her crew.” Curtis informed his partner coolly.

 

Keel sat up straight again fast.  “Son-of-a-bitch!” he swore angrily.  “Of course they were acting under orders!  We were set up!  It was too fucking well choreographed for it to be anything but a planned trap!  How the hell could Malone accept that shit?  What about all of the Starfleet Officers that died over this?” Keel’s indignation was such that the dark-haired young man was almost vibrating in place with his anger.  Curtis watched him in tired understanding.  There was both sympathy and agreement in his icy, grey-green eyes, but there was also a calculating detachment there, that Keel had long ago learned to identify as the hardened professional spy that kept his friend from making mistakes in the name of idealism.

 

“They accepted the Romulan’s explanation, Chris, because to call them the liars that we know them to be, would be to call down war on the Federation.” Sam reminded him gently.  “And if we go to war, then many more Starfleet officers would die.” Curtis looked away for a moment, but when he turned back, his eyes were hard.  “That’s politics for you, Chris.  There’s always a trade off, and it’s usually the lives of the innocent that get traded.”

 

“Yeah?  Well, it sucks.” Keel growled petulantly as he all but hurled himself back to slouch down again against the seat.

 

“Yeah.” Curtis agreed gently.  “It does.”

 

“Well,” Keel muttered darkly as he folded his arms across his chest and fixed his eyes on the smooth table top in front of him.  “At least we know that it wasn’t anyone on the Raptor that was responsible for the sabotage.  Cold comfort of course for all those families that lost someone, but at least we can tell them that their loved ones were all good Starfleet officers.”

 

Keel peeked up at his partner and found the Englishman simply watching him.  Curtis always seemed to know when a comment was required, and when his friend was simply venting.  Sam knew that there was nothing that he could say to make Keel feel better, so he said nothing at all.  After a moment, Chris drew a deep breath, and then leaned back to look at the ceiling.

 

“Christ.” He swore miserably, before turning unhappy eyes back on his friend.  “So did Malone at least get what he needed to convict that asshole that he was after?”

 

“Did he get enough to convict the mole in a Starfleet court.  No.” Curtis responded quietly.

 

“Fuck!” Keel exploded.  “Well then what was the point in any of it?”

 

“I said that he didn’t have enough to convict him in a Starfleet court, Keel.” Curtis responded in a sharp tone that told the American that he needed to calm down and listen to the rest of it carefully.  “But then, I seriously doubt that the Old Man wanted to get enough to court marshal our mole.  If we were to prosecute the man that Malone’s been investigating from his end, then the whole story of what happened leading up to the attack on the Raptor would get out, and we’d be obliged to go to war with the Romulans anyway. At very least we’d have to pull out of the treaty with them, and the powers that be really want to be able to clean out the Romulan Neutral Zone.” Curtis shook his head.  “Malone wasn’t looking for a way to convict the mole, just to get rid of him.”

 

“So did he achieve that much, at least?” Keel demanded sarcastically.

 

“We’re talking about the Old Man, here Chris.” Curtis reminded his friend gently.  “He got what he wanted.  You can count on it.”

 

“Well…” Keel sighed as he reached up to rub tiredly at his temples.  “That’s something, I guess.”  He shot his partner a dark look.  “I suppose this means that we’ve been recalled.” He asked sourly.

 

“Well, that’s actually the part that I was most wanting to talk to you about.” Curtis smiled slightly and settled back in his chair. “Malone did, in fact, want us back.  However, I had a little chat with him, and managed to convince him that we’d be far more effectively utilized by remaining in our present positions.”

 

Keel stared at his rather smug looking partner blankly.  “Are you shitting me?”  he demanded.

 

“Think about it.” Curtis shrugged.  “CI5 was founded to combat criminal and terrorist activity within the Federation.  Where does about sixty five percent of our workload come from?”

 

“The Neutral Zones.” Keel said quietly.

 

“That’s right.” Curtis gave a cold little smile. “The Neutral Zones.  And since Starfleet has never been officially able to combat problems in this area, we’ve had to sneak operatives in and out of the Zones for years.  The Raptor and the Abydos are not only allowed to be in the Neutral Zones, they’re there to combat the very problems that we’ve been having to deal with covertly up until now.  It’s one hell of a lot more time and cost effective to have us deal with problems when we’re already out here, and Malone doesn’t have to worry about pulling strings to get us back up if we already have a Starship behind us.”

 

“And he’s going to let us stay?” Keel asked incredulously.

 

“Yes, he is.” Curtis smiled.

 

“We get to stay.” Keel spoke the words again as though trying them on for size.  Curtis grinned at him, obviously well pleased with himself.  Keel shook himself slightly and grinned at his partner in amazed delight.  “I like these people, Sam.” He admitted quietly.

 

“I know you do.” Sam smiled.  “I do too.”

 

“I can not believe that the old tyrant let us stay.” Keel grinned.

 

“The trick was in making it seem like an attractive option to him.” Curtis smirked. “And in making him think that it was his idea.”

 

“Only you, Curtis.” Keel said fondly, settling from anger to satisfied happiness with his usual mercurial temper.  The American settled back into his seat again, far more happily this time, and then frowned thoughtfully.  “Hey Sam?” he asked suddenly.

 

“Yeah?” Curtis eyed him cautiously.

 

“If we’re meant to be staying on the Raptor undercover, we won’t be supposed to let anyone know what our real assignment is, huh?” Keel frowned.

 

“No Chris.” Curtis responded with exaggerated patience.

 

“Right.” Keel looked across at his friend uncomfortably.  “So, how are we gonna keep Ellison from finding out that we’re really still working for CI5? I mean… The guy’s sorta… “ Keel trailed off.

 

“Perceptive?” Curtis suggested with a smile.

 

“I was going to say ‘scary’.” Keel snorted.

 

“I wouldn’t worry too much about that.” Sam smiled.  “Who do you think helped me get into the communications room to talk to Malone?”

 

 “He already knows?” Keel gaped at his partner.

 

“He’s already worked out that I’m still working for one of the Intelligence departments.” Curtis acknowledged.  “He doesn’t know which department, and I don’t think he really cares, as long as we’re both on the same side, and I don’t do anything to compromise the Raptor or her crew.  He won’t ask me unnecessary questions, and I won’t ask him any.”

 

“You sound pretty sure of that.” Keel said skeptically.

 

Curtis shrugged.  “He was in Intelligence, and had to have learned one of the more important lessons.  Sometimes, knowing other people’s secrets is nothing more than another burden to carry, and life can usually be counted on to give us enough of our own, without seeking out other people’s.” The Englishman gave his partner a hard look.  “As long as we continue to work to protect his ship and the crew that he’s responsible for, we won’t have any problems with Ellison.”

 

“As long as you’re sure.” Keel shrugged

 

“I am.” Curtis asserted.  “You okay with staying on the Raptor.”

 

“More than okay.” Keel grinned.

 

“Good.” Sam said as he reached over and turned off the small anti-surveillance device on the table, and then slipped it back into his pocket.  “In that case, we’d better get moving.  We’ve got ship mates that are waiting for something to drink while we’re sitting around here.”

 

“Well okay.” Keel grinned as he climbed back to his feet and fell in beside his partner as they began to make their way back to the bar.  “And since our little chat was your idea, you can pay for that round of drinks.”

 

“Like hell.” Curtis snorted.

 

“Yes you can.” Keel nodded.

 

“There’s only one way to decide this.” Curtis shrugged, a definite light coming into his grey-green eyes that made Keel instantly uncomfortable.  “Last one to the bar, pays for the drinks.” And with that, the Englishman powered forward into the crowd.  Keel swore, and then charged after his partner.

 

Chris Keel dived through the crowd, and lost sight of his partner immediately.  Upon reaching the bar, he was surprised to realize that he had, indeed, beaten the Englishman there.  Keel frowned, and then looked around for his absent partner.

 

It wasn’t until he realized that Curtis was already sitting with the rest of their shipmates that Chris finally worked out that he was going to be the one paying for the drinks after all.

 


 

Admiral Normal Oliver threaded his way through the busy streets of the San Francisco waterfront and into the rather expensive and exclusive restaurant frequented by many of the high ranking Starfleet officers stationed at the nearby Starfleet Command.  The Maitre’d recognized Oliver immediately, and ushered him to a small, private table at the back of the restaurant. Oliver acknowledged the man already sitting there with a nod, and then ordered a glass of wine, before pulling up a seat and facing the man who was waiting for him.

 

“So what’s the emergency, Harry?” He asked impatiently of the older man.  “What was so damned important that it couldn’t wait?  I’ve got a lot on my plate, just now.”

 

Admiral Harry Malone smiled benignly at him.  “Don’t worry, Norman.” He said quietly in his cultured British accent.  “This won’t take long.”

 

“So what is it?” Oliver demanded as he pulled up a menu to peruse what was on offer in the way of food. 

 

“I just wanted you to know that I’m aware of your involvement in the attacks on the Raptor.” Malone said serenely as he took a sip from the glass of mineral water that had been sitting in front of him.

 

Oliver froze at those simply stated words.  His jaw tightened, and he raised his eyes toward his opponent slowly.  Malone merely continued to sit and sip his drink, as though he had been discussing the weather, and not treason.  Malone had always been a problem to Oliver, but the younger man had no doubt that if the older Admiral had something concrete to back his statement up, there would have been a whole unit of armed security guards ready to take him into custody in the instant the information had fallen into Malone’s hands.  No, he decided, this was merely a fishing expedition, and a poorly planned one at that.  Oliver forced himself to relax and sit back in his chair. 

 

“That’s a serious accusation, Harry.  I’d have to hope that you have something to back that up.”

 

“I do, as a matter of fact.” Malone agreed, and then picked up a small data pad from the chair next to him, and then handed it to Oliver.  The younger Admiral felt himself tense up slightly again, but forced himself to take the data pad.

 

As Oliver scanned through the data that the pad contained, Malone continued to sip his water as though he didn’t have a care in the world.  Oliver frowned at the information the data pad revealed.  Meetings and communications with people that could be traced as having links to the Romulan Empire.  Records of payments, and incidences where Oliver had been in a unique position to cause the problems that had occurred.  Oliver carefully avoided looking at his accuser as he skimmed through the information.  No one thing stood out as being completely damning, but together, the information could cause uncomfortable questions to be asked.  Even as he read, Norman began to work out what would be the most expedient means of ‘getting rid’ of Harry Malone.  The old bastard knew too much as it was, and the last thing that he needed was for the Englishman to find out any more.  As he worked on a plan to get rid of his enemy, a pretty blonde waitress appeared with the wine he’d ordered.  He accepted it and nodded his thanks without looking up at all.

 

After a few more moments of skimming, Oliver looked up, his eyes cool and emotionless.  “There’s nothing here that could be used to convict me in a court marshal.” He asserted confidently.

 

“No.” Malone agreed.  “I know.  But then, I wasn’t looking to convict you, Norman.”

 

“What is this then?” Norman snorted as he tossed the data pad carelessly down on the table.  “Blackmail?”

 

“No Norman.” Malone smiled, and this time the solidly built old man’s face took on a look that would have made the perpetual grin of a human skull look friendly by comparison.  “It’s justice.”

 

“What’re you talking about?” Oliver growled.

 

“Simply this, Admiral.” Malone sat back and looked at him with all of the compassion of a spider watching a fly that it had trapped.  “Over the years, any number of operations have gone wrong that were, in some way, connected to you.  In our business, when things go wrong, people die.  And everyone that ever lost a friend or loved one to one of those disasters that you manipulated has been paying attention ever since.  Particularly those within Intelligence itself that lost someone that they care about.  The information that you’ve just seen has been made public over the Starfleet Information Net.  Even as we speak, there are people reading that information, and realizing exactly what happened to their friends or loved one, and they’re realizing exactly who it was that was responsible for the leaks and/or bad information that caused their deaths.  That means that right now, there are a great many people out there, who are very angry with you, indeed.”

 

“But it doesn’t really matter how angry they are, does it?” Oliver smiled coldly, “Because without enough proof to convict me, there’s nothing that you can do.”

 

“You’re not really thinking about this very hard, are you Norman.” Malone asked, his eyes almost pitying.  “Our organization has trained up some of the most efficient, effective killers in the universe, and right now, those people are finding out that you’ve sold them out.  Those people know how to ferret out the truth, and right now, they’re reading between the lines of that report and seeing the ‘truth’.  And they’re realizing that as one of their ultimate Commanding officer’s, their lives are in your hands.  That’s not going to make them very happy, now, is it?”  Malone shook his head, and then picked up the data pad.  “Norman, I know that we were both recruited for intelligence out of Command school, but you came in as a communications officer, and I came from security.  I think that perhaps you missed out on a great deal by not undergoing that early security training.  You see, the first thing that they taught us was to look after our weapons.  A well cared-for weapon, is, after-all, a soldier’s best friend when things get tight.  A soldier that neglects his weapons is just asking for them to blow up on him one day.” Malone gave a wintry little smile.  “Today, I think, is your ‘day’.” 

 

Without a further word, Harry Malone stood up.  He finished his glass of water in a single swallow, and then turned back toward Oliver.  “Goodbye Norman.” The older Englishman nodded without extending his hand.  “I doubt very much that we’ll meet again.”

 

“I hate to disillusion you Harry,” Oliver sneered, “But we’ve got a staff meeting to attend in together in two days time, and I’m not going to resign over this shit you’ve released over the Net.” Oliver smirked, “It’d make me look guilty.”

 

“I wasn’t expecting you to resign, Norman.” Malone smiled mildly as he turned away.  “I was merely commenting on the – efficiency -- of our people.  We did, after all, train them to be the best.  I’d wish you a good day, but we both know that you aren’t likely to have one.” And with that, Harry Malone walked off, and left Norman Oliver sitting alone.

 

Oliver stared after his nemesis for several long moments, then tossed back the rest of his wine and stood up hurriedly.  The old bastard had been right when he’d said that the information that he’d released could cause him problems.  He was going to have to do some spin doctoring to fix this, and he was going to have to put his plan to get rid of Malone into effect pretty quickly too. 

 

As he rushed off, Norman Oliver, for the first time in years, was forced to contemplate what a vulnerable area his back was.

 


 

For a moment, the table where Malone and Oliver had been sitting sat deserted, but it didn’t take long for the blonde waitress that had brought Oliver his drink to return.  She set the glasses on a tray, and quickly changed the crisp, white tablecloth, as some of the Admiral’s wine had spilled in his hurry to be gone.  She then picked up the tray and the tablecloth, and made her way to the service area at the back of the restaurant. 

 

She moved amidst the organized chaos of the kitchen, to dispose of the cloth in the laundry area, and then took the glasses to be washed by one of the kitchen hands.  She then calmly walked back to the service exit, and made her way casually outside.

 

As she moved up the rear alley of the building, she stripped off her apron, and then shoved it into the bag she’d left sitting in the alley when she’d entered.

 

She had only been in the restaurant for a few minutes, and she was confident that no one had paid her the least attention.  After all, university students looking to pick up a little extra cash came and went there all the time.  She, like all of the other help in the restaurant, had merely been there to do a job, and now it was done.

 

By the time the slow acting poison she’d placed in Oliver’s wine took effect, there would be no tracing it back to this place, any more than there would be any tracing her back to this place.  After all, like all of her kind, she had been trained by Starfleet to be the best at what she did. 

 

Without a backward look, or a single further thought on what she had just done, the assassin moved out into the heavy crowd of the San Francisco waterfront and immediately disappeared.

 

The End