She ran like her life depended on it.
In fact, it did.
At her last count, at least five Cardassian soldiers were nipping at her heels, dead-set on capturing her if possible or outright cutting her down if bringing her in alive proved too difficult.
At least she thought it had been five, in truth, she hadn’t been able to tell for sure while dodging their barrage of phaser fire which had started the moment the patrol had first encountered her.
The Cardies were angry and probably had every right to be after she had successfully set off a photon bomb just outside the heavily guarded main Cardassian garrison for Rakantha Province a couple of hours earlier.
As had been their standard practice, her cell of mostly teenaged resistance fighters had split up after the attack in order to improve their chances to avoid the inevitable manhunt that would follow.
Her luck which had served her quite well over the last few months had finally run its course when a patrol had stumbled over her practically by accident and she had spent the last hour or so desperately attempting to avoid the soldiers chasing her, fully aware that the longer the pursuit carried on, the higher the chances that they’d catch up with her. There was little doubt that the Cardassians had already called in for reinforcements, a luxury she didn’t have access to as a guerilla fighter facing an enemy with far superior numbers and resources.
She allowed a small smirk to cross her dirty face when she spotted the first signs of the swamp.
The expansive bog with its hip-high and muddy water, its large trees, its infestation of Rakonian swamp rats, and fog so thick it could be cut with a phaser was one of the province’s most impassable regions and an ideal location to throw off pursuers, especially those unfamiliar with the treacherous terrain.
She, of course, had grown up in this place and knew exactly which trails were relatively safe and which ones led right into the worst sandbanks where one could easily lose their footing and drown, particularly in the gloom after sundown with only Bajor’s moons providing any meaningful light.
The mixture of darkness, fog, and mud was a deadly combination she had exploited on many occasions to throw Cardassians off her trail and there was little to make her believe that this time would be any different.
And yet, almost as soon as she had passed the first large trees growing out of the waters and had entered the misty surroundings, she could tell that something was very wrong.
She slowed the frantic pace she had kept up for nearly an hour for the first time, partly because it would have been hazardous, not to mention challenging, to attempt and cross the swamp at an all outrun. But she came to a complete standstill when she suddenly and inexplicably could no longer tell which direction would deliver her to safety, almost as if she had never entered the bog before.
Equally as curious was the fact that an unnatural quietness had fallen over the swamp. Gone were the angry shouts and curses of her pursuers, and neither could she hear the usually persistent squeaks of the large rat population that made this place it's home, nor sounds of birds or even insects.
The swamp was perfectly still, dead even.
She turned slowly to try and reorient herself, to find anything that would indicate which direction she needed to take but rather than reaffirming the right path, her confusion only grew, soon she wasn’t able to tell which direction she had come from. The fog appeared thicker now than ever before, making it practically impossible to see more than two meters in any direction.
Then she heard the faint voice, seemingly coming from somewhere behind her. Whatever confusion she was experiencing, it seemed her pursuers had not encountered any such challenges and were closing in on her.
She did what she always did when she feared her enemy was close by and ready to pounce on her. She went into a crouch and slowed her breathing. Then she closed her eyes trying to concentrate on the movements of her opponents.
He was right behind her.
She leaped into action.
She ignored the strange-sounding voice and struck out through the fog, letting her instinct guide her in lieu of being able to see her pursuer.
She found her target.
With a mixture of well-practiced moves and the desperation of a young woman fighting for her life, she grabbed hold of the enemy and managed to rip him off his feet and straight into the water, intending on drowning the trooper before he could call for her help.
As expected, he struggled against her as she forced him into the swamp water with all her strength. She was no stranger to killing a man with her bare hands and whenever she had been forced into that situation, it usually helped to not think of her enemy as a man at all.
“Lieutenant,” he gasped again as his face briefly broke the surface of the muddy water.
She applied more force, understanding perfectly well that at this moment it was either him or her, that if she didn’t follow through now, she’d never get another chance.
And yet he was much stronger than she had anticipated, stronger than most Cardassians she had ever fought.
She hesitated for a moment when she heard her name.
She realized for the first time that the face of the man she was trying to kill wasn’t Cardassian at all but much darker and smoother than it had any right to be.
And it was familiar.
The head lifted out of the water enough for her to spot his ears which were clearly not Cardassian, not exactly Bajoran either. They were Vulcan.
She let go suddenly and stumbled backward.
There were no Vulcans on Bajor, at least none she knew off. In fact, she was fairly certain that she had never seen a Vulcan in her life and yet she knew this man. Knew him well.
Her head spinning now, she stumbled over the thick roots of a tree behind her and landed in the knee-high mud herself even while she watched on wide-eyed as the Vulcan man stood up from where she had tried to drown him.
“Lieutenant Nora, do you recognize me?”
She nodded despite herself.
“You are Lieutenant Nora Laas, chief of security on the Starfleet vessel USS Eagle. You are currently taking part in a shared mind-link,” he said calmly as he kept his eyes on her, showing no evidence that he had come close to drowning in the swamp moments earlier.
It all came back to her in an instant. “This is all in my head?”
“In a matter of speaking, yes.”
It was only now that she spotted the other figures around her. She couldn’t tell with certainty if they’d always been there or if they had only just emerged from the fog.
She immediately recognized Louise, Bensu, Ivory, and Diamond.
Lou promptly walked over to her and held out a hand which Laas quickly took, allowing her friend to pull her back onto her feet. “Laas, are you all right?”
“A little disoriented to be honest.”
Louise nodded. “You’re not the only one.”
“What is this place?” Bensu said.
“It’s a swamp on Bajor close to where I grew up,” she said and then looked towards Xylion. “The better question is, why are we here?”
“Creating a mind-link is not an exact science, certainly not when involving the less disciplined minds of non-telepaths. Certain aberrations are not entirely unexpected,” he said.
She rolled her eyes. “Undisciplined minds? I’ll try not to take offense.”
“None was intended.”
“A warning would have been nice,” she said as she began to wipe the thick mud off her uniform but then stopped when she remembered that none of this was real in the first place.
“Although I anticipated some difficulties, I had no way of knowing the exact shape they would take,” he said as he considered his surroundings.
“So, does this mean we’re all inside Laas’ head right now? Is that what’s happening here?” said Lou.
“Physically, our bodies remain in the same position they were when we commenced the mind-link in the Ring’s command room. However, we are currently experiencing a shared telepathic connection powered by the efforts of the telepaths in our link. But I fear the connection is currently unstable.”
“Because of the undisciplined minds in the link,” Laas said, not entirely able to keep her voice free of indignation.
Xylion offered a small nod. “Yes. Until we can find a way to stabilize the connection, we might experience--“
The Bajoran swamp disappeared in front of her eyes, almost as if somebody had suddenly torn away a veil on which it had been painted and Laas and the others found themselves somewhere else entirely.
The transition was nothing less than startling, more abrupt and immediate than the fastest transporter that had ever whisked her through time and space and it left her dazzled with her mind spinning.
The dark, foggy bog had been replaced by a brightly-lit room, sparsely decorated and judging from the expansive vista observable through a large window, located in a desert-like environment.
The rest of the away team was as startled as she was by this unexpected change of scenery, everyone but Xylion, it appeared.
The Vulcan stood slightly apart from the others, busying himself at a standing computer workstation and paying no attention to the rest of the team or the fact that they had just been yanked to this location without warning.
“What … happened?” Louise said, sounding out of breath from the experience.
She shook her head as she slowly took in their surroundings. While she had been perfectly familiar with the swamp they had occupied moments earlier, she couldn’t place this new locale at all. Outside the window, she could spot a very bright sun high in the sky and at least one other star which was likely part of the same planetary system. This didn’t exactly narrow their options since binary and tertiary star systems were abundant in the known galaxy.
Laas turned to look at Ivory who had taken a step closer to the window and then turned to regard her. She said nothing further as if she had explained everything.
Louise considered her for a moment and then also turned towards Laas. “We must be inside another memory. And if this is Vulcan and the memory isn’t Ivory’s.”
She didn’t have to finish the thought as Laas reached the same conclusion at the same time. She turned to find the only other Vulcan in the team again, finding him still working at the computer station, seemingly unconcerned with their situation. “Commander.”
He didn’t respond.
Louise put a hand on her shoulder which caused her to look at the chief engineer. “If this is anything like the last one, it’ll be difficult to reach him.”
She nodded, remembering how real it had felt reliving her memory of trying to drown the Cardassian soldier in the swamp, almost as if she had been right back in that moment which had taken place over ten years earlier.
The sound of the door annunciator caught everyone by surprise again, and she whipped around towards the room’s only entrance.
“Enter,” said Xylion calmly.
The doors parted and a woman stepped inside. Laas recognized her. She was Vulcan and certainly attractive, wearing just a hint of facial makeup and the strands of bright blonde hair in her otherwise traditionally cut Vulcan hairstyle made her stand-out from much of her peers. Laas had met this woman years earlier when she had visited Eagle along with a diplomatic delegation. K’tera had been Xylion’s betrothed and she had been killed only a few days after she had come aboard.
“Xylion, I trust you have made a decision,” she said with little preamble as she stepped further into the room, paying no attention to the rest of the away team which was clearly invisible to her.
Xylion turned away from his console. “I have. I must accept the Institute’s offer to join the Soval’s mission as such an opportunity will likely not repeat itself in some time.”
She offered a brief nod, seemingly not surprised by the news. “You wish to delay our espousal,” she said. It wasn’t framed as a question.
“My decision will necessitate that we do.”
“By three years?” she said.
“That is the planned length of the expedition.”
Xylion took a small step towards her. “My commitment to our future has not changed because of this assignment.”
She offered a little smile in response, making it quite clear that K’tera was not the average Vulcan. “It is just that your career is of more importance to you.”
“That is incorrect. However, it is impossible to deny the impact the Soval’s expedition will have on our current understanding of astrophysics and how my contribution to this research is likely to significantly advance the field. If I were not to take part in this expedition now, the probability that such advances will not take place within our lifetimes is high. On the other hand, the probability of our betrothal taking place if I am to join the Soval at this time remains above seventy-five percent.”
“Your logic appears flawless. As always.”
He offered a brief nod as if she had offered him a compliment. “You accept my decision?”
She took a moment to let her eyes wander across the room, towards the window and then slowly back to him. “I wasn’t under the impression I had a choice in the matter.”
Xylion looked surprisingly irritated by her response. “I apologize if I have given you that impression. It was not my intention.”
She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter, Xylion. This is your decision and you have made it. I will await your return,” she said and then raised her right hand to offer the traditional Vulcan v-shaped hand salute.
He mirrored the move. “Live long and prosper, K’tera.”
Laas couldn’t help but wince at hearing those words, knowing full well that in her case the salutations would actually turn out to be a dark omen.
“You as well,” she said, hesitated just a moment longer before she turned her back to him and walked out of the room again.
Xylion looked after her, keeping his eyes on the door even after she had left. After a few and empty seconds, he returned to his computer station.
He didn’t make it all the way there. Instead, he stopped suddenly and reached out for his head
Louise stepped closer. “Xylion, can you hear me?”
He turned back and after a moment he seemed to recognize her. “Yes.”
“What happened?” Laas asked.
“It appears the instability in our shared mind-link is causing us to jump to random memories within our subconscious,” he said as he considered his surroundings. “A fascinating telepathic phenomenon I have not previously witnessed and one worth further study.”
“Yes, really interesting,” Laas said, unable to keep a tinge of sarcasm from leaking into her tone. “I think our time might be better put to use trying to stabilize this mind-gizmo thing and try to accomplish what we set out to do.”
But apparently, Lou wasn’t quite ready to give up on what she had seen. “Why this memory? Do you regret it? Do you regret that you postponed your marriage to K’tera to pursue your career?” Hopkins said and then blushed immediately, realizing that perhaps she had crossed a line.
“I--” Xylion uncharacteristically sopped himself as he looked back towards the doors where the memory of K’tera had walked out of his apartment and likely out of his life as well, just a moment earlier.
He didn’t get a chance to complete his thoughts and once again, the façade of Vulcan shattered unexpectedly to be replaced with yet another location.
Still not used to these sudden transitions, it left Laas woozy yet again and she stumbled slightly until Xylion, standing next to her, steadied her. She offered him a grateful look and then tried to focus on their new location. “Where are we now?”
They stood in a large and triangular-shaped open-air arena of sorts, with three sides of stands surrounding a wide space with a sizeable three-sided table at its center.
The terraces which must have allowed enough room for hundreds of spectators were mostly empty but at least thirty people stood around that central table. Laas noticed that all their physical attributes matched quite closely to Bensu’s, making it obvious that they had to be seeing one of his memories.
This marked the first time Laas had seen another member of Bensu’s species, a race she hadn’t even been aware of before she had met the enigmatic bartender and even now, she couldn’t name his people or had the slightest inkling where they hailed from.
It seemed this planet, wherever it may have been, held a significant population of his people, may even have been their homeworld.
There wasn’t much to see beyond the tall walls of the building they found themselves in, but even in this memory construct, she could feel an oppressive heat she thought was even worse than the dry climate of Vulcan, which was particularly peculiar since it appeared to be nighttime.
“The vote is on resolution five-nine-eight-nine, resource allocation to the space program,” said an elderly man who stood slightly apart from the others at the narrowest end of the large table. “The resolution recommends that these funds should be reallocated to the transference project to improve current supply shortages. How do you vote?”
The forty or so delegates around the table went in order, each one entering their vote into the record. By the time half had cast their vote, it seemed clear that these delegates seemed fairly evenly split on the issue.
Laas wasn’t a great admirer of politics, usually preferring action to the long and drawn-out process which involved a great deal of talking and, at least in her opinion, very little results, but this process held her entire attention and she couldn’t help but feel that something extremely significant was being decided here.
“Is that Bensu?” Louise asked as she looked at the delegate who was next in line to vote.
Laas shook her head as she studied the man’s face. The similarities were undeniable, the dark skin, the bright white bony ridges running across his scalp, the color of his eyes and the overall size and shape of his body, but this man had to be at least thirty years older than the Bensu she knew. “Maybe his father or another relative.”
“It is him,” said Xylion simply.
Both Laas and Louise threw puzzled looks towards the Vulcan. Considering how close he was to Bensu, it seemed unlikely that he’d be wrong on this.
“I vote in favor of the resource allocation,” the elder Bensu said.
Laas turned back to the session and with Bensu’s vote, it seemed that the tide was shifting towards allowing the resolution to be passed. In fact, just a few moments later the result was in and the group’s leader announced that the motion had narrowly carried.
Before Laas could fully understand how Bensu and his fellow delegates felt about the outcome of the vote or what all of this would mean, the entire building, including everyone inside of it, disappeared yet again, like a sudden scene change in a play.
This time Laas was slightly better prepared for the head-spinning transition. She knew immediately that this time they found themselves inside a starship. Although she could see no windows of any kind, the familiar vibrations and the hum of an FTL drive were hard to miss for somebody who spent the majority of her time in space.
It was a Starfleet ship but not Eagle or any other vessel which currently served in the fleet. This one was much older.
“No, no, no. Not this,” Louise mumbled as soon as she recognized where they were.
It took Laas a moment longer to make the connection. She had been to this place only once before. It was a holographic recreation of the twenty-third century starship Lexington inside one of Eagle’s holodecks. It was a program created by Louise Hopkins with, what she had learned, were some significant creative alterations.
“This looks like the engineering section of an old Constitution-class cruiser,” said Diamond which garnered her a surprised look from Laas to which the operative shrugged. “Starship design history is a bit of a side hobby of mine.”
The way she had so quickly identified the interior of a hundred-year-old starship led Laas to believe that her statement was somewhat of an understatement.
It was something other than the Niner’s surprising knowledge of starship design that caught her attention, however. This was clearly Louise’s memory but in all the other ones, the person who had experienced the memory had been entirely part of it, at least initially, while here Louise still stood with the rest of the team, clearly fully aware, not to mention, concerned, as where they found themselves.
Xylion provided an answer. “I have been able to increase my mental focus on the mind-link,” he said. “At present, we are experiencing a significant dissonance in our shared mind-space which we should be able to overcome if we ignore these memories and instead focus on more calming thoughts.”
Laas spotted the terrified look on Louise’s face. It wasn’t hard to guess that this was not a calming memory for her. And she had a pretty good idea why that was.
The evidence appeared just a moment later when a version of Louise Hopkins entered the engineering room, dressed in an era-appropriate, bright red minidress uniform, complete with dark stockings and tall boots. She was accompanied by a Vulcan wearing a blue uniform shirt. Xylion.
“Looks like this is going to be a nice and quiet night-shift,” the other Hopkins said with a growing grin which she aimed squarely at the Vulcan. “Just the two of us for the next four hours.”
The sudden appearance of another version of himself, seemingly caught the real Xylion by surprise which he expressed by raising an arched eyebrow. “Interesting.”
Louise clearly didn’t think so and regarded Laas with a pleading look. “We need to get out of here now.”
She had no idea what was about to happen in this holographic fantasy, but considering the little she had seen when she had joined Louise in a very similar program year earlier, where her friend had created a relationship between herself and a fictitious version of Commander Xylion, serving together on the old Lexington, she had a good idea why Louise would be greatly concerned about sharing this memory with the away team, not to mention the real Xylion.
“All right everyone,” Laas said, determined to spare Louise the likely embarrassment that was about to ensue. “You heard the Commander. We need to put a stop to this and get back on track. We need concentration and calming thoughts,” she said as she closed her eyes and tried hard to think of the most serene thing she could think of.
“This is beautiful, what is it?”
She opened her eyes again when she heard Lou speak again, sounding a great deal less strained than she had a few moments ago.
They were now standing in front of a large temple-like building with six golden columns that glimmered in the pleasantly warm sun. The temple itself stood surrounded by a lush, green garden compete with a calm stream running through it.
Four people stood by the steps leading up into the temple and in front of those tall columns. Three were Bajorans, one man and two women, and one was a human male. All four were clad in flowing white robes and all four were wearing smiles on their faces.
Laas didn’t require any time at all to recognize them. It was her mother and father who had died in a Cardassian forced labor camp while she had been still a child, her sister who had also been taken from her by the Cardassian, sacrificing herself so that Laas could escape their occupied homeworld and it was Gene Edison, the man she had loved and who had equally given his life to save hers.
And although all four of these people that had meant so much to her were linked to painful memories, seeing them like this, at the threshold of the Celestial Temple, she couldn’t help but feel joy and a deep sense of peace. One that had eluded her for a long time and which she had only recently started to discover.
Before Laas could answer Lou’s question, the scene began to vanish before their eyes but this time, much less violently, slowly fading out rather than being yanked away, given her the chance to look on those smiling faces for just a few seconds longer before they were all gone. She couldn’t deny a small sense of regret at seeing them disappear but the joy and peace she had felt from seeing them at all was the stronger emotion and it lingered longer.
“Took you long enough to get here.”
Laas and the rest of the team turned to see the man who had called himself Gary Seven emerge of the darkness which had surrounded them. Once again, the mysterious man was cradling his black cat within his arms.
“Let’s get started, shall we? We’ve already wasted enough time.”