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“I know that this seems like a small question considering that we are talking about the death of an entire universe, but I have to ask,” said Nora Laas who was helping Xylion back on his feet after he had spent less than five minutes recovering from the complications that had arisen from their latest mind link. “If we cannot stop the collider and it starts wiping out another reality with us still stuck in this place, will we be able to survive here?”

Bensu had no earthly idea and a glance towards Louise Hopkins gave proof that she was similarly ignorant on that subject. Of course, most of what they thought they knew about the super collider--it wasn’t much, to begin with--was based on speculation or guesswork, they couldn’t even tell what it used as a power source.

“Considering that this control room is located in a subspace fold removed from the physical location of the collider itself, survival may be a possibility,” said Xylion who did his best to appear as if he had fully regained his strength already and perhaps he had the away team mostly fooled in that regard. Bensu knew better.

“We don’t have much of an alternative,” said the chief engineer. “We already know that ships cannot withstand the gravimetric stress created by the ring, certainly not the runabout, and leaving subspace altogether…”

Nora nodded slowly. “I think I’d rather take my chances in here than in a universe that is being wiped out.”

The floor within the bubble-shaped control room continued to tremble with increasing intensity, stressing the fact that their latest mind link gamble had merely bought them time.

“What about Eagle?” Nora said.

This question was greeted with silence.

The away team had not had contact with their ship in some time and nobody knew her status and whether or not they had been successful in their mission to find the people that had been taken along with the Prism artifact. Nobody had to be told that the artifact was their only ride out of this place or that Eagle and her crew were likely doomed if they didn’t make it back with the Prism before the supercollider was fully powered.

Bensu could feel something was wrong before anyone else did.

He couldn’t exactly say what it was--and he was getting fairly sick and tired of getting these inexplicable knots in his stomach--but there it was regardless, a bad omen, he was sure of it and one not directly related to the end of all live in a universe. And it was close, very close.

Hopkins noticed his frown first and stepped closer to him. “What is it?”

He wished for nothing more than to be able, for once, to actually articulate what he knew and why. It was not meant to be. He just shook his head as he looked towards the empty void that surrounded them on all sides just outside the transparent bubble. “Something bad.”

“That’s the understatement of the century,” said Nora but nevertheless reached for her phaser while gesturing to Diamond. The SMT operator had been looking after her compatriot who had been recovering slower than the others from her experience in the mind link. The Niner brought up her phaser rifle even if she didn’t seem sure what was prompting this response.

“Talk to me, what’s happening now?” said Nora.

By the time Bensu thought he understood, it was already too late.

The malleable layer of the bubble rippled for a moment before it expelled a dozen figures. His first thought was that they were subspace aliens but he quickly realized that these were humanoids wearing Starfleet uniforms. This would have been a relief if they had been those he recognized from his universe.

These people were not from Eagle, instead, they wore tunics more reminiscent of Starfleet uniforms one or two generations removed. They also wore clearly military-inspired and non-Starfleet typical body armor and heavy phaser rifles, making their intentions fairly obvious.

“Take cover,” Nora shouted as she quickly moved for Bensu and Hopkins who stood closest to the new arrivals.

Their greetings were delivered by phaser fire.

Bensu instinctively went into a crouch, hoping to be able to somehow avoid the incoming blasts. Not a moment later he felt Nora’s firm grip, pushing him towards the only place within the mostly open room that offered any kind of protection in the form of the circular set of holographic computer consoles at the center of the chamber.

She got him out of the line of immediate fire successfully but at a steep price. Bensu watched with fascinated dread as the Bajoran took a phaser blast right into her shoulder and yet somehow didn’t allow it to slow her down much. Instead, she flipped her own weapon to her other hand and with pinpoint accuracy still managed to take down two attackers just before she was downed by a blast square to her chest.

Xylion, who had managed to find cover near Bensu, reached out for the fallen security chief and with impressive strength, dragged her behind one of the consoles.

Bensu glanced at the two Niners who had joined the away team as the primary muscle and found that the human woman Diamond was like a whirlwind in battle, even more so than Nora had been. She dodged and rolled with such speed, Bensu found it challenging to track her, but more importantly, she was almost impossible to hit, even as she doled out precise phaser fire with her compact, non-standard issue carbine. She disabled three opponents within seconds by taking out their legs and two more by targeting their dominant arms and forcing them to drop their weapons, apparently having already assessed that their weakness was their non-armored body parts.

The assault team was quickly getting wise to the fact that the SMT operative was the primary threat and more than half of the remaining attackers shifted their assault towards Diamond who was quickly finding herself trying to dodge far too much fire with little chance to return any of her own.

The heavy focus on Diamond allowed Ivory to take some action of her own. Although she was noticeably not yet fully recovered from her mind link experience, and finding herself without her weapon close by when the attack had started, she nevertheless took down two of the attackers with impressive close combat fighting skills that were both elegant and vicious, something Bensu had not expected from a race of people who prided themselves on using a low effort nerve pinch maneuver to disable their opponents at close range.

“Stop this now.”

Bensu turned his head to find the source of the booming voice. It belonged to a large, bald Deltan. Differently from the rest of the assault team, he wore a blue, civilian tunic that made him stand out noticeably. He had no weapons on him but stood right next to one of his men who had his phaser pointed at Hopkins’ head, kneeling in front of him. The chief engineer had not been able to get to cover in the chaos of the initial assault.

“I have no interest in hurting anyone else as long as you cooperate,” said the Deltan. “But I do whatever I must to get what I require. I will not be denied now.”

This caused a momentary halt to hostilities and enough of a distraction for Ivory to be entirely surrounded with half a dozen phasers pointed at her.

Diamond had retreated to the cover of the central computer stations along with Xylion, Bensu, and an injured Nora Laas who was noticeably in pain but did an admirable job of fighting through it.

“We will need to surrender,” said Xylion.

Nora emphatically shook her head. “Absolutely not.”

“Our options are severely limited by our present circumstances. Lieutenant Hopkins and Ivory are at the mercy of our attackers and we have no means of escape. Even if we can hold out longer, the supercollider will soon reach the final stages of its activation cycle, which will result in the destruction of this universe.”

She offered him a dark look. “Along with all those guys.”

Xylion raised an eyebrow. “Are you suggesting that we sacrifice an entire universe in order to remove this current threat to our own safety?”

“I guess not,” she mumbled unhappily.

“It all feels rather academic if we cannot stop the ring,” said Bensu even as he scanned the assault team, half of which had their weapons pointed in their direction.

“The most logical course of action is to attempt and stall them until Eagle arrives along with the Prism artifact that may allow us to power down the collider or, as a last resort, create a portal into another universe.”

“Maybe we don’t have to stall,” said Bensu when he recognized another person within the assault force who was clearly not a soldier considering his advanced age and his more familiar uniform design. The man guarding the admiral was carrying a slim silver suitcase that was the source of a powerful energy impossible for him to ignore. “They have Admiral Owens and the Prism and they brought both along.”

Xylion and Nora noticed moments later.

“It is decided then,” said Xylion and slowly rose from cover. “We surrender.”

The Deltan smiled as he stepped forward. “Leave it to a Vulcan to make the most logical choice,” he said as he carefully watched the rest of the away team emerge as well. “Lieutenant Commander Xylion. Lieutenant Nora Laas. Which makes you Bensu. The ship’s bartender.”

“You are well informed,” said Xylion.

“Forgive my manners,” he said. “My name is Altee. I’m with Starfleet Intelligence. It’s my job to know things.”

Bensu was fairly sure the reason he knew all their names was because of Admiral Owens and Jarik who he had abducted from Eagle. He could not spot the half-Vulcan administrator among the assault team, however.

“We do not have much time,” Xylion said. “This structure is a particle collider able to destabilize the fabric of space-time. And it has been activated. We may be able to utilize the Prism artifact to stop that from coming to pass.”

Altee took another step forward, two of his men acting as bodyguards and staying close to his side. “You’ll find that I have spent far more time and resources studying this structure than you have, so forgive me if I don’t take the word of a man who has only just stumbled across this amazing piece of technology a few days ago.”

Bensu shot the Deltan a curious look. “You’ve been here before.”

“Not physically perhaps. No, it took some doing trying to locate its exact location but thankfully your people were very helpful in that regard,” he said with a smile that straddled the line of authenticity and outright creepiness.

“If you know this structure so well,” said Nora Laas, obviously still fighting through pain, “then you must realize what it can do.”

“It will be able to transform this galaxy. It will give me access to resources others can only dream of. It will allow me to reunite the broken mess our people have become and restore a Federation that will span across most of the Milky Way.”

Bensu exchanged a concerned look with Nora and briefly with Xylion as well, all of them no doubt thinking the same thought. They were facing an egomaniacal madman.

“I am afraid you are mistaken,” Xylion said. “The primary function of this structure is to annihilate universes.”

“Listen to them, Altee, I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

The Deltan turned to look at Admiral Owens, who looked weak and fragile, like somebody who would have been better served by an extended stay in sickbay rather than taking part in an excursion into subspace.

“You should know better than most, Jon,” said Altee before he regarded the away team again. “You barely even know half of the story. You only see what your eyes have shown you. I, on the other hand, understand the subspace aliens who have constructed this marvel of technology. They came to me, years ago, seeking my help in this grand undertaking. In trying to unlock the quantum universe by creating a portal like none before it. I saw the potential right away, of course. But I had other plans for it, plans that will benefit this galaxy and all the people within it.”

“Let me guess, in these plans of yours, you are the unquestioned leader who rules this new empire you are dreaming up, right?” said Nora Laas, not even attempting to mask the irony.

“Somebody will have to.”

“Of course,” she said and glanced at the others with a look that made it clear that she had obtained all the evidence that was required to officially confirm Altee as the mad tyrant with delusions of grandeur he had appeared to be.

The chamber in the meantime had never quite settled down, on the contrary, the rumblings and vibrations all around them were only gaining intensity by the minute.

“Whatever you thought this machine can do, you were wrong,” said Bensu, realizing the urgency to make him understand what was at stake. Madman or not, Altee had all the power at this moment, including, perhaps the power to stop the destruction of another universe. “Help us to try to prevent it from doing what it was designed to accomplish. The Prism might be our only chance to do that.”

“You know, I’ve been studying your people for quite some time now,” said Altee, showing little urgency at all as he regarded Bensu. “Your universe had the resources and the people most aligned to my plans,” he said, very briefly glancing at Owens before regarding Bensu again. “And I could understand their motivations, exploit them even. But then there is you. You’ve come out of nowhere and I just can’t figure you out.”

“Well, you’re not alone,” he said but before he could continue to press their current dilemma, Altee cut him off.

“But I know you’re the key to all this. You’re the catalyst to implement my plan and to create bridges to the universes I need access to in order to gain the power to change mine.”

Bensu shook his head. “It doesn’t work that way. And we have much more pressing concerns.”

“You’ll find I’m a patient man,” said Altee and then turned to one of his bodyguards. “I’ve waited decades for this moment, lied and cheated for years as I collected the resources I needed, created alliances, and placed all my pieces on the board exactly where they needed to be.” He gestured for his man to hand him his hand phaser. “So, yes, I’ve played a very long game and for that, I had to be extraordinarily patient.” He turned back towards Bensu holding the phaser now. “Now, at long last, it has run out,” he said, leveled the weapon, and fired.

The beam struck Diamond dead-on, throwing her off her feet and onto the floor.

Although injured herself, Nora quickly made it to her side, checking the other woman over. The smoldering front of her tunic showed that the phaser had not been on the stun setting.

The Bajoran looked up angrily. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“And I took no pleasure in it, believe me,” he said. “I have a medic with me and I’m more than happy to let him treat her before it is too late. But first, I need your unconditional cooperation. I know you were sent here to find a way to open the portals. I need to know how to do that.”

“We were sent here to find a way to prevent the collider from destroying another universe,” said Xylion who remained as calm and collected as ever, even after witnessing one of his away team members being callously shot in front of his eyes.

Altee nodded slowly. “Maybe you did. But you don’t belong in this universe and this structure is your only means to return home. I already know that Jarik and the good admiral used the Prism twice before. I know you used a mind link to activate the gateway. I need you to do it again.”

But Xylion hesitated, clearly not comfortable with this plan.

“I’ll need you,” said Altee, indicating towards Bensu. “You are the catalyst.” He considered Xylion next. “And you’ll be required to help him focus his mind while he carries out his task. Which means everyone else here--and I hate using such a clichéd term--is expandable.” He leveled his phaser at Hopkins who to her credit barely even flinched at the prospect of being gunned down, no doubt demonstrating bravery she didn’t truly feel.

“Wait,” Bensu said, quickly, before regarding Xylion. “Let’s do it. It may allow us to stop the collider at the same time.”

Xylion took a moment to consider it then offered a brief nod. “Very well. We will require additional individuals with psionic abilities for this to be successful.”

Altee grinned. “I thought you might. Considering that my associate most experienced in these matters wasn’t able to join us, I brought a few others,” he said and indicated for two of his men to step forward.

Bensu thought he recognized their species. A young, dark-haired man had the black pupils common to Betazoids while the other, slightly taller and whip-thin with blond hair, was clearly Ullian as evident by the bulges above his ears.

“I have some telepathic abilities myself so I will join you and guide you to the places I need you to open the doors to for me,” he said as he indicated for his people to take position around the psionic enhancer, along with Xylion, Ivory--who did an impressive job to hide her obvious reluctance to take part in this mind link yet again, and Bensu. “If you don’t do as I say, if there is any sign of trickery on your part or if at any time I believe you are not cooperating to the fullest, my men will have clear orders to eliminate the rest of your away team.

“I understand,” said Xylion.

In his mind, Bensu tried to weigh the worth of a handful of lives against the countless number of people who would perish if this universe would fall as well. There was, of course, no comparison and he was convinced that Xylion knew this as well. Knowing something as a fact, and making the decisions in light of this, were two very different things, however, Bensu painfully realized as he prepared for the extraordinarily unpleasant experience of exposing himself once more to the pandemonium of psionic energy that coursed through this place.

“Jon, activate the Prism,” Altee said.

When Owens hesitated, the Deltan pinned him with a dark glower. “The Exhibitor responds only to your DNA. I am not convinced, however, that you have to be breathing for it to work.”

The man guarding the admiral forced the old man onto his knees and opened the case in front of him. Owens offered Altee one last, albeit fleeting glare of defiance.

“Don’t give me that look. Don’t forget, once we are successful here, you’ll finally get what you’ve been after so desperately as well,” Altee said with a smirk.

Owens relented and reached for the Exhibitor. Lifting it slightly in the air and then activated the device to bring forth once more the prism-shaped artifact of pure light floating above them which promptly elicited gasps from most of the people present as it rapidly spread its awesome power to engulf all.

“Never ceases to disappoint,” said Altee as he stared at it with noticeable reverence. Then he tore himself away, focusing his attention back on Bensu. “Let’s get started, shall we?”

Although not a pleasant experience in the least, he did find that he was more prepared to open his mind to reach out to his surroundings. Part of this, of course, was the Prism itself, which felt so endlessly powerful, it would have been easy to lose himself in its presence. Altee’s telepaths, although inexperienced, were enough to steady himself much better than what he had been able to accomplish with just Xylion and Ivory alone, while the makeshift psionic emitter did its job to link all their minds into a single force, all of which designed to support him.

“My Gods, this is so much more than I could have ever imagined,” said Altee, who had now joined them as well. Bensu could tell that he lacked the telepathic discipline of a Vulcan or the power of a Ullian or Betazoid, and yet it was enough to allow him a glimpse at what Bensu was revealing beyond the visible spectrum; the latticework of psionic strands and channels all coalescing in this subspace fold.

During his first attempts, and most subsequent ones as well, Bensu had been overwhelmed with what he had been up against. He had felt like a blade of grass, desperately trying to fend off a tsunami. His experiences with Gary Seven had unlocked inside of him a fortitude he had not known to exist.

So even now, with the Prism trying to drown him with an infinite number of realities, he found a way to keep himself sane, to make sense of the chaos somehow, without being swallowed up by it all.

“It is endless,” Altee said with awe in his voice. “There is so much.”

Now that he was looking for it, Bensu could sense something else within the whirlpool of the quantum-verse. Another force, one that he had caught brief impressions of before when they had actively attempted to oppose the subspace aliens. It was a power far greater than anything he had ever imagined. It was the same energy that had successfully prevented Gary Seven from maintaining his bond with him and the away team even with all the resources of his seemingly powerful agency at his disposal. It was the energy that had already fueled the destruction of a universe and was now threatening to do it once again.

“Show me. Show me what I want to see,” Altee said, either not able to understand what Bensu was discovering or perhaps deciding not to. “Do it now. I know you can see it in my mind. You can see the universes I have chosen. Show me everything.”

It wasn’t difficult. Although the Deltan did have some safeguards in place to protect his thoughts and memories, much of it was like an open book to Bensu while inside a super-charged mind link.

He could see that Altee had not lied about much of what he had claimed. He had made contact with the subspace aliens years earlier when they had sought out allies in the quantum-verse who could operate outside of subspace. He could see that the Deltan had dismissed their offer and instead started his own efforts to gain access to other realities. He had created alliances with like-minded individuals in other universes when he had unlocked ways to communicate with them, he had even secured technology--a dimensional transporter of sorts--to physically traverse quantum reality although not to the degree he aspired to. Not in the manner in which the gateway would open the multiverse to him.

“Stop wasting time,” Altee warned. “Show me what I need to see.”

He had identified dozens of universes as targets, all of which chosen for what they could offer him to achieve his aim that was nothing short of conquering his galaxy. He was seeking unfettered access to technologies unavailable or unobtainable in his universe. Alternate realities where starships were fueled by near limitless power supplies, galaxies that offered weapons of unmatched destructive force, and universes that had developed artificial intelligences with the ability to produce and manage inexhaustible armies of synthetic soldiers.

He opened a window to one of such places.

“Yes,” Altee said, his voice mirroring his growing excitement. “Universe 35673-b,” he said, clearly referring to some sort of nomenclature he had adopted for other realities. “The Metarians have developed a technology that absorbs any matter in the galaxy and within seconds transforms it into pure energy. This alone will secure the end of the civil war.”

The Metarians, Bensu could see, were a race of beings somewhere on the spectrum between fully physical and energy-based, with lean translucent bodies that seemed to act as little more than shells to contain pulsing energy in form of bright, spinning flares of light.

“We’ll open a gateway into their universe eventually but first show me 48321-c,” Altee demanded.

The designation meant nothing to Bensu but he didn’t need to know what it meant; it was obvious within Altee’s mind. But when he tried to do as he did with the universe containing the Metarians, the results were very different.

“What’s happening? Why can’t I see that universe?” Altee said

Bensu didn’t respond verbally, instead, he communicated with him and the others in the link what he knew to be the case.

They were seeing nothing because that was exactly what was left of 48321-c.

“That’s not possible,” Atlee said with rising anger. “That universe was densely populated. It contained a race of beings that had perfected starship design and construction. I identified it years ago.”

And yet, to Bensu the evidence was undeniable.

“Show me 77413-f.”

It was the exact same result.

“No, that cannot be. 98321-r.”

Once again, nothing. Bensu was as surprised by this development as Altee, and he had no thoughts to offer, not even when he continued to ten more realties, being able to locate only two that showed any signs of life at all.

“It’s not possible,” Altee was so disturbed by this, he broke out of the mind link.

When Bensu opened his eyes again, the Deltan had clambered back onto his feet but was stumbling backward and threatening to fall over again, both from the enormous toll it had taken to take part in the mind link but also from the realization that most of the universes he had sought to target were no more.

The control sphere around them in the meantime had transformed itself into its own version of hell, causing Altee’s assault team to become very preoccupied with their rapidly deteriorating surroundings.

Bensu and the others had seen this before, although that did little to put them at ease in the slightest, if anything, knowing what this heralded, made them only more anxious.

The previously empty void beyond the rapidly trembling bubble was now filled with green and red lightning-like discharges lighting up the interior of the control sphere with tremendous urgency. A powerful gravimetric force had gripped the inside of the room like a blustering gale-force wind, making it almost impossible for anyone to stay upright without fiercely battling the forces of gravity.

Altee fell onto his knees. “What is happening?” he shouted.

“It’s the ring,” Hopkins yelled. Nobody was paying her enough attention to keep the engineer from making her way back to the holographic consoles, although it seemed doubtful she’d be able to make a difference there. “The collider is reaching critical mass.”

“We need to get back into the mind link and find a way to stop this,” said Bensu who felt as if he was trying to communicate within a hurricane, hardly able to perceive his own words.

But after Altee had broken the link, his people had also severed the connection and both Xylion and Ivory were no longer bonded either. The psionic enhancer had already fallen over and its flickering light cone seemed to indicate that it was no longer operating correctly.

Only the Prism itself seemed unaffected by the unleashed chaos, remaining perfectly steady as the light construct continued to spin gently on its axis in the air.

“I think it may be too late for that,” Nora shouted and pointed at the assault team. “Look.”

By the time Bensu had turned, more than half of Altee’s men had already disappeared as if they had never existed in the first place.

Altee was on his hands and knees, crawling towards his people with total, stupendous disbelieve. “What is happening? Stop this,” he shouted, but it sounded more like supplication rather than a command.

Bensu no longer thought it was possible.

The Deltan turned to look in his direction, realizing that nobody in Eagle’s away team was sharing his people’s fate. “My Gods, what have I--“

His words disappeared along with him.

Bensu thought he could hear another voice but he couldn’t quite place it, not until he spotted Xylion seemingly hearing the same thing and glancing at his armband device.

“It is Eagle,” he said even if he needed to shout to make himself heard within the control room turned ground zero of a hurricane. “She is attempting to contact us.”

Nora looked somewhat relieved by this news. “They managed to get into subspace before the universe was wiped out.”

The chief engineer clearly didn’t quite share her optimism. “Won’t do them much good if they’ll be crushed by the ring’s gravimetric shear. They’ll have minutes at best and no place to go.”
Bensu glanced back at the calmly spinning Prism. “Maybe they do.”

Hopkins’ quizzical expression seemed to say that she wasn’t following.

“There’s still an entire quantum-universe out there,” he said and then rushed towards Admiral Owens who had flattened himself to the floor and was struggling in his frail state. “Admiral, I’ll need your help.”

The man looked up at him but shook his head. “Look at me, son. I can barely help myself.”

“You can help me find our way back home.”

If it is still there, Bensu thought.

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