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Captain
Join Date: Jul 2012
Posts: 610
# 15
04-11-2013, 03:29 AM
Personal log: Tylha Shohl, officer commanding, USS King Estmere NCC-92984

"Launching Alpha. Launching Bravo. Charlie and Delta flights, prep for immediate launch." Anthi Vihl's steady, professional voice has no edge of tension. I wish I was that sure of my own.

King Estmere has crashed out of subspace at the fringe of the asteroid belt surrounding the Delta Gracilis facility, weapons ready, Scorpion fighters already shrieking off the launch rails. The main viewscreen is coming to life now, showing the tactical situation as our sensors establish it.

At the communications console, F'hon Tlaxx is unaccustomedly serious, as he repeats, in an undertone, "Delta Gracilis, this is the USS King Estmere, responding to your priority one distress call. Please advise regarding your situation. Over." A pause, and then, again, "Delta Gracilis..."

"Launching Charlie. Launching Delta." Two more flights of Scorpions streak out into the void.

I look up at the screen. The Scorpions are out there, shifting rapidly into their attack formation. The facility is marked by a blinking diamond on the map. The drifting asteroids show as vague, lumbering presences, inert and harmless.

There is nothing else on the screen.

"Sensor scan," I order. My mouth is dry. "Rig for tachyon detection, and charged particle bursts." The enemy must be cloaked, it's the only explanation. Well, my ship has resources: if an invisible enemy is out there, we can pierce that cloak, reveal and defeat them.

The awful alternative is that the enemy has already been, and gone. But the research station's transponders are active, its power levels are high, there is no sign of debris or energy weapons discharge on the sensors....

There is no sign of anything on the sensors.

King Estmere noses her way through the asteroids, towards the massive chunk of chondrite that supports the Delta Gracilis base. The Scorpion fighters fan out, weapons ready. Beyond the range of conventional sight, space is flooded with signals, our active sensors pinging out charged particles and exotic wavelengths, sampling space, sniffing for the enemy... and finding nothing.

"Please advise regarding your situation. Over." F'hon's voice is growing hoarse.

And then a voice comes over the speakers. "Thank God!" It is cracked, hysterical. "King Estmere, you have to stop them - they're coming round for another pass - oh, God, help us! Help us!" The voice abruptly cuts off.

The facility is only a few kilometres ahead of us, now. I can see it on the screen: intact, untouched.

"Well," I say, to no one in particular, "sounds like we have a problem."

---

King Estmere holds station three kilometres off the facility, still at red alert, her fighters weaving around her in patrol patterns. But I'm more and more convinced that it's not that kind of fight....

But it is a fight, of some kind. The sensor scans have convinced me of that, at least.

"One hundred and twenty-five life signs," Samantha Beresford reports, tight-lipped.

Even Anthi gasps, at that. The crew complement at Delta Gracilis is supposed to be over three thousand.

"The station's defence grid is inactive," chief engineer Dyssa D'jheph reports. "No indications as to why... no sign that any of those phaser arrays has been fired in months. Station main power is still online, life support and structural integrity are both one hundred per cent. Main deflectors are offline, but - as with the weapons systems - there's no sign of damage."

I look around the conference room, at the strained faces of my senior officers. F'hon is next to speak. "Apart from the initial distress call," he reports, "there's only been that one, brief, communication. Um, records indicate the distress call was authorised by a Dr. Tamik, the station's director... we might have a voiceprint match for the other one, a human scientist called Damon Stevenson - it's a little doubtful, the computer gives us eighty-eight per cent. Aside from that.... nothing. Automated challenge-response just gets back dead air on all channels."

"OKay," I say. "So... it's consistent with the station being attacked and its defenses overwhelmed... with the minor detail that there are no physical signs of anything happening. Is it just me, or is that weird?"

There is no laughter, not even nervous laughter, in response. "All right, so let's consider our options," I go on. "It seems to me... we can call for backup, we can keep station and try to get communications back with the survivors... or we can go in and find out what happened, on the ground."

"I'm going to take a guess at which is your preferred option," Samantha Beresford says dryly.

"Damn right," I say, "but I don't want to go in completely blind. Anthi, what do we actually know about Delta Gracilis?"

Anthi picks up her PADD. "Structurally, it's a standard class-B space-environment science outpost with an additional two research modules, a tactical command centre, and the defence grid," she says. "The research is classified, of course, but the general pattern is high-energy dimensional physics. Dr. Tamik is on record as saying that his research programme is our best shot at taking the war to the Tholians, but he's not specific as to why, or how. Sensor scans read negative for any sort of Tholian incursion," she adds, "apart, of course, from ourselves."

"With all the Reman gear aboard," Dyssa mutters, "King Estmere's barely recognizable as a Recluse carrier any more."

"Okay," I say, "what about security systems? What sort of challenge can we expect if we beam in?"

"We must assume most of the tactical teams are... among the casualties," Anthi says, and there is something bleak in her expression as she speaks. "As for automatic systems - there is an onboard defence system, using security holos similar to the ISIS system on Facility 4028. Their IFF should let us pass in unsecure areas, but we could have trouble getting into the laboratories or the station's central admin complex. Having said that, though... there is no sign of active holo-emitters on the station at this time."

"Not yet," F'hon adds in an undertone.

"Something to watch for," I say, resignedly. "Well, let's get moving."

---

The tactical teams beam in to the station's reception area, securing a bridgehead before they let me in. There is no sign of damage in the big, round room with the tasteful abstract murals and the transparent dome overhead. Still, I am in full battle armour, and my phaser pulsewave is a reassuring weight in my hands.

Soledad Kleefisch has taken charge of the reception room; besides her, there is a young ensign - a human, named Colton, I think - and the Ferengi cyber-warfare specialist, Klerupiru. She is standing over the reception desk's computer console, a frown on her sharp-featured face; one finger is nervously pulling at her uniform collar. She is something of a Ferengi traditionalist, I remember, and doesn't like wearing clothes. Her other hand is moving on the console, tapping briskly at the controls.

"All quiet," Soledad reports. "Tac teams are fanning out from this location. So far, nothing to report."

"Something pretty odd here," Klerupiru says in an abstracted voice. Her eyes flicker towards me for an instant, then turn back to the console. "Lots more activity than I'd have expected, and... multiple timestamps on the data logs. Overlapping... sometimes conflicting.... It's weird. Sir," she remembers to add.

"Can you get through to anything useful on that console?" I ask.

Klerupiru bites her lower lip. "I'm not sure.... It looks like someone's enabled a priority override on it, allowing top-level access to the base systems... except it's intermittent. Weird. The command priorities seem to vary, as if the security settings are constantly being reset. I don't know what's causing it."

"A virus attack?"

"Possibly...." Klerupiru's voice trails off as the console absorbs all her attention again.

I turn away, look around. It's a typical room on a typical base, quiet, tasteful to the point of blandness... and there is no sign that any sort of battle has been fought here, no explanation for the distress call. If I listen, and taste the air with my antennae, I can hear a distant tramping of feet, and I know that it's just my own tactical teams exploring the immediate area. There is nothing strange, nothing out of place -

The four black figures pop out of nowhere, faceless behind mirrored visors, bulbous in body armour. Their weapons are ready, and the air is suddenly full of scorching heat and the dull blatting sound of plasma weapons.

I'm already moving, ducking out of the line of fire, bringing up my own gun. Someone is screaming. The phaser pulsewave crashes in my hands, and one of the attackers flickers and vanishes as swiftly as it appeared. Two more of the attackers are already impaled on lines of sick green light from Soledad's split-beam disruptor; the last one is trading shots with Klerupiru, who has ducked behind the console and brought her phaser out. I blast that one down, and turn to Soledad's antagonists, but they are already flickering out. Holograms, their matrices shredded by the disruptor fire. But their weapons had a real enough effect -

Ensign Colton is down. I slap my combadge. "Medical emergency! Plasma weapons burns!" The ensign is moving feebly, his upper body charred. He was wearing standard issue armour, basic gear, not enough for the situation. I kneel down beside him. "Hang in there, Ensign, help's on the way." His agonized eyes give me no acknowledgement.

There is the whine and glare of a transporter, and Samantha Beresford is there with her medical kit. She winces at the sight of Colton's injuries. "Nasty," she comments, her hands moving swiftly. "All right, Ensign, let's get you stabilized for transport and off to sickbay. Pronto." A hypospray hisses, and Colton's face relaxes a little. Samantha hits her own combadge, issues terse orders, sparkles away with her patient.

I take a deep breath. Now, there are signs of battle, all right; the walls are scarred from plasma burns and the fringes of our own weapons' discharges; the air is hot and bitter with expended energies.

Klerupiru clutches at her brow and swears under her breath. "This doesn't make sense," she says. "Sir, those were holograms... weren't they?"

I nod.

"But the holo-emitters were offline!" Klerupiru positively shouts. "They were offline the whole time! They still are offline!"

"Maybe someone beamed in mobile emitters?" I suggest, doubtfully.

"I'd have seen the transporter signatures." Klerupiru gestures at the console, which has escaped, miraculously unscathed.

Another mystery. "Warn everyone to be on the alert," I tell Soledad.

She nods, and then her hand goes to her headset comms. "I'm getting a message," she says. "Sir, it's Commander Lolha. She says they've found someone on level two. Just beneath us...."

I heft the pulsewave in my hands. "Let's go."


---

There are signs of battle on the next level: burn marks on the metal walls, the sign of phaser fire. Lolha and her team are crouched around a doorway, one that's been hastily barricaded with furniture - a desk, a computer console tipped on its side. The Tellarite gestures for me to keep my head down as I approach.

"He's not shooting at us," she says, "but he's shooting."

"At who, then?"

"I don't know," says Lolha. "He's off his pointy-nosed human head, from the sound of it."

A line of orange light stabs out from behind the barricade, to splash harmlessly against the opposite wall. "His phaser's nearly drained," Lolha says.

I raise my voice. "You in there! Can you hear me?"

"Stay back!" A panicky, breathless reply.... It sounds like the voice on the communicator, earlier. I decide to take a chance.

"Stevenson? Damon Stevenson? I'm Tylha Shohl, from the King Estmere. We're responding to the distress call."

"You're too late! They're everywhere!"

"Stay calm." I try to put an edge of command into my voice. "My tac team is outside this door now. You're safe. We can transport you to our ship right now, if you want."

A white face appears behind the barricade: Stevenson. His eyes are wide, his dark hair disarranged, fear is etched on his features. "I don't - Get back!" Fear, and disbelief. "Can't you see them?"

He raises a phaser pistol. I flinch back as the bolt hisses past me, aimed at nothing. "Get me out of here!" he screeches.
He leans out, over the barricade, looking at - something. Something I can't see.

Hallucinations. It has to be hallucinations. Some chemical or biological agent, released into the base's atmosphere, driving the inhabitants insane -

Then a patch on the front of Stevenson's tunic chars black and spits out sparks. A second patch, close by, does the same; then a third. The phaser drops from his hand and he slumps over the barricade.

We all turn around, peering comically down the long, brightly lit corridor. There is no one there. There is no one in sight except us... and the dead man.

---

Several hours later, Samantha Beresford is looking tired and irritable in the King Estmere's sick bay.

"Ensign Colton is out of the woods," she tells me. "We've replaced his lung and six of his ribs - temporary prosthetics while the cloned tissue grows in. He should be good as new in a month or so. As for the other one -"

"I was thinking," I say hesitantly, "about some sort of hallucinogen...."

Samantha snorts. "You can use hypnotics and hallucinogens to create some psychosomatic effects," she says. "You can hypnotize someone, touch a piece of ice to their skin, and a blister will form if you tell them it's a hot coal. What you can't do is hypnotize the cells of their body into burning from polaron fire. That's what killed the scientist from the base. Not hallucinations. Three shots from a high-density collimated polaron beam. Probably Jem'Hadar."

I shake my head. "We'd have seen it," I say. "Jem'Hadar shroud technology isn't perfect - and the beam would have stood out. Besides, Stevenson could see whoever - or whatever - killed him." My antennae twitch as my frustration rises. "It doesn't make sense. None of this makes sense."

Samantha runs her fingers through her hair. "You saw the security holos who attacked Colton...."

"Yes." I frown. "I assume that's what they were... but there are things wrong there, too. Klerupiru is sure the holo-emitters were offline. And plasma weapons... they're not standard on security holograms."

"So what is it? Ghosts? Are we fighting ghosts?"

"I hope not. Not again...." I sigh, and pinch the bridge of my nose. I'm tired, as well as frustrated. "I've pulled everyone off the base for the moment. Until we've got some better idea what's happening."

Samantha pulls a face. "We've lost seven more of the remaining life signs," she says. "Sir, I think we need to get a better idea quickly."

"You're right." She is. But I don't feel any better ideas coming on. My combadge chirps at me. "Shohl."

"Skipper." F'hon's voice. "Message coming in for you. We have contact with the USS Finlandia."

"Put it on a screen in sickbay."

---

The face on the screen is that of a Vulcan woman, intent and composed. She has unusual reddish-brown hair and a disconcertingly level gaze. "Vice-Admiral T'Pia, Starfleet Science Command," she says. "We have received the distress call from the Delta Gracilis facility, and your own request for further assistance. Finlandia is twelve point six hours from your position at maximum warp speed. Please advise further."

"I wish I could." I shake my head. "The situation here is - confused. The facility appears to be under some sort of attack, but we don't know how, or by whom." Tersely, I recount the sequence of events. Damn Vulcans, all they ever want is facts.

At the end, T'Pia's face is unchanged. "The situation is, as you say, confused. What assistance do you require?"

I think fast. "Hold off," I say. "We've no guarantee this - whatever it is - won't spread to the King Estmere. Until we've identified the - the problem - it wouldn't be wise to risk another vessel."

T'Pia gives a brief, mechanical nod. "Finlandia's resources are at your disposal," she says. "We are a science vessel - we may have investigatory facilities that you lack. If you can transmit your data, we will review and analyze it."

"That might be the best thing you can do for us," I say. "No, wait. You're with Starfleet Science - can you get any background for us? Any idea of what Dr. Tamik was working on, and what might have gone wrong?"

"That is a possibility. I will do what I can." A faint frown crosses T'Pia's face. "I am reminded of something." She closes her eyes in concentration, opens them again. "I reviewed all available data on Dr. Tamik and Delta Gracilis when we heard the distress call. I am unable to determine any relevance in the information we have - however, one item may be of interest to you. Dr. Tamik requested data concerning an incident involving your own vessel. There was a mirror universe incursion, I understand."

I repress a shudder, thinking of my insane mirror universe counterpart and her dreams of conquest. "There was. Tamik was interested in it? What did he want to know?"

"Unknown. The request for information was included in the digest of comms traffic from the base. I merely remark on the coincidence."

"It's something to go on. If we can find Dr. Tamik...."

"I will contact Fleet Command and make representations on your behalf. I may also be able to obtain assistance from the Vulcan Ministry of Science. We will do whatever we can to assist you, Vice Admiral Shohl. Good luck. Finlandia out." The screen goes dark.

---

In the briefing room, a hologram of the base revolves slowly in the air, semi-transparent, bright spots marking the approximate locations of the remaining life signs. Six more have winked out.

"I've, um, I've got something that might help." Klerupiru is hollow-eyed, exhausted. "There's, um -"

"Spit it out," I tell her.

"I think I've got command codes for the security systems," she says. "They're supposed to be secure, but, well, you know people...."

Klerupiru managed to establish a link into the base's computers before we pulled out. And, it transpires, she's been working at it continuously since, tracking traffic, prying into recorded communications. Ethically, it's highly questionable. But she has results, and that's all that matters to me right now.

"With those codes, we can transport people directly to central admin, and the secure labs," I say. "Damn sight better than fighting ghosts all the way through the base.... Good work. Now, where to aim for?"

Dyssa takes over. "The only thing I've got to go on is power consumption curves." She stabs a finger into the hologram. "This lab here is using more power than anything else in the place. And it's right underneath central admin, too." Her finger moves up, to rest on a bright spot. "There's a life sign reading in that approximate location. We can't get a transporter lock on it, directly...."

"So," Samantha says, "if the mountain won't come to Mohammed -"

Some human proverb; I don't know the background, but the meaning seems clear. "All right," I say. "Klerupiru, clear me for access. Let's go see Dr. Tamik."

---

"Just you and me?" Zazaru asks, as we reach the transporter room. Her face is calm, her manner composed.

"You're the science officer," I say, "you talk Tamik's language. Also.... You remember that business with the mirror universe? Our counterparts on the Presa Gran?"

"I'm not likely to forget it." Zazaru's Trill spots show more strongly as her face pales. "I still have nightmares about it."

"I'm sorry," I say. "But - well, one of the few things we've got to go on is that Tamik was asking about that incident. I don't know why, or what he wanted to know -"

"But I would be best placed to understand his thinking," Zazaru finishes for me. "Makes sense."

"Thanks." We reach the transporter pads. Klerupiru is standing next to the operator at the controls. "Everything ready?" I ask her.

"I've transmitted all the overrides I could find," she replies. "Um - sir, the computers are still acting pretty weird. I think the codes are all consistent, but -"

"We'll be on our guard," I assure her. I turn to the operator. "Energize."

The world sparkles, fades out, comes back different.

We're in an office like a million other offices across the Federation - very like Admiral Semok's office on ESD, in fact: bare, functional, without ornamentation. Zazaru and I are standing in front of a big desk - and behind the desk is a man.

He looks up as we beam in. He is thick-set, bulky, with dark hair turning grey at the temples, above those unmistakeable pointed ears. "Dr. Tamik?" I say.

"Oh, no," he replies, "no, no, no, this won't do at all."

He reaches across the desk and taps at something on a console. Then he looks up at me and frowns. "Are you still here?"

"Are you Dr. Tamik? I'm Vice Admiral Shohl, from the King Estmere. We're responding to your distress call. This is my chief science officer, Commander Zazaru."

He blinks at me. "I don't have time for this," he says in a high, complaining tone. "Computer, reset and delete branch with extraneous Starfleet interference."

Zazaru and I exchange glances. Nothing else happens. Tamik sits behind his desk, fingers drumming impatiently beside the console. This man is a Vulcan, I remind myself: for him to be showing this much emotional affect, he must be perilously close to a nervous breakdown. I try again. "Dr. Tamik, we are real. We're really here, and we need to deal with this situation. One of my officers has been injured already, and at least one of your staff is dead - probably more, possibly many more. We must -"

"This is getting out of hand," Tamik announces, without even bothering to look at me. "Computer, recalculate baseline and adjust." His hand descends on the console, his finger touches an icon -

- and he vanishes.

No transporter sparkle, no hologram flicker. There is not even a puff of displaced air to mark his going. The chair behind the big desk is suddenly empty, and that's all there is to it.

Zazaru and I look at each other. "What do you think's going on?" I ask her.

"I'm... not sure, sir," she says. "Perhaps we should look at that console?"

"Perhaps we should see if Klerupiru can get access to it," I mutter, as we cross to the other side of the desk. The control interface is complex, marked with icons I don't understand; from the furrow on her brow, it seems Zazaru doesn't understand them either. There are diagrams, too, higher mathematics - very much higher - and images of branching, fractal structures....

Things begin to fall into place. My eyes widen in alarm, and I slap my combadge. "King Estmere, respond please," I say, and, "Zazaru. Scan for anomalous quantum energy signatures. Not mirror universe."

"King Estmere responding, sir," says F'hon's voice. "What's wrong? Do you need help?"

"Just checking," I say. I look questioningly at Zazaru, while she sweeps the scanning beam of her tricorder around the room.

"Multiple anomalous signatures," she says doubtfully. "You're right, sir, they're not mirror universe. But my readings are... still confused...."

"Several different levels of them," I say. I study the branching diagram on the screen. "Possibly a whole lot of them.... Tamik was talking about taking the war to the Tholians. Dimensional engineering, the sort of tricks the Tholians play with subspace tunnels and spatial inclusions. Somewhere in Tamik's lab, he has a machine that... that fractures reality."

"It's...." Zazaru shakes her head. "It's possible, sir.... I remember our mirror counterparts telling us about an infinite number of possible worlds. If Tamik has found a way to superimpose anomalous quantum energy states.... But how could he use it -?"

"Perfect camouflage," I say. "Send in an attack force in a quantum-shifted state, and the enemy won't respond, because they won't exist to the enemy - until they do. Circumvent defenses, maybe, by shifting to a reality where they're not there.... Oh, it makes some sense, all right. It even explains some of what we've seen. The multiple timestamps on the computer logs - different things happening at the same time, but in different realities. The enemy that was real for Stevenson, but not for us. Tamik, just now, tried to remove the reality where we exist... and now, I think, he's shifted himself to one where we don't."

"But -" Zazaru's frown is deepening. "Objects in spacetime interact with each other. If you shift the quantum signatures so that some of those objects no longer exist - how do you predict what interactions will be affected? And how do you communicate with the things you've shifted out of existence? I can't see any way to keep this under control - you'd end up with chaotically branching world-lines -"

I point to the console screen. "I think that's exactly what we've got," I say. "And Tamik thinks he has some way to control them... but I'm guessing he's wrong."

"So what do we do, sir?"

I bite my lip in thought. "Stop the problem getting any worse. Find Tamik's machine and shut it down. It must be in the lab below us...."

"What happens then, sir? Do the multiple realities collapse back into one? Or would the divergent world-lines... spin off, into universes of their own?"

"I don't know." I heft my phaser pulsewave. It's probably useless, but it's still reassuring. "Only way to find out is by doing. I'll take the chances, I think. King Estmere, beam Commander Zazaru back to the ship."

"Sir -" Zazaru's protest is cut short by the shimmer of the transporter beam. With my useless gun at the ready, I head for the door.

---

The door of the lab opens with Klerupiru's stolen codes.

It ought to be dramatic. There should be flashing lights, strange machines pulsating with energies. Instead, there is a neatly arranged workbench, a computer console behind it, a power supply... and a simple metallic cylinder, as tall as me and about a meter wide, with a few status lights blinking on it.

This must be it... but whatever it is doing, it is on a level of reality far too fundamental for me to detect it. My antennae twitch nervously as I approach it. If I'm right... then I'm approaching it through a tangled jungle of world-lines, of probabilities, what-ifs and might-have-beens. But there is no sign. My footsteps echo in the empty laboratory, and the machine stands impassively before me. There is a metal plaque affixed to it, I notice, at about eye level; there is an inscription on it. To my surprise, it's written in an extinct human language. It reads:-

EX UNO PLURES

"Oh, very droll, Dr. Tamik," I mutter. Out of one, many. Indeed.

"Sir?" Klerupiru's voice: I've left my com link with the King Estmere open.

"Never mind," I say. "I've found Tamik's device. I don't think we have time for me to figure out how it works... I'm just going to pull the plug."

The power supply, at least, is standard. I open the housing, toggle the shutdown codes, and, for good measure, pull out the plasma manifold from the EPS conduits. Good luck restarting that from a remote console. I stand up -

And I freeze. I am no longer alone. A dozen black-armoured figures are around me, phaser rifles in their hands, aiming at me.

"I'm Vice Admiral Tylha Shohl," I say, rapidly, hoping they are programmed to respond. "Responding to a priority one distress call. I am authorized to be here."

The security holos stand there, impassive. Then, with a faint flicker, they wink out.

"Nice work, Klerupiru," I say, with some feeling.

"Um." Klerupiru's voice sounds nervous. "Nothing to do with me, sir... the security computer's gone into shutdown. I think.... I think it's finally responding to all that conflicting data, all the weird timestamps. It's gone into failsafe mode. Sir, life signs are popping up, all around the base -"

My eyes widen. The world-lines have started to coalesce. "That means every other computer on the base might do the same thing! Klerupiru, get control!" I turn and race for the lab door. "Alert medical and damage control teams!" With the computers offline, the whole base could become a disaster area. If it isn't one already.

A voice sounds from the air around me. "Security alert! Restore function to Laboratory Alpha immediately! Detain any unauthorized personnel!" Tamik's voice. Damn.

"Shut that idiot off and give me the base's PA system!" I order. There are stairs up to the admin office - I don't dare risk the turbolift, not now. "On it," says Klerupiru. Then, "All yours, sir."

"This is Vice Admiral Tylha Shohl of the King Estmere," I say, and my voice booms back at me from a dozen different sources. "Remain calm. We are evacuating this facility. Medical teams will be with the injured shortly." I'm guessing there are injured. "Dr. Tamik is relieved of his post as director, on my authority, effective immediately."

I sprint for the door of Tamik's office. He knows the systems here, he will try to regain control -

He is pounding furiously on his console when I burst in. I don't have time to reason with him. I raise my pulsewave, and the blast of orange light flings him against the back wall, to rebound and fall limply to the floor.

I check my settings. I did have it on stun. Pity.

---

"Finlandia is four hours away," T'Pia says from the screen in my ready room. "Our medical teams are prepped to receive casualties. Also, I have obtained full endorsement of your actions from Science Command and the Federation Science Council. Dr. Tamik will answer for his breaches of ethics."

"Good." Three hundred and eighty-four dead, in the end, and over a thousand seriously injured - caught in attacks by the Jem'Hadar, the Klingons, the Tholians, a dozen unknown aliens, or in some natural disasters; anything that might have happened, and did happen in one of Tamik's subsidiary realities. King Estmere's medical facilities are full to overflowing, Samantha Beresford and her team working around the clock. A lot of casualties, for a war with no enemy.

"Dr. Tamik's reasoning seems to be fundamentally flawed," T'Pia observes with that typical Vulcan calm. "The mere act of shifting objects out of baseline reality.... abrogates basic principles of causality. Causes without effects, effects without causes. Tamik appears to have hypothesized some overall meta-causality principle which would allow him to exercise control over what objects were real, at which level of reality. This hypothesis was not borne out in practice."

"Maybe," I say. "Though... we got the distress call. In some hypothetical, alternate reality, Tamik had enough sense to make that call... and it got through to us." I give a short, forced laugh. "It almost makes me believe there is a higher power watching over us."

"Superstition," says T'Pia bluntly. "Random factors operated in our favour, that is all." She pauses, then adds, "If, indeed, they did. Who is to say that this is the baseline reality in which Dr. Tamik began his project? I believe you, yourself, were concerned that he might have - shifted - you out of the real world, into some subsidiary branch of his world-lines. Would you, or I, even know if that were true? We check for anomalous quantum signatures only by comparing them to our own...."

It's a possibility. And it's a haunting one. "As you say, we'd never know. And... in this reality, whatever it is, we won. I guess we'll have to live with that."

"Logical. Finlandia out." The screen goes dark.

I can see my reflection in it. Last time I studied my reflection, I was worried there were too many of me. Now, I'm worried that there might be too few.

Real or not? I can never know. But, in whatever world I'm in, there is work to be done. So I go and do it.