Prying Minsc out of the hole he’d fallen into proved to be equal parts simple and arduous. Hauling a massively built, nearly two meter tall man in combat armor and carrying what was usually a crew serviced anti-personnel weapon up out of shattered decking was no where near as easy as it would appear. And for the record, when they started it had only looked merely Herculean. And as soon as they got him back on his feet, the behemoth charged right past Valygar and Bran and nearly bowled over Jaheria to get to the Doc’s side.
Kneeling down, he scooped her into her arms, cradling her unconscious form gently against his chest. With gauntleted fingers capable of crushing metal, he ever so softly stroked her hair out of her face. Boo, somewhat ungainly in his ‘glove’ suit, hopped down from his perch and scampered up Aerie’s chest to nuzzle the pale doctor’s cheek. “Little Aerie,” Minsc whispered. “Little Aerie needs to wake up now. Minsc and Boo need her.”
“Minsc,” Jaheira said softly. “She has suffered severe trauma. I am not sure when she will wake up.”
“She will!” Minsc said, never taking his eyes of Aerie’s face. “Minsc knows. Minsc and Boo have to help her wake up. She needs us.”
“Course she does, big guy.” Bran said, crouching down next to him. “But we can’t stay here. We have to keep moving.”
Minsc’s arms tightened reflexively around Aerie’s slight form. His tone was soft but as firm as battle steel. “Minsc needs to wait here. With Little Aerie. So she knows how to get back home. If we move her, she might get lost!”
Bran, eyebrow arched, looked over questioningly at Jaheira. She shrugged in reply. Shooting his eyebrows, he sighed. This wasn’t going to be easy. “Minsc. We have to get moving. More of them…”
“NO! Little Aerie needs to stay!” Minsc boomed, eyes flashing. Even more disturbing was the glare he was getting from Boo. “Minsc and Boo stay until Little Aerie wakes up!”
“Minsc,” Bran said firmly, his patience fraying. “I understand…”
“Bran,” Jaheira grabbed his shoulder. “Hold one.”
“What?” Bran replied, confusion and annoyance bubbling.
“Aerie’s biosigns are stabilizing. All of her brain activity is trending towards baseline.”
“What?” He blinked.
“I think Minsc is… I am not sure, but I believe his presence is some how mitigating the effect she is under,” Jaheira reported, studying her display carefully. “All anomalous readings are returning to normal levels, and surprisingly rapidly.”
Even as Jaheira spoke, Bran watched in stunned silence as Aerie began to stir in Minsc’s arms. He shook his head unbelievingly. Such a sudden change. As Aerie’s eyes fluttered open, Bran whispered softly, “I’ll be damned.”
“What was that…” Jaheira started, trailing off as she caught sight of Aerie’s blinking lashes.
“M…M…Minsc?” came a soft, almost fragile whisper.
“Yes Little Aerie?” Minsc said gently.
“Th…thank you. You came.”
“Minsc and Boo will always come for Little Aerie. We are her protectors.” The big man gently stroked her hair. “We won’t let anyone hurt little Aerie. Even Dark Man will face the Boots of Justice if he tries to harm you again!”
Aerie weakly raised her hand, fingers outstretched. Minsc, knowing what she wanted, gently took her small hand in his massive mitt and held it to his cheek. The blonde smiled softly. “Thank you Minsc. While you are with me, I will always be safe.”
The smile the crossed Minsc’s face could be called beaming. Just like a star could be said to be bright. Both were blinding if you looked right into them, but Aerie unsurprisingly seemed to be suffering no ill effects from it.
“I hate, and I really mean that, to interrupt… but what the hell is going on? Who is the Dark Man?” Bran finally asked, breaking the reining silence.
Minsc’s arms tightened protectively around Aerie, but loosened with another gentle touch by the still frail looking doctor. “C..captain. Th… they are all related. Wh.. what happened to me and the entity Minsc calls Dark Man.” The doctor took a deep breath, rubbing at her forehead. “It is… it is difficult to explain those not… not possessing strong psychic abilities.”
“I buy that, Doc, but try me,” he caught a look from both his sister and from his X.O., “Try us anyway.”
Aerie smiled wanly. “Of c… course C..aptain. The name Dark Man is the name Minsc seems to have given the entity that inhabits this ship. It… it is as good a name as any, but the entity itself has no name. Or at least one that we could comprehend. But considering the pain it has wrought, it fits.”
“Were you in contact with this extra dimensional entity?” Jaheira asked.
“Th… that is not the word I would choose,” Aerie replied with a shiver. “Under attack is more correct.”
“It -attacked- you?” Bran asked as low growl came from Minsc. And from Boo.
“Yes. It attacked me psychically.”
“But if it attacked you that way, why not the rest of us?”
Aerie grimaced. “It is because …” She paused, sucking at her lips.
“It’s because it can’t really sense us or we aren’t serious enough threats,” Imoen finished for her. “That’s right, isn’t it Aerie?”
Aerie nodded grimly. “None of you are… psychically aware enough to qualify as… a threat. It is incorporeal, existing in what can be described as the world of thought. It is a being of pure psychic energy.”
“So us psychically blind folks don’t rate as threats…” Imoen studied Aerie’s face. “Wait, we don’t even rate that high do we? We’re more like ants or something to it, aren’t we?”
“Food would be the best description,” Aerie admitted.
“So, we’re E-Rats on legs. Great. Just what I always aspired to,” Imoen groaned.
“It’s good to have attainable goals,” Valygar added quickly.
“And I was the extra snack stashed in the larder,” Mazzy pointed out. “And while ego bruising, perhaps we should focus on something more useful?”
“Good point,” Bran said with a quick nod. He was no fan of something considering him a nice afternoon snack, but dwelling on it wasn’t going to really do much good. “So, what can else can you tell us?”
“I can confirm what we saw from the captain’s logs. The ‘Dark Man’ exists in an other dimension. It is a predator there, or at least the closest analogue we would have. It feeds on neural energy of its prey and has developed a taste for ours. It apparently ‘tastes’ better, whatever that means.”
“So, it eats our neural energy… how does that explain the walking corpses?”
“This is a far more corporeal dimension. It needed tools to gather more psychic energy, so… it took over the corpses of its victims, following the traces of their consumed energy. It found it could kill more and more effectively, therefore harvesting more energy.”
“From hunter gatherer to farmer,” said Jaheira darkly.
“Great. So it’s found it likes the local wildlife and decided to move in. How the hell do we send it back?”
“It was sucked into our dimension by the phase cloak. That trapped it here, infused it into the ship itself.” Aerie paused, looking down. Then she looked back up, staring into Bran’s eyes. “Its anchor to our universe is this ship. If we destroy it, it will lose its hold on our universe and be banished back to its own.”
“Ignoring the fact that we’re still onboard,” Imoen interjected, “And that’s a big thing, I’d like to remind you all. But ignoring that, the log files all said that blowing up the ship was a Bad Idea. That Mr. Big Bad Dark Man would be freed to roam the universe, our universe. And turn us into an all it can eat buffet.”
“I… it was a deception. It tricked Dr. Flavius when he interrogated it,” Aerie replied stridently, her voice rising in crescendo. “It… managed to affect his mind, make him believe that destroying the ship would unleash it. Because it wanted to stay.”
“It tricked him?” Bran asked plainly, his eyes narrowing slightly. “Doc, what’s to say you weren’t?”
“Nothing can fool Little Aerie!” Minsc boomed defensively. “She is too smart and wise to be fooled by the naughty, wicked tricks of Evil Dark Man!”
“Minsc,” Aerie said, resting a hand on the giant’s shoulder. The flush left his cheeks and he settled back into his crouch. “The Captain asks a good question.” She turned to face Bran, her ice blue eyes fixing on his. “I.. I don’t know if I can adequately explain it to someone who does not possess…”
“Look Doc, no offense, but I know I’m effectively blind psychically. I get that. But you’re proposing a …” his lips quirked uncomfortably. “radically different course. I have to know how you know.”
“C... captain, I understand. No offense is taken, nor did I mean any. But … it is hard to explain. It’s like explaining color to a person blind from birth.” She sighed. “As best as I can put it, when one mind attacks another, certain barriers must come down. To attack is to reveal, and if the attack is resisted or blunted, the attacker is very vulnerable…”
“Okay, makes sense I guess. But how did you pick this stuff from an alien mind? An extradimensional one at that,” Bran insisted.
“Language is a way of communicating, but it is also extremely limiting. It binds thoughts to a construct that must be shared for two people to understand. But thought…” she squeezed Minsc’s arm. “Just pure thought, requires less construct. Less filtering. So, it was… easier to understand. I don’t understand all, or even much of it. But the parts related to us, to our universe, the constructs are familiar enough to understand. And those parts I could see when its attack failed. I got a glimpse inside.”
“Okay, so it’s like reading right from the crystal. Machine code,” Imoen interjected. “But how do you know the data wasn’t a plant?”
“Surprise and fear, Imoen,” Aerie said levelly. “It did not think I could resist it. I almost did not,” her hand tightened further on Minsc’s arm. “It had no reason to create such faked thoughts. No time.” She sighed. “Captain, I know it is hard to believe, but I assure you, on the soul of my people, that it is true.”
Bran rocked back on his heels. It was intelligence, it was a way of beating the damn bastard. Now, it didn’t leave a lot of room to survive. It’d likely be an extremely Pyrrhic victory, in all senses. But hey, slim chances were his specialty. And it sure as hell beat turning into on of these undead bastards or swallowing a pulse round.
The problem was the age old one when it came to intel, especially the really good stuff. Was it legitimate? Could it be trusted? Could this… thing… fool Aerie so thoroughly? There was no reason it couldn’t. And there’s no reason it could. He looked back into Aerie’s eyes, looking for the answer. On one hand, there was running, reacting. Dancing to its tune. The other was attacking. Taking the battle to the bastard and kicking its interdimensional ass back into whatever frelling space time continuum bullshit it came from.
His instructors, his experience all told him, when in doubt, attack.
The only thing was attacking could very likely kill his entire crew.
And possibly doom the entire universe to enslavement to some energy being and its horde of undead.
He scanned the faces of his companions. Of his crew. Of his family. Part of him longed to ask their opinions, to kick it around and figure it out. But this wasn’t the kind of decision that could be made by committee. If you were going to damn the universe, you might as well take sole responsibility.
Made the accounting in Hell a lot easier.
“Alright then. I believe you Aerie. We blow the ship,” he swallowed hard, knowing what he was asking of his crew. The chances of survival were so slim, but for it to even work, he’d need their help. He looked from face to face, wanting one of them to say no and hoping desperately they wouldn’t. Finally, his eyes met the brilliant green of Jaheira’s.
She simply arched an eyebrow in response.
“I know. I didn’t need to ask.”
“Correct,” she said with a slight smile and a nod.
He smiled at his crew. If he was going to start an apocalypse, he couldn’t think of a better bunch to start it with. “We’ve got a couple hundred thousand kilos of used military equipment to blow to kingdom come, a hostile alien entity to send screaming back to void and our own asses to save. Busy agenda for the rest of the day. So, let’s be about it.”