Uncertainty Principle by CeJay
Summary:
Unable to prevent the annihilation of two universes, Michael Owens and the crew of the starship Eagle find themselves in yet another reality not their own.

​ In a galaxy that barely resembles his home, Michael must come to terms with his own personal demons and a family he had long thought lost. ​

Now, as the motivation of their most important ally is brought into question, the crew finds itself stuck between two of the Federation's greatest enemies in a race against the clock to prevent the unthinkable. ​

Continue the journey into the depths of quantum reality in Book Three of the Quantum Divergence trilogy.

And don’t miss Book One, False Vacuum, Book Two, State of Entanglement, and the Road to Quantum Divergence stories, Civil War and Homecoming.


Categories: Expanded Universes Characters: None
Genre: Action/Adventure, Drama, Family
Warnings: Adult Situations, Character Death
Challenges: None
Series: The Star Eagle Adventures
Chapters: 18 Completed: No Word count: 38154 Read: 1168 Published: 12 Sep 2021 Updated: 15 Jan 2022

1. Prologue: Set the World on Fire - 1 by CeJay

2. Prologue: Set the World on Fire - 2 by CeJay

3. Prologue: Set the World on Fire - 3 by CeJay

4. Part 1 - The Hard Hello: 1 by CeJay

5. Part 1 - The Hard Hello: 2 by CeJay

6. Part 1 - The Hard Hello: 3 by CeJay

7. Part 1 - The Hard Hello: 4 by CeJay

8. Part 1 - The Hard Hello: 5 by CeJay

9. Part 1 - The Hard Hello: 6 by CeJay

10. Part 1 - The Hard Hello: 7 by CeJay

11. Part 1 - The Hard Hello: 8 by CeJay

12. Part 1 - The Hard Hello: 9 by CeJay

13. Part 1 - The Hard Hello: 10 by CeJay

14. Part 2 - Family of Strangers: 1 by CeJay

15. Part 2 - Family of Strangers: 2 by CeJay

16. Part 2 - Family of Strangers: 3 by CeJay

17. Part 2 - Family of Strangers: 4 by CeJay

18. Part 2 - Family of Strangers: 5 by CeJay

Prologue: Set the World on Fire - 1 by CeJay
1

DZ-75

It was an unseasonably warm spring evening in the city of Quagum when Themysa found him at his home, sitting just outside his house and enjoying a glass of fermented rice wine as had been his wont as of late.

Although he was at least twenty cycles her senior, they had formed a close friendship ever since he had been her tutor in civics and political study at the university. It had begun, like many of those things do, as a romantic relationship, with her being attracted to his intellect and he had been smitten with her energy and enthusiasm.

But they had both quickly learned that those initial feelings were borne out of passion rather than genuine affection and they had decided to remain friends rather than to carry on with a relationship that was destined to fizzle out and fail.

He had remained her mentor and confidant even after she had left school to pursue a career in politics. It had helped that he too had moved back into that field, quickly rising to the highest levels of the planetary government.

They’ve had their disagreements over the years, they certainly didn’t see eye to eye on several important issues, but she had been more than a little surprised to hear about his most recent vote in an assembly session just a couple of days earlier.

“I had not taken you, of all people, as a sleever,” she said even as she approached him sitting on the porch of his rather modest single-story home located in one of the more affluent parts of the city.

He afforded her with one of his beaming smiles that she had found so irresistible in her younger days when she had spent countless hours in his company speaking with him about anything and everything, from her childhood spent in the hill country, to her upbringing in the city and her dreams of becoming an assemblywoman someday. He’d had an almost uncanny ability to listen to her speak, oftentimes hearing things she hadn’t even said, always with that inspiring smile decorating his lips and never really noticing until much later that while she routinely bared her soul to him, he never once talked about his own past.

“I don’t believe that is the preferred term,” he said to her as he had another sip of his wine with one hand, and gently stroked his white and bony protrusions that ran lengthwise down his bald, dark-skinned head in neat rows all the way to the back of his neck. Then he raised the bottle as if to offer her a drink.

She shook her head. “I don’t care what they call themselves. But the idea of simply shrugging off your body to replace it with an artificial shell when it no longer suits you just feels unnatural. Our resources would have been so much better spent on more worthwhile pursuits, such as the space program.”

He looked past her and toward the city behind her. Although his home was modest, the location he had chosen for it most certainly was not. Positioned on top of one of the taller hills, it afforded a splendid view of the metropolis, currently lit up in bright colors. “If you were to ask our forefathers about vehicles driving themselves or robots carrying out menial tasks to make our lives easier, things we take so much for granted now, I am certain there would have been some among them who would have considered such innovations unnatural as well.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” she said calmly. She had long since moved past her early habits of arguing her points with a great passion, having learned to temper herself with rationality instead. A lesson he had taught her. “Perhaps the problem is that the Assembly is composed of old men and women, scared of the prospect of dying of old age and desperate to cling to any hope to artificially prolong their lives. Perhaps what the Assembly requires is an infusion of youth and vision.”

At that, he smiled good-naturedly at her. “That, my dear, I do not doubt at all.”



DZ-49


“I cannot believe you did that.”

Themysa was thoroughly astounded when she had found him sitting by himself at a table in the far corner of the restaurant, the leftovers of his recent meal mostly forgotten in favor of a half-emptied bottle of spiced rice wine.

But it wasn’t that he had ordered an entire bottle for himself that had her so completely flabbergasted, it was the fact that he possessed only a passing resemblance to the man she had known for almost her entire adult life. He looked like himself, except years younger, as if he was the son she knew he had never had.

Most disturbingly perhaps, he now looked younger than she did.

“Was it true after all? You just wanted to live forever?” she said as she wiped the sweat off her brow.

He looked up at her briefly without paying her much attention. “This isn’t a good time.”

“You’ve been avoiding me for the last ten cycles, I’ve barely seen you more than a handful of occasions during all that time, and trying to contact you has become increasingly difficult. Now I’ve learned you’ve resigned from your assembly role and I find you hiding in here, wearing your brand-new shell that makes you practically look like a child.”

He took another sip from his beverage. “The technology is really quite remarkable. You should try it.”

She shook her head. “I am quite happy with my body the way it is, thank you very much.”

“You’d be amazed by the results. I thought I knew what I had lost in old age. Turns out, I was only half right,” he said, although he sounded somewhat flat, his tone not quite matching the enthusiasm his words seemed to imply.

“Is that what you’ve become? A cheerleader of sleeves?”

He finished his drink and toggled the payment sensor at his table before he stood and headed for the doors. “I wish I had time for that.”

She was not willing to give up so quickly. She had spent a significant amount of time and effort to track him down, had been surprised to be told that he was no longer working for the Assembly, it had almost been as if he had dropped off the face of Celerias altogether until she had heard of rumors that somebody matching his description, albeit loosely, had been seen frequenting this establishment.

Now that she had found him, she was not willing to give up so easily. “Pray tell me what’s been keeping you so busy for the last few cycles if it is not working for your new masters at the sleeve builders?”
They stepped outside and he stopped for a moment, looking skyward. “Hot day we’re having.”

“It’s called a heatwave,” she said, not willing to change the subject

He nodded and then glanced at her.

“You were telling me what you’ve been working on.”

“Do you recall our conversations back at the university about trying to make a real impact on the world we live in?”

“It’s how you convinced me to go into politics,” she said, recalling those conversations quite vividly. She had been so optimistic and eager in those days, barely able to wait to graduate and start tackling the greatest issues facing their society.

“I was wrong,” he said.

A large skimmer pulled up next to them. It was white and sleek with no visible markings, like the ones people of affluence liked to ride in, those who had suddenly found themselves able to use their wealth to purchase new bodies as if they were suits of clothing.

It was a fad, she had decided, a new fixation of the rich and famous to spend their money on. Rather than invest in houses or boats, they could now get younger and stronger, and more beautiful for the right price.

Without another word, he slipped into the vehicle and drove off, leaving her to look after him.

“What happened to you?”
Prologue: Set the World on Fire - 2 by CeJay
2

DZ-33


She didn’t recognize the face staring back at her in the mirror.

It belonged to a stranger and yet it was now hers.

The irony of it all, of course, didn’t escape her one bit.

For most of her life, she had been an outspoken opponent of the sleeve program and determined to live out her natural life in the body she had been born with, even as the technology continued to improve seemingly with every cycle. And as it became more and more affordable, people from all walks of life were now drawn to the prospect of switching into a younger body, or perhaps even into an entirely different one.

Many of her friends, she knew, had either already purchased one or joined the waiting list to receive their replacement shell once their natural body expired, enticed by the prospect of immortality.

She on the other hand had stubbornly held out.

Until the accident.

Only twelve people had survived the maglev train derailment, and she had been among only two who would have died within days had it not been for an emergency sleeve procedure. She had approved the body swap at the time, lying in the hospital bed, barely conscious enough to understand what had been proposed.

She didn’t regret her decision. After all, it had been the only way to save her life, even if the only body that had been available at short notice had been of the opposite sex.

She had been told that she could change her shell again to something more familiar but she had stubbornly refused and instead decided to stick to what she had been given, and in honesty, she had been more than a little curious to find out what it would be like to go through life as a male member of her species.

It had been somewhat awkward at first and she had found that she had to relearn certain parts of her daily routine she had long since taken for granted, but after an adjustment period that had lasted half a cycle or so, she had come to realize that, although she looked very different now, none of the things that truly mattered to her had changed.

It hadn’t stopped her though from reconsidering some of her life choices. She had left politics and had started a career as an investigator, something she had quickly found to be a more rewarding occupation.

It certainly had kept her busy.

“I hate to add to your slate but I’ve got another case for you,” said Trayus, her affable supervisor at the agency she worked at as she returned to her desk. He slipped her a padd just as she sat down.

“You cannot be serious. The heatwave has half the city acting crazy. I’m buried in cases.”

He frowned. “Heightened solar flare activity is the preferred term.”

“Right.”

“And according to the Assembly, it is due to subside within the next five to six cycles. Until then we’ll all just have to bear the warmer weather and cope with its consequences. It’s got us all far busier than usual.”

Themysa, who had decided to keep her pre-sleeve name, gave Trayus the same looks she always did when it came to the subject. She had worked for the Assembly once and their official statements didn’t fill her with a great amount of confidence. It was one of the reasons she was an investigator now.

She glanced at the padd and brought up the case file. “What is it?”

“Reports of unsanctioned activity in the Morta Flatlands.”

“Morta? So what? Nobody lives out there.”

He shrugged. “It’s still protected territory and access is strictly regulated.”

“You have to be kidding me?” she said with an exasperated sigh. “I’ve got two dozen cases of city folk slowly going insane and you want to send me out into the middle of nowhere to look into somebody trespassing into a nature preserve? In this stinking heat?”

He looked vaguely apologetic. “It’s the job.”

She uttered another sigh as she began to review the case file on the padd. There wasn’t much there. A few reports from rangers working in the area and a few blurry high-altitude surveillance photographs.

With so little evidence to go by, she hoped it meant she wouldn’t need to spend much time on this case. It would take her nearly two days to get all the way out to Morta.

She was about to add the file to her caseload when she spotted something in the last photograph that caught her attention.

Trayus noticed her sudden interest with a grin. “See, that’s why you are my favorite investigator. You see the details where others don’t. You’ll solve this one in no time.”

But she wasn’t listening to him anymore.

The image she had found showed a skimmer traversing the flatlands. It was too far away to make out any details but she could tell that it was large and painted white. It was an older model, one that had been quite expansive once and certainly not the kind of vehicle one would expect this far out in the sticks.

She had seen it before.

“What would you be doing all the way out there?” she mumbled to herself but Trayus had already walked away.




DZ-25


Conditions had not improved. If anything, things had gotten worse and the Assembly had only recently admitted that it had started to construct underground cities when the massive civil works projects simply became far too large to hide.

Temperatures in the southern hemisphere of Celerias were now so high most of the time, that the majority of the population had started to migrate north, including into the city of Quagum.

The large population increase in the capital had also spurred public unrest and crime rates have skyrocketed, forcing investigators such as Themysa to spend most of her time working as a peace officer rather than doing her actual job, meaning that many of her cases had fallen significantly behind.

Her department had suffered in other ways as well, with a large number of her fellow investigators having left their positions when it had become clear that they would no longer be able to do the work that they had signed on for. One of those who had left had been her superior Trayus who had been replaced with a woman younger than Themysa and with far less patience.

“We had another explosion in sector four this morning,” said Heleria, the chief investigator. “All signs point towards a terrorist attack. I need you to get out there right away.”

But Themysa shook her head. “What’s the point? If it’s like all the other bombings, there’ll be nothing left to find. And we have enough officers on site for crowd control and evidence recovery. I think my time would be better spent following up on leads from here.”

Heleria looked dubious. “What do you expect to learn from your desk?”

Themysa, who had become quite used to her male shell over the last cycles, pointed at her computer screen. “From initial reports, these attackers used the same chemical compound to create their bombs as the last three. I think we are looking at the same group. If I can locate the source of those materials and determine who obtained them, I might be able to identify the responsible party.”

Heleria regarded her screen for only a few seconds. “Fine. You have five days. If you don’t find anything, I want you back out there,” she said and then quickly left. Themysa had long since realized that there was little point in arguing with the chief investigator.

She spent the rest of her day following up on purchases of chemical compounds in the city and the region.

It didn’t take her long to realize that she was on to something. Purchases had steadily increased over the last ten cycles or so and she was able to identify a noticeable pattern as she dug a little deeper.

Most of the purchases were carried out by companies that appeared unrelated to each other at first glance until she realized that all of them seemed to be nothing more than companies in name only with no physical locations or employees. And they were all owned by other, similar entities.

It took her most of her five days to follow all the threads that to her utter astonishment led her to a very familiar name.

The person who owned all those companies, it seemed, was somebody she knew very well. Or at least, had known very well once.

However, there was no trace of him anywhere.

He had sold his house overlooking the city cycles ago and nobody who used to work with him knew his whereabouts.

She was out of options and her deadline to produce results was coming up fast. It was then that she recalled the last time she had thought she had spotted him. It had been a trespassing case out in the Morta Flatlands she’d never had time to follow up on.

With no other leads to go on and Heleria breathing down her neck, she decided to leave the city.

With the nearly unbearable heat during the day, she had to travel mostly during the night. It was a two-day trip to the nature preserve where she had picked up surveillance images of the skimmer cycles earlier. She found a cheap hotel to sleep in during the day and spend most of the night hours driving her skimmer into continuously more barren and rocky territory.

People were scarce in this part of the world, as nobody ventured out here anymore and although it had once been an area teeming with life, the high temperatures had killed off most of the fauna and flora over the cycles.

She arrived at his last known location after a six-hour drive. She wasn’t sure what she had expected to find. In the back of her mind, she had told herself that this entire excursion had been a phenomenal waste of her time, after all, Morta was a huge area, and trying to find just one person within the flatlands was a fool’s errand.

She spotted the massive spire almost immediately.

It wasn’t man-made and at least a hundred meters tall, sticking out from the surrounding landscape like a sore thumb.

She parked her skimmer half a kilometer away at the foot of one of the many rock formations in the area and then hiked a short while until she found a good vantage point on top of a ridge.

The spire was part of an installation, perhaps thirty or forty square meters in size. There was a small storage building and she could see several canisters and containers arranged on a platform. The spire had been erected at the center of the platform.

There was a missile-like device attached to the spire that launched just a couple of minutes after she had reached the ridge.

The bright flash of its thrusters blinded her for a moment and when she could see again she found that it was shooting straight up into the early morning sky.

The sun was already up, looming far larger than it should have been and generating enough heat to make her sweaty and uncomfortable.

She followed the path of the rocket, having to shield her eyes with her hand, fairly certain it was heading right for the sun.

After a few minutes she could no longer spot it in the sky and she began to head towards the installation. Halfway there she saw somebody getting into a large white skimmer and speed off.

As she had suspected the many barrels in the storage building contained the chemical compound that had led her to this place. There were parts for many other rockets and upon closer inspection, she found that they were designed to deliver a specific payload. Since she couldn’t identify what it was, she took a sample.

Before she made her way back to her skimmer, she spotted the many discarded beverage cans on the ground and picked one up.

She recognized the brand immediately.

Spiced rice wine.
Prologue: Set the World on Fire - 3 by CeJay
3


DZ -12


Matters had deteriorated rapidly over the last thirteen cycles.

A good half of the planet was no longer able to sustain life on the surface due to extreme temperatures and even in northern cities such as Quagum, spending more than an hour outside posed significant health risks.

The Assembly had held fast to their narrative that the increased solar flare activity of the sun was merely a temporary condition but by now, several independent scientists were seriously disputing this interpretation of available data and large parts of the population were close to all-out panic.

The construction of underground cities was no longer an open secret, in fact, mandatory evacuation orders were in full effect and Themysa spend the majority of her days supporting that effort.

She had recently switched back into a new sleeve, one which looked a great deal like her former body, albeit younger than it had been when she had lost it.

Although society had started to crack, the production of synthetic bodies remained at an all-time high, feeding the people’s ongoing desire to switch out shells at will for no other reason than vanity or excitement. With all the problems facing their world, the government highly encouraged sleeve swaps now that they were cheap enough to be affordable even for the non-wealthy.

Themysa knew that it was nothing more than an opiate for the masses, something to take their mind off the fact that their world, their way of life, was crumbling all around them.

But that belief hadn’t stopped her to jump on that same bandwagon. She had felt a little guilty, sure, but she had rationalized it with the fact that her current synthetic sleeve had started to deteriorate--it had been an early model after all. Not in any significant way, but enough to slow her down when she could least afford it.

And she had to admit that she had grown increasingly nostalgic for the old her and eager to be a woman once more, both in mind and body.

“Let’s keep it moving, people,” she shouted, not for the first time, as she herded a crowd towards an access tunnel to Quagum’s designated underground city.

It was a thankless task, most of these people were strugglers who had no desire to leave the homes they had known for most of their lives to move to a barely completed and barely adequate home underneath the surface.

Fights and resistance were commonplace and she had been forced to use her stun baton on a number of people who had refused her directives or tried to incite riots.

She grabbed a particularly slow-moving man by the shoulder and dragged him forward. “Keep going. Don’t hold up the line.”

The man glared back at her and then shoved back so hard, it caused her to nearly topple over.

She responded in kind, bringing up her baton and striking him hard until he fell to the ground bleeding from his face.

A few cycles ago she had been hesitant to use force against evacuees but things had changed. Their reluctance to cooperate only put more people at risk. She didn’t like herself for doing it, but she understood that decisive action was required for the greater good.

She gestured a few of her colleagues over who quickly took the beaten man and dragged him away.

The disturbance had given some others in line a chance to try and make a run for it. She knew the drill.

She activated her comm unit and within moments hover drones appeared above, their bright spotlights quickly identifying the runners and firing tranquilizer rounds to neutralize them before they could escape deeper into the city.

Themysa noticed that one escapee had seemingly eluded the drones and she took off after him. “Stop,” she yelled.

The man didn’t listen.

She hated this part. Chasing down evacuees through the narrow alleyways of the mostly deserted city was a chore with all her armor and protective gear.

And he wasn’t making it easy on her.

She could tell that he had a synthetic shell as well, and it was young and strong and doing a more than adequate job at running and jumping or dodging obstacles to keep his distance.

What he didn’t have, however, was the law enforcement package. It had been a requirement when she got her new sleeve and it afforded her greater strength and stamina.

In the end, it was enough to catch him.

When she had closed in on her prey, she used the remains of a burned-out skimmer abandoned at the side of the road to propel herself into the air and forward to tackle the fleeing man from above.

They both went down hard, with the runner taking the brunt of the fall.

She rolled on the ground and when she came back up, her helmet beacon revealed a face she knew well.

He looked younger than the last time she had seen him which, of course, was no longer much of a surprise.

Finding him here was.

She raised the dark visor of her helmet to show him her face.

He didn’t seem nearly as startled at finding her. “You had an upgrade,” he said, breathing hard, as he slowly sat up against the destroyed skimmer. “I recall that you didn’t trust sleeves.”

“Things change.”

He uttered a laugh but there wasn’t much humor to it. “So very true,” he said and glanced up towards the night sky that refused to provide any relief from the relentless heat.

“Where have you been?”

He reached into the pocket of his vest to retrieve a small flask and took a sip.

She could smell the spiced rice wine from where she was picking herself off the ground. Protocol required her to bring up her weapon or call for backup but she kept her sidearm holstered and her comms offline.

“Oh, I’ve been busy. I’ve been so very busy,” he said, laughing again.

“I know,” she said. “Out in the Mora Flatlands.”
He seemed surprised by this.

“I’ve followed you there once. Saw your contraptions. Shooting missiles into the sky. What for?”

He regarded her for a moment. “I’m afraid you wouldn’t understand,” he said and took another sip but found his flask empty. He dropped it as he stood back up. “But I still have a lot of work to do. So you see, I cannot go down yet.”

“What work could you possibly be doing?”

“I’m reshaping the world, Themysa,” he said as he turned his back on her and began to walk away. “I’m reshaping the world.”

She got some chatter on her comms, one of her fellow units required assistance. By the time she looked back up, he had slipped away into the darkness.

She considered for a moment if she should follow him and take him in, force him back into the underground city as was her duty.

She turned and left to return to her post.





Day Zero -0 cycles


Themysa uttered a little curse under her breath as she held on to the computer on her desk to keep it from falling off as the entire building around her trembled.

It was bad enough that she now had to reside in a cramped underground city and spend the majority of her life below the surface, the recent tremors caused by sporadic solar flares could turn certain days into a living hell. The nights were worse.

The shaking subsided after less than a minute, as it usually did, and everybody around her quickly went back to work as if nothing out of the ordinary had transpired.

After two cycles of this routine, it had become a fact of life.

A young man stepped up to her desk. She knew he was young in appearance only, Gethra was on his third sleeve and had been one of the department's laboratory technicians for at least two of them.

“My team managed to get caught up on some of the work we’ve been behind on and we found a number of your requests in the queue,” he said and handed her a data slate.

She took it and looked it over, her eyes widening slightly as she scanned the content. “Are you serious? Some of this stuff is thirty cycles old.”

He simply shrugged. “We’ve been behind quite a bit.”

“Some of this goes back to the time I first joined the department,” she said. “When we were still on the surface. What do you expect me to do with this now?”

He didn’t seem all that interested and turned. “Not my concern.”

“Wait a minute, what is this?” she said as she found the one entry on the slate that had no conclusive lab results listed against it.

Gethra turned back. “Yes, that one. Must have been a contaminated sample.”

“Why?”

“Because otherwise, the results do not make sense. The sample showed chemical elements that are not native to Celerias.”

“Extraterrestrial?”

He smirked as if she had made a bad joke. “Sure, if that’s what you like to believe. But if you want a scientific explanation, based on those quantities, it is far more likely that the sample you obtained was contaminated,” he said and then quickly left, having accomplished his mission of sharing his findings with her, no matter how useless they were after all this time.

She was mostly annoyed by his attitude and the implication that she had somehow corrupted evidence when obtaining it and decided to follow up on it. She had to search her case files to find what this particular sample related to.

Although much had been lost in their rushed evacuations to the underground cities, thankfully data had not been among the things left behind and it didn’t take her long to bring up the correct file.

She remembered it immediately.

It was the sample she had collected from the launch station out in the Mora Flatlands. It had been part of the payload of the missiles he had shot into the sky.

With everything else that had been going on, she had all but forgotten about that incident. But things were coming back to her now and she decided to dive into it a bit further.

She checked the records and was surprised to learn that he was once again registered and employed, this time as an assistant to an Assembly science advisor. Something she found suspicious.

She realized that over the cycles she had missed plenty of opportunities to attempt to get to the bottom of her old mentor’s strange behavior and probably let him get away with things she shouldn’t have because of the relationship they had once shared.

But he had changed. So much so that he may as well have become an entirely different person with each new sleeve.

She was surprised how little data she could find about him in the records but she did locate his registered residence.

“We have another riot in Sector C,” Heleria, her supervisor, said as she came rushing over to her desk. The woman had just recently upgraded into another shell that looked identical to her old one and kept her eternally youthful in appearance. “I need all available bodies there now.”

But Themyra had made up her mind. She was going to confront him once and for all and this time she would not let herself be distracted.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Heleria called when she walked away from her.

“Dealing with some unfinished business.”

Her supervisor said something else but she couldn’t make out what it was as she was already out of the door. She very much doubted that one extra person would make much of a difference dealing with yet another riot, an almost weekly occurrence as of late.

She had to cross almost half the underground city to reach his residence, a task made somewhat easier thanks to her security credentials.

She still had to stop at least once when the city was gripped by another quake, this one felt worse than the others and she watched on as part of the buildings around her took serious damage. A few unlucky bystanders were hurt and she dutifully called it in but refused to stay and help.

She had questions she needed answers to and she’d be damned if she didn’t get them.

It was the late evening by the time she reached his residence, a modest apartment inside a large tenement building that like so many others had been constructed in a hurry and was already overcrowded.

The door to his unit was slightly ajar and so she let herself in unannounced.

She was surprised how bare the apartment looked as if he had only just moved in and had not had the time to unpack his belongings. According to his records, he had lived there for over five cycles.

She found him in the living area.

He still looked young, younger perhaps than she had ever seen him in his natural body and she wondered if he had replaced his shell yet again since she had last run into him during the evacuation.

“What a pleasant surprise,” he said with a wide grin upon seeing her inside his apartment. “An old friend has come to see me.”

His voice was slightly slurred and her experience immediately told her that he was inebriated. Then again, it didn’t require a detective’s instinct to draw conclusions from the many discarded cans littering the room.

“Don’t have many of those anymore,” he said and headed for the open kitchen area. “Can I offer you a drink? I’m sure I’ve got one left here somewhere.” However, he seemed to struggle to find a can that wasn’t already emptied.

“I’m good.”

He turned to face her. “How have you been? You joined the peace corps, I see. Never took you for an authoritarian.”

“I joined to be an investigator. As the cycles went on there was less and less need for investigators and I became a peace officer. But you know that. We’ve run into each other during the evacuations.”

“Oh, we did?”

“Yes, remember? You told me that you were reshaping the world.”

He laughed. “Yes, yes, of course.”

She wondered how drunk he had been back then. “And how did that go?”

He finally found another can but instead of offering it to her, he opened it and took a sip himself. He laughed again and then spread his arms as if to indicate their surroundings. “Can’t you see? It is reshaped. I’m certain neither of us would have expected to live out our lives buried deep below the surface seventy-five cycles ago.”

“What are you saying? That you’re somehow responsible for all of this?”

He laughed again. “You are the investigator. You tell me.”

A fit of sudden anger gripped her and she stepped up closer to him, slapping the beverage out of his hand and causing him to stumble back.

“Maybe I’m starting to believe that you are,” she said. “A lot of things you’ve done haven’t made a lot of sense to me. The way you voted when you were still a member of the Assembly, for example. People are saying that if we had invested in a space program in those days, we could have established colonies on other worlds by now, instead of hiding ourselves away underground. But you and your vain assembly members supported the sleeve program instead.”

He shrugged. “Neither of us would still be here without it.”

“And what exactly did you fire up into the sky all those cycles ago? Lab tests show that it was material not even native to this planet. Did you shoot it into the sun? It seems to me things got a lot worse after that.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said and turned away.

But she wasn’t finished. “Your behavior changed so much over the cycles I hardly recognize you anymore. And don’t blame the sleeves. I switched from a female body to a male one and back again, and while my appearances may have changed over the cycles, I never lost track of who I truly am.”

“Good for you.”

“I’m starting to wonder if I ever knew who you were,” she said as she continued, following him across the apartment as he seemed desperate to keep her distance. “I checked your records and there is nothing there about you before about a hundred cycles ago. No records whatsoever. No reference to where you were born or who your parents were.”

“That’s a long time ago. Records get lost.”

But she shook her head. “Just yours, it seems. See, I remember back when I was a young student and we were together at the university, I remember how you let me talk for hours about my life, my past, and my dreams. But you know what? Not once do I recall you ever speaking about your life.”

Another tremor hit the city, strong enough to force them both to hold on to the walls until it had subsided.

She reached out for his back now turned to her and spun him around. “Tell me, once and for all. Who are you and what have you done?”

He looked at her and then started to laugh again.

She shook him. “What have you done?”

“Are you familiar with the stories of the Worldtaker?”

“What?”

“The legend,” he said.

She shook her head. “Ancient myths and superstitions of a long bygone area.”

“Maybe,” he said with a shrug. “Then again, maybe not.”

“What does any of that have to do with you?”

“Oh, my dear, lovely Themyra, can’t you see? It’s me. I’m the Worldtaker. I’ve burned it all down, I’ve destroyed your world.”

“My world?”

Another quake.

This time he lunged at her, grabbing her and holding her so tight to his body that she couldn’t escape. “What are you doing?”
“This is it,” he whispered in her ear.

This tremor didn’t end.

Instead, it only got worse.

Panic began to grip her as she felt the building around her crumble and yet he still wouldn’t let go of her.

“What have you done, Bensu?” she screamed.

Then came a sudden burst of heat, worse than anything she had ever felt before.

Then came nothing at all.
Part 1 - The Hard Hello: 1 by CeJay
Part I: The Hard Hello


1



He was floating through the infinite void.

He was shapeless, without form, without a body, just pure, focused thought. And the space around him was devoid of any constellations or nebulae he recognized. It was a maelstrom of color and movement, the beauty of which mesmerized him while at the same time it threatened to drive him to the edge of insanity.

No mortal, he was certain, had ever laid eyes upon what stretched out before him now and had been able to keep their wits about them. Quite possibly, no human being had ever seen what he glimpsed now. There were no words in his language or any language to describe its sheer splendor and total madness.

Beings possessing power far beyond anything he could have ever imagined made this realm their home. He could only perceive them as indistinct shapes and blurry motions existing in the space just outside his own perception.

The entire universe bend to their all-consuming will and there was no force in all of creation greater than theirs. He wasn’t sure how he knew this, how he could possibly understand any of it, and yet he had no doubts that this had to be true.

He opened his eyes as if he had slept for centuries and it took a long time to shake the persistent cobwebs in his brain which struggled to interpret what his eyes were trying to show him.

He stood on a shimmering bridge of blue light with an endless pink depth below. A corridor stretched out in front of him, seemingly with no end in sight.

He had been here before, he knew.

He tried a few, cautious steps, not entirely sure if he could trust his legs to carry him.

He was alone but he could hear their sound.

The clicking noises were all around him, insistent and indecipherable, unrelentingly mocking his presence here, a place where he clearly did not belong.

He came to a room and the large window showed him nothing but more of that swirling salmon-colored mass.

Although he saw nothing there, the sight drew him closer until he stood less than an arm’s length from the transparent material.

Then he saw it. It was as if a thick fog had cleared suddenly. At first, it was just a small skeletal structure, not much larger than an orbital observation post but it grew quickly and he watched on as it expanded not unlike in a time-lapse, growing to the size of a starship, then a station, an orbital dry dock and very soon becoming a superstructure rivaling the size of a small moon. It took on a distinct circular shape as it became larger than a planet, then a star, then a Dyson Sphere. Looking at its rapid growth made him dizzy but he kept his eyes on the expanding ring shape. Not a moment after the ring had closed, it began to move, to spin on its own axis, faster and faster, and until he could feel the vibrations rattling his bones.

A bright flash, followed by a powerful shockwave forced him to stumble backward and he lost his bearings completely.

Once the room had stopped spinning the Ring was gone. And so, in fact, was the room itself.

He was in a cargo bay. There, beyond a force field, a reptilian creature with large, round eyes and clad in a long, hooded robe was writhing on the ground. A man in a Starfleet uniform was hovering above it. The dark-skinned Vulcan was shouting questions he couldn’t understand while the creature squirmed in agony.

Another flash and the cargo bay was gone.

A man walked toward him and he knew that face well, it was after all not so different from his own. The man was smiling and yet also frowning at the same time. His own senses told him that this wasn’t possible and yet the approaching dead man was showing him two faces at the same time.

The dead man reached out with one hand but no matter how close he came, no matter the shrinking distance between them, he could not reach him.

Another flash made him disappear and, in his stead, he saw another dead man. Somebody who had once been a friend and confidant to him but the bearded man was none of those things now. Instead, he snarled and growled at him, like an angry animal and then he too was gone.

He felt a presence behind him and it was her.

She smiled at him pleasantly as she quickly melted the distance between them. She pressed her lips against his for a brief moment he wished lasted longer. Then she reached for his neck, stroking lovingly at first but before he even understood what she was doing, she had a firm grip around his throat and squeezing it with such force, he felt his consciousness slipping away.

She was laughing maniacally but he couldn’t hear a sound.

Somewhere beyond her, a Vulcan and an Orion man were laughing right along.

The flash saved him yet again but this time it drowned his world into darkness. He fell to his knees onto a floor he couldn’t see.

Blind and with no notion as to where he was, he stumbled around helplessly on his hands and knees.

Then somebody grabbed his hand and pulled him roughly back onto his feet.

The face that greeted him out of the darkness was his own.

His twin looked him over for a brief moment, appraising his mirror image. He didn’t seem to like what he was seeing and he turned his back and walked away.

He tried to follow, to reach out for the other him but something unseen prevented him to make contact until he was gone as well, leaving him alone in the darkness once more.

A cold shudder came over him as he felt the temperature dropping suddenly to what felt like sub-zero.

A single, focused red light penetrated the darkness somewhere ahead. It struck him right in the eye, blinding him for a moment before he raised his hand to block it.

He slowly moved his hand and squinted to try and see.

A person, more machine than man stood in the distance, too far away to make out any features but he knew exactly what it was he was looking at and it inspired a primal fear within him, unlike anything he had ever felt.

He wanted to run, to hide, to disappear but his feet were frozen solid to the ground.

The silence all around him was pierced once more by that harrowing clicking noise. It started silently and subdued but it was growing more prominent with each second.

The machine creature was gone but in its stead someone, something else had appeared.

The darkness gave way to a lush green field and he was forced to squint and raise a hand in front of his face again as a bright sun had unexpectedly banished the dark and was now blinding him.

The robed, reptilian creatures stood all around him.

It took him a moment to realize, that it wasn’t him they were surrounding but the other man.

Bensu.

He had his arms raised, his palms facing the sky as he looked right at him.

The clicking sounds were becoming so loud they were booming now.

And all of a sudden he could hear what it was they were chanting with the kind of crystal clarity that had eluded him so far.

“World-taker, World-taker, World-taker.”

Bensu smiled. “Now it begins. Now it ends.”

He watched the man close his eyes and his body beginning to shift unnaturally, slowly turning into pure bright light.

He understood immediately what he was doing.

He was ending it all.

“No,” he heard himself scream as he began to race towards the bright light.

Even as he ran, he could see the world around him fall to pieces. The meadow, the sky, the clouds, the sun, they all crumbled, piece by piece as the chant grew louder and louder still.

The chant continued like the never-ending beat of a drum, but the words had changed: “Be-holder, Be-holder, Be-holder.”

The ground under his feet disappeared and he fell.

The voices were gone.

And he knew. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was all gone.

Everything that had ever been or would ever be.

He had failed.
Part 1 - The Hard Hello: 2 by CeJay
2


The world around him was blurred and out of focus but bright enough that the light hurt his eyes.

It took a moment until he could be sure that all his extremities were still connected to his body but the dry sensation in his mouth seemed unwilling to pass.

His mind caught up slower than his body. Only after he had started to stir did he also regain glimpses of what had transpired and even then, he struggled to distinguish actual events from a powerful, soul-crushing vision he had experienced. At least, he hoped it had only been a vision.

It had been both depressing and confusing, it had felt like somebody had dropped all his worst nightmares into a blender and mashed them together until it had become impossible to distinguish one from the other. To tell apart what had been memories of things that had come to pass from possible premonitions of what could still take place in the future.

“Beholder.”

The name punched itself through his foggy consciousness, not unlike a razor-sharp knife driven right through his cerebrum.

It caused him to respond physically, and he jerked upwards far quicker than his body was prepared to. Naturally, he paid the price.

Lifting himself off the floor suddenly, his feet gave out almost immediately and he painfully slumped back onto the carpet uttering a low moan that never reached his ears.

The anguish that had spread through his being forced him to try again, but slower this time and with a greater appreciation of his obvious weakness.

The bridge had steadily come into focus again and he was able to distinguish and recognize familiar shapes and patterns all around him.

He managed to get back onto his hands and knees and tried to call out.

“Report,” he said but mostly only inside his own mind as the word refused to form on his lips and sounded more like an unintelligible gasp to his ears.

He spotted his chair nearby and reached out for it with a trembling hand. Once he had found purchase, he held on to the cushion as if his life depended on it.

Slowly yet steadily he managed to drag himself into his seat and then allowed himself a moment to take a deep breath and survey his bridge.

There was noticeable damage. The starboard wing console by the bulkhead to his right-hand side had clearly burned out, likely from a power surge, and was flickering on and off. The main viewscreen was without power and he could see an exposed conduit near the doors that led to his ready room.

Although he knew well that assessing his ship’s status purely based on what he could see did not tell him the full story, he had to admit that he had seen his bridge in far worse conditions than it appeared now.

He was far more concerned about his crew.

DeMara was slumped over her ops console to the left and Ensign Srena was lying on her side immediately next to her chair at the conn to the right. Tazla Star was lying flat on her stomach not far from her usual seat.

He forced himself to fight through the soreness of his body and made it out of his chair and then half walked, half stumbled over to where his first officer was lying. He practically fell to his knees beside her and, holding his breath, he reached for her neck to find a pulse.

His anxiety abated slowly once he felt the steady beat in her veins. Carefully he turned her on her back, a few strands of her bright red hair came loose from her bun and framed her face. More importantly, however, her chest was rising and falling the way it was supposed to.

Satisfied, he made the arduous task of getting onto his feet once more and then made his way to ops. He gently reached out for DeMara, bent over the console, and pushed her back into her seat. She uttered a little moan as he did so which was proof positive that she too was alive.

The Andorian helm officer was breathing as well but he didn’t like the angle of her head and decided against moving her in case he’d inadvertently injure her by doing so.

“Beholder.”

The voice inside his head caused him to snap up suddenly as if somebody had punched him unexpectedly.

It was only now that he remembered the Ring and the universe it had attempted to tear apart while they had been stuck in the middle of it all. The gateway that had started to form at the dead center of the superstructure and the away team he had left behind on the massive particle collider designed to wipe out entire realities.

The SMT operatives, Nora Laas, Louise Hopkins, Xylion, his father, and …

There was a small voice buried deep inside the back of his head that told him exactly what he needed to do first. What both regulations and logic demanded he focused his entire attention on without further delay. Check the rest of the bridge crew and assist his officers to take back their stations so that they could assess and assist the rest of the ship. Get a damage report, find out if there had been casualties and that sickbay was able to deal with them appropriately. Ensure the ship was safe from dangers; internal and external. And, of course, find out if they had finally managed to find their way back home.

All those actions he knew had to take priority and yet he was already on his way toward the turbolift, a fear he couldn’t quite explain driving him on, refusing to let up and allow him to focus on all the things he ought to be doing.

Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Star attempting to get off the floor but by then he was already in the lift, thankfully still fully operational.

“Transporter room two,” he croaked in a voice that sounded nothing like his own and yet seemed to be enough for the computer to understand.

As the lift sped toward its destination, the many myriad images in his fever dream reasserted themselves in front of his mind’s eye. Edison and Amaya, Jarik and Altee, his father and the Ring, but more than anything else, one single individual had taken hold of his thoughts and refused to let go.

“Now it begins. Now it ends.”

The lift doors reopened and disgorged him onto deck six where he nearly stumbled over what he hoped was merely an unconscious crew member lying in the corridor.

He never stopped to check on his status.

Instead, he continued toward the two large door panels of the transporter room that obediently parted before him.

And then he froze.

There on the transporter platform, he found the away team. Somehow, and he couldn’t remember when or how they had managed to get beamed back on board. All of them were there, some were bleeding and clearly injured, likely requiring immediate medical attention.

But at that moment, he wasn’t concerned for any of the unconscious bodies littering the platform.

For there was one who had not shared their misfortune. One who just stood there, among the unconscious bodies, tall and with seemingly not a single scratch on his dark skin.

In his hand, he held a small, silver device he immediately recognized as the Exhibitor, the unassuming instrument that contained within it the awesome power of controlling the Ring and quite possibly the fate of entire universes.

Bensu, standing perfectly still not unlike a stone statue, was staring at him without speaking a word, his face an empty mask devoid of emotions.

And Michael just stared back.
Part 1 - The Hard Hello: 3 by CeJay
3


Tazla had woken with the mother of all headaches, worse even than the one she had remembered after the first time they had gone through the gateway.

She was certain she had spotted the captain jumping into the turbolift before she’d had a chance to even find her bearings. It had seemed like an uncharacteristic move for him considering the current crisis and she had no idea where his presence could have been required more urgently than on the bridge. Ultimately, she was relieved that he had weathered their latest transition unharmed.

She had spent the next few minutes checking on the rest of the bridge crew. Deen and Leva were dazed but most unharmed while Srena and a crewmember manning one of the bridge aft stations had been injured, neither of them seriously, but enough for her to have them sent to sickbay. The versatile Bolian Lieutenant Alendra had slipped behind the conn in the meantime.

The initial damage report seemed to indicate that the ship had taken a beating traveling through the gateway, not as badly as the first time they had made the sudden transition but certainly worse than their last journey when they had been far better prepared.

The captain returned to the bridge just as Leva completed a report she had asked for.

“Engines are at sixty-five percent power but weapons are offline and shields are running on auxiliary power. Communications are down as well but we do have sensors,” the tactical officer said and briefly glanced in the direction of the captain who was making his way down the ramp and toward the command area.

“Casualties?” he asked just before he had reached her.

“None have been reported so far,” Leva said. “Sickbay advised of about two dozen injuries but that number is likely to increase. The transporter room reports that we managed to retrieve our away team. Apparently, they’ve taken quite a beating on the Ring, virtually all members were wounded and are being seen to in sickbay.”

Owens nodded knowingly, leading her to suspect that that’s where he had rushed to before she had even been on her feet. Perhaps out of concern for his frail father who had been part of the away team to the Ring.

He glanced at her next. “I want security posted to sickbay.”

She had no earthly idea why he felt that was necessary but her quizzical look went unanswered and she decided to follow her orders. She walked up to her chair, titled her computer console in her direction, and then entered the necessary commands to advise the security department to dispatch a detail to the medical section.

“Now for the big question,” Owens said. “Where did we end up and is there any chance that we found our way back home?”

“The good news is that we’re definitely in Cygni-98,” said DeMara Deen as her fingers danced over her console.

“But is it ours?” she asked, trying her best to hide her own anxiety over the answer. After having visited two universes and having come face-to-face with what had been her nightmare version of herself, and watching her die, she was more than ready to be done with this reality-hopping business.

“Long-range sensors have taken a bit of a hit during the transition,” the Tenarian said as she kept working her panel. “It’ll take me a moment to get them back into full working order.”

The doors to the forward turbolift opened and Tazla watched Lif Culsten and Garla step onto the bridge. She had known, of course, that they had beamed over several people from the Krellonian flagship before it had been destroyed, but matters had escalated so quickly afterward, that she had admittedly not had the time to determine who exactly had been rescued.

She was relieved to see that Lif Culsten had made it. On the other hand, the sight of his aunt moving about the ship freely made her feel less enthusiastic, considering the intelligence officer’s history and after having witnessed first-hand what she was capable of. And perhaps she was also still slightly peeved that the woman had bested her at a game she had once excelled at.

“Good to see you made it off that ship in one piece,” Owens said to his helmsman.

“Thank you, sir.”

“We were the only ones to make it,” said Garla.

It took Tazla a moment to understand what she meant, after all, they had managed to beam dozens of crewmembers across the stricken Tenarian ship. But then, just like the last time they had witnessed the destruction of an entire universe, nobody who had called it their home had been immune to its sudden end, even if they had been on Eagle at the time.

Owens and the rest of the bridge crew seemed to understand and let the comment pass in silence. It wasn’t enough, or even close to appropriate, to commemorate the end of a staggering number of people, Tazla thought. In fact, she felt the urgent need to distract herself from a thought truly unfathomable. “You’re out of uniform, Lieutenant,” she said after the moment had passed.

Culsten looked down at the elaborate Krellonian attire he was clad in. “Apologies, Commander. We had to improvise on short notice.”

Owens nodded. “We’ll let it slide for now,” he said with a small smile on his lips.

“Where are we?” Garla asked.

“That’s what we’re trying to establish,” she said and took a step closer to ops. “Any luck with those sensors?”

“Not exactly. But I have picked up multiple contacts.”

“Confirmed. We’ve triggered some sort of sensor alert,” said Leva from tactical, causing most heads to turn his way. “I’m reading eight starships that have amended their course and are now headed in our direction. The closest one will reach us in less than two hours.”

“Can you identify the ships?” she asked.

“The configurations resemble Krellonian designs.”

“Krellonian?” said Garla and then stepped closer to the main viewer. “Put it on screen.”

Tazla was just about to reprimand the woman for her audacity to give orders on this bridge. It was obvious that the sentinel was used to giving orders and she wanted to make it perfectly clear that she had no authority on this ship.

But when she spotted Owens nodding slowly, she indicated toward Leva instead to do what she had asked for.

The screen shifted to show a starship at warp. Its hull had that same chrome glint that she had seen on other Krellonian vessels but the ship was too distant to make out many details. “Magnify.”

The image zoomed in closer to reveal that it didn’t quite share the same design philosophy of the Krellonian ships in their universe, nor those they had encountered in the two others for that matter. This ship looked far more stream-lined compared to what they had come across before, not totally unlike a large missile, with a pointed forward section and a much wider aft quarter where three warp nacelles were seemingly incorporated into the ship’s superstructure.

“That’s no Star Alliance ship,” Garla said. “But I’ve seen this configuration before. It almost looks like…”

“Looks like what?” Tazla asked when she didn’t elaborate.

The Krellonian woman just shook her head. “No, that couldn’t be.”

“Considering what we have seen so far, I wouldn’t be too quick to rule anything out,” said Deen and Tazla found herself agreeing wholeheartedly.

“I’m reading another set of contacts now heading our way,” Leva said as he continued to monitor his board. Tazla could see the growing frown on his face.

“What is it?” she asked.

He looked back up. “I’m afraid we’re quite familiar with these designs,” he said and tapped a few commands to change the viewscreen.

Tazla felt a cold shudder run up her spine at what it revealed. It was a sight she had hoped not ever having to see again. It had haunted her nightmare for the better parts of the last few years.

The six purple and gray ships were shaped like large scarab beetles with warp nacelles attached to their sides like wings.

“The Dominion,” said Owens, he kept his voice low but the bridge was quiet enough that it carried.

“I think we can safely say that wherever we’ve landed, this is not home. There was no reported Dominion activity in the Beta Quadrant when we left,” said Tazla who, keeping with old habits, made it part of her daily routine to stay up with any and all intelligence briefings she could get her hands on, including one or two which were not meant for general distribution and she was able to obtain thanks to the connections she still maintained in the community.

“And we can also assume that they are not heading our way to invite us to tea and scones,” said Deen before she glanced at Owens.

“The Jem’Hadar ships are traveling at high warp and will reach our position in approximately three hours and forty-six minutes,” Leva said. “There are now a total of twelve ships heading our way. There is no way we can take on all of them. Not in our current condition. Maybe not even at full strength.”

Owens nodded slowly. “We can’t stay here. Options?”

“We could slip back through the threshold and in-between space. It’s very likely that the crew of those ships are not aware of its existence. None of the people we’ve come across in the other universes did,” said Deen.

But Tazla shook her head. “It’s too risky. They can likely see us just as clearly as we can see them. Which means if they spot us disappearing, they might just be able to find the threshold as well and follow us.”

“Which would give them access to the Ring,” Owens said, agreeing with her assessment. “Can we outrun them?”

Alendra who was still sitting at the helm turned her chair with a discouraging expression on her face. “Unlikely. Engineering reports that warp engines are only partially available. It doesn’t look like we could muster much more than warp six, maybe warp seven. Not enough to get away from those ships.”

“The Krellonian vessels are fairly spread out,” added Leva. “We are not exactly surrounded yet but that net is tightening quickly.”

Lif Culsten took a few steps toward the center of the bridge and then turned to look at the captain. “What about the Moebius Cluster?” he said and then looked at Tazla. “In our universe, it spreads out across almost the entire expanse of the Amargosa Diaspora and is almost impossible to navigate.”

“Impossible to navigate is the key term,” said Garla. “No one is foolish enough to even think of going close to that cluster. The gravimetric forces alone are enough to tear a ship apart within minutes.”

Culsten shot her a self-satisfying grin. “It’s how we came after you on Piqus and we made it in one piece,” he said and looked back at the captain. “I can pilot us through that and I’m certain our pursuers have the same mindset as my overcautious aunt here.”

“That’s not a term people tend to associate with me,” she said coolly.

Tazla could well imagine that to be the case. But more pressingly, she was not convinced at all of the helmsman’s brash plan. “That was a runabout you piloted, not a three-million-ton starship. There is no way we’ll fare anywhere near as well in the cluster even with you at the controls. And that trip was among the worst ones I’ve experienced. In multiple lifetimes.”

“Maybe there is a way we could survive,” said Leva who once more caused the attention of most of the bridge crew his way. “We may have an advantage all these other ships lack.”

Tazla understood what he meant but Owens beat her to the punch. “The transphasic shield,” he said.

“We’re not in great shape,” she said after thinking what it would mean to try and venture into an area so hostile, Eagle could be torn apart with nothing to protect her but a newly installed and barely tested shield system that even under optimal conditions was a significant power drain. “Will we have enough energy to keep it operational long enough to escape those ships?”

The question had been posed, primarily, to Leva but the half-Romulan tactical officer had no immediate response ready.

The captain, however, had already made up his mind. “It’s our best shot for now and the longer we stay put and do nothing, the worse our situation gets. We’ll just have to figure things out on the way,” he said resolutely and glanced at the Bolian woman at the helm. “Lieutenant, set a course for the Moebius Cluster, preferably one that keeps us well away from any ships trying to catch up with us. Best possible speed.”

The woman nodded sharply and went to follow the order.

Michael Owens offered Tazla a very brief glance and just enough to reveal what the confident tone in his voice had successfully masked.

He had no idea if this was going to work.
Part 1 - The Hard Hello: 4 by CeJay
4


Louise Hopkins, down in engineering, was doing her level best to earn the miracle worker moniker that was so often bandied around when talking about the ingenuity of Starfleet engineers who occasionally seemed to be able to bend the very laws of physics to pull off the impossible.

Michael was very much aware of this as his chief engineer had somehow managed to wrestle eight hundred thirty times the speed of light, or about warp seven point five, out of Eagle’s damaged engines in order to get them to the Moebius cluster before a squadron of Dominion fighters and likely hostile Krellonian ships would be able to catch up with them.

After all, even while trying to stay well ahead of a pack of hostiles out for blood, the woman was equally busy trying to keep the damaged ship in one piece and find a way to get the transphasic shields up and running at a moment’s notice since those shields would be the only thing that would keep them alive once they reached the cluster.

She had the assistance of Commander Xylion, who had been given special dispensation to be released from sickbay to head down to main engineering to do whatever he could to ensure the shields would work, over the vocal objections of Doctor Katanga.

Michael had decided that inviting the wrath of the cantankerous physician would be a small price to pay to ensure all their survival.

“How much longer until we get to the cluster?” Tazla Star asked from where she was sitting by his side.

Culsten had retaken the helm, although he’d not had the chance to replace his lavish Krellonian robes for a Starfleet uniform yet. He answered without looking up from his instruments. “Technically, we’ve been inside the Moebius Cluster for the last eight minutes. But we won’t reach any parts containing significant gravimetric shear for another twelve minutes.”

Deen spoke up next. “We’ll need those shields to be up and running in eleven or we’ll break up like a raw egg hitting the pavement once we get there.”

Star glanced at him. “And we won’t be able to keep at warp while the shield is deployed.”

He nodded, fully aware of that limitation. Even when not operating at full strength, the super-powered shield grid required a significant portion of warp power to operate efficiently.

“The Dominion ships are still closing and will be right on top of us as soon as we drop out of warp,” said Leva from the tactical station behind him.

“How sure can we be that they won’t be able to follow us?” he asked.

Deen offered him a glance with a shrug. “At the moment it’s not much more than a hypothesis based on the fact that very few known ship designs in our universe would be able to withstand the conditions inside the cluster.”

“But things could be different here,” said Star, and Deen nodded before she turned back to her instruments.

It was a gamble they had to take, Michael understood this. In fact, it was their only gamble at this stage. Get to the outer edges of the cluster’s hazard zone as quickly as possible, and then drop out of warp to activate the transphasic shields, theoretically powerful enough to keep the ship from being shaken apart by the destructive energies of the stellar cluster. And all that before a squadron of Jem’Hadar warships could catch up with them and turn them into a flaming husk of space debris.

He spotted Star’s growing frown and not a moment later, Leva explained what the first officer had apparently already realized. “The Dominion ships have managed to increase speed. They’ll intercept us before we can reach the hazard zone.”

Michael glanced toward the helm. “Can we coax any more speed out of the engines, Lieutenant?”

Culsten shook his head without turning from his station. “I’m giving it all she’s got, sir,” he said and then turned his head. “Maybe Louise can work some more miracles.”

He was loath to disturb their chief engineer, knowing full well that her plate was already overflowing. “Owens to Hopkins.”

“Engineering here,” she said without much of a delay and sounding expectedly harried.

“How are we doing with those shields? We’re going to need them any minute now.”

“To be brutally honest, I would give my left leg for another hour to calibrate the emitters. We’ve barely had enough time to mend the damage from our latest transition. This whole thing could end up blowing up right in our faces without the proper alignments.”

“Time is the one thing we don’t have,” he said. “In fact, we seem to be having less of it than we thought. Can you give us any more power to the engines?”
There was a short pause and Michael wasn’t sure if it was because she wanted to laugh or cry. For a second, he worried that he had finally asked too much of his young chief engineer and finally broken her. And in doing so validating the naysayers who had long ago warned him that Louise Hopkins, her undeniably brilliant technical mind notwithstanding, had never been ready for the responsibilities he had bestowed upon her when making her one of the youngest chief engineers on a Starfleet ship of the line.

“Our new warp drive is currently churning out four thousand one-hundred twenty-five teradynes per second. We’ll need at least three thousand five hundred teradynes to initiate the transphasic shield and our shield emitters cannot handle a transfer rate higher than five hundred teradynes per second when they are perfectly calibrated which, at the moment, they are not. And that’s not even taking into account that our brand new class-IXb drive is only rated for a maximum theoretical throughput of four thousand teradynes per second.”

Michael exchanged a glance with Star.

“I believe what you’re trying to tell us, Lieutenant,” said the Trill at his side, “is that the answer to our question is no.”

“With all due respect, sir, the answer to your question is ‘hell no’. Unless, of course, you can change the laws of physics.”

Michael nodded slowly even if she couldn’t see it over the audio channel. “Understood, Lieutenant. Carry on and focus on giving us the transphasic shield when we need it. We’ll find a way to make do. Bridge out,” Michael said and closed the channel.

“When did she get so feisty?” Star asked.

“It must’ve been right around the time you started to ask the impossible,” said Deen from ops, clearly having overheard the conversation.

“We’ll reach the hazard zone in less than five minutes,” said Culsten from his station beside her and refocusing everybody’s attention.

“Not soon enough,” said Leva behind Michael. “Jem’Hadar ships will be in weapons range in under three.”

“Do we stay the course and take the beating or do we drop out of warp and try to fight?” Star asked

“Neither is appealing,” Michael responded.

“I do not recommend we slow down,” said the tactical officer. “Right now, we have four enemy ships on our tail. As soon as we lower speed, the rest will catch up with us before we reach the hazard zone and we won’t be able to survive that.”

“I also do not recommend activating the transphasic shield early,” added Alendra who was helping out Leva at the tactical board. “It is powerful, but we’d be asking too much of it to protect us from their directed energy weapons until we make it to hazard zone on sub-light.”

Star seemed to be of the same mind, nodding along. “And we can’t afford it to fail once we’ve made it inside or it’ll all have been for nothing.”

Michael could see there was no choice. “Maintain course and speed.”

Not soon after the pursuing Jem’Hadar ships made their presence violently known as the ship shook hard enough that Michael was nearly thrown out of his chair.

“Direct hits to our rear shields,” said Leva among the wail of the red alert klaxon. “Shields holding at eighty-nine percent. For now.”

“Divert all available shield energy to the rear,” said Michael. “But keep an eye out on those emitters. We’ll need them once we reach the hazard zone.” He knew that yet another concern on their quickly growing list of worst-case scenarios was that they’d lose their shield emitters due to overloading them as they tried to absorb the incoming fire and thereby lose their ability to activate the transphasic shield.

Eagle shook again, hard enough that Michael had to grab hold of the armrests of his chair so tightly, his palms were beginning to hurt.

“One could get the impression they don’t want us to go this way,” Star said as she pushed a strand of loose red hair out of her face.

“Mister Culsten, any piloting tricks you may have been holding back would be much appreciated right about now,” Michael told his helmsman.

The Krellonian nodded with a growing smirk. “Evasive maneuvers at high warp inside a super high-density star cluster? I suggest everybody find something to hold on to.”

Deen shot him a sidelong look. “In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re already clinging on for dear life here.”

“Right,” he said. “Here goes.”

Michael could feel the gravitational forces on the bridge shifting as the inertia dampeners designed to keep the crew from ending up as smudges on the bulkheads at velocities exceeding a few thousand times the speed of light, struggled to compensate for Culsten’s new and even more extreme maneuvers.

He was happy to accept the discomfort of feeling his heart pressing against his throat if it meant that the enemy was equally finding it difficult to keep up and get a clear shot at them.

He heard Star gasp where she sat but he was being pressed so hard against the side of his chair that he found it difficult to even look her way.

“We are headed straight for a Bok globule,” Deen managed to rasp as the ship seemed to level out again. “We hit that at warp and we’re history.”

“I should be able to get us around that,” Lif said.

The ship took multiple hits in quick succession as if the Jem’Hadar behind them were expressing their frustration of this difficult chase through their weapons. An energy conduit running along the port bulkhead ruptured from the impact and damaged some of the panels on that side of the bridge.

Michael winced when he watched the ship’s dedication plaque come undone and unceremoniously drop onto the floor. Always a bad omen.

He looked down at his armrest display. DeMara’s announcement had given him an idea.

Eagle was currently heading directly toward a Bok globule at high warp, a particularly dense cosmic cloud chock-full of dust and gases. Stellar clusters were packed with these kinds of dark nebulae that functioned like incubators for brand new stars and that made regions like the Moebius cluster near impossible to navigate conventionally.

DeMara was right, of course. Attempting to enter one of those clouds at high warp would go about as well for them as it would for an egg being thrown at a brick wall. Even at impulse and with their deflectors at full strength, he doubted it was a journey they could survive.

“Could we make it through the cloud with the transphasic shields?”

DeMara turned to look at him. Her expression was not one of incontrovertible confidence. “Possibly.”

He decided to take the chance. “Lif, drop us out of warp right outside that globule. Then cut all engines and let our momentum ride us inside.”

He offered a sharp nod. “Warp cut-off in twenty-five seconds.”

“We’ll make contact ten seconds after that,” said Deen, studying her instruments intently, no doubt making sure her calculations were as precise as they could be.

“Star to engineering.”

“Hopkins here.”

“Lieutenant, we’ll need the transphasic shield up and ready in thirty seconds. Not to add any undue pressure but if it won’t go up, we’ll all die,” the Trill said with a voice that remained so even and calm, it betrayed nothing of the anxiety she and the rest of the bridge crew felt. To Michael, it sounded as if she was securing dinner reservation rather than discussing the fate of the nearly eight hundred souls that would be decided by their actions over the next half minute.

“You get us out of warp and you have your transphasic shield. Just remember, the maximum transfer rate is five hundred teradynes per second. Any more and we lose the emitters.”

“That gives us what? A three-second contingency,” Star said and then glanced at Michael. “We’ll be cutting this damned close.”

Michael just nodded as the words of a famous starship captain rang in the back of his head. ‘Risk is our business’, he had said. He wondered at what point exactly risk turned it nothing more than blatant recklessness.

Eagle took another hit.

“Shields down to forty-eight percent,” Leva said from tactical.

Michael knew things were going to get a lot worse before they got better. If they got better. He hit a control on his armrest computer. “All hands, this is the Captain speaking. Brace for significant incoming fire.”

“Ten seconds to warp cut-off,” said Culsten, his eyes now locked on his instruments, his fingers hovering over the right controls with anticipation.

Seconds that lasted an eternity was a well-worn cliché, Michael knew. And yet he thought an entire lifetime could have been lived in the time it took to get to the point of no return while his mind punished him with seemingly endless doubt. Had he just made a decision that was going to cost them all their lives? Would he be responsible for the destruction of his ship, his crew, and perhaps even the entire multi-verse?

Anxiety be damned, he cherished the arrival of the moment of truth and for fate to give him his answer, one way or another.

“Dropping out of warp.”

The viewscreen instantly changed from a view of streaking stars to one entirely devoid of any. It took him a moment to realize that the Bok globule they were now bearing down on was so close that it obscured anything beyond it.

“The transphasic shield is powering up,” said Alendra.

“Jem’Hadar ships dropping out of warp,” said Leva.

And they wasted no time at all to let everybody know.

Eagle trembled mightily under their wrath, leaving no doubt at all that they meant to destroy her before they could try to lose them inside the dark nebula. Explosions erupted all across the bridge while smoke and the acrid smell of burned polymers filled the air to such a degree it made him want to gag.

He thought he heard Leva shout that the shields were collapsing which meant that the very next thing that would go would be the shield emitters themselves. And once they were gone, so went any chance for them to survive.

He heard Deen call out a warning but he couldn’t quite make out her words over the sound of the ship breaking apart around him and he had lost all sense of time, unsure if five, ten, or twenty seconds had gone by since they had cut the warp engines.

An invisible force, sudden and powerful, grabbed him and slung him forward and onto the deck so hard, he thought he had broken his arm upon making contact with the floor.

Dazed he slowly attempted to make it back to his feet.

He stopped and smiled when he felt almost intolerable pain shooting up his right side.

Pain was good, he realized. Pain meant he was still alive.

And so were the people around him.

He felt a strong arm reaching out for him and pulling him up and found it belonged to his first officer. Star’s hair had come loose again and hung into her face, but that, along with a slightly bloodied lip seemed to be the extent of her distress.

“Are you all right, sir?” she said, apparently somewhat confused by what must have been a rather inappropriate smile decorating his face.

“Looks like we made it,” Michael said, trying hard to regain his composure, as he looked around the bridge, mindful that his crew needed to see him as they were accustomed to. A man unquestionably in control of himself and his command.

There was nobody he could see who wasn’t banged up in some way or another, but nobody had suffered any serious injuries.

The deck plates rattled steadily under his boots but nothing like what they had experienced over the last few minutes.

Leva at tactical helped Alendra back to her feet and tried to tend to a cut that was oozing blue blood from her forehead until she waved him off, apparently intent on dealing with it herself. He hesitantly left the Bolian to her own devices to focus on the tactical station for the latest readings. Then he looked up to make eye contact with him. “Transphasic shield is active and holding within tolerances,” he said with a reaffirming nod.

A sudden bump threatened Michael’s balance yet again but he caught himself in time. He found his tactical officer again. “What was that?”

“Not us,” said Deen and Michael turned to look at her but caught sight of the viewscreen instead.

There, within the dark cloud, he saw what was quite obviously debris floating somewhere behind them.

“It’s what’s left of at least one Jem’Hadar ship,” she said.

“They must have tried to follow us inside,” said Star.

“And got crushed in the process,” added Culsten from the helm.

Michael’s eyes lingered on the sight only a moment longer, not wishing to dwell on the thought of how close they had come to end up just like that.

“Damage reports coming in from multiple decks,” said Leva. “Crew has sustained various injuries according to sickbay. Life support has failed on three decks and evacuation procedures are underway. Weapons and long-range sensors are offline. Impulse engines are operating at reduced capacity.”

Michael walked over to the port side bulkhead while Leva gave his report. He took a knee to pick up the dedication plaque, taking a moment to feel the heft of the metallic plate containing the ship’s name, registry details, and motto. ‘Peace has its victories but it takes brave men and women to win them’.

He stood back up and handed it to Star who had followed him, offering her a smile. “I don’t believe there can be any doubt about the bravery of this crew.”

“None whatsoever,” she responded in kind.

“Let’s get repairs underway,” he said and pointed at the plaque. “Start with that.”
Part 1 - The Hard Hello: 5 by CeJay
5


Eagle had taken a beating, that much was undeniable as Michael digested the latest damage report while he made the short trip from his ready room to the observation lounge for a senior staff briefing.

And it hadn’t been just because of the latest battle with the Jem’Hadar. His ship had been in bad shape even before they had ever taken fire from their pursuers, thanks to three separate inter-dimensional journeys, something Eagle had certainly not been designed for.

Even so, it had been the handful of seconds between when they had dropped out of warp and before they had brought up the transphasic shield to survive their passage into the Moebius Cluster’s hazard zone, that had taken the hardest toll on Eagle as she had been relentlessly pelted by those Dominion ships.

It was bad enough that Hopkins had yet to provide an estimate on repairs to the main phaser couplings or the torpedo guidance system, she wasn’t even sure if long-range sensors could be brought back online without an infusion of raw materials and heavy equipment only a starbase could provide. Worst of all in his eyes was the fact that they had taken two casualties. An unlucky human crewman on deck twelve had broken his neck when the ship had hit the Bok globule and a lieutenant in engineering had been killed when an EPS conduit had overloaded in her section. The young Andorian woman had saved two crewmembers thanks to her quick actions once she had realized the impending catastrophe but had been unable to escape the explosion of super-heated plasma herself in time.

Hopkins had called her a hero in her report and Michael had every intention to ensure she’d receive the highest honors Starfleet could bestow for bravery in action, even if he was sure that any posthumous awards would come as little comfort to her loved ones once they learned of her fate.

Michael knew it had been naïve to expect that they’d be able to complete this mission without sacrifices but that hadn’t stopped him from aspiring to such a goal.

For a brief moment, he considered how the death of two crewmembers seemed to pale in comparison to the annihilation of entire universes, and yet, he had long since learned that there was truth to the saying that the death of one or a few was a tragedy, while the death of many was often no more than statistics.

He did his best to shake those macabre thoughts out of his mind as he stepped into the briefing room where he found most of his senior officers already seated around the table, along with Sentinel Garla and Lif Culsten at her side.

He was glad to see that Xylion and Nora Laas, who had been part of the away team to the Ring and who had been injured while there, appeared to have fully recovered.

The Vulcan science officer spoke up first. “Sir, it appears there has been an oversight,” he said. “Bensu has not been invited to this meeting.”

Michael shook his head. “Not an oversight.”

He raised his eyebrow. The only indication of his puzzlement. “I assume that we will be discussing the supercollider and its ability to annihilate quantum-verses and our strategy to prevent it from repeating it from doing so again. Bensu is our primary subject matter expert relating to the structure and its builders.”

“I’m well aware of that.”

“Michael, this makes no sense,” DeMara said from where she was sitting to his left. “If we want any hope of putting a stop to whatever is going on here, we’ll need his input.”

“I know that Mister Bensu has shown some remarkable insights into our situation,” Michael started but was cut off by DeMara.

“Insights?” she said with noticeable disbelieve. “We wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for his efforts.”

“All right, people,” said Tazla Star from his right, speaking in a firm tone. “Let’s all remember that this is a Starfleet ship and that the captain has the final say on who takes part in a meeting and who does not. Now, I think we all need to focus on where we are and what we need to do next.”

Michael offered his first officer a small nod but he could tell by the look in her emerald eyes that she wasn’t entirely sure why he had made certain decisions. In truth, neither was he.

The far doors to the observation lounge opened and Michael feared that he had to confront Bensu about his decision in person, something he was not prepared to do just yet.

Instead, it was his father who walked into the room.

Michael stood. “Dad?”

All eyes turned toward the admiral.

“I believe I need to be here for this.”

But Michael shook his head. The man looked haggard and frail. His face was much paler than he had seen it ever before and he wasn’t quite sure how he had managed to get out of Katanga’s clutches yet again, not to mention keep on his feet. “You should be in sickbay.”

He raised a hand. “Yes, I know. And I’ll go back there. But for now, you’ll need my expertise. Just let me sit down and give me a minute to catch my breath.”

Michael wanted to protest yet again but Jon Owens was insistent enough to make Nora get out of her chair and offer it to him. He couldn’t really blame her, his father looked about ready to keel over.

Nora seemed happy to remain standing.

Michael took his seat again, his eyes lingering for a moment longer on the admiral but when he didn’t make eye contact, he regarded his chief engineer instead, indicating for her to provide her report.

“Well, good news first, I guess,” said Louise Hopkins. “The transphasic shield has worked like a charm so far. It’s fully stable and based on the current energy drain we should be able to remain within the cluster for at least nine to ten hours before the warp core will no longer be able to feed the shield’s power needs. We’ll have to put up with some increased stress on the hull that won’t make for smooth sailing while we traverse this area of space but I suppose that’s a small price to pay.”

Leva continued. “From a tactical perspective, we’ve already established that the Dominion ships cannot follow us into the cluster. Although we don’t have access to long-range sensors at present, there is no indication that they are attempting to come after us.”

“That begs the question as to where we go from here,” said the Trill first officer, glancing toward Michael.

“This all started--it seems an eternity ago now--as a mission to gather intelligence and ultimately prevent an incursion by a subspace race into our domain. I think it is safe to say that our mission has now fundamentally changed. The Ring structure is capable of wiping out entire universes and rather than invading them, these subspace aliens have made it clear that they intend to destroy them.”

Nora leaned forward in her chair. “But I still don’t understand why. What do they gain from doing this?”

Nobody in the room had an answer to that question. “Their motivations are something we should try to establish but our priority, for now, is to find a way to stop them. And I want to make this very clear. Going forward that will be our primary focus. We’re no longer trying to stop an invasion, it’s not even trying to find a way back home. We will not allow the Ring to bring down another universe, no matter what we must do to accomplish that.” He let his gaze wander across the room, ensuring to make eye contact with every single person at the table to stress his resolve in this matter. He was encouraged that nobody seemed to disagree. He also understood that he had pledged his life, and the life of every single person on this ship, to this one task.

“If the supercollider continues to operate the way it has in the past, it activates every forty-seven point four standard hours. That means that we have forty-four point eight hours to find a way to prevent it from reactivating. That is contingent on the assumption that the process is not triggered prematurely,” said Xylion.

Michael nodded. “We cannot rule out that it won’t. This means our timetable on returning to Cygni-98 has to be as soon as possible.”

“With the Dominion and the Krellonians patrolling the area, that won’t be an easy task, particularly in our current state,” said Star, and Michael was forced to agree with her.

“Perhaps those Krellonian ships could help us,” said Garla, doing little to mask her interest in those vessels or perhaps more accurately, the people who crewed them. “If we could find a way to communicate with them, perhaps we could make a deal.”

“I don’t know,” said Culsten at her side. “The Dominion ships and the Krellonians seemed to be in lockstep. They definitely didn’t see each other as hostiles. And that’s bad news for us.”

Michael nodded. “Agreed. I think we need to find a way to avoid them both.”

“That’s going to be a challenge,” the tactical officer said. “The entire area seems to be under heavy surveillance.”

“Head for Arkaria.”

All heads turned toward Jon Owens.

He answered the unspoken questions. “Eagle is in bad shape. We won’t make it halfway back to Cygni-98 in our condition. Arkaria Prime may be the only safe harbor within reach for us and our only chance to make necessary repairs. The Moebius Cluster should allow us enough cover to get there virtually undetected by whoever is out there looking for us.”

“What makes you so sure that Arkaria is a safe harbor?” Michael asked skeptically.

“Sure?” he said, shaking his head. “Oh, I’m not sure at all. But I think we’ll have to take some risks. We know that the universes we have visited have had some very noticeable distinctions from each other but some patterns have remained consistent. Arkaria was an important space outpost in all of them and that might be true here as well. And it is within our reach. Where else would you propose we go, without the ability to rely on sensors? And we can’t affect repairs on our own.”

Michael couldn’t deny that he made a certain amount of sense. He also realized that he had done his homework before joining the meeting. He seemed to be fully aware that Eagle was not going to go far without some outside help.

Star nodded slowly. “I think it might be our best shot for now. The Moebius Cluster spans much of the Diaspora, from here all the way to Arkaria, we know that. We can dip in and out of the hazard zone to use warp and until we get there and most likely continue to elude the Dominion that way.”

“Very well,” he said after a moment. “Let’s make that our destination. But if there is any indication at all that in this universe, it’s a Dominion outpost, we’ll need a backup plan.” He glanced at Xylion next. “Once we have found our way back to the Ring, how can we hope to stop it this time?”

“During our last attempt we encountered a man called Gary Seven inside the structure’s control room,” the Vulcan said.

“And his cat,” added Hopkins.

This caused some eyebrows to climb toward the ceiling, Michael’s included. “I’m sorry, I thought you said his cat.”

“It’s true, though I’m not sure I fully understand how that feline creature factors into all of this,” said Nora where she stood, crossing her arms in front of her chest.

“I think you’ll better start at the beginning,” said Tazla Star, no doubt feeling just as befuddled as Michael.

“With assistance from SMT operator Ivory and myself, Bensu was able to make contact with an individual who introduced himself to us as Gary Seven, and claimed to be a member of an inter-dimensional agency tasked with protecting the quantum-verse.”

“And clearly not doing a great job at it,” said Nora.

“At his suggestion, we created a more powerful mind-link that included all members of the away team. This allowed us to learn more about the nature of the Ring structure and its builders and eventually slow down the supercollider. Regretfully, we did not have the resources at our disposal to stop it altogether.”

“And you think we can trust this agent?” asked Star.

“I believe Bensu would be able to answer this question better than any of us since he spent the most time with him,” said Xylion. “But he gave us no reason to distrust his motives to try and stop the supercollider.”

“I’ve been thinking,” said Hopkins, looking at the Vulcan sitting on the other side of the table from her. “We whipped up that psionic resonator pretty much on the fly to enhance the mind-link supporting Bensu. With our resources here on Eagle, we could likely fashion a much more effective device to support those efforts.”

Xylion offered a short nod. “I have been considering this as well. And Eagle has at least thirty-five crewmembers with inherent telepathic abilities. If we could utilize all of their efforts, as well as a more sophisticated psionic resonator, we should be able to establish a much more powerful mind-link to oppose the forces of the subspace aliens.”

“But we would still be reliant on Bensu to guide our efforts,” said Michael, not liking the sound of this at all.

“Yes,” Xylion said. “He is the only person we are aware of who possesses the ability to create the psionic connections that can directly affect the subspace beings and the supercollider.”

“Even Gary Seven seemed impressed by his powers,” said Nora. “And that man struck me as somebody who has seen some strange things in his lifetime.”

Star turned to Michael. “I think for now we have to pursue it. Do everything we can to be prepared to put this plan into action unless a better opportunity presents itself.”

Michel nodded but said nothing.

Star took that as an affirmative and when it became clear he wasn’t going to add anything further, she addressed the rest of the people in the room. “Louise, your priority remains on repairs. See what you can do to give us weapons, we might need them to get back to Cygni-98 or maybe even to Arkaria. And we need to be able to see where we are going, so sensors are also high on that list.”

The engineer nodded. “Weapons will be tricky but I might be able to give us some phasers. As for sensors, we’ll be able to use systems from our auxiliary craft to at least give us some idea what’s out there.”

“Good thinking,” she said and looked at Xylion next. “Commander, the priority for the science team is to work on that psionic resonator. Use whatever resources we do not need for repairs to create something to give us the edge. I’ll get started on collecting our telepaths but I’ll need your help to prepare them for the task ahead.”

“Understood,” he said.

She addressed Nora next. “Lieutenant, make sure your team and the SMTs are ready at a moment’s notice. I don’t expect Arkaria to be anywhere as friendly as the one in our universe.”

“We’ll be ready.”

“Commander Leva, if Arkaria doesn’t pan out and we run into another Dominion fleet out there we’re going to need a strategy to get us out of there alive.”

“I may have some ideas for that.”

“Lif, set a course for Arkaria, make use of the Moebius Cluster as much as you can but keep in mind, we need to get there as fast as we possible, so we can’t stay hidden in here, traveling at impulse.”

“It won’t be a straight line, Commander, but I’ll get us there with plenty of time to spare.”

“Good,” she said and then briefly considered the remaining officers. “Everyone else, do your jobs and help where you can. Remember, our new mission is to stop the subspace aliens by any means necessary. It’ll be nice if we found our way back home while doing that, but that’s not our priority anymore. This won’t be easy, in fact, this will likely get a lot worse before it gets better,” she said and then briefly made eye contact with Michael again who gave her a nod to proceed. “But as I was reminded not too long ago, the bravery of this crew is beyond reproach.”

Michael could see nothing but determined faces looking back at them, even Garla, who until recently had worked to thwart their efforts now appeared to be determined to do whatever was in her power to stop the collider.

A small yet confident smile graced Star’s lips. “Let’s go and save the universe.”
Part 1 - The Hard Hello: 6 by CeJay
6


She had served under Michael Owens long enough to be able to read the look he had giving her after the briefing had ended and so she remained in her seat while the rest of the attendees left their chairs and streamed out of the observation lounge.

The captain waited until they were alone before he turned to face her. “The stakes we are dealing with here, they are difficult to fully appreciate considering the far-reaching implications.”

Star nodded. “To say the least. I certainly never expected to be thrust in a position in which our decisions may very well determine the fate of an entire universe and a countless number of lives.”

“Our leadership over the coming hours may be more critical than it has ever been, which means we cannot afford to make any mistakes. Too much is at stake. The mission must come first.”

Tazla didn’t disagree but couldn’t help feeling that there was more to what he was trying to tell her.

He rubbed his forehead and then briefly glanced out toward the large windows of the observation lounge. Eagle had cleared the Bok globule a few minutes ago and now the kaleidoscopic star field of the Amargosa Diaspora was almost fully visible again. “We’ve made too many mistakes already and it may have cost us--cost the universe--dearly.”

“Sir?”

He turned to face her once more. “I should never have asked you to go after the other Michael Owens. It was an unnecessary risk on my part and all it accomplished was to cost us precious time and very nearly your life.”

Tazla considered that for a moment before she started to shake her head. “It’s impossible to say if it would have made any difference in the grand scheme of things. Meeting my own alternate version was not an experience I’d care to repeat but I now understand why it was so important to you to try and bring the other Michael Owens back. I had a very similar experience. I could see in her a large part of myself and where my life could have taken me if I had made only slightly different choices. I felt a desperate need to attempt and steer her away from the path she had embarked upon and perhaps, in some manner, I almost felt that I had a responsibility to try. That in rehabilitating her, I’d also rehabilitate myself somehow,” she said as she considered her captain who didn’t have an immediate response to what she had said. “I don’t know if any of that makes sense.”

He uttered a little, humorless laugh. “I’ve given up trying to make too much sense of things right about the time we jumped into a different reality.”

“It has been challenging.”

“My point is this: When I asked you to try and bring the other Michael back, I wasn’t entirely putting the mission first. Sure, he would have been an asset dealing with Altee and his fleet, but I was driven by personal sentiment and we cannot afford those types of feelings to cloud our judgment when dealing with the possible destruction of an entire universe.”

She nodded. “I understand.”

“This thing we are dealing with here, I fear that we’ve only just scratched the surface of it, which is a scary thought considering what we have already experienced.”

He seemed to be satisfied at leaving the matter at that but Tazla didn’t get out of her chair. Another matter had been nagging at her ever since they had arrived in this, latest universe, and this was as good a time as any to bring it up, she decided. “Sir, about Bensu. Xylion and DeMara were right to point out that he has been our key player so far in figuring any of this out. His abilities, no matter how nebulous their origins, are essential for us to have any chance of stopping whatever it is we’re up against.”

His only reply was a heavy sigh.

She continued when it was clear he wasn’t going to speak. “You are, of course, right to be skeptical. We should all be. But something seems to have changed very recently that has made you reconsider our approach.”

Owens stood and walked over to the windows to consider the bright and splendid reds and blues of the Diaspora, seemingly trying to consider his next words carefully. “I know how this must seem to you and the rest of the crew. That I had a sudden change of heart.”

She left her chair as well and took a few steps to follow him. “Perhaps, if you could let me into whatever doubts you have developed, I could better understand your skepticism and manage the crew accordingly.”

He rubbed his forehead again but then finally turned back around to face her. “You have every right to know my thoughts on this, Taz. The problem is, I’m can’t be sure about the things that I’ve seen and how far I can trust them.”

“Seen?”

“Let me ask you this: During our transitions into these other realities, did you experience any kind of unusual dreams or visions?”

She shook her head. “No, nothing I would call any more extraordinary than jumping universes like playing hopscotch. Certainly nothing particularly memorable.”

He nodded slowly. “I have had visions each time.”

“What kind of visions?”

“They are not too dissimilar to what I’ve experienced when I entered sub-space for the first time. And some of the things I saw there, such as the Ring, and alternative realities, are precisely what we eventually encountered.”

It didn’t take her long to put the pieces together. “And you’ve seen something that has made you doubt Bensu.”

“The things I saw were disturbing but the things I felt where were far worse.”

Tazla was afraid of asking her next question. “What did you see?”

“I’m well aware of the need to consider these types of events with a certain amount of skepticism and to avoid jumping to premature conclusions. It is well understood that our senses can betray us easily and cannot always be trusted, especially if we experience strange visions prompted by inter-dimensional travel and subspace anomalies.”

She nodded slowly, acknowledging his reasoning.

“I saw Bensu being chiefly responsible not just for the death of one universe, but all of them.”

That left her stunned.

“And we could be enabling him to do exactly that.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“So, you know how I feel.”

She needed yet another moment to process the magnitude of what he had suggested. “Where do you propose we go from here?”

His hand was back on his forehead, apparently trying to stave off what must have become a permanent headache. She couldn’t blame him. “A few days ago, I recall watching a message from my seemingly dead father to warm me not to trust anybody. I thought at the time that he had put me in an impossible situation. I would never have dreamt that this could be applied to a situation in which the entirety of all existence was at stake.”

“In all honesty, these are stakes I don’t believe any mortal being should be forced to ponder outside the realm of philosophical thought experiments. This is the stuff of gods.”

“If we want to be or not, we are in that position now.”

“I wish I could offer some sage advice but this is well outside my wheelhouse of expertise.”

He nodded. “Yours and mine both. As for how we proceed, we continue as discussed in the meeting. We already know the price of inaction and it is not acceptable. All we can do is keep our eyes wide open and do the best we can to steer events away from a worst-case scenario.”

“Which means not trusting Bensu,” she said. “What about Xylion and the rest of the crew?”

“I’ve always prided myself in the fact that we have a close-knit senior staff on this ship and in the majority of all cases, that is our greatest advantage. But in this case, I fear it could also be a huge risk. We already know Xylion and Bensu were practically the same person once upon a time.”

She shook her head. Not in disbelieve but at the possible ramifications of what he had said. “They share a strong bond. And if we cannot trust Bensu we may not even be able to trust our chief science officer.”

“I hope to God that’s not the case as I cannot see us standing a snowflake’s chance in Gre’thor against these odds without both of them,” he uttered another low sigh. “Let’s keep this between us for now and keep a short leash on our former bartender at the very least. He might be our savior. Or he could be the architect of our undoing.”
Part 1 - The Hard Hello: 7 by CeJay
7


He found her in her quarters with a security guard posted outside the doors. Although the Krellonian intelligence master was ostensibly on their side and had certainly assisted their ongoing efforts to stop the subspace aliens, the captain was still not entirely comfortable to have her roam the ship unsupervised, especially since she had already displayed more than once what she was capable of.

Lif exchanged a quick nod with Ensign Andrus Stadi guarding the door and then activated the annunciator.

There was no initial response.

“She’s definitely in there, sir,” the Betazoid security officer confirmed.

When there was still no response on his second attempt, he shot the other man a concerned look.

Stadi used his security override code and the door panels hissed open to reveal the dark interior of the guest quarters.

Lif thought he could see a dark shape sitting on the far couch, outlined by the bright backdrop of the Amargosa’s volatile Moebius cluster visible through the large forward-facing windows.

The figure stirred slightly. “I suppose privacy is not a consideration held in high regard on Federation starships.”

Lif indicated for Stadi to stay at his post outside as he stepped into the quarters, allowing the doors to close behind him again. “A little dark in here, no?”

“Suits me fine.”

“Computer, increase light levels by twenty-five percent,” he said.

A subdued trill confirmed the order and the room was bathed in soft light, allowing him to see Garla stretched out on the sofa in front of him. She had raised a hand over her eyes to shield them from the new light.

“What do you want, Liftu?”

“I thought I’d come and see how you’re doing? We haven’t had much of a chance to talk since the Yellow Rose.

“Not much to talk about. Both our doubles are dead as is everyone else we’ve met in that universe. Gone, as if they’ve never even existed,” she said without so much as a single glance cast into his general direction.

“I can’t speak to your line of work,” he said as he walked toward a nearby chair and sat down. “But in mine, that’s not something I’m used to. Certainly, nothing I’ve ever been trained for. Nobody ever told me that there might come a time when I am going to meet myself and then be forced to kill him … me.”

Garla sat up on the sofa and for the first time since he had stepped inside her quarters, she turned to look his way. “I know that couldn’t have been easy for you. I certainly didn’t take pleasure in killing my double. But you had no choice. If you hadn’t done what you did, I wouldn’t be around. You probably would have met his fate instead.”

He nodded slowly. “There’s a big difference between understanding this on an intellectual level and dealing with it emotionally,” he said, suddenly finding it very difficult for his mind to keep from going back to that time and place. To see his own face, his own eyes, staring back at him while the life was draining out of them, all the while feeling the heft of the weapon he had used to slain him still in his hand.

His memories didn’t linger there. They went back further, not too far, just a few more days earlier when he had taken part in a mission that had resulted in a whole shipload of Outlanders being sent to their certain death. And then, not too long before that, the day he had faced a frenzied Buoth bearing down on him with deadly intent until he had somehow--he was still not certain how he had accomplished it exactly--managed to dispatch the massive ursine before he had been able to tear him limb from limb.

“There’s been a lot going on lately and not much time to process any of it.”

He had been responsible for a lot of killing over the last few days, he realized. And all those terrible encounters seemed to have one common denominator. He lifted his head slowly to look at his aunt. The woman he had once admired as a child, considered the strongest person he had ever known. She certainly was still that. But also, so much more. He was starting to wish he had never sought her out in the first place back on Piqus. How much death could have been avoided if he had just stayed away, he wondered.

She seemed to be able to read his thoughts. “Don’t give me that look,” she said snappishly. “Yes, things have been tough. Whole universes are going up in smoke. But this is hardly the time to feel sorry about yourself and ponder the unfairness of it all.”

He shot her a glare. “I’m not the one hiding away in a dark room.”

“And what exactly do you expect me to do? My plans to repair the Star Alliance I’ve worked for years have come to nothing, now that it is clear that they were all based on the lies these subspace aliens peddled to me to secure my cooperation. And just when I thought I found a home where our people didn’t make the same disastrous decisions that put the entire Star Alliance on a course toward self-destruction, I lose that one too. Now I’m stuck on this ship, surrounded by people who obviously do not care for my opinions or even trust me enough to not have me guarded around the clock.”

“Now who’s feeling sorry for themselves?” he mumbled and then stood. “And how exactly can you blame them for being cautious? Not so long ago you were trying to get us all killed.”

“Don’t be so melodramatic. I tried to take you into custody after your people attacked mine,” she said dismissively.

“I can still feel that iron grip of yours around my throat,” he shot back.

“I have a temper, so what? You betrayed me, Lif. If I had wanted you dead, we wouldn’t be having this conversation now.”

The ice-cold tone in her voice forced him to find her eyes.

Her stance softened slightly. “We’re family. I would never try to harm you.”

“Yes, well, you could have fooled me when you put a phaser to my head.”

She rolled her eyes as if to imply that he was exaggerating.

The ship shuddered slightly under their feet as it continued to traverse the treacherous Moebius cluster.

“As for you,” she said. “Aren’t you supposed to be the best pilot on board? Shouldn’t you be on the bridge making sure we’re not flying into a star?”

It was a decent point, he had to admit. Especially since Srena was still recovering in sickbay from a neck injury, leaving them a bit shorthanded at the conn. However, the transphasic shield had been working just as advertised, significantly reducing the challenge of traversing this highly volatile area of space.

“I wanted to make sure you were all right,” he said.

“Well, don’t worry about me,” she said as she walked toward the exit. “Perhaps, if we ever manage to find our way back home, I follow your example for a change and abandon our people as you’ve done. At least that way I spare myself the pain of watching them tear themselves apart.”

She had already slipped out of the doors before he had time to come up with a reply. He uttered a sigh as he watched her leave.
Part 1 - The Hard Hello: 8 by CeJay
8


It wasn’t often that Eagle’s main science lab was this well guarded.

Michael found two security guards outside the doors as he approached. And not just armed with hand phasers as was standard procedure, these crewmen were wielding rifles, giving him a brief and disturbing flashback to the worst days of the Dominion War. He tried to shake off those thoughts and ignore the growing desire to exchange their current predicament for any of those miserable days he had spent studying seemingly endless casualty reports or the threat of Jem’Hadar attack ships swooping down on them at any moment.

The war had taken its toll. It had been one of the darkest periods in Federation history, and yet, no matter how bad it had gotten, the stakes had never been as high as they were right now. Sure, the entire Federation and their way of life had been threatened on a nearly constant basis by the paranoid and order-obsessed Founders that controlled the Dominion, but existence itself, whatever shape it took, had never really been in doubt. Certainly not for an entire universe.

Michael realized that Tazla Star had been right. Regular mortals such as he had no business having to contemplate the fate of all life everywhere. That was firmly within the scrutiny of the deities and would drive a lesser being such as himself mad over time, he was certain.

He entered his authorization code into the panel next to the doors and after a moment they parted to allow him into the lab.

Inside he found another four, heavily-armed security crewmembers spread out in each corner of the lab. At the very center stood a platform that held the device he had come here to ponder, secured inside a level ten force field bubble.

After the alternate Tazla Star had managed to abscond with the Exhibitor so easily, his Star had instructed Nora Laas to implement a security plan that would make it far more challenging for anyone to attempt and steal the device a second time.

Michael thought that Nora had more than delivered. Besides the six-man strong detail providing around the clock security, access limited to authorized personnel, and even then, only after the computer had verified their identity through a multi-stage verification process, the security chief had also secured the lab with additional shielding that made it virtually impossible to beam in and out. She had also ensured that the force-field protecting the device had multiple redundancies that would keep it active even if the rest of the ship lost power. Two command-level officers were required to deactivate the force field and remove the Exhibitor from the lab.

All this would have seemed like overkill had it not been for the fact that Michael was more convinced than ever that the Prism that could only be accessed via the Exhibitor was the key to preventing the death of another universe.

“Still hard to believe that such a little thing could play such an immense role in potential saving all of reality.”

Michael turned upon hearing the familiar voice to find DeMara Deen. He had not seen her when he had stepped into the lab but she had found him staring at the force-field protected device. He nodded slowly and then looked back at the unimpressive-looking rod. “Have we learned anything more about it?”

She stepped up next to him. “I doubt that we will. Special Affairs had this in their possession for years and hasn’t been able to make much progress. I doubt we will in a few days.”

“Considering who ran Special Affairs during that time we should probably keep an open mind and maintain a healthy amount of skepticism about everything we are being told about it.”

“We certainly haven’t given up on it,” she said, still at his side. “Pretty much all of Xylion’s people and a good number of engineers are currently pouring over every bit of data we’ve managed to glean from it so far. But it’s not much.”

He didn’t speak right away as his eyes remained glued to the device and it took him a moment to realize that the ensuing silence between them was becoming awkward. It had been like this between them for a while now.

Michael had a good idea why she was far less talkative than usual. Although a whole lot had happened since then, he still remembered their discussion a few days earlier that had turned into an argument about their relationship. He knew he hadn’t handled it very well and that he needed to find a way to address it before it could become this ugly thing between them.

Recent events hadn’t exactly given him an opportunity for a good old-fashioned heart-to-heart and then there was that look in her eyes every time he was near. He thought he knew exactly what it was and where it had come from.

“I know I’ve been a little distant lately,” she finally said before he could broach the subject.

“I understand.”

“I know he wasn’t you. Intellectually, I understand that,” she said without looking at him.

“It wasn’t easy for me to encounter the other me, to see what had become of Michael Owens in that universe. I know it was worse for you. What he did.”

She shook her head. “It’s not even that,” she said. “Yes, he fooled me into thinking he was you and he attacked me and kidnapped me. All that I can handle. It’s just…” she let the words linger there for a moment.

Michael turned to her and he could see that look in her eyes again. A sense of uncertainty.

“He did all those things while looking exactly like you.”

“You don’t think I’d be capable of something like that, do you?”

She took a few steps away. “I don’t know, Michael, I don’t think so.”

That was difficult for him to hear. The fact that she didn’t immediately discount it was painful.

DeMara turned back to him, noticeably keeping a distance. “There is a difference between what we know to be true and what we feel to be true. I know it wasn’t you, I know you wouldn’t behave as he did, but it doesn’t change the fact that when I look at your face…” she stopped again, shaking her head with frustration.

He nodded. “It’ll take time. I think once all this is over, we’ll all need time to make our peace with what has happened. There’s coming across our doppelgangers which is bad enough, then there is considering the end of everything that ever was or ever will be. I see a lot of counseling sessions in our future.”

At that, she grinned. “A starship captain volunteering to get counseling? And I thought this couldn’t get any stranger.”

He laughed.

She was ready to change the subject. “How’s the Admiral doing?”

He sighed. “Not well.”

Her eyes landed on the Exhibitor again. “Do you think he’s still in shape to use it again? We may need him to do so before this is over and as far as we know, he’s the only one who can.”

Michael had been pondering that very same question. “I’m not sure. To be honest, I fear that trying it again could end up killing him. He seems to have gotten weaker every day since all this started.”

“Since he came back from the dead.”

He nodded. “And then there are things that Jarik alluded to about my father before he was killed that have started to give me pause and question his motives. I don’t know how much I can trust him.”

She had clearly not heard this before and offered him a quizzical look in response. But Michael was not quite ready to talk about this.

“Well, there is no reason you couldn’t try it.”

That caused him to give her a puzzled glance.

“Best theory we have so far is that the Exhibitor is somehow keyed into the Admiral’s biosignature, possibly through his DNA.”

“Of which I’d share half,” he said.

“It is worth a try, don’t you think?”

And yet he felt a cold shudder running up his spine while considering activating the Exhibitor and attempting to summon the most powerful force he had ever known.

His first officer’s voice interrupted his growing sense of dread. “Star to Owens.”

He answered without delay. “Go ahead, Commander.”

“We’re approaching Arkaria Prime, sir. I think you might want to come up here.”

“On my way, Owens out.”

“To be continued?” she said once the audio channel had been closed.

Michael briefly wondered what part of their conversation she was referring to and ultimately settled on the Exhibitor. He shot it one last look. “I sincerely hope not,” he said and then quickly left the science lab.
Part 1 - The Hard Hello: 9 by CeJay
9


Michael stepped out of the aft turbolift and onto the bridge just in time to witness the streaking starfield on the holographic viewscreen shift to a deceptively static one. This, along with the gentle rumbling of the deck plates beneath his feet confirmed that Eagle had dropped out of warp.

As he walked down the ramp leading down to the command area, he noticed that there wasn’t much to see on the viewer, even the startling mixture of stars and colors had given way to the more routinely dark void of space since Arkaria was located along the outer edges of the expansive Amargosa Diaspora.

Star got out of the captain’s chair as soon as she spotted his approach. “We’ve arrived at the outer periphery of the system. The Oort Cloud should shield us from any sensor activity from within the system.”

Michael took to his chair.

“I’ve got Arkaria Prime right where it is supposed to be,” said Lieutenant Stanmore who was currently operating ops.

“On screen,” Star ordered.

The main viewer shifted once more, this time to reveal the sight of the turquoise sphere hanging in space where, as far as Michael was concerned, this nightmare of a mission had first started just a few days earlier.

At this distance, he wasn’t able to make out much more. “Magnify, please.”

Stanmore’s fingers danced over his console and the screen promptly zoomed in closer until the globe filled out the entire height of the viewer.

“I’m not seeing the Remmler Array but there appears to be a smaller orbital installation in its place,” said Star.

Michael nodded, spotting it as well. It was not nearly as large as the massive installation designed to purge a starship’s hull of particularly harmful concentrations of baryon particles. The station that existed in its place was multiple times smaller. It did contain a dry dock facility of sorts, but this one did not appear as if it could support a ship of Eagle’s size and the adjacent control spire looked old and worn-out.

“What about the planet?” Michael said.

Alendra, who was stationed behind him at tactical, already had the scan results prepared. “Sensors read a population of about four-hundred million. That is roughly comparable to our universe. The vast majority are Arkarians but I’m also reading other bio signs, including Bolians, Vulcans, humans, and various other races,” she said. “The non-Arkarian population appears far larger than on our Arkaria.”

“Curious,” said Star.

He glanced at her and nodded in agreement.

“What about our friends in the Dominion?” she asked. “Any sign of them in or around the planet.”

Stanmore was back up. “Sensors are not detecting any Dominion signatures in the proximity. However, we are currently limited to passive scans only. Active scans may give us more information.”

“And put a bright spotlight on us,” said Michael and shook his head. “Let’s try and stay as inconspicuous as we can for now.”

“Sir,” said the Bolian officer at tactical. “I’m not detecting any Starfleet or Federation signatures either.”

Michael stood from his chair to glance toward Alendra. “Our Arkaria isn’t exactly a hotspot of fleet activity either. The same may be the case here.”

But Alendra shook her head. “I’m not detecting any Federation signals at all. Not on Arkaria, not in this system, not even in this sector or any that neighbor it.”

Star stood as well to join her captain. “Which means the Federation may be significantly smaller here than in our reality, or…”

“Or it doesn’t exist at all,” said Michael, finishing her thought.

She nodded. “I suppose a cautious approach is called for.”

“Remind me of the last time it wasn’t,” he said and then turned toward the helm console where the young Risian woman Aliris was currently piloting the ship. “Ensign, set a course for Arkaria Prime, full impulse.”

She nodded and followed his command, setting Eagle in motion again.

“Lieutenant Stanmore, keep a close eye on the planet and the rest of the system. Let’s keep sensors passive until somebody takes a closer look at us. Let me know as soon as you detect any kind of Dominion activity.”

“Aye, sir,” the blonde officer replied and focused on his instruments.

“That orbital station may not be the Remmler Array but it might be just what we need to get us going again,” said the first officer.

Michael had been thinking the same thing. “I guess it’s time we introduced ourselves,” he said, although he was certainly not looking forward to it. He had come to the conclusion that Starfleet regulations of non-involvement didn’t apply exactly in the same way in an alternate universe as they did when encountering non-space faring races or time travel. The Starfleet brass may have held a different opinion on the subject, but then again, they were not the ones finding themselves in the middle of a quagmire that was spelling doom for entire universes. Whatever Prime Directive-like implications may have been drawn up by Command for such a situation, they had left those behind a long time ago, right about when they had witnessed the annihilation of an entire reality.

It wasn’t Starfleet regulations that filled him with the anxiety of getting involved in the affairs of yet another universe but the fact that things had gone spectacularly wrong the last two times they had allied themselves with the locals. “Lieutenant Alendra, try hailing the orbital station,” he said, tugging at his uniform jacket and preparing himself for another difficult encounter, dreading what it might lead to this time.

“We’re getting a response,” she said. “Putting it on screen.”

“Just hang on one moment,” a voice said even as the visual pickup remained dark. “Just a moment, let me just set this upright, hold on.”

Michael shot Star a curious glance. He wasn’t sure what he had been expecting but this certainly hadn’t been it. His first officer had returned to her chair and shrugged, clearly not sure what was happening either.

He looked back at the screen that presently displayed nothing. “My name is Michael Owens from the starship-“

“Just, you know, give me a second here, all right? I have this all set up in a jiffy,” the other voice interrupted. “Where is it? Where is it? I know it was somewhere around here.”

Confused, Michael found Alendra next but the Bolian shook her head. “Channel is definitely open and there is no indication of interference,” she said, confirming that nothing was malfunctioning, certainly not on their end.”

“Yes, yes, it’s all just working perfectly fine. Just give me a goshdarn second here, will you?”

“Take all the time you need,” Michael said to the unknown person, not quite sure what else to say.

“Ah, there you are. It’s all good. No problem. No problem at all.” Something was being lifted away from the visual pickup and suddenly the entire screen was filled with the roundish face of a middle-aged human male with narrow eyes and a balding head. “It’s just where I thought it be,” he said as he reached out for the pickup device and jostled it slightly, causing the image to shake until he seemingly had it in the position he wanted it to be. “There, perfect,” he said and then leaned back in a chair and revealed that he was sitting in an office of sorts. Although not much of it was visible, the parts he could see looked rather grimy and filled with junk. A small round viewport behind his left shoulder revealed a glimpse of Arkaria Prime from orbit.

The camera angle remained slightly askew but Michael didn’t have the heart to tell this to the red-faced man who was already sweating slightly.

“Welcome to Hutchport. You have the pleasure of addressing the manager and sole proprietor, Calvin Hutchinson, but, and let’s just get that out of the way from the start, nobody calls me Calvin. Hutch is fine. Here at Hutchport, we offer the most efficient and affordable maintenance this side of the Diaspora. The only thing brighter than our service, are the stars of Amargosa.”

The speech was clearly a well-rehearsed sales pitch and judging by the rather unenthusiastic delivery, he had given it a countless number of times.

“Well, Hutch, it seems we’re very fortunate then to have found you. My name is Michael Owens and as it so happens, we are in needs of some maintenance-“

“Whoa, Nellie,” he said, interrupting Michael before letting loose a long whistle as he glanced at something else, presumably another screen, somewhere outside of the pickup range. “That’s one hell of a ship you’ve got there. Don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that.”

“We’re not exactly from around these parts,” Michael said.

“You can say that again.” He turned to look back at him but this time did a double-take and then actually leaned in closer to the pick-up until most of his face filled the screen once more. “Wait a minute, wait a minute,” he said. “You are human.”

Michael nodded. “That’s right.”

“What kind of business do you have with a ship like that?”

It wasn’t difficult to ascertain from the way this conversation was going that things were very different in this universe to the ones they had visited previously. But Michael had no intention of getting into details with this man. “It’s a long story and-“

Hutch waved him off. “You know what? I don’t want to know. I don’t need to know. This smells like a lot of trouble and I’ve long since made it my personal policy to stay well away from trouble. I suggest you just move on along with your fancy ship and take your problems elsewhere.”

“We’d be more than happy to get going but we’re in need of some repairs first,” said Michael.

But Hutch was decidedly shaking his head. “Well, I suggest you look somewhere else for your maintenance needs. If you’re the brave type, you can try your luck in Outlander territory. Or go and pay Shantok a visit. She runs a halfway respectable facility in orbit around Tessen III. She may not have my vast expertise but I’m sure she’d be happy to accommodate you.”

Michael glanced at Stanmore at ops.

“Tessen is located in the neighboring sector and is twenty-three light-years from our position,” the officer said, correctly anticipating Michael’s unasked question.

Michael didn’t need a computer to tell him that even at high warp it’d take them days to travel that far and that was time they didn’t have. Time, the universe didn’t have. “Unfortunately, our needs are too pressing to allow for that option. We’ve just traversed some of the more challenging areas of the Diaspora and require urgent repair.”

His eyes opened wide. “You took your ship through the Moebius cluster? My God, man, be happy your still alive to tell the tale,” he said. He seemed torn for a moment. “To be honest, I wouldn’t mind taking a look under that hood of yours. It’s been a long time I’ve seen a piece of such pristine engineering come through here.”

“We’d gladly offer you a tour.” That hadn’t been his first choice but the truth was, they were desperate.

“It’s just not worth the risk.”

“All we need are some raw materials,” Michael said, trying a different tact now. “We can affect repairs ourselves. In fact, we’ll more than happy to complete them elsewhere. And I’m sure we can find something to compensate you for your assistance. Some pristine technology, perhaps?”

His eyes lit up for a moment. “You’re a tempting devil, mister,” he said, giving Michael hope that he was getting through to him.

But then shook his head resolutely. “I just cannot risk it, no matter how enticing you make it sound. My suggestion is to take that gleaming ship of yours out of this system before it catches the attention of the wrong kind of people. And whatever you do, do not contact me again.” He stabbed a control on his desk and the connection shut down.

“That could have gone better,” Michael said.

“We don’t have a lot of options,” said Star as she stood from her chair to join him by his side.

“What do you suggest?”

There was a gleam in her eye that seemed both encouraging and a little scary at the same time. “I’ve dealt with people like Mister Hutchinson before. I think I know how to get through to him.”
Part 1 - The Hard Hello: 10 by CeJay
10


Undeterred by Hutchinson’s refusal to assist, Eagle had continued unchallenged toward his orbital facility and well into transporter range.

Tazla Star had grabbed DeMara Deen and Nora Laas and, after a quick wardrobe change to replace their Starfleet uniform jackets with something less likely to raise questions in a place where the Federation apparently did not exist, they had beamed over onto the unshielded station with little difficulties.

Although the facility was small by Starfleet standards, certainly much more compact than Arkaria Base in their universe, it did seem to function as a sort of local hub for space traffic in the system and likely beyond. As Eagle had closed in onto the planet, they had been able to identify seven civilian crafts docked or holding position close to the facility that consisted of not much more than a couple of mid-size repair berth and a tall but skinny spire that housed several businesses and establishments as well as administrative offices. Deep Space Nine, this certainly was not.

Tazla’s first impression upon beaming onto the facility was that it resembled some of the less reputable border outposts she had come across occasionally, usually tugged away outside the auspices of Starfleet and the Federation and often run by criminal, or at least, extralegal enterprises such as the Orion Syndicate.

It wasn’t well-maintained, it was dark and dirty and there were far too many people who had been asked to share too little real estate.

The cramped conditions, at least, played in their favor since nobody seemed to pay too much attention to a tall red-haired Trill, a Bajoran who couldn’t quite disguise her military background or, and most importantly, a Tenarian who carried with her an aura nearly impossible to miss. The latter did turn a few heads but not quite enough to cause a major disturbance as the three of them made their way across the busy main concourse.

Tazla’s spotted a great many Arkarians which was hardly surprising, but there were also a few Andorians, humans, and Tellarites in the mix as well as races from non-Federation worlds such as Klingons and Nausicaans.

Although the main concourse of the small outpost was not shielded, the administrative section that presumably held Hutchinson’s office was protected against direct beaming.

It didn’t take the away team very long to find the doors leading to where they needed to go.

“Arkarian with hat and blue shirt. Looks like the lone guard,” said Nora Laas as they approached the entrance and indicated toward a bored-looking man sitting on a stool next to the doors. “How do you want to play this?”

“We don’t have the time for the usual niceties,” Tazla replied after spotting the guard.

Nora just nodded briefly to acknowledge and continued for the door and the guard.

The Arkarian left the stool when he spotted the trio making a beeline for him. “This is a restricted area. No access.”

Nora gave him a confused looked. “Our apologies. We are new here and it appears we’ve gotten ourselves lost.”

Tazla couldn’t help but grow worried when the man stood to his full and considerable height, easily half a head taller than the security chief.

“Perhaps you could give us some directions,” she said, sounding about as non-threatening as Tazla had ever heard her.

And yet a lifetime spent fighting, in the Bajoran Resistance, in the Starfleet Marines, and as a security officer made it a challenge for her body language to mirror her voice, and the Arkarian wearing an almost comically oversized hat, wasn’t entirely put at ease. Tazla had made the call to only equip the away team with small, type-one phasers that were easy to conceal but didn’t pack much of a punch.

As it turned out, her concerns were unfounded.

Nora acted so quickly, it looked more like a blur, kicking the guard hard against his shin, causing him to double over in pain just enough to give her easy access to his throat, where she landed a powerful and perfectly placed strike with her hand. It was enough to make him pass out.

The Bajoran caught him before he could fall over and gently placed him back onto the stool and leaned him against the bulkhead behind it. She pushed his large hat deeper into his face to make it appear he had merely dozed off.

Tazla gave Nora an appreciative nod once she realized that nobody had noticed her lightning-fast assault on the guard.

“The Niners aren’t the only ones with tricks up their sleeve,” she said with a little mischievous smile, referring to the Special Missions Team Eagle had recently taken aboard and who excelled in these kinds of missions.

“Now to get through this door,” she said, turning toward the heavy, air-lock type portal that functioned as the access port to the administrative section.

“One step ahead of you, Commander,” said DeMara Deen who already had a tricorder in hand and typing away. “It has a standard, stand-alone eight-digit encryption lock without any secondary authentication method. Should be able to crack that any-“

The door hissed open even before she had been able to finish her sentence and Deen offered a large smile instead and pointed at the now open portal. “Age before beauty.”

“I guess I know why I brought the two of you,” she said and quickly slipped inside, followed by the rest of the away team.

The administrative section of Hutchport was hardly large enough to deserve the name. A few, mostly empty ramshackle workrooms, almost no personnel, and certainly no additional opposition to the away team that quickly located the proprietor’s office.

“Who the hell are you? You have no business here?” the short, semi-bald human said the moment he spotted the intruders. “Where’s Arlo?”

“If you are referring to your guard, he’s taking a well-deserved nap,” said Nora Laas and quickly closed the gap between her and the agitated proprietor. “Take a seat, Mister Hutchinson,” she added and pushed him back into his large, well-padded chair, the only piece of furniture in his cramped office that didn’t look depilated.

“I knew I shouldn’t have skimped on security,” he mumbled to himself. “What do you want? If this is some sort of shake-down, you come to the wrong place. I have more debts than liquid assets. Go see Shantok in the Tessen system. She’s practically drowning in capital.”

“I’m sure she’d be delighted to hear of your referrals,” Tazla said after she had made sure to secure the only entrance into his office. “But we are not here to rob you.”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” he said as he pointed at the Trill. “I recognize your face. You were on the bridge of that shiny new ship out there. You work with that Owens fellow.”

“That’s right.”

He quickly shook his head. “I told you, people, not to come here. A ship like that is bound to attract the wrong kind of attention. And I don’t need the trouble. Go do your business elsewhere.”

“Thing is, Mister Hutchinson-“

“You can call me Hutch, dear,” he said, interrupting Nora Laas who remained close to the seated human to keep an eye on him.

The Bajoran didn’t appreciate his condescending tone and let him know with an ice-cold gaze. “The thing is, Mister Hutchinson,” she started again. “We are on a mission with severe implications for the safety of the galaxy and on a very tight timetable so, as much as it may pain me to say so, you are our only option.”

“So what? Your captain figured he send over the most attractive members of his crew to try and sweet talk me into helping you? Don’t get me wrong, you are all quite charming,” he said and for a moment seemed to be particularly fascinated by Deen who had remained in the background. “But no offense, not charming enough to make me forget what kind of pain may be in store for all of us if you don’t move on in a hurry.”

Nora didn’t seem to care for his insinuation but before she could make her displeasure known, Tazla placed herself between her and Hutchinson.

The truth was that she had not consciously selected her away team based on charm factors--if that had been the case, she would certainly have left Nora behind--but she had not entirely ruled out that she may be required to appeal to this man’s baser instincts. It hadn’t been an accident that she had replaced her uniform jacket with a low-cut top and zipped her red undershirt low enough to reveal hints of cleavage. It was hardly the first time she had used sensuality to fulfill a mission objective. In fact, during the darker days of her work in intelligence, she had rarely shied away from pulling out all the stops.

“Actually, Hutch,” she said with a beaming smile. “That was all my idea.”

Her tactic seemed to work as he appeared momentarily entranced by her attractive features. And why shouldn’t he have been? Tazla wasn’t a braggart by nature, but she did consider herself quite a catch. At least physically speaking. She wasn’t so sure if anyone would be particularly attracted by all her psychological baggage.

She placed herself right next to the seated Hutchinson, leaning against the desk and making sure he got a good view of her from top to bottom, from her long, stretched out legs, her décolleté, all the way to her piercing green eyes and the loose strands of her fiery-red hair hanging into her face.

She was pleased to find that she had captured his full attention. Although it was generally considered to be old-fashioned and perhaps even in poor taste to use sex appeal to win an argument, certainly back home and within the Federation, it was good to know that she could still pull it off, even after years of being out of practice.

She pulled out a datapad she had tugged away in her open jacket and slid it onto the desk next to her. “All we require are a few resources so that we can tend to our repairs. And I’m certain that we can find a way to compensate you for your efforts.”

Hutchinson hung on her lips for a moment longer, before he tore himself away and glanced at the padd on the desk. “I’d really love to help,” he said as he picked up the data slate. “And we do have some of these materials in storage here but the risk of certain powers finding out that I helped you is simply too great.”

When he lowered the padd again his eyes didn’t immediately return to Tazla but stayed glued to another member of the away team. She tried not to take it personally that he seemed more enchanted by DeMara Deen than with her. The Tenarian, after all, didn’t exactly play fair.

“There must be something that we could do for you that could make you consider taking such a risk,” Tazla said, nearly purring the words and starting to feel rather disappointed with herself.

“I don’t see what it is you could offer me,” he said even while keeping his gaze on the young woman across the office.

“Give us a second,” she said and then stepped away from his desk and regrouped with the rest of the away team in the far corner of the room and out of his earshot.

“This is ridiculous,” said Nora, straight away. “He has what we need. Let’s just take it and be done with it. I know that’s not the Starfleet way but we’re talking about the possible destruction of an entire universe. I think our priorities are pretty clear, especially since we’d be saving his life in the process as well. I get that we are supposed to stand for certain moral values but this feels like the time to make some adjustments.”

But Deen shook her head. “I disagree. It is times like these when our moral foundations must be strongest. If we don’t remain true to ourselves in a crisis then we might not have to bother having any foundations at all.”

Tazla rubbed the bridge of her nose with frustration. She didn’t have the time nor the inclination to have an ethics discussion. She found both arguments inherently valid and simplistic at the same time. She considered DeMara. “He’s obliviously taken a shine to you.”

“Show me a man who doesn’t?” Nora said, immediately garnering her a less than pleased look from Deen.

“Perhaps you could use some of your unique gifts to make him, let’s say, more inclined to cooperate with us.”

But Deen didn’t look happy about the prospect. “Don’t get me wrong, Commander, I understand the stakes here perfectly well. And if you order me to try and convince this man to help us, I will. But I’m not comfortable trying to manipulate a person like that. And that in itself may affect the success of my attempt.”

“I’ve seen you do this kind of thing before,” the Bajoran said.

“That doesn’t mean it was easy or a comfortable experience. And not everyone is wired the same way. Just because it worked on one person, it may not work with another.”

“Worth a shot, if you ask me,” Nora countered.

But Star could see the deep-seated reluctance in DeMara’s purple eyes. And what was more, she could empathize, probably more so than Nora Laas who had, first and foremost, relied on her strength and handiness with a weapon to solve problems in her life, rather than using her feminine appeal. Tazla had been down that road and she had hated herself for it each and every time.

“All right, let’s try something else first,” she said and returned to Hutchinson who had been staring at the trio the whole time, either too afraid or too intrigued to attempt to escape or summon help.

Tazla picked up the padd from the desk, entered a number, and threw it back at Hutchinson who caught it clumsily. “What is this?”

“You may have already figured that we’re not from around here. But I get the feeling that money talks in a place like this more than anything else. That’s the total amount of gold-pressed latinum currently in the hold of our ship. All of which could be yours.”

The way his eyes lit up gave proof that the currency was as much in demand in this universe as it was in many non-Federation territories in theirs.

The number was a decent amount and Tazla hadn’t lied or exaggerated. Although the Federation had a money-less economy, since Eagle regularly traveled to areas beyond Federation jurisdiction, she was one of several Starfleet ships that carried well-regulated reserves of gold-pressed latinum and other common currencies, ostensibly for situations like this one. Although, probably not exactly like this one.

“I mean that’s certainly more than enough latinum to cover my expenses,” he said, seeming quite torn about the issue. “But no latinum in the galaxy will protect me from the wrath of the powers that be.”

Nora stepped up to his desk, placing her hands on the top and leaning toward him aggressively. “You’ve had a look at our ship, haven’t you?”

He nodded. “Sure, sure. Indubitably, a mighty fine ship.”

“And you can probably imagine the kind of firepower it has. What it could do to this little rust bucket you call a repair facility.”

“Are you … are you threatening me?” he said in a tone that shifted back and forth between concern and outrage.

“I’m saying that if we were anyone else, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. I’d just appreciate some acknowledgment that we are trying to go out of our way here to accommodate what is a simple trade of goods and services all of which are well within your ability to provide.”

“I most certainly acknowledge your understanding,” he said quickly and then looked back at Tazla. “I really do. But I’m in a difficult position here.”

“You want to help us but you’re afraid of the repercussions if the local powers learn that you have aided us,” Deen said as she stepped up next to the security chief. Her tone of voice, her entire demeanor was so calm, it was practically soothing and the complete opposite to Nora’s approach.

“That’s exactly right.”

“Then here’s what I suggest. You tell us exactly where we can find what we need. Perhaps there are certain cargo modules on your station you can point us to that just might contain the resources we are after. Then we take what we want without your permission. In other words, we steal them from you and might even damage some of your station in doing so.”

“I don’t think I like that idea very much,” he said.

Deen smiled sweetly at him. “Yes, but you see, what nobody else will know is that a sizeable amount of latinum will have found its way into your possession. Enough to cover the cost of the materials we abscond with as well as any damages done as a result. As far as anyone else is aware, we took what we wanted by force. You had no real chance to defend yourself considering what you were up against.”

It took Hutchinson a moment to fully understand what she had suggested. “Nobody would know?”

“It’d be our dirty little secret,” Tazla said with a mischievous grin.

“And I get the latinum.”

She nodded. “All of it.”

He began to laugh. “I think you have yourself a deal.”

Tazla took her padd back. “We’ll beam the payment directly to your office. I suggest you hide it away in a safe place and do not flaunt your new wealth for the time being,” she said as she headed for the exit, eager to get back to their mission as quickly as possible.

“Since my life might depend on it, I’ll be more than discreet,” he said. “I can give you the location of the cargo bays that contain the materials you require.”

But Deen shook her head. “Don’t trouble yourself,” she said as she raised her tricorder. “I’ve already located everything we need.”

Hutchinson got out of his chair just as the three women were exiting his officer. “And please keep the damage to a minimum.”

Nora rolled her eyes as she shot him a last, fleeting look. “After making us waste an enormous amount of time, I’d be tempted to forcefully reconfigure half of this station. Remember, we’re the heartless pirates here and we’ll need to make this heist believable,” she said with a grin just before she left the dumbstruck Hutch Hutchinson behind.
Part 2 - Family of Strangers: 1 by CeJay
Part II: Family of Strangers


1


With Eagle holding position in orbit around Arkaria and Tazla Star and an away team having beamed onto Hutchport to find a way to convince its proprietor to assist them with crucial repairs, Michael had decided to take advantage of the rare break in the seemingly ceaseless chain of events they had been entangled in recently to have a long-overdue chat with his father.

He wasn’t entirely certain where he stood with the man with whom he had shared a mostly combative relationship for most of his life. It had only worsened after the death of his brother Matthew ten years ago. And it had recently moved into entirely uncharted territory when the enigmatic Starfleet admiral had led most in Starfleet, including himself, to believe that he had died, only to reveal that his death had merely been a ruse.

A short-lived moment of relief that his father was alive had quickly given way to a rush of anger and resentment. Michael had not been entirely prepared for an uncharacteristic heart-to-heart they had shared after this mad universe hopping adventure had begun in which Jon Owens had not only admitted--for the first time in his life, Michael was sure--all the mistakes he had made that had allowed their relationship to wither the way it had, but also show genuine remorse. Michael had been stunned to learn that his father was looking to make things right between them after all these years, that he had committed himself to heal their troubled relationship once and for all. And Michael had believed him.

But a lot had happened since this unexpected father-son moment. His health had continued to deteriorate, he had been abducted from Eagle and entire universes had died.

And yet one thing had refused to leave the back corners of his mind over the last few and turbulent days. It had been something Jarik had said shortly before the alternate Michael Owens had incinerated the man on the spot. His former Academy roommate and friend turned adversary had in no certain terms alluded to an alliance between his father and Altee, a scrupulous intelligence operative from a now-dead universe who had sought to take control of the Ring and its ability to unlock access to the limitless potential of the quantum-verse.

Admittedly, the half-Vulcan had surrendered this information while being tortured by the man DeMara Deen had taken to refer to as Dark Michael, meaning that nothing he had said at that time could be considered reliable intelligence. Even if some of it had turned out to be accurate.

The nagging thought that perhaps his father had been working against them all this time in the same manner as Jarik troubled him and he was determined to get answers to those questions once and for all.

Although perhaps not as quickly as he would have liked, since he received no response after triggering the annunciator of the VIP quarters assigned to his father on deck eight.

After two more unsuccessful attempts, he became concerned, picturing his frail body lying unconscious somewhere within his quarters, having finally succumbed to his worsening condition.

He used his authorization code to override the lock and the doors hissed open obediently, allowing him to step inside.

“Dad? It’s Michael. Are you all right?”

The lounge area was empty with no sign of his father so he moved on to the adjacent bedroom. “Dad, are you okay?”

But he wasn’t there either and the washroom was empty as well.

Walking back into the lounge he spotted what looked like a hypospray on the table and picked it up. It was empty. “Computer, locate the whereabouts of Admiral Owens,” he said but spotted what appeared to be his combadge on a chair even before he had finished speaking, giving him a good idea how his inquiry would be answered.

“Admiral Jonathan Owens is in VIP quarters zero-bravo on deck eight, section four.”

“Computer,” Michael tried again. “Disregard Admiral Owens’ combadge signal and locate his bio-signs.”

“Admiral Jonathan Owens’ bio-signs have not been detected onboard Eagle.”

Michael felt a sudden pang of panicked déjà vu. It hadn’t been too long ago that his father had been abducted from the ship and now he feared that it had happened all over again. They had taken numerous precautions protecting the Prism from being taken again but now it seemed they had not taken enough precautions to safeguard the crew.

“Owens to bridge.”

“This is Lieutenant Commander Xylion,” the science officer responded with little delay.

“Commander, I’m in my father’s quarters and the computer just informed me that it is unable to locate his bio-signs on the ship,” he said as he walked over to the arrowhead-shaped communicator and picked it up. “I’ve found his combadge.”

“Following the recent damage we have sustained, sensors are not operating at peak efficiency. Accessing the internal sensor logs directly might help determine the Admiral’s location. Please stand by,” he said while he presumably made his way to the science station at the aft section of the bridge to interface with the ship’s computer. “As I suspected, internal sensors have been affected by system damage to the main deflector and I’m unable to access ship-wide logs. It may be possible to query localized sensors and perimeter detectors to retrace his most recent movements.”

Michael usually appreciated the Vulcan meticulous attention to detail in everything he did, but at present, he found it difficult to concentrate on his technical explanations. He just needed to know where his father was. “The sooner the better, Commander.”

“Excluding your entry into the VIP quarters two minutes ago, the cabin doors were last triggered eighteen minutes and twelve seconds ago.”

Michael nodded and stepped back into the corridor, leaving the channel to Xylion open. “So he left his quarters but we can’t be certain if it was voluntary or not. Where did he go next?”

“Considering all activity in that section at the time, Admiral Owens most likely entered turbolift four shortly after leaving his quarters.”

Michael was already heading in that direction. Xylion spoke again before he had reached the doors leading into the lift.

“The turbolifts’ only stop in that time period was on deck six, section nine.”

Michael ordered the lift to take him there once he was inside, his mind already cycling through possible locations on that deck. His suspicion that he had been heading for one of the two transporter rooms located on deck six was contradicted by his science officer the moment the lift arrived at its destination.

“The main doors to shuttlebay three were triggered forty-two seconds after the turbolift arrived on deck six.”

Michael made a beeline for the shuttlebay. He knew that any unauthorized shuttle launches would have alerted the bridge, even with internal sensors operating at a limited capacity. “Commander, check our inventory. Are we missing any shuttles?”

The science officer needed just a moment to query the necessary databases. “All shuttles and support craft are accounted for.”

The heavy shuttlebay door panels slid aside as Michael approached to reveal the cavernous flight deck. Not nearly as expansive as the Eagle’s main shuttlebay a deck above but still easily among the single largest spaces on the ship.

A compact shuttle pod and a medium-sized type-6 were currently parked on the deck but neither craft looked like it was prepped for imminent take-off. The larger shuttle, the Emerson, had its rear access ramp lowered.

Michael quickly made his way over to the Emerson and walked up the ramp.

The shuttle was empty.

“He’s not here,” he said.

“I have no further data on additional movements,” Xylion said. “It appears this was your father’s final destination.”

Michael considered that for a moment. His father had clearly come here but not, it seemed, to abscond with a shuttle. And yet it seemed unlikely that he would have made the shuttlebay his destination for a leisurely stroll.

He took a seat behind the controls and activated the ship’s log but found that it had no recent activity listed outside of routine maintenance, either because it had not seen any use in a while or because the log had been erased.

He swiveled his chair around to think. “What have you been up to, dad?”

Xylion seemed to understand that the question had not been directed at him and did not respond.

Then it struck him and he quickly swiveled back toward the controls to check the shuttle’s subsystems and just as he had suspected, they had indeed been activated. “Son of a bitch.”

He made a note of what the instruments were showing him and then got out of the chair again, leaving the shuttle and heading for the exit with urgent strides. “Owens to security.”

“This is Lieutenant Carlos,” the deputy chief responded promptly.

“Lieutenant, meet me with a team in transporter room 2.”

“On our way, sir. Carlos out.”

Transporter room two was only a short distance away from the shuttlebay but Michael understood why his father had opted for the latter. Although the shuttle transporter was not as powerful it had been more than enough to get him to where he had been looking to go and by avoiding using the transporter room, he had smartly prevented triggering any alarms or having to confront an operator.

“Sir, am I right in assuming that you have established your father has used the shuttle’s transporter to beam off the ship,” Xylion said, clearly having put the pieces together as well.

“He beamed to Arkaria,” Michael said, trying hard to keep his rising anger in check. “And judging by the shuttle’s energy usage, he was alone.” Which, as far as he was concerned, meant that he had left the ship purposefully and out of his own volition. This time, nobody had forced him to go anywhere and Michael had no idea what could have possibly compelled his father to believe this was a good time to go on a solo excursion into an unknown and hostile universe. Whatever his reasons, he was certain that they were unacceptable considering their current circumstances.

“Can I further assume that you intend on following your father?”

Michael stepped into the transporter room and found a young Vulcan ensign whose name escaped him at that moment, manning the transporter console. Her surprise at seeing the captain enter the room flashed on her face for less than a second before she squared her shoulders and clasped her hands behind her back while awaiting her orders.

Michael had none to give her and instead stepped up to the console himself as the ensign got out of his way. “I’ve got the coordinates from the shuttle computer,” he said as he punched them into the console. “And yes, I know what you’re going to say next but I need you to stay on the bridge while Star is still on that station. Besides, this won’t take long. We’ll beam down, get my father and bring him back. I don’t care if we have to phaser stun him to do so.”

“Ordinarily I would suggest that we isolate his biosignature on the surface and beam him back on board instead of sending a retrieval team, however, the damage to our sensor arrays prevents us from carrying out that approach.”

Michael nodded, having already suspected this much.

“Sensors can confirm, however, that your father transported to an area of low population density outside a small conurbation on the easternmost continent of Arkaria. Sensors confirm a limited number of bio-signs in the area.”

“Good, that means it won’t take long to find him.”

The doors to the transporter room opened and Lieutenant Josè Carlos stepped inside followed by the slender-framed Petty Officer Skyler McIntyre and dark-haired and dark-eyed Betazoid Andrus Stadi. All three were equipped with standard-issue phasers at their hips. Carlos also had a tricorder.

Michael retrieved a phaser and holster for himself, tugged it to his uniform, and then stepped onto the transporter platform. “We’re going after my father who has inexplicably beamed off the ship to a sparsely populated area on the planet a short while ago.”

Carlos nodded firmly, giving no signs that he was concerned about suddenly being thrust into a position of having to safeguard the most precious cargo on board while on an away mission into unknown territory. Instead, he and his equally stone-faced security guards arranged himself around their commanding officer on the transporter platform.

“I’ll remind you that my father is not an active-duty Starfleet admiral at this time and wields no authority whatsoever. We will bring him back here if he wishes to or not,” he said and took a moment to look each of the three members of his away team in the eye to ensure that there were no misunderstandings.

“Understood, sir,” Carlos said sharply.

Michael glanced at the transporter operator next. “Ensign, beam us to the coordinates I’ve provided. Energize when ready.”

The efficient Vulcan did so without delay and within moments they had exchanged their starship surroundings for those of a rural area on Arkaria, materializing close to an arrangement of three old-fashioned warehouses that looked like they may have been used to house farming equipment or produce at some point in the past but had been converted into something with a less agricultural function.

The climate reminded Michael of a cool autumn night in his native Wisconsin on Earth. Just a tad too cold to be comfortable with the steam from their breaths visible in the air.

There were signs of a larger settlement a few kilometers to the west and hills that eventually gave way to mountain ranges in the other directions. The nearest building had large windows on the ground floor, revealing a well-lit interior but Michael couldn’t see anyone inside from where he stood.

“I’m detecting three life signs, all humans, within the nearest structure,” said Carlos who had flipped open his tricorder.

Michael nodded in acknowledgment and headed out for what looked like a set of doors leading inside.

The door turned out to be a manual slide gate and Carlos quickly helped him push it open enough to allow them to enter.

Beyond it, they found what looked very much like some sort of workshop with assorted machinery, technical diagrams, and various gadgets and devices in different stages of assembly.

Michael was drawn to a set of large whiteboards that contained detailed sketches and plans for concepts he was only barely familiar with.

There were intricate diagrams for polaron-based weapons and shields and another for what looked like a quantum-based warp engine that took up two boards and which as far as Michael understood was something still in the conceptual phase at Starfleet R&D.

His eyes were drawn to another sketch that felt eerily familiar to him for some reason although he couldn’t quite place it. It had something to do with dark-matter energy. But it was the sight of a severed and partially deconstructed head of a male Borg drone that captured his immediate attention as well as that of the away team.

“Is that thing real?” McIntrye asked as she carefully approached the head where it had been propped up on a stand in the workshop.

“If it is, it’s long dead,” said Stadi who as a Betazoid was able to detect telepathic energies from most living beings. Undaunted by the disturbing sight of the severed head, he walked up next to it to get a closer look at it.

Michael couldn’t help but be equally intrigued by it. The head was almost cleanly cut open along its right side as if somebody had taken a laser scalpel to it and it revealed heavily assimilated brain tissue with visible mechanical parts fused directly to the organic matter.

Perhaps most interesting in a disturbing sort of way was the cubical device implanted deep within its right eye socket. “That must be its myoneural cortical array,” Michael said, remembering his mandatory Borg briefings that had swept across Starfleet after their repeated attempts to assimilate the Federation.

A set of loud voices coming from somewhere nearby quickly refocused his attention.

Carlos indicated toward a door leading deeper into the building as the most likely source of those voices.

Michael gestured for the away team to ready their weapons as he did the same and then prepared to open the door.

He checked his people were ready before he pushed the door open and then was the first one through it, with the security team right at his heels.

His father stood in the middle of the room with his back to him, speaking to another person Michael couldn’t see.

“Dad,” he hissed angrily. “What the hell do you think you’re doing here?”

His father turned around and stepped aside, allowing him to see the person he had been addressing.

The sight rooted Michael to the spot instantly and he could literally feel his jaw drop while his heart had seemingly stopped beating.

“Matt?”
Part 2 - Family of Strangers: 2 by CeJay
2


He had witnessed a great many wondrous things in his long Starfleet career and yet seeing his brother again, alive and well, in the very same room he now stood, was difficult to fully grasp.

Even if this wasn’t the first time Matthew Owens had returned from the dead since he had died ten years earlier, killed by his own colleague Westren Frobisher in a pointless act of madness during a failed experiment.

Five years earlier Michael had been given the unexpected chance to save his brother from his fate thanks to Frobisher’s crazed meddling with the timeline. Back then he had been unable to prevent his death a second time when he was faced with the decision to stop Frobisher and prevent the deaths of potentially thousands of lives or protect his brother.

It had taken him a while to get over reliving Matthew’s death and he had made peace with the fact that he would never get another chance at seeing him alive.

But, of course, that was not how the universe works, he mused wordlessly as he considered the man he intellectually understood wasn’t his flesh and blood, at least not really, and whom he had never truly met before that moment.

And yet he looked almost exactly how he remembered him. A little older but not so much that he couldn’t still pass for being around his own age--Matthew had been his older brother by four years--he wore his chestnut hair a little longer but he had the same kind eyes he had always admired so much in him and that had rarely failed to remind him of their departed mother and that same chiseled chin that made him noticeably related to him and his father.

At the present moment, he seemed furious, however, dividing his apparent scorn between Jon Owens and the armed contingent that had burst through the doors. “What is this? Who are you?”

Even filled with anger, his voice was unmistakably Matthew’s and it took Michael back for a moment.

“I want you out of my house. All of you.”

Michael holstered his weapon and indicated for the rest of the away team to follow suit. “Matt,” he said as no other words immediately came to mind. He had since accepted the possibility that there was a chance he’d encounter versions of the people he knew in his universe and after encountering a much more conflicted version of his friend and former first officer Gene Edison, two separate versions of very different Amayas, not to mention a Michael Owens who may as well have walked right out of his nightmares, he had considered himself prepared for whatever other crazy twist the multi-verse had in store for him.

He realized now that he had been sorely mistaken.

“Damn it, Michael, why did you have to come down here like this,” Jon Owens said, his voice doing little to mask his anger. However, it quickly vanished when he turned back to consider his other son. Or at least the man who looked like him. “I’m sorry, Matthew. I didn’t want it to be like this. I understand that this is a lot to take in at once. But I am your father, you have to believe that.”

“My father died years ago,” Matthew said, still agitated, taking a few steps away from Jon Owens. “I don’t know who you are but you are not my father.” He looked past Jon and at Michael. “And you.”

Michael took a careful step toward Matt. “You’re my brother.”

Matthew shook his head emphatically. “No, I’m not.”

“This will be difficult to absorb fully,” Jon Owens said. “But we are from another universe. A universe where I--where your father lived.”

“It’s true, Matt,” Michael said.

“And what? You came here to see me?” Matthew said, clearly still unable to fully understand what was happening. “Why would you do that? Why would you cross universes to find me? I haven’t seen either one of you in decades and I never truly had a relationship with my father,” he said while glaring at Jon. “As for you,” he continued, glancing toward Michael and then shaking his head. “The less said about that, the better.”

Michael was tempted to ask what he meant but understood that nothing good could come from knowing too much about his fate in this universe. And he wasn’t surprised to hear that Matthew had not gotten along with his father in this reality either. There appeared to be a few constants that didn’t change no matter where they ended up.

“But don’t you see,” Jon said. “In a strange and twisted way, we’re all connected. We are part of you and you are part of us. What we have here,” he said and Michael didn’t miss the rare sight of a large smile plastered on his father’s face, “is a unique opportunity of a perfect family reunion without all the pain and hurt that usually comes with these things. A chance to start over. What we have been given here is a true, cosmic gift.”

It was only now that Michael noticed how reinvigorated his father sounded, his growing fragility of recent days, perhaps even months, suddenly cast aside, enlivened by an encounter that should not have been possible.

“This is all wrong,” Matthew said, refusing to be infected by whatever zest Owens Senior had caught. “We are not a family. I don’t know you people. I didn’t even truly know my real family when they were still around.” He walked away from Jon and toward the far corner of the room, looking for physical distance as he was visibly grappling with these unexpected events that had befallen him so suddenly. “I need you all to get out of my home. Now.”

All the commotion and raised voices had not gone entirely unnoticed but Michael was still too distracted by the presence of his brother to realize that somebody else had entered the room.

It was Carlos who pointed out the new arrival. “Sir,” he said urgently, his phaser back in his hand in an instant and indicating toward the far side of the room.

Michael cursed himself for his inattentiveness and forgetting that sensors had indicated the presence of a third person within the building.

He recognized the man instantly and just as quickly as he had his own brother. Little wonder, since this was the man who had been responsible for his death. Twice.

There was no mistaking him at all, his tall and wiry frame, his unruly black hair that seemingly had seen no comb or brush in a decade, and his sharp, almost avian facial features.

That face was burned in his mind and made common appearances in his more disturbing nightmares. The last time he had seen it had been when he had plummeted to his death, falling off a cliff after he had tried his best to take Michael with him to his grave. It had been at the conclusion of a days-long quest to locate the man who Starfleet had long since declared dead and that had taken Michael across both time and space.

“Frobisher,” Michael seethed and jumped into action, his rational brain momentarily taking a back seat to pure, unadulterated emotion.

His target wasn’t quite prepared for the sudden assault and Michael drove him easily into the wall at speed and forcing Frobisher to gasp as the air was forcefully expelled from his lungs.

He pressed his forearm hard against the other man’s neck, applying more pressure than was necessary to keep him pinned there.

“Wes,” Matthew shouted and rushed to where Michael was holding him.

Frobisher for his part just considered his attacker curiously and managed a few words even while struggling for air. “Michael Owens?”

Carlos and McIntyre arrived a moment later, both with their weapons at the ready although clearly not entirely certain of the true threat. Their training told them to protect their captain and so their weapons covered Frobisher and Matt Owens.

“Are you insane?” Matthew shouted but was prevented from coming to Frobisher’s help by the phaser-wielding security team having taken position between him and Michael and Frobisher. “Let go of him.”

The logical side of his brain slowly reasserted itself again, although too slowly, Michael would later begrudgingly admit to himself and he freed Frobisher from his choke-like hold.

The other man sagged to the floor, holding his bruised neck while Michael and the security team stepped away to give him room and allow a clearly concerned Matthew to kneel next to Frobisher. “Wes, are you alright?”

He nodded slowly but hadn’t quite found his voice yet.

Jon Owens directed his anger at Michael. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? That was not necessary.”

“It’s Frobisher,” Michael said quietly through clenched teeth, already fully cognizant that it was no excuse at all.

“Not the one you know.”

Michael said nothing to that. He understood that, of course. And yet it didn’t stop the fact that his heart was still racing and he could feel a dark ball of anguish and rage deep in the pit of his gut, desperate to burst free. He was angry at Frobisher for having killed his brother all those years ago, he was angry at his father for having brought them to this twisted place but most of all he was angry at himself for his inability to control his own emotions and letting them dictate his actions.

Vulcans, he suddenly realized, might have had it right all along, perfectly suppressing their emotions in all circumstances. Oh, how he envied Vulcans at that moment.

Matthew looked up from where he knelt next to the still-recovering Frobisher and his wrath-filled eyes found Michael’s. “I want you out of here now, do you understand? All of you. Get out of my home and don’t ever come back.”

“Matthew, please,“ Jon Owens pleaded but was cut off.

“Just get out,” he said in a low, seething tone that packed the simmering intensity of a volcano ready to erupt.

Michael nodded slowly but when his father didn’t make any moves to leave, he reached out for his arm. “Dad, let’s go.”

It took Owens Senior a moment longer to tear himself away but Matthew was no longer paying him or the others any attention, his entire focus on the injured Frobisher.

Jon Owens allowed Michael to pull him out of the room but it was Michael who was the last one to leave, glancing back one final time at the man who was so much like his brother, and he couldn’t deny the pain he felt as he left him behind yet again.
Part 2 - Family of Strangers: 3 by CeJay
3


“We’ve managed to secure thirty tons of selenite, fifteen tons of terminium, twelve tons of exatanium, and five tons of nitrium alloy,” said Tazla Star as she ran down a list of materials they had obtained from Hutchport.

“Good job, Commander. Once we’ve got the time, I’d be curious to find out how you accomplished this,” Michael said and then glanced over to where his chief engineer was sitting at the conference table. “Does that give you everything you need to complete repairs?”

“The terminium should be enough to restore our weapon’s systems and we can use the nitrium alloy to get close to one-hundred percent efficiency on sensors. I wish we could have gotten our hands on some neosorium and duranium composite but we may be able to make do with the exatanium to patch things up. It won’t be pretty, and it won’t be to Starfleet code, but it’ll do in a pinch.”

“Good enough for me,” said Michael.

“Do we have any concerns that these materials may not play nice with our systems,” said Leva, who was also in attendance, along with Deen, Xylion, Culsten, Garla, and Admiral Owens. “After all, we are in a different universe.”

“That is a valid concern,” the Vulcan science officer said. “I have been able to analyze all the materials we have obtained and found that they possess all characteristics we would expect from those in our own universe. The only abnormality appears to be the quantum signatures.”

“Quantum signatures?” Michael asked.

Xylion offered a brief nod. “All matter in the universe resonates at a unique subatomic signature. However, these signatures vary between universes. Therefore, any matter, biological or inorganic, which is native to this universe will have a different quantum signature to any object from our universe, including our systems. I have calculated a one in fifty-five thousand chance of catastrophic systems failure when combing materials with different quantum signatures in the manner that would be required to carry out repairs to Eagle.”

“Sounds like an acceptable level of risk to me,” said Star. “I suggest we get on with repairs as soon as possible. Mister Hutchinson was particularly eager for us not to linger around these parts for too long.”

“Not to mention that we’re on the clock to get back to the Ring,” said Michael and gave Hopkins a brief nod, letting her know to get on with things.

The chief engineer acknowledged and then got out of her chair and quickly headed for the exit to return to main engineering and oversee the urgent repairs required.

“Our first priority should be to get back to Arkaria and convince your brother that it’s in his best interest to work with us. If we can explain to him the stakes we are up against, and that his entire universe is at risk, he might see reason,” Jon Owens said.

The only response to this was empty stares from the rest of the attendees and Michael too wasn’t entirely sure what he was to make of his suggestion. He was still very much furious that his father had decided to leave the ship without permission. And then there was another pressing question that needed to be answered as far as he was concerned. “Perhaps you could shed light on something I can’t quite figure out,” Michael said, his eyes aimed at his father with stern intensity. “How exactly did you know that Matthew was on Arkaria in the first place?”

But Owens Senior shook his head. “We need to stay focused on what’s important,” he insisted. “What matters is that we found him and we need all the allies we can get, particularly in a universe so unfamiliar to us.”

Michael glanced over to Star and it wasn’t difficult to see what she was thinking. She harbored the exact same doubts playing out in his mind, except that she was too polite to mention them, or perhaps she figured that it wasn’t her place to criticize a man who until recently had held the official rank of vice admiral.

Michael had no such compunctions. Yes, he would have preferred to handle this matter in private but he also felt that he had to put this matter to bed as quickly as possible. “That Matthew Owens we met on the surface is not my brother and he is not your son. And unless he has a way to get us past an entire Dominion fleet, there is very little help he could offer us at this time.”

“You can’t tell me that you weren’t just as exhilarated seeing Matthew again as I was. I saw your face down there,” he said just before he tried to control a coughing fit.

He shook his head. “Do you even hear yourself? We are facing the death of entire universes and you seem obsessed with trying to pull off a twisted, multi-universe family reunion. Even if the situation were different, Matthew--the one in this universe--wants nothing to do with us and we have far bigger problems to worry about.”

Jon was fighting a battle with his cough that refused to subside.

But Michael’s anger had gotten the better of him now and he ignored his father’s malaise. “Your actions of sneaking off this ship, considering what we are up against, were irresponsible and quite frankly put this entire ship and crew at risk. It cannot happen again. You either get fully behind what we must do or I’ll have you confined to quarters and placed under guard until this mission is concluded.”

Jon Owens’ face was turning red from the persistent coughing fit.

DeMara shot Michael a frown, clearly disagreeing with his tone and attitude, and then quickly jumped to her feet to seek to help Owens Senior. “Admiral, are you alright?”

Michael watched on quietly as his father tried to wave her off unsuccessfully. “You need to go to sickbay,” she said as she placed a gentle hand on his shoulder.

He resolutely shook his head. “No,” he managed to rasp between coughs. “My quarters. I’ve got something there to help me with that.”

Michael recalled the hypospray he had found there earlier.

“Just … if you’d help me back to my quarters, dear,” he managed to say, his coughing finally getting back under control.

She looked dubious, clearly more comfortable with taking him to sickbay.

“Please, I just need to get back to my quarters and rest for a minute,” he said and then glared at Michael. “It seems I have outstayed my welcome here.”

Michael rolled his eyes at his father’s histrionics but held his tongue, suddenly quite conscious that perhaps he had taken things a little too far in this rather public setting and was now more than eager for his father to leave and put this entire episode behind him.

Deen helped Jon out of his chair and then guided him to the exit, the rest of the people present left their seats as well out of respect to the man’s rank. All except for Owens and Garla.

Once the doors had closed behind them, Michael took a moment to recompose himself before he considered the remaining people in the room, most of which were taking their chairs again. “All right, we need a plan how to get back to the Ring undetected. We’re on a clock until this supercollider is likely to start up again,” he said and directed his attention toward the science officer. “How much time do we have exactly, Commander?”

“According to my calculations, the supercollider is expected to reactive in thirteen hours and forty-eight seconds.”

“Repairs are not going to be complete for another two to three hours at best,” said Star.

“And getting back there the way we came, through the Moebis cluster, is going to take at least another six to seven hours,” added Culsten.

Michael nodded. “Okay, so time is not on our side. We know that.”

“I still believe our best chance is to make contact with the Krellonians who are patrolling the area. They clearly control the territory and if we can convince them to give us free passage, we save ourselves a great deal of time and pain,” said Garla.

But Star was not that fond of the idea. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but the last two times we made contact with the Star Alliance things worked out pretty badly for everyone involved. Didn’t your doppelgangers try to kill you and Lif in both universes we’ve been to?”

“They did,” Culsten said, which garnered him a glare from his aunt.

“The point is,” she said. “In both universes, both our alternates were important figures in the Star Alliance power structure. And we managed to pass ourselves off as our doppelgangers each time.”

“To varying degrees of success,” Star said, still dubious of this plan.

“We are not exactly blessed with an abundance of options here, Commander. If you have a better plan, feel free to share it with the group,” the Krellonian agent said sharply, her tone noticeably confrontational.

Michael raised his hand before his Trill first officer could respond. There had been enough sniping for one meeting, he decided. “I’m not so sure how comfortable I am with the idea of entrusting the safety of an entire universe to an unknown quantity such as the local Krellonian Star Alliance. Besides, we have to assume that the Dominion presence in this sector will have a role to play in how the Krellonians will respond to us. For now, our best course of action, I believe, is to wait until we have access to our long-range sensors again and get a proper lay of the land. In the meantime, I want suggestions on my desk on how to proceed based on various circumstances. That’s all folks,” he said and then got out of his chair before anyone else could start an argument.

However, his thoughts were already on another matter altogether, something that he hadn’t been able to entirely shake out of his mind for days now. He was determined to get to the bottom of it for once and for all.
Part 2 - Family of Strangers: 4 by CeJay
4


This time, when Michael pressed the annunciator to the VIP quarters, there was no need to have the computer enact a door override since Jon Owens beckoned him to enter after just a couple of seconds.

He found him sitting in a well-padded chair in the lounge. He was leaning back slightly as if trying to rest but he did look far better than earlier in the observation lounge.

“How are you?” Michael said perhaps more sharply than he had planned.

“Better.”

“Good,” he said and took the chair opposite his.

“The way you spoke to me before was out of line,” Jon Owens said without really looking at his son.

He nodded slowly. “I’m sorry, I got a little carried away. You’ve caused me some serious headaches over the last few weeks.”

Jon Owens uttered a little laugh and even Michael couldn’t keep a tiny smile off his face as both men acknowledged the strange events that had led them to this point.

“I want you to come down to sickbay with me. Doctor Katanga is standing by to do a full check-up on you.”

But Jon Owens shook his head. “That won’t be necessary. I’m feeling much better again.”

Michael didn’t press the issue. Instead, his eyes found the large and sloped forward-facing windows of his quarters and the curvature of the turquoise planet visible from orbit beyond. “You know, I can’t stop thinking about how I reacted down there.”

“He’s your brother, Michael. I know you loved him. Of course, you had a strong emotional response upon seeing him again. Especially considering what you’ve been through.”

But he shook his head. “Not to Matthew. Frobisher.”

“What do you mean?”

“That sudden rush of irrational anger that washed over me as soon as I spotted his face. Intellectually, I fully understood that he wasn’t the same man who had killed my brother but in that brief moment it didn’t even seem to matter. I would have liked to think that I’d be better than that.”

“I’m sure a good counselor would have plenty to say about the way you reacted but I don’t think you have anything to worry about. At the end of the day, we are all just human, with all the flaws that come with the species. You responded as any human would have.”

“But not you.”

“What are you getting at?”

Michael leaned forward in his chair. “While I was quite literally seeing red and was ready to use his face as a punching bag, you showed practically no emotions whatsoever at seeing the man responsible for the death of your son.”

“I obviously didn’t care for seeing him either. But I also understood that he wasn’t the same man. Besides, I was still in awe of seeing Matthew again.”

Michael considered his father for a moment. His head was inclined backward, his eyes directed toward the ceiling if they had been open. “You know, the last time I saw Frobisher, eight years ago, when we had evidence that he was still alive, you refused to support me trying to bring him to justice. You were far more concerned about your conference on Tiaita than hunting down my brother’s killer. I was pretty upset with you back then.”

“It was a difficult time.”

“Yes, it was,” Michael said, his eyes now practically burning themselves into his father. “But that wasn’t eight years ago. It was four.”

He opened his eyes to look at him. “Of course, yes. I remember.”

“And do you remember your conference as well?”

Jon Owens massaged his forehead. “Michael, what is the point of all this? I’m getting too old to play these kinds of games with you.”

“What planet was that conference on, dad?”

He uttered a heavy sigh. “I’m getting tired, son. If you’ve just come to reminisce, I’d much rather you left me to rest and regain my strength.”

Michael stood. “That conference was on Farga, not Tiaita. Four years ago, not eight.”

“Four years, eight years, son, when you get to be my age you start forgetting the little details. Planet names and conferences, there have been so many of them in my life, you can’t expect me to remember them all.”

But Michael was not willing to extend any slack whatsoever. “That last message you sent me before you faked your own death,” he said. “Do you remember that? It was just a few weeks ago.”

Jon Owens said nothing.

“It was driving me crazy for the longest time. ‘Don’t trust anyone’, is what you told me. As cryptic as anything you’ve ever said to me and maybe just as useless. I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep for the next few days after I heard that message. I had no idea who you were talking about. Was it Admiral Throl or Starfleet Command in general? Were you referring to Jarik, the man who was running things in your absence, or could it be that you didn’t think Amaya could be trusted? Hell, for a while there I wasn’t even sure if there were people in my own ranks I needed to be mindful of.”

“Son--“

“But I suppose it doesn’t matter anymore, does it? Because you never really died. You are right here in the flesh, able to shed light on all the things that were driving me up the wall. So, tell me, who was it you were talking about? Who couldn’t I trust?”

Jon Owens just stared back at him.

“You want to hear my theory?”

“Actually, I’d prefer you left me in peace.”

“My theory is that my father was warning me of himself.”

Admiral Owens sat up straighter in his chair. “Don’t be ridiculous. I am your father.”

“I think you are as much my father as Matthew down there is my brother,” he said, pointing toward the windows. “Which begs the question: Who are you really and what do you want?”

Owens Senior got out of his chair and turned toward the bedroom. “You have taken leave of your senses and I don’t see any point in continuing this conversation while you’re acting like this.”

But Michael just followed him. “Jarik told me. Just before my sadistic counterpart atomized him in front of me.”

Jon turned to face him.

Michael nodded. “He told me that you had been working with Altee. That’s when I first started to have my doubts.”

“Listen, son, things are more complicated than--“

“Who are you really and what do you want?” Michael repeated, his voice taking on volume and intensity.

“I am your father, goddamnit,” he shouted back.

Michael pinned him hard with his eyes for a moment and then looked toward the ceiling. “Owens to Commander Xylion.”

“This is Lieutenant Commander Xylion,” came the prompt response.

“What are you doing?” Jon wanted to know.

“Commander, I want you to come to my father’s quarters, please. Make sure you bring a tricorder.”

“Understood, sir. I am on my way.”

Michael closed the connection.

“What is this? What are you trying to do?” Jon Owens said.

“You heard yourself,” Michael said. “All matter has a specific quantum signature that remains constant within the universe. Matter that originates in other universes, however, has a different quantum signature. So, if you are right, and you really are my father then you will share the exact same quantum signature as everything and everyone else on this ship.”

“This is nonsense,” he said and continued into the bedchamber. “I’ll play no part in stoking your paranoid fantasies.”

He regarded him with a quizzical look as he followed him. “But you’ve got nothing to worry about. According to you, you’re my father and the scans will confirm this, won’t they?”

Jon Owens kept his back to Michael. “You’re getting yourself worked up for nothing. Nothing at all.”

“It’s just a harmless little scan.”

The door chime announced a visitor.

“Come in,” said Michael, and not a moment later he heard the doors swish open. “We are in here, Commander.”

Xylion appeared by the entrance of the bedroom. “Sir?”

Michael regarded the science officer. “Commander, I need you to carry out a scan of my father and confirm his--“

“All right, all right. Just stop this.”

Michael turned back to face his father who was letting himself drop into a chair next to his bed, clearly defeated and discouraged.

“I think that’ll be all for now, Commander,” Michael said.

Xylion raised an eyebrow but decided against prying any further into whatever was transpiring between father and son and instead promptly left the quarters again.

Michael moved further into the room and sat down on the bed, facing Jon Owens. “Start talking.”

“Before I say anything else, I need you to know that I believe that I am your father. I believe that Matthew down there is my son. Even if it may not be true in the strictest sense. I also need you to know that whatever I did, I did it because I love you and that I would never wish to hurt you or Matthew.”

“What happened to my father? My real father?” Michael said, not really paying much attention to the words that had come out of his mouth, now that it was beyond a doubt that this man was not who he had claimed to be.

“He died. As far as I understand it not long after you went to see him on Earth a few weeks ago.”

He had suspected something like this but it still hurt hearing it. He wasn’t sure how many more times he could handle this kind of thing. His father dying, then miraculously coming back to life only to find out that he had been dead all along after all. He was certain it was more than anyone should have been asked to bear.

Jon Owens continued when Michael hadn’t found the strength to ask his next question. “The truth is that your real father was a far better man than I ever was. I know that may be difficult to believe, considering all the pain he put you through over the years, but my alter ego understood the enormous threat created by the Ring far better than I ever did.”

Michael needed a moment to reorder his thoughts. “You knew him?”

He nodded. “For a while now. It all started with your father. He came across certain artifacts that were capable of piercing the veil of time and space and allowing him to see beyond his universe and learn of the dangers posed by the subspace aliens and their supercollider. Although I don’t think he knew exactly what it was at first, nor was he likely aware of how powerful it could be. That it could lay waste to entire universes.”

“He thought it was an invasion,” Michael said, remembering his initial briefings with Jarik.

He nodded. “He did realize that he needed allies to fight such a threat and the Prism allowed him to find others who were willing to help. It’s how he found me and Altee.”

“You all worked together?”

“At first, yes. But Altee had other motives than trying to save the universe from a threat none of us could see. It took me a while to realize it but he wanted the power to gain access to other universes for himself. To fix what was wrong with his reality and likely become its ruler in the process. He understood that your father was in the best position amongst all of us. He had access to the most resources, not to mention the Prism itself which we suspected to be unique in the quantum-verse. I made the biggest mistake of my life when I agreed to work with Altee against your father but the bastard knew how to play me. He knew that I’d do anything to get my sons back after I lost them both in my reality.”

“You killed my father and replaced him?” Michael said, struggling to keep his anger under control.

But Jon Owens shook his head and stood. “No, I had nothing to do with his death, you have to believe that. And I don’t think that Altee meant to make me replace him from the start. He was quite happy to have his man Jarik run things in your universe.”

Michael began to understand. “Jarik was from Altee’s universe.”

“Altee had access to an inter-dimensional transporter based on dark anti-matter technology and designed by your brother from that universe. At some time over the last couple of years, Altee had his Jarik replace his counterpart in your universe to keep a closer eye on your father and manipulate him. I think eventually Jarik killed your father to give Altee control over his resources. The only problem with the plan was that the transporter doesn’t work perfectly. It alters the molecular structure of everyone who uses it which leads to cellular degradation and ultimately death.”

“Darnay's disease, he called it.”

Jon Owens shook his head. “He was masking the symptoms of increased cellular degradation brought on by his use of the transporter and his continued presence in a foreign universe.”

“Wait a minute,” Michael said when he realized what he was saying. “You’ve been having the same symptoms. You also used the transporter.”

He nodded slowly. “As I said, Altee hadn’t planned to replace your father but after the actions you took when you refused to cooperate with Jarik, Altee convinced me to take his place. I knew what I was getting myself into but I thought I’d have more time.”

“You’re dying,” Michael said, sounding almost clinical about the thing.

“I had access to a small cache of cellular stabilizers that Jarik relied on to manage his symptoms while he was in your universe. But I’ve run out and I’m clearly not as resilient to the cellular damage as Jarik’s half-Vulcan physiology.”

“I don’t understand,” Michael said. “What did you hope to gain from all this? If you knew that the transporter would eventually kill you, why did you agree to replace my father?”

Jon uttered a small and humorless laugh. “I said earlier that we are all but humans with our own frailties and weaknesses. Well, as for me, I was willing to forfeit my life for a chance to get the two most important people in my life back together. To reunite with my sons one last time and gives them a chance at a life together.”

Michael wasn’t sure what to say. He was conflicted over whether he should have been angry at this man who had pretended to be his father all this time or if he merely deserved his pity. Or perhaps it was neither. After all, the entire notion was absurd. This man’s sons had died. And neither he nor Matthew Owens on Arkaria were truly his flesh and blood. What this Jon Owens was attempting to do was impossible and more importantly, it was utterly and undeniably trivial compared to the deaths of entire universes.

“Star to Captain Owens.”

It took Michael a second to even register his first officer’s voice coming over the intercom.

“This is Owens. Go ahead, Commander.”

“Uh, sir, we’ve received a message from the surface,” she said, sounding uncharacteristically uncertain of herself.

Michael frowned. “A message? From whom?”

“He said he’s your brother, sir. And that it is imperative that you come and see him as soon as possible.”
Part 2 - Family of Strangers: 5 by CeJay
5


Tazla Star had made a good argument for him to stay on the ship, rather than follow the unexpected invitation to return to the surface, had even quoted back to him some of the exact same words he had used on her earlier about avoiding any mistakes that could lead to their failure of stopping the Ring from once more destroying an entire reality.

She hadn’t been able to entirely mask her irritation over the fact that he had already beamed down onto the planet once before to chase down his father while she had been trying to convince Calvin Hutchinson to help them.

Perhaps, surprisingly, it was the man who until very recently Michael had believed to be his father, who had ultimately swayed him toward having to return to the surface to find out why Matthew Owens had summoned them after the way their last visit had ended.

Jon Owens had argued that they knew next to nothing about this universe and that they needed an ally, or at least somebody who could give them the lay of the land, and if that could be somebody who at least had some form of connection with them, all the better.

It wasn’t the strongest argument, Michael understood that, in fact, it was heavily biased since it was coming from the man who had apparently made it his life’s mission to find a way to reconnect with his sons whom he had lost in his universe. But it didn’t take a counselor to know that Michael desperately wanted one last chance to see his brother again, even if he was only superficially that same man, deep down he also knew that if he didn’t take this chance, he’d likely never get another one again.

In the end, a compromise was reached. It hadn’t relieved Star of all her concerns but it had given her at least some reassurance. He’d be accompanied to the surface by Nora and a security team and the away mission would be kept as brief as possible, at the very least, Michael committed to being back on Eagle as soon as the repairs to the long-range sensors and weapons systems were complete, to continue their mission back toward the Ring, with Matthew’s support or without it.

The team led by Michael and consisting of Jon Owens, Nora Laas, and security officers Stadi and McIntyre materialized at the exact same spot they had last time. Since the sun had come up since their previous visit, the away team arrived during a pleasant early afternoon.

He also got a slightly better view of their surroundings this time. The buildings which were apparently part home and part workshop to Matthew and Wes Frobisher were larger than he had remembered them, one of them looked big enough to be a hangar. It wouldn’t fit something as significant as Eagle, but it looked as if it could accommodate at least a couple of runabouts.

“Lovely spot,” said Nora Laas who had not been to Arkaria before. “Nicely secluded as well. Do we know what it is your brother does for a living?”

Michael shook his head but Jon answered. “He’s a scientist, just like he was in my universe. Except here they work for themselves. Mostly on starship enhancements and other tech that they can sell to whoever can afford it.”

They set out toward the building containing the workshop. “You seem to know quite a bit about this Matthew Owens,” Michael said, unable to hide his suspicions.

“I had a chance to speak to him before you arrived last time.”

But Michael didn’t fully buy it. “You knew he was on Arkaria. You knew even before we arrived here. That’s why you were so insistent that we set course for this system.”

Jon said nothing as they closed in on the building.

Michael grabbed him by the arm to stop him and the other Owens turned to face Michael. “How did you know?”

He seemed pained to have to answer this question.

“You said you made a deal with Altee. Did that include the means to locate other versions of your sons across the quantum-verse?”

“There were some candidates I considered to be more receptive to the idea of reuniting as a family,” he said.

“Like me? You thought I was going to be receptive to this insanity?” he said, almost spitting the words.

“You had just lost your father.”

“Because of you,” he said, the anger he had tried so desperately to quench beginning to build up again. “Because of you and Altee.”

But Jon shook his head. “If you believe nothing else I’ve ever told you, you must believe that I had nothing to do with your father’s death. I didn’t even know about it until Altee made me replace him.”

Michael uttered a humorless laugh at the notion that this man had been forced into the role of his father. As far as he was concerned, there should have been nothing to stop him from turning down the Deltan. But apparently, the draw of seeing his sons again had been too strong. Michael darkly mused how that made him inherently different from his real father since he could not recall a single time when that man had ever put his family first.

“If you knew all along that a suitable Matthew Owens was here, on this planet, in this specific universe, what are the chances that we just so happened to arrive in this reality?” Nora said who had been paying close attention to their exchange even if she was probably still playing catch-up.

Michael considered her for a moment. “If Xylion were here he’d likely tell us. And it would probably be infinitesimally small considering the immeasurable nature of quantum reality,” he said and then turned back toward Jon with anger glaring in his eyes. “Which means you brought us here on purpose. Makes sense, now that I think about it. You were the one in control of the Prism.”

“Control is too strong a word.”

“But you could have tried to take us home. Instead, you brought us here because you thought that you could convince Matthew to do what? Join us? But clearly, you didn’t understand him nearly as well as you thought, seeing how he responded to us.”

“We could stand here and discuss all the foolish things I’ve ever done and we’d still be here next week,” he said with far more defiance than remorse. “Or we can deal with the situation we are in now and try to make the best of it. Besides, it seems that I may have gotten through to him after all.”

Michael wanted to shoot back that they wouldn’t even have been in this situation if it hadn’t been for him but he also understood the futility of that kind of reasoning. Time was not on their side.

He walked past Jon Owens. “I’m not entirely sure why I even brought you along but just to be clear, I’m going to do the talking,” he said just before he entered the workshop.

He found it in much the same state as the last time he had been here. The same diagrams and technical drawings on the walls and the whiteboards and the same disturbingly creepy severed and partially dissected Borg head with its prominent cortical array stuck in its eye socket on display. The head made Nora do a double-take but otherwise, she seemed less distracted by the sight than the away team had been last time.

There was no sign of Matthew anywhere.

“Perhaps he’s in the living quarters,” Jon said.

“We don’t have time to go and look for him,” Michael said. “Matthew,” he shouted, much to the consternation of his security chief who clearly didn’t favor such conspicuous methods within unfamiliar territory.

A side door opened. “Good, you came. Thank you for being so prompt.”

But it wasn’t his brother.

It was Frobisher.

Nora had her phaser out in a flash and aimed. Michael remembered that she had been part of his unsanctioned mission four years earlier trying to hunt down the Westren Frobisher of their universe and had actually come close to apprehending him before he had escaped into the past.

Michael forced himself to ignore his powerful apathy for that man upon seeing him once more. He was only partially successful. “Where is Matthew?” he said sharply.

Frobisher took a few small steps forward, his hands in the air and his eyes carefully observing the weapon pointed at him. “There is no need for that.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Michael shot back. “Now, I ask again. Where’s Matthew?”

“He’s not here.”

Michael was losing his patience rapidly. “What have you done to him?”

Frobisher looked surprised. “Nothing. It’s Tuesday. He’s gone to town to barter for supplies. He won’t be back for a few hours.”

Michael wasn’t sure he understood.

“Matthew didn’t call us, did he?” said Jon. “You did.”

Frobisher nodded and indicated toward his still raised hands. “May I?”

Michael gestured for Nora to lower her weapon. She did but she stopped short of holstering it altogether.

“I apologize for the ruse but I was certain you wouldn’t return if I had asked. And Matthew does not want you here,” Frobisher said as he began to relax slightly.

“So you pretended to be him just to bring us back down here. Why?” Michael said, feeling extremely conflicted about this situation but also, he had to admit, somewhat curious.

“Because I know why you are here.”

“What?” Michael had no idea how to respond to that.

“Maybe this will help to explain,” he said as he walked over to one of the many whiteboards set up in the workshop. This one seemed to contain a technical drawing of what looked very much like the dark anti-matter transporter system his brother and Frobisher had developed in his universe. But Frobisher flipped the board around to reveal the backside of the board.

Michael’s jaw dropped upon seeing what had been drawn there. It was unmistakably a sight he had seen before. One which had haunted his nightmares as of late.

“You may have another name for it but I call it the Massive Omega Collider. I know it brought you here and I know that it is the single largest threat the universe--all of quantum reality--has ever faced. And if we do not stop it, all life, and all things in existence will come to a permanent end.”
This story archived at http://www.adastrafanfic.com/viewstory.php?sid=2601