Uncertainty Principle by CeJay
Summary:
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: 54 Completed: No Word count: 126594 Read: 2934 Published: 12 Sep 2021 Updated: 25 Sep 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

19. Part 2 - Family of Strangers: 6 by CeJay

20. Part 2 - Family of Strangers: 7 by CeJay

21. Part 2 - Family of Strangers: 8 by CeJay

22. Part 3 - The Escape: 1 by CeJay

23. Part 3 - The Escape: 2 by CeJay

24. Part 3 - The Escape: 3 by CeJay

25. Part 3 - The Escape: 4 by CeJay

26. Part 3 - The Escape: 5 by CeJay

27. Part 3 - The Escape: 6 by CeJay

28. Part 3 - The Escape: 7 by CeJay

29. Part 3 - The Escape: 8 by CeJay

30. Part 3 - The Escape: 9 by CeJay

31. Part 3 - The Escape: 10 by CeJay

32. Part 3 - The Escape: 11 by CeJay

33. Part 3 - The Escape: 12 by CeJay

34. Part 4 - Roundabout Route: 1 by CeJay

35. Part 4 - Roundabout Route: 2 by CeJay

36. Part 4 - Roundabout Route: 3 by CeJay

37. Part 4 - Roundabout Route: 4 by CeJay

38. Part 4 - Roundabout Route: 5 by CeJay

39. Part 4 - Roundabout Route: 6 by CeJay

40. Part 4 - Roundabout Route: 7 by CeJay

41. Part 5 - Infiltration: 1 by CeJay

42. Part 5 - Infiltration: 2 by CeJay

43. Part 5 - Infiltration: 3 by CeJay

44. Part 5 - Infiltration: 4 by CeJay

45. Part 5 - Infiltration: 5 by CeJay

46. Part 5 - Infiltration: 6 by CeJay

47. Part 5 - Infiltration: 7 by CeJay

48. Part 5 - Infiltration: 8 by CeJay

49. Part 5 - Infiltration: 9 by CeJay

50. Part 6 - Last Grasp: 1 by CeJay

51. Part 6 - Last Grasp: 2 by CeJay

52. Part 6 - Last Grasp: 3 by CeJay

53. Part 6 - Last Grasp: 4 by CeJay

54. Part 6 - Last Grasp: 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.”
Part 2 - Family of Strangers: 6 by CeJay
6


He had found it exceedingly difficult to be in the same room with Westren Frobisher while he talked at length about the end of the universe and pay no attention to the fact that this man--a version of him, at least--had caused him such pain and suffering.

It had been Jon Owens who had talked Michael into letting the man explain himself and his theories. It led him to believe that Frobisher may not have been responsible for the death of his oldest son in his home reality. Or, and Michael found that the less likely scenario, this Jon Owens was far better at compartmentalizing his emotions than he was.

Apparently, still recalling their rather heated first encounter, Frobisher had declined the offer of beaming onto Eagle to lay out his knowledge and theories of the superstructure he referred to as the Massive Omega Collider. So instead, Michael had asked Xylion, Hopkins, and Garla to join them in the workshop on the surface, the latter because Frobisher had confirmed that the Krellonian Outlanders were in control of the area of space where Cygni-98 was located and the sentinel was still their subject matter expert on everything related to the Star Alliance.

It had also not escaped Michael’s notice that the woman had gotten increasingly frustrated as of late and he couldn’t entirely blame her, considering how all her long-held plans had seemingly evaporated after they had turned out to be based on the lies she had been fed by her erstwhile allies, the subspace aliens.

“Wait, so you’re telling me Outlanders are running the Star Alliance here?” Garla said with noticeable disbelieve after Frobisher had briefly outlined the geopolitical landscape of the sector. “How is that even possible?”

“I have to be honest, I am no scholar of Krellonian history, but I believe that the Outlander Alliance at one point turned on their former masters and conquered their homeworld,” said Frobisher. “That would have happened at least a century ago.”

“Sounds only fair to me,” said Lif Culsten who these days seemed to be permanently attached to Garla’s hip, mostly since Star had insisted that he kept a close eye on the highly-skilled intelligence officer at all times. He glanced at his still stunned aunt. “The Outlanders always outnumbered us throughout much of history. The only reason they were kept in servitude for as long as they have is because they seemed to be more eager to fight each other than us. If they had allied themselves, as they did here, we wouldn’t have stood a chance.”

“We were decades ahead of them in every technological measure,” Garla said, apparently finding it difficult to comprehend that her people were in a subservient role in this reality.

“I suppose that proves that it’s not about how many ships and weapons you have. Some things are stronger, like the desire for freedom. Human history--the history of a great many races actually--is ripe with similar examples. Take the Bajorans for instance,” Culsten said. “I say, good for them.”

But Garla just shook her head.

“What about the Federation,” said Hopkins who was particularly mesmerized by a technical diagram outlining a quantum-based propulsion system, but still managed to tear herself away for a moment to ask the question. “You said it never existed in this reality?”

“No,” said Frobisher. “Humans did reach for the stars after Cochrane gave us the warp engine but we didn’t get very far until we ran into other spacefaring civilizations. Our leaders spurned offers of assistance from other, more advanced races, and we realized too late that we were entirely unprepared for what awaited us. We pushed too far too quickly and what we found nearly wiped us out a few times. Earth and its handful of colonies were no match for those powers that sought to exploit us. Today, we are not much better off than the Krellonians. There aren’t many of us left and most are scattered across the Alpha and Beta quadrants. As for Earth, the less said about its fate, the better.”

That cast a sorrowful quiet over the small group, particularly the humans. Just like Garla had found it difficult to contemplate a galaxy in which her people had achieved great things, Michael too realized that he had always carried with him a tinge of pride at how far humanity had come over the centuries and found it a bitter pill to swallow indeed that there were universes where his people had never reached the heights he had always taken for granted.

“Fascinating,” Xylion said with a raised eyebrow. “It would be interesting to study the effect on human development and the galactic geopolitical landscape if there had not been a first contact with Vulcan on Earth.”

“I remember reading stories of xenophobic human groups such as Terra Prime in the early days of Starfleet who were furiously against any involvement with non-human races and determined that humanity should go at it alone,” said Louise Hopkins. “I suppose this reality shows what a terrible idea that would have been.”

Michael nodded in agreement and couldn’t help think of all those people he had read about in those early days who had been so bitter about the perceived notions that the Vulcans had held Earth back in developing faster and better warp engines to reach deeper into space after they had taken a prominent position in advising Earth’s nascent interstellar polices. Volumes had been filled by those critical of Vulcan interference in human affairs, including such noteworthy early Starfleet pioneers as Jonathan Archer, who had eventually embraced Vulcan ideals as a principal architect of the Federation.

“Indeed,” said Xylion. “However, it is also worth noting that without human influence, the chances of the successful creation of the Federation appear to have been far smaller, based on the development of this quantum-universe.”

Michael offered his science officer a small smile. Coming from a Vulcan that seemed to be high praise for humanity and it helped make him feel marginally better about his own people. That was until he remembered that contemplating the history of this reality wasn’t why they had come here. “Let’s focus on the issue at hand,” he said and found Frobisher again. “Why don’t you start by telling us how you’ve come to learn about the Ring. The supercollider.”

The scientist nodded and walked over to another whiteboard, this one showing designs of a device Michael was marginally familiar with, although for all the wrong reasons. “Some years ago, Matthew and I started to look into a new type of technology that we believed could revolutionize space travel.”

“The dark anti-matter transporter,” Michael said, doing his level best not to recall how it had been exactly that technology that had led the Frobisher of his universe to kill his brother.

Frobisher nodded. “We eventually agreed to abandoned developing it as it turned out to be far too dangerous and unpredictable, however, during the course of our work we discovered some unintended side effects.”

“Such as allowing somebody to travel into other realities,” said Jon Owens who Michael realized had first-hand experience with this as well.

“I am not too proud to admit that I continued to explore this new avenue of research mostly without Matthew’s knowledge, but, differently from him, I was always fascinated by quantum mechanics and the many-world interpretation theorized by people like Hugh Everett and Bryce DeWitt.”

Michael couldn’t quite get a read on Frobisher and if he was truly remorseful about working behind Matthew’s back or if he was far more focused on the outputs of his research. Since he had known what his Westren Frobisher had been capable of, he tended to lean toward the latter.

“About six years ago I had my first breakthrough, using our dark anti-matter tech I was able to definitively confirm the presence of the quantum-verse, and not long after I made my first ventures into other universes,” he said, sounding noticeably excited about this accomplishment.

“And all this without Matthew’s knowledge?” Michael didn’t hide his skepticism.

“Matt knew that I had my own work I indulged in occasionally. We’ve always had our pet projects.”

“One hell of a pet project,” Jon Owens said.

“Anyway,” he continued. “Soon after I began to realize that this sector of space seemed to be some sort of focus point of quantum events. It was almost as if countless universes were weaved together here. At first, I thought that it may have been due to the strong gravimetric attributes of the Amargosa Diaspora but I quickly learned that there was a very different reason for this.”

“The supercollider,” Michael said.

Frobisher quickly erased one of his many whiteboards and began to frantically draw on it, starting with a central ring shape and then drawing numerous lines all directed at its center. “I realized that this structure acted like a magnet, a focal point of quantum reality with energies exceeding anything that could be measured by conventional means.” He started to rub out some of those lines. “And that it was using that power to wipe out universes.”

“You are suggesting that the supercollider has been responsible for annihilating quantum universes for years?” Xylion said.

Frobisher nodded eagerly. “Maybe even decades,” he said and then scribbled a long mathematical formula underneath his drawing which quite frankly went way above Michael’s head.”

Hopkins, however, seemed to understand and her eyes opened wide. “You cannot be serious.”

“Interesting,” said Xylion. “And quite alarming.”

Michael shot the three scientists an annoyed glare. “Perhaps you could explain this to those in the room who don’t have a degree in quantum mechanics.”

Hopkins stepped closer to the board. “According to this,” she said. “The rate at which quantum-reality is destabilizing is far quicker than we previously assumed.”

“I don’t understand,” said Jon Owens. “I thought we had established that the Ring activates every forty-seven hours.”

“May I?” Xylion asked Frobisher, gesturing for the pen he still held in his hand. He passed it to the Vulcan who began to write his own formula onto the board, this one even longer and to Michael, impossibly more complicated. “My estimates were based on observing two universe-ending events.”

“I’ve seen twelve of those,” Frobisher said.

Xylion regarded him with a raised eyebrow. “Fascinating,” he said and then quickly rubbed out part of his formula and amended it with the new information. “Based on all available data, the rate at which the supercollider is annihilating universes is not exponential as I had first postulated.”

“Wait, isn’t that good?” said Nora who, just like Michael, was hopelessly out of her element.

Hopkins found another pen, this one was red and quickly began to draw a chart with two axes containing a sharply upward moving curve. “This is exponential growth and we assumed to be somewhere here,” she said and drew a little marker halfway along the curve and well before its more dramatic upward trend. She drew another curve, this one spiked up just after the marker and reached far beyond the scale. “According to these new calculations, this is what we’re actually dealing with. Tetrational growth.”

Michael didn’t need a mathematics degree to understand that what they were suggesting was that the Ring was about to wipe out universes at a head-spinning pace.

“But isn’t the quantum-verse infinite?” said Jon Owens. “I thought the theory is that it continues to grow constantly and at a massive pace?”

Frobisher indicated toward where the curve had moved beyond the axis scale. “Once we get to this point, growth will reach a stage beyond our ability to measure. Wiping out universes far faster than new ones are created which will lead to a quantum cascade and eventually a total collapse.”

His head had already been spinning before but now Michael felt the need to sit down.

“I still don’t see what the subspace aliens have to gain from all this?” said Garla. “They exist in subspace which forms the layers between universes. Once all universes are gone, wouldn’t the layers also disappear?”

“Brane theory, which concerns itself with subspace functioning as borders separating the quantum-verse, is not fully understood,” said Xylion. “It is hypothetically possible that eliminating the quantum-verse could lead to a singular subspace state. A single, infinite brane.”

“What you’re saying is that all this could be just about territory?” said Culsten, who differently to Michael had given in to his urge to sit down to digest the proposed hypothesis of the end of all reality.

Michael couldn’t help but think about his dark vision of Bensu. “Or perhaps, the subspace aliens aren’t really the ones driving all this.”

Everyone in the room turned his attention toward the starship captain.

“We’ve seen these subspace aliens up close,” he continued when those questioning looks didn’t produce any actual inquires. “They didn’t exactly strike me as the kind of masterminds plotting the destruction of every universe ever.”

“We should remain careful not to prescribe specific behaviors and motivations to a race as alien to us as the subspace creatures based merely on our initial observations,” Xylion said as he clasped his hands behind his back.

Under normal circumstances, Michael would have been quick to agree to such a statement. He was a firm believer in keeping an open mind. But it was difficult to ignore what he had seen and felt as they had transitioned through the gateway.

“What the hell is going on here?”

The sudden voice came from the other side of the room and caused practically everyone to jump and turn into that direction, even Nora and her security team who prided themselves in always remaining vigilant had been so mesmerized by what had been discussed here that the appearance of the new arrival had caught them entirely by surprise as well.
Part 2 - Family of Strangers: 7 by CeJay
7

“Matt, you’re back early,” Frobisher said.

“What is this?” he said again, his voice bordering on the hysterical as his eyes found Frobisher and then Michael and Jon Owens. “I told you to leave and never come back. Why are you here?”

“Please, Matt, calm down,” Jon Owens said as he took a few careful steps closer to the agitated man who looked so much like his son. “We can explain.”

“You come here and nearly kill Wes, and now you come back with more people and more weapons.” His voice and level of anxiety showed no signs of abating.

“Matt, I invited them,” Frobisher said.

“What?”

“Please, just calm down and we can explain everything,” Jon Owens said, continuing to close in on Matthew.

“Things are happening here that you may not be aware of but which will affect us all,” said Michael and he too took a step closer to his brother--this version of him, he reminded himself. Mostly though, he wanted to get to Jon Owens before he reached Matthew. There was something in that man’s eyes he didn’t like at all. Something he had seen in his own brother just once or twice before in his life. He had seen it when he had held his dying body in his arms. It scared him.

“You all need to get out of here now, do you understand?” he said, very nearly screaming the words with enough intensity it caused Nora and her people to unholster their weapons as a precaution.

Michael tried to gesture to her to stand down but it was already too late. Responding to the drawn phasers, Matthew grabbed Jon Owens who had stepped into his reach and with his free hand, he had retrieved a narrow-looking tool from a nearby workstation.

It took Michael a moment to realize that it was a laser cutter and when Matthew activated the beam, it hovered dangerously close to Jon Owens’ exposed throat.

“Matt, for the love of God, calm down,” Frobisher fumed, no longer trying to placate the other man. “There is no need for that.”

“They need to get out of here now. Make them leave. All of them,” he said while he kept Jon close in front of him.

“Son, please, we are not here to harm you,” Owens Senior said, very mindful of the razor-sharp energy beam that could easily slice open his throat.

“I am not your son.”

Michael took another very small step closer, showing Matthew his empty palms. “Whatever it is you are worried about. We can talk about this. Please, just let him go,” he said. He fully understood that this Jon Owens was not really his father, nor was this Matthew Owens his brother, and yet the idea of either of them getting hurt because of their presence here made him feel physically ill.

“Matt, listen to them,” Frobisher said, his voice showing more anger than empathy.

“You don’t understand,” Matthew fumed. “They need to get out of here or everyone’s going to die.”

Michael nodded, eager to deescalate this as quickly as possible. He glanced at Nora and the security team, as well as Xylion and Hopkins. He couldn’t spot Garla and Culsten anywhere. “Get back to the ship, now.”
“Sir,” Nora protested, naturally not willing to leave her captain under these circumstances.

“Do it now.”

Xylion followed the order promptly, contacting Eagle, and within seconds all five of them were gone, leaving just Michael and Jon Owens who was still being held by Matthew.

“You as well,” Matthew said. “You need to get out as well.”

Michael nodded. “I will but first you have to let him go. I can’t risk him getting hurt.”

Before Matthew could respond, Tazla Star got in touch. “Eagle to Captain Owens.”

“This is a bad time, Commander,” Michael said after hearing her voice coming through his combadge and while keeping his eyes on Matthew.

“Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but things are about to get a whole lot worse.”

“What’s happening?” he said, refusing to take his eyes off the laser cutter-wielding man in front of him.

“We just got sensors back and as if on cue, we picked up a Dominion fleet rapidly approaching the system. I think Hutchinson may have sold us out after all. They’ll be here any second.”

Michael marveled how crises never seemed to come alone as of late. He understood he had to make a split-second decision. He didn’t like his options but as a starship captain, he had gotten quite used to picking from a selection of bad ones. Some would have argued that it came with the job. “Commander, get Eagle out of here now. Protect the ship no matter what. We’ll find a way to get back to you but the mission must come first.”

To her credit, she didn’t hesitate at all. “Understood, Star out.”

“Oh God,” Matthew said upon overhearing the conversation and his attention seemed to slip for a moment.

Michael was tempted to make a move but he didn’t like his chances since that laser cutter was still far too close to Jon Owens’ neck.

Somebody else, however, did take full advantage of the situation.

Garla appeared out of seemingly nowhere and behind Matthew. She struck him hard into his side with a blow so well positioned, Matthew gasped in pain and let go of both the older Owens and the slicer, the latter tumbling harmlessly to the floor.

The Krellonian operative wasn’t quite done yet and with another well-placed hit, she twisted him around easily, and then in one quick blur of motion, she had him in the air, flipping him up above her and forcing him to land hard on his back on the floor.

Garla’s fighting skills were impressive and Michael thought that they might even rival those of Nora Laas who had to be at least ten years or so her junior. They may have been a little bit too impressive considering how much Matthew was groaning in pain, clearly having hurt his back from the mid-air flip and the subsequent landing.

And the sentinel wasn’t quite done yet. She had that laser cutter in her hand within a flash and with one knee pressing down hard on Matthew’s chest, she was bringing up that tool-turned weapon as if to finish the job.

Michael rushed in along with Frobisher. “All right, that’s enough. Stand down,” he said as he reached out for her shoulder to keep her from bringing the cutter down on Matthew.

Garla glared at him angrily and for a moment he faced the unenviable possibility of having to try and stop the formidable woman himself.

“You don’t give me orders,” she said but then stood and dropped the slicer.

“What is wrong with you?” Frobisher hissed at her as he quickly tended to Matthew still laying on the floor, breathless.

She just shrugged. “You’re welcome.”

Michael made sure that Jon Owens was fine but although he too was out of breath, he signaled that he was uninjured.

“It’s all right, Matt. It’s over now,” Frobisher said to Matthew as he knelt next to him, trying to get him off the floor.

But Matthew just shook his head. “No, it’s not. You don’t understand.”

“Uh, sir.”

Michael looked up to see Lif Culsten who had apparently snuck away along with Garla earlier but had now reemerged after she had handled Matthew. He was indicating toward the windows of the workshop.

Michael followed his gaze just in time to discover eight columns of bright blue light give way to the shapes of eight armed soldiers materializing just outside of the building.

“Jem’Hadar,” he said as soon as he recognized the hard, pebbled, and horned faces of the Dominion shock troops, he had hoped never to encounter again after the war had concluded.

“It’s too late,” Matthew said, his eyes closed and not even bothering to try and get off the floor anymore. “We’re all going to die.”
Part 2 - Family of Strangers: 8 by CeJay
8


There hadn’t been much time to come up with a plan, there hadn’t been much time to do anything as the Dominion contingent had started to make a beeline for the building Michael and the others found themselves in the moment they had materialized.

“Hide,” Matthew urged in near panic after he had finally gotten back to his feet and fearfully watched the heavily armed Jem’Hadar soldiers closing in. “All of you, hide.”

Michael couldn’t think of a better option, either. With Nora and her team gone, they were seriously outmanned and outgunned, and taking on over half a dozen Jem’Hadar soldiers would have been a tough task even if the numbers had been equal.

Frobisher rushed them into a room that ran adjacent to the workshop. It had a wide grate that allowed them to spy into the workshop without being detected.

Not a moment after they had closed the door behind them, the Jem’Hadar entered the workshop.

“Countless universes in quantum reality and we seem to keep landing in one hot mess after the next,” Lif Culsten said quietly. “Why can’t we end up in a universe where everybody just gets along?”

“I’ve long since learned that the universes gravitate towards chaos,” Garla responded, keeping her voice just a low.

“You’d know.”

She just glared at him in response.

Michael watched the Jem’Hadar carefully and found that they looked practically identical to the ones they had fought for almost two years and which would forever be linked to one of the darkest periods of his life when he had lost both a close friend and colleague as well as Jana, the first woman he had ever truly loved.

Michael tried hard to compartmentalize those feelings, although this was getting more and more difficult with the person who wore the face of the man who had killed his brother cowering less than a meter next to him. He spared a brief thought at the odd cruelty of fate before he committed himself to focus his entire attention on what was happening in the workshop.

“Matthew, it is so good to see you again.”

“Kilana,” Matt said to the beaming Vorta who had followed the first Jem’Hadar. An attractive female, by human standards, she wore her long chestnut hair down and passed her shoulders but not covering her long upward sweeping ears complete with pendulous earrings. Her colorful tunic was formfitting with a plunging neckline more befitting a dinner date than a work function, which this seemed to be.

“They know each other?” Frobisher whispered in surprise and a little too loudly.

Michael hushed him. There wasn’t much separating them from the workshop and the last thing he needed was for them to draw their attention.

“What are you doing here?” Matthew said, sounding somewhat exasperated and Michael couldn’t tell if it was genuine or put on.

The Vorta woman stepped up closer to him, regarding him carefully, that smile not wavering from her face. “I have to say, Matthew, you don’t look so good. What’s the matter?”

“We had an agreement,” he said angrily. “That you would never come directly to my home.”

The Jem’Hadar, Michael counted seven of them, began to spread out across the workshop and Matthew watched them nervously. Too nervously, Michael thought.

“I’m alone,” he said as he regarded the soldiers. “There’s nobody else here.”

“Calm down, Matthew, there’s no need to get agitated,” Kilana almost purred.

Michael actually wished he’d take her advice. Matthew was getting more and more worked up which didn’t help their chances to remain undetected.

One of the Jem’Hadar had picked up an odd, roughly spherical contraption, regarding it curiously.

“Isn’t there?” Matt said angrily, stepped up to the soldier, and took the device out of his hands. “You show up here unannounced and then have your goons disturb my work, some of which is highly sensitive.” He placed the device carefully back where the soldier had picked it up from.

“You are upset, I understand,” Kilana said and gestured for the Jem’Hadar to back off. “But it is hardly my fault that you decided to keep our little arrangement from your friend.” She stepped up to the whiteboard Frobisher, Xylion, and Hopkins and drawn on earlier and that still contained references to the Ring which they had not had time to erase.

Kilana studied the board carefully and Michael prayed that she wasn’t any more familiar with complex mathematical formulae than he was.

Michael had briefly flirted with the idea of seeking assistance in dealing with the subspace aliens and the supercollider from the local Dominion forces, after all, the death of the universe--potential the entire quantum-verse--would affect them just as much as everyone else. But somehow, he doubted that there’d be enough time to convince the Vorta that they were all on the same side and the risk of being detained, tortured, or even outright killed while they did nothing to stop the impending death of the universe was simply unacceptable.

“Besides,” she said and turned back to face him, thankfully not being able to make much of what she was seeing. “You contacted me.”

“Son of a bitch,” Michael whispered angrily, coming close to breaking his own rule.

He shook his head. “But I didn’t tell you to come here.”
“Oh, please,” she said as she stepped closer to him. “Surely you are not that deluded, my dear Matthew. We both know that there is a powerful ship roaming the sector that is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in this part of the galaxy. It has been evading us so far but not much longer. So, why don’t you tell me everything that you know?”

“Just what I said in my message.”

“They’ve been to Arkaria?”

He nodded.

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where are they now?”

“I don’t know.”

She regarded him skeptically. “I want you to understand something about the agreement that we have. We wouldn’t want there to be any misunderstandings between us, would we?”

“No, of course not.”

She offered him a beaming smile again. “You serve at the pleasure of the Founders, as do we all. You continue to be useful to the Dominion and the comfort you currently enjoy will remain assured.” Her face took on a sterner look. “If your usefulness comes to an end, your life will change in significant ways. You understand this, don’t you?”

He swallowed and then nodded slowly.

“I always liked you, Matthew,” she said, smiling once more. She walked around him and then took in the room again. She found an object of interest and picked up the severed Borg head, regarding it carefully. “Your work has always been very useful to me. To the Dominion. I would hate for that to come to an end.”

“There is no reason that it has to.”

She turned to look at him. “I want to believe that, Matthew, I really do.” She put the head back. She gestured for one of the Jem’Hadar and he handed her a small, palm-sized device that she passed on to Matthew. “This is a subspace communicator. Far more powerful than the one you have now. This will ensure you can contact me faster and over greater distances.”

Matt looked at the device.

“There are concerning signs that the enemy is pushing into this sector and that wouldn’t be good for any of us. We cannot afford to be distracted by this mystery ship upsetting the order of things.”

“I understand.”

“I want you to contact me as soon as you learn anything further about that vessel or her crew.”

“I will.”

Kilana placed a hand on his shoulder. “I know you will, Matthew. And because you have been such a loyal friend to the Dominion, I shall give you another present.”

“That isn’t necessary.”

She grinned. “But I’m in such a giving mood,” she said and then snapped her fingers at one of the Jem’Hadar who quickly joined them. “I’ll leave Second Ruci’clan and his men here to keep you some company. You may now consider this fabulous little workshop of yours an official Dominion outpost. Congratulations.”

Matthew couldn’t hide the pained look on his face. “Please, Kilana, how will I explain this to Wes?”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll find a way to make him see the benefits of serving the Dominion. And who knows, being open and truthful with him may feel liberating,” she said as she headed toward the doors, taking just two of the Jem’Hadar with her and leaving the other five behind. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back before they run out of White. Do me a favor and be a good host, will you?” she offered him a fleeting smile before she stepped back outside.

Moments later Michael could see the telltale sight of transporter activity as Kilana and her two guards were once again whisked away.

Inside the workshop, Matthew starred at the lead Jem’Hadar and seemingly didn’t dare to move a single muscle. The soldiers too remained rooted to the spot as if they were salt statues, keeping their eyes on the human in their midst.

Michael knew that they had to make a move. “We need to take them out,” he said quietly.

“What?” Frobisher furiously shook his head. “No. There’s no way.”

But Garla was firmly in Michael’s camp on this. “We have them outnumbered.”

“No, we don’t. Matt doesn’t know how to fight and neither do I. And, no offense, he’s not exactly a threat to a Jem’Hadar,” he said pointing at Jon Owens.

“He’s not wrong,” the admiral said.

“We have the element of surprise,” said Garla. “I’ll create a distraction.”

Michael nodded.

She glanced at Frobisher. “Back door?”

But he just shook his head again. “This is a terrible idea.”

“Back door,” she repeated in a more urgent whisper.

He reluctantly pointed at an exit to their left.

Garla nodded. “Wait on my signal,” she said just before she headed for the door, keeping low and moving without making a sound. Within moments she had slipped out.

“You’re going to get us all killed,” Frobisher said quietly.

But Michael was committed now as he checked over his phaser. He knew from the protracted war with the Dominion that the low-level stun setting would not prove effective and adjusted the settings accordingly. When he looked up again he found that Lif was adjusting his phaser as well, offering him a firm nod once he was done. His Owens Senior and Frobisher, however, had no weapons. “You two, stay back here.”

“I may be old and slow but I can still contribute,” Jon protested.

“We cannot risk you getting hurt. You’re already sick and we’ll need you before all this is over,” he said, not realizing at first how clinical he sounded about the matter.

There was a loud knock on the door to the workshop and all eyes, including those of the Jem’Hadar, turned toward it. The door opened and Garla stepped inside and Michael realized that she wasn’t armed either.

“Hi Matt, I was wondering if I could borrow some sugar. Oh, who are your friends?” she said in a tone so relaxed and casual, she had him convinced that she was Matthew’s next-door neighbor.

What gave her away was the fact that she remained just as calm when five polaron rifles caught a bead on her.

Michael and Culsten got into position by the door

Matthew seemed too startled to respond.

“Who is this woman?” Ruci’clan said as he slowly stepped closer, his rifle still pointed at her.

“I live just down the road,” she said, undaunted by the imposing soldier. “Who are you?”

Ruci’clan glanced at Matthew who nodded slowly. “Yes. She lives down the road.”

“What is her name?” Ruci’clan said, asking Matthew.

“Her name?”

Michael knew that Matthew wouldn’t have the slightest idea but then of course he could have just invented any name. Apparently, however, he was not up to the task at that moment.

His hesitation was enough to convince Ruci’clan that something was not right and he whirled back toward Garla with his rifle ready to fire.

The sentinel was faster. She already had a running start on him when he had turned back to face her. She used a workbench to launch herself into the air like a missile, used one of his thighs as a stepping stone only to smash her knee hard into his chest. She kept climbing upward, trapping his head in a leg vice, and then, using her momentum, brought him down hard onto the floor. She had found his rifle even before he was down, coming up firing and blasting a second Jem’Hadar off his feet.

Michael had no time to admire her athleticism and fighting style. He burst through the doors and opened fire, Culsten right beside him.

He clipped one Jem’Hadar but had to dive for cover behind the whiteboards before he could take aim again and just in time to avoid getting incinerated by the Jem’Hadar’s response that ripped out an entire chunk of the board containing Ring schematic.

He had zero time to catch his breath since another soldier, this one armed with a bladed polearm took a swing at him the moment he had landed on the floor.

Michael had lost his phaser in his dive and scrambled backward just in time for the blade to strike the empty floor so hard it produced sparks where he had been just a split-second earlier.

He got back on his feet as the Jem’Hadar struck again. Michael retreated quickly enough to miss the blade from cutting him open but not fast enough for it not to slice through his jacket.

He couldn’t avoid the next strike that came from the blunt end of the weapon and it was so powerful it pushed him back even as all the air was forced out of his lungs.

He hit a hard surface as he tumbled back to the floor. He didn’t know what he had struck until the severed Borg head fell into his lap, triggering in him a near primal panic. The head’s one remaining eye stared back up at him while the cortical array had come loose from the other socket.

As the Jem’Hadar bore down on him to finish the job, Michael used the only weapon he had left, grabbing hold of the head and tossing it at the soldier with all the strength he could muster.

His aim was true, connecting skull with skull, and briefly stunning the Jem’Hadar.

He spotted his discarded phaser on the floor and dove for it. His hand found the grip and he fired without delay, blasting the Jem’Hadar just as he was recovering and taking him out of the fight.

He spotted a solider in the corner of his eye but even as he turned his head and brought up his phaser to aim again, he felt his heart pounding his chest furiously, already knowing that he wasn’t going to be fast enough to take him out before he could fire his rifle.

But he didn’t fire.

There was a bright light at the base of his neck, near to where his feeding tube connected his brain to the ketracel-white drug that kept him obedient to his Vorta masters. Michael didn’t immediately understand what was happening. Then the blood came streaming out like a geyser and the surprised Jem’Hadar reached for his neck with both hands, dropping his rifle.

He sagged to his knees and then keeled over, revealing Jon Owens behind him, still holding the laser slicer which not so long ago had been hovering above his neck.

“Thanks,” Michael said.

“Any time.”

Michael scrambled back to his legs to find another target only to see Garla execute a perfect roundhouse kick that connected with the only Jem’Hadar still standing, causing him to stumble but not quite enough for him to let go of his weapon or take aim.

He didn’t get a chance when a well-placed beam from Culsten’s phaser pushed him back and against another whiteboard where he collapsed on top of it.

Garla offered Lif an appreciative nod.

Michael looked around.

The workshop looked like a war zone, littered with Jem’Hadar bodies, upturned work tables, computers, whiteboards, and various tools and devices. But more importantly, the away team, as well as Matthew were all still on their feet and unharmed.

“Are you all right?” Jon Owens asked him, glancing at his chest.

Michael looked down to see his jacket sliced wide open but his red undershirt seemed to be in one piece which meant that the blade had not cut his skin. He removed his combadge and then shed the ruined jacket. “I’m fine.”

“My God, what have you done?” Matthew said as he regarded his workshop with disbelieving eyes.

“The better question is, what have you done?” said Frobisher, emerging from the adjacent room, his anger clearly directed at his friend.

“I did what I had to,” Matt shot back.

“By working with the Dominion in secret? How long has that been going on?”

But Matthew was in no mood to be chastised. “Spare me the moral outrage. You don’t think I know that you’ve been spending more and more time obsessing with your quantum research? How do you think we could afford to live this way and buy all those resources and materials for your little projects?”

“I didn’t think you had made a deal with the devil,” Frobisher barked.

“You just closed your eyes to it.”

“Okay, that’s enough,” Michael snapped loudly, still trying to get his adrenaline levels back under control after the death-defying battle they had just barely survived. “I’m sure the two of you have plenty to work out but that will need to wait. We have to get out of here before the Vorta finds out what happened to her people. And we need to get off this planet and back to my ship.”

The two men continued to glare at each other for a moment longer before Frobisher turned away and considered Michael. “I’m not sure about getting you back to your ship but I may have an idea about how to get off Arkaria.”
Part 3 - The Escape: 1 by CeJay
Part III: The Escape




1


Nobody had ever joined Starfleet to be a first officer, to be the second-in-command and perpetually reside in the shadow of other people. Tazla Star understood this well, after all, she had once been a starship captain herself, albeit briefly, and had aspired to such a lofty position ever since she had first felt that undeniable drive to attain greatness after she had joined with the Star symbiont as a young woman.

As was the case for most first officers on starships, she only got the chance to play captain when Owens was away and now that he was, she found that she didn’t enjoy sitting in the center chair at all.

She felt anxious and tense, unable to think of anything else but how to get him back after they had been forced out of orbit of Arkaria Prime to avoid an incoming Dominion fleet.

They hadn’t gone far.

After performing a high-risk, in-system warp jump, to get out of harm’s way in the nick of time, they had dived deep into the lower layers of the toxic methane and ammonia atmosphere of Arkaria V, a class-six gas giant. A maneuver only made possible thanks to their new, overpowered transphasic shield. Buried underneath kilometers of super-dense cloud formations had allowed them to hide from the Dominion ships still searching the system and also complete any outstanding repairs.

Tazla was currently laser-focused on the visual data displayed on the main view screen coming courtesy of a probe they had launched to relocate the away team. The images were distorted due to the interference from the gas giant’s atmosphere but the probe was the only way they could see beyond Arkaria V while they remained hidden in its turbulent depths.

Normally Tazla, and perhaps even the rest of the crew, would have been concerned about the constant vibrations that even their powerful shields and the inertia dampeners couldn’t compensate for, but considering their recent tempestuous journeys across universes and through hazardous environments, this latest situation hardly even rated as more than an inconvenience to a crew long since accustomed to sailing rough seas.

Except for, perhaps Elijah Katanga. “I wonder if this ship will ever be able to traverse the great void without trying to rattle every last one of my old bones,” the veteran physician mumbled as he sat to Tazla’s right, holding on tightly to its armrests.

“All part of the miracle that is space flight,” she said with a little smirk.

“I’ve been zooming back and forth the dark a long time and I can hardly recall ever being on a ship as turbulent as this one. It’s almost as if you folks are going out of your way to try and find the roughest parts of the cosmos,” he said.

It hadn’t escaped her notice that, as was his wont, he still refused to wear his uniform jacket fully closed as to regulations. It wasn’t so much a fashion statement as a minor act of personal rebellion against military rules and conformity. She had been trying to get him to toe the line, and she considered the fact that he hadn’t done so yet a failure on her part. However, considering their tumultuous relationship up until recently, getting the infamously stubborn octogenarian to wear his uniform correctly was not a battle worth fighting, she had decided.

Instead, she appreciated the simple fact that he had come up to the bridge to lend her his moral support during this latest crisis. Besides, there were much more important matters on her mind for now.

“Approaching Arkaria Prime now,” said Deen from operations, her fingers flying over her console as she remote-controlled the sensor probe.

On the screen, Tazla could see the turquoise globe even through the distracting static, looking very much like the last time they had seen it.

“Can we get a fix on the away team’s last known position?”

Deen nodded. “Sensors are locked in on the eastern continent but I’ll need to get it in closer to get a high-resolution scan.”

“Do it.”

Although it didn’t take her long to get the probe into a low orbit, as far as Tazla was concerned it was still not quickly enough and she got out of her chair and took a few steps toward Deen as if this might somehow speed up the process.

“I’ve located the beam-in coordinates,” she said.

“Do you have the captain?”

She shook her head. “I cannot detect any life signs within the area.”

Tazla felt her stomach churn, unable to entirely shake the possible implications of that news.

“However, the probe is detecting residual signs of anti-gravitons.”

Katanga left his chair as well. “What does that mean?”

Leva at tactical answered. “It could indicate that the away team boarded a ship, most likely a shuttle.”

Star nodded, the explanation making sense to her. This mission came first, he had kept telling her. If Owens hadn’t been able to return to Eagle, he was likely attempting to get back to the Ring by other means. At least that was the best-case scenario. She also couldn’t entirely dismiss the idea that they had been taken against their will. “Can we determine where they went?”

Deen shook her head. “There are not enough residual traces to extrapolate a precise heading but the vessel did appear to head toward orbit.”

“Which means off-planet,” said Tazla.

Deen made eye contact. “That would be my guess.”

“Could they still be in the system?”

The operations manager turned back to her console. “Difficult to say but there is a lot of Dominion activity out there, searching for us, no doubt.”

“Which could have given them just the opportunity they needed to slip by them and leave the system,” said So’Dan Leva.

“Wait a minute,” said Katanga. “Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that they did manage to get past all those Jem’Hadar fighters zipping around. Won’t they need that Prism gizmo to work the Ring?”

Star had considered that herself and nodded, fully aware that the Exhibitor was still on Eagle. Even if the away team managed to get back into in-between space, they had little means to interact with the superstructure.

“They will also require Bensu’s assistance to interface with the collider’s telepathic controls,” said Xylion who sat at his science station at the back of the bridge.

Tazla regarded the Vulcan briefly, recalling Owens’ warning relating to the enigmatic alien bartender who had recently been revealed to be so much more. Besides his inexplicable knowledge of the subspace aliens, their domain, and the supercollider, what had astonished her the most was the fact that the man wasn’t entirely biological and that with Xylion’s assistance, he had fashioned himself with a synthetic body that would have been the envy of Doctor Noonian Soong and one so convincing, it had fooled everybody, including routine sensor scans.

She was not entirely sure what to make of the vision Owens had told her about--on the surface it didn’t seem to make a great amount of sense--but then again, she was also very much cognizant of the fact that, until a few days ago, she would have firmly believed that extinguishing an entire universe in a matter of seconds would have been impossible as well.

Her train of thought was interrupted by a warning chime from Deen’s console.

“The probe is getting some company,” she said.

Tazla looked toward the screen just in time to see the familiar bug shape of a Jem’Hadar fighter. It fired its polaron weapons not a moment later and the feed cut out.

“Looks like they prefer to shoot first and ask questions later,” said Katanga.

“Which does not bode well for the away team,” added Deen as she glanced up at the first officer.

“A sensor probe of unfamiliar design and with an energy signature the Jem’Hadar do not recognize may be more conspicuous than whatever ride the away team managed to secure,” said Tazla. “We have to assume that they found a way off that plan and get back to the Ring. Which means we need to follow suit.”

“That leaves us with a rather big complication though,” said Katanga. “Namely, a system filled with trigger happy Jem’Hadar ships ready to fire on anything that even looks out of the ordinary to them. How do we get around them?”

“What we need is a distraction.”

Tazla and Katanga turned around to find Lieutenant Alendra standing at the tactical station next to Leva.

The young Bolian had a promising gleam in her eye.
Part 3 - The Escape: 2 by CeJay
2


As it had turned out, one of the large warehouses that formed Matthew Owens and Frobisher’s compound had been turned into a makeshift hangar large enough to house a compact shuttle. The small vessel had barely enough room for the two scientists, Michael, Owens Senior, and the two Krellonians.

It was a tight fit but comfort wasn’t high on Michael’s agenda as they squeezed themselves into the shuttle. His primary concern related to their chances of escaping Arkaria Prime without the Dominion taking notice--there seemed little hope they’d be able to outrun a Jem’Hadar ship in the shuttle, not to mention fight one-off--and ideally regroup with Eagle on their way back to the Ring.

Wes Frobisher seemed fairly skilled at piloting his small ship and getting them into orbit without raising the attention of the Dominion fleet that now patrolled the system. But clearly, the Jem’Hadar were far more preoccupied with trying to find Eagle than taking notice of the unassuming civilian craft.

Michael had initially argued that they needed to find a way to return to the ship that he assumed was hiding somewhere within the system but Frobisher had quickly convinced him that staying near Arkaria with a dozen Jem’Hadar fighters looking for him and his ship was a risk not worth taking.

After a half-hour sprint at high warp, Frobisher dropped the shuttle back to sub-light in the vicinity of a neutron star within the Amargosa Diaspora. He shut down the engines and then swiveled around in the single pilot chair to face the five other occupants packed into the small shuttle. “The magnetic field strength of the neutron star should keep us shielded from sensors for a while,” he said.

“It appears you’re quite adept at eluding pursuers,” said Jon Owens who had found the only other seat on the ship.

“This is not my first time playing keep away from the Dominion.”

Matthew just shook his head. “This is insane. All of it. We should never have left Arkaria in the first place.”
Michael could tell he was angry and frustrated. He exhibited all the telltale signs his brother had been wont to when he got like that, the way his eyes darted back and forth, his hands repeatedly balling up into fists and the light perspiration developing on his brow were all uncanny reminders of how similar this Matthew was to his own.

“It may have been difficult to explain the dead Jem’Hadar to the Vorta once she returned,” Garla said in a deadpan that Michael didn’t appreciate since it didn’t help resolve Matthew’s concerns.

“And whose fault is that?” he practically shouted at her. “You didn’t have to go and kill them all.”

“Remind me who was responsible for them being there in the first place?” she shot back.

Michael quickly inserted himself between the two before Matthew could come up with another retort. The sentinel glared at him briefly when he gestured for her to stand down and he got the distinct impression that she was not used to being told by others how to behave. The defiance mirrored in her eyes would have been worrisome if he didn’t have a heap of more pressing matters that needed his attention first.

Garla just shook her head and then stepped toward the back of the shuttle, putting as much physical distance between her and the others as possible. It wasn’t much.

“I still can’t believe that you’ve worked with them all this time,” said Wes Frobisher, staring at the man he lived and worked with. “And that you thought it would be a good idea to tell them about our visitors.”

“This man nearly killed you,” Matthew cried, pointing an accusing finger at Michael. “These people came to our home armed and clearly looking to pick a fight. I was worried for both our safety.”

Michael couldn’t help but feel partly responsible for the way matters had escalated. If he had just kept his calm after coming across the man who looked identical to his brother’s killer, much of what had followed could have been avoided.

He had long since learned that there was little point in dwelling on past mistakes. Learn from them and move on, that was his mantra now.

“Matt, they came here because the universe as we know it is at great risk. Perhaps even the entire multi-verse. And we might be the only ones able to save it,” Frobisher said and Michael found it odd to hear such words coming out of his mouth.

“There is always some sort of crisis with you,” he said, waving off his dire warnings.

“I can assure you, this one is like no other. We have witnessed entire universes die in a matter of seconds and this one could be next,” said Michael, keeping his eyes on Matthew to try and impart on him the urgency of what they were up against. He wasn’t entirely successful based on the blank look he received in response.

“So have I,” said Frobisher. “The trips I’ve been undertaking over the last few weeks? I used this shuttle to visit numerous universes, many of which were being wiped out of existence.”

Matthew refused to be impressed by what he was being told but Michael’s attention was back on Frobisher. “You used this ship to travel to other universes?”

He nodded. “I have equipped it with a dark anti-matter engine that produces enough energy to create subspace fissures but my power source is nearly used up. I have perhaps enough juice for two maybe three more attempts.”

“Dark anti-matter technology is dangerous,” said Matt. “I thought we had decided a long time ago that it wasn’t worth the risks. Exposure to its radiation can be lethal.”

As if on cue, Jon Owens experienced a brief coughing fit, causing most of the eyes in the room to dart his way. He held up his hand just before it passed. “Regretfully I can attest to that. I was unfortunate enough to use a dark anti-matter transporter to traverse realities.”

“Wes,” said Matt, considering his partner again. “What have you done?”

“Those jumps were brief each time. I didn’t spend a significant amount of time in those other realities and I haven’t shown any symptoms. I should be fine.”

Michael couldn’t tell if he honestly believed this or if he was merely attempting to put Matthew at ease.

“In any case, the things I’ve learned were worth the effort.”

Michael’s thoughts drifted back toward his universe and what his brother and Frobisher had created there. “I’ve also encountered the dark anti-matter transporter. Years ago. And I’ve never experienced any ill-affect. However, I didn’t travel into other universes, it sent me into the past.”

“Time travel?” said Frobisher with noticeable curiosity to which Michael just nodded. “Fascinating,” he added, doing his best Vulcan imitation. “I don’t think I’ve ever considered that. But I can see how the energies created by the dark anti-matter accelerator could affect the chronition field and perhaps even manipulate it.”

“God, Wes, isn’t it enough that you build a device that can take you into other realities? You need a time machine as well?” said Matt.

“I agree that we need to stay focused,” said Michael. “Getting back to the Ring and shutting it down for good is our top priority. And we are up against a clock.”

“Cygni-98,” Frobisher said and nodded as he swiveled in his chair to face a computer console. Within moments he had brought up a holographic projection overlaid on the large forward viewport that Michael recognized as the globular cluster that was the Amargosa Diaspora. The projection zoomed into a highlighted section deep within that area of space that symbolized the system where he knew the gateway into in-between space was located.

Matthew was already shaking his head. “They may as well have put this on the Founder’s homeworld and it would have been no more difficult to get there. That’s right in Outlander territory and they don’t take too kindly to foreigners.”

“What about us?” said Lif Culsten. “Would they accept Krellonians?”

Matthew considered the helmsman for a moment. “From everything I know about the Outlanders, they don’t treat Krellonians all that well.”

“What are you saying?” said Garla. “That our people are slaves to the Outlanders?”

“Perhaps not slaves,” said Matthew. “But not exactly first-class citizens either.”

“I don’t see why this surprises you all that much,” Culsten said to his aunt. “We’ve seen a reality in which our people treated Outlanderss no better than cattle. In our universe they are second-class citizens at best. It stands to reason that there are universes in which things have worked out very different.”

The sentinel nodded slowly even if it appeared that she did have some trouble accepting this as a fact.

Frobisher in the meantime turned back to the helm controls and began to enter new commands as if struck by sudden inspiration.

“What are you thinking?” Matthew asked with noticeable skepticism.

“If we want to get into Outlander territory, there might be somebody who could help us,” he said without pausing his efforts.

“Who?” said Matthew.

Michael felt the small ship beginning to move again.

“The Windjammers.”

Matthew decidedly shook his head. “Wes, no.”

“Who are the Windjammers?” asked Jon Owens.

“Bad news,” said Matt.

“They are customers of ours,” said Wes as he activated the shuttles warp engines that allowed it to jump to FTL speeds.

“Former customers,” said Matt. “And for good reason.”

“We had a bit of a misunderstanding a few years ago,” Frobisher said. “But I smoothed things over with them a while ago. We’ll be fine. Trust me.”

There was something in his tone, or perhaps it was the dubious look in Matthew’s eyes that made Michael feel anything but put at ease.

He understood that they were still short on options but he also knew that he would rue the day that he’d ever trust a man called Westren Frobisher.
Part 3 - The Escape: 3 by CeJay
3


Tazla was looking over Alendra’s shoulder as she sat at the mission ops station in the aft section of the main bridge. So’Dan Leva, Xylion, and Elijah Katanga had joined her for this impromptu meeting.

“What exactly am I looking at here?” said the veteran doctor as he considered the three-dimensional representation of what looked like an oversized missile on the mission ops screen. “Is this supposed to be the illegitimate child of a shuttlecraft and a photon torpedo?”

Despite their rather grim current circumstances, the analogy made Taz smile since it seemed quite apt.

“It’s called a UWCV,” said Alendra. “An unmanned warp-capable vehicle. It’s essentially an AI-controlled weapons platform that can be deployed over long distances.”

“Just what we always needed, computer brains with firepower,” said Katanga, unsurprisingly not very fond of the idea.

But Taz nodded. “I remember we took a couple of these on board while we had our refit at Earth,” she said, vaguely recalling having read up about these devices and now silently berating herself for not having paid more attention to the matter. In her defense, Eagle had undergone several changes and the drones had not been considered a priority addition to the ship’s arsenal.

“They are quite ingenious, really,” said Leva who seemed better briefed on the UWCVs. “They can be deployed at a moment’s notice and can seek out and destroy a target autonomously without the need to be remotely controlled.”

Alendra shook her head. “Can’t see anything going wrong with that idea.”

The tactical officer didn’t seem to appreciate the tone in her voice. “They were developed during the Dominion War and at a time when we had to face the possibility of being overrun by the Jem’Hadar. Considering what we were up against, these drones made a lot of sense.”

The Bolian lieutenant was clearly not in the mood to back down. “So the idea was to create computer-controlled weapons that could keep on fighting after we were long gone? For what purposes? To avenge us?”

“It was war, Lieutenant. We were looking at any advantage we could get our hands on and to ensure our survival,” he shot back hotly.

“Because all is fair in love and war,” she muttered.

“All right, I have to ask,” said Eli as he glanced first at Alendra and then at the half-Romulan tactical officer “What is it with the two of you today?”

But the two officers quickly diverted their glances as if embarrassed at having let it come to a near shouting match on the bridge.

Elijah shot Taz a little, knowing smirk.

But Tazla was not nearly as amused by the outburst. “I appreciate we’re all feeling the pressure here but we’ve been in tough spots before. Let’s all keep our heads, shall we?” she said, her voice sharp as an edge as she considered her two officers, both of whom offered quick, chastised nods.

“Lieutenant,” Xylion said, clearly eager to get everyone back on track. “You suggested the use of the UWCV. What are you proposing?”

The Bolian needed a second to recompose herself again and then turned back to the computer station to bring up more information on the drone. “Technically, Starfleet has never deployed these things in a real combat situation before, and the two we have onboard are prototypes designed for testing purposes but theoretically they should operate just like the real thing. Seeing how the Jem’Hadar reacted to our probe, I figured these would make a great distraction to allow us to slip out of the system.”

“Interesting,” said Xylion before regarding the Trill first officer. “Although I am not entirely familiar with their design, from everything I understand of their function, this plan may have a chance to succeed.”

Tazla nodded. “Definitely worth a shot,” she said and looked back at the Bolian. “How long until we’re ready to deploy them?”

“I just need to make a few modifications to their shields to ensure they are able to escape the gas giant’s atmosphere. Maybe an hour.”

“I’ll assist you,” said Leva.

“Thanks, but I think I’ve got it covered,” she shot back.

“Now, now kids, let’s remember to play nice,” said Katanga.

A pointed look from Tazla made Alendra reconsider as she nodded at the tactical officer. “If you could liaise with Lieutenant Hopkins to provide compatible transphasic shield emitters, that would be of great help, Commander.”

He nodded tersely. “I’ll do that,” he said as he stepped back to his tactical console while Alendra headed toward the turbolift.

Taz led Katanga and Xylion back to the command area of the bridge where they took their seats.

“No, seriously, what’s the story between those two?” he said quietly.

“Honestly? Beats me. And I don’t have the time to figure it out. They better just get their heads right quickly.”

Alendra’s estimate turned out pretty accurate even if in the end she relied much more heavily on Hopkins’ assistance than that of the tactical officer. After just a bit over an hour, the two drones had been modified sufficiently to give them a major shield upgrade while Leva had put together a plan of engagement to attempt to lure the Dominion forces away from the system.

“We are ready to proceed,” said the Bolian after she had returned and had once more taken a seat at mission ops.

Taz nodded. “Let’s do it.”

“Launching UWCVs,” she said as she operated her console.

“Dee, can we get a visual?” Taz said.

The Tenarian at the forward operations station nodded. “Tying us into their visual sensors now.”

Within moments the main screen shifted to show a split-screen of the visual feed from both drones. Presently all they could see was the murky atmosphere of Arkaria V as they climbed toward deep space.

“Shield readings for both drones are stable,” said Alendra.

After a few more minutes, the autonomous drones pierced the veil of the gas giant’s dense atmosphere and entered the dark void of space.

“They are programmed to locate and engage targets of opportunity,” said the Bolian. “The idea is to cause maximum damage without being destroyed and then retreat into separate directions at high warp.”

“Hit and run,” said Katanga.

“As long as the Jem’Hadar take the bait,” added Leva.

Taz nodded as she watched the screen attentively. It didn’t take long at all for the drones to sniff out their prey. The one on the left changed course first and not a moment later the one on the right followed suit, heading in a slightly different direction.

“Targets located,” said Leva.

Both drones went to warp suddenly which took Taz a bit by surprise. In-system warp jumps were not unheard of but were generally not very common. Eagle had performed one earlier to get away from the incoming Dominion forces, but even that had required precise calculations and a few moments of anxious trepidation.

The jumps lasted mere seconds and deposited both drones within striking distance of Jem’Hadar ships.

“Almost as if they’ve studied Picard,” said Deen who was watching from her station.

Both drones unleashed phaser fire and volleys of quantum torpedoes almost instantly on the unprepared targets. The one on the right was a single Jem’Hadar fighter while the drone on the left was bearing down on a trio of ships.

The left drone was a little bit too successful. The entire assault lasted less than thirty seconds until the bug-shaped Jem’Hadar ship had been turned into space dust.

“I thought the plan here was to try and get their attention, not outright blow them to smithereens,” said Elijah, not entirely able to hide his displeasure at seeing the destruction the drone had caused, even if it was against the Dominion.

“The engagement parameters must have been misaligned,” said Leva quickly. “Adjusting parameters now.”

“I suppose that’s what you get when you let computers fight your battles,” said the doctor.

Taz felt herself agreeing with him in principle. There was a moral issue here somewhere, she was certain of it, but at present, she could not afford to ponder it. Not while all existence was at stake.

While the left drone was moving out again to find another target. The right drone was still engaged in battle with the three Jem’Hadar ships. It had noticeably wounded one badly, knocking it out of the fight, but now seemed to have trouble evading the other two which were coming after it with a vengeance.

“I could be wrong,” Taz said, “but it doesn’t look like it’s going all that well for Drone Number Two.”

Xylion agreed. “Based on the data feed, it is unlikely the UWCV will survive the encounter.”

Alendra had stood from the aft bridge station and moved to the tactical console and next to Leva. “I suppose these drones aren’t very good in a dogfight. The upgraded shields will be able to take some punishment but it won’t last long.”

“The UWCV were primarily designed to deliver a payload, not fight other spacecraft,” said Leva.

“You may have wanted to mention that earlier,” said Alendra.

“This was your plan.”

Taz reached for her temples. “What can we do to avoid losing--“

She stopped herself when the feed on the right abruptly terminated. She had a good idea of what it meant.

“We’ve lost one of the drones,” said Leva.

“I think we know,” said Katanga.

Tazla stood from her chair and turned her back on the screen to look right at Leva and Alendra, her eyes dark and piercing. “You two need to stop whatever it is you’re bickering about and get your heads back into the game. Am I clear?”

“Yes, sir,” they both said in unison.

“Now, we’re down to just one drone. What do you suggest we do?”

“I may have an answer to that,” said Deen from her station, causing Tazla to turn back her way. “The drone’s sensors are showing that all Jem’Hadar forces are now moving to intercept it. Seems to me we’ve got their full attention now.”

Taz nodded and regarded the Bolian and the half-Romulan again.

Alendra spoke up first. “We need to get the drone out of here and get the Jem’Hadar to follow.”

Leva was already working his console. “I’m sending the command now,” he said but then began to frown. “Something’s wrong. The drone is not responding to the new orders.”

Alendra began to work the control panels as well. “It looks as if the AI is overriding the new command and staying with its core objective to deliver its payload.”

“I’m no tactician,” said Katanga as he continued to watch the visual feed of the drone that now showed it heading toward an encounter with half a Jem’Hadar fleet. “But am I right in saying that if the drone gets destroyed by those ships--which seems likely--we are back to square one with no plan B?”

Xylion glanced at him. “Your tactical acumen is quite accurate in this instance, Doctor.”

Taz was still facing the tactical console as she watched the two officers working there with a growing frown. “You need to fix this now.”

Alendra shook her head in frustration. “I don’t understand. The onboard AI should accept new orders instantly. But it refuses to even acknowledge them.”

“It may be malfunctioning,” said Leva.

“Or we’ve triggered some sort of lock-out safety. I knew I should have read the damned manual,” she shot back, her fingers flying over the panel.

“We’re trying to give it new orders,” said Leva.” Perhaps we just need to amend its primary objective.”

But the Bolian shook her head. “I can’t gain access to the parameter file.”

“Twenty seconds until the Jem’Hadar will be in weapon’s range of the drone,” said Deen.

“What if we disable the AI altogether?” suggested Leva.

“Yes. Switch to remote control,” she said. “That could work,” she added as she jumped back to the mission ops station to make the change.

“Ten seconds.”

“Whatever you’re doing. Please expedite it,” said Star, forcing her voice to remain calm as she turned her attention back to the main screen. With only one drone left in operation, the entire viewer was now displaying its visual feed and the UWCV bearing down on a showdown with a dozen or so warships. An encounter it was guaranteed to lose.

“There are a couple of authentication protocols I need to run to allow for remote control,” said Alendra as she feverishly worked on the control panel.

“The drone has reached weapon’s range,” said Deen.

Not a second later the screen lit up as the UWCV unleashed its awesome weapons; bright red phaser fire, interspersed with blue bolts of quantum torpedoes and even two tri-cobalt devices.

The lead Jem’Hadar ship was incinerated almost instantly.

“Got it,” Alendra nearly shouted

On the screen, the drone just stopped dead in the water.

“Then, by all means, get it out of there,” Taz said.

“Setting course and engaging warp.”

The drone changed its orientation in an agonizingly slow fashion as far as Tazla was concerned.

“The Dominion ships are opening fire.”

She held her breath.

And then, finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the droned jumped to warp.

“The Dominion fleet is pursuing,” said Deen.

“Too close,” she said as she sat back down in her chair.

“I don’t know if I can take this kind of excitement in my old age,” said Katanga.

“How long until the Jem’Hadar will catch up with our drone?” said Taz.

Xylion had that information ready. “At the UWCV’s current velocity and energy reserve, it will be able to remain ahead of the pursuing vessels for three hours and twelve minutes.”

Taz nodded. “Let’s give them an hour and then we make a run for it.”

The next hour passed in an uneventful fashion. The drone was keeping its slim lead on its pursuers and there were no signs that the Jem’Hadar were abandoning their chase, likely seeing the unmanned ship that shared an energy signature with Eagle as their best chance to try and locate their real prey.

Tazla gave the order to leave their hiding spot and shortly thereafter they emerged from the gas giant’s protective yet turbulent atmosphere, allowing her to breathe a little easier for the first time in hours.

“As ship crews have been able to attest since the earliest days of the age of sail,” said Katanga. “There’s nothing quite like transitioning from rough waters to calm seas.”

“No argument there,” she said and then glanced at the helm where Ensign Aliris of Risa had taken over for the injured Srena. “Ensign, set a course for Cygni-98 at warp seven. Dee, keep an eye on long-range sensors, we may need to evade more Jem’Hadar or Outlanders on our way there, which means we just may have to duck back into the Moebius Cluster for cover.”

“Oh, what joy,” mumbled Katanga at the prospect of more turbulence.

The two officers acknowledged and they were off once again toward the Amargosa Diaspora.

As expected, their journey did not come without complications. Within just a couple of hours, sensors identified a possible problem.

“Jem’Hadar?” Taz asked once Deen had informed her of a sensor contact.

She shook her head. “No, definitely not a Dominion signature. This is very different. Wait, I recognize the pattern and -- this can’t be right.”

The tone in her voice sent a chill down Taz’s spine. “What is it?”

When Deen didn’t immediately respond, Xylion consulted the computer station next to his chair. “Sensors indicate the presence of a transwarp conduit in the vicinity.”

“But that would mean--“ Taz didn’t get to finish.

Katanga had stood suddenly as he stared wide-eyed at the screen. “Holy Mother of God.”
Taz’s eyes followed slowly, the feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach told her what she would find before she had laid eyes on it.

Elijah Katanga was not a tactician as he had pointed out earlier. But then again, there wasn’t a Federation citizen alive who wouldn’t have instantly recognized what he had spotted on the viewscreen bearing down on them.
Part 3 - The Escape: 4 by CeJay
4


“You can’t be seriously suggesting that that ship can help us get back to the Ring?” said Garla as she stared out of the shuttle’s forward viewport with doubtful eyes, studying the unremarkable starship they were approaching.

Michael couldn’t entirely fault her for the skepticism. The ship really wasn’t much to look at. As far as he could tell, it was an Antares-class freighter not entirely dissimilar to merchant vessels in his own universe, except that this ship was most certainly not a recent model as evidenced by its patchwork hull that was comprised of several mismatched panels and components, apparently keeping the bulky ship space-worthy but doing nothing for its esthetic qualities.

“She might not look like much,” Frobisher said, still sitting at the controls, “but her crew, and especially her captain, is resourceful and knows the Amargosa Diaspora inside and out. If there is a way for us to get to where we need to go, they’ll know about it.”

But Matthew was shaking his head. “This is a terrible idea,” he mumbled quietly.

“But just maybe the best idea among a choice of bad ones,” said Jon Owens with noticeable conviction as he stepped into the front of the shuttle and closer to the others. It wasn’t the first time that Michael had noticed that the man who had pretended to be his father, ever since he had unexpectedly entered his life a few days ago, seemed more energized than he had any right to be, considering his weakened physical condition. Michael had a good idea why that might be, after all, this Jon Owens had admitted to him that his primary goal in life--the very reason he had allied himself with such sinister and scrupulous characters such as Altee--was to find a way to reunite a family he had lost in his universe.

If nothing else had gone right recently, Jon Owens had certainly managed to achieve his objective, even if in reality neither Michael nor Matthew were related to him in the traditional sense, and neither was particularly enthused about the manner in which he had forced this unexpected reunion.

“We can’t just sit here and stare at each other,” Owens Senior said, briefly glancing at the freighter that had shown no signs of life since they had approached it inside the rings of a giant planet orbiting one of the countless bright stars of the Diaspora. “Shouldn’t we try and say hello?”

“Or we could take their inactivity to mean that they have no interest in meeting with us,” said Matthew.

Frobisher activated a couple of controls on his instrument panel. “Windjammers, this is Westren Frobisher of Arkaria Prime. We seek your assistance to traverse the Amargosa Diaspora. Please respond.”

Silence was all they received in return, the freighter simply hanging motionless in space surrounded by stellar debris.

“Perhaps they cannot hear us,” said Culsten. “Maybe they are experiencing technical difficulties.”

Frobisher regarded his instrument panel again and shook his head. “Sensors are not showing any abnormalities and multiple life signs.”

“In other words,” said Matthew, “they can hear us but they’re not interested in talking. We tried, let’s just get out of here.”

“And go where exactly?” Frobisher shot back. “We can’t go back to Arkaria with half the Dominion probably already looking for us and we won’t survive an hour against the Outlanders on our own. No, this is our only shot.”

“Any other ideas of getting their attention?” said Culsten.

“We could board her,” said Garla.

“Are you insane?” Matthew nearly barked, garnering him a death stare so intense, for a moment Michael worried that he had to physically restrain her from trying to throttle him right then and there. “You do not mess with these guys. They could make our life extremely painful. The last thing we want to do is waltz over there uninvited.”

“They won’t be a match for a Krellonian Sentinel.”

“Yeah, I don’t know what that is, lady,” Matthew said and Michael had to give him credit for the way he was standing up to her intensity, refusing to be intimidated by her. “I know you handled yourself admirably against those Jem’Hadar soldiers but back there you had the element of surprise. And we’re talking about an entire ship packed with ruthless killers.”

“I’ll have to agree with Matt on this one,” Michael said. “We’re trying to get their help, not take over their ship.” Matthew barely even acknowledged Michael agreeing with him, clearly, he had not yet forgiven him for the way he had assaulted Frobisher earlier, even if the man who had been the victim of his emotional outburst seemed to have long since moved past the episode.

“Windjammers, this is Frobisher,” the scientist tried again. “It is a matter of grave importance that you hear us out. All our lives could depend on it, including yours,” he said just before cutting the comms and regarding the crew packed into his small shuttle with a little smirk. “Never a bad idea to play up the drama.”

“It really isn’t far off the truth,” said Jon.

Michael had to steady himself when the ship shook suddenly while Garla held on to Lif before he could lose his balance.

He whipped his head back toward the viewport, fearing that these mercenaries had decided to attack them. Instead, he could see the telltale blue shimmer of a tractor beam.

“They’re pulling us in,” said Frobisher, pointing out the obvious once everyone onboard could feel the change in momentum and see the freighter’s hangar bay doors opening.

“Guess you’ve got through to them after all,” said Jon once he had found a place to hold on to as the ship continued to tremble under the force of the beam it was now caught in.

“I do not have a good feeling about this,” said Culten, keeping his eyes glued on the freighter and the shuttlebay they were approaching.

“Once we’re on board,” said Frobisher. “Just let me do the talking. I know how these people operate.”

“Right,” said Matt, sounding anything but convinced.

As was to be expected from an old freighter that looked like its best days were long behind it, the bay they were being pulled into wasn’t exactly pristine. In fact, Michael could not recall ever having seen a more dirty and disorganized shuttle deck on a starship before, although he was certain that his long career in Starfleet had spoiled him in such matters.

As they approached the expansive landing deck that was comparable in size to one of Eagle’s cargo holds, it became quickly obvious that the Windjammers used the large space in a very similar manner, judging by the many haphazardly stored and mismatched crates and containers stacked on top of each other in a way that would give a Starfleet quartermaster permanent nightmares.

He could see a halfway disabled shuttle shoved into the far corners and parts of at least four other similar-sized vessels littered throughout the deck as if somebody had decided to build a starship from scratch and without so much as a blueprint.

Much of the cargo stored here had spilled out of the containers and in one corner a number of barrels were leaking bright green sludge that not only looked toxic but according to the large warning labels plastered on the containers should only be handled with proper safety gear.

Michael didn’t have much time to take in the rest of the chaos in the bay as the shuttle was unceremoniously dropped onto the deck from a good few meters above it, the artificial gravity slamming the ship so hard, nobody inside remained on their feet.

“That’s what I call a warm welcome,” said Culsten as he helped Michael and then the others off the floor after he had bounced back up first.

“Don’t worry,” said Frobisher as he was righting his tunic. “These guys have some rough edges but they’re good people.”

Matthew was clearly of a different opinion but this time kept it to himself.

Frobisher activated the exterior hatch which opened promptly.

Michael felt a near irresistible urge to gag when his senses were attacked by a range of foul odors all at once, including what had to be rotting foodstuffs and leaking coolant fluids.

“Lovely place,” said Garla as she stepped out of the shuttle after Frobisher had disembarked.

Michael was the last man out and by the time he managed to get a good look at the shuttle bay, he realized that the place looked even worse up-close than it had from behind a viewport.

The large entry doors parted to allow a group of eight crewmembers to enter. Or at least, Michael assumed they were crewmembers. They were a mishmash group, all hailing from different races and he could spot at least one Orion, a Bolian, and a Nausicaan among them. They did not wear uniforms but rather civilian attire, some of which were clearly designed to appear threatening, such as the sleeveless vest that did nothing to hide the tall, green Orion’s massive arms or the two phaser holsters strapped to the Nausicaans chest.

The Windjammers, Michael quickly realized weren’t just mercenaries. This group looked like the type of pirates that back home in his universe was more commonly found in holo-novels rather than in real life.

Garla quickly tensed up, getting ready for a fight. Michael had seen her in action already and wasn’t so sure if she wouldn’t be able to prevail against these heavily armed men and women facing them now.

“If it isn’t Professor Westren Frobisher.”

The voice sounded eerily familiar to him.

A dark-skinned woman with a buzz cut and wearing a rather fashionable brown leather jacket pushed aside the tall Orion with ease as she stepped in front of the group.

“Amaya,” Michael said, recognizing her face instantly, even if very little else looked like the woman he knew. He couldn’t hide his astonishment at seeing her yet again, and seemingly disguised as a cutthroat privateer, even if surprises were becoming almost predictably commonplace since their sojourn into quantum reality had commenced.

She considered him briefly, shooting him an odd look, but then her eyes found Frobisher again and she quickly closed in on him.

Frobisher for his part put on his best smile. “Amaya, always a pleasure. I was hoping--“

He didn’t get to finish his sentence courtesy of the fist connecting with his jaw with lightning speed and flattening him to the deck almost instantaneously.

It was déjà vu for Michael, who subconsciously reached for his own face where a very similar-looking woman had placed a haymaker not so long ago.

This Amaya had a phaser in her hand in a flash, pointing it right at the sprawled out man on the floor. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t disintegrate your worthless ass right here and now,” she said as she hovered above him.

“I told you this was a terrible idea,” Matt Owens mumbled.
Part 3 - The Escape: 5 by CeJay
5


Ever since the day of her joining, she had been able to rely on the calming wisdom of her symbiont with its five lifetimes of experiences. She hadn’t always listened to what it was they were telling her, in fact, during the worst times in her life, she had almost made it a habit to ignore the vast sagacity she had access to in order to make her own--and oftentimes terrible--decisions.

But now, as Tazla Star stood there, at the center of the bridge, staring at the viewscreen that showed her the nightmarish views of three gray-green geometric shapes baring down on her and her crew, for one of the first times in her life as a joined Trill, her symbiont had no answers for her and it left her in a cold sweat.

Leva broke the eerie silence that had fallen over the bridge after their enemy had revealed itself. “Sensors are confirming three Borg vessels. They are comparable to our records of a Borg sphere and two probes. All three are on an intercept course and at their current speed they will reach us in ten minutes and twelve seconds.”

Tazla’s stupor didn’t last. Sure, none of Star’s former hosts, including herself, had ever encountered the Borg, but that just meant that she would have to rely solely on her own wit and training. And just like with any other task she had ever set herself, she was determined to prevail. She glanced at the tactical officer. “Can we outrun them?”

He shook his head. “We will not be able to match their speed.”

“They seem extremely eager to get to us,” said Deen from her station.

“Nothing new there then,” said Eli Katanga who seemed too anxious all of a sudden to remain in his chair. “We’ve been the curiosity of the week ever since we got here. Everybody, it seems, wants a piece of us.”

“On any other day I’d be flattered by all the attention,” said Tazla, trying on some levity she didn’t truly feel.

“I really hope you’ve got a plan here, Dez,” he said, falling back on calling her by the nickname of Star’s former host and his life-long friend. “Previous Starfleet encounters with these guys didn’t go so well in our universe if I recall.”

She glanced back at her tactical officer. “Your analysis?”

The half-Romulan only had to consider the question for a second, clearly, his mind already preoccupied with that very matter. “We’ve encountered the Borg on one previous occasion,” he said and then continued when she responded with a quizzical look. “Before your time, Commander. It was a cube, multiple times larger than these ships, however, we had the assistance of a Romulan and Cardassian ship to defeat it.”

She nodded slowly when she recalled reading about the incident while studying Eagle’s logs after her arrival as first officer. The episode had occurred at the fringes of explored space while Eagle had been chasing after an ancient Hyterian artifact that apparently had been in such high demand, even the Borg had attempted to secure it for themselves.

“We learned a few things about their tactics when we fought them, and although we are outnumbered now, we do possess one advantage we didn’t have last time.”

“The transphasic shield,” Tazla said, nodding. “How long will we be able to last against a full assault?”

“Hard to say. And we don’t know if their weapons are comparable to what the Borg have access to in our universe. My conservative estimate would be thirty minutes at the most.”

“What about the Moebius Cluster?” said Katanga. “I dread the idea of returning into that hellscape of space but it did work for us last time.”

Ensign Aliris at the helm shook her head. “At maximum warp, we’ll need at least forty-five minutes to get back into the hazard zone, the Borg will catch up with us long before that.”

“And we cannot use the transphasic shield at warp,” added Alendra from where she now stood at Leva’s right-hand side, anticipating that she may be needed to assist him at tactical.

“Half an hour to beat three Borg ships,” Tazla said, mostly to herself, and then nodded. “We can do that,” she added with confidence she hoped would help inspire her crew, even if it was less than one-hundred percent genuine. “Red alert. Stand by to raise the transphasic shield. Get everybody to battle stations. I want civilians and non-essential personnel in secure and well-shielded areas. I need all available power to shields and weapons and everything else shut down. We’re going to make our stand right here, which means we won’t need warp engines and can use every last drop of plasma for defensive and offensive purposes.”

Deen shot her a skeptical look. “Which will also leave us without a viable escape strategy.”

Tazla took in the incoming threat on the screen again, as if she could somehow spot a weakness in those perfectly geometric shapes. “We’ve been in tougher scrapes. Yes, the Borg are scary but we know they can be defeated and I trust this ship and crew to do so again.” She turned to consider Eli who gave her a reassuring nod. She knew he wasn’t much for bravado, but all she really needed from him now was his confidence and he seemed happy to oblige. “You better get sickbay ready. I fear we may have to rely on your services there.”

“Let’s just hope it won’t have to come to that,” he said but then quickly turned and headed for the turbolift.

In the meantime, the rest of the bridge crew went to work, accompanied by the flashing red alert lights and klaxon to ready the ship for battle with the enemy.

Tazla gave her people five full minutes of focusing on their work without interfering, keeping one eye on the approaching Borg ships while listening to the choir of orders from Deen, Leva, and Alendra to the rest of the crew.

Anxiety ultimately got her out of her chair again and she turned to regard the two officers at the tactical board. “Talk to me. Are we ready for this?”

“How can you ever truly be ready for the Borg?” said Alendra and then, as if realizing that she should probably have internalized that thought, she looked up with a sheepish look.

Tazla decided to let it slide, considering that she felt much the same way.

“We are as ready as we can be,” said Leva. “The ship and crew are secure and all offensive and defensive systems are fully powered. Engineering reports all auxiliary power is on standby and ready to supplement weapons and shields at a moment’s notice.”

“Tactical suggestions?” she said. Tazla considered herself a fairly decent combat strategist and had scored well in her mandatory tactical courses at the Academy but she knew she wasn’t nearly as experienced or knowledgeable in the field as the Romulan.

However, it was Alendra who responded first. “I suggest we drop a few tri-cobalt devices in their flight path. Coupled with a warp flare and a sudden drop to sub-light may make it appear that we are having engine trouble and also blind their sensors long enough to miss them altogether.”

Leva shot the Bolian at his side an astounding look. “That’s actually pretty good.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Mines?” Star said.

Alendra nodded.

“Worth a shot. As soon as we’re back to impulse, raise the transphasic shield and give me all available power to weapons,” she said as she took her seat again, feeling decidedly uncomfortable in the padded command chair but doing her level best to pretend otherwise. “Showtime, people.”

“Initiating warp flare,” said DeMara Deen.

“Tri-cobalt devices away,” said Leva.

The helmsman was next. “Dropping out of warp.”

“Transphasic shield is up,” said Alendra.

Their timing, it quickly appeared, had been spot on. The Borg with all their advanced technology lost their sensor lock on Eagle for just a second but long enough to miss the powerful weapons being deployed right into their path as well as the Starfleet ship pumping the brakes hard.

Their strategy was rewarded by a massive green fireball on the screen that made Tazla want to yelp with joy.

“Catastrophic damage to one of the Borg probes,” said Leva with noticeable appreciation in his voice.

“Well done, people.”

“Both remaining ships are now in weapon’s range,” said Deen.

“Open fire, Commander. Targeting is at your discretion,” Tazla said, fully intent to press their advantage as hard as possible.

The light show that followed was truly awesome as the tactical officer unleashed everything Eaglehad to offer, bright orange phaser beams, fired both as steady beams as well as in rapid-fire, staccato bursts; dozens of burning red photon torpedoes, interspersed with their more powerful, quantum cousins, shining like bright blue mini stars.

And most of it struck the Borg vessels dead on, ripping large chunks out of their dark hulls and causing red and green explosions where they made contact.

“The second probe has been disabled,” said Deen while her fingers danced over her console.

Tazla was monitoring things by referring to the armrest computer rather than keeping her eyes on the screen. “Let’s keep it up. Focus our fire on the sphere. Aliris, attack pattern kappa-three, full impulse, keep us moving.”

The Borg did not take things lying down, of course, and the sphere’s response came quicker than Aliris could move the ship out of harm’s way.

Tazla saw it coming and braced herself in her chair. The impact rattled the ship but their shields, once again, did their job and absorbed most of the damage.

“Shields holding at eighty-nine percent,” said Alendra.

Tazla nodded. Things were going fairly well so far.

“I am targeting the most heavily damaged sections of the sphere,” said Leva.

She could see that the tactical officer unleashed more quantum torpedoes at their target not sparing the high-powered missiles. Under any other circumstances, she would have been concerned about his liberal use of their limited supply, but she understood that a win here was far more significant than coming out of this with surplus torpedoes.

A veritable geyser of green steam and fire erupted where Leva had targeted the Borg ship.

But Tazla was looking toward Deen at operations, the blonde Tenarian appearing far more concerned than was called for considering how the battle had fared so far. “What is it, Dee?”

“I’m reading extraordinarily high activity on the ultralow EM spectrum.”

Tazla knew that this wasn’t a good omen but she couldn’t quite put her finger on what it meant. “Source?”

“It’s definitely coming from the sphere. And it is targeting us.”

Xylion was out of his chair before she could glance his way, taking quick strides toward the science station where he smoothly took the chair and began to work the controls. “Confirmed. It is a sophisticated cyber-attack aimed at our main computer core. Primary systems are not at risk, however, at this rate, the Borg will gain access to our databanks in one minute and twelve seconds.”

“Can we stop it?”

“The transphasic shield is not designed to repel ultralow EM emissions,” said Xylion.

Tazla didn’t need long to realize the threat they were up against. The Borg weren’t looking to disable them, they were trying to download their database and learn everything they knew. She knew she couldn’t allow them to learn of the Ring. Fighting the Borg was a nightmare scenario in itself; thinking of the Borg gaining access to the quantum-verse was unimaginable.

“Shut down the main computer and switch to auxiliary cores.”

“That action will significantly reduce our battle efficiency,” Xylion said.

“I’m aware, Commander. But we can’t take the chance. Do it, do it now.”

“Main computer is powering down,” he said.

“Mister Leva, keep giving it all she’s got,” she said, as she had to hold on to her armrest as the Borg were clearly determined to punch through their overpowered shields, which, according to the readouts of her display were down to sixty-five percent.

The tactical officer let loose more phaser and quantum torpedoes that the Borg didn’t even attempt to dodge.

“Main computer is now shut down. Auxiliary cores are active,” said the Vulcan science officer.

“I think the Borg took notice,” said Alendra. “They’ve targeted us with a tractor beam.”

“A tractor beam?” she said, not sure she understood this tactic. “Can that penetrate our shields?”

Deen shook her head. “No, not really. The Borg are known to use tractor and cutting beams to damage starships’ hulls but this won’t work while our transphasic shield is still up.”

This move was throwing her for a loop. As it stood, their shields were still holding strong, invalidating any attempts to cut through their hull but she was well aware that the Borg rarely did anything without reason. “Keep firing. Try to disable the beam emitter.”

Leva didn’t sound encouraged. “The Borg vessel is moving too rapidly, the auxiliary computer is unable to adjust targeting quickly enough.”

She saw it on the screen. The Borg vessel seemed to spin and turn almost as if defying the laws of physics, keeping their tractor beam in place as if it were glued to their shields even while it continued to take damage from Leva’s ongoing barrage.

Tazla got out of her chair and headed for the helm. “Aliris, we need more speed. Try to shake’em off.”

The Risian ensign was clearly doing all she could, her fingers racing across her panel. Tazla could see and feel the ship zigzagging sharply through space but it was still not enough to get that Borg tractor beam to dislodge.

“Commander, I believe I have determined the Borg’s objective,” Xylion said, still working at the science station.

She turned to regard him all the way at the back of the bridge. “What is it?”

“The Borg are firing short bursts of omicron particles through the tractor beam. High concentrations of omicron radiation may cause local disruptions to the transphasic shields for a short period of time.”

“Enough to hurt us?” she said.

“Negative. The size of the area affected is less than one point four yoctometers in diameter, not enough to allow any significant damage to the hull by Borg weaponry.”

“Then what are they trying to accomplish?”

Deen seemed to have an idea. “The location of the tractor beam has remained consistent to the shield perimeter directly above the bridge.”

That forced Tazla to look up and at the skylight above her and for the first time seeing actual visual evidence of that green energy beam latched on to them just a few hundred meters above her head.

A tingling sensation deep down in her gut told her that her symbiont was having grave concerns about what all of this meant and she couldn’t help but feel like a fish caught on a hook.

“Commander,” Xylion said. “Theoretically, the disruption to the transphasic shield caused by the Borg assault is sufficient to gain a transporter lock.”

Her eyes opened wide when it finally dawned on her what the Borg were up to. Too late to realize that the feeling in her stomach had quickly spread to the rest of her body and had little to do with Star. She tried to shout urgent orders but by the time the words escaped her mouth, she had already started to disappear.
Part 3 - The Escape: 6 by CeJay
6


Amaya Donners, the woman he was in love with, dressed like an outlaw, leading a band of mercenaries, had Westren Frobisher, his brother’s killer, dead to rights as she kept a menacing-looking hand phaser leveled at his head, while his brother Matthew, very much alive, and his father, who had already died once only to unexpectedly return to the land of the living, watched on.

The situation was beyond bizarre in a time and a place where bizarre had become the new normal.

“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t disintegrate your worthless ass right here and now.”

“Let’s everybody just calm down,” Michael said as he took a step closer to the heated Amaya, repeating a mantra that he had uttered not for the first time as of late.

He was rewarded by his intervention with Amaya pointing the weapon at him instead, prompting him to quickly raise his hands.

“You look awfully familiar,” she said as she considered him with suspicious eyes. “And I don’t think I like your face.”

He tried not to take that as the insult it was likely meant to be. “Michael Owens,” he said, hoping that it would spark something in her.

She shot a sidelong glance at Matthew. “Any relation?”

“Yes, but no,” he said.

This naturally did nothing but confuse her further. “I’m not playing games here.”

“It’s a long story. If you just lower your weapon I’d be more than happy to explain why we’ve come here,” Michael said.

“I don’t care for stories,” she said and turned her attention back to Frobisher on the ground.

Michael could see that Garla was visibly tense as if waiting to jump into action, not unlike he had seen her do just before she had gone off on the Jem’Hadar on Arkaria. He didn’t like their chances here, not with Amaya’s men holding them at gunpoint, and he gave her a subtle shake of the head to let her know to stand down. He hoped she’d listen to him.

“I’m still waiting,” she said to Frobisher. “You’ve cost me a lot of money, not to mention damaged my reputation, when you sold me that piece of junk energy core.”

“I told you at the time that it was experimental,” Frobisher said, sitting up on the dirty floor, leaning against his shuttle behind him. “And it was never meant to be used as a weapon.”

“You knew what I wanted it for and you still sold it to me.”

“We can give you your money back,” said Matthew. “Just as soon as we can get back to our workshop. Unfortunately, that isn’t an option right now.”

She pierced him with a dark scowl. “So, let me get this straight, you’ve come here with nothing? That was your plan?”

When Matthew didn’t know what else to say, Frobisher continued. “There has been a development. The entire galaxy--the entire universe--is at great risk and we need help--“

Michael was convinced that the Amaya Donners he knew would have listened attentively to any words prefaced with such a dire warning but this woman was clearly very different. Her thoughtful expression promptly morphed back to one of ironclad resolve as she cut off Frobisher in mid-sentence. “Fine. We’ll go back to your lab together. You pay me back everything you owe me, plus interest, and all this ends without anyone getting spaced.”

“That could be a problem,” said Matthew.

“Why?”

“Probably because of the little issue of the dead Jem’Hadar squad we left behind,” said Garla with far more amusement than the occasion called for it.

Amaya considered the other woman with a surprised look. “You killed Jem’Hadar? Now, why would you go and do something that stupid?” She shook her head before anyone had a chance to answer. “You know what? I don’t even care. Nor do I like the idea of having Krellonian refugees on my ship. There’s enough scum onboard already.”

This prompted some laughter from the rest of her people.

Garla was naturally not pleased with her pun and seemed all but ready to confront the armed Donners but Culsten smartly held on to her arm to keep her from getting too close.

“Touched a nerve there, did I?” Amaya said with a crooked smile.

Frobisher was slowly pulling himself back onto his feet. “Please, you have to listen to us. This crisis is very real and it is putting all our lives at risk unless we act now.”

Michael found it difficult to hear Westren Frobisher sounding so concerned about human life considering that this had been the man who had put his own achievements above the safety of millions while he and his brother had developed their dark anti-matter technology years earlier.

“A crisis, you say?” Amaya said. “Risk to all our lives?”

He nodded.

“It may have escaped your notice while ensconced in your workshop day and night but for the rest of us, our lives are at risk from the moment we get out of bed in the morning. If it’s not the Dominion, it’s the Borg. We’re all living on borrowed time until we end up as collateral damage in their damned war.”

“The Dominion and the Borg are at war?” said Culsten with astonishment.

“Only ever since I’ve been alive,” she said with a glare that spoke more to her annoyance than her surprise. “I know Krellonian refugees don’t get around much, but boy, I’d think that kind of news would have reached even your backwater haunts.”

“We are not refugees,” Garla said between clenched teeth.

Amaya looked her up and down again. “You certainly don’t carry yourself like one.”

“Look,” said Michael, trying to play mediator once more. “The fact remains that we need your help to get into Outlander space. I’m sure we could find something to compensate you for your efforts.”

Amaya laughed at that. “Outlander space, huh? Why didn’t you say so from the start? Here I was thinking you were trying to accomplish something difficult. I don’t know where you people have come from but I can tell that you’ve got nothing to offer me that could make me forget your debts and help you embark on a suicide mission,” she said but then her eyes found Frobisher’s shuttle. She stepped up closer to its hull to touch it. “I think maybe I’ll keep your little ship. Consider it a down payment of what you still owe me.”

Frobisher briefly exchange a glance with Michael and it was clear from the look in his eyes that he was not eager to part with his shuttle. Considering what it was capable of, Michael felt much the same way but he understood that they didn’t have much else to bargain with.

“You’ll find that shuttle to be much more valuable than it looks,” said Michael.

That captured her attention. “Oh?”

Frobisher uttered a little sigh before he spoke. “It has a dark anti-matter power plant. Probably the only one in existence. At least in this quantum-reality.”

“Tell me more,” she said as she began to inspect the unassuming little shuttle with renewed interest.

“I’ve rated the core’s maximum power output at nineteen-thousand six-hundred teradyne per second.”

That made Donners whirl back around to face him with an unmissable gleam in her eyes. This revelation had also surprised Michael and much of everyone else assembled in the shuttle bay, both Windjammers and his motley crew alike.

Michael wasn’t an engineer but he knew that even Eagle’s recently upgraded warp core was not able to produce anywhere close to that much energy, and he very much doubted that Amaya’s weathered and beaten-up freighter could muster even a fraction of that number. Considering what Frobisher had used his dark anti-matter engine for, however, he now realized that he shouldn’t have been surprised by its vast capacity.

“You cannot be serious,” she said.

“I’ll stake my life on it.”

She had her weapon back up in flash, pushing him hard into the hull of the shuttle with a forearm against his chest and the phaser in his face.

Both Michael and Matthew jumped forward at the same time, trying to keep her from atomizing his head but they were both stopped in their tracks by the rest of Maya’s people.

“He’s telling the truth,” Matthew said desperately. “I think,” he said, suddenly not entirely sure anymore himself.

“I think I’d still prefer to rid the galaxy of you,” she said as she refused to let up. “And I’d still get to keep your little ship. If it is as powerful as you say, great. If not, I’m sure I can sell it for scrap and at least recoup some of my losses.”

“You’d make a big mistake,” said Frobisher, trying to sound calm with a phaser emitter so close to his face, and not being entirely successful. “And you’ll need somebody to show you how it works.”

“I’m pretty resourceful.”

Michael managed to free himself from the tall Bolian holding him in place but only managed a couple of steps before Amaya’s phaser was now pointed squarely at his head, forcing him to stop in his tracks again, once more holding out his palms. “Listen, I get that you’re mad.”

“You have no idea.”

He nodded. “Trust me, and I know this sounds crazy, but there was a time, not long ago, where the idea of ridding the galaxy of a man named Wes Frobisher would have been on the top of my to-do list as well.”

She regarded him with undeniable skepticism.

“I wanted that man dead but things have changed quite dramatically as of late. And I know you don’t care about the fate of the universe and all the talk about trying to save it. But I’m convinced that we can help each other if you’re just willing to listen.”

He could tell that he was getting through to her. He wasn’t sure if it were his words, or perhaps he was getting good at trying to convince people called Amaya Donners of his cause.

Whatever it was, he had her attention and he knew he had to exploit it for however short it would last. The only problem with his plan was the fact that he was making it all up as he went along.

“You need to be compensated for the losses you’ve suffered. And you need to be further rewarded before you will ever consider helping us get into Outlander territory.”

She didn’t respond to this which he took as a good sign for now. Although, the weapon still in his face, was much less so.

“I have a starship nearby. We can’t reach it at the moment on the account of those Jem’Hadar we mentioned earlier but we will be able to get back to them and when we do, I will be able to offer you a significant reward for your assistance.”

Her eyes said to continue.

“Latinum. A whole lot of it.”

“How much are we talking?”

Michael had to admit that he didn’t know the first thing about gold-pressed latinum, the currency favored by Ferengi and many other races operating outside Federation space. He knew that Eagle carried a non-insignificant amount of it to allow them to operate in those areas. He also knew that Star had given much or all of it to Hutchinson in return for materials to aid repairs. “One-hundred,” he said, only vaguely remembering the ship’s manifest and deciding that this was the time to gamble with it. “One-hundred bricks of gold-pressed latinum.”

She lowered her weapon and smiled. “Well, why didn’t you lead with that?”
Part 3 - The Escape: 7 by CeJay
7

It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the dark interior of the Borg sphere. In the meantime, it was the smell that got to her. It was as if the entire ship had been doused in ammonia and it made her want to gag.

She found herself in a narrow corridor lined with Borg drones in both directions and as far as she could see.

Her first instinct was to get hold of Eagle and she tapped the combadge on her chest only to hear the discouraging signal of a failed connection.

Two drones directly in front of her stepped out of their alcoves with slow and robotic movements and she knew she had to move.

She turned the other way only to find that direction now also blocked by two more drones.

Before she could even think of a way out of this, the Borg behind her had already grabbed hold of her and she could hear their cybernetic motors spinning up as they moved to inject her with nanoprobes to assimilate her into their collective.

She caught the glint of a small circular blade attached to the drone directly in front of her and watched in horror as it came down toward her chest, cutting through her uniform jacket like a hot knife through butter.

A primal fear she had never known took hold of her, overriding much of her rational thoughts. It was more than just her biological imperative to survive, she understood instinctively that when facing assimilation, survival was no longer the primary goal.

She threw herself backward with all the strength she could muster against the drones behind her.

The two Borg in front reached out to arrest her movement but only came away with the tatters of her jacket while she fell to the floor, and right on top of the bodies of the drones behind her.

The impact was hard and painful but adrenaline made it bearable and more importantly, it kept her moving.

As the drones in front of her reached down to take hold of her again, she leashed out violently. There was no thought-out strategy behind her attack other than to inflict as much damage as possible. She took hold of whatever she could, both flesh and machine at the same time, and tore and ripped with no regard for her own safety.

The irony that her one and only advantage was her own cybernetic arm escaped her at that moment as she used it indiscriminately, like a weapon. She had long since become accustomed to her artificial appendage, taking great care with it, particularly when she was unlucky enough to get into a brawl with another person. Not so now. The Borg were not people, not anymore, she told herself. This was a no holds barred fight to void a fate worse than death.

It felt like minutes but within just a few seconds her clenched fist had pried off gray flesh and black tubes that leaked sickly white fluid mixed with torn pieces of her own artificial skin.

She launched herself against the stumbling and damaged drones, driving one hard into the wall and an alcove containing a fellow Borg, then kicked the second one hard in the groin even if that did little more than cause it to lose its balance for a split second.

It was enough time to push it aside and then take off in a full sprint down the corridor, leaving the four drones behind.

Her only thought was to get off that ship. To reach a transporter room or a shuttle bay, anything that could facilitate her escape.

In her mad dash through the sphere, all she could see were endless corridors lined with one drone after the next. Every so often a drone would open its eyes or ocular implants and step out of its alcove while Tazla refused to slow down, dodging them like hurdles on an obstacle course.

When she spotted a drone just ahead, vaguely female and about her own height, step out of its alcove to block her path, she knew she wouldn’t be able to get around it in time. Instead of slowing down, Tazla lowered her shoulder and pumped her legs faster, barreling right into the drone.

Her shoulder made contact while the Borg was slightly off-balance and it gave Tazla all the advantage she needed. The drone was lifted off its feet by the impact and smashed hard into the bulkhead while Taz was briefly redirected, bumping her right shoulder against the other bulkhead but then quickly found her footing again to continue her sprint. She didn’t look back as she clenched her teeth in pain from the encounter, determined to keep her pace.

Not long after her lungs began to burn from exhaustion and her rational mind was slowly beginning to reassert itself with discouraging thoughts. Did the Borg even have shuttle bays or transporter rooms? And if not, if there was no way off this nightmare ship, did they have airlocks? She’d rather take her chances in the vacuum of space than surrender herself to being turned into a lifeless automaton, serving a collective hive mind for the rest of her existence.

As her breathing became more ragged and sweat was beginning to pour into her eyes, she knew that she wouldn’t be able to run forever, even if there was no end to this maze of corridors.

Tazla considered herself to be in peak physical condition, prided herself on it, in fact, she aimed to spend at least a couple of hours a day in the ship’s gym or join Nora Laas’ on her daily morning run around the saucer section, but she could already feel her sides beginning to ache and her legs sending signals back to her brain that this pace was not sustainable.

As she looked down at herself, she could see her right shirt sleeve ripped and a deep gash in her skin soaking the red material with her blood.

No doubt she had been injured during her collision with the drone but the pain had been masked by the sky-high levels of adrenaline coursing through her body. She knew that she desperately needed to find a way to stop the bleeding before she’d lose too much blood but that simply didn’t seem to be an option.

When she looked back up, she realized too late that the way ahead had been blocked off by a solid wall of four drones facing her. There was no chance that she could avoid them or attempt to force herself through the barricade.

She tried to slow down and change direction but she wasn’t quick enough and smashed into them at nearly full speed, taking all four of them down with her like a bowling ball striking a set of pins.

Her head exploded with pain and she struggled to catch her breath as she rolled onto the floor, fighting to keep conscious and knowing full well that if she blacked out now, by the time she’d come back around, Tazla Star would no longer exist. Her symbiont and all the memories and experiences of the six lifetimes it carried would be extinguished.

The thought made her physically ill.

Something grabbed her by the back of her neck with tremendous strength and lifted her from the floor.

She tried to resist but her strength had drained from her body and blood was now mixing with sweat, trickling from her face.

She was pushed hard into a smooth surface and before she realized what was happening, she felt restraints having taken hold around her wrist and ankles, pinning her in place.

The surface behind her moved so quickly she struggled to keep herself from vomiting as she transitioned from a vertical position to a horizontal one, even as the entire contraption began to speed away at a rapid pace, carrying her away and into the depths of the sphere.

It moved so fast she could make out nothing more than bright green lights she passed by at regular intervals that did nothing to help her orient herself.

She tested her restraints a few times but quickly realized that they were made of solid metal and did not budge even a bit, instead she felt them cut painfully into her wrist when she tried to pull herself free.

With few options available to her, she decided to close her eyes and find a way to control her breathing. Her only chance, she figured, was to regain some of her strength and then attempt for another escape as soon as an opportunity presented itself.

She refused to believe that she wouldn’t get another one. That assimilation was now the only possible outcome. She refused to give up.

Her journey through the sphere, strapped to the platform, lasted what felt like an eternity causing her to wonder if they were purposefully trying to lull her to sleep to lower her resistance.

She had only just formulated that thought in her head when she came to a stop as suddenly as the trip had started.

Lersus, Star’s third host, had in his childhood greatly enjoyed visiting the traveling carnival in the region where he had grown up and one of his favorite attractions had been an elaborately designed amusement ride where he was strapped to a chair and taken through a series of rooms designed to scare the visitors with grotesque scenery.

This felt very much like that attraction, only on steroids.

The platform pushed her back up into a vertical position and then swiveled on its own axis to show her a series of poorly lit compartments, all filled with what looked like bodies of failed drones, assimilations that hadn’t quite taken and instead created terribly disfigured bodies, rejecting their implants. Worse even, some of these creatures were still alive, going through the same motions over and over as if trapped in an endless and broken feedback loop. Some were attempting to push parts of their own body back into place over and over again, others were constantly moving their damaged limps or just trying to keep their heads from falling off their shoulders.

As she watched these scenes of horror, Tazla began to realize that there was a fate worse than assimilation after all.

The conveyor brought her into a large round room, the first she had seen on the sphere that was entirely devoid of drones. She was placed in the dead center, leaving her to stare at a curved wall.

“You are the commanding entity of the unidentified starship designated USS Eagle NCC dash 74329. Confirm.” The booming choir of voices coming from seemingly everywhere made her ears hurt she desperately wanted to cover them with her restrained hands.

“Scans of your position on your command bridge, and the insignia on your uniform postulate that you are the highest-ranking entity on the unidentified starship designated USS Eagle NCC dash 74329. Confirm.”

They didn’t know for certain, she realized. These Borg had never encountered a Starfleet vessel before and could only guess as to who or what they were. They had not been able to scan their computer core since she had ordered it shut down and their state of ignorance, she figured, was the only reason she was still herself.

Bright beams of light were blinding her now, forcing her to shut her eyes.

The platform moved again, spinning her around to face another direction but the lights stayed on her.

“Species 5614, known as Trill. Species 5614 is not known to possess the level of technology exhibited by the unidentified starship designated USS Eagle NCC dash 74329. State your explanation.”

It took her a moment to find enough strength to speak and even then she struggled to get the words over her lips. “You’re looking for answers. I get that. But in my present condition, I’m not particularly motivated to assist you,” she said and then spat out a wad of blood that had accumulated in her mouth onto the floor. “Tell you what, you get me out of this thing and back on my ship and we can have a conversation.”

“State your designation,” the voices boomed again.

“You can call me Tazla Star,” she said, feeling that perhaps she was getting somewhere now.

The platform moved again, spinning her around nearly ninety degrees and tilting her forward so that she would have fallen onto the floor had she not been restrained, and putting more pressure on her already sore wrists and ankles.

The bright lights lessened enough for her to open her eyes again.

“Tazla Star, you will comply with the Borg or you will be assimilated.” It was no longer the same booming collection of voices speaking to her. Instead, this was voice was softer and sounded almost as if she was being addressed by an individual. The voice was still distorted and mechanical but it also sounded eerily familiar in a way that caused her spine to tingle.

A new emerald-colored light emerged from somewhere in front of her in the darkest section of the room. It took her a moment to realize that the green beams of light were assembling a humanoid form. A Borg drone.

Once it had taken shape, it stepped closer so that she could see it more clearly and what she found caused her to gasp in surprise.

“I am Tyrantus of Borg. You will surrender all and any knowledge you possess of Particle 010. Resistance is futile,” said the Borg drone apparition now standing in front of her and wearing Michael Owens’ face.
Part 3 - The Escape: 8 by CeJay
8


“Welcome to the Lead Belly,” said Amaya Donners as she led Michael and the rest of his team into what could have been generously termed as a crew lounge. It certainly wasn’t the Nest or even any of the other smaller mess halls or recreation rooms one could come across on Eagle, but it did offer a few tables, a bar area with mismatched stools, and even a dom-jot table in the corner, albeit one that looked like it had been purchased in the previous century.

Michael didn’t care what her ship looked like. All that mattered was that it could take them back to where they needed to go, back to the Ring, to try and prevent it from fulfilling what he now believed could very well be its final apocalyptic purpose.

How exactly they were to achieve this, he didn’t know, but he understood that they had already lost far too much time in trying to stop the massive Omega accelerator, partly thanks to the man who he had until recently believed to be his father.

Mi casa es su casa,” Maya said as she spread her arms wide to present the less than impressive lounge. “As long as you stay on this deck, that is. There are some sleeping areas and a lavatory if you need to freshen up. If you get the foolhardy notion to venture beyond this level, however, my fellow associates have standing orders to shoot you in the head.”

“Charming,” said Garla, doing nothing to hide the sarcasm.

“Hey, that’s what one-hundred bricks of latinum buys you in the Diaspora these days. If you think you can get a better deal, I’ll be happy to show you to the airlock. I’ll even throw in a spacesuit as a parting gift,” she said and shrugged. “No guarantee it’ll work.”

“This will be fine,” said Michael and found that the larger of the few tables in the room also functioned as a computer display, currently showing a star chart of the sector.”

Amaya joined him along with Frobisher and Garla. “So, you need to get into Outlander territory,” she said. “You’ve got any specific destination in mind or is this some sort of adrenaline safari to see how far you can go before you get yourself blown to pieces?”

Michael was already working on the display and it didn’t take him long to locate his destination. He pointed at it. “This is where we need to go.”

“What’s in Cygni-98?” she said.

“A spatial fold that allows transition into a lower brane connecting the regular space-time continuum with a tertiary subspace manifold,” said Frobisher.

Amaya looked at him as if he was speaking Klingonese. “Right. Sorry I asked,” she said and then focused on the star chart again. “Won’t be easy to get there. And going there in a straight line would be tantamount to suicide. The Outlanders run a sensor net that covers that entire area of space and alerts their roaming patrols the moment anything comes even close.”
Michael nodded, remembering the immediate attention they had drawn after arriving in this universe.

“I suppose you gotta ask yourself: Are you sure that’s where you want to go? I hear Rura Penthe is supposed to be particularly nice this time of year. And it would be much easier to get there.”

“I’m afraid we are committed,” Michael said.

Maya looked him right in the eyes as if she was seeing something there she hadn’t noticed before. A smile crept onto her lips. “Well, I do like a man who knows what he wants. But I won’t be able to take you there.”

“By the Creator, I thought that’s what we’re paying you for,” Garla snarled at the woman.

“Calm down, Lady. I won’t be able to take you straight to that system but I can do the next best thing.”

“And what would that be?” she asked.

She activated a few panels on the star charts to center it on what looked like a space station within a couple of light-years from Cygni-98. “Amargosa Station,” she said. “It’s the main Outlander trading post in the sector and one of the few places within their territory where they tolerate foreigners.”

“That’s nowhere near to where we need to go,” Garla protested.

“Maybe not, but I have a contact there who knows a thing or two about circumventing the Outlander sensor net and who might be convinced to assist you for the right price,” she said and crossed her arms in front of her while Michael and the others offered nothing but skeptical looks in response. “Listen, you’re asking for a lot here. This is the best I can do. Otherwise, the airlock option still stands.”

“This is a joke,” said Garla and shot Michael an annoyed glare, making it quite clear what she thought of this plan.

He uttered a sigh and then nodded at Maya. “Get us there as fast as you can.”

She smirked again. “You’re used to giving orders, aren’t you?” She continued before he could respond. “Fine, your money gives you some prerogatives as long as you remember that I’m the captain on this boat.”

“I don’t believe that will ever be in question,” he said.

She gave him a quick nod. “Make yourselves comfortable,” she said and then left the room, presumably to get them going to where they needed to be.

“I don’t trust that woman,” said Garla as he watched her leave. “I’ve known her type. She wouldn’t think twice to sell us out if she gets a better offer.”

“Donners is a tough customer,” said Frobisher. “But she’s a decent sort at heart. Even if she does everything she can to hide that.”

“Sure,” said Matthew. “The sort to incinerate us on the spot for not paying up the debt she believes we owe her.”

“She has some rough edges,” Frobisher agreed. “But I’ve never known her to be deceitful.”

“The way I see it, she is our only option right now,” said Michael and glanced back down at the star chart for an estimate on how long it would take them to get to Amargosa Station. “I suggest everybody gets some rest until we arrive. I fear we are going to need all our strength before all this is over.”

The others nodded and Garla and Culsten walked over to a corner booth together to make use of the only padded seating in the room while Frobisher went toward the bar, possibly looking for refreshments.

Jon stayed close to Matthew but Michael quickly realized that the older Owens was simply staring at Matt which Michael thought was rather disturbing. Matt noticed it too.

“What?” he said curtly to the other man after a few seconds.

“It’s just remarkable how much you look like my Matthew,” said Jon.

“You know what, I don’t think I want to hear this,” he said and began to walk away.

“I understand,” Jon said and followed him. “Trust me, I know how strange all of this has to be for you. To see me and your brother back in your life after all this time. It isn’t easy to accept and it’ll take a while for you to adjust to the insanity of it all. That’s perfectly normal.”

“Nothing about this is anywhere near normal,” Matt shot back as he shook his head. “And I’m definitely not looking to adjust to any of it. I didn’t ask for you to come here and I certainly don’t want you around, I thought I had made that very clear,” he added and then turned his back again to walk away.

“If you like it or not, we are stuck with each other for now.”

To that, Matt turned around to face the other man. “Yes, we are. And you seem to take some strange satisfaction from all this, don’t you?”

“Son, listen to me--“

“No,” he said, interrupting the older man. “I don’t think I will. Because you need to understand for once and for all that I am not your son,” he said and gestured at Michael who had now stepped closer as well. “The both of you might look like people I once knew but you are nothing more to me than total strangers who have thrown my life into chaos. Do you understand?”

“Jon, give him some space, for Christ’s sake,” Michael said, unable to deny the awkwardness to refer to the man who looked like his father by his given name. He knew he would never call him ‘dad’ again.

But he shook his head instead. “The sooner we accept the reality of our situation the better. We may not have a lot of time--“

“Time for what? Get to know each other better? Be a family?” said Michael, now feeling his own anger beginning to well up within him. “What is this fantasy world you live in?”

“I am just trying to make the best of our situation.”

“A situation that you have created,” Michael shot back. “You brought us here when you activated the Prism. You could have taken us anywhere, back to our universe or any other where the chances of getting back to the Ring would have been far better than they are here but you chose to bring us to this place because of what? Him?” he said and pointed at Matthew. “Because you knew there was a Matthew here who you thought would be willing to call you father again?”

“It is not that easy,” he said.

“Oh, but I think it is,” Michael responded. “The entire universe--all universes--are at risk of complete annihilation and your sole focus remains bringing together a family that no longer exists. You know what? You do remind me a lot of my real father after all. Except that, with you, it’s all backward. You care for your family more than the fate of the galaxy, but at the end of the day, you’re still worried entirely about your own priorities, about what is best for you and your personal goals.”

“You know all this self-righteous talk is becoming quite tiring,” Jon shot back, his own voice now infused with mettle. “You claim to be so unwavering in your priorities but you’re little better than what you accuse me of.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh please,” he said, “I know that you’ve made decisions that have put your objectives ahead of the greater mission. You went out of your way to rescue DeMara Deen after she was taken by your doppelganger and you very nearly sacrificed an entire away team to go after a man who was clearly beyond redemption. And for what? Tell me, Michael, I truly want to know. Because if you hadn’t made those calls, if you had been as laser-focused on the task as you claim to be, perhaps we wouldn’t even be in this position now.”

Michael was momentarily speechless. Perhaps because he knew that the man had a point. The truth was, he had been in anguish over those decisions.

“So don’t stand there and lecture me like--” he stopped himself when he was gripped by a coughing fit, likely brought on by his outburst.

“All this reminds me of what it was like being part of this family,” said Matthew Owens as Jon was beginning to recover. “And you wonder why I don’t want anything to do with either one of you,” he said, turning on his heel to leave the room.

Michael considered Jon Owens who was getting his coughing under control slowly. “Are you all right?”

He raised a hand to keep him at bay. “Just … don’t,” he said and then followed after Matthew, passing by Amaya Donners who was casually leaning against the door frame. Michael wasn’t sure how long she had been standing there.

“I was just coming down here to let you know that we’re underway and that we’ll get to Amargosa Station in just under three hours but it looks like I missed one hell of a show.”

“Thanks,” was all that Michael could think to say.

“Family, am I right?” she said with a wink. “Who needs that kind of trouble?”
Part 3 - The Escape: 9 by CeJay
9


The resemblance was uncanny.

Although the entire right side of his face, including his right eye, was covered with mechanical parts, there was no doubt in Tazla’s mind that she was looking at a version of Michael Owens. The mouth, the shape of his nose, the one visible eye as well as that prominent chin, all belonged to the man she had called captain for the last two years.

She had, of course, encountered an alternate version of Owens before, and although that had been a rather unpleasant experience at the time, it paled in comparison to him as a Borg drone. In fact, this encounter may have been even more disturbing than meeting her own, misguided double in another universe.

It also didn’t escape her notice that this drone had identified itself by name and as far as she knew, there had only ever been one Borg still part of the Collective with a name.

“Your biological responses indicate agitation and astonishment,” said the Michael Owens drone as he stepped closer to where she was still restrained upright against the metallic surface. “Are you surprised at encountering us?”

“I’ve been captured by the Borg,” she said angrily as she furtively tried to test her bonds again. “What kind of response were you expecting? Gratitude?”

Tyrantus stepped up to her until she was forced to stare right into his pale, assimilated face, making it difficult for her to suppress a shudder. “Your presence, as well as that of your vessel, are an unexplained variable.”

“I get that a lot.”

The drone continued to look back at her, its one biological eye making contact with hers, while the other eye socket trained a powerful green light beam into her face that made her turn her head away.

“You are the commanding officer of your vessel.”

She just nodded to this.

She was thankful when he finally stepped away from her again but only until she realized that the platform she was strapped to was moving with him, forcing her to keep facing him even while he walked around her. “Your vessel is crewed by races who are not known to possess the level of technology it has exhibited.”

“I suppose you don’t know everything then, do you?”

He continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “Although the nature of your vessel and its point of origin warrants further inquiry, our primary mission is to locate any and all occurrences of Particle 010 in this sector.”

“Never heard of it,” she said truthfully.

Tyrantus stopped and mercifully so did the platform. A holographic image appeared out of nowhere just behind his left shoulder. It displayed an animation of thousands of tiny particles working together in a mesmerizing effort to create a large, glowing ball of pure energy.

Taz recognized it instantly.

“Your biological responses indicate that you are familiar with Particle 010.”

She cursed herself for her unconscious reaction to the image. Back in her days working in intelligence, a faux pas such as this could have cost her her life. Now, it could lead to far worse.

“I may have seen it before,” she said, trying to sound indifferent about it. “Tell you what, you get me out of this contraption and return me to my ship and I’ll tell you what you want to know.”

“That is unacceptable,” he said and then began to move again, this time in the opposite direction, and once more the platform moved with him. This back and forth was starting to give her a headache. “Traces of Particle 010 have been detected within the Amargosa Diaspora and the Borg have expended significant resources in attempting to locate it. It has become our primary directive. Resisting the Borg--“

“I know, I know. It’s futile,” she said. “But then again, I recognize an interrogation when I see one. You could have just assimilated me and yet here we are having a good old-fashioned chit-chat instead. Quite telling.”

He stopped again to look right at her. “Assimilating Species 5614 has caused complications in the past, including a total and irrevocable loss of all synaptic functions in the hippocampus that contains long-term memory functions.”

“Borg and Trill don’t mix well? I guess today is my lucky day.”

He continued and she had no choice but to follow along again. “If you believe your failure to comply will spare you assimilation, you are mistaken. Although assimilation is not our preferred option, if you continue to remain uncooperative, we shall be forced to initiate the procedure.”

“And risk losing everything I know about your precious particle?” she said even as images of those failed Borg drones she had seen earlier came back to the forefront of her mind.

The representation of the molecules that had been following Tyrantus was replaced by one of Eagle, sitting in space within close distance to the Borg sphere. “Initial scans of your vessel indicate five-hundred seventy-four individual sentient lifeforms, most of which can be assimilated with a minimal risk to their long-term memory functions.”

“I so hate to disappoint, but I am the only person on board my ship with any knowledge of this particle whatsoever,” she said.

They stopped again to allow Tyrantus to look right into her eyes.

“What do my biological responses tell you about that statement?” she said as she defiantly maintained eye contact with him. She had never been more thankful for the seemingly bizarre and arbitrary Omega Directive Starfleet had imposed on all of its personnel. It had ensured that only those of captain’s rank or above even knew of that powerful molecule’s existence. Since she had briefly been a captain herself, she had been read into it at the time, but this was not the case for the rest of Eagle’s crew.

Apparently realizing that she was speaking the truth, he started moving again, once more changing direction and once more she followed right along. The image of Eagle remained pinned behind him as he walked. “You are a sentient biological being. Sentient biological beings are known to have emotional weaknesses.”

“You’ll find that I’m one of the tougher ones.”

“I am curious to learn how long you will maintain this defiance. Will you continue to remain uncooperative as drones assimilate your crew? You will be made to watch as every single person on your vessels will be changed into Borg. We will commence with the crew on your command level and then continue deck by deck until you decide to volunteer the information we require.”

Tazla felt her mouth go dry. How far was she willing to go to protect the location of the Ring that she was now fairly certain was being powered by the very energy source the Borg were after? The notion that the massive structure could wipe out another universe was frightening enough, but what would happen if the Borg would get their hands on it. An endless multiverse, all of it made up of an infinite army of Borg. Their single-minded mission and purpose would ensure that they would spread across all realities, like an unstoppable disease, in a never-ending mission to assimilate it all.

As she pondered these gloomy thoughts, her eyes were drawn back to the image of Eagle, sitting calmly in space, and she realized the flaw in his entire argument.

She couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

“The thought of watching your crew assimilated amuses you?”

“No. It’s just that I hadn’t realized before now that the Borg could bluff. It must be because you are not quite like other Borg, are you?”

He stopped again. This time her platform tilted up a little further, putting more pressure on her wrist and ankle restraints that were keeping her from toppling over.

He didn’t speak, just stared at her and so she took the initiative. “You were going after our computer core because you figured that it would contain the information you needed. When we shut it down your only other resource was to get to the crew but you were unable to penetrate our shields so you did the only thing you could, which was to capture one single person. Since we figured out how you did this you won’t get another chance. So for all your threats, the truth is, all you have is me and that’s all you ever going to get.”

“You truly believe your ship will be able to withstand us indefinitely? Additional Borg vessels have already been dispatched to this position. How long do you think your shields would hold out against a fleet of Borg cubes?”

“Doesn’t matter. My crew knows what is at stake. They’d rather blow up the ship than give you what you want.”

Her platform began to move again, faster than before and making her head spin while Tyrantus didn’t bother to follow suit this time. The suddenness of the movement felt as if it had come out of anger. “Looks like I’m not the only one around here with emotional weaknesses.”

A bright light shone into her face again and she could do little more than turn her head slightly. Then she felt something else.

A couple of pointy, needle-like devices were beginning to push into the sides of her neck and Tazla found it difficult to control her heart starting to pound in her chest, fully aware of what this meant.

“Are you certain you wish to risk what I know about Particle 010?” she said loudly even if she could no longer see Tyrantus or guess where he stood after the dizziness they had induced. “After all, I could have all the answers you’re looking for. I may be the best chance you ever going to have to fulfill your primary objective.”

The needles stopped but they were already pushing against her skin.

“You have given us no other option,” he said, and she could have sworn she was hearing resentment in his mechanically-modulated voice.

“It’s amazing how much you remind me of somebody else I know. Granted, he would not have strapped me to a table and threatened me with assimilation, but he too gets infuriatingly stubborn at times. You may have heard of him.”

The needles continued until they broke her skin, causing her to gasp in pain. “His name is Michael Owens and you look a lot like him.”

The needles stopped and pulled away.

The light dimmed and Tyrantus stepped back in front of her. “How do you know that name?”

“He’s a friend of mine,” she said.

“Your attempts at deception are predictable.”

“Oh yeah? Then what does your lie detector tell you?”

“Your biological responses are aggravated.”

“Because you’re trying to assimilate me,” she shot back angrily. “But I know Michael Owens. Son of Jonathan Owens. Brother of Matthew Owens. Born in North America on Earth.”

Tyrantus leaned in closer until he was just inches from her face. “Michael Owens is dead.”

“No, he’s not. And looking at you, I’m not so sure you believe that either.”

“You are wrong and your attempts at trying to deceive us will fail.”

“The Borg assimilated Michael Owens, didn’t they? And for whatever reason, they kept some of his individuality. I’m assuming to better fight humans and other biological races. Perhaps to act as some sort of twisted Borg spokesperson. That makes you very different from other Borg. After all, drones aren’t known to show signs of identity whereas you have a name and an identity that separates you from other drones. All that tells me is that Michael Owens remains a part of you. The only decent part.”

“We do not know how you learned about Michael Owens but it does not matter. We will not be distracted from our primary objective. You will be assimilated and serve the Borg. All your distinctiveness will be added to our own. If your cerebral functions survive the transition, everything you know will become known to the Borg.”

“That’s a big--“ she didn’t get a chance to finish her sentence as those needles stabbed her neck at the same time, and so forcefully, she screamed out in pain. It was nothing compared to what came next.

She had miscalculated, or not been convincing enough to try and argue with Tyrantus, regardless, he had opted for her assimilation and she immediately understood that her worst nightmares were about to be rendered meaningless by the horrors the Borg would force upon her.

Already she could feel something alien and terrifying being pumped into her neck and her bloodstream. Her rational mind told her that these were Borg nanobots, millions upon millions of subatomic machines that would alter her body and mind from within. It felt as if she was being injected with tiny ants made out of pure hot lava, the way it was burning her up from the inside.

In the meantime, her wrists and ankles were turning blood red as she strained against her metal bonds with enough force to cut deep into her skin.

Her senses were beginning to shut down, with her vision starting to fade and her hearing shutting down, she was spared the sound of the most agonizing scream she would have ever heard, originating from her own throat.
Part 3 - The Escape: 10 by CeJay
10


The mercenary Amaya Donners had not been kidding when she had made it clear that her guests were strictly limited to the small crew deck of her ship as evidenced by perhaps the largest Klingon Michael had ever encountered, guarding the access to the only turbolift.

Well over two meters tall, the warrior wore crisscrossing bandoliers across his otherwise bare chest as well as two disruptor pistols dangling from holsters at his hips and a mean-looking, serrated dagger strapped to his right leg.

He bared his teeth and offered a wicked smile when he caught Michael, along with Garla and Culsten watching him from further down the corridor, wordlessly inviting them to take their best shot, as if looking forward to the challenge of taking them all on at once. His body language seemed to imply it wouldn’t be a challenge at all.

“If you deliver a distraction,” said Garla, refusing to break eye contact with the Klingon down the hall, “I should be able to take him out.”

Culsten considered her with a stunned expression. “And how do you suppose you’ll do that? This hallway is barely wide enough for two people walking side by side.”

She regarded him with an almost paternal look. “Liftu, I believe you’ve known me long enough to realize that there are very few people capable of stopping me.”

Michael shook his head as he turned away from studying the massive Klingon to give the sentinel his full attention. “Your capabilities, as impressive as they may be, are not in question here. But I have no intention of forcing a confrontation with Donners and her crew. Not now that she has shown her willingness to help us.”

Garla crossed her arms in front of her chest. “That’s a mistake.”

Michael tried not to bristle at the blunt tone in her voice. In truth, he wasn’t used to people speaking to him in this manner and he had to remind himself that this woman wasn’t a member of his crew and barely a temporary ally.

She continued. “She only agreed to help because you made her a promise of payment that you may not be able to fulfill. I know her type, as soon as she realizes that the potential loss will outweigh the benefits, she won’t hesitate to cut us loose.”

“I don’t think she will,” he said.

“Please, Captain,” she said, sounding almost disappointed. “Don’t tell me you are so naïve that you believe you have a connection with this woman because you did so in another universe. You should know better than most that being familiar with her alternate versions means nothing here.”

“I’m not so sure.”

“Sir?” Culsten too seemed confounded by this.

Michael knew his theory wasn’t exactly proven. On the contrary, much of the evidence they had seen so far had made it unmistakably clear that people from different universes were similar to each other only on the surface, if at all. His encounters with Gene Edison, but more importantly, with his own other self, had made that painfully obvious.

But there was something else as well and he couldn’t entirely let go of it. “We have encountered Amaya Donners three times in each reality we have visited and in two she became one of our best allies, even if she started out hostile toward our goals. For all the differences we have seen, I am starting to believe that perhaps there is a pattern that transcends universes.”

“And you are sure you want to take a gamble on your gut feelings with everything that’s hanging in the balance?” she said, noticeably not swayed by his arguments. “This isn’t the time to play a hunch. Not if you’re serious in trying to stop the madness that is playing itself out here.”

Michael knew that she wasn’t exactly wrong. He had, after all, made a very similar case earlier himself. And yet, he couldn’t quite find it in himself to give up on Amaya. Not yet.

Garla could see it too. “You’re disappointing me, Captain. I didn’t think you were the person who would let sentimentality cloud your judgment. Perhaps you are more like your father than you were willing to admit.”

That point stung and he responded to this with a dark scowl that left her entirely unimpressed.

“You’re not just playing with our lives, but potentially with all of existence. Understand that there is a limit on how far I am prepared to follow your lead,” she said but before Michael could inquire further as to what exactly she meant by this, she turned on her heel and walked away.

He looked after the sentinel until she had disappeared. “Should I be worried about her?”

“She understands that our best chance, for now, is to work together. Don’t worry, sir, I’ll talk to her. She’ll listen to me,” said Culsten.

He considered his helmsman briefly and wondered how true that could be. How much the young man would be able to keep his headstrong aunt to toe the line, a woman who was used to blazing her own trail and for others to follow her lead.

He understood that he needed to keep an eye on both of them but for now, he had more pressing concerns. “Later. First, I’ll need your help with something else.”

He nodded quickly. “Of course.”

Michael led the other man away from the guarded turbolift entrance and to another section of the deck. “Garla does have one compelling point. We cannot afford to solely rely on Donners, the stakes are simply too high.”

“What do you have in mind, sir?”

Michael stopped in front of a dark computer terminal hidden away in a dead-end corridor. “We need to find a way to get a message back to Eagle to let them know where we are going. It’s been a while since I’ve attempted to jury rig a comms system. I’ll need your help.”

Culsten nodded and regarded the computer console. “I do what I can but there doesn’t seem to be any power feeding this workstation.”

“No, there isn’t,” he said and then stepped up to the bulkhead right next to the console and found a loose panel he had discovered earlier. He struck it so hard that he was sure it was going to leave a bruise but the panel dislodged from the wall and fell to the floor, revealing the circuitry behind it. “I’m hoping all that time you’ve been spending down in engineering lately has paid off.”

Culsten’s face turned a shade of red. He offered him a reassuring smile. “Relax, Lieutenant, I’m joking. But I’m sure you’ve had more recent experience working on power conduits than I have.”

“Yes, sir,” he said quickly and then turned his full attention to the relays.

It took their combined efforts, neither Michael nor Culsten were trained engineers, but after a few minutes they found the right connectors and the console came to life.

“How about that?” Michael said with a grin.

Culsten went straight to work. “It appears to be set up as a monitoring station but I believe I might be able to gain access to communications from here.”

Michael could see that currently, the workstation was showing several visual feeds from across the deck. He could see the crew lounge where Frobisher and Matthew were sitting together in conversation, Although Frobisher appeared to be the one doing most of the talking, probably trying to get Matt, who had become a reluctant tag-along, to fully buy into their mission.

Another feed showed Jon Owens by the makeshift bar in the same lounge, seemingly trying to find something to drink while he had given up, at least for the time being, to make peace with Matthew.

He couldn’t spot Garla on any of the six feeds but one showed the Klingon guarding the turbolift.

Lif had managed to gain access to the root folder quickly. “The good news is that this is a very basic setup with no significant safeguards in place. I should be able to get access to comms.”

“What’s the bad news?”

“Everything here has been configured so that any unauthorized access will be relayed back to the bridge. I’ll need some time to get around that and find a way to send a message that only Eagle can recognize.”

“We might not have a lot of time,” Michael said when he spotted the turbolift doors opening and the Klingon stepping aside to allow Amaya to stride onto the deck. They exchanged a few words before she continued down the corridor, heading in their direction. “Do what you can, I’ll try to buy you that time,” Michael said and then left Culsten to carry on while he sought out to intercept Donners.

He ran into her just moments after he had stepped out of the corridor that would have led to the security station. “Ah, our fearless captain. Come to check in on your valued guests again?” he said quickly.

She stopped and considered him with a hint of suspicion evident on her face and he immediately realized that he had come on too strong. Working in intelligence was clearly not in his future and he would have to leave that kind of work to the likes of Garla and Talza Star, he quickly surmised.

He tried to deflect from his awkwardness. “Are we close to Armagosa Station yet?”

It worked and she shook her head. “Not yet. But I’ve been doing some thinking.”

“Oh?”

“It strikes me that I’m going to quite some lengths based on the promise of a decent payday but that I have no guarantees whatsoever that you will be able to keep your end of the bargain.”

Michael couldn’t help but hear Garla’s warning in the back of his mind again. “You’re looking for a down payment?”

“Well, I’m not in the charity business.”

“You have Frobisher’s shuttle,” Michael said.

She shrugged. “Sure, that counts toward something, I suppose. Tech like that could go for quite a bit of latinum. But times are tough. I’ll be lucky if it covers the debt Frobisher owes me and repairs the damage to my reputation he’s responsible for.”

Michael tried another tact. “And the notion that we are on a mission to save the universe, possibly all of reality, none of that rates with you at all?

“This again,” she said, sounding almost bored. “You’re still trying to sell me on the ridiculous notion that you people are from another universe.”

“Not Frobisher or Matt. But yes, the rest of us do not belong here.”

She considered him carefully. “That much is obvious. But the fact that you aren’t from around here doesn’t mean I believe you’re from another universe altogether.”

“We know each other.”

“What?”

“I mean, where I come from. You and I. Or rather a version of you. We are close.”

That caused Amaya to burst out laughing, a sound Michael enjoyed only until he realized that it was prompted by how absurd she considered the notion that they could be close. “That’s rich,” she said once she had wiped away the tears. “So let me get this straight. You’re saying, not only are you from another universe but in that universe, the two of us are a thing? Boy, how convenient that we ran into each other all the way out here then, isn’t it?”

He nodded slowly. “The coincidence seems astounding. In fact, I’m starting to believe that perhaps coincidence has nothing to do with it at all.”

“You think it’s fate?”

“I don’t know. But before arriving here, we have visited two other realities and in each one, I encountered a version of you.”

She had mostly stopped laughing now. “I cannot figure out if you’re a very good liar or if you really believe the things you’re saying.”

“I think deep down you know that I’m right. Maybe it’s nothing more than a gut feeling, but you cannot deny that we share some sort of connection. One you cannot explain rationally.”

“You’re really full of yourself, aren’t you? You should know that I have vaporized men for just looking at me the wrong way,” she said as her hand settled on the grip of her holstered weapon. For now, it was a mostly casual move but the implications were hard to miss.

“Suppose for a moment that I’m speaking the truth.”

“That you are from another universe and that wherever the hell you come from the two of us live a blissful life together,” she said, unable to keep from uttering another laugh. “Tell me, do we by chance have children together in that fantasy of yours? Maybe a nice little house in the countryside surrounded by lush meadows?”

He shook his head. “No, but there was a reality where we were married. It wasn’t a happy life. It turned out she was a widow.”

“You know what,” she said. “I’ve heard enough of this. I’m not interested in hearing about these sugarcoated fantasies roaming around in your head,” she said as she turned away. “I’m getting you to Amargosa Station, you’ll pay me, or I’ll space you. That’s our deal.”

He took a step to follow her. “Your ship, the Lead Belly. You named her after your favorite musician.”

She stopped with her back turned toward him.

“Huddie Ledbetter. He’s from the same tiny Louisiana town you were born in. Near the Texas border and right by the bayou.”

Amaya turned around very slowly, revealing a facial expression veering between anger and befuddlement. “How’d you know that?”

“Because you told me,” he said and then shook his head and quickly corrected himself. “Because my Amaya told me. A long time ago. Her life was very different from yours. This entire universe is very different from mine but no matter where we go, some things stay the same.”

“I never told anybody about where I’m from,” she said as the hand on her weapon had become a far more threatening gesture now. “And there sure as hell isn’t anyone in this sector who knows about Lead Belly.”

“Then how can I know about this?” he said, undeterred by her hostile attitude. “You call yourselves Windjammers. I’m willing to bet that’s a reference to him as well. The instrument he played?”

She stepped closer to him but said nothing, her hand still on her phaser.

“The Amaya Donners I know, and the ones I’ve met, no matter what challenges they had faced in their lives, they all had one thing in common. And I can see it in you as well. You may play the role of the heartless pirate to survive in this world, but deep down inside you aren’t that person. You care and you want to do the right thing.”

“Stop,” she said. “Just stop.”

“Maya--“

She shook her head. “No. Nobody calls me that, understood?” she said sharply.

He nodded.

“I have no idea where you’ve come from or how you know the things you know but let’s make one thing perfectly clear. You don’t know the first thing about me. You don’t know what I’ve done or what I’m capable of. And right now, you should count your blessings that I haven’t already spaced your ass for pissing me off. I’ll take you and your strange band of misfits as far as Armargosa Station because I am a woman who likes to keep her word. After that, we’ll part ways, one way or the other. If, however, you insist on continuing with this insipid talk of yours, about me being your good little wife, you won’t make it halfway there. Are you tracking me?”

“I get it.”

“Good,” she said and turned again. “And for the record, Windjammer is a reference to a sailing ship and not to an instrument to make sweet, sweet music with,” she said just as she rounded a corner ahead.

Not a moment after she was gone, Culsten appeared by his side. “That was close,” he said.

When Michael didn’t respond, his thoughts still will the departed Amaya, he continued. “I think I managed to get a message out using Eagle’s transponder code. It should seem like natural background noise to the untrained ear, but with any luck, Xylion will recognize it for what it is.”

It took him a moment longer to register what he had said and then turned to him. “Very good work, Lieutenant. Very good work, indeed,” he said as they walked away together even as he struggled to fully put his encounter with Amaya behind him.
Part 3 - The Escape: 11 by CeJay
11


Nora Laas had faced more enemies in her life than she cared to remember. She had fought the Cardassian occupiers of her homeworld, she had faced them again as a Starfleet Marine, she had taken on Klingons, Romulans, Talarians, Nausicaans, smugglers, and pirates, as well as the Jem’Hadar and the Breen.

She had, however, never fought the Borg and certainly had never entertained any ambition to fill that blank space in her resume.

None of this, of course, had stopped her from suggesting a daring rescue mission right into the heart of the Borg sphere the moment she had learned of Tazla Star’s abduction.

Xylion who had assumed command by default after their first officer had been taken, had been reluctant at first to sign off on what at the time had appeared like a rather rash and not well-thought-out away mission into an extremely hostile environment.

It hadn’t taken her long to convince the Vulcan that her plan was anything but rash.

Not long after the Special Missions Team, the Niners, had joined Eagle’s crew, Nora Laas had made it her priority to sit down with their leader Sensy and meticulously craft and train for dozens of potential scenarios that they may one day have to face, and as it so happened, infiltrating a Borg vessel had been scenario eight on their list.

And so, less than an hour after the Borg had abducted Star, Nora Laas found herself leading a small team of Niners onto the sphere, equipped with highly specialized hybrid phaser/projectile rifles designed to fight the Borg.

She quickly found that none of their training had quite prepared her for the real thing since no matter how realistic a holodeck program was, it just couldn’t quite do the real thing justice.

It had been the stillness inside the sphere that was most disconcerting. She was used to operating in enemy territory by sneaking her way passed soldiers and guards and eliminating her enemies using stealth tactics or, if necessary, overwhelming force to overcome whatever defenses she encountered.

But here, deep inside the Borg ship, while surrounded by what seemed like countless drones lining the walls as far as the eye could see, nothing and nobody even reacted to their presence.

It was unnerving to make her way through one corridor after the next, mostly in single-file, while she felt a thousand empty eyes watching her and patiently waiting to make their move.

It wasn’t until they had located the central chamber in which they believed Star was being kept that the Borg finally responded to their presence, dozens of them awaking from their alcoves and bearing down on her team.

The fireworks commenced in earnest when their strategically placed explosives ripped across the sphere, distracting the now suddenly active drones long enough to blow a large opening into the central chamber that apparently could not be accessed in any other obvious fashion.

They knew that they were on a tight timetable the moment the shooting had started and everyone understood their task by heart.

Grunt, the massive Nausicaan, promptly unstrapped the sensor-cloaked tri-cobalt bomb he had carried strapped to his shoulders and that was nearly as tall as his own impressive frame.

Sensy helped him set up the device near the curved bulkhead of the round chamber while Violet and Boom, the Andorian heavy weapon specialist, provided cover.

This left Laas free to make a beeline for the person they had come for.

Tazla Star looked awful. She was strapped to an upright table, most of her body was covered in sweat and her skin was rapidly losing color while two injectors were pumping nanoprobes into her bloodstream.

She was screaming in agonizing pain, giving Laas pause.

But she didn’t hesitate twice. She pulled those injectors free from her neck and used a laser cutter to free her from the restraints.

“Easy, Commander, I’ve got you,” she said once the other woman collapsed into her arms.

She needed Grunt's assistance to carry Star since there was no chance that the Trill could even stand on her own feet in her condition.

Getting out was far more challenging than getting in.

The central area of the sphere was too well shielded to allow for a direct beam-out, which meant the team had to make its way back to the periphery on foot, except that this time, seemingly a thousand Borg drones were determined to stop them from getting there.

A second set of carefully placed explosives did an adequate job of clearing a path for them, or at the very least, slowing down the Borg trying to cut off their escape route.

And still, Laas and the rest of the team found themselves firing their weapons nearly non-stop as they barreled their way through the narrow corridors with their high-value cargo.

Her rifle constantly alternated between high-powered and randomly modulated phaser beams and spitting out high-velocity, duranium-laced bullets, a combination that seemed somewhat successful against both Borg energy shields and armor.

And although Laas was not overly familiar with this type of specialized rifle, she’d always had a knack for quickly picking up and inherently understanding weaponry and before long she had gotten used to the thunderous clap of each bullet clearing the muzzle, the recoil that shook her hands, the spent casings flying out of the chamber, and anticipating the requirement to slam a new cartridge into the rifle when the old one had emptied.

By the time they had reached their beam-out point, she was down to her last magazine while the Boslic woman in the team had already discarded her weapon to begin slashing at drones with her katana-style sword, chopping off heads and limps with nearly every swing of her razor-sharp blade.

“Away team to Eagle. We have the package. Bring us home,” she shouted as soon as she felt the vibration of her combadge, letting her know that they had reached the less well-shielded area of the sphere.

She already knew that they were running behind their carefully planned schedule. Probably just a second or two, but even that could be enough to ensure all their deaths.

She heard the far-away explosion before she felt the deck rattle under her boots.

The transporter beam took hold of her not a moment later but not quickly enough for her to avoid a particularly tall drone, it looked like a former Jem’Hadar soldier, grab hold of her even as she dematerialized.

It may not have been physically possible but she was sure she could feel his cold grip all the way through the transporter cycle.

It was the change of the air, going from a stale and antiseptic smell of the Borg cube to the deceivingly fresh, recycled starship air of Eagle that gave her the first indication that they were back home.

She gave herself no time at all to react to her new surroundings, not with a massive Borg drone looming over her.

She jammed her rifle into his chest and held down the trigger, blasting five rounds into the drone at point-blank range. They turned out to be her last, the power clip feeding the phaser element had already given out and she had no time to replace it. The drone stumbled, but somehow the bullets shredding its armor had apparently missed all vital body parts and it quickly recovered by grabbing her throat.

From the corner of her eye, she could see it was trying to bring up its arm that had a spinning circular saw attached to it and aiming it straight for her face.

With little time to think or act, Laas used her own body as a weapon, throwing herself against the drone and catching it off-balance. She pumped her legs and drove it so hard into a bulkhead, destroying a built-in computer console as the Borg collided with it.

They toppled over together and fell to the deck.

The drone landed on top of her but she used their momentum to roll over and on top of the former Jem’Hadar while her right hand retrieved the laser cutter she had used earlier, activating it even as she brought it down hard against the Borg’s neck.

She felt it cutting through tissue and metal but wasn’t satisfied to leave it at that, and instead began to stab it multiple times until it leaked copious amounts of grayish ooze that at some point may have been blood.

Breathing hard she climbed off the lifeless body of the drone and with most of her strength having drained out of her, she simply sat down next to the thing, leaning against the bulkhead and surrounded by the remains of the wall console.

It was only then, slowly catching her breath again, that she allowed herself to look up to see that she had arrived in sickbay, the rest of the Niners looking at her with undeniable respect.

The medical staff on the other hand seemed mostly terrified by what they had just witnessed.

Sensy stepped up to where she sat and offered a hand. “Ever consider joining the Teams? You’d fit right in.”
She took the proffered hand and let him pull her up to her feet. “This gig is giving me all the excitement I need.”

The doors to sickbay swished open and Elijah Katanga came rushing in. The octogenarian doctor was moving impressively fast for his age.

His eyes took in the scene of Laas and the lifeless Borg drone in his sickbay for less than a second before finding Tazla Star, still being carried, seemingly effortlessly by the large Nausicaan. “Put her down here,” he said and pointed at the centrally positioned bio-bed. “And then get the hell out of my sickbay. Make sure to take that God-forsaken cyborg thing with you.”

Grunt did as he was told as he and the rest of the Niners picked up the dead drone and left the room.

The briefly unnerved nurses and med techs recovered from the unexpected fight in sickbay and under Katanga’s curt directions were back in their element as they tended to their patient.

Laas stuck around and watched as the team of medical professionals began to treat the first officer. “How’s she doing?”

He shook his head without stopping his efforts to inject her with various hyposprays and firing off instructions to his team. “She’s been injected with enough of those blasted nanoprobes to start the assimilation process. We’re up against a clock here.”

The Trill was still semi-conscious and reached out to grab Katanga’s hand. She lifted her head off the bed as her eyes stared back at him with total focus. “Save … Star.”

It took Laas a moment to realize what she was saying. She wasn’t pleading for her own life, she was trying to make sure that Katanga would save her symbiont instead, the worm-like creature inside her that had lived for hundreds of years in several host bodies.

Katanga clearly had no time for this and quickly freed himself. “The anesthezine is ineffective. Switch to neurozine, twenty ccs.”

Adams, Katanga’s head nurse, had the right hypo out in a flash and applied it to Star’s bare arm. The drug showed an almost immediate effect and the first officer collapsed back onto the bed.

Katanga was consulting her vitals on a nearby monitor. “The nanoprobes are spreading too fast and are moments away from taking over her central nervous system,” he said and Laas admired how the veteran physician’s voice remained entirely free of panic or distress. “We need to stop the spread now or we’ll lose her.”

“The alkysine treatment is not achieving the desired effect,” said Adams after she had administered another hypospray while a medtech was passing her yet another.

Katanga was shaking his head. “It won’t be. We’ll need something far more radical if we want any hope of stopping this poison coursing through her veins,” he said as he took a step back from her slowly transforming body.

Laas felt anxiety grip her when she realized that he was looking right at her. She wasn’t prone to experiencing such emotions. Not when going into battle, not even when facing the Borg, but now, she felt terribly helpless as the doctor with nearly three times her experience, seemed to be looking at her for answers she couldn’t give.

It took her a moment to realize that he wasn’t really looking at her. He was thinking. He turned back toward the computer console and began to type in some commands. “What we need is something formidable enough to fight nanoprobes. Something just as vicious,” he said.

“I can’t think of any medical compound that is as powerful,” said Leeta Adams.

That made him stop and look up again. “Right. So maybe we shouldn’t be looking for medication at all.”

She looked confused by that. “I’m not sure I follow.”

He was back working at the computer. “Prepare a compound of HTLV. “

“You cannot be serious.”

But Katanga didn’t even slow down. “What we need is evil to fight evil. We’ll inject her with a T-cell lymphotropic virus.”
Part 3 - The Escape: 12 by CeJay
12


“You gave me cancer?”

Tazla was incredulous upon hearing Eli explain to her what he had done to save her life and she wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be grateful or mortified. She eventually settled on the former. Although she had struggled to shake a persistent cough ever since she had awoken in sickbay and felt weaker than she had in a long time, the fact that those voices were no longer in her head and that she was still herself rather than a mindless Borg drone was reward enough to overlook that Katanga had given her one of the deadliest diseases known in history to keep her from turning into a cyborg.

“Not just any cancer,” said Eli with what could only be described as a smug smile on his face. “We’re talking about a mutated strand of adult T-cell lymphoma that metastasizes up to one hundred times faster than regular lymphoma. Think of it like cancer on steroids.”

Leeta handed her a glass of water she downed greedily, not realizing how thirsty she had been. It also immediately triggered another coughing fit that took her a moment to recover from. “So, what you’re saying is, that instead of becoming part of the Collective, I now have to look forward to wasting away to cancer?”

“What kind of quack do you take me for?” he said, his smile now gone and consulting a tricorder, scanning her from head to toe.

“Apparently one who injects his patients with deadly diseases.”

“It was quite a feat actually, considering how little time we had. But the virus and the nanoprobes in your system immediately went to war with each other inside your body and practically wiped each other out. There are still some traces of cancerous cells that remain but we’ll be able to neutralize them fairly easily with regular anti-cancer treatments. You won’t be back to full strength for a couple of days but, most importantly, you are one-hundred percent nanoprobe free,” he said and closed the tricorder with apparent satisfaction.

The doors to sickbay opened to allow Xylion to enter.

Tazla immediately focused on the approaching science officer. “Commander, what is the status of the Borg sphere?”

The Vulcan stepped up to the foot of her biobed and clasped his hands behind his back. “Lieutenant Nora and her away team were successful in deploying a tri-cobalt device inside the Borg sphere during your rescue. The sphere was subsequently destroyed.”

She nodded. “Clever.” She fought another cough she managed to dispel after a sip of water before she looked back at Xylion. “What’s our status?”

Eagle has taken only minor damage in our encounter with the Borg, primarily due to the transphasic shield. We are currently en route to the hazard zone of the Moebius Cluster in order to impair any further pursuit.

Tazla sat up a little straighter on her bed. “First the Dominion and now the Borg. Please tell me there isn’t anyone else after us.”

He marginally shook his head. “We have not detected any other ships following us. I ordered the course change as a precautionary measure.”

“Good thinking.”

Xylion considered Katanga. “Doctor, what is Commander Star’s condition?”

“Well, mostly thanks to some rather ingenious although admittedly radical treatment methods, I can safely say that our favorite Trill will eventually make a full recovery,” he said with a smile on his lips which, of course, was entirely lost on the Vulcan who merely responded with a raised eyebrow. “I suppose that means the ship will remain yours to command for the time being.”

“Indeed,” he said.

“Everybody stop talking like I’m not in the room,” Tazla said mildly annoyed. Yes, she felt weak and light-headed, but as far as she was concerned, as long as she was conscious and with the captain missing, she was in charge. “I’ll resume command as soon as I can get out of here.”

“That won’t be for a while, I’m afraid,” Katanga said.

“You just said I’ll make a full recovery.”

“I said eventually. Right now, your body is nowhere near full strength. You’ve gone from nearly being assimilated, to suffering a rapid form of cancer within a few hours. You should consider yourself lucky that you’re lucid enough to be able to string two coherent sentences together.”

She knew he was right. She had been a physician in her former life after all. And yet she found it enormously difficult to abdicate her responsibilities, even if only for a brief time.

“I should inform you that we have received what appears to be a coded message from the Captain,” Xylion said.

That made her jump up slightly. “What?”

Xylion continued calmly. “The message was sent on a very-low subspace band the computer initially disregarded as background noise. However, upon closer inspection, it seems clear that it is a message to us relaying a set of coordinates, possibly the Captain’s destination.”

“I really think you should have led with that,” she said, threw away her covers, and promptly tried to get out of bed. She found herself quickly stopped by Katanga, placing a firm hand on her shoulder and pinning her in place.

“And where do you think you’re going?”

She shot him an incredulous look but found herself mostly irritated that the octogenarian was keeping her in place effortlessly. She liked to think that it had less to do with his strength and everything with her current state. “You heard him. The Captain needs our help.”

He shook his head. “What I heard was that we believe we know where he’s going. And it doesn’t change the fact that you’re in no condition to return to duty.”

Her eyes took on a harder quality as she regarded him. “Eli, we’re talking about the possible fate of an entire universe. I can’t just lay here and--“

“That’s exactly what you’re going to do, my dear. Commander Xylion is more than capable to get us where we need to go. Now, get back into bed and start recovering. That’s an order. Unless, of course, you’d like me to get Lieutenant Nora back down here to keep you in line. She did seem quite concerned for your well-being.”

“The doctor is correct,” Xylion said.

“We agree on something?” Katanga said with mock-disbelieve. “Perhaps the universe is really coming to an end after all.”

“Not funny,” she said.

Xylion continued as if neither had spoken. “We will continue on our current heading toward the Moebius Cluster to ensure we are no longer being pursued and then order a course change for the coordinates we’ve received. I expect that we will arrive at that destination within five point three hours. That will provide us with sufficient time to reach the collider before we expect it to reactivate.”

“See, everything is well in hand,” he said with a smile, even while he pushed her back onto the bed. Once he was satisfied that she was staying put, his eyes found Xylion’s. “Commander, if there’s nothing else. I think we should leave Taz to rest now.”

“Naturally.”

“Keep me informed if anything changes,” she said.

He offered a brief nod and then left sickbay.

“At least let me get back to my quarters,” she said. “I don’t need to be in sickbay to recover.”

He considered her suspiciously but then began to nod. He retrieved a couple of small round devices, one of which he attached to her temple, the other to her chest. “I’ll keep monitoring your readings remotely. And don’t get any ideas, I’ll monitor the doors to your quarters as well. You try to leave and I’ll have half of security chase you down.”

She offered a grim smile in return. “You know what, Eli? I think you missed your calling. You should have become a jailer, not a doctor.”

There really was no escaping his clutches she realized when he had also insisted to have her escorted back to her quarters by a couple of medtechs who seemed as uncomfortable with their task as she was of being led across the ship by a medical entourage.

She did utter a sigh of relief once the doors closed behind her and she was alone in her quarters.

She had put on a brave face in front of Katanga and Xylion but she couldn’t deny how truly weak she still felt. And even worse, she had not been able to shake the memory of the pain and the sheer panic she had experienced when those Borg nanoprobes had been pumped into her body.

She had purposefully kept the scars of her emotional trauma from Katanga since the last thing she needed now was a mandatory trip to the counselor’s office but the truth was, the experience of nearly being assimilated had shaken her more than anything else she had gone through in recent memory.

She made a beeline for her bed and let herself fall into it.

Although there was little denying that she felt exhausted, she also quickly realized that her mind would not let her fall back asleep, not with all those errant and disturbing thoughts flying around within her head.

She got back up and headed for the refresher.

The face that greeted her in the mirror looked like a pale imitation of herself like somebody had tried to draw her features but given up halfway through the attempt.

She heard a voice coming from her living room.

She found Katanga standing in the dark room.

“Damn it, Eli, you’ve already got me practically locked up in here. I don’t need you to guard me as well,” she said, annoyed that he had entered her quarters unannounced.

He stepped closer and the starlight from the windows caught his face.

She froze when she realized that it didn’t belong to her long-time friend at all.

“Did you truly believe I would allow you to escape so easily?” said Tyrantus

She took a step back at seeing Katanga fully transform into the Borg who had abducted her. “How did you get on board?”

“It was not difficult to find you again,” he said as he continued to close in while she tried to maintain her distance. “You are part of the Collective now, Tazla Star.”

She shook her head. “No. The nanoprobes you injected me with are gone.”

“You can hear it. All our voices. They are within you.”

Her back hit the bulkhead and she had nowhere to go as he continued to bear down on her.

He was right. The voices were back. A billion Borg talking to her with a single voice inside her mind.

She reached for her head and screamed. “Make it stop.”

“It will never stop. You belong to us now,” he said and grabbed a fistful of her shirt and lifted her up along the wall until her feet were clear off the floor.

Tazla kicked hard against his right knee cap which caused him to lose his balance and his grip on her.

She went tumbling to the floor, a chair arresting her fall as it toppled over even as she went down.

Her victory was short-lived.

Tyrantus was back on top of her in an instant, slapping away her arms, a weak attempt to push him away, grabbing her once more, and throwing her right into the nearby glass coffee table that smashed to pieces under her weight.

This wasn’t the first time Tazla had tangled with a man possessing Michael Owens’s face, and while she had prevailed easily the last time, she simply did not have the strength to fight his Borg version.

As she tried to get back up she cut herself on the glass shards all around her but knew that this was the least of her problems right now.

She couldn’t win this fight and her only chance was to get away while she still could. Though dazed, she could see the doors to her quarters just a few meters away. If she could just get out into the corridors, she figured, perhaps she could get help.

She came up like in a runner’s stance, determined to dash for the exit.

Tyrantus had expected the move.

He intercepted her before she had even made it halfway there, slamming into her so hard, it felt like she had run into a wall of solid duranium.

Stunned, she stumbled backward and toward the other room.

In her state, it didn’t take him much effort at all to push her down onto her bed before he pinned her with the full weight of his body.

With zero strength remaining, she couldn’t stop him when he raised an arm and two narrow tubes emerged from his hand, snaking their way toward her neck and penetrating her skin.

“Resistance is futile.”

Her vision began to blur until she could no longer make out any shapes at all. That same agonizing fire she had felt on the Borg sphere once again filled her from the inside, threatening to burn her up as darkness began to claim her.

“No,” she screamed and pushed back with all she had, refusing to give in.

She managed to get back up into a sitting position just as her vision returned.

Tazla found herself in her bed, breathing hard and covered in sweat, alone.

She looked around and saw her quarters exactly the way they had been when she had entered them earlier.

“Godsdamnit,” she mumbled under her breath and let herself fall back onto the sweat-soaked sheets. “Maybe a counselor wouldn’t be the worst idea.”
Part 4 - Roundabout Route: 1 by CeJay
Part IV: Roundabout Route



1


Amargosa Station was an impressive sight, not so much for its size or design but rather for its location and its architectural ingenuity.

The station had been built into the inside of a cracked moon, orbiting a massive gas giant and Michael had some serious reservations about the longevity of the structure the way it had been seemingly hastily merged to a dead satellite that, in all likelihood, had already commenced a slow but steady death spiral toward the planet it orbited until it would eventually be swallowed up whole by it.

The fate of Amargosa Station, however, was not a significant concern to him at present as Amaya Donners gathered his team in Lead Belly’s docking port.

“We’re about to dock,” she said as she strode into the antechamber that led into the airlock. “I don’t know what kind of space stations you people are used to, but Amargosa isn’t a very happy place and I’d rather not spend a minute longer on there than I absolutely have to. The plan is as follows: We go in, I’ll take you to my contact and we get the hell out again.”

“That’s fine with us,” said Michael, nodding.

Amaya glanced at Culsten and Garla. “And I suggest the two of you stay on the ship.”

“Your concern is touching,” Garla said sharply. “But I have no interest in staying behind.”

Amaya uttered a heavy sigh as if she had expected this kind of resistance. Then she turned toward a locker, retrieved two long cloaks, and threw them at the other woman who caught them easily. “If you insist on being stubborn, at least wear these. You do us no favors running around Amargosa and advertising that you’re Krellonians.”

Garla was just about to offer another retort but Michael beat her to it. “An acceptable compromise, I’m sure,” he said, pinning her with a look that was sufficient to make her relent before she followed Culsten’s example and begrudgingly pulled on the concealing garment but not before complaining about its general state and its unpleasant odor.

If she was unhappy about how dirty and smelly her disguise was, Michael couldn’t imagine how she felt about the station once they had set foot on it.

He hadn’t been in this universe for long but from everything he had seen and heard about it, the fact that there was no Starfleet or Federation and that its people lived in mostly poor and borderline lawless conditions, had given him a fair idea of what life in this reality was like.

Amargosa Station turned out to be worse than what he had imagined.

It reminded him a little bit of the stories he had heard of orbital ore processing stations that the Cardassians had employed to strip mine planets they had conquered.

After boarding, they had been quickly ushered onto the main concourse that on most starbases he had been on would have functioned as a promenade of sorts with storefronts, entertainment establishments, restaurants, and other facilities. Some of those existed here as well, but mostly it was a dark, dirty thoroughfare for Krellonian workers carrying minerals and ores that were being mined from the broken moon.

Large walkways above were reserved for Outlander races, many in uniform, although the few, massive, ursine Buoth he spotted up there didn’t bother with much clothing at all, as they were covered with thick brown or black fur.

Clearly, a great many of those Outlanders were guards, actively monitoring the traffic below, armed with batons or guns that could be wielded quickly.

The station was generally in a poor state, the floors they walked on were covered with dirt and waste with plenty of floor plates missing outright, making the cramped space even more treacherous to navigate. Entire wall sections were uncovered to reveal old and barely functioning conduits and electronics and the smell was a near toxic mixture of unprocessed minerals and metals, along with the stench of too many unwashed bodies huddled together in a far too small place.

“Charming locale,” Jon Owens said as he pushed past two Krellonians precariously balancing a stacked but broken anti-grav carrier between each other.

“I’ve only been here once before,” said Frobisher. “And at the time I had promised myself to never come back here again.”

“It grows on you after a while,” said Amaya who led the group across the concourse with relative confidence. She had left the rest of her crew behind on her ship, arguing that the last thing you wanted to do on Amargosa was bring a crowd.

Seeing this station and the masses of workers here, Michael understood her argument completely, in fact, he now realized that even the size of their team was likely too large for it.

“Just keep your heads down, don’t talk to anyone and for God’s sake, do not touch anything,” she said as she continued to lead them single-file through the throngs of people.

“This contact of yours. Who is he?” Michael asked as he squeezed himself past two Nausicaans, the few non-Krellonians or Outlanders he had seen on this station, both of whom offered angry grunts in response.

“Somebody who hopefully knows how to get you where you need to go. I’ve arranged a meeting in one of the cargo holds a few decks down. We should have a bit more room down there to breathe, not to mention, privacy.”

“What’s his name?” he said. “In case we get separated.”

She kept her pace but didn’t respond.

Michael caught up with her and reached out for her shoulder. “Wait, you don’t even know your contact’s name?”

She pulled back, freeing herself from his touch, and shrugged. “We’ve only ever spoken via subspace where we use code names. He goes by Gray.”

“You have no idea what your contact even looks like?” said Matthew, not quite able to mask the astonishment in his voice. “And we are trusting this person with our lives because?”

“Whoever Gray is,” she said with annoyance, “my contact has never let me down, never broken a promise, or sold me a bad product. So, you could say, Gray has been far more reliable than you and your partner have been. I take reliable over faces and names every time.”

But Matthew was not impressed. “Wes, I think we should rethink this.”

Michael responded in his stead. “We’re already committed and we’ve come too far to try and come up with another plan now.”

“There are no other plans,” Amaya said. “Not if you’re serious about trying to get deeper into Outlander territory. It’s this or I can leave you right here and you can try your luck with the local authorities. I’ll be out of the latinum you still owe me but it’ll almost be worth it for the entertainment value of seeing you skinned alive by the T’aq.”

Michael couldn’t tell how serious she was but one glance toward the walkway and the ferocious-looking lupines stalking above, he didn’t have a difficult time imagining those creatures being able to administer such punishment.

“We’ll carry on,” said Michael and found everyone else in the group in agreement. Everybody but Garla, he realized.

The sentinel had stopped walking and was now looking at an altercation a few meters away in front of a large industrial elevator that had apparently broken down in-between decks.

In an attempt to clear the lift’s cargo of heavy ores, a few Krellonian workers had accidentally spilled two cases of valuable minerals.

A uniformed, humanoid Kidrip was in the process of savagely beating a male Krellonian who, although bigger than the guard, offered no resistance as his face was being pummeled. A slightly younger female worker was already on the floor, her face bleeding as well from another beating.

Another guard, a reptilian Zel, stood nearby watching on with a rifle in his hand, and keeping other Krellonians from coming too close.

Garla was watching all this with a deep frown etched into her features.

“Come on, there’s nothing we can do, let’s go,” said Culsten.

“Those are our people, Lif,” she said angrily without taking her eyes off the gruesome scene.

He shook his head. “No, they’re not. Not really.”

“Doesn’t matter what universe we’re in. Those are Krellonians.”

“Maybe,” he said. “And I know it’s wrong. But I also know that in our universe, a scene like that, but reversed, with the Outlanders being beaten by Krellonians, wouldn’t exactly be headline-grabbing news.”

Garla shook her head in disbelief. “Right now, I don’t care. I can’t just stand here and do nothing,” she said and began heading for the elevator.

“We don’t have time for this,” said Amaya with annoyance after being forced to stop for the Krellonian sentinel. “Get her back in line. She gets herself involved and she may as well be signing all our death warrants.”

Michael understood and quickly moved to intercept Garla. He managed to get to her just before she had reached the mass of onlookers around the public beating. Apparently, the Outlanders were happy enough for others to witness their form of punishment, no doubt to serve as a warning for everyone else.

He managed to grab her by her upper arm before she could close in any further. “Think this through. You attack them here and we’re in a world of trouble. We may not even make it off this station in one piece. Our mission is too important to take that kind of risk.”

“Where’s that famously arrogant Federation morality now, Captain?” she said in a tone icy enough to give him chills. “Does it only apply when it suits your needs?”

Although he kept his voice down, he matched her intensity in tone. “My morality comes with the wisdom to understand when it must be applied and when greater imperatives take precedent.”

Garla freed herself from Michael’s grasp. “When I see something wrong, I’ll act on it. That’s my imperative.”

Before he could say anything else she had slipped out of his fingers and disappeared within the crowd surrounding them. “Goddamnit,” he mumbled quietly to himself. He wasn’t armed, Amaya had seen to that, but he very much doubted that a weapon would have done him much good in this situation. His best chance now, he understood, was to get his team back to the ship as quickly as possible.

He glanced once more toward the Outlander continuing to beat the Krellonian worker who did little more than moan and bleed, his face already a deformed mess, with no sign of Garla anywhere, before he began to turn back to the rest of his people.

But before he had managed more than a step, the sentinel was back at his side. “Let’s get going,” she said forcefully

Michael was momentarily confused. He looked back at the elevator but couldn’t see anything having changed and wondered if she had reconsidered after all.

“Now,” she repeated urgently.

And then he realized that the Kidrip was slowing down delivering the punishment. He took a step back and reached for his side where Michael was sure he could see something akin to blood. Too dark in color to belong to the Krellonian.

Michael understood what must have happened. Garla had somehow managed to slip close to the Outlander without being noticed and had likely delivered a fatal blow with a sharp weapon. He also understood that they better be as far away from the scene of the crime as reasonably possible before the Outlanders realized that one of their own had been attacked.

He quickly made it back to Amaya. “Let’s go. Now.”

She didn’t hesitate and the team was back on the move and when Michael glanced back one last time, the look on the Kidrip guard’s face was still one of perplexity, not yet understanding that he was likely already dead.

Amaya led them to a small staircase that didn’t see a lot of use and then descended four decks in a hurry. Michael made up the rear, mostly to make sure they were not being followed but also to help Jon Owens along who was not just the oldest member of the team but also, by far, the slowest.

The lower decks were more bearable than the concourse. It wasn’t empty, there were still workers lugging around containers and the occasional guard, but it was a far cry from the packed conditions above and they managed to traverse the corridors without further altercations until they reached their destination.

The cargo hold was truly massive, easily the size of Eagle’s main shuttlebay, probably a bit larger. It was also packed with rows and rows of shipping crates waiting to be loaded onto freighters.

Amaya navigated the maze with admirable confidence until they reached an artificially created clearing, surrounded by crates and containers.

Two Krellonian laborers were checking the inventory but upon seeing the away team they quickly decided against sticking around and disappeared deeper into the cargo hold.

Garla shook her head with disgust. “Our people have been reduced to skittish kergs in the woods, hopping away the moment they even suspect trouble nearby.”

“The Outlanders have not been kind to them,” said Matthew.

“That’s an understatement,” added Culsten, referring to what they had witnessed above.

Michael turned to Amaya. “Where this contact of yours? Where’s Gray?”

She leaned casually against one of the crates and crossed her arms in front of her chest. “They’ll be here. My contact has never let me down before.”

“But when?” he said. “In case I haven’t already stressed the urgency of our task before, we are on a tight clock here.”

“Keep your shirt on,” she said as she was making herself as comfortable as possible. “You can’t expect everyone to work on your schedule. Besides, you better start thinking about how you’re going to pay me. Charm and looks are only going to get you so far.”

“I told you, you get your latinum once we manage to rendezvous with my ship. Hopefully, your contact will be able to make that happen.”

Garla, however, didn’t seem content to wait and was already on the move again. He stopped her before she could leave. “Where are you going?”

“Please tell me they at least teach you rudimentary tactics in Starfleet? Take in your surroundings, Captain. What does this look like to you?”

He did as she had suggested. The area they had been led into was enclosed on all sides by containers stacked too high to climb across. Three narrow walkways between containers led in and out of the area. Michael understood straight away. “Great place for an ambush.”

She nodded. “Who knows, all this may work out. But if you don’t mind, I’ll err on side of being prepared for our contacts being less than friendly and find a better vantage point. You stay here and play the bait. Shouldn’t be too difficult for an experienced Starfleet officer.”

He couldn’t argue her logic even if he hated the condescending tone in her voice. After serving as a starship captain for the last five years, it had been a long time since anyone had spoken to him in this manner, and quite frankly, he was getting sick of it.

Garla, of course, didn’t care, nor did she give him an opportunity to air his grievances since she promptly departed into one of those narrow alleys.

“Looks like being skittish is an inherently Krellonian trait,” said Amaya with a large smirk on her face.

Michael just shot her an annoyed look in response.

The next ten minutes felt excruciatingly long to him considering that by now the station had to be on high alert from Garla’s assault on an Outlander guard. His far greater concern was the fact that they only had a very limited window, according to Frobisher, to return to the supercollider and stop it from at best, annihilating another reality and at worse, taking the entire quantum-verse with it.

Garla’s caution proved to be justified when he spotted a set of two Krellonians appearing at each of the three walkways. These men and women were not the same types of laborers they had predominantly encountered on Amargosa before. If their clothing was anything to go by, they seemed to have much more in common with Amaya’s crew, which led Michael to believe that they were mercenaries of some kind. This seemed to be confirmed when they brandished weapons they promptly aimed at him and his team.

“What is this?” Amaya said as she stood from where she had been sitting against a container for the last few minutes. “We’re here to meet with Gray.”

“In this time and place, taking precautions, comes with my line of work,” said a voice that sounded familiar to Michael.

It was so familiar, that he glanced at Lif Culsten first only to find that he hadn’t spoken.

Instead, the voice belonged to a man who walked out of one of the walkways, emerging behind two armed Krellonians and who looked almost indistinguishable from his helmsman.

“Amaya Donners, I presume?” he said, glancing at the captain of the Lead Belly.

She nodded but said nothing, clearly recognizing his face and looking back at Michael for answers.

“I’m Gray,” he said. “And from what I’m hearing, you have a rather lucrative business proposal for me.”

Nobody spoke and it clearly irritated him. “First off, I want to know who I’m doing business with. I know you,” he said, pointing at Donners. The rest of you look like humans,” he added, glancing over at Frobisher, Matthew, and Jon Owens with his eyes coming to a rest on his doppelganger who was still wearing a coat that did a decent enough job to hide his features within its hood. “What about you? Who are you supposed to be?”

Michael shook his head and took a step forward, ostensibly to put himself in between the two men. “It doesn’t matter who he is,” he said. “I’m the one paying the bills.”

“See, that’s not going to work for me. As you can imagine, my enemies far outnumber my friends. The only reason I’m still alive is because I know how to keep one step ahead of those trying to kill me. So I’ll have to insist.” He gestured for two of his people standing closest to him and they stepped up with their weapons drawn. “Show your face.”

Culsten, clearly not seeing another option, complied and threw his hood back to reveal his long gray hair and his face.

The other Culsten’s reaction was not surprising. “By the Creator, what is going on here? Who are you?”

“That’s a long story,” said his alternate.

But the other Culsten was not in a mood for stories, that much was clear, as he quickly shook his head. “The bastard Outties are behind this, aren’t they? They’re trying to replace me with somebody they can control? It’s not going to work. Kill them all.”

Before Michael could even start pleading his case, Garla reappeared. He hadn’t even seen her approach but all of a sudden, she stood directly behind the enraged Culsten, something sharp and shiny glinting in her hand and pressed up against his throat. “You might want to reconsider that. See, you wouldn’t even be the first Lif Culsten I’ve watched die in the last few days.”

His guards wheeled around to take a beat on Garla but none had a clear shot with their boss blocking the way.

“Tell your people to take a breath and lower those guns. We wouldn’t want one of them to accidentally perforate you.”

“Do as she says,” he said between clenched teeth.

His people slowly put down their weapons.

“You’re Garla,” he said, apparently having been able to recognize her voice. “How is that possible?”

“It’s as the man said. A long and complicated story. But we are not working with the Outlanders and we need your help to get into their territory.”

“I don’t believe you.”

That’s when the shooting started.

It didn’t come from Michael or his team nor the other Culsten and his people and he painfully realized that Garla had remained right after all. Except that she had been wrong about who was ambushing whom.
Part 4 - Roundabout Route: 2 by CeJay
2


She had tried to sleep again. A couple of times.

But after spending hours merely tossing and turning in her sheets, unable to find any kind of meaningful rest, she had ultimately given up on the idea altogether.

Sleepless nights weren’t a new thing to Tazla Star.

Years earlier, when she had worked as an intelligence agent, she had made the fateful decision to expose her body to Syndicate-Y, a powerful and addictive drug common among the Orion Syndicate in order to better keep their operatives in line. The decision had benefited her mission in the short term but she had found it impossible to kick the habit entirely afterward and had spent countless miserable years addicted to a substance that kept her body and mind on constant edge, rarely allowing her a full night’s sleep.

She had finally conquered the worst aspects of her addiction thanks to the efforts of Elijah Katanga just a few months earlier and had begun to enjoy routinely sleeping five to six hours a night, something that would have been nearly impossible before, and not just because of the war.

She took a long sonic shower in lieu of sleep, trying to shake off any lingering sense of enervation and to successfully overcome the gentle pangs craving a quick shot of Y.

By the time she was done, she could see from the viewports of her quarters that the ship had dropped out of warp.

But instead of being greeted by the colorful starscape of the Amargosa Diaspora, all she could see was a dense field of icy asteroids that made it virtually impossible to spot anything beyond it with the naked eye. It led her to believe that they were currently hiding inside an Oort Cloud.

It bothered her immensely that she didn’t know their exact whereabouts or that she had no access to the latest mission updates. She hated the feeling of being out of the loop. As the first officer, it was not a feeling she was overly familiar with.

It was worse knowing that the captain was still missing and that by any rights, she was supposed to be overseeing the ship and crew and their efforts to retrieve Owens.

It didn’t take her long to decide to get dressed and head for the bridge.

Her arrival went mostly unnoticed by the senior staff that was discussing a space station visible on the main screen. An ugly squat construct that had somehow, quite impressively she had to admit, been grafted to the inside of a broken-up moon orbiting a bright gas giant.

“I can no longer detect the source of the captain’s signal,” said DeMara Deen from operations as her fingers danced over the console. “But our latest triangulation puts him either on this station or in near proximity of it.”

“What do we know about the station?” said Tazla as she slowly made her way down the ramp connecting the aft part of the bridge to the command area.

All eyes turned to her, including Xylion’s who smoothly stood from the captain’s chair and added a raised eyebrow to indicate his surprise at finding her on the bridge. “Commander, may I remind you that you are still off duty.”

“Certainly not.”

“I do not wish to confine you to quarters, sir, but Doctor Katanga was very specific about his instructions and I do not intend to ignore them,” the Vulcan continued.

She raised her hands defensively. The last thing she needed now was to have a security team drag her back to sickbay. Once she was in Elijah’s care again, she’d be stuck down there for the next week. “I’m not here to take command. I’m just observing,” she said, and then to stress her point she took a seat not in her usual chair to the right of the captain’s seat, but on one of the jump chairs on the far left of it. “Pretend I’m not even here.”

Both Deen and Alendra at the helm couldn’t quite suppress grins as they watched her take a seat.

Xylion, of course, didn’t smile. It took him a moment to consider his next move, no doubt running through regulations in his mind concerning off-duty officers and their access rights to the bridge during medical leave.

He ultimately decided to tolerate her presence with a minuscule nod and then glanced at Deen. “Are you able to detect the captain or the away team on the station?”

Deen quickly turned back to her console. “Not at this distance and if I move the sensor probe any closer to the station we risk it being detected. However, I am reading several different races. There are over five-thousands beings on board, it wouldn’t be difficult to hide a couple of humans and Krellonian life signs among all that activity.”

“Which means we need to get over there,” said Tazla, immediately causing Xylion to look her way again. “I mean, that’s what I would do if I were in command. Which, to be clear, I’m not,” she said, avoiding eye contact with the man who was.

“It won’t be easy. The probe we launched is fairly small but they would most certainly see us coming the moment we leave the Kuiper belt,” said Deen.

“A shuttle then?” Tazla said

Xylion was about to speak up but Leva beat him to it. “We could attempt an in-system warp jump from inside the belt to the far side of the gas giant and from there it should be relatively easy to get to the moon station.”

Deen nodded along. “The moon is gravitationally locked to the gas giant. It does not rotate on its own axis and keeps the station perpetually facing away from the planet. It should be possible to approach the moon from the gas giant undetected.”

The Vulcan science officer considered the bridge officers for a moment, most likely carrying out his own calculations as to the soundness of their logic.

“Seems like a plan to me,” said Tazla with a little smile.

The science officer looked at the half-Romulan at the tactical board. “Do sensors detect any Dominion activity in the area?”

He shook his head. “None at present. But that could change.”

Tazla thought she could see the barest hint of indecision on Xylion’s face. He was Vulcan of course, logical to a fault. But he was also a science officer first and foremost, not used to having to make command decisions, certainly not the kind that could determine the fate of the entire ship and crew, not to mention, quite possibly, an entire universe.

She wasn’t exactly comfortable with the stakes either but she was confident with what needed to be done. “If anyone were interested in what I think, I believe our best chance of finding the captain and the away team is to go over there and have a look around. We’re not going to accomplish anything from staying here,” she said and then leaned back in her seat. “Of course, that’s merely a suggestion on the account of me being off-duty.”

Xylion considered her only briefly before his eyes found Leva once more. “Commander, assemble an away team and board the station via shuttlecraft. Ensure you conceal your appearance and life signs to not cause suspicion. Your primary mission is to locate the captain and to avoid any and all unnecessary contact with local elements on the station.”

Leva, who was also the ship’s third officer, offered a sharp nod in response and then indicated for Deen to let her know that he wanted her to come along, prompting her to quickly leave her station to follow him to the turbolift.

“If it were me going over there,” she said just before Leva and Deen had reached the lift, “I’d make sure to take some of the Niners with me to cover my back. And I’d take some holo-masks as well. They worked out fairly well last time.”

She was pretty certain that Leva’s tactical acumen had already told him much the same thing but then she couldn’t quite help herself.

She heard the turbolift doors open and close, knowing that her message had been received.

Xylion took the captain’s chair again. “Commander, I believe I would prefer that you observe events in silence, considering your current status.”

She raised her hands again. “You won’t hear another peep out of me,” she said innocently but already fully aware that Xylion’s request was going to challenge her immensely.
Part 4 - Roundabout Route: 3 by CeJay
3


Their plan to approach the station undetected had unfolded without a hitch as So’Dan Leva had initiated a computer-assisted in-system warp jump from the Kuiper belt directly into the upper thermosphere of the gas giant while their destination, their broken moon, awaited on the opposite side of the planet.

Next, taking the shuttle as low as the shields of the Agincourt would allow in the hostile atmosphere of the gas giant, he piloted it all the way around the planet until he carried out a pre-planned, high-impulse approach toward the near side of the moon where he landed the shuttle on the airless and rocky surface.

“No sign that we have been detected,” said Deen who sat in the co-pilot seat. “I’ve located the station and I’m carrying out passive scans now.”

“Can you detect the captain or the rest of the away team?” he asked.

She shook her head after just a few moments. “Passive scans won’t be powerful enough to distinguish individual biosignatures. But I have located a section of the station with little traffic. That’s probably our best beam-in point.”

“We’re ready when you are.”

So’Dan swiveled around in his chair to face the rest of the away team. He was greeted by four unfamiliar faces.

The two men and two women were noticeably Krellonian as was evident by the smooth and earless sides of their heads.

“Who are you and what have you done with the away team?” said DeMara Deen who had turned her chair as well.

The woman on the right smirked as she reached for her neck, causing her entire head to shimmer for a moment before it was replaced by the more familiar short-haired, strawberry-blonde Bajoran and chief security officer.

The other three followed suit to reveal their true identities as well. The tall, broad-shouldered, red-bearded Niner team leader Sensabaugh, the equally burly, dark-skinned human operative who went by the call sign One-Shot and the brunette, diminutive human Ensign Leila Adams. Leva had chosen the nurse in case they came across the captain and he or his team required immediate medical assistance. He hadn’t been comfortable taking the octogenarian doctor Katanga along, not necessarily because of his age but rather due to his infamous temperament, and although his chief nurse didn’t have much away team experience, she had scored high on the relevant aptitude tests.

“You do of course realize, that in this reality, the Krellonians don’t appear to be the dominant race in the Star Alliance,” said Leva.

“We already had these templates so they’ll have to do on short notice. Besides, our intelligence does show a large concentration of Krellonians on the station. It should allow us to blend in better than boarding as ourselves,” said Nora.

So’Dan nodded, acceding to the point, and got out of his chair.

Deen in the meantime was strapping on a backpack.

“We’re trying to retrieve the captain, Dee,” he said. “This isn’t a hiking trip.”

“I believe in being prepared,” she said as she affixed a thumbnail-sized metallic disc to her neck that Nora had passed her. Not a moment later her entire appearance changed. Her long blonde hair was replaced by a short dark buzz cut, her ears vanished from the side of her head and her purple eyes turned to a hazel color. Her face was practically unrecognizable as all traces of her Tenarian nature were gone along with her attractive looks and, Leva had to admit, her oftentimes distracting pulchritude that, as far as he was concerned, could be as much of a liability as it was an advantage. He had half a mind to suggest she kept the holo-mask for future missions but then decided that it wasn’t his place to make such a recommendation.

He applied his own disguise that did little to hide his tall and muscular stature but removed any traces of his Romulan heritage, mostly his tapering ears, and gave him a haircut he felt was so repulsive that he avoided looking at his reflection more than once.

A few minutes later the six-man strong away team materialized inside the moon base, on one of the lower decks Deen had identified and that was primarily used for storage and ore processing.

The narrow corridor they found themselves in was empty, allowing Deen to refer to her tricorder. After a moment she shook her head. “No wonder we couldn’t get any detailed scans earlier. The main material they are mining here is kelbonite. It’s well known to interfere with sensors.”

“Naturally,” Leva said, trying his best to mask his frustration. “So how do you suggest we find the captain?”

“I suppose we do this the old-fashioned way,” said Nora. It took So’Dan a moment to realize it had been the Bajoran since her disguise gave no clue to her true appearance. “We search this place section by section. I suggest we separate into three groups that way we can cover more ground.”

“I agree,” said Deen. “We best avoid the upper two decks. Although I can’t get clear scans, I can see that there is significant activity up here and I cannot imagine our people would try to hide in a crowd.”

So’Dan nodded and the team broke up with clear instructions to stay in contact. He and Deen stayed on the current deck to search it, while Nora and Adams took the deck below and the two SMT operators started on the deck below that one.

So’Dan found the station to be dirty and poorly maintained. Even basic functions like lighting and gravity plating were not routinely functioning, something that became quite apparent when, after they turned into another corridor and his head nearly collided with a floating hyperspanner somebody had haphazardly discarded.

Deen pulled him back just before he stepped into the low gravity area and as he began to feel weightless.

He shot her a thankful look while silently cursing his own inattentiveness and, not for the first time, wondering if the many years spent as a bridge officer, stationed day after day behind the tactical board, had not dulled his senses.

In his younger days, as a security officer, he would never have missed such an obvious hazard, he was certain. But then again, he mused, perhaps his future had other things in store for him. He had flirted with command when he had briefly been made first officer on what had turned out to be a disastrous tenure on another ship a few months earlier. And although the command structure on that ship had been toxic at best, there had been elements of being an executive officer he had enjoyed, and perhaps, one day, he would try his hands at it again, hopefully with much better results.

Deen nodded toward a small group of Krellonians huddling in a corner. Three men who looked tired and hungry and who were likely on a break from working the ore processing units.

So’Dan cautiously headed toward them. “Greetings,” he said.

The men looked up only briefly, just long enough to give them both quick nods, before they turned back to the meager provisions they had with them.

“I was hoping you could help us find somebody.”

“Not much to find on Amargosa Station,” said the first man.

“Unless you’re looking for ore,” said the second to which the other two chuckled quietly.

“Or a good beating.” This from the third, eliciting more chortling from the others.

Deen took a step forward. “We’re looking for some friends of ours who visited the station. We’d be very thankful for any help you could give us.”

So’Dan recognized the tone in her voice. It was the same she often employed when her natural Tenarian charm kicked in. It had a tendency to make people pay attention, and sometimes even go out of their way to be of assistance.

All three men looked up at Deen as if mesmerized by the tone of her voice.

But So’Dan could quickly tell that it didn’t last.

“If they came here to visit, you better hope it was a very short one,” said the first man and then turned back to the others.

Deen gave Leva a look and shrugged, clearly not certain what else to try.

“Nora to Leva. Commander, we may have found something.”

The voice coming from So’Dan’s hidden communicator startled the three men briefly and he decided to step away to take the call. He tapped the concealed badge underneath his tunic. “Go ahead, Lieutenant,” he said once he was certain the Krellonians couldn’t overhear him.

“Level four, section twelve. One of the large cargo holds.”

“What have you found?” he asked.

“Something happened in there. Access has been restricted,” she said.

“Some sort of accident?”

She hesitated a moment. “Not sure why they would need to post heavily armed guards if it was just an accident.”

He understood it was their best lead. “Tell everyone to regroup at your position, we’ll be there shortly. Leva out.”

Reaching the section Nora had referred to hadn’t been all that straightforward. Turbolifts were mainly reserved for ore transportation and numerous armed guards were patrolling level four.

At Deen’s suggestion, they took a narrow, winding staircase all the way down to deck five, crossed half that deck, and then took a similar staircase back up to eventually converge with the rest of the away team.

Nora pointed at the heavy doors further down a dark hallway. Two Outlander guards with rifles were posted in front of it. “Haven’t seen anyone go in or out in the last twenty minutes.”

Deen was referring to her tricorder. “There is some activity inside.”

“The captain?” So’Dan asked.

“Still can’t distinguish individual bio-signatures with all this kelbonite interference,” she said apologetically.

“Guess we’ll have to go and see,” he said.

Nora and two SMT operators got the message.

So’Dan watched on as they quickly and easily neutralized the guards, both the humanoid as well as the much fiercer-looking lupine. It all happened so quickly, he would have missed it had he blinked.

“They sure know what they’re doing, don’t they?” said Ensign Leeta, similarly impressed.

So’Dan and the others quickly made their way to the doors and Deen, using her tricorder, managed to circumvent the lock nearly as quickly as Nora and her team had taken out the guards.

The doors opened, they dragged the unconscious guards inside and then sealed the doors again from the inside.

They were greeted by a massive hold filled nearly to the ceiling with containers stacked on top of each other.

There was an eerie quiet in the air, and all So’Dan could hear was the soft trilling of Deen’s tricorder.

She noticed it too and promptly muted the sound. She gave him hand signals: Six, maybe seven, undetermined bio readings, excluding theirs.

So’Dan reached for his hand phaser and indicated for the rest of the team to split up into their groups again with each taking one of the many narrow pathways between the rows of cargo containers.

He absolutely hated their tactical position. Sneaking through an unknown maze of containers that was laid out as if somebody had intended on creating a bizarre labyrinth, in weak light conditions and an unknown number of likely hostile forces lying in wait was all well and good in a cheap holo-novel adventure, but in reality, it was both stressful and highly dangerous.

He was just about to make another right turn when Deen reached for his upper arm, holding him back.

She indicated that there were one or two biosigns in close proximity.

He nodded to acknowledge and then, pressing his back against the container, he approached the junction ahead carefully to allow him to spy around the corner.

True enough, a slender humanoid Outlander was kneeling on the floor, hovering over a body. He had a rifle in hand but had his back to them.

As he could see no other threats nearby, and knowing that a phaser strike was going to create too much noise, he sneaked up on the soldier quietly.

The Outlander seemed to sense something as he began to turn just as So’Dan was close enough to reach him.

So’Dan’s grabbed the man in a headlock and applied pressure.

The soldier was stronger than he had appeared and managed to get onto his feet while reaching for his weapon.

Seeing no other choice, So’Dan took hold of the back of the man’s head and slammed it forward, smashing him face-first into a nearby container.

The amount of blood led him to believe that he had broken the man’s nose, but more importantly, the force of the impact had made him lose consciousness and he crumbled to the floor, next to the other body he had been looking over.

It had not been a silent takedown at all and So’Dan quickly whirled around to see if he had attracted unwanted attention.

He saw a large, reptilian soldier coming around another corner, his rifle already at the ready. So’Dan knew immediately that the Outlander was going to get a shot off before he could get his own phaser up.

The green-hued reptilian stumbled backward as he was struck by a phaser beam that So’Dan realized had come from Deen’s weapon.

The Outlander lost his balance only for a moment, falling against the container behind him, but managed to keep upright and held on to his rifle.

So’Dan wasted no time and opened fire himself, striking him square across the chest.

The twin phaser beams pushed him back again but incredibly, he remained upright, his thick and scaled skin clearly sufficient to protect him even from a double dose of stunning phaser beams.

Both So’Dan and Deen fired again, one beam making contact with his upper shoulder, the other with his lower torso. This time they kept firing for a good three seconds until the large reptile’s back hit the container behind him and then slowly sagged down, unconscious.

“So much for a silent infiltration,” said Deen after all the noise they had caused.

“Couldn’t be helped,” he said and thought he spotted an open area up ahead from where the reptile had emerged from. “Let’s go.”

They found another humanoid hostile on top of a container as they emerged into the open area and although he was turned their way, So’Dan was quicker and more accurate with his phaser and the Outlander fell from his elevated position to crash onto the floor, So’Dan had no doubt he’d feel that landing once he woke up.

The unconscious soldier joined at least eight other bodies all littering the floor, including Krellonians and various Outlander species.

Deen quickly began to look over the bodies. “Most are dead,” she said. “Whatever killed them, it wasn’t long ago.”

So’Dan was more concerned with all the other openings and pathways converging on their position and took his time to scan each in turn.

He thought he heard something just behind him and whirled around with his phaser only to come face-to-face with a burly Krellonian who had him dead to rights.

“Easy, same side,” the Krellonian said.

It took So’Dan a moment to realize that he was looking at the human who went by the nickname One-Shot.

Seconds later the disguised Sensy emerged from another pathway and then Nora along with Leeta.

So’Dan lowered his weapon.

“I had a run-in with a hostile,” Sensy said as he approached the others. “He’s been neutralized.”

“Two,” said Boom casually with a little smirk on his alien lips.

“I took care of two more,” said Nora. “And this isn’t a competition.”

“Good thing, too,” said So’Dan. “Because if it were, we would have won since we eliminated three.”

Nora was already helping Deen inspect the bodies. “Is the captain here?”

Deen shook her head. “Thankfully, no. All these bodies are dead.”

“Anyone else from his away team?” he asked. Although their main mission was to retrieve the captain, he knew Culsten had been with him and was part of their rescue mission, as was the captain’s father. Garla, the Krellonian agent was a secondary objective as far as he was concerned.

“No, these appear to be Outlander guards and Krellonians,” she said.

“I don’t get it,” said Nora as she looked over a Krellonian who had been killed by phaser fire. “The Krellonians are treated little better than slave laborers here. Was this some sort of uprising?”
So’Dan joined her to study the dead woman and could quickly tell that she was dressed differently from the Krellonians they had met on the station. “I don’t think so. They don’t look like laborers at all.”

Nora nodded after she had moved on to another body. “You’re right. I believe these are resistance fighters.”

So’Dan knew well that Nora was well-versed in those matters. After all, she had been a rebel herself in her youth, when fighting the Cardassians who had occupied Bajor. No doubt she saw a little bit of herself in these downed rebels. He could only guess how many dead resistance fighters she had seen in her life. Judging by the hard look in her eyes, far more than she would care to admit.

“So the question is what happened here and is it related to our people,” said Adams after she had joined looking over the bodies, trying to find anyone who could still receive her care.

“We don’t have much time to find out. Once these guys fail to report back in, this place will be swarming with enough soldiers to make our life extremely uncomfortable,” said Sensy who, along with his fellow Niner, had kept his weapon at the ready, scanning the various points of ingress.

Deen had un-slung her backpack. “Time to use one of my new toys then.”

So’Dan watched her curiously as she retrieved a cylindrical object maybe half a meter in height. She tapped a couple of commands and the device quickly grew to over a meter. Three small feet sprung out from the bottom, allowing her to place it in the middle of the open space.

“What is that thing?” Nora asked.

Deen smirked. “Something Xyl and I have been working on. He insists on giving it a long, boring, and complicated designation. I’m calling it an Echolocation Construct Holographic Overlay or ECHO for short.”

The Bajoran responded to that with a tired look.

Deen shrugged. “I’m still workshopping the name,” she said and then worked her tricorder again, causing the device to come to life, instantly shooting out a blue light that swept their immediate surroundings. “It uses sensor data to attempt and reconstruct recent events. It does so by utilizing variations in ambient temperatures like heat signatures and molecular changes in the environment. It only works for a limited time frame but if we’re lucky--“

To So’Dan’s surprise, several holographic bodies appeared all around them, but these were very much alive. It wasn’t exactly what one would expect in a holodeck, the constructs were crude and rendered in blue light, but it was enough to make out certain surface details.

“And I thought we had all the best toys,” said One-Shot, equally impressed.

“This is a representation of the room approximately one hour ago,” said Deen. “According to this, there were seven individuals here at the time.”

Nora approached one of the blue figures in the back. “I can’t be certain but I think this looks like Lif,” she said as she studied the construct closely.

“And this is the captain,” Deen said, regarding another figure.

So’Dan wasn’t nearly as sure, the figure looked like it could have been Owens but then again, it could have been any other human as well. Considering how well Deen knew the captain, he decided to take her word for it. “I’m assuming the other ones include Admiral Owens and Garla.”

She nodded as she regarded the other figures that hadn’t been accounted for yet. “If I had to guess, I’d say this is Doctor Frobisher and this one here is Matthew Owens, Michael’s brother in this universe. They must have all left Arkaria together.”

“Then who is this?” said So’Dan pointing at the seventh figure he was certain was female.

“She looks familiar,” she said. “But I’m not sure.”

“All right, so we know the captain and the rest of his team were here. But we still don’t know where they are now,” said Nora.

“Well, ECHO can do much more than just give us a single snapshot. Give me a second,” she said as she tapped a few commands into her tricorder.

The constructs began to move. Slowly at first until Deen adjusted the speed.

So’Dan watched the figure they had identified as Garla leaving the group which he thought was very suspicious.

A few seconds later, but it could have been minutes in real-time, more figures approached as people emerged from almost all of the narrow walkways.

“This one looks a great deal like Lif too,” said Nora as she looked over one of the new constructs.

Then things happened very quickly and Deen slowed down the playback.

There was weapons fire that was represented by bright blue flashes. People were scrambling for cover and firing back.

So’Dan kept his focus on the captain who appeared unarmed, judging by the fact that he wasn’t returning fire.

“An ambush,” said Nora.

So’Dan had seen it too.

He also spotted the unidentified woman returning fire. Not only that, she seemed to provide cover for the captain.

The ambushers seemed to focus their fire on the newcomers, rather than on the captain’s team and So’Dan quickly realized that they were Outlander soldiers, trying to take down what he believed were the Krellonian rebels.

At least half of the rebels went down in the opening moments of the ambush.

The man who looked like Lif Culsten took down a few attackers but was ultimately shot in the shoulder and then lost his weapon.

With soldiers bearing down on him, it seemed as if he was doomed.

That is until somebody else reappeared out of seemingly nowhere. He assumed that she must have jumped down from some of the higher containers, and from outside the range of the ECHO device.

She moved like a whirlwind, dispatching three attackers with quick strikes and powerful kicks, before retrieving a dropped weapon and coming up firing.

“Garla,” he said.

“Say about that woman what you will,” said Sensy. “But she does know how to handle herself in a fight.”

Of that, there was little doubt. She provided enough of a distraction that it allowed the away team to find weapons the Krellonians had lost when they had been killed and return fire before all of them, including the other Culsten and the remaining rebels, managed to retreat through one of the walkways.

Then everything went very still and So’Dan didn’t miss that the remaining constructs remained almost exactly where their dead but real-life bodies were now positioned.

Deen fast-forwarded again to reveal the shadows of additional Outlanders coming in to investigate the scene up until the point So’Dan and his away team arrived.

“That’s a neat tool,” said Leeta.

“Thanks,” said Deen with a smile and then reset the ECHO to show the scene just before they had arrived.

“Okay, so we know the captain and the away team made it out of here but now what?” said Nora who was obviously a little harder to impress.

So’Dan glanced around the remaining bodies. Something was off.

All the constructs occupied the same space as their real counterparts except for one. He stepped closer to the anomaly to realize that there was a holograph of an Outlander humanoid lying on the floor except that there wasn’t a real body anywhere in sight. “What happened to this guy?”

Nora saw it too. “Maybe he got moved by his friends?”

But So’Dan didn’t remember seeing that in the playback. “Dee, play it again.”

She did and in quick order, the mystery was solved.

The Outlander was shot by Garla and he dropped where he had been hit. Then, at some point, after the away team had made their exit, he crawled away from where he had fallen, very slowly as if injured.

Weapons in hand, So’Dan and Nora followed his path until it disappeared inside a container.

He gave her the signal to open it.

She did and he aimed his phaser inside.

The soldier was sitting up against a row of barrels, bleeding profusely, eyes closed his breath ragged and shallow.

“Ensign,” So’Dan called.

Leeta quickly joined him and upon seeing the injured soldier took a knee next to him without delay and retrieved her medkit. “He’s got internal injuries and has lost a lot of blood.”

“Can you stabilize him?”

“I can try.”

“Do it. He’s our best chance right now to get some answers.”

She did as she was told, using tools from the kit to try and stop the bleeding.

“Commander, I hate to rush,” said Sensy, the Niners squad leader. “But I think we’re about to have company.”

So’Dan nodded and took a knee next to the man opposite Leeta. “Can you wake him up?”

“I wouldn’t recommend this, sir.”

“Do it anyway.”

She sighed. “Doctor Katanga would kill me if he knew I did this to a patient in this condition.”

“I won’t tell if you don’t.”

The ensign nodded gingerly and then applied a hypospray to his neck.

A moment later his eyes fluttered open.

“Solider, can you hear me?” Leva said, purposefully making his voice sound more authoritative than usual, hoping to be able to trick him to believe he was being addressed by one of his own people.

The Outlander mumbled something quietly.

Not good enough for So’Dan. He grabbed the man by his shoulders, ignoring Leeta’s frown, and shook him. “Soldier, you are safe now. But it is imperative you tell us about the rebels. Can you tell us where they went?”

“I … pain.”

So’Dan glanced up at the ensign and she gave him another anesthetic.

“Solider, do you remember anything? Any clue as to where they went. Perhaps something you’ve overheard. You’ll be rewarded greatly if you did.”

Lead Belly,” he mumbled. “Said something about a ship. Lead Belly.”

So’Dan nodded. “Well done, soldier,” he said and patted him lightly on the shoulder before glancing back at the nurse who took this opportunity to put him under again.

He stood and regarded Deen. “That might help us.”

“If we get back to the ship, we may be able to use passive sensors to detect ships that have recently left the station,” she said.

“I suggest the sooner the better,” Sensy called from outside the container.

Leeta stood as well. “Sir, I request we take him with us. I’m not sure if he’s going to make it if we leave him here. At least on Eagle he’s got a chance. It would be only fair considering what we’ve done to him.”

He had to admit that he was impressed with her commitment to her craft. Something he would have expected from Doctor Wenera or Katanga, perhaps not so much from a young nurse.

“The universe isn’t a fair place, Ensign,” Nora shot back quickly. “He’s only going to slow us down.”

But So’Dan had made up his mind. “We’ll take him. Let’s double-time it.”
Part 4 - Roundabout Route: 4 by CeJay
4


Their escape from Amargosa Station had been a very narrow thing and they had not achieved it without some pain and bruises.

Jonathan Owens, who Michael was convinced was, if not too old, certainly far too weak to run and evade armed attackers, had twisted his ankle during their frantic dash through the station’s narrow corridors and back onto the Lead Belly.

Matthew and Michael had been forced to carry him in-between each other for the last leg and then deposited him carefully into one of the cramped cabins Amaya Donners had made available to them.

By the time they had gotten him onto the cot, Michael had felt the deck plates lurch hard underneath his boots, a clear sign that the ship had rather violently separated from the station and after just a few seconds he could feel the telltale shudder of a sudden warp acceleration.

“This is turning out to be an awful day,” Jonathan Owens said as he winced painfully while he was being lowered onto the cot. “But seeing the two of you working together is almost making all of this worth it.”

Matthew noticeably recoiled at those words and stepped back. “You just don’t know when to quit, do you?”

Michael regarded the man who resembled his brother so closely it was still both painful and miraculous to look at him. “Matthew, just let it go.”

The other man looked at him as if he had lost his mind and then took a step back, shaking his head. “Let it go? You’re just as insane as he is. Wes and I were living a good, peaceful life until you two came along. Within less than a day of meeting you, I’ve been nearly killed by Jem’Hadar troops, likely lost my home and my livelihood, been nearly killed by Outlander soldiers, and have become a wanted man by two governments who are well known to hold on to grudges indefinitely. You have ruined my life.”

“All of life is at stake, son.” Jon Owens said.

“I don’t want to hear it anymore, do you understand?” he said, piercing the man on the cot with a hard stare. “And get it through that old skull of yours for once and for all. I am not your son. You are nothing to me but a stranger. That goes for both of you. Stay away from me,” he said, turned on his heel, and left the cabin.

“He always had a stubborn streak,” Jon said after he had left.

Michael couldn’t help but smirk. “He got that from his father.”

“He’ll come around.”

Michael considered Jon Owens who had closed his eyes. He looked impossibly paler and weaker than ever before, this last episode had clearly pushed him way too far. “He is not wrong.”

“We might all be from different universes but there is a connection between us, I’m convinced of it. And you’ve felt it too, haven’t you? Deep down you know there is. That’s why you accepted me as your father ever since you’ve met me.”

“It’s because you lied to me.”

“There’s more than that.”

Michael felt his anger rising at this man’s hubris. But he also understood that he couldn’t afford to get lost in useless emotions and so he decided to let it go. At least for now. “Let me have a look at that ankle,” he said and rolled up his right pants sleeve.

“I’m dying, Michael.”

He shook his head. “Don’t be a drama queen. It’s just a twisted ankle.”

Jon Owens propped himself up on his elbows. “I don’t have much more time. I can feel it.”

Michael glanced up. “What can I do?”

He shook his head. “There’s nothing anyone can do. My body is breaking down on a cellular level. I’ve likely already lost the ability to heal my injuries. You’d just be wasting your time.”

Michael stood back up finding it increasingly difficult to keep his anger in check.

“Just let me rest for a while,” Jon said, apparently being able to spot Michael’s growing frustration.

He nodded and turned to leave.

“Michael.”

He faced him once more by the doorstep.

“Just make him see, will you?”

“I’ll tell you what I told him,” he said. “Let it go.”

“That’s the one thing I cannot do.”

After leaving Jon Owens to rest in his cabin, Michael headed straight to the common area on the deck where he found Garla, Culsten as well as his local alter ego who had followed them onto the Lead Belly, along with a handful of Krellonians who had managed to survive the Outlander ambush on the station.

Garla who Michael was convinced had saved them all by her timely intervention and who had fought like a woman possessed, had not managed to get away unharmed.

She had taken a phaser blast to her side and she was now half sitting on one of the benches with Culsten Prime caring for her wound.

The sentinel had not been shy about removing the top half of her jumpsuit to reveal a nasty wound, and Michael very briefly marveled at the impeccable shape the woman kept herself in. It was likely the reason why she was still conscious.

“By the Creator, Lif, it’s like you’ve never used a dermal regenerator before,” she said as she winced in discomfort while he tried to apply the device to her wound.

“I’m not exactly working with state-of-the-art equipment here,” he said.

“Just let me do it,” she said and practically ripped the regenerator out of his hand.

“You’ll all be happy to know that there is no sign of pursuit,” said Amaya Donners as she strode into the room. “I’m crediting this to my nearly supernatural piloting abilities and lightning-fast reflexes.”

“There are no Outlander interceptors in the area,” said the other Culsten. “It’s why we chose this time for our meeting.” But even as he spoke his eyes were entirely glued to Garla on the other side of the room and Michael suspected it had little to do with her half-dressed state.

“You need to be very careful about your words here,” she said with noticeable irritation in her voice. “In fact, you should still be thanking me that I allowed your sorry ass to come on my ship after you nearly had us all killed back there.”

Her aggressive stance did not go over well with the few Krellonians who had accompanied him and who now reached for their weapons to confront Donners.

Amaya remained unimpressed, didn’t even reach for her own weapon dangling from her belt. “Really, that’s how you want to play this?”

Culsten waved them off and they backed down. “We are grateful for the assistance,” he said but only afforded her the briefest of glances before his focus returned on the sentinel treating herself. He took a few steps toward her and his counterpart. “Now, I need to know what is happening here. How is this possible?”

“Apparently, the universe is ending,” said Donners but with a total lack of the solemnity that statement seemed to call for.

“Who are you and where are you from?” Culsten said, ignoring Donners.

“If I had a slip of latinum for every time I’ve been hearing this lately,” Prime Culsten said as he watched Garla make pretty good progress on treating her wound.

“Listen,” said Michael, putting himself in-between the two sets of Krellonians, facing the natives. “Captain Donners is correct. The universe is in great danger and it is imperative that we get to Cygni-98 as quickly as possible. She seemed to believe that you would be able to get us there without having to fight our way through the Outlanders.”

But Culsten just stepped right passed him, approaching his doppelganger and his companion. “You are me. And you,” he said, focusing on the sentinel. “You are Garla.”

“Your abilities of deduction are incomparable,” said Garla while continuing to work on her injuries. “No wonder you’re a big deal here. Lif, perhaps you should get some pointers from your alter ego over there. Might do wonders for your career.”

Culsten Prime just scowled at her.

“How is this possible?” he said.

Garla looked up. “Let me guess. The Garla you knew was either a great hero or a great disappointment and she died in a horrible, and/or noble fashion.” When he didn’t speak right away, she continued. “We are from another universe on a mission, it seems, to save all universes. The sooner you accept that and don’t try to kill either one of us, the quicker we can get on with preventing the death of everything you’ve ever known.”

“This is a lot to take in,” he said.

Michael stepped up to him, not entirely appreciating Garla’s ironic and supersonic explanation of their circumstances. Not while this man was possibly their best chance to save the quantum-verse. “I understand. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of time. There is an alien species out there that has constructed a massive particle accelerator hidden in subspace and powerful enough to wipe out entire realities. We have already witnessed two of them being destroyed. This one could be next if we don’t get to Cygni-98 within the next few hours.”

“And you’ve come from one of those other realities?” he said as he looked around.

Donners held up her hands. “Not me. I’m still making up my mind if this isn’t all just the worst tall tale I’ve ever heard. I’m not ashamed to say, I’m just in it for the money.”

“Can you help us get to Cygni-98?” Michael pressed.

“Cygni-98,” he said to himself. “That’s deep within Outlander-controlled territory. Their sensor net would pick us up long before we even get close. Considering they are already on high alert after what just happened, this wouldn’t be easy.”

“Easy?” Garla laughed and then immediately regretted doing so judging by her pain-induced grimace. “I don’t even remember easy.”

Culsten nodded. “I can help you. But first, you’ll have to do something for me.”

Michael emphatically shook his head. “We don’t have the time to delay any further. The stakes are simply too high.”

But Culsten stuck to his guns. “It’s the only way I will assist you. Besides, it might be the only way to get close to Cygni-98.”

“There’s always a catch,” said Prime Culsten.

Garla shot him a quizzical look as she zipped up her suit again.

“Just something Louise likes to say. It’s a human thing,” he responded.

She rolled her eyes.

“We need to get to the Piqus system,” Culsten said.

“Absolutely not,” both Prime Culsten and Garla said in unison.

“That was our destination before Donners asked for this meeting and quite possibly the reason the Outlanders caught up with us at Amargosa Station. Piqus VII is home to an Outlander prison camp. A lot of my best men are being held there and freeing them might very well turn the tide in our fight against Outlander oppression.”

Michael’s feelings mirrored those of Lif and Garla. “We can’t get involved in a rescue mission. I’m sorry, but if we don’t stop that supercollider from activating again, none of this will even matter.”

“Piqus VII is also the main control hub for the sensor net in this sector. I know how to disable it if you get me there. Trust me, you won’t get within half a light-year of Cygni-98 while the sensor net remains operational.”

Michael reached for his forehead, trying to stave off a headache that had never really gone away over the last few days. It was threatening to come back to full force now. His priority was clear, had been ever since he had started to understand the awesome consequences of allowing the Ring to activate again. And yet he understood that without allies like this Culsten, they had little chance to succeed. Being separated from Eagle made things worse, although he wasn’t sure how much their chances would have improved having his ship’s resources at hand considering what they were up against.

“If Piqus is as important as you say it is,” said Lif Prime, “how can we even hope to get close to it, let alone free prisoners and shut down a sensor net? You expect the few of us to go up against what must be a heavily fortified position.”

“I have that part covered,” he said. “I managed to obtain access codes that will allow us to enter the system without raising suspicions. Besides,” he said and he focused on the sentinel again. “My Garla was a great leader who inspired countless Krellonians to put up arms against the Outlander tyranny, including myself. But I have to say, she wasn’t even half the fighter you are. With you on our side, I am convinced we cannot fail.”

Garla stood from the bench, still moving a little gingerly after treating her injury, and then squared her shoulders as she faced the other Culsten. “Let’s just be clear about one thing. I’m nobody’s hero.”

“But you’ll help us,” he said, sounding hopeful.

She uttered a heavy sigh. “I suppose I’m all in on trying to save reality as we know it. Whatever it takes.”

He seemed almost ecstatic to hear this.

“Everybody pump your breaks,” said Donners and took a few steps closer to the rest of them. “You may have recalled that I mentioned that my services do not come for free. I was hired to get you all in touch with each other and considering the unexpected dangers to life and limb involved in that mission, I am due for some serious hazard payment. Payment, I haven’t even seen the first glimpse of yet, by the way.”

“I told you,” Michael said. “You will get paid in full as soon as we reunite with my ship.”

She shook her head. “That promise only gets you so far. It certainly doesn’t get you a free ride on my ship to a heavily defended Outlander outpost.”

“If my access codes are valid, and I have reason to believe that they are, we’ll be able to slip by Piqus defenses entirely unnoticed,” Lif Culsten said.

“You forgive me if I don’t put much stock into your word, seeing that you very nearly brought the entire Outlander military down on us,” she said with a grin but very little actual humor.

“You’ll get paid,” Michael said. “I’m willing to double what we’ve agreed on. Just get us to Piqus and as soon as my ship catches up with us, you’ll never have to deal with any of us again.”

Amaya Donners took her time to consider Michael’s words, her eyes sparkling as they focused on him like twin laser beams.

He knew what she was doing, scanning his face and his body language for any sign of deception. Any hint at all that what he was promising her was not in fact reality.

He did his level best to pass muster but in truth, he had rarely ever felt so uncomfortable in his life. He wasn’t used to lying and he hated the feeling it gave him. It was made harder by the fact that he was doing it to someone who shared a face and more with the woman he was in love with.

After what seemed to him like an eternity, that smirk returned to her lips. “Well, strap in, everybody. This promises to be one hell of a ride.”
Part 4 - Roundabout Route: 5 by CeJay
5


She had been running for hours and there was no end in sight. The maze was infinite.

She had no idea where she was running to, all she knew with absolute certainty was that she could never stop.

Stopping meant a fate far worse than death.

And so she went on, running at full speed, only ever slowing down marginally to turn into yet another dark and narrow corridor, indistinguishable from the one she had left behind.

A million eyes were watching her, belonging to countless drones that stood like statues in their alcoves, lining the never-ending corridors, only their eyes following her, waiting. Waiting for her to stop, knowing that she would have to eventually. That she couldn’t run forever.

And then there were the voices.

The voices were the worst part.

She didn’t hear them with her ears, they penetrated deep into her soul.

So many voices, all speaking in unison.

All speaking to her.

She couldn’t understand what they were saying but they never stopped talking.

And she never stopped running.

“Taz.”

That voice was new.

It was coming from behind her.

She turned her head without slowing down.

There was nothing there but the endless corridor.

“Taz.”

This time from right ahead.

She whipped around again.

The corridor was gone.

In its stead, a wide, gaping chasm lay before her, leading into dark nothingness.

For the first time in what seemed like forever, she tried to stop.

But she was too fast and she knew she was going to go over.

“I’ve got you, Taz.”

Something strong reached out for her just as she was about to tumble into the chasm, bringing her to a standstill at the very edge of the void.

She was spun around and she immediately recognized the face.

“Captain.”

Michael Owens smiled at her. “I’ve got you, Taz. You’re safe now.”

He was holding her with one arm. And he was surprisingly strong even while she still teetered on the brink, unable to quite find her balance, frozen in place.

“I’ve got you,” he said again.

“I’ve been trying to get away from them,” she said, barely able to catch her breath.

“I know, Taz, I know. But you don’t have to run anymore. I’ve got you now.”

But even as he spoke, his face was beginning to drain of color and mechanical parts were breaking open his skin, spreading like a cancer and disfiguring him. His left eye was pushed out of its socket to be replaced by an artificial sensor. Tubes and cables grew out of his skull, snaking and coiling themselves in search of connectors as his hair disintegrated. His uniform shredded to give way to dark metallic parts on his chest, arms, and legs.

“You cannot run from us, Taz,” he said, his voice now distorted and robotic as his smile turned into something evil and sinister. “We’ve got you now.”

“No,” she screamed, trying to free herself from his grip but it was relentlessly strong.

He raised another transformed arm and she watched in horror as narrow tubes sprang forth from his hand as he reached toward her neck.

“We will add your biological features to our own.”

She pulled away with all her strength, no longer caring about the chasm behind her. Anything would have been better than this.

She yanked and clawed at the arm holding her in place with all the strength she had.

Just as she could feel the tubes making contact with her skin, his forearm broke off as if it was brittle bone.

And she fell.

“Resistance is futile,” she heard him say above him, his eyes following her all the way, his cybernetic face refusing to vanish into the distance even as she tumbled into nothingness.

Then the void finally claimed her.

The fall didn’t end.

Not for a long time.

It was the landing that woke her.

She felt the jolt and her eyes raced open to see the familiar ceiling of her quarters.

“Goddsdamnit,” she moaned from the pain in her back. She had fallen off her bed and was covered in sweat.

She needed a few deep breaths before she pulled herself back onto the bed.

It had been the third dream she’d had since she had tried to sleep and the first one where she had found herself on the floor.

“Computer, time.”

“The time is oh-three-hundred hours and twelve minutes.”

It had been less than an hour since her last Borg-inspired nightmare, that one following a very similar theme. Her trying to get away from the drones only to be eventually caught by the one that had called itself Tyrantus.

Three nightmares in one night, that was a new record even for her. She hadn’t had such a bad night’s sleep even during her worst Syndicate-Y induced night terrors when she had so desperately tried to kick her drug habit for good.

She glanced toward her nightstand where she found the sleep aid Elijah had prescribed her when he had helped her get through the worst of her withdrawal symptoms. She had taken more than the recommended dose and it had still done nothing for her.

She picked up the padd next to it to find out if there had been any updates since her unsuccessful attempts to find some sleep.

It had been six hours since the away team had returned from the Outlander station with some intel on the likely name of the ship that the captain and the other had taken to escape the station after they had been ambushed by security forces.

Using painstakingly pieced together sensor data of recent starship traffic in the system, together with database entries obtained from the station’s computer, they had been able to identify nine ships that had left the station in the relevant timeframe. Four of which had been large ore freighters and four had matched the description of the ship they were after.

They had wasted another hour tracking down one of the ships only to realize that it was a dead end. The last report she had seen before she had tried sleep was that they had managed to obtain intel on a ship that may or may not have been the one they were after. But it already had a significant head start, it’d be hours before they’d catch up with it.

She found that nothing had changed according to the logs.

She briefly considered trying to give sleep one more chance, she still felt exhausted, but then quickly decided against it. Three vividly disturbing nightmares in a row were her limit.

She got up, got dressed, and left her quarters.

Under any other circumstances she would have made her way directly to the bridge, but considering that Xylion had come fairly close to confining her to quarters after she had offered a few more suggestions the last time she had been up there, she made her way toward sickbay instead.

She was grateful to find it fairly empty and most importantly, entirely lacking the presence of a certain, curmudgeonly chief medical officer. Instead, things were being looked after by Nurse Leila Adams during the quiet night shift.

“Ensign,” she said upon seeing the young woman, “I’ve heard you did an excellent job on that away mission to the Outlander station. Sounds to me as if there might be more landing parties in your future.”

She shook her head. “If away missions are usually like that, I may have to reconsider volunteering for them again.”

Tazla knew that the mission hadn’t exactly gone without a hitch and that Adams had likely seen far more action than she’d expected. “Ninety percent of away missions are fairly routine, often even downright tedious,” she said. “It’s the remaining ten percent you have to watch out for. The ones that could get you killed without a moment’s notice.”

The nurse cringed and Tazla realized that perhaps she had been a little too honest on the subject. Then again, she didn’t believe in mollycoddling her officers either. “In Starfleet you never know what you’re going to get. That’s the reason we’re out here. But not everyone is cut out for that. There is no shame in preferring to stay on the ship,” she added.

“Well, that’s not always the safest option either,” she said after a moment’s worth of consideration. “Then again, if I were looking for safe, I could have stayed on Alpha Centauri.”

Tazla responded to her smile in kind.

“I take it you didn’t come to sickbay at zero dark thirty just to catch up with me. Is there something I can help you with?”

Tazla did another quick scan of the room, ensuring it was empty except for a single medtech working on a workstation in a far corner before she regarded the nurse again. “Just a bit of trouble sleeping. I was hoping you could give me something without the need to wake up the boss.”

She smiled again and nodded. “Sure, give me a tic,” she said and then retrieved a hypo-spray from a medical drawer, checked and amended the charge, and then returned. “A couple ccs of improvoline should knock you right out.”

But Tazla raised her hand. “Actually, I’ve already tried that. You’ve got anything a bit stronger.”

Adams considered her curiously. “Stronger?”

“I’ve got somewhat of a history of being an insomniac. I suppose I’ve built up a tolerance to the usual stuff,” she said and tried on a disarming smile.

It didn’t seem to reassure the other woman at all. “Please wait here, sir.”

Adams left the main ward and Tazla was gripped by the sudden urge to flee.

It was too late.

Not thirty seconds after the nurse had left, Elijah Katanga emerged from his office, followed by Adams.

She uttered a heavy sigh while Katanga thanked Adams and let her go on her way before making her way over to her.

“Your nurse ratted me out. I’m not sure how well that’s going to play on her next performance evaluation,” Taz said with annoyance she was unable to mask.

“Her loyalties are right where they belong. To the crew’s health and well-being and to me. Her next evaluation better reflect that,” he said sternly.

“I just need something to help me sleep, Eli. Don’t make this a federal case.”

“You were just abducted and assimilated by the Borg and improvoline doesn’t seem to make a difference. That’s pretty potent stuff, Dez. I think we better have a look at you. And don’t start giving me any guff on this,” he said as he led her to the biobed with a heavy-duty medical scanner attached to it.

“I wasn’t assimilated,” she protested but followed him where he wanted her to go. “I’m just having a few bad dreams. Considering the circumstances, that’s hardly surprising.”

“Last I checked, you don’t have a medical license anymore and even if you did,” he said as he beckoned her to lay down on the bed so that he could secure the scanner over her torso, “I would have serious reservations about allowing you to self-diagnose your condition.”

“Hey, I was a pretty good doctor.”

“Thing about pretty good doctors,” he said, activating the scanner, “they tend to have blinders on when it comes to their own health.”

Taz noted that he had brought a padd that he had placed on the table next to her bed. Curious as to his nighttime reading, she picked it up. Her eyes widened slightly when she realized the subject matter. “Picard?”

He nodded, reviewing the sensor data. “I’ve been reading up on medical reports concerning people who were altered by the Borg and survived. “There aren’t many cases to choose from.”

“That’s what I love about you, Eli. You really know how to reassure your patients.”

“Relax. You said it yourself, you weren’t assimilated. At least not fully. Still, there are some parallels with Picard that are interesting and worth studying.”

She replaced the padd. “Well, at least I’m in highly esteemed company.”

“There is nothing obvious I can see here. Elevated heart rate and increased blood pressure but that isn’t uncommon among a person suffering from night terrors.”

“As I said.”

“Let me carry out a subatomic spectral scan,” he said, already punching in the commands. “What did you see?”

“Pardon?”

“In your nightmares.”

She leaned back, staring up at the ceiling. “Nothing surprising really. A lot of running, trying to get away from the Borg. Avoiding getting assimilated. Owens.”

He stopped and glanced at her. “You had nightmares about the Captain? Feels like that’s a whole counseling session on its own.”

She actually snickered at that. “Maybe. But it wasn’t a coincidence. The Borg drone that interrogated me on their ship had his face. I suppose, in this universe, Michael Owens must have been assimilated by the Borg at some point.”

“I don’t think I much care for this universe. Curious,” he said and began to study his console closer.

“What is it?”

“I’m not sure why I didn’t detect this sooner.”

His ambiguousness was driving her nuts and she lifted the sensor hood and stood to join him by the console. “What is that?” she asked with an increasingly bad feeling. It resembled a Borg nanoprobe. “I thought you had removed all of these from my system.”

He nodded. “So did I. I think these were designed to disguise themselves, appearing as nothing more than harmless amino acids until they had a chance to multiply. But they appear benign. Or at the very least, they don’t seem interested in assimilating other cells.”

“That’s good. But if that’s not what they’re up to, what is their purpose?”

He glanced at her with an empty look. “I have no idea.”
“Tyrantus, the Borg with Owens’ face, he told me that assimilating Trill can be a difficult process. That it is not always successful. Perhaps they just can’t handle my physiology.”

He shook his head. “I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. These nanites have none of the attributes required to attack cells. In fact, the only thing I can see here,” he said, activating a few more controls to allow the probes to enlarge on the screen to reveal tiny little spikes attached to them, “are these things.”

“Are those transmitters?”

“I think so.”
That bad feeling in her stomach was rapidly spreading to the rest of her body. “Star to bridge.”

“This is Lieutenant Commander Xylion. Sir, must I remind you that you are still off-duty and assigned to medical rest?”

She rolled her eyes. “You certainly do not, Commander. I’m here with the good doctor in sickbay and I’m sure he’d be happy to register your complaint. But first, I think we have a new problem to contend with. And this is a big one.”
Part 4 - Roundabout Route: 6 by CeJay
6


“We’re less than five minutes out from the Piqus system. No sign so far that we’ve been detected,” said the captain of the mercenary vessel Lead Belly from the bridge, her face displayed prominently on a vid screen mounted in the common room.

Although she had referred to the mission they had embarked upon as almost certain suicide, she had still not relented on giving any of her passengers access to the bridge. Michael understood the need for restricting access to sensitive areas of a ship better than most, but even he considered this overly paranoid considering what they had already been through together.

“I suppose those access codes are holding up so far,” she said.

“I’ve lost four of my best people getting my hands on those,” said their newest passengers, the man who went by the name of Lif Culsten in this universe. “They should be able to get us all the way to Piqus VII without raising any suspicions.”

But Donners didn’t look all so convinced. “These codes are fooling long-range sensors if we’re lucky, but they won’t do much for us under closer scrutiny. And there is zero chance the Lead Belly will pass as an Outlander vessel on visual inspection. I really hope you have some other ace up your sleeve, otherwise, this will be a very short infiltration.”

Michael turned to consider the resistance fighter but it didn’t look like he had thought that far ahead.

It was his counterpart who spoke up instead. “If this Piqus system is anything like ours, there should be an extensive asteroid field between the outer planets and Piqus VII. It might just be dense enough to allow us to approach undetected.”

Garla nodded along, clearly very familiar with the asteroid field herself.

“I’m sorry, I get confused with the two of you,” said Amaya on the screen. “Which one are you again?”She grinned and then quickly continued. “It doesn’t matter. Sensors are showing the asteroid field. I should be able to drop us out of warp right at the outer edge of it. You better start crossing your fingers that we won’t register on any Outlander sensors. And find something to hold on to, I’ll have to drop us in hard. Lead Belly’sinertial dampeners aren’t what they used to be.”

Michael quickly found that Amaya had greatly exaggerated the state of her ship’s dampeners when he was nearly thrown right out of his chair even while holding on tightly to its armrests.

“By the Creator, this bucket isn’t fit for space travel, it belongs to the scrap yard,” Garla moaned as she picked herself off the deck, having been less successful in holding on to her seat.

The moment she had managed to make her way back to her chair, the ship lurched abruptly again, nearly flinging her right back to the deck and Michael feared for a moment that Amaya had miscalculated and smashed them into an asteroid.

“We’re at a full stop and we’re not going anywhere,” she said, as she glared angrily from the screen.

“What’s the problem?” Michael asked.

“The problem is that I just carried out a perfect warp jump right into an asteroid field and all the thanks I get are vicious insults,” she said, her ire clearly directed at the sentinel.

“You cannot be serious,” Garla said, easily countering the other woman’s scowl.

“I may have mentioned that we’re a bit on a timetable here with the fate of universes depending on us,” said Michael as calmly as he could. “We really do not have the time to--“

“Listen,” Amaya interrupted him. “I’ve put up with a lot of crap from you people. Hell, I’ve already been chased and shot at and nearly killed without even seeing so much as a slip of latinum. I will not tolerate insults directed at me or my ship. That’s where I draw the line. So, we’re staying right here until I hear some genuine remorse.”

The room practically fell dead silent as all eyes turned toward the Krellonian woman.

“This is insane,” she said.

“My ship, my rules.”

Michael shot her an instance look. “Garla,” he urged.

She shook her head but then took a breath of air. “I apologize,” she said under her breath.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.”

“I said, I apologize for insulting your fine vessel, all right? Now, for the love of the Infallible Creator, can we please quit these silly games and go back to saving the universe?” she said, much louder now, although the venomous look in her eyes didn’t quite match the sentiment.

The ship trembled again slightly which Michael took as an indication that they were on the move again.

“It’s a good thing you’re so handy in a fight, lady because you suck at apologies.”

Michael was certain that she didn’t get much practice in saying sorry in her career as a sentinel.

Amaya effortlessly switched gears. “If I may direct your attention to the master console you may all marvel at my impressive navigational feats. We are not far from Piqus but we’ll need more than great piloting skills to get us to that planet undetected.”

Michael and the others stood from their seats and reassembled around the table-like console that was currently struggling to show a stable image, flickering on and off instead.

“We’re experiencing some technical difficulties down here,” said Michael, doing his best not to sound judgmental so as not to incur the ship master’s rage once more.

“Just give it a few good whacks, it’ll be fine,” she said.

Garla rolled her eyes but Michael shot her a censuring look to hold her tongue.

The other Culsten did as Amaya had suggested and after hitting the console a third time, the image indeed stabilized to show a tactical view of their position amid the asteroid field, as well as the nearby planet Piqus VII.

“The planet has a strong magnetic field around the northern pole that should help us stay undetected for a while,” said Prime Culsten and quickly received a nod in response from Garla.

The sentinel drew a curved line from their position toward the planet with her finger. “And an indirect course will allow us to use the asteroids as cover while avoiding the orbital installation,” she added.

“Sounds like you’ve been here before,” said the other Culsten.

“This just might work,” said Amaya. “To reduce the chance of being discovered, I’ll have to initiate a high impulse burn the moment we’re free from the asteroid field. You’ll want to hang on. You know the drill by now.”

This time everybody took her instructions seriously as they returned to their seats.

Michael got another taste of what he thought early space flight must have felt like, before the widespread use of intelligent IDF systems that constantly adjusted the internal conditions of a starship to keep its occupants comfortable. A high-power impulse burn that he would barely have registered on Eagle, pushed him back hard into his seat and made his organs feel as if they were being turned to jelly as Lead Bellyaccelerated to eighty-thousand kilometers per second.

The transition back to regular speed came with another hard rattle.

“I don’t think I can get used to this,” moaned Matthew Owens, who likely had the least outer space experience in the group.

Prime Culsten on the other hand couldn’t quite suppress a large grin on his face.

“All right, we’re here. And judging by the fact that nobody has started shooting at us, I think we’re in the clear for now. But I do suggest we do whatever needs to be done quickly and then haul ass out of here.”

“Agreed,” Michael said and stood. He walked over to the queasy-looking Matthew to try and help him out of his chair but the other man waved him off.

“I can manage.”

Michael nodded and joined the others who had assembled around the master display again.

“I’ve brought up a map of the planet,” Amaya said.

Indeed, the display now showed the slowly rotating globe of Piqus VII with a topographical map superimposed.

Michael glanced at the other Culsten. “Where is the sensor monitoring station?”

“First we have to get my people.”

Michael didn’t like it but he knew he needed his help to shut down the sensor net protecting Cygni-98. “Very well. Where are they being held?”

The Krellonian studied the digital globe for a moment, frowning as the image began to tear and distort again. He gave the console a few more hits with his open palm.

“Quit trying to destroy my equipment,” Amaya said sharply. “That’s interference from the magnetic field. Nothing to be done about it.”

“Sure makes this harder,” said the resistance fighter as he used his fingers to spin the globe. “The detention complex is a hidden location somewhere on the northern continent.”

“That’s it? That’s all you have?” said an incredulous Garla.

“I’m lucky I’ve got that much,” he shot back. “Good men died to get me that intel.”

“I don’t know if I’d call that intel,” she said.

Matthew, however, took the news far worse. “You made us risk all our lives by going deep behind enemy lines without a clear notion as to where we even need to go? We might as well be trying to find the proverbial needle in a barn filled with haystacks.”

Culsten took this feedback in stride as he kept studying the globe, zooming in on the northern-most continent. “It shouldn’t be too far from the capital city.”

“What are those blank spots?” Michael said, trying to avoid a headache from the distorted image he was looking at. There were a lot of large white spots littering the map.

“My guess,” said Amaya from the bridge, who was clearly looking at the same data, “those are shielded locations passive sensors cannot penetrate.”

“Restricted areas,” said the other Culsten. “It must be one of those.”

“Only problem,” said Frobisher, “there must be over a dozen of them just in the northern hemisphere. We don’t have the time to search them all.”

“Wait,” said Garla and then zoomed in on one of those sensor holes. “This looks familiar,” she added and then exchanged a knowing look with Prime Culsten.

He shook his head. “It couldn’t be.”

“Why not? Would make for a good location for a hidden prison.”

Michael wasn’t entirely sure what they were talking about. Although it had only been a few days since he had been to Piqus, with everything that had happened since it felt more like months. And, of course, he hadn’t spent any significant time there, hadn’t even set foot on the surface. “Would you like to clue us in?”

“The quarry, sir. It’s on the northern continent and in relatively close proximity to the capital. And according to this,” he said as he pointed at one of the dark spots, “it’s heavily shielded.”

“The location where we set up the field hospital?”

He nodded. “We keep going back to that place in different universes but that seems hardly like the most unusual repeating theme we’ve seen.”

Michael considered the resistance fighter. “What do you think? Could that be it?”

“If Garla believes so, I’ve no reason to doubt her,” he said and looked at the sentinel. “Will you do us the honor of joining the mission? Your mere presence will help inspire my people.”

“Fine,” she said. “Lif, I suggest you come along as well. Having two of you could give us a tactical advantage.”

“I was afraid you’d say something like that,” he said but then, apparently, remembering the chain of command he regarded his captain. “Unless you wish me to stay behind, sir.”

“She’s got a point,” he said nodding, and then found Amaya on the screen. “We could use some assistance down there.”

Oh no,” she quickly said, shaking her head. “My fee does not include risking my neck, or that of my crew, for foolhardy rescue missions. I can spare some weapons, which I expect to be returned if you survive, but I’m staying right here, thank you very much.”

“Weapons would be good.” He found Matt and Frobisher next. “You’ll stay on the ship as well.”

“You couldn’t pay me to go down there,” Matthew said in response while Frobisher just nodded.

“Sir,” said Prime Culsten. “I think it’s my duty as your highest-ranking officer present to point out that you should stay behind as well.”

“I second that,” said Jon Owens who Michael hadn’t even realized had joined the group. He was leaning by the door, still looking far too pale to be on his feet “In fact, as the most senior Starfleet officer on board this vessel, I’d like to remind you that the captain does not join away missions.”

“While you figure out what you want to do, I suggest the rest of us get suited up,” said the other Culsten to which Donners quickly provided instructions on where to go to find weapons before he, his counterpart, and Garla left the room to find their armaments.

“You should be resting,” Michael said pointing at Jon Owens and taking a few steps toward him. “And you should also realize by now that I no longer recognize your authority.” He had sounded harsher than he had intended and his words made the older man visibly recoil slightly.

“I need to go,” he added, softening his tone. “I have to make sure we shut down that monitoring station. It’s our best chance to get back to Ring in one piece.”

“It’s too dangerous, son.”

Michael let the faux pas go. “I may spend most of my time on the bridge these days but I’m a trained Starfleet officer. And my security chief is very diligent about making me join weekly combat drills. I can look out for myself. As far as you are concerned, I need you to get back to your quarters and gather your strength. We’ll need you again before all this is over.”

“Just be careful. Promise me that.”

He nodded. “I will.”

With that Jon Owens reluctantly left the room. It didn’t escape Michael’s notice how he needed to steady himself along the wall as he walked away.

He spotted Matthew in the corner of the room and joined him there. “Listen, I know that you’re still mad at me and Jon, and you have every right to be, but I need you to keep an eye out on him.”

“He’s not my responsibility.”

“No, he isn’t. I’m not asking because he may look like your father. I’m asking because it is the decent thing to do as a human being. I know you’re not the Matthew I knew, but I like to believe that at the very least you share his sense of decency.”

Matthew didn’t have words and Michael decided to leave it at that and then followed the others to get ready for what he was sure to be a foolhardy mission he knew he had no business being any part of.
Part 4 - Roundabout Route: 7 by CeJay
7


As Tazla stepped onto the bridge, she was fairly sure the only reason Xylion didn’t immediately challenge her presence had a lot to do with Eli following her closely.

“What have you got?” she asked.

The Vulcan indicated toward Science I, the left-most console of the row of bridge aft computer stations lining the rear wall. Deen was already sitting there, working away.

She turned to look as Tazla, Xylion and Katanga approached. “Nothing so far on long-range sensors, but our current speed and orientation prevents us from getting a real good look at all the angles.”

“In order to carry out a full long-range scan, utilizing the navigational deflector, we would require to drop out of warp. However, considering the urgency of our mission, I would not recommend that approach,” said Xylion.

“If Doctor Katanga is right, the Borg implanted me with stealth nanoprobes that function as a homing beacon. And that means they may already know where we are. If they do, I’d like to know,” she said.

“Assuming the Borg are chasing us and we slow down, it is very possible that they may end up catching up to us before we reach our destination,” said Deen.

“Surely we have to stop at some point,” said Katanga. “We can’t run forever.”

“What else can we do to increase sensor effectiveness?” Tazla said and peered at the computer console over Deen’s shoulder.

“If we divert power to our lateral sensors, we may be able to increase effective sensor range. We’d have to slow down somewhat, to get the extra power,” she said.

“How much?”

“We would have to reduce to approximately warp factor eight point four six,” said the Vulcan, who had clearly already made the calculations in his head.

“I can live with that,” said Taz. “Do it.”

But Xylion didn’t respond straight away. Instead, he glanced at Katanga. “Doctor, have you cleared Commander Star for duty.”

Annoyed, Tazla pinned Xylion with a glare but quickly realized that the man was not going to be swayed by her mood, she focused on Elijah instead, giving him an insistent look. The last thing she needed now, was to be sidelined. Not with the possibility of the Borg bearing down on them yet again.

“Eli,” she said sharply.

He sighed and nodded slowly. “Fine. I do this against my better judgment. And also knowing that it’ll probably take a squad of security officers to keep you from getting involved. But I’m staying with you the whole way. First sign of any ill-effects, and I’m dragging you back to sickbay myself.”

“I was nearly assimilated by the Borg. There are bound to be some ill effects,” she protested.

“I’ll be here to judge if they’ll affect your decision-making.”

Xylion offered a brief nod and considered Tazla again. “The bridge is yours, Commander.”

“Reduce speed as required and transfer power to the lateral sensor array,” she ordered without delay.

The science officer quickly relayed her orders which were followed promptly. The ship slowed down imperceptibly, the streaking starfield on the bridge remained seemingly unchanged and the deck plates barely moved underneath her boots.

“Here we go,” said Deen, once she had confirmed she had the power she needed to tie in the additional sensors to increase the effectiveness of long-range probing. “I’m not detecting any other ships within half a light-year.” She continued to work her console. “I have Outlander vessels at one light-year. No sign of Borg activity. Nothing out of the ordinary at two point five light-years. Wait a minute.”

Tazla focused back in on her screen and quickly spotted what had caught the Tenarian’s interest. It was about two light-years behind them and it wasn’t a ship, exactly. She wasn’t sure what it was.

“Whatever it is,” said Deen. “It’s moving fast. Way faster than us.”

That bad feeling in the pit of her stomach was back.

“I calculate an eighty-six percent chance that this is a Borg transwarp signature. The sensor resolution at our current power utilization is not sufficient for a more accurate determination,” said Xylion who had never moved away from the science station either.

“It’s the Borg,” said Tazla. “It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

“If it is,” said Deen, “considering the size of the disturbance, it’s a lot of them. And they’ll be on top of us in a matter of hours.”

There was a moment of silence on the bridge as this new information was starting to sink in. Although Eagle had survived a recent encounter with the Borg, mostly thanks to her upgraded transphasic shields, that had been a small contingent. The crew understood well that they wouldn’t fare nearly as well against an entire Borg armada.

“It’s Tyrantus. He is desperate to get his hands on a very specific object and he is convinced that we know where it is,” she said.

Deen turned in her chair. “Tyrantus?”

“It’s a long story. Trust me, the less you know about it, the better.”

Judging by her frown, she wasn’t entirely convinced but decided against pressing the issue.

Tazla regarded her de-facto first officer again. “Can we catch up to the captain before the Borg overtake us?”

“We have been able to determine with a high probability that the captain’s destination is the Piqus system. According to my calculations, his vessel would have arrived in that system approximately thirty-four minutes ago. If we increase our speed to maximum warp, we will arrive in two hours and twelve minutes, while the Borg will enter the system eight minutes after our arrival.”

“That’s cutting it awfully close,” said Katanga.

Deen worked the console again so that her screen refocused on a tactical overview of the Piqus system. Tazla could see why, as the monitor showed significant activity in the solar system. “There are a lot of Outlander ships waiting for us at Piqus.”

“Something tells me none of them are a match for the Borg,” said Eli and then shot Tazla a pinning stare. “We keep up this course, we practically doom that system and anybody in it.”

Tazla understood this, too. She turned to face the main screen even if the starscape there didn’t provide her with any insights at all. “Considering the stakes, I don’t think we have much of a choice. We need to go in hot, extract our away team and make our way back to Cygni-98. With any luck, the Borg will create enough chaos to allow us to slip away.”

“Chaos?” said Eli. “You mean destroying or assimilating anything that lives and breathes in that system. That’s one hell of a sacrifice.”

“It is the correct tactical decision considering all relevant variables,” said Xylion as he calmly crossed his arms behind his back.

“Spare me your cold, pragmatic Vulcan logic,” said Eli with obvious frustration. “We’re talking about millions of lives here.”

Tazla raised a hand to forestall any further conversation on the topic. In truth, she had no idea whether Xylion or Eli was right and for now she desperately didn’t want to spend too much time thinking about it either. All she knew for certain was that she had to get her people back and stop the quantum-verse from being wiped out. Any other considerations were simply secondary.

“Helm, increase our speed to maximum warp. Tactical, make sure the transphasic shields are ready when we need them,” she said as she headed for the command chair to take the center seat once more, no matter how uncomfortable it would feel for the next few hours.

Elijah followed her only reluctantly. “God help us all.”
Part 5 - Infiltration: 1 by CeJay
Part V: Infiltration



1


Michael Owens had never stepped foot on Piqus VII but only moments after materializing on the surface he came to realize that he hadn’t missed much.

They had arrived during twilight, with the sun only recently having disappeared from the horizon, providing just enough light to reveal an uninspiring landscape, reminiscent of the kind of tundra found in Siberia on Earth or the western shores of Andoria, with an abundance of rock and mud but not much vegetation to speak of other than the occasional patchwork of tall and bare trees swaying against a relentless wind.

The dull scenery was nowhere near as disturbing as the climate. It was the kind of chill he could feel deep in his bones, seriously challenging the supposedly smart fabrics of his uniform that Starfleet claimed to be able to keep him cool in hot weather and warm even at temperatures below freezing. Thanks to Garla’s local knowledge, the team had equipped gloves and hats but the supply of cold weather gear on the Lead Belly had been limited and there was little Michael could do to protect his face.

Donners had staunchly refused to provide any manpower to a mission she had considered utterly foolhardy but at least she had opened her ship’s armory to him and the rest of their ragtag group of Krellonian independence fighters.

Although after closely inspecting the poor state of the Regalian phaser rifle he had been issued with, he suspected she had purposefully equipped them with the most substandard weaponry she had available, the kind that would be least likely to be missed if it were lost. No doubt further testament to her confidence in their ability to survive this mission.

The rifle was old and in desperate need of maintenance. It had nowhere near the power or versatility of comparable Starfleet armaments, all Michael could tell was that it had three settings: Stun, kill, and a third mode that he couldn’t even guess at since all the markings had long since worn off.

Lif Culsten--the one native to this universe--quickly took the lead, indicating toward a ridge to the north. “This way. The Outlander facility is just over that hilltop.” The rest of his eight-man outfit followed him without question but Michael hesitated. He wasn’t used to taking orders anymore, certainly not in the field, and especially not from a man who looked like the spitting image of one of his own junior officers.

He had to admit, however, that the man’s take-charge attitude made him wonder if the Lif Culsten he knew possessed that same leadership spark within him. The young Krellonian had certainly shown flashes of it before while serving on Eagle and he knew that he entertained career ambitions far beyond being a helmsman.

Michael wasn’t the only one not following the resistance fighter without question. Garla seemed also less comfortable taking instructions from him. He exchanged a glance with the sentinel and the hard look in her eyes reaffirmed that this was a person with whom he fundamentally disagreed with on a philosophical level and that at present, they were allies merely due to circumstances. And yet they came to the unspoken agreement that they would follow Culsten since, at least for the time being, their end goals were in alignment.

They found the quarry just where the rebel leader had said they would.

Michael vaguely recalled having looked over high-altitude sensor images of the site back in his universe when it had been first proposed as a good location for their field hospital. He didn’t recall much from those images other than how much like an unremarkable stone pit it had been, fairly similar to countless others on thousands of worlds where there had been a need or desire to strip mine materials from rocks or just below ground. The only noteworthy feature perhaps had been the vast size of the long-since abandoned pit.

Here, however, there was barely any sign remaining at all that this had once been an industrial operation. Instead, a large military-style base had been constructed right into the sunken earth, spanning nearly the entire length and breadth of the former quarry.

There were three large, square-shaped, and interconnected main buildings as well as a dozen or so smaller ancillary structures. An extensive inner courtyard, the original bottom of the mining operation, functioned as a landing pad and Michael could see at least half a dozen shuttles parked there.

He counted eight towers none of which were designed as look-out points since they didn’t reach the surface. Instead, they seemed to be used for communications, and defense, based on the weapon emplacements attached to the top of each tower.

“I’ll order my people to assault the base from the west as a diversion. That should give us the time to slip in from the east,” said Lif Culsten and pointed at a set of unguarded doors near the bottom of the pit.”

“Six people against a base of likely hundreds?” said his counterpart. “That’s a suicide mission.”
The rebel leader shot the other man a glare. “I don’t know where you come from but here, we are used to laying down our lives for a cause we believe in. This wouldn’t be the first nor the last sacrifice we’ll have to make.”

“You came here to save your people,” said Michael, agreeing with his officer completely. “What’s the point in losing more of your men in the effort? Take a closer look. This base is heavily armed. Any ground assault would be neutralized before it even got started.”

“We’ve come this far, I’m not about to turn around now,” he shot back stubbornly.

“There may be another way,” said Garla.

Michael noticed that she had somehow managed to convince Donners to give her a tricorder. It looked fairly basic but it seemed to give her what she needed as she considered its small display.

“If whoever set up the scrambling field for this base worked for me, they would find themselves in front of a firing squad fairly quickly,” she said.

Michael couldn’t tell if she was joking or not.

“It’s a high frequency, high power disruption field that is effective in deflecting scans but makes it nearly impossible to operate reliable internal sensors. A few creative tweaks and they won’t even see us coming.”

“And you can make those tweaks with that?” asked Rebel Culsten with noticeable doubt in his tone.

She responded with an exaggeratingly sweet smile. “It’s not the tool, it’s knowing how to use it.”

“If it gets us in and out undetected, let’s do it,” Michael said.

“Give me a moment,” she said and then worked the tricorder again. After a couple of minutes, she gave the sign for the team to move down one of the steep inclines toward the bottom of the quarry.

The descent was treacherous. There were no direct paths and the gravel and stone were rough. Without wearing gloves, Michael was sure he would have torn up his hands. His uniform held up fairly well but his left pant leg ripped open along his lower leg as he failed to avoid a small boulder in his path. He ignored the sharp sting of pain as he continued his downward journey.

He was also concerned about the noise of a dozen people sliding down a quarry wall just outside a military base, causing a small rockslide in their wake but by the time they finally reached the bottom, the base remained perfectly still even once the small avalanche above them had settled.

Lif Culsten glanced back up. “Coming down here may have been fairly easy but I’m not looking forward to climbing back up.”

Michael knew that it was a valid concern but he didn’t have the time to consider an exit strategy as Garla’s tricorder erupted in a small explosion of sparks.

She dropped the useless device. “That’s it. We have maybe ten, fifteen minutes at best until my intrusion will be detected. Let’s move fast,” she said and led the way to the set of doors Rebel Culsten had previously identified.

Michael and the others followed her closely to something that looked more akin to a small access hatch rather than an actual door. It would be a tight fit, even if they could get it open. At present, it looked firmly sealed.

Garla only needed a few seconds to find and remove a panel and reveal some circuitry behind it. After taking a moment to inspect it, she just smashed it with her elbow.

Michael gave her a curious look.

“If I learned something over the years, it’s that if finesse doesn’t get you anywhere, brute force usually will,” she said with a smirk.

Michael glowered at her. “That’s a great saying. I’ll make sure I’ll remind you of it when we are captured and facing that firing squad.”

But Garla just stepped back to the access hatch, and surprisingly, managed to pull it open a few inches. “They build this place to withstand an orbital attack, not a concealed ground-based infiltration.”

It took four of them to pull the hatch open wide enough to squeeze a full-grown body through it.

“My God,” Michael said, physically repulsed by the smell from inside the hatch. “That is vile.”

Rebel Culsten didn’t seem to mind nearly as much and was the first to push himself through the small hole.

Michael spotted some small writing next to the hatch he could not read. “What does this say?” he asked his helmsman.

Culsten turned to him. “Waste disposal.”

Michael nodded. “Figures.”

“It really must offend your highly refined Federation sensibilities to crawl through filth and excrement to achieve your mission,” said Garla who showed no compunctions in following Rebel Culsten.

“It offends my nose,” Michael said quietly before he followed. But not before grabbing a last lung full of comparatively sweet and fresh outside air.

The insides were dark, damp and as predicted, so rotten and putrid that he wasn’t sure how many sonic showers it would take to make him feel clean again. He had struggled to keep himself from retching and the entire experience reminded him of his escape through the sewers on the planet Valeria after a prison break not so long ago. The difference was that this time he was trying to break into one and that the waste disposal facilities of this base made those sewers look like a royal stateroom in comparison.

Thankfully, the ordeal only lasted a few minutes until they reached a section that had actually been designed for sentient beings to occupy. It featured a few hygiene stations the team quickly and liberally perused although it was not quite enough to entirely neutralize the lingering stench they had been exposed to.

“Well, that was an experience I wouldn’t mind never repeating,” said Lif Culsten after he had finished cleaning up.

“You spend some time around these Outlander savages, you’ll find their food stinks just as badly before they excrete it,” said Rebel Culsten. “Anyway, I believe we are in luck. According to my intel, the prison complex is on this side of the base. Let’s get my people and get out of here.”
The team slipped into the base proper and Michael found that they had appeared to have timed their arrival well since the outpost didn’t appear well-staffed during night hours.

“Let’s make this quick, find my people and get out of here,” said the rebel leader.

“We also need to disable the sensor station monitoring Cygni-98,” said Michael.

Culsten nodded but seemed distracted. “Where is Garla?”

Michael looked around and realized she was missing. He couldn’t remember seeing her since they had emerged from the waste facility. “I don’t know.”

“I thought you were in charge of your team,” he said, his tone noticeably challenging.

Michael didn’t care for it. “She is not one of my people and she has a tendency to follow her own rules. You asked her to come along.”

“She reminds me a great deal of the Garla I once knew,” he said, momentarily lost in his memories.

Michael quickly stepped up to him, very nearly invading his personal space. “We don’t have time for nostalgia. This is your mission; you are in charge. I suggest you get us moving to complete our objective. Which, in case you forgot, includes that monitoring station.”

Culsten glared back at him for a moment before he offered a brief nod. “Two teams. Parsha,” he said to one of his lieutenants, take your men to search the east wing, we take the west,” he said and his fellow resistance fighter quickly nodded and set out with a handful of rebels.

“What’s Garla’s play here?” Michael asked Lif quietly as they sat out to follow the other Culsten and his two remaining men.

He shrugged. “I’m not sure, sir.”

“Tell me, Lieutenant, how far can we trust her?”

“I’ll trust her far more than I do my alter ego over there,” he said, looking in the direction of the man leading them down the empty corridor.

They met no significant resistance, a couple of guards Rebel Culsten and his people were able to neutralize quickly and silently, although perhaps a little more violently than Michael would have liked. He also understood that their disappearance would not go unnoticed for long, and once they failed to report in, the entire base would likely be on high alert. Ideally, they’d be far away from this place by then.

“Cellblock, straight ahead,” said Rebel Culsten shortly after he had helped eliminate two lupine guards.

They deactivated a force field leading into the main block and found several cells inside. In all, Michael could count perhaps a dozen or so Krellonian prisoners, hardly enough to jumpstart a rebellion.

Rebel Culsten visibly brightened at the sight of his people. “Teleor, Matrin, Creator be praised.”

A tall and burly, dark-haired Krellonian stood from the cot he had been sitting on and quickly approached the force field. “Liftu, I knew you would come for us,” he said in a booming voice, befitting his large frame. “Didn’t I tell you he’d come for us?”

“I wouldn’t dream of leaving you behind,” he said and began deactivating the force field but not before he indicated to the others. “Get these people out of here.”

Michael moved to a nearby cell where he found three prisoners inside. They considered him suspiciously. “You’re human?” one of them said, not totally able to hide the apprehension in her voice.

He nodded. “Yes, and we have a saying. Beggars can’t be choosers. You want to get out of here or not?”

She offered no further argument.

“What are you doing here?” asked another prisoner.

“Long story,” he said. “Too long for the little time we have. Where’s the sensor monitoring station?”

The lanky and clearly underfed rebel offered a blank look in return.

A commotion outside the cell redirected his focus and he quickly returned to the main block where he stopped dead in his tracks when he spotted the five Outlander soldiers who had appeared by the main entrance, all five had their weapons pointed at the prisoners, and their would-be rescuers that had been caught unaware and dead to rights by the four dark-furred lupine and a massive bear-like ursine who towered above all others.

The stand-off was decidedly one-sided since none of Culsten’s people had their weapons at the ready, too preoccupied with reuniting with their lost comrades and Michael felt a momentary sense of dread at the prospects of imminent slaughter.

It never came.

At least not in the sense it had played out in front of his mind’s eye.

Instead, the lupine on the far right suddenly sagged to the ground for no immediately apparent reason and before his fellow guard realized what was happening, he reached out for his throat which had suddenly gushed with a spray of blood from a vicious cut.

There was a blur of movement Michael had trouble following as a figure leaped over the two-meter plus tall ursine to strike at the guard to his left with a well-placed kick to his head that had enough force to flatten him to the ground.

Never stopping, the figure used forward momentum to jump onto the fifth guard’s shoulders, catching the lupine’s head between her thighs and using her weight and gravity to bring him down as well.

She buried her dagger into the side of her third victim’s head before she had even brought down the fourth lupine and then drove that same blade into the downed guar’s neck just before she untangled herself from the headlock she had placed him in.

The ursine’s imposing size and strength seemed to come at the expense of his reflexes which were so slow that he had barely had a chance to turn and face the new attacker by the time his comrades were already out of the fight.

Garla easily avoided his massive arm striking out for her by going low and sliding underneath him so that she was right by his legs.

Two quick but clearly strategically targeted slices to his legs felled the massive creature like an oak tree.

Michael physically cringed as he watched the sentinel jump on top of the furry Outlander, driving her knee hard into his burly chest and driving the blade of her weapon hilt-deep into his left eye with enough force to spray her with his blood.

For a moment there was dead silence.

None of the soldiers had been able to fire a shot, or, for that matter, raise an alarm and none of the Krellonians had dared move a muscle.

Garla remained on top of the ursine, breathing hard with her face splattered with blood.

“That can’t be,” said Teleor, the burly and recently liberated rebel.

“You better believe it,” said Rebel Culsten with a quickly spreading grin as he approached the sentinel still sitting on top of her slain foe, trying to catch her breath. “Garla is back.”

But Peleor shook his head. “Garla is dead. And she never did anything like that before.”

Rebel Culsten reached out for her, offering her his hand. “This is an all-new Garla. Twice the fighter ours has ever been.”

She took the hand and allowed him to pull her back onto her feet.

“That was quite a performance. With you on our side, the Outlanders don’t stand a chance,” he told her as he looked over her handy work.

“Don’t get used to it,” she said as she wiped the blood from her face and rejoined the others. “I’m just visiting this strange, twisted universe of yours.”

Every single Krellonian in the cell block watched her with noticeable awe. All but Prime Culsten.

“What?” she asked him.

He just shook his head. “It feels to me that killing Outlanders comes far too easy to you.”

She offered a little smirk. “I made it look easy. It was anything but. Don’t tell anyone.”

Culsten clearly didn’t see the humor in the situation and neither did Michael.

“I think it’s time we get out of here,” Rebel Culsten said.

But Peleor hesitated. “There is a whole Garrison of Outlanders stationed in this facility,” he said as he picked up one of the weapons the guards had dropped. “I say we strike now. Take them out while they least expect it. With this new Garla on our side, we’ll cut them down in no time. It’d be a glorious victory for the rebellion.”

Michael decidedly shook his head. “That is not our mission. We’re here to get you out and to disable the sensor monitoring station.”

The blank look in the Krellonians’ eyes told him what he had already suspected and he angrily faced Rebel Culsten. “Of course, there is no monitoring station here, is there? This was all just to free your people.”

His silence was answer enough.

“We’re wasting time,” Peleor barked. “Let’s take down the Outlander scum. We move out now and we probably get to throttle half of them in their sleep.”

Lif Culsten stepped in front of the Krellonian who was almost an entire head taller than he was. “No, we’re leaving,” he said with surprising fire in his voice that easily rivaled that of the rebel leader.

The confused Peleor glanced toward the other Culsten. “Since when do you have a twin?”

“I don’t,” he said. “But I agree, we have an opportunity here to strike a real blow against the Outlanders, we need to take it.”

“That is a terrible idea,” said Michael. “You’re still greatly outnumbered and surrounded by enemy troops. You said these people are essential to your rebellion. You have to think long-term here. Take your men and regroup, you cannot take on a superior and better-equipped force one outpost at a time.”

“With her, we can,” he shot back, glancing at Garla.

Lif Culsten shot her an instant look as well. “And what does the great and powerful Sentinel Garla have to say about this plan?”

Garla took her time to consider the assembled crowd, half of which was clearly chomping at the bit to deal out some payback. It was time, Michael knew they didn’t have. “You want my opinion?” she said. “This universe offends me in ways I can barely describe. The way our people are reduced to little better than slaves is something I cannot tolerate.”

“Garla, listen--” Prime Culsten began but was quickly cut off by her.

“But the thing is, I derive no pleasure or satisfaction from killing Outlanders or anyone else for that matter. And I’ve learned, fairly recently, in fact, that revenge is not a good strategy. So, I say, we get out of here while we still can.”

“And I say that’s not the right move,” said Peleor who seemed to notice that the ursine she had put down earlier was still twitching. “These things are animals and animals need to be put down,” he said and leveled the phaser rifle at the large creature.

“No, wait,” Prime Culsten cried out.

But the Krellonian had already started to unload onto the dead or dying Outlander, blasting multiple new holes into his burly body until the stink of burning fur filled the block.

Not a moment later, loud alarms began to blare along with bright yellow flashing lights.

Michael’s first instinct was to get out of the cell block as soon as possible but before he could even make a couple of steps, solid tritanium bars dropped from the ceiling and sealed both entrances, trapping them inside.

Prime Culsten turned to look at Teleor. “That,” he said with a glower, “was quite possibly the worst move.”
Part 5 - Infiltration: 2 by CeJay
2


She had no earthly idea why she had ever agreed to travel deep into Outlander territory and help a group of strangers on some sort of fantastic mission that as far as she was concerned had nothing whatsoever to do with herself.

Michael Owens had talked about an existential crisis threatening all life in all universes or some such silliness, but she was fairly certain that the man had a penchant for the melodramatic.

And yet, there was something about him she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Sure, he wasn’t terrible on the eye, some may have even considered him handsome with his precise haircut and prominent chin. He clearly took care of himself and was cleaner than most humans one encountered on this side of the Beta Quadrant. He had a charm in an authoritative kind of way, something Maya usually didn’t much care for. He was stubborn and arrogant as well, like a man who had grown used to barking out orders. And he knew things he had no right knowing.

She didn’t care for him at all.

“Latinum,” she mumbled to herself as she rode the lift to the crew deck. “A whole lot of latinum.” That’s what she was in it for, she kept telling herself. Maybe enough to finally say goodbye to this blasted corner of the galaxy and find a nice quiet spot away from the constant threat of ending up as collateral damage in the never-ending war between the Dominion and the Borg.

She found two other people who she currently didn’t rate very highly in the crew lounge. Wes Frobisher and Matt Owens who may or may not have been the brother of Michael Owens, depending on who you asked. Although the similarities between the two men were undeniable. At least physically. Philosophically they were worlds apart, with the former acting much more like a human who belonged in these dark times.

“We need to talk,” she said as she headed for the table the two men were sitting at, not caring that she was interrupting their conversation.

Frobisher looked up. “About what?”

“About what you can do to compensate me.”

Owens shot her a disbelieving look. “We’ve already agreed payment.”

She shook her head. “I’m getting paid by your … well, whatever he is to you, for this ludicrous mission. That doesn’t cover my compensation for the losses I incurred because of faulty products you sold me.”

“They weren’t faulty,” Owens mumbled under his breath but when she fixed him with a dark stare, he quickly diverted his eyes.

“You have my shuttle. And its power core,” Frobisher said.

“I do. And that’s nice. But it’s not exactly made of hard cash.”

“The power core alone is worth more than this rust bucket you call a ship,” Frobisher shot back.

She responded with a wide smile but the hand that had moved to rest on the grip of her holstered phaser told him exactly how she felt about that comment. “You mean the ship that is currently ferrying your sorry behinds across the galaxy? If you have any complaints about the services you are receiving, I’d be happy to upgrade you to alternative accommodations. And I’ll guarantee that the view will be to die for.”

He noticed her hand on her weapon and shook his head. “No complaints whatsoever. I was just observing that the shuttle is worth a lot of hard cash.”

“Yeah, but here’s the thing. There aren’t a lot of people in the sector with the latinum to buy it. So that gets us back to square one.”

Owens looked toward the doors and when Maya followed suit, she spotted that Jon Owens had entered the room.

The elderly man who was clearly too sick to be traveling around hostile space, not to mention being out of bed, was Michael and Matt’s father. Although he also wasn’t. She had long since given up trying to understand this nonsense.

“You shouldn’t be out of your quarters,” Matt Owens said sharply.

The older Owens waved him off. “Has there been any news from Michael?”

Maya glanced at the chronometer. “Well, he and his band of fearless rebels have exactly twenty-two minutes left until I’ll blow this joint and they’re on their own.”

“We can’t leave them,” he said sharply.

“He’s right,” Frobisher said. “The fate of quantum-reality may--“

“Hey,” she said harshly, cutting off the scientist. “New rule: You are no longer permitted to use any terms that start with the word quantum or any other made-up mumbo jumbo on Lead Belly, is that clear?”

“It’s not made-up,” Frobisher said but not forceful enough to make it an argument.

The elder Owens was noticeably struggling to stay on his two feet and Maya was wondering if he was going to be able to keep upright. When it looked like he was about to lose his fight with gravity, Matthew jumped out of his chair and rushed to his side to steady him.

“You should be in bed. You’re in no state to be on your feet,” he admonished sharply, sounding very much like a son concerned about his ailing father to her ears.

“Just help me sit down over there,” he said.

Matthew begrudgingly agreed to guide him to the corner booth.

“Cap, we’ve got a problem.”

Maya immediately recognized the voice of her first mate whom she had left in charge on the bridge. She walked over to the wall-mounted comm and toggled it on. “What is it?”

“We’re picking up activity. A lot of activity.”

That caused a cold shiver to run up her spine. She knew they were surrounded by Outlanders and ships far superior to Lead Belly. If they were all to come after them, they wouldn’t last five minutes. “Have we been detected?”

“I’m not sure it is us, Cap, but … whoa--”

“What is it?”

“It’s like somebody kicked the hornet’s nest. Defense stations and satellites planetwide are coming online. They’re scrambling ships left, right, and center.”

“Put it through to the master control in the lounge,” she said and walked over to the table-shaped console in the middle of the room.

She had to give it a couple of whacks with the palm of her hand before the image stabilized. When it finally did, she wished it hadn’t.

“Looks like they’re getting ready for war,” said Frobisher who had joined her.

“Let’s see what sensors are telling us,” she said and activated a few controls that caused the tactical map to zoom out from a system level to a sector scale. Lead Belly’s sensors weren’t particularly powerful, especially not while running silent inside a planetary magnetic field so the vast majority of the map was obscured by a type of fog of war that gave no indication of what was out there.

“What is that?” asked Matthew who had joined them as well and who was now pointing at a pulsing mass bright enough to penetrate that fog. It wasn’t close to their position yet, but it moved rapidly in their direction.

Truth was, she had never seen anything like it before. And that worried her.

“I recognize the energy signature,” said Frobisher studying the panel. “It’s powerful enough that even passive sensors are picking it up.” He looked up. “It’s the Borg. A lot of them.”

She had been afraid of something like that. “And they’re coming right at us.”

“Why? I don’t understand,” said Matthew. “There’s nothing here worthwhile for the Borg.”

“We are here,” said Jon Owens.

Maya considered the two Owens’. “I have no idea what could be so important about your merry group of deluded adventurers to warrant such a response by the Borg but if they’re coming here, we need to be very very far away from this place. Right now.”

“We still have time,” said Frobisher. “They’re moving fast but we can give our team on the planet time to get back.”

She quickly shook her head. “I’m not risking it.”

“You want to get paid, don’t you?” said Frobisher. “If we leave now, without Michael Owens, the chances of that happening are close to zero. Give him a chance.”

“Money is not worth my life,” she said and pointed at all that activity on the screen, representing dozens of Outlander ships now in motion all around their location. “We’re bound to be discovered.”

Jon Owens forced himself back onto his feet. “No, we’re not. They have far bigger things to worry about than a small little merc ship. Their entire focus will be on the incoming Borg armada. Right now, there’s chaos and chaos is our friend.” He looked at Matthew Owens next. “We may be able to add some more to it. Matt, do you still have that Dominion communicator?”

He nodded as he reached for an inside pocket of his jacket.

“Wait,” Maya said with disbelief. “Why do you have a Dominion communicator?”

“Long story,” Frobisher said. “But trust me, one we’ll have to have words over real soon.”

“Not now,” Owens Senior said, sounding to Amaya not all too different from Michael Owens, full of a sudden burst of authority befitting a military officer rather than a sickly old man. “Get in touch with your contact and give her our location. Tell her you have found the people she is looking for and to be ready for a fight.”

“Are you insane?” she nearly shouted at him. “You want to get the Dominion involved as well? Why don’t we just blow up our warp core? That will get the job done much faster with the same end result.”

But Jon Owens stood his ground. “I don’t know much about your universe but I know that where I’m from not much can stop the Borg. The Dominion may have a chance.”

“With us stuck in the middle of it all like an ant squashed by an elephant stampede,” she said.

He shook his head. “An ant is far too small to be crushed by an elephant and that’s what I’m counting on,” he said, with renewed confidence. “Without another equal force opposing the Borg, or at least slowing them down, we won’t get anywhere. If they’re really after us, running won’t help. Sooner or later, they’ll catch up with us. At least this way, we have a chance to escape them.”

Maya looked around the room and it seemed clear that both Frobisher and Matt Owens were in agreement.

Prompted by her silence Matt retrieved the communicator. “Here’s hoping that she’ll get this. Or even listens to me, if she does,” he said and then moved into a quiet corner to make the call.

Maya could only shake her head. “You’re all thoroughly and unquestionably out of your God-damned minds and I wish I had never picked up any one of you,” she said as she turned for the exit to return to the bridge. “Michael Owens has fifteen minutes to get his butt back here and not a second more. After that, I’m getting us out of here with or without him. The universe can sort itself out.”
Part 5 - Infiltration: 3 by CeJay
3

A bright blue flash of light washed over them, blinding Michael Owens for an instant or so. Nothing obvious seemed to have changed afterward, certainly not their circumstances, as they still found themselves trapped in the Outlander prison block, both exits firmly sealed by heavy gates that would have required nothing short than a photon torpedo to breach.

“What just happened?” Peleor barked as he looked around as if trying to find the source of the flash.

“You being a Creator-damned fool, that’s what has happened,” Lif Culsten shot back in a tone Michael felt somewhat uncharacteristically sharp for the usually much more unflappable young helmsman. The events of the last few days clearly starting to wear on him.

“You might want to check your tongue, boy,” said Peleor using all of his impressive size to his advantage to tower over the shorter man. “Being related to Lif doesn’t make you my boss.”

Lif failed to be intimidated. “I’m nothing like your boss,” he said sharply as he simply walked past the mountainous Peleor and then shot a glower at his counterpart. “You might want to try and get your people under control.”

“Don’t worry about my people.”

Culsten looked incredulous at that response, his eyes briefly taking in their surroundings. “Right, because they’re doing such a fantastic job.”

Michael could feel the animosity between the two men and quickly inserted himself between them, facing his officer. “That’s enough, Lieutenant.”

Culsten nodded, his expression turning contrite. “I’m sorry, sir. I just … I keep running into these counterparts of myself and …”

Michael understood exactly what he was saying. All too well, in fact. He too had been unfortunate enough to be severely disappointed by his alternative version. He knew that for his Krellonian helmsman, this was the third version he had run into, and the last two encounters had both ended disastrously. It couldn’t be a good feeling to come face-to-face with a possible version of oneself, only to find out again and again, that they didn’t measure up in the grand scheme of things.

He offered him a gentle nod. “This hasn’t been easy for any of us and I can only imagine what this must have been like for you.”

Lif offered his commanding officer a grateful look. “I’m going to be fine, sir.”

Michael placed a hand on his shoulder. “I know you will.”

The sound of something being dropped onto the floor caused Michael to turn back around to find Garla having casually disposed of the weapon she had been carrying.

“Energy-dampening field,” she said. “That’s what we got hit with. All energy weapons have been rendered useless.”

“Great, now what?” Rebel Culsten said.

“Isn’t it obvious? Now you all join me here on this wonderful little planet as my very special guests.”

The voice had come from outside the cell block where a Krellonian had stepped up close to the gates. Michael seemed to remember that his race was known as the Kidrip. Small and petite for a humanoid with very light skin and a hairless body. He wore a well-tailored military uniform.

“Archjusticar Tenn,” Rebel Culsten nearly spat. “I should have known they’d sent you to this Creator-forsaken hellhole.”

Tenn laughed, a light and hollow-sounding laugh. “Well, now that I have managed to capture the elusive Lif Culsten, I am certain much grander things await me. For that, you have my gratitude. Now, please, be so kind--all of you-- to step to the wall and get down on your knees.”

Not a moment later, dozens of Outlander soldiers appeared by both gates that had just enough openings to allow them to point their weapons at those trapped within them. Michael was fairly sure theirs were still fully functional.

The Outlander commander seemed patient enough to wait for Culsten’s people to begrudgingly follow his instructions. Michael, Lif, and Garla followed suit as well, placing their hands behind their heads as they dropped to their knees.

Tenn spoke some instructions into an earpiece he was wearing and the heavy gates began to lift.

Any thought of using the opportunity for an escape was instantly squashed as Michael watched the two dozen heavily armed soldiers streaming into the cell block, at least one rifle per prisoner and each one firmly pointed at their heads.

The archjusticar strolled in slowly after his men. He was dwarfed by the many lupine and ursine warriors, looking very much like an imp surrounded by vicious beasts but it didn’t seem to bother him. In fact, he walked with a confidence and presence his much fiercer-looking Outlander compatriots couldn’t quite muster.

“You and your bothersome little rebellion have caused us quite a bit of a headache over the years, although I have never lost my conviction that we’ll put an end to it sooner or later. And now, here we are,” he said with a bemused little smirk as he stepped closer to the resistance leader, looking down at him as he knelt before him.

Culsten’s expression remained defiant. “You can kill me but our cause will carry undaunted and until all my people are free. Removing me will make no difference whatsoever.”

Tenn laughed again. “So much passion and theatrics. If nothing else, my dear Lif, you have been quite entertaining. Far more so than you predecessor who didn’t have the first notion for--“ he stopped himself suddenly as his eyes took in Culsten’s comrades and discovered, quite possibly, the person he had been referring to, right there along all the others. “Dramatics,” he finished, staring right at Garla. “Now, this is extraordinarily peculiar.”

Garla looked straight back at him. “I’ve always prided myself in being more of a doer than a talker.”

“And that must include resurrections since I have a very clear memory of killing you not so long ago,” he said, still unable to take his eyes off the woman. “I saw your body. What was left of it.”

“I’ve been told that I have a penchant for disappointing people. I’ve made my peace with that.”

Tenn clearly had some trouble tearing his eyes off her until he spotted the other Culsten. “And what is this? Another Lif Culsten.”

“He’s his mouthier twin brother,” Peleor said under his breath.

Tenn briefly glanced at the huge Krellonian but then shook his head as he regarded Lif again. “No, something else is going on here. Something very strange. Don’t think I haven’t noticed the human,” he said as he moved on to Michael. “Or how you both are wearing uniforms I’ve never seen before.” He moved in a little closer to Michael, close enough that he was mightily tempted to try and head butt the Outlander. He decided against it. It had been a very long time since he had attempted such a move and the only way he could see it ending here was with him being cooked on the spot by two dozen phaser beams. “Humans are rare enough in this part of the galaxy. Humans wearing uniforms and working with other races even more so. You don’t fit into this picture,” he said and then took a step backward. “In fact, none of the three of you do.”

Michael understood it was a big gamble, but he was out of ideas and he knew they were racing against time. “That’s because we don’t belong here. We’re from an alternate universe. We were brought here by beings wiping out entire realities. They have already done so twice. If we don’t stop them, they’ll do so again, destroying this universe and everyone within it as well.”

There were some mumbles coming from not just the Outlander soldiers but also the Krellonian prisoners. The former seemed to be bemused by such an obviously outlandish plot while the latter seemed worried that this strange human had completely taken leave of his senses.

Tenn’s eyes remained on Michael. His good humor was gone. Instead, his eyes considered him with a cold and calculating gaze. “I’ve heard of such theories.”
“They’re not just theories,” Michael said. “How else can you explain Garla’s presence here or two Lif Culstens? Run a biomolecular scan and you will find that their genetic code isn’t just similar, it is identical. You must let us go for any minute we delay we get closer to this entire universe being annihilated.”

“And I take it you have a plan to stop this?”

“Yes.”

“This has to be the single most ridiculous story I’ve ever heard,” said Peleor. “Not even Outlander trash is going to fall for something so outrageous.”

“Silence, the adults are talking,” said Tenn, unholstered his phaser and fired a blast right through the huge Krellonians’ head, killing him even before his body thudded to the floor.”

“You bastard,” Rebel Culsten screamed and lunged at Tenn. He was fast. The lupine soldier guarding him was faster, cutting him down with a well-aimed strike of his rifle butt to his forehead that brought him down before he could get within a meter of the archjusticar.

Michael glared at Tenn. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“I disagree. I don’t enjoy killing but I do prescribe to the theory of identifying troublemakers early and making an example of them for everyone else to see. It tends to stimulate conversation and allows it to flow into the appropriate direction.”

“It’ll just make me determined to kill you so much more,” Rebel Culsten said as he was being pulled back onto his knees by the Outlander guards who applied restraints to his hands behind his back and continued to do so for all the prisoners.

Tenn nodded. “That’s a risk I’m will have to accept,” he said before he focused his attention on Michael again. “The thing is; I believe you. It is obvious to anyone with eyes that you’re not from around here. I’m not sure yet if I’m convinced of your apocalyptic warning. But it certainly warrants further conversation.”

Michael shook his head. “We don’t have time for conversations.”

“I may not know where you come from, but you see, here we have a clear structure. A certain way things are done. And that means I cannot just take you by your word or I would find myself very quickly at the mercy of powers much greater than my own.” He turned to one of his ursine soldiers. “Take the others to Section nine and prepare them for processing. We’ll take these four to Section six for further interrogation. I find myself suddenly very curious as to the story they have to tell.”

The ursine nodded his huge head and indicated at his men to take the Krellonians away while a smaller group of soldiers roughly pushed Michael, Garla, and the two Culsten to their feet and steered them into the opposite direction with Tenn following along.

“The look you’ve been giving me,” said the archjusticar to Garla as they left the cell block. “I assume that we know each other in this alternate reality.”

“Yes. You work for me. And I have to say, I like you much better that way.”

Tenn laughed again. “How very delightful. I suppose the next thing you’ll tell me is that in this universe of yours, we are the best of friends.”

She shook her head. “No.”

“In that reality, things must be very different.”

“Yes.”

“Do the Krellonians treat my people there like we treat yours here,” he said, sounding genuinely curious.

“We did once. But not anymore. Things are much different now. Although they could be much better.”

“These circumstances sound so poetic. To tell you the truth, I’ve always felt somewhat compassionate for the Krellonian people. I don’t believe they deserve the way they are being treated. Not all of them at least. But this rebellion is giving us little choice.”

“You really do like hearing your own voice, Tenn, don’t you?” said Rebel Culsten before he was harshly smacked around the head by the lupine escorting him through the hallway. It didn’t discourage him. “You’re not fooling anyone here by painting yourself as some sort of charitable master. We all know you are nothing but murderous scum.”

Tenn didn’t even acknowledge the resistance fighter, clearly preferring his conversation with Garla.

“I once thought I didn’t have much of a choice. If I’ve learned something over the last few days, it’s that there’s always a choice. And the most obvious one isn’t always the correct one,” she said.

“An interesting observation--“

Alarm sirens began blaring through the corridor accompanied by flashing lights that brought the entire procession to a sudden halt.

“What now?” Tenn said and then stepped away from his prisoners and reached for his earpiece. “This is the archjusticar. Somebody talk to me.”

Michael was trying to overhear his conversation but the only things he could pick up was something about an attack and an evacuation order Tenn clearly didn’t agree with.

Besides the blaring alarm klaxons, it was a sudden and loud argument that had erupted between the two Culsten’s that made it difficult for him to find out what exactly was going on.

“How about you stop bemoaning the loss of your man and start thinking like a true leader?” Lif Culsten practically shouted at his counterpart in a conversation Michael was certain was a continuation of their earlier disagreement and that was threatening to reach another climax.

“A true leader. That is funny coming from the likes of you?”

“What does that mean?”

“Please,” said the resistance fighter and nodded toward Michael. “It is obvious that you’re nothing more than a henchman, following orders like a trained metcat. What would you know about leadership?”

“Clearly more than you’ll ever know. That leadership isn’t just about individual glory or honor and petty selfish desires. That it takes a moral backbone and true vision to lead people in a righteous cause. You’re just like all the others and I’m sick and tired of encountering Lif Culsten’s throughout quantum reality, one more of a failure than the next.”

The rebel Culsten had clearly heard enough and angrily lunged at his alter ego, driving his lowered shoulder hard into the other man’s midsection and pushing him hard into the wall.

The guards were momentarily frozen with indecision, as if not certain if to allow these two to try and kill each other for their amusement or interfere and put a stop to this.

The moment was enough for Garla to take action. Showing off her impressive athleticism, she contorted her entire body to bring her restrained hands from her back to the front only to ball them up and deliver a punishing blow to the face of the lupine standing closest to her.

Apparently having realized that this was their best chance to escape, the two Culsten’s disentangled from each other and threw themselves at their captors instead.

Michael did the same, however, he was unfortunate in that he was up against a bear-like ursine. Although he managed to get him off balance for a moment, his response hit him like a shuttle at warp speed, causing him to fly backward.

He could see that Tenn had reached for his weapon and fired a well-aimed blast at Culsten that penetrated his chest and send him tumbling to the floor. In all the confusion, and while still flying through the air, he wasn’t able to immediately tell which Culsten had been shot.

He crashed hard against the wall, causing the air to explode out of his lungs. By the time his eyes came back into focus, he could see Tenn trying to fire at Garla next who was barreling down on him.

He fired while she jumped. She caught more air by pushing herself off the wall and evading the blast and then took down Tenn while she flew over his head, using her restraints to drag him down by his neck and cutting off his air supply.

Michael didn’t have time to watch her acrobatic exploits. He managed to bring his tied hands forward, doing so much less gracefully than the sentinel had done, and then spotted a rifle that had been dropped by one of the soldiers lying on the floor just two short meters in front of him.

The ursine saw it too and quickly leveled his weapon to finish him off.

The Outlander fired and Michael jumped forward.

He swore he could feel the heat of the blast singe his hair as he dove toward the rifle, landing painfully but within reach of the weapon.

Not taking another second to think, he grabbed the rifle and fired multiple times, the large stature of the ursine making an easy target.

After the third penetrating blast, the bear-like Outlander dropped to the floor with enough force that Michael could feel the ground tremble underneath him.

He whipped around to find his next target but realized that there were none. All the Outlanders were down.

He stood and found Garla pushing the dead body of Tenn away from her. “It may be little comfort to you now, but I didn’t enjoy killing you either,” she said to his lifeless body.

“Sir, over here,” Lif Culsten called.

Michael turned to see him kneeling over his counterpart who was lying on his back, a nasty phaser wound on his chest was rapidly soaking his shirt. The blood trickling from the corner of his mouth and nose told him that any help was likely already too late. He joined them both and Garla quickly followed suit.

“Hell of play that was, don’t you think?” the rebel leader said between coughing up more blood but with a little bemused smile aimed at his alter ego.

“Uh … sure,” he said, and Michael had the distinct impression that, as far as he had been concerned, that little outburst had not been a play at all. “Worked like a charm,” he quickly added with his own smile. “Now, stay still and save your strength so we can get you out of here.”

He shook his head. “We both know that won’t happen,” he said weakly. But Lif wasn’t ready to give up. “I’ve seen myself die too many times lately. You’re coming with us.”

“Truth be told, I’ve always wanted to go out a martyr,” he said, his eyes staring at the ceiling now, likely not even having heard the other man’s words.

Michael got closer to the dying Culsten. “I have to know. That sensor monitoring station. Where is it?”

But the man was unresponsive as if no longer capable of understanding. Perhaps he didn’t know. Perhaps he had never known.

But then he reached out for Garla and managed to pull her closer. “It’s up to you. The resistance, my people, they’re yours now.”

But Garla shook her head.

It didn’t appear he could even tell that she was firmly declining his offer to step into his shoes. “They are poised and ready to take action. In this sector, everywhere. We’ve waited in the shadows too long. They just need somebody to--“ the rest of his words were unintelligible and Michael could see that his eyes had turned hollow and unmoving.

Garla easily freed herself from his dying grasp and then stood, using her weapon to disable her restraints and then do the same for the others.

Michael was surprised how she managed to not even acknowledge Culsten’s passing but understood the necessity to keep moving.

She had found a computer station and accessed it quickly. “There is a transporter room not too far from our location. On a shielded base like this, that’s going to be the only place we’ll be able to beam out from.”

Michael nodded even while massaging his bruised wrists now that he was free from the restraints. “Let’s go.”

It was, surprisingly, Lif Culsten who was the slowest to follow, taking one last moment to close the other Culsten’s still open eyes. “Never going to get used to this,” he mumbled just before he followed them.

“The transporter should be about fifty meters down this corridor,” she said as she led the way, moving at a brisk pace with her weapon held at the ready. “What is happening?”

“I’m not sure. Some sort of attack. Must be bad, I’ve overhead talk about an evacuation,” Michael said, as the alarms continued droning all around them.

“Could be Donners? Or maybe Eagle?” Culsten said.

“Doubtful. Donners doesn’t have the firepower to threaten the base and certainly wouldn’t go to such lengths to rescue us. And Commander Star knows better than to risk Eagle going up against a system full of hostile forces,” he said.

“Well, whoever it is, they’re giving us the distraction we need,” said Garla as she rounded a corner.

Michael could see the transporter room through an open arch down the large corridor they had entered. There were just a couple of guards inside it, both distracted by the alarm.

They made it within ten meters of the room before an entire platoon of Outlanders came running up the corridor, heading right for them.

They started firing almost instantly.

Garla and Culsten, who had been closer to the transporter room managed to dive inside for cover but Michael had no such luck.

A phaser blast struck him in his right upper arm with enough force to cause him to stumble back and away from the safety of the transporter room.

He had perhaps a nanosecond to make a decision. Try to follow the others by crossing the wide corridor offering no cover whatsoever, or jump into an adjacent corridor to his left for a chance to avoid the incoming Outlander barrage.

It was, of course, no choice at all.

He gritted his teeth as the pain caused tears to shoot into his eyes. He could barely lift his right arm and felt the blood streaming down his limb as he pushed himself into a sitting position against the wall.

From where he was sitting, he could see that both Culsten and Garla had made it into the transporter room unharmed, and had quickly disposed of the guards inside.

He risked a brief peek around the corner and very nearly had his head shot off his shoulders.

“Sir,” Culsten called to him from the transporter room. “We can cover you.”

Michael had never claimed to be a great tactician but he knew enough to understand that Culsten was hopelessly optimistic in that assessment. There were at least two dozen Outlanders baring down on them, all of them firing at their positions. Garla had managed to return a few shots but even that wasn’t slowing them down.

“Not happening,” he shouted over the sound of the unrelenting phaser fire. “Point-to-point?” he asked, referring to the possibility of beaming him across the corridor. He already knew that beaming off the base itself was only going to be possible from inside the transporter room.

Garla apparently had already checked and shook her head: Not an option.

Michael understood what this meant. “Get back to the ship. I’ll find a way out of here but don’t wait for me. You must get back to Cygni-98 and stop the Ring at all cost.”

“Sir, I--“

“That’s an order, Lieutenant. Do it, do it now,” he said and then considered his own rifle. He knew he’d struggle just to hold it with his injured arm to which he was rapidly losing any feeling. It was a mostly unfamiliar design but it didn’t take him long to find out how to prime the firing chamber without shooting the weapon. It caused it to emanate a satisfying and quickly rising high pitch whine. “I’ll buy you some time.”

Garla seemed to understand and nodded at him. He couldn’t be entirely certain but he thought he could see something akin to respect in her eyes, something he hadn’t seen there before. It was a hell of a time for her to start.

Then she grabbed a reluctant Culsten and pushed him back into the transporter room.

The whine of his phaser rifle was quickly becoming ear-numbing and Michael decided it would have been bad form if that thing blew up in his face now. Hefting it with his good arm, he lifted the weapon and threw it as far as he could down the corridor, very nearly losing his other arm in doing so.

He heard the weapon skitter across the floor, followed by a few warning shouts by the Outlanders who quickly ceased firing.

Perhaps, he thought, if he timed it right, he still had a chance to get to the transporter room.

The weapon exploded with a rather underwhelming effect. It had been loud but when he peeked around the corner all he could see were a couple of the Outlanders a little dazed but otherwise, none the worse for wear. There was hardly any smoke or damage where the rifle had exploded.

“Well, damn,” he said, cursing whoever in that universe had possessed the foresight to design weapons with safety measures protecting against an energy overload.

Over in the transporter room, perhaps fifteen meters away from him, he saw Garla and Culsten dematerialize. It may as well have been fifteen kilometers since the clearly enraged Krellonians began firing again, creating an impenetrable kill zone between him and where he needed to go.

Knowing that the transporter room was not an option and that staying in place would be an equally poor choice, he forced himself back onto his feet and took off down the other corridor with absolutely no idea whatsoever where to go or how to get off Piqus VII alive.

“Star is absolutely going to kill me for this,” he said to himself.
Part 5 - Infiltration: 4 by CeJay
4


She knew that it was bad form for a commanding officer to show signs of anxiety in front of the crew, and yet she couldn’t quite keep her fingers from tapping nervously against the armrest of the captain’s chair.

“Five minutes until we enter the system,” said Srena from the helm station, the young woman doing an admirable job of keeping her voice calm and maintaining a professional demeanor.

“Sensors?” Tazla said. “What’s waiting for us?”

Deen was quick to have a response. “Still a lot of activity. I’m reading at least three dozen frigates or larger. They are all maneuvering into battle formations. I’m also reading about fifty civilian ships, most of which are heading away from us.”

“They’re not running from us,” said Leva. “They’ve seen what’s riding our tail.”

Tazla turned to regard the tactical officer. “How much time do we have until they arrive?”

The frown on the Romulan’s face was not encouraging. “They’ve been steadily gaining speed. At this rate, they’ll arrive less than five minutes after we’ve dropped out of warp.”

“And then what?” Elijah said, sitting in the chair flanking Tazla and fixing her with a hard stare. “We unleash them onto the Outlanders in that system? They won’t stand a chance.”

Tazla didn’t care for that look but didn’t manage to stand up to it for long before she diverted her eyes. “We cannot be held responsible for the actions of the Borg,” she said lamely, even though her conscience told her otherwise.

“We’ve led them here,” he countered.

She nodded. “I know. But what they’re looking for isn’t on Piqus. Hopefully, they’ll figure that out and move on.”

“Sure. After they’ve assimilated everything within their path.”

She stood to leave her chair. She loved Elijah but his accusatory tone was not helping her already guilt-ridden mind and she needed to get some physical distance from the man, for whatever little help it did. She headed toward Deen. “Any sign of the captain or the ship he might be on?”

She shook her head. “None so far.”

Taz glanced at the screen where presently the stars were seemingly streaking by Eagle at multiple times the speed of light. Rarely in her life had she felt this trapped, racing at full speed toward a fleet of hostile ships while at the same time being pursued by an even fiercer and much deadlier force, knowing full well that there was nowhere else to turn.

She tugged down at the bottom of her uniform jacket similar to what she had seen Captain Owens do on occasion. Somehow the simple gesture had always made him seem more confident in times of crisis. She realized that it did absolutely nothing for her.

“We know that the ship carrying our people was heading for this system. It is fairly unremarkable except for Piqus VII, which means that that must have been their destination.”

“A logical deduction,” the Vulcan science officer agreed. “However, while the vessel the captain and the others traveled on may have been able to approach the system undetected, we have already been detected by local sensors. We will face significant resistance once we arrive and more so if our destination is the only inhabited planet in the system.”

Tazla turned her back to the viewscreen. “Yes, and yet that’s where we’re going. The impending Borg invasion should create enough of a distraction for us.” She did her best to avoid Katanga’s judgmental gaze and instead focused on So’Dan Leva. “Commander, as soon as we have dropped out of warp, activate the transphasic shields. They should buy us some time while we head for the planet and try to find our people.”

The tactical officer nodded.

Tazla returned to the captain’s chair and sat down. “Srena, drop us out of warp as close to Piqus VII as you can and then plot a direct heading at maximum impulse.”

“That probably means that we’ll land right in the middle of the scrambling Outlander fleet,” she said.

“So be it.”

The Andorian nodded and turned back to her console with her blue antennae standing at full attention. “Aye, sir. Twenty seconds.”

“There will be a short delay between us dropping out of warp and the EPS grid being able to energize the transphasic shield,” Leva said.

“How long?” Tazla said.

Xylion who had taken the seat to her right answered first. “Approximately, four point six seconds.”

“Ten seconds to Piqus,” Srena said from the helm.

“Well, let’s hope that’s faster than they can open fire on us. But in case they are quick on the draw, everybody better hold on to something,” she said and then followed her own advice and gripped on tightly to those armrests.

Srena gave a final countdown.

Eagle shuddered slightly from the sudden deceleration from high warp and the screen instantly shifted to show dozens of starships directly ahead. Somewhere beyond, Tazla could make out the shape of a planet she had already seen more times than she cared to remember.

There was an eerie moment of almost complete silence as Eagle’s warp core energy was being diverted to its novel and supercharged shield grid. The ships surrounding them appeared undecided as to what to do with this unfamiliar vessel that had been brazen enough to jump right within their midst.

To Tazla it felt almost serene. Nobody on the bridge dared speak, and even the operational noise of the various computer stations and conduits seemed quieter somehow, although that may very well have just been in her mind.

For perhaps a second or so she felt like what she imagined it would be for a deep-sea diver who had just come up for a lungful of much-needed fresh air and the world, the galaxy, and the universe seemed at peace. It was a moment she desperately wanted to last.

Of course, it couldn’t.

Like a rolling wave, the noise and chaos hit her all at once.

“Reading at least two dozen weapon locks,” said Deen. “We are being targeted.”

“Enemy ships are opening fire,” said Leva even before Deen had finished.

As the viewscreen turned into a tapestry of light and fire, Tazla was jostled into seemingly every direction at once.

She glanced to her right at Xylion who was already working on his computer console. “Regular shields are up and rapidly losing power. Now at fifty-eight percent.”

Doing her best to stay in her seat under the incoming barrage, she still managed to turn enough to look at her tactical officer. He was intently focused on his board, his fingers racing across the panels as if his life depended on it. It very well might have.

She decided to give him a moment instead of breaking his concentration.

It paid off. “Transphasic shield up and running,” he said and looked up at her, a rare little smile playing on his features.

The ship continued to tremble and vibrate underneath her but not nearly as bad as it had just a moment before.

“At this rate, I anticipate that the transphasic shield will fail in twelve minutes and eight seconds,” Xylion said.

Tazla nodded and got back onto her feet. “Given our circumstances, that seems like half an eternity,” she said as she made it back to the front of the bridge, this time to close in on Srena and the helm. “But let’s not squander it.”

The pilot already knew what to do. “Full impulse toward Piqus VII. Won’t be a straight line, there are a lot of ships in our way.”

“Just get us there as quickly as you can.”

The young Andorian seemed to enjoy a good piloting challenge, judging by the way her antennae twitched slightly and her fingers began dancing over her touch screen controls.

Tazla could both see and feel her piloting skills at work as the ship began to bank sharply in every which way to avoid the many military ships surrounding it. With the majority of Eagle’s power being funneled into the transphasic shield grid, there wasn’t much left for the inertia dampeners to smooth out their erratic ride.

“Sir, do you want us to return fire?” Leva said.

“By the gods, man, these people are about to have the fight of their lives on their hands. We don’t have to make it harder by starting to shoot at them as well,” said Elijah Katanga with some barely contained exasperation.

“They are shooting at us, Doctor,” Leva said.

But Tazla shook her head. “We don’t have time to make battle. Let’s find our people and get out of here.”
“I may have something,” said Deen.

That immediately caught her full attention and she moved over to the right to practically look over her shoulder and onto her operations console. “What is it?”

Sensing her interest, Deen transferred the findings onto the main screen. It displayed an enhanced representation of the planet. It rotated to center on one of its poles and then zoomed in closer until a small corvette came into view. “That ship is doing an admirable job trying to hide away among the magnetic interference generated by the northern pole. I would have missed it too if I had not been trying to find it,” she said and then looked at the first officer. “It’s the only ship in the system with Federation Standard hull markings. Or at least what passes for Standard in this universe.”

“That’s got to be it. Srena, get us there, now.”

“Course set.”

She looked back at the tactical officer again. “Hail that ship, Commander.”

The face that greeted them on the viewscreen was a familiar one. “I take it you’re the one delivering my latinum,” said Amaya Donners.

“Commander Tazla Star, USS Eagle. Do you have Captain Owens onboard?”

“I’ve got quite a few Owenses. Difficult to keep them all straight. Say, that’s quite an impressive ship you’ve got there,” she said with a wide smirk.

“Thanks. As you may be able to tell, we are in a little bit of a hurry over here. This system is going to become a lot more heated than it already is at any moment.”

“Yeah, the Borg, I know. I’d love to know what made them decide to suddenly push so deep into Outlander space. I suppose you wouldn’t have the answer to that riddle, would you?”

Tazla suppressed a heavy sigh. She didn’t have time for games. “We’ll be within transporter range in…,” she briefly glanced at Deen at her side who mouthed the words for her before she focused back on Donners on the screen, “two minutes. We’ll try to lower our shields long enough to beam Captain Owens and the rest of his team over. You’re welcome to join us but we need to get out of here quickly.”

“What a generous offer, Commander,” she said. “But I’m quite fond of my ship so I’ll stay where I am. You can have daddy Owens, his estranged son, his irksome colleague, and those two Krellonian troublemakers as soon as you beam over the latinum I was promised for my services.”

Eli stood from his seat and join her in front of the view screen. “So that’s Admiral Owens, Matthew Owens, Doctor Frobisher, Garla, and Culsten?”

Donners nodded.

“Where is Captain Owens?” said Tazla as she felt a ball forming in the pit of her stomach.

“I believe he’s still gallivanting around on the surface of that Outlander planet. I wouldn’t be too worried though, he struck me as a man who can take care of himself.”

It was only then that Tazla realized that the ship had almost completely stopped trembling.

Leva was quick to explain. “The Borg have just entered the system. The Outlander fleet is engaging them.”

The image with Amaya Donner’s face shifted to the left of the screen while the right section now showed a massive Borg armada dropping out of the trans-warp slipstream. Tazla gave up counting after the tenth vessel had appeared. So far the incoming fleet included at least two full-sized Borg cubes, the likes of which had nearly wiped out all of Starfleet twice before.

Taz knew that the Outlanders’ effort to stop what was coming was equal to a row boat trying to survive a tsunami.

“So, this seems like a good time for us to get out of here,” said Donners. “If you just beam over that payment I was talking about we can all get on our merry way.”

She had no response to this. Eagle had carried some latinum but she had given all of it away to the proprietor of the repair facility in orbit around Arkaria Prime. There was nothing left she could pay Donners with. The look on the other woman’s face told her that nothing less than cold, hard, gold-pressed latinum would satisfy her.

“Listen, we don’t have the time for this. The Borg are going to be on top of us in a matter of minutes.”

Donners defiantly crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Listen here, I’ve gone above and beyond what could’ve been reasonably expected from me while chauffeuring your precious captain around the Diaspora and getting in all kinds of dangers to life and limb. Now’s the time for me to get paid.”

Taz decided to change tracks. “Fine. But your deal was with Captain Owens. Which means it doesn’t work without him. No Captain Owens, no payment.”

The two women stared at each other and Tazla was reminded of those poker games her fellow cadets had introduced her to during her time at the Academy.

She was determined not to be the one to fold first.
Part 5 - Infiltration: 5 by CeJay
5


It was pretty damned obvious that he wouldn’t get very far.

He was rapidly losing all sensation in his right arm, which hung uselessly at his side, the sleeve of his shirt and jacket already soaked through with blood and he was getting dizzier with each, stumbling step he took.

The blaring sirens all around him didn’t make things much easier.

He needed medical care, a stimulant, or at the very least something, anything to slow the bleeding.

He wasn’t entirely sure how close his pursuers were but he was certain that his very limited choices were between getting shot by the Outlander soldiers on his tail or slowly bleeding to death in the maze of corridors he found himself in.

He stopped and leaned his tired body against the wall to try and catch his breath. The desire to just stay there, maybe even slide down that wall and sit against it, close his eyes for a few moments--the temptation was nearly overwhelming.

But there was that voice inside his head that was equally difficult to ignore. The voice that told him that if he gave in now, that if he closed his eyes, he’d never open them again.

He spotted a door just a few meters ahead. He took one deep breath that caused more pain than it gave him strength, and then pushed himself away from the wall to head toward the door.

It opened as he approached and he found himself inside a storage room. Too small to function as a good hiding spot but with enough containers that perhaps he’d be lucky enough to find some medical supplies.

Luck was not on his side.

The first three containers he opened were filled with machine parts, the fourth had lab coats and safety equipment and the next one he checked was packed to the brim with gold-pressed latinum--he briefly considered how pleased Amaya Donners would have been with such a find before he remembered how utterly useless it was to his current needs--while the last one held a collection of fine china and silver cutlery. Who in their right mind needed so much crockery on a prison outpost in the middle of nowhere, he mused with some frustration.

With limited options, he went back to the crate with the lab coats and began to tear them up and not without difficulty, mostly using his good arm and his feet. He rolled up his shirt and applied makeshift bandages that did little more than soak up more of his blood.

Realizing more was needed, he used additional coats to furnish a makeshift tourniquet to his upper arm, tying it as tightly as possible using his teeth.

Once he was done, he felt weaker than he had before, but once again, he listened to that voice inside of him that refused to shut up and that was determined not to let him die on this godforsaken rock.

He made it back to the doors and froze.

Not too far down the corridor, he could see a group of soldiers investigating something on the floor that look remarkably similar to human blood. His blood.

He heard more voices coming from the other direction and when he turned he was greeted by an entire throng of Outlanders, as well as a few Krellonians. Most of these seemed to be civilians and they were being rushed urgently to a set of wide doors leading outside.

Michael knew he didn’t have much time to make a decision.

He turned back into the room he had come from, grabbed another coat--he found one that came with a hood--it wasn’t a great fit but he figured he didn’t have much of a choice as he slipped it on and then rushed back out of the room.

He hardly even glanced at the soldiers who had picked up his trail. Instead, he focused his entire attention on the mass of people being evacuated and made a beeline for that group, doing his level best to look like he belonged.

It wasn’t terribly difficult since all of them appeared scared and were in a terrible rush to get as far away from this place as they could. He didn’t feel much different.

Blending in was a little more of a challenge.

He didn’t know the races that made up the collective group known as the Outlanders very well, but it was clear he looked nothing like the huge, burly ursine, or the reptilians. The humanoids known as Kridrip--like the former Archjusticar Tenn--were too small and hairless to be easily mistaken for one. Thankfully, as long as he was wearing his coat, he could barely pass as a lupine, at least in general stature, and certainly as a Krellonian, although they made up a very small number. Michael guessed that most of them were prisoners.

The group of civilians and the few guards ushering them along were far too concerned with keeping things moving to pay much attention to racial characteristics or even faces and he quickly pushed himself into the throng to try and merge with it.

He was surprised when it actually seemed to work.

The soldiers behind him had apparently not noticed him, and the many bodies surrounding him had no interest in finding out who he was.

He allowed the crowd to push him forward and right through those wide-open double doors until he found himself outside, in the massive courtyard of the base that had once been the bottom of the quarry.

They were being ushered to a row of landing pads from where shuttles were departing rapidly.

This was his way out.

Or at least he thought as much until he saw the row of soldiers standing between him and his escape route, and these ones were actively scanning the crowd, perhaps even looking for anyone who didn’t belong.

As he got closer, he realized that they were particularly interested in Krellonians and pushing them back, making sure Outlanders got to board the shuttles first.

Ears notwithstanding, he looked a lot more like a Krellonian than any Outlander and would most certainly not stand up to their scrutiny. He needed another way out.

There was a barrier to his left, perhaps three meters high, separating his section of the courtyard from an adjacent one and his procession was moving fairly closely along that wall.

A few meters ahead and a good distance away from the security checkpoint, he could see a gap within that barrier.

He had no idea what would await him on the other side but he understood that it was his best chance.

When the time came and his group passed by the gap, he disentangled himself from the pack and slipped through.

He didn’t know if anyone had noticed but if they had, nobody had said anything, still far more preoccupied to get to those shuttles and the best promise of safety.

There was another, smaller barrier behind the first, about chest-high, and with only one functional arm, he had little choice but to practically tossing himself over the second wall.

He landed badly, right on top of his injured limb and he clenched his teeth as he suppressed the urge to howl in pain.

Ignoring the tears shooting in his eyes, he scrambled back onto his feet and took a few steps forward.

There wasn’t much to see in this section of the courtyard. There certainly were no shuttles here, which was probably why most everybody else in the complex was now on the other side of that wall. There were a few freestanding buildings he guessed were warehouses and from the looks of things, no transporter rooms or other facility that could get him off-planet somehow.

“You cannot be here. This is a restricted area.”

The voice came from right behind him and he cursed himself for not having been more mindful of his surroundings.

Two Outlander guards were approaching him, a green-scaled reptilian, almost a head taller than him, and a vicious-looking lupine who irrationally reminded him of the Big Bad Wolf from the Grimm fairytales his mother had read to him when he had been a child.

“You need to be on the other side of the wall. There is an evacuation order in effect. I know you Krells don’t have ears, but even a deaf one would have noticed,” said the reptilian with a hissing voice that didn’t hide his annoyance.

“Who are you?” asked the lupine as he barred his teeth menacingly. Michael’s hood had pushed back after he had jumped that wall, fully revealing his otherworldliness to these two guards.

Michael would have loved to claim that his next move had been motivated by some sort of tactical initiative, that he had made a mental calculation about whom to target and how, and then executed his plan like the professional he liked to think he was.

In truth, he had acted out of pure instinct and an unwavering will to stay alive.

He had probably picked the reptilian because he had stood closer to him, or perhaps because he seemed like the bigger threat.

Regardless, without delaying another second, he rushed the Outlander with everything he had and not unlike a ballplayer trying to bring down their opponent.

The impact was painful but Michael didn’t let that stop him, instead, he kept pumping those feet to drive the Outlander backward using his momentum.

The soldier wasn’t quite prepared for this and was unable to rebalance himself before Michael drove him hard into the wall.

He heard a sickening crunch as his head impacted against the solid material and Michael could see green blood splatter, some of which hit him in the face.

They both tumbled to the ground but the reptilian didn’t seem to be conscious any longer. There was no time to check.

Driven by nothing more than adrenaline, Michael scrambled back to his feet to bear down on the lupine who was just in the process of freeing his weapon.

He got off a shot but it went wide while Michael went low, tackling the Outlander around the legs and bringing him down.

He pranced on top of the solider, for a moment feeling like the feral animal that the lupine actually resembled, and used his good arm to start pummeling his opponent’s furry face.

But the Outlander was stronger.

He fought off the attack and then struck back, correctly identifying Michael’s weak spot, he went right to the injured arm, tearing the tourniquet in the process and making him scream with pain that thankfully was drowned out by a low-flying shuttle buzzing over their heads.

Michael landed a few more good blows but as it turned out the lupine was similar to the wolf of his childhood in other ways too, including razor-sharp claws that tore at his chest and left deep cuts behind.

Clearly not satisfied with slashing at his opponent with his paws, the lupine unsheathed his knife to finish the job.

The move gave Michael a chance.

By the time the blade was out, Michael had managed to get in position to deflect the blow before the Outlander could fully stab him with it.

At the same time, Michael used the momentary swing of momentum to roll on top of his opponent and then took advantage of his position to drive that knife back down toward its wielder to make it slice into the lupine’s shoulder.

The Outlander howled but unlike Michael’s earlier scream, this sounded more like anger than pain.

Still surprisingly strong, he pushed Michael off of him, before he climbed back onto his feet and reached for the handle of his own blade now buried inside him.

Michael landed in the dirt next to the lupine who had his back toward him now and was only a moment away from freeing his blade and going back onto the offensive.

The injury it had left him with was likely painful, but Michael was certain that this younger, stronger creature would recover from it much faster than he had any chance to.

With a last-ditch effort, he jumped the Outlander again, hooking his good arm around his neck from behind.

The lupine hissed angrily and bucked hard to throw Michael off him.

And if he had focused on just doing that, perhaps he would have succeeded in freeing himself from the weaker human clinging to his back. But since he was trying to remove his blade from his shoulder at the same time, his energies were divided.

Michael took full advantage.

Making sure his opponent’s neck was cradled firmly in the inside of his elbow, he threw all his weight backward, throwing himself down onto the ground and taking the Outlander along for the ride.

Michael landed on his back hard, which was painful enough but made multiple times worse with the lupine landing on top of him.

But he didn’t let go. Instead, he just pushed harder even while the lupine was increasing his effort to free himself from the tight grip he had around his neck.

Michael had no idea where the strength had come from, had no idea it was even still within him, but he applied more and more pressure, bucking his hips to give him better leverage while the Outlander began to claw at the arm cutting off his air supply with both paws.

Michael felt the cuts but he didn’t let go.

A scream of desperation, anger, and pain came over his lips as arched his back as much as it would allow him to.

The lupine’s struggles slowed.

Very slowly at first until he stopped moving altogether.

Michael held on a few more seconds before all energy suddenly drained from his body and he went slack.

Somehow, he managed to crawl out from underneath the lupine’s motionless body, crawled over to the wall, and leaned against it.

His eyes remained focused on the unmoving form of the Outlander.

His own breath was ragged and his heart was seemingly beating a million beats per second. He was covered in sweat and blood, his old wounds reopened and joined by a dozen or so new ones.

That little voice that had kept him going earlier had grown very quiet.

He desperately needed to close his eyes and there was no strength left within him to fight that last overwhelming urge.

And then he gave in to it.

The sensation was pure bliss.

So what if it meant certain death? At that moment it certainly felt worth it. To just sleep, for a minute or forever, it didn’t matter. He just needed to sleep, everything else didn’t seem important anymore. There were others who could save the universe.

The quantum-verse didn’t need Michael Owens to be its savior.

It never had.

And then that voice was back. Suddenly and unexpected and strangely, sounding nothing like his own.

It forced his eyes open again and for a moment he felt immense anger at the interruption.

He was still alone, his only company, two dead Outlanders.

“Captain Owens, do you read me?”

It took him a few more seconds to realize that the voice was coming from his combadge that had miraculously still clung to his otherwise mostly destroyed shirt. Even Tenn and his men hadn’t thought of removing the unfamiliar badge from him earlier.

“Captain, please respond.”

The voice was distant, fighting its way through heavy static as well as his ringing ears, and yet, however distorted, he recognized the speaker.

He lifted his good arm and tapped the badge. “This is Owens.”

“Thank the Divine Symbiont, you’re alive,” Star said.

Michael forced a smirk on his face. “Not by much.”

She clearly didn’t get that. “Sir, I’m extremely relieved to hear your voice. We all are.”

“Trust me, hearing your voice means a lot more to me,” he said with some effort since his lungs were refusing to provide him with all the air he needed. “A whole lot more.”

“I wish I were in a position to deliver some good news but the area you are in is heavily shielded and we cannot beam you out.”

He nodded slowly, mostly for his own benefit. “I know. But you’re a resourceful bunch. I trust you to figure something out,” he said with an odd sense of humor he couldn’t quite account for. Perhaps oxygen starvation.

Star hesitated for a second allowing him to hear only static. He knew it was a bad omen. “There is a Borg armada heading straight for the planet. It will reach orbit in less than five minutes.”

“That certainly explains all the commotion down here,” he said in a voice so weak it barely carried to his own ears.

“Sorry, sir, I didn’t copy your last.”

Michael sat up straighter against the wall, it caused his entire body to rekindle with fiery pain but it also gave him a little bit more strength and allowed him to find his voice again. “Commander, do you have the rest of the away team?”

“Yes, sir,” she said. “We beamed them over from the Lead Belly. Donners wasn’t happy but--“ the rest of her words were drowned out in static. “They are safe.”

“Including my father--I mean, Jon Owens?”

“Yes, sir. We have him.”

“And you have the Exhibitor. You know what you need to do.”

“We cannot just--“

“Commander, remember what we talked about. The mission comes first. Leave me and save the god-damned quantum-verse. I’ll find a way off this rock. Somehow, someway,” he said, although the was rapidly losing conviction in that last statement.

“Understood. There is one other thing you should probably know about the Borg.” Star said something else but the static overwhelmed her voice again until the connection cut out entirely.

Michael glanced up into the sky as if he could somehow spot Eagle in orbit with his naked eye and make sure that Star would follow his orders and take her far away from this place.
Part 5 - Infiltration: 6 by CeJay
6


“There is one other thing you should probably know about the Borg,” Tazla Star said as she wondered how exactly she was going to tell her captain that the Borg in this universe were being led by his alter ego. “Your counterpart in this universe. He must have been assimilated at some point and has become their leader of a sort.”

She realized that the channel had closed and she turned to look at Leva at his board. “What happened? Bring him back.”

But the tactical officer shook his head. “I cannot. The Borg have started to jam all communications in the system. There is no way I can re-establish a connection with the surface.”

The turbolift doors to the bridge opened to allow Lif Culsten, Garla, Wes Frobisher, Matthew Owens, and Jon Owens to set foot on the deck, the latter was being steadied by Matthew, clearly too weak to walk on his own. And the younger Owens didn’t seem all too pleased about this, either because he didn’t much care for the man pretending to be his father, or perhaps, because he quite obviously looked like he had no business being on his feet at all.

Tazla briefly wondered--not for the first time--how much these two men resembled the captain, so much so, that for a split second or so, she had been able to fool herself to believe that it was Michael Owens who had miraculously returned to the ship, instead of his brother from another universe.

Amaya Donners had not made it easy for her to get the away team back and share with her the captain’s location on the surface, but in the end, Tazla had made it clear that the mercenary commander didn’t truly hold a great amount of leverage, certainly not with the Borg bearing down on them all, and she had given in.

Garla nodded at her as she stepped out of the turbolift. “Well done, Commander. For a minute there, I was starting to believe she wouldn’t want to give us up.”

Taz really didn’t much care for the other woman’s praise and instead was strongly considering having them all clear the room. After all, it was against protocol to have civilians on the bridge during a crisis. This certainly qualified. And then some.

“Did you find Michael?” Jon Owens said, practically speaking right over Garla as he more or less forced Matthew to walk him down the ramp and toward the command area where Tazla stood. “Did you speak to him?”

She nodded. “He’s still on the surface.”

There was noticeable relief in the man’s eyes that Taz could easily relate to. “Thank the heavens. What are we waiting for? Let’s go get him.”

She shook her head sadly. “We can’t. He is still in a shielded location and the Borg are nearly on top of us.”

“Commander,” said Xylion who sat in her usual chair flanking the captain’s seat. He looked up from the XO computer console. “The first Borg ships will reach orbit in three minutes and twelve seconds. We have not yet been actively scanned, however, I expect this to change imminently. Any further delay in our departure will increase the chance that the Borg will identify and pursue us.”

But Jon Owens vehemently shook his head. “We cannot leave without him.”
“He told us to,” Tazla shot back.

“I don’t care. We’re not leaving him down there for the Borg.”

“Admiral, I say this with the uttermost respect, we cannot risk the entire ship and, more importantly, this mission to rescue one man, even if that man is the captain,” she said, as she faced Jon Owens squarely.

“You have the transphasic shield. We can survive the Borg assault,” he said, not willing to let this go.

“Perhaps a couple of ships.” She pointed at the screen. “There is a whole fleet out there coming down on us. Our shields won’t last long. And we would still be unable to bring the captain onboard.”

“Then send a damned shuttle.”

“It wouldn’t last five seconds. Admiral--“

“No,” he interrupted her and managed to free himself from Matthew Owens who had been keeping him upright, amazingly managing to stay on his two feet without his help. “I’ve come too far. Don’t you understand, I have done things, terrible things, to get to this point. You have no idea what I’ve sacrificed to bring back my sons. I will now allow him to be killed on that blasted rock down there after everything I’ve been through to reunite my family.”

Taz had no immediate words, as she stared at the trembling old man who barely managed to stay upright. In truth, she had no idea what he was talking about, however, she had a growing suspicion that there was quite a bit about Admiral Jon Owens she didn’t know.

“Commander,” said Xylion with a voice so calm and steady, it stood in stark contrast to Owens’ emotional tirade. He left his chair but didn’t say anything further. He didn’t need to, Tazla knew exactly what he was asking her to do.

She nodded and glanced at Srena at the helm, who had been as riveted by Jon Owens as the rest of the crew, momentarily forgetting the very existential threat hanging above all their heads. “Ensign, get us out of here. Maximum warp.”

“No, you can’t,” Admiral Owens protested but was quickly reined in by Matthew to keep him fixed in place.

Srena, of course, took her orders from the first officer. “Aye, sir,” she said, making a clear effort to avoid eye contact with the distraught father, and then turned back to her console to execute the warp jump.

Tazla stepped up to Jon Owens. “You clearly are not well, sir. And may I remind you that you will still be needed before all this is over.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Lieutenant Deen, please help escort the admiral to sickbay.”

Deen quickly stood from her station, allowing Alendra to take over for her, and then stepped up next to Taz, glancing at Owens. “Admiral?”

But the man was rooted to the spot. “You cannot do this. You cannot leave him down there.”

“Admiral, I beg you, don’t make me escort you to sickbay by security.”
Deen placed a gentle hand on Jon Owens’ shoulders as she focused her purple eyes on the man and offered him a sympathetic smile. “That won’t be necessary, Admiral, will it?”

Owens Senior regarded the Tenarian briefly and then shook his head without saying a word. With Matthew’s assistance, Deen helped him to the turbolift.

“You are killing my son, Commander,” he said just before the doors closed behind him.

Tazla took a deep breath. She didn’t miss the eyes of most of the bridge crew on her. She decided not to let it bother her.

She turned back to the viewscreen but Piqus was long gone as Eagle was speeding away from the planet and the captain they had left behind.
Part 5 - Infiltration: 7 by CeJay
7


Piqus’ usually dense cloud cover had dispersed overhead, providing an unusually clear night sky.

Michael could see it filled with light and much of it, he knew, did not come from the stars.

It seemed the entire planet was desperately attempting to escape.

He spotted a momentary brief but intense flash and although there was no way to know for certain, he liked to believe that it had been his ship, jumping to warp to get back to the mission of saving all of creation. They had everything they needed to accomplish that. The Prism artifact as well as Jon Owens, the only man able to activate it. And he trusted Tazla Star to get the job done.

For just a brief moment he considered that perhaps staying right where he was, sitting up against that wall, slowly bleeding to death or being killed by the Borg, wouldn’t be the worst decision he’d ever made.

He didn’t allow for that thought to metastasize.

He was still a Starfleet officer, and no matter how lousy his chances, how poorly the odds, he would not give up, not if there was even a flicker of a chance and certainly not while his ship was out there somewhere, trying to save the universe. He owed it to them to do everything he could to help them accomplish this.

Another light in the sky caught his attention.

This one, far brighter than the one he had seen earlier. It had a greenish hue, and if anything it was gaining intensity instead of slowly fading away as would have been expected from a warp trail.

It took him another second to realize why this was.

It was getting closer.

Rapidly.

It was enough motivation to get him back onto his feet even though in the back of his mind he already knew that it wasn’t going to save him.

The blast struck the base dead on.

He felt the immense heat wash over him first, then the shockwave ripped him right off his feet again.

Michael lost consciousness at some point and by the time his senses started to reassert themselves he found it difficult to tell how long exactly he had been out.

His ears were ringing, his mouth was dry and his vision blurry.

And although his bones ached terribly, nothing seemed to be broken. He was lying on his back and when he managed to pull himself back into a sitting position, he immediately wished he had done so more slowly, as his head exploded with terrible pain, making everything around him start to spin uncontrollably.

He felt like throwing up but his stomach was empty, he couldn’t even recall his last meal.

When the world around him finally started to come back into focus, he realized that he had been thrown a good ten meters from where he had been. And much of the complex was on fire.

The barrier that had separated the courtyard was in shambles in many places and it allowed him a clear view of the landing platform.

Hardly anyone in that part of the facility was still on their feet, and the few who were seemed to be stumbling around without direction, clearly in shock.

Most of the shuttles were either gone or flaming wrecks.

Except for one.

It had careened off its pad and now sat at an awkward angle, its white hull was blackened in many places but to Michael, it looked structurally intact.

He scrambled onto his feet, managed a couple of steps, and then collapsed onto his hands and knees again.

He didn’t let that stop him.

He crawled a few meters, only really able to put weight on one of his arms, the other one becoming increasingly more useless, and once he had located that last bit of quickly waning strength, he made another attempt at walking.

This time it worked.

Unsteady at first, he managed to make it to the broken barrier and climbed through the rubble to the other side.

The hatch of the shuttle was open and he found a few uniformed Outlanders littering the area around it, none of them appeared alive.

He didn’t bother checking them over and walked right over their bodies and inside the shuttle. It was a fairly compact little ship, probably designed for short-distance courier missions. Besides a small two-seater cockpit, it had barely enough room for half a dozen or so occupants.

There was nobody inside and the cockpit controls were flickering, which gave him hope. There was at least some power left.

The instrument panel was mostly unfamiliar to him but his first priority was to try and get enough energy into the circuitry to get the ship off the ground.

When his initial attempts didn’t yield any results, he tried a time-tested method he had often employed when dealing with his father’s ancient and stubborn GTO. An artifact from a bygone era complete with an old-fashioned combustion engine that he had helped restore in his younger days. The first few whacks he gave the control console did little more than hurt his hand.

Partly from his growing frustration and anger at this alien ship, and his circumstances in general, his assault on the instrument panel grew more fierce as he began to outright kick at the console. “Goddamned, piece of junk. Just work.”

He rapidly ran out of precious energy and collapsed on top of the console, quietly bemoaning the futility of it all.

Not a moment later he felt the panel beginning to vibrate underneath him and he pushed himself up with surprise when he realized that it was coming back to life.

A large grin crossed his features. He had no idea if it had been his punishing treatment or if he had accidentally triggered something when he had collapsed on top of it, but he decided it didn’t matter.

He managed to figure out the pre-start sequence but had to stop when he realized that the main hatch was blocked and the shuttle wouldn’t lift off until it could be closed.

He turned to see that there was a dead body preventing the airlock to cycle shut so he got out of the chair and quickly stepped up to the hatch.

Moving the large ursine out of the way wasn’t an easy undertaking and strained his already busted body close to the breaking point but he finally managed to push that body off the shuttle.

He froze when he looked up and outside.

There were at least ten or twelve people still stumbling around among the debris and the corpses. Michael considered them for a moment.

He looked back up toward the sky. He could see that the orbital bombardment was still underway, judging by the flashes of green light raining down onto the surface. None of these had struck this outpost again but he knew that could change any second.

He made his decision.

“Over here,” he shouted. “Come on, get onto the shuttle.”

A few heads turned his way and he gestured to them urgently when they moved far too slowly to his liking.

“You want to get out of here? Move it.”

His prompting seemed to encourage them and they picked up the pace.

He helped the first few inside but a reptilian prevented everyone else to board the shuttle once he was inside. “Not them. They’re Krellonian,” he said.

Michael shook his head angrily. “So what? I’m human. None of that matters right now.”

The brown-scaled reptilian turned to consider Michael as if only realizing for the first time that he was not an Outlander.

“Can you pilot this shuttle?” he asked the Outlander with a pointed look.

He responded with a gesture that he interpreted as a negative response.

“Then that makes me the captain and I say they come along,” he said, and then instead of waiting for the reptilian to make us his mind, he shoved him aside and gestured for the three remaining Krellonians to come aboard. “Let’s go, it’ll be a tight fit but we’ll make it work.”

He was not wrong. The shuttle had clearly not been designed for that many passengers and he had to squeeze himself passed their bodies to get back to the controls while he silently prayed that they were not going to be too heavy to take off.

He found a female Kidrip sitting in the co-pilot's chair. She gave him a brief nod. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

“What gave you that idea?” he said as he took his seat. “Everybody, find something to hang on to. This is likely going to be a rough ride.”

A few steady white lights on his panels seemed to indicate that the pre-flight sequence had been successfully completed. He ignored the many flashing lights that refused to turn off.

His first attempts at trying to activate the launch controls were met by trial and error, briefly causing the internal lights of the shuttle to go off and come back on.

“Are you certain, you know how to fly this shuttle?” the Kidrip said.

“To be perfectly honest, it’s been a little while since I piloted a ship like this,” he said as he focused on the controls. “But they say flying a shuttle is like riding a bicycle.” He finally found the antigrav controls and the small ship began to lift off from the ground a few meters.

“What’s a bicycle?” she said.

Michael had no time to respond. The shuttle wasn’t behaving as he’d expected and although it was gaining altitude, it was doing so unsteadily and not quickly enough.

The shuttle grazed one of the facility’s buildings, rattling everyone inside and causing a toe-curling screech as metal grated against metal.

Once they were clear, Michael offered his co-pilot a smile. “That wasn’t so bad now, was it?”

She just shook her head.

Michael quickly got the hang of the piloting controls and managed to point the nose of the shuttle toward orbit. It wasn’t the prettiest ascend, certainly not up to the standards of somebody like Lif Culsten, but it got the job done.

It didn’t take long to reach orbit and what they found there was anything but encouraging.

“We’re not going to make it,” the Kidrip said, her eyes wide as she took in the two massive Borg spheres blocking their escape.

“We’re going to make it,” Michael said and threw the shuttle into a tight loop while redlining the engines, pushing him hard into his seat.

The spheres seemed to be more preoccupied with raining down destruction onto the surface of Piqus VII than chasing a lonely shuttle as it zipped passed them.

“Yes, yes, yes,” he said as adrenaline coursed through his system.

The Borg ships were creating too much interference to allow him to jump to warp but there was nothing but empty space ahead of them now. They just needed to gain a little bit more distance before they were scot-free.

That’s when the wall came down.

At least that’s what it looked like. A wall of solid dark metal descended directly into his flight path, cutting off their escape route. “No, no, no,” he said as he banked sharply to the right to avoid smashing into the Borg Cube directly ahead.

He avoided contact with perhaps a handful of meters to spare.

Then they stopped dead in space.

Caught in a tractor beam.

They wouldn’t be going anywhere.

Michael turned to look at the woman at his side, her large eyes filled with fear. “I’m sorry.”

Not a moment after he had said those words he felt his body disintegrate and he was greeted by infinite darkness.

Blind and with no notion 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 as if appraising his mirror image. He didn’t seem to like what he was seeing as he turned his back and walked away.

Michael tried to follow him, to reach out for the other him but no matter how fast he ran, the other Michael stayed just out of his reach, and then he was gone, leaving him in the darkness once more.

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

A single, focused red light penetrated the darkness somewhere ahead of him. 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.

Then the world faded out again like somebody had pulled a dark curtain right in front of his eyes.

That fear remained with him as he regained consciousness, although, strangely, his body which as of late had been a constant source of pain, felt better than it had in what seemed like days. It took him a moment to realize that this was because he couldn’t feel most of it, certainly not his arms or legs. The next thing he noticed was the terrible smell. It wasn’t putrid exactly, not like crawling through a waste disposal unit, instead it was a disturbing antiseptic smell, completely sterile and devoid of anything truly alive.

There was just enough light for him to see some of his immediate surroundings, although he wasn’t able to move his head. Although he had never been to such a place before, he had seen enough images to know where he was. To know that it was a place he had never hoped to visit and that sense of calm he had experienced initially evaporated like morning dew on a hot summer’s day.

The choir of voices assaulting his senses was booming enough to drive a man to madness. “Species 5618. Local designation: Human. Place of Origin: Sol III. Local designation: Earth.”

He tried to respond but no words would come over his lips.

“Designation: Michael Timothy Owens. Age: Forty-two standard solar years. Male progenitor: Jonathan Taylor Owens. Female progenitor: Judith Baxter-Owens. Designation of birthing location: Waukesha, Wisconsin, North America, Sol III.”

He had no idea how they could know any of that.

The headache-inducing chorus was replaced by a single voice, still very much synthetic. “We know exactly who you are. Although your existence is an impossibility,” the voice said and Michael could see somebody stepping into the light directly in front of him. It was like looking into a terribly twisted mirror that had robbed his face of all color and disfigured it with mechanical implants. “But Michael Owens no longer exists. There is only Tyrantus of Borg.”
Part 5 - Infiltration: 8 by CeJay
8


She had a difficult time tearing her eyes off the wall screen that currently showed a small armada of Borg ships entering the orbit of Piqus VII and commencing their assault on the surface, knowing who they had left behind on that planet.

The Borg were unsurprisingly thorough, easily picking up ships trying to escape one-by-one, while at the same time disabling orbital installations and targeting key locations on the surface.

She knew that the Borg had a very specific objective, which meant that they would take that planet apart piece by piece if they had to in order to achieve it. She also understood that it had been her actions that had brought the Borg to that planet and turned millions into their victims.

The rational part of her mind told her that countless more lives were at stake, entire universes, but the emotional toll of those decisions was difficult to ignore while watching an entire planet being assimilated.

“There are no immediate signs of Borg pursuit,” said Commander Xylion who sat in his usual chair in the observation lounge, along with Leva, Deen, and Culsten, as well as their current guests, Garla, Westren Frobisher, and Matthew Owens.

Tazla had her back to all of them, with too much nervous energy deep inside her gut to sit down, she stood silently to witness the death and destruction she had brought on an entire world.

“That may not last long,” said Leva. “They may no longer be able to track us through nanoprobes, however, we have to assume that their sensor technology is at least as good as ours, maybe better. In which case, it’s just a matter of time until they pick up our trail again.”

“Maybe not,” said Deen. “Commander, you’ve said that they’re looking for a specific substance. Perhaps they’ll find it in the Piqus system.”

Garla shook her head. “I think I have a good idea of what that substance may be.”

This finally caused Tazla to turn from the screen and regard the Krellonian woman, pinning her with a hard stare. She had since surmised that the Borg and their leader Tyrantus, were specifically looking for the Omega molecule, or Particle 010, as he had referred to it. For whatever reason, the massively powerful particle had a special significance to the Borg. Still mindful of the Omega Directive, she had not shared specific details about what this molecule was with the crew and she hoped her sharp look directed at the sentinel, communicated to her that she planned to continue with that policy.

The other woman raised her hands in mock surrender. “Right, apologies, I forgot that you have these asinine rules and protocols within Starfleet.”

“As an intelligence operative, I would have expected that you’d appreciate the requirements of compartmentalizing sensitive information,” Tazla said curtly.

“Certainly. I just figured we had bigger concerns at the moment. Such as the end of all existence.”

Tazla said nothing.

“Fine. Regardless, my point is, although I’m not at liberty to discuss details,” she said, offering Tazla a brief glare, “I am familiar with what the Borg are looking for and I’m fairly certain they won’t find it in the Piqus system. There might only be one place they’ll be able to find it in this quadrant and that’s in Cygni-98.”

Deen’s eyes opened a little wider. “The supercollider?”

Garla nodded.

“It’s power source,” said Deen and then considered Xylion briefly, and judging by the expression on his face, subtle as it was, he was thinking along the same lines. That the unidentified energy source that powered that massive collider to produce the energies necessary to not just transport starships to other realities but to wipe them out as well was the same energy the Borg in this universe were looking for.

“As I said, the details are classified,” Tazla said in the kind of tone that she hoped would discourage further conversation on the subject.

“Commander, with all due respect,” said Deen. “But I think Garla is right. Considering the stakes, keeping information confidential feels somewhat trivial at this stage.”

It was only now that she realized that although Deen’s voice had been firm and steady, her eyes were noticeably reddened as if she had cried earlier. In truth, she felt a lot like crying herself when considering the captain’s likely fate. She knew she couldn’t afford to. There’d be plenty of time for tears later and if they made it through this entire mess in one piece.

She sighed and finally took a seat. “If I thought that information around this energy source would help us in any way at present, trust me, the captain and I would have made it available. For now, the way the supercollider is powered is a secondary concern to getting back to it and shutting it down for good using the tools we already have in our possession.” She knew it wasn’t the strongest argument in the book but she felt comfortable enough with it. Besides, she knew for a fact that they didn’t have the time to bring the crew up to speed on the Omega molecule. Not now.

“Sir, there is another possibility we will need to consider, regardless of how uncomfortable,” said Xylion and then continued when nobody else spoke. “Even if the Borg are unable to detect our destination, they may be able to obtain this information from the captain.”

That caused the room to fall quiet yet again as clearly nobody wanted to think about Owens being assimilated by the Borg.

Garla was the first one to break it, no doubt having the least emotional attachments to Michael Owens. “That just means that we need to get back to Cygni-98 as quickly as we possibly can.”

“There’s still the matter of the sensor net monitoring the sector,” said Frobisher, sounding somewhat hesitant as he spoke, which wasn’t surprising considering that he was mostly unfamiliar with the people in attendance. “Lif Culsten, the one in this universe, had promised your captain to find a way to shut it down. That was the main reason we came to Piqus in the first place.”

“Yes, and that turned out to be one big fat lie,” Culsten said with noticeable disdain in his voice. “He had no idea how to accomplish that.”

“Isn’t that monitoring station a bit of a moot point now?” said Matthew Owens. Tazla had never met Michael Owens’ brother in their universe and this was the first time she had encountered him in this one and yet she was quickly struck by how similar he sounded to the captain, even his mannerisms weren’t all that different. The resemblance was hard to ignore. “Surely the Outlanders have bigger problems than keeping us out of Cygni-98.”

Leva entered a few commands into the panel on the table to take control of the screen at the far end of the wall to quickly switch from the live sensor feed displaying the ferocious Borg attack to a tactical map of the sector. “Long-range scans still show a great deal of Outlander activity in the area around Cygni-98. The Borg threat is significant but I don’t believe the Outlanders have the numbers or the firepower to attempt a counterattack. Based on their current deployment, I suspect that they are taking a wait-and-see approach for now.”

Tazla nodded after she glanced over the screen. “Which means that they still might come after us if we venture back toward Cygni-98.”

“Their forces will be able to intercept us before we reach it,” said the tactical officer. “Even with our transphasic shields, that may be a battle we cannot win, especially not since we cannot maintain warp when it is deployed.”

It was a riddle to which Tazla didn’t have an answer.

“The last thing my counterpart said before he died was that his resistance forces were primed and ready to go,” said Lif Culsten. “Just waiting for the right moment to strike all over the sector.” He glanced at Garla sitting by his side. “Just waiting for a leader.”

She quickly shook her head. “That’s not me. In fact, if there is somebody here who fits that description best, that would be you, dear Liftu.”

“The last time I tried to impersonate my alter ego, things didn’t work out too well. I’m not that type of leader. But you are. And I think he knew that. He knew you would be able to inspire his people to fight. And that may just be the distraction we need.”

“Sounds rather callous, doesn’t it?” said Deen, clearly not fond of what she was hearing.

“I don’t like the idea to use people as a distraction any more than you do, but I believe we are past the point where we have the luxury to choose our approach,” Taz said quietly before her eyes found Garla again. “We won’t be able to do this alone. Do you think you can convince these rebels to follow you and fight the Outlanders?”

Garla considered Culsten first before she responded. “I guess we’re going to find out, won’t we?”
Part 5 - Infiltration: 9 by CeJay
9


Michael Owens had been no stranger to nightmares over the last few days and ever since he had experienced his first, inexplicable vision during the mission into the subspace domain.

He had seen images in his mind’s eyes that had made his blood turn ice cold, visions he now understood belonged to different realities and to which he had somehow become attuned after that first telepathic connection.

However, none of those visions or his previous experiences could compare to facing himself as a Borg drone.

“All available evidence suggests that you are connected to the starship designated NCC-74329,” Tyrantus said as he stared him down with his one biological eye that mirrored perfectly the dark blue hue of his own, along with its mechanical twin. “A starship crewed by races formerly belonging to the United Federation of Planets. An entity that has not existed since it was dissolved sixty-eight standard years ago. DNA analysis confirms that you are Michael Timothy Owens, a member of species 5618 assimilated by the Borg twenty-six point four standard years ago.”

Michael diverted his eyes, finding it increasingly difficult to look at this twisted mirror image of himself. Encountering the man DeMara had come to nickname Dark Michael had been difficult enough, and although that variation of him had somehow lost most of the ethical and moral baselines Michael valued so highly, at least he had still recognized something of himself in that version. So much so that he had been desperate to try and find a way to pull him back from the brink of darkness, even once it had become apparent to most everyone else that there had been no saving that man.

With Tyrantus it was as if somebody had turned him inside out, turned him into a walking nightmare version of himself and he felt physically ill regarding this half-man, half-machine thing.

He found himself slightly reclined on a table. He was not physically restrained but he had no sensation whatsoever in his extremities.

Automated appendages were working on his right arm, using bone knitters and dermal regeneration to repair the injury.

“The arrival of your ship coincides with the appearance of radiation readings in this sector consistent with those of Particle 010, the most powerful and the most perfect molecule known to exist.”

Michael didn’t need to guess as to what he was referring to.

“Since your existence in this universe is an impossibility, and Particle 010 is powerful enough to theoretically allow travel across quantum reality states, the most logical assumption is that you and your vessel have traveled to this state from an alternate universe by utilizing the power provided by Particle 010.”

No doubt the Borg in this universe had assimilated a great number of Vulcans, Michael mused darkly but did his best to continue avoiding Tyrantus’ unsettling eyes.

“The question then is as to why you have come to this quantum state?”

He tried to get a better look at his surroundings but the low light levels made that difficult. Almost as if he was caught in some sort of old-fashioned interrogation room, the lights had been set up so that he could see little else other than his interrogator.

“Unless you did not travel here on purpose.”

Although he had told himself to give away nothing, he couldn’t quite keep his facial expressions from betraying him as he made brief eye contact with the Borg. No doubt Tazla Star, the former secret agent in her, would have been appalled by his poor counter-interrogation skills.

Something that could have been interpreted as a smile formed on Tyrantus’ pale lips. “Your motivation is of no significance to the Borg. But we will not be denied Particle 010. You will lead us to it.”

“Fat chance,” Michael said, the first words he had uttered since he had been brought onto the Borg vessel and although he had meant to sound confident and defiant, the voice that reached his ears was anything but. He certainly didn’t feel the bravado his words had meant to evoke.

Tyrantus reached out for his face and took hold of it with a cool metallic hand that send shudders through the part of his body he could still feel. It wasn’t painful but the grip was firm and more than enough to force him to look at the monstrosity he was facing. “There are parts of us that remember Michael Owens,” he said. “We have memories of a childhood on planet Earth. Of a father and mother before they were assimilated. A brother who left his family while he was practically still a child.”

Tears were threatening to form in his eyes but Michael was determined to keep them in check, to not show weakness in front of the Borg. It was a monumental ask.

“We have memories of what it meant to be human,” he said. “Some of those memories are not entirely … unpleasant,” he said, sounding like that word was not fully familiar to him. Not anymore.

Michael found it hard to believe that anything human remained in that Borg body of his. He knew of at least one Borg who had been de-assimilated and brought back after he had been taken over by the cyborg race. Much about Tyrantus reminded him of the creature that had been briefly known as Locutus. But Picard had been a Borg for a few days, his counterpart hadn’t been human for more than half his lifetime. He wasn’t sure if there was any coming back from that.

“We will not assimilate you,” Tyrantus said and then paused for a moment and turned his head as if he was hearing other voices. Perhaps there was discord within the Collective about this decision. “Not immediately,” he added before his full attention was once more on Michael. “But there are ways in which we can ensure your cooperation. They are painful and your body will likely not remain intact but you will tell us the location of Particle 010 and whatever device has delivered you to this universe. You will assist the Borg unconditionally in giving us access to other realities to establish a quantum-verse that is entirely Borg.”

The thought of it alone was nearly too difficult to bear. He had already struggled with the notion of the end of all existence, but the idea of an infinite Borg realm consisting of a never-ending number of Borg drones was stuff that went far beyond nightmares.

The appendages that had held healing tools a moment ago now changed to what Michael could only guess were torturing devices. One appendage slowly moved toward his face with a fast-spinning circular saw aimed at his right eye socket.

Michael understood enough about torture that he would not be able to hold out for long. And he was certain that the Borg knew exactly which points to target to inflict the maximum amount of pain and ultimately break his will. And no matter how desperate he was to hold out and keep the Borg from finding the supercollider and perhaps give them the opportunity to realize their twisted plans, at some point he’d tell them everything they wanted to know. All he could hope for was to buy Eagle enough time to reach their destination before Tyrantus would lay him bare.

The lighting levels in the room changed suddenly, turning a darker shade of green, and like a startled dog, Tyrantus whipped his head to the side.

Michael knew something significant had changed but his entire focus remained on the spinning saw now mere inches from his eye.

Until it stopped.

A holographic image appeared to Michael’s left, barely within his range of vision. Still unable to move his head, he had to move his eyes to an uncomfortable degree to be able to see the sight it displayed.

It was a fleet of starships. But these were not Borg, and certainly not Outlanders, either. These ships were distinctly bug-shaped, scores of fighters interspersed with half a dozen or so capital ships.

It was a sight he had come to dread over the last few years, but right now, he had never been happier to see a Dominion fleet bearing down on his location.

The approaching armada held Tyrantus’ full attention. “This does not concern you. Leave this place or be destroyed.”

The image shifted to show the face of Kilana, the same Vorta woman Michael had briefly glimpsed in his brother’s workshop. She wore that same pleasantly fake smile on her face she had sported then.

“The Outlander Alliance is under the protection of the Dominion. You have carried out an unwarranted assault on the Outlander Alliance. This means that at present, you are my only concern,” she said in a sing-song type of voice that made it difficult to ascertain if she was exceptionally pleased or extremely furious.

“We have discovered the presence of a substance of the most paramount importance to the Borg within this sector. The Borg will not be denied this substance. You are advised to withdraw immediately and not to interfere with our efforts to secure it. If you do not comply, you will be destroyed,” Tryanus said, sounding very much like the automaton that he was.

Kilana smiled sweetly. “To be honest, it does not matter one bit why you are here or what you are doing. The simple fact that I have the opportunity to wipe you away like the stain that you are, is all the motivation I require.”

And with that, her image was replaced once more with her fleet that had already commenced firing before she had stopped speaking.

There was nothing Michael could do to brace himself for what was coming.

The ship on which he found himself was hit hard and for a second it felt as if he was strapped to a rollercoaster, the floor pitching hard, first to the back and then to the side while he remained strapped in place.

The restraints didn’t survive the next hit and the explosions ripping through the room.

He was slung to the floor so suddenly, for a moment he was certain he had suffered a concussion.

It took him a couple of seconds to realize that whatever had kept him in place, had also numbed his extremities, and now that he was free, he could feel his arms and legs again.

Thanks to whatever Tyrantus had done to him, his injured arm was almost fully healed again, he certainly no longer felt any pain.

He struggled to get onto his hands and knees and as he looked up, he saw that Jem’Hadar fleet once more bearing down on them, unleashing their powerful weapons with a single purpose.

Gravity seemed to fail as he was lifted into the air and became weightless for a moment or so, only to painfully realize that the ship’s artificial gravity was still very much intact as it quickly claimed him again, smashing him right back down onto the deck.

Not too far from where he landed, Tyrantus was attempting to get back onto his feet as well.

Although his bones ached something fierce, he knew he would never have a better opportunity to end this. So, without putting too much thought into his actions, he jumped forward and struck out against his assimilated counterpart.

Tyrantus had not expected an attack from behind and after a well-aimed blow to his back, he dropped back flat onto the deck.

Michael decided to press his advantage. Even as the ship around him seemed to tear itself apart, he reached for the Borg drone’s shoulder and flipped him onto his back. He wasted no time pummeling his face.

He wasn’t entirely sure what he was trying to accomplish if he wanted to knock him unconscious or kill him outright, but deep down he thought he understood what needed to be done. What this Michael Owens would want, what he would want if the situation had been reversed. Better to end him than allow him to go on as this twisted monstrosity.

Michael’s knuckles were turning red with blood but the adrenaline coursing through him masked his pain and it took him some time to realize that the blood was his own.

It didn’t discourage him and he drove his fist back into that face that looked so much like his own.

Except this time, it didn’t connect.

Instead, Tyrantus had reached up to intercept his arm, holding it by his wrist.

He was astonished at how strong he still was, the pressure on his wrist was immense and he couldn’t move it an inch.

“You are mistaken if you believe that you can defeat me,” said the Borg. “We are far superior to Michael Owens. Stronger, faster, and smarter than you will ever be on your own.” And as if to stress his words, he delivered a blow with his other hand, striking Michael right in the sternum and causing him to fly backward, crashing into the wall and then back onto the floor.

It felt as if somebody had hit him with a sledgehammer. Back on the deck, he was coughing hard, trying to catch his breath again.

“You will learn, as the rest of your species has, that the Borg cannot be vanquished or destroyed,” he said as he stood back up as easily as if he had merely lain down for a brief rest, rather than getting his face pounded. Through blurry eyes, Michael could see that he had done some damage to Tyrantus, but only to the few remaining biological components of his face. “The Borg are inevitable and resistance is futile,” he said as he slowly moved toward him, seemingly unconcerned with his ship continuing to rock as if it had been caught in the middle of an ion storm.

“I guess,” Michael began but had to stop for another coughing fit. “Somebody forgot to tell that to the Dominion,” he added and gestured at the screen behind Tyrantus.

The Borg turned slowly to see the Jem’Hadar fighter on a direct intercept course.

Whatever orders he was communicating to the rest of his drones came too late, as the ship crashed into the Borg ship and tore right through its outer hull.

Michael had seen this coming and had grabbed hold of some wiring that had come loose from the wall, wrapping it around his hand.

When the explosive decompression came, Tyrantus was ripped off his feet and into the black void.

Michael felt forces of unimaginable powers pull on him. He lasted a couple of seconds until the wires slipped from his hand and he followed the drone.

The room in which he had been held was not adjacent to the outer hull, so he found himself tumbling through the massive Borg vessel along with countless other drones.

He was spinning and bouncing off things that he could barely even conceive, unable to breathe and feeling his body rapidly freezing over.

Finally, he spotted the hull breach and the planet Piqus beyond it, which was far closer than it had any right to be, leading him to believe that the Borg ship was plummeting toward its surface.

At this point, of course, it didn’t much matter, since he knew he was going to be dead long before the ship crashed into the planet.

A green force field snapped into place across the wide gash the Jem’Hadar ship had left and with it, gravity slowly returned.

Far too slowly to stop Michael’s momentum as he continued to fall toward the hull breach.

He brought up his arms to protect his face as it became clear that he was going to smash into the force field at a rate that was simply non-survivable.

What he didn’t expect was for the force field to be elastic.

It caught him like a net and extended outward so that for a brief moment he found himself in outer space, protected from its vacuum by a thin layer of transparent energy that held him in place.

But outer space was not where they were headed.

The collision course with Piqus VII was suddenly his primary concern, Michael was being treated to a first-row seat to an uncontrolled planetary descent, falling from the skies like a meteor and very likely crashing into the planet with far greater force.

Michael understood that his demise had merely been delayed. At this point, his options appeared to range between being crushed in a fiery crash on the planet’s surface or burning to a cinder in the atmosphere during reentry.

Something that looked a lot like a large piece of debris was crossing paths with the plunging Borg wreck he was imprisoned on and at the speed they were moving, it was clear that they would smash right into it.

As it rapidly approached, Michael began to realize that it wasn’t debris at all. It was moving in a controlled manner.

He recognized the shape of the ship.

It opened fire right at him.

At this point, Michael had given up counting the many different ways he might perish.

The phaser blast struck somewhere above him and close enough that he could feel the impact vibrations through the force field cradling him.

It flickered for a moment and then he was free.

Free to suffocate in space while accelerating his downward plunge, now that he was firmly in the grasp of the planet’s atmosphere.

He had barely time to register the cold and unforgiving vacuum of space taking hold of him before that ship that only moments ago had fired on him, was right below him.

He slipped through another force field and landed so hard on the deck of a cramped shuttle bay, it felt like he had broken every bone in his body. Pain was good, he decided as he tumbled across the deck. Pain meant he was still alive.

He gulped down air like a man who had just breached the ocean’s surface after coming close to drowning and with such eagerness, his lungs were burning.

Through the still open shuttle bay doors, he could see the Borg Cube breaking up as it continued its nosedive for the Piqus VII.

Somewhere beyond it, the rest of the Borg fleet was engaged in a no-holds-barred clash with the Dominion forces.

Then it was all gone, replaced by streaking stars.

He heard fast-approaching footfalls behind him but was too weak to even try and move his body.

“Did you see that?” the excited voice called out. “Please tell me you saw that. Never in a million years did I think I’d pull that off. I mean, there was no chance in hell.”

Somebody pressed an oxygen mask to his mouth and nose and all he cared about was to take in as much of the sweet-smelling stuff as he possibly could.

“Who’s the greatest pilot the universe has ever known?”

Michael could see her features slowly take shape above him as she knelt by his side, keeping the mask pressed against his face.

At that precise moment, he had no doubt whatsoever that the answer was Amaya Donners.
Part 6 - Last Grasp: 1 by CeJay
Part VI: Last Grasp



1


“I’m reading significant Outlander activity ahead,” said DeMara Deen from her station at operations. “As we suspected, there is no way for us to sneak into Cygni-98 undetected. There are listening posts crisscrossing a vast area of this part of space. We get any closer with a ship the size of Eagle and we’ll trigger sensor alerts across half the sector.”

Tazla Star stood from the command chair that had become increasingly uncomfortable to the point where she was beginning to doubt that she ever wanted one of her own ever again, even if they survived this and somehow found their way back home. And even if Starfleet Command suddenly had a change of heart about allowing an officer with her sordid history back into the exclusive club of starship captains. “Drop us out warp here.”

Lif Culsten, back at the helm in what felt like forever, acknowledged promptly and the streaking starfield on the viewscreen gave way to one that appeared decidedly more static.

Tazla headed for the back of the bridge where she found Xylion and Garla sitting at the two aft science stations. She suppressed the urge to pull her away from the workstation as the notion of letting a foreign intelligence officer have free access to their systems went against every fiber of her being, not to mention half a dozen Starfleet regulations. The fact that it was this particular intelligence officer, one who had been a major thorn in her side from the first time she had encountered her, made it harder to ignore her instincts. And yet she found a way. “Any ideas yet on how you can get in touch with the local Krellonian rebels?”

Garla nodded without taking her eyes off the screens, Tazla could tell that there was a little smile tugging at her lips. “Very much so,” she said.

This seemed to be news to the science officer sitting next to her, judging by the way one of his eyebrows climbed toward the ceiling.

Tazla glanced over her shoulder to get a better look at what she was studying and it annoyed her that she couldn’t really make much sense of any of it. “That looks like cosmic background radiation.”

Garla turned around to face her. “Oh, it’s much more that, Commander. These are FRBs. Surely you learned about this in whatever passes for spy school at Starfleet Academy.”

She glared at the other woman. “Even if I had attended some sort of spy school, the curriculum would have focused on spying, not astronomy.”

“What a shame, considering the intrinsic value of having a strong understanding of both.”

Tazla decided she had no time for Garla’s games. “Why don’t you enlighten those of us who have not enjoyed your level of sophisticated education?”

Her smile widened again. “Fast radio bursts. There are large quantities of these within the sector, partially due to the high concentration of stellar clusters within Amargosa.”

She glanced at Xylion, still not fully understanding the relevance. The Vulcan was quick to explain. “Fast radio bursts are high-energy radio emissions commonly emitted by magnetars that can travel vast intergalactic distances.”

“Except, not always,” said Garla. “Some are artificially created. The Eye of Krellon uses fast radio bursts to send communiqués disguised as random cosmic radiation,” she said and pointed at the screen. “And those artificial bursts tend to be in a fluency range of three point five to three point eight millijansky.”

Xylion considered her screen. “There appears to be a high number of FRBs in this sector within that range,” he said and then glanced at Tazla. “It is conceivable that those bursts are being used as a way to facilitate communications.”

Garla stood. “I’m willing to bet that that’s exactly how the rebels coordinate. In plain sight and without the Outlanders having any notion whatsoever.”

Tazla nodded. “Okay. And you can contact the rebels using these radio bursts?”

“I’m certain of it,” she said and began to approach the tactical horseshoe where So’Dan Leva was standing watch. But the tall, half-Romulan officer refused to budge, instead, he defiantly crossed his arms in front of his chest. “All I need is access to your comms.”

Leva shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

The sentinel turned back and found Xylion instead. “Commander, how much time do you estimate we have until the collider powers back up and potentially wipes out all of existence.”

“If our calculations are correct, four hours and twenty-six minutes,” he said without even having to consult a computer.

Garla shot Tazla an insistent look. “Not a lot of time. Do you want to waste it on me explaining to your people how to communicate via FRBs?”

Tazla didn’t respond. Instead, she just directed a nod at the tactical officer.

Leva didn’t look pleased but complied. But not before he entered a few commands into his board. “Go ahead. But I locked out the tactical systems.”

“A wise precaution, I’m sure,” she said and then quickly stepped up next to Leva and began working on the board. It didn’t take her long at all to familiarize herself with the console’s layout.

“There are about twenty-four micro transmissions that fall into the right fluency range. The majority will be nothing but random noise to disguise the real ones. The trick is to rule out the fake ones and piggyback on the genuine article before anyone realizes what I’m looking at,” she said even as her fingers danced over the workstation. “Here we go.”

The main viewscreen shifted to show a heavily distorted image, impossible to make out.

“You found a rebel comm channel?” Tazla said.

She nodded. “Just need to clean it up a bit and--“

“Who is this?”

The voice boomed across the bridge before the image had a chance to stabilize.

Garla looked up. “A friend sympathetic to your cause.”

“How did you get access to this channel?”

“Let’s just say that I’m no stranger to creative solutions to difficult problems.”

“I’m closing this channel and I suggest you never attempt to access it again.”

Tazla could see that Lif Culsten had turned in his chair and was now looking right at Garla at tactical. His eyes seemed to mirror recognition. Garla responded in kind and began to nod. “Just give me one minute to hear me out.”

“And why would I do something as stupid as that?”

“Do it for an old friend,” she added. “Yorlo.”

The name sounded familiar to Tazla but she couldn’t immediately place it.

“Who is this?” the voice demanded more forcefully.

“Has it really been that long?”

The image finally cleared and Tazla recognized the larger-than-life face that appeared on the screen, even though he had not sported the thick white beard the last time she had met that person. That had been when they had first arrived at Piqus VII. It belonged to the same man who had apparently pulled the strings to get Eagle into Krellonian space under the pretense of assisting with a pandemic that had broken out on the planet. In reality, Councilman Yorlo, a prominent Krellonian politician had sought to bring Lif Culsten back into the Star Alliance so that he could try and spy on Garla, his estranged wife.

Whatever their relationship was in this universe, it didn’t appear much better, judging by the hard look in his eyes when he recognized who had contacted him. “I thought you were dead.”

“Not just yet.”

He uttered a humorless laugh. “I’m not even pretending to be surprised by this news. The great Garla, faking her own death to shirk her responsibility of leading a failed cause. I should have seen that coming. I hope you’re proud of yourself.”

She shook her head. “That’s not exactly how this story goes.”

“Oh please, spare us all the self-righteous explanations. I’ve heard it all before. The only thing Garla has ever cared about is Garla. No matter if it means thrusting a child into a role he was never prepared for. Liftu’s death is on your hands, I hope you can live with that.”

Tazla could see that Lif was considering speaking up and perhaps making his presence known but Garla waved him off, clearly not believing that his presence would improve the outcome of this conversation.

She placed her hands on the tactical board and leaned forward slightly. “Listen to me, Yorlo. I am not the Garla you think you know. But we don’t have the time to cover the basics of advanced quantum mechanics. The resistance needs to make a move and it needs to make a move now. And not just for the Krellonian cause but for the fate of entire universes. Thanks to the Borg, the Outlander forces are in disarray. This is time to strike.”

Tazla recognized the look on Yorlo’s face and it didn’t fill her encouragement. “You’ve forfeited the right to decide anybody’s fate but your own when you abandoned us. I suggest you leave this sector and never come back. If you decide to ignore my friendly advice, and we ever cross paths again, I’ll make damn sure that the next time you die, it’ll be permanent. I’ll grant you a quick death. For old time’s sake.”

The connection ended abruptly.

“That didn’t go well,” Deen said.

“To say the least,” added Tazla.

But Garla was quiet for a moment, seemingly pondering her conversation with Yorlo. Then she turned to look Tazla straight in the eye. “I’m going to need a shuttle.”

“What?” Lif said and stood from his chair. “To do what, exactly?”

“While we were speaking, I managed to triangulate Yorlo’s position. He isn’t far. But bringing a crowd would be too difficult to explain. I need to face him alone.”

“You heard the man,” said Lif. “He’s furious with you. Far more so than the Uncle Yorlo I know. He’ll blast you out of space the moment he sees you coming.”

“I tend to agree,” said Tazla. “That did not sound like a man willing to reconcile.”

The sentinel offered her a little smile. “I take it, Commander, that you’ve never been married.”

“I have sufficient experience in that field,” she said, referring to her symbiont’s history. “I’m familiar with both the blissful highs and the dastardly lows. That conversation was evidence of the latter.”

“A lot of this is bluster and yes, anger, but I’m familiar with it and I can work with both.”

Culsten took a few steps closer, shaking his head. “You don’t even know that man. You don’t even know if this Garla was married to him.”

“It is obvious that there is history there and trust me, I’ve had these kinds of arguments with Yorlo. More than I care to remember. I know which buttons to push with him, all I need is a chance to speak to him face to face,” she said, although her words were doing little, it seemed, to convince her nephew. She considered Tazla instead. “Commander, we don’t have much time. Let me do this. At worst you lose a shuttlecraft, at best we save quantum reality. What other choice do we have?”

Most of all, Tazla hated the fact that Garla’s argument was perfectly sound. She nodded. “Main shuttlebay, go. I think you know the way.”

Garla responded with a nod of her own and made a beeline for the turbolift.

Culsten intercepted her just as she boarded it. “This is suicide,” he said.

“Have a little faith.”

“I ran out of that a while ago.”

Already in the lift, Garla took a step forward again to block the doors from closing. “Listen to me. I want you to remember something. No matter what you’ve told yourself over the years, the Star Alliance is still your home and you may make it back there without me.”

He shook his head. “Don’t even--“

“Contrary to some other versions of me we have met, I don’t do speeches. But there is no doubt that I’ve made a lot of mistakes.”

“And what do you expect me to do?”

She placed a hand on his shoulder. “Better. It shouldn’t be that difficult,” she said, offered a little smile, and then stepped back to allow the doors to swish close.
Part 6 - Last Grasp: 2 by CeJay
2


He was looking at the face of an angel, with eyes shimmering like twin stars and skin smooth as velvet and the color of rich amber.

The celestial being was smiling at him, revealing a row of perfectly white teeth behind full red lips, and that gesture alone told him that everything was just fine. That everything was right in the universe and that it was a beautiful and perfect place since it had her in it.

“It’s going to be okay, Michael,” she said in a voice so like sweet music to his ears, it made him wish that she’d never stopped talking.

He reached out for her face, touching her silky skin and drawing her nearer.

The hard slap across his face hit him like a bolt of lightning.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Amaya Donners was not smiling anymore. He couldn’t even be certain if she had ever done so at all or if it had all been in his imagination.

She had hovered over him but now she quickly pulled away, clearly not that pleased with his attempt to touch her.

The blow across his face stung like hell but it brought him back to reality within an instant.

Yes, Amaya was still the most beautiful woman he had ever met, but he also knew that this wasn’t his Amaya Donners.

He was lying on a bench in her ship’s common room and he slowly pulled himself up into a sitting position. His body was aching all over and he felt chilled to the bone as if the cold had seeped into his very core. His lungs were burning.

“I’m sorry,” he said, although his voice sounded more like a rasp to his ears. “I was out of it for a moment there. Seems to keep happening to me as of late.”

“You were out for more than a moment. Mind telling me what the hell you were seeing?” she said, sounding calmer now then she had seconds ago.

He considered her briefly, still amazed at how much she looked like his Amaya and at the same time like somebody else entirely. “Somebody I know. I guess you remind me of her,” he said with a lame smile.

“Right.”

He stood then, taking it very slowly and testing his damaged body.

Since his recent mission to Piqus VII he had been shot, beaten, very nearly tortured, then fallen from a great height and finally sucked into outer space. It was bordering on a miracle that he was still drawing breath at all.

He tried a couple of steps and Amaya steadied him when he threatened to collapse under his weight. “I think, maybe you should stay on your back for a while.”

He shook his head. “We don’t have time for that,” he said as he carefully, with her help, made it to the table-styled computer console. He held on to it to keep from falling over. “Where are we?” he said when he couldn’t make it out from the readouts on the console.

She hit a few panels and the screen changed to a sector map highlighting their current position. She pointed at it. “I’ve parked us in the shadow of a neutron star not far from Piqus. Hopefully, the large concentration of gamma-ray radiation will keep us hidden from the Borg and the Dominion going at each other.”

He nodded slowly. “What about Eagle?”

“Your ship?” she shrugged. “I’ve got no clue. She warped out pretty much the moment the Borg showed up. You must not be such a popular captain; they didn’t even try to get you out of there.”

He scowled at her. “I told them not to. They have bigger things to worry about than getting me back.”

“Yes, I remember. The fate of the galaxy,” she said, doing nothing to mask the sarcasm in her tone.

“More than that, actually. We believe the entire multiverse is in grave danger. Not just this galaxy or even this universe but all of existence, everywhere, could be wiped out like it never even existed.”

She shrugged. “Well, they say we come from nothing and we go back to nothing. So, what do we really stand to lose?”

“That’s a comforting thought,” he said but kept his eyes on the map displayed on the screen, trying to recall the location of the subspace threshold. He had to manipulate the map before he found what he had been looking for. “Cygni-98. That’s where I need to go.”

“Well, good luck with that,” she said and crossed her arms in front of her. “Just tell me where to drop you off.”

He turned to look her straight in the eye. “I’m going to need your help in getting there.”

“No thanks, hard pass.”

“Listen, I get that your nihilistic worldview may not make you care a great deal about the fate of the universe, but we’re talking about the fate of countless lives everywhere. That has to mean something to you.”

“I don’t even know if I buy all this multi-verse malarky.”

“Yes, of course, you don’t,” he said and then turned his back to her. He took a few careful steps away from the console and found that he was getting steadier with each step. “Why did you stay?”

“I’m sorry?”

He turned to face her again. “After my ship arrived at Piqus you handed over the rest of my people and I assume you didn’t get paid what you were promised.”

“You knew that all along, didn’t you?” she said with a low, simmering anger. “There never was any latinum.”

“So then why stick around at all afterward? With both the Borg and the Dominion slugging it out and with no hope of getting paid, why didn’t you get out? Why did you come back for me?”

“A daring, once-in-a-lifetime kind of rescue for which I still haven’t received even the slightest hint of gratitude, by the way.”

“Thank you,” he said earnestly. “From the bottom of my heart. I wouldn’t be here without you.”

“That’s for damn sure.”

“But it still doesn’t answer my question. Why you would risk your life and your ship to try and save me.”

“Maybe I liked the challenge.”

He shook his head. “I think that it’s because we share a connection that transcends universes.”

Now it was her turn to show him her back. “Not this again.”

“There is no other way I can explain this. Every universe I’ve been to had one constant and that was you. And each time; you, a version of you, helped me when I needed it the most. Without Amaya Donners, my mission to try and stop what is happening here would have ended long ago and there’d be nobody left to try and prevent the end of quantum-reality.”

“I don’t subscribe to the notion of cosmic fate.”

He took a step closer to her. “I’m not asking you to believe in fate. Just do what you believe in your heart is the right thing to do. Just like you did when you continued to help us even when it was becoming increasingly obvious you wouldn’t see a payday at the end of it all. When you stuck with me after we got chased off Armargosa Station by Outlander forces, when you took us deep into enemy territory to follow Culsten’s fool’s errand, and when you decided to risk everything you hold dear to rescue me from the clutches of the Borg. Ask yourself why you did all that and if you truly believe that stopping now is the right thing to do.”

She turned back to him slowly. “I’m not the woman you think you know.”

He nodded. “You’re your own person, yes,” he said. “But you’re also connected to my Amaya in ways I cannot explain. Just as you are connected to all the others I’ve met.”

“And what happened to them?”

He hesitated for a moment and she held up her hand. “You know what, don’t even tell me.” She looked down at the screen. “Your ship is heading to Cygni-98?”

“I’m certain of it.”

“I’ve briefly met your first officer. Quite the firebrand that one, and I don’t just mean her hair.”

He offered a small smile.

“She seemed very capable, hell, she talked me into returning your people without offering me one slip of latinum in return,” she said and then looked right into his eyes. “Maybe they don’t need your help to save the universe,” she added, her voice having taken on a much softer tone and one that reminded him a great deal of the woman he loved.

He closed the gap between them. “Maybe not. But we cannot risk standing by and doing nothing.” He placed a hand on her upper arm and this time she allowed the touch. “They might need us and if they do and we are not there, then everything we’ve done, everything we’ve been through, it will all have been for nothing.”

She nodded very slowly. “I can see why they made you the captain. You’re pretty good with the speechifying.” She spoke up again before he could respond. “I know I’m going to regret this but what the hell, we’re all going to die someday anyway, right?”

“Not today.”

She turned and headed for the exit. “Don’t make promises you cannot keep.”
Part 6 - Last Grasp: 3 by CeJay
3


“Taz, I need you to come down to sickbay.”

“We’re less than an hour away from crossing into enemy-patrolled territory. I’m needed on the bridge.”

“I understand that your plan to stop the end of the universe as we know it involves Admiral Owens’ cooperation.”

“Eli, we don’t have the time to discuss your ethical compunctions about drafting a sick man into service.”

“I believe there’s always time to discuss ethics but that’s not why I need you to come down here.”

“What then?”

“Admiral Owens is in a coma.”

Thirty seconds later and after she had handed over the bridge to So’Dan Leva, Tazla Star found herself in a turbolift speeding toward sickbay.

Admiral Owens was the only person she knew who could operate the Exhibitor device to summon the Prism which in turn connected in some unclear fashion to the monstrous device designed to wipe out all of quantum reality.

She didn’t need this latest wrinkle.

In fact, she didn’t need any of this. She didn’t need having allowed Captain Owens to be killed or worse on her watch, she didn’t need to be stuck in a hostile alternate universe where it was a toss-up between getting assimilated by the Borg or blown up by the Dominion and she certainly didn’t need to be dealing with an existential threat the likes of which the universe had never seen before.

She had been a starship captain before, and in truth, she had always wanted to be one, but during her own brief stint in the captain’s chair, she had never had to deal with anything even close to the crisis they were now facing. She wasn’t sure if any starship captain had. Maybe the likes of Kirk and Picard. Yes, Kirk, she mused, must have come across a few universe-ending scenarios in his mostly inconceivable career.

But if there was one thing Tazla Star knew for sure, it was that she was no Jim Kirk. Nor did she want to be if it meant having to contemplate the fate of countless lives. More than that, universes.

It was understood that sitting in the big chair brought with it awesome responsibilities over life and death, but not on this magnitude.

The temperature in the turbolift had risen dramatically all of a sudden and Tazla found it difficult to draw breath.

“Computer, stop lift,” she said and her voice sounded like a distant croak to her ears.

She could swear that the bulkheads were starting to close in on her, threatening to squash her like a bug.

She unzipped her uniform jacket and let it slip to the floor before undoing the collar of her red shirt but it did nothing to help her breathe better.

She dropped onto her haunches as the roof of the lift car was about to come smashing down on her head to squash her like a bug.

“Lieutenant Commander Xylion to Commander Star.”

She opened her eyes again, not even realizing that she had closed them. There was nothing wrong with the turbolift at all. The temperature was at the exact level it was meant to be. And yet it took her a second to regulate her breathing again. “Go ahead … Commander,” she said, still squatting close to the deck.

“Sir, Lieutenant Hopkins, Bensu, and I have a proposal we would like to share with you about how to attempt to interact with the particle collider before it can reactivate.”

She said nothing for a moment, still not entirely convinced that the lift was structurally sound.

“Commander?”

She picked up her jacket and stood up straight again, thankful that Xylion, or anyone else for that matter, had not been able to witness her moment of weakness. “I’m on my way to sickbay. I’ll meet you and Hopkins there and you can fill me in.”

“Bensu, sir?”

She had not left out the synthetic, former barkeeper by accident. “Just you and Hopkins. Star out.” She took another breath, this one coming much easier. “Computer, resume lift.”

She hesitated for only a moment before entering sickbay, making sure that her uniform looked flawless again, and then stepped inside.

Elijah was already waiting for her in the main ward. With him were Deen, Matthew Owens, and Westren Frobisher. Tazla could see Admiral Jon Owens on one of the biobeds, and to all outwards appearances, resting comfortably.

“Report,” she said sharply.

Eli scowled at her, seemingly not appreciating her curt tone.

Deen jumped in when he didn’t speak straight away. “It’s the Admiral, sir, he’s in a coma.”

She nodded and looked past her and at the resting elder Owens. He looked more peaceful than he had in the last few days but she knew that looks could be deceiving. The bed’s biomonitor clearly showed very low brain wave activity which was consistent with his comatose state. “What happened?”

“His condition was worsening and we had to induce the coma,” said Katanga.

“You induced the coma?” she said, doing a poor job of keeping her incredulity out of her voice. “We need him to activate the Prism.”

“He crashed, Dez. It was that or, quite frankly, letting him die which I still believe may have been the greater mercy. We induced his coma in the unlikely event that we could bring him back at some point. Right now, I don’t see how.”

Tazla rubbed her forehead to try and stave off a tension headache threatening to emerge, or at the very least, keeping it from getting any worse.

“It was the right choice,” said Matthew who had stepped up to his bedside and now considered the resting face of the man who very likely looked exactly like his father had. “He deserves to rest in peace.”

Taz thought she could spot some sorrow in his eyes that she thought was odd. From everything she had heard, the Matthew Owens in this universe had shown precious little love for his brother and father from another universe coming to seek him out. Of course, she was not yet fully read into everything that had transpired between them while they had been out on their own.

“Under normal circumstances, I’d be the first to agree,” she said. “But we left normal behind a long time ago. We’re up against impossible odds here and we need Admiral Owens to operate the Prism.”

“Maybe there is another way,” said Deen, causing Taz to shoot her quizzical look.

The Tenarian diverted her eyes toward Matt Owens. “We know that the Admiral was somehow bio-linked to the Exhibitor. “There is one other person on board who is a close genetic match to Jon Owens.”

“You can’t be serious. We’re not even related. Not truly.”

“You are and you are not. From a genetical standpoint, I’m willing to bet that you have at least a fifty-percent overlap with the Admiral and that may be enough for you to operate the Exhibitor.”

He shook his head. “I don’t even know what that is.”

“Then it’s time that we brought you up to speed,” said Tazla Star.

“What would I have to do?”

Taz and Deen exchanged a quick look, neither of them particularly eager to field that question. Ultimately, she decided that they didn’t have the luxury to sugarcoat it. “Once we reach the supercollider, you’ll have to board it and likely summon the Prism inside the control sphere.”

“If we’re truly up against forces that are planning on annihilating all of reality, it surely won’t be as easy as that,” he said.

“Probably not. But you won’t be alone,” she said.

He shook his head. “I don’t know if I can do this.”

Wes Frobisher took a step closer to Owens. “You’re a scientist, Matt. This is the kind of work we do.”

“Oh no, this is what you do. You and your insane, gung-ho excursions and quantum mechanics projects. I’m a theorist. I follow the scientific method by working in a lab, I don’t try and explore the depth of subspace or go up against beings trying to destroy reality.”

“None of us were expecting anything like this,” Frobisher said and then placed a gentle hand on the other man’s shoulder. “These are truly exceptional circumstances and trust me if I could do it for you, I would. But I don’t think it’ll work like that. I think this is something only you will be able to do.”

Matthew’s eyes were downcast. “With the fate of entire universes resting in the balance?”

Frobisher smiled. “No risk, no reward.”

He looked up. “I’ll need you by my side for this.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Tazla had little qualms about interrupting the moment. “Well, now that we have that squared away, we’ll need to figure out if you will actually be able to use the Exhibitor at all,” she said and found Deen. “Lieutenant, take him to the science lab and run and do some practicing. We need him ready to go once we return to the Ring.”

She nodded and lead Owens out of sickbay with Frobisher following close behind. On their way out, they passed Xylion and Hopkins coming in.

“This is a sickbay, folks, not a meeting room,” Eli said upon seeing the latest arrivals.

“It’s all right, I asked them to come here,” said Taz but could see his point. “Can we use your office?”

“Also not a meeting room, but certainly better than disturbing my patients,” he said gruffly and then led them into the adjacent office.

“Just to catch you up,” said Tazla once they were all inside. “Admiral Owens is in a coma and will not be able to use Exhibitor again. Deen is running some tests with Matthew Owens to see if he’ll be able to summon the Prism instead.”

Xylion raised an eyebrow. “Fascinating. Although we still do not understand much about the nature of the Exhibitor or the Prism, there is reason to believe that Matthew Owens may be able to use it in a similar fashion as Admiral Owens did.”

“Let’s hope so,” said Tazla. “Obviously that still leaves us with the question of what we do once we’re back on the Ring with a working Prism. How do we stop that thing from wiping out all of quantum reality?”

“Following our previous experience, Lieutenant Hopkins and I believe that if we can replicate our last attempt to interface with the particle collider telepathically, we stand a sixty-four point six percent chance of disabling the reactions required for the device to alter the quantum-verse’s energy state.”

“You weren’t able to do that last time you tried, what makes you think you’d be successful now?” she said.

“I’ve had time to refine the psionic resonator that we used by reviewing some of the literature on the original Vulcan weapon. We believe that those modifications will boost its efficiency quite a bit,” said the chief engineer.

“Additionally, on our previous attempt we had access to just two people with psionic abilities, Ivory and myself,” said Xylion and handed Tazla a pad.

As she scanned the content, she found that it contained a list of thirty-something names.

“These are the thirty-five Eagle crewmembers who possess inherent psionic abilities and who I believe could assist Bensu and me to create a more resilient link with the collider.”

“You want to beam thirty-five people onto that blasted ring?” said Katanga.

“The beauty about the resonator is that it doesn’t require physical contact. We believe that we can set up a resonator right here on the ship with our psionic crewmembers assembled in one place supporting Bensu and Xylion on the collider,” said the chief engineer.

“Is there any scenario where we could create a link with the collider without relying on Mister Bensu?” said Star.

This prompted a rather surprised looked from Xylion. “Bensu is our central means to establish communication with the telepathic controls of the collider, sir. I am uncertain how we could achieve our aim without him or why we would wish to take such a risk.”

“Let’s just say that there are some concerns over his involvement.”

Xylion’s response was yet another raised eyebrow. “What kind of concerns, sir?”

Taz wasn’t sure how to explain them, in fact, she wasn’t quite that clear herself, other than a vague warning from the captain that he had seen Bensu in a vision in which his motives had been brought into question. She decided that she didn’t have the time to get into this for now. She handed Xylion back his padd. “Assemble the required crewmembers and get those resonators ready.”

Xylion offered a brief nod, correctly sensing that he had been dismissed, he and Hopkins departed.

“Are you alright?” Eli asked once they were alone in his office.

“I’m fine.”

He clearly didn’t buy it for a second. “You may be able to fool the crew but I’ve known you long enough to be able to see that you’re nowhere near to fine.”

“What the hells do you expect?” she said sharply. “We’re up against a force determined to wipe out all of existence, while stuck in hostile territory between two galactic superpowers eager to wipe each other out, and a third that would love a shot at taking us down, and as if matters are not grave enough, the captain is dead or possibly assimilated. Of course, I’m not fine, dammit. He is the one who should be here and dealing with this mess.”

He took a step toward her. “And what do you think he could do in this situation that you can’t?” he said and poked her in the stomach. “You’ve got Dez in there with you and half a dozen other people with all their experiences and wisdom combined. If you ask me, that makes you suited to deal with this latest disaster better than most anybody else I can think of.”

“It may surprise you to know that none of Star’s former hosts had to deal with threats to all of existence.”

“Maybe not. And maybe you need to stop putting that much responsibility on your shoulders. You can’t be expected to operate under that much pressure. You just go out there and worry about the things that you can control. And you do everything you can to make sure that those things turn out the way you need them to.”

“And what if that’s not enough?”

“Then it doesn’t matter if you’re in charge, or Owens or the Great Bird of the Galaxy itself. Ultimately, the chips fall where they may and all we can do is try and rearrange them the best that we can.”

“Commander Leva to Star.”

Tazla glanced up on hearing the tactical officer’s voice. “Go ahead, Commander.”

“Sir, we’ve detected several Outlander vessels approaching. They’ll intercept us in less than thirty minutes.”

“How long until we reach Cygni-98?” she asked, hoping that perhaps they could avoid a confrontation by slipping into the subspace pocket before the Outlander ships got to them.

Leva hesitated for a second or so. “Fifty-two minutes.”

“Understood. I’m on my way. Star out,” she said and walked to the exit. She stopped just before she reached it and turned back. “With all that extra experience I supposedly to possess, how come you always get to be the one playing the wise sage?”

He smirked. “Because sometimes experience does not equate to wisdom.”

“Right,” she said with a smile. “Thanks, Eli.”

He nodded. “Any time.”
Part 6 - Last Grasp: 4 by CeJay
4


“Report,” Tazla Star heard herself bark even before the bridge turbolift doors had a chance to slide shut behind her. She made a quick mental note to make a better effort to sound less tense.

“We’ve got eight confirmed Outlander vessels on an intercept course. They’ll enter weapon’s range in just under twenty-six minutes,” said Leva from tactical while Tazla continued her stride toward the command area at the center of the bridge.

She faced the large viewscreen that was currently configured to show a gridded tactical map of the sector. A blue Starfleet chevron at its center symbolized Eagle and a blue line showed her flight path that currently intersected with those of eight red dots.

A few square grids beyond, Tazla could see their destination, a gray icon indicating the subspace threshold into in-between space and the location of the ring-shaped supercollider.

At the very top of the screen, she spotted the Moebius Cluster, the hazard area they had previously made use of to throw off their pursuers. Since it was located in the exact opposite direction to where they needed to go, she knew that heading there was not an option.

“Can we alter course to avoid the Outlander ships? Go around them?” she said after she had studied the entire tactical map for a few seconds.

No sooner had she asked, a new blue line, this one dotted, appeared on the screen. It curved sharply away from the incoming threat and then bend back toward Cygni-98. The projected course for the Outlander force also changed. The dotted red line still intercepted the newly proposed course but at a much later point and just before Eagle would reach her destination.

“The course change will add three hours and thirty-eight minutes to our journey,” said Deen after checking her board. “We expect the supercollider to re-activate in three hours and fifty-two minutes.”

“That’s cutting it too close,” Tazla said, fully aware that they needed time to get Xylion’s plan to work. She turned away from the screen to face So’Dan Leva. “Tactical analysis, Commander?”

He shook his head fractionally. “Not favorable, I’m afraid. Two, maybe three ships, we could probably handle but the odds are against us if we have to fight off eight ships at once.”

“We have the transphasic shield,” she said.

“We’ve already sustained damage during our engagement in the Piqus system. The transphasic shield is not at full power and it’ll be useless to us at warp, which means we will need to drop to impulse to engage the hostile vessels.”

“Costing us more time that we don’t have,” said Tazla, completing the tactical officer’s thought.

“I have a suggestion, Commander,” said Alendra as she stepped up from the aft stations and positioned herself next to Leva at the tactical station.

Tazla was happy to see that this time the half-Romulan did not seem to object to her forwardness as he had done recently. Hopefully, whatever issues they had with each other had been smoothed out, or at the very least, postponed. She had no time to worry about interpersonal issues now. “By all means, don’t keep it to yourself, Lieutenant.”

The Bolian began to enter a few commands into the console and Tazla noticed that it caused their projected course, still represented by a dotted blue line, to change on the screen. It still curved, but not nearly as dramatically as the previous course. The alteration also changed the intersection point again but kept it fairly close to their ultimate destination.

“If we alter course and speed, we could force the Outlanders to intercept us just outside the Cygni-98 asteroid field,” she said. “And the new course would only cost us about thirty more minutes.”

Tazla considered that for a moment. It wasn’t exactly the stroke of genius she’d hoped for. In fact, forcing the confrontation this close to the threshold worried her since it would make it easier for the Outlanders to follow Eagle to her destination.

Alendra seemed to read her concerns. “It won’t guarantee us a victory but fighting a superior force within an asteroid belt is bound to improve our chances compared to having to face them in open space.”

Leva beside her nodded in agreement.

Culsten seemed to like the idea as well. He had turned his chair around to glance at Tazla. “I think we can do it, Commander. Dodging asteroids is my specialty,” he said with a grin.

“Very well, change our course and speed. And Lif, you better bring your A-game.”

That grin widened. “You know it, Commander,” he said as he swiveled back around to make the required alterations.

“Those are some big rocks,” said Deen about half an hour later and just after the ship had dropped out of warp and was racing toward the asteroid belt at close to full impulse.

Tazla was getting second thoughts upon seeing the size of those asteroids up close, many of which were multiple times the size of Eagle, including a few that were more comparable to small moons than asteroids. She knew that one false move inside an asteroid field with such density would mean that the Outlanders could scrape their remains off those space rocks. “Lif, are we sure about this?”

“A little bit of faith here, Commander,” he said without missing a beat.

She nodded but turned to find the tactical officer instead. “Where are our friends?”

“Four minutes out,” Leva said without having to check his board.

“I want to be inside that field by the time they get here,” she said and stepped closer to Culsten. “Get us there now.”

“Full impulse, aye, sir,” he said as his fingers danced over his controls. “This will require me to pump the brakes pretty hard. Suggest everybody hang on to something.”

One glance at the large viewscreen in front of her and she got the message. Eagle was shooting toward the field like a bat out of hell and from this distance it looked much more like a solid wall in space rather than a collection of loose rocks. It might as well be one, she figured, if they entered the belt at full speed.

She returned to the command area and took a seat. She found the intraship comms toggle on her armrest and activated it with a stab of her finger. “All hands, brace for sudden deceleration.”

Tazla fought the urge to close her eyes as those asteroids steadily grew larger on the viewscreen until they filled out the entire width and length of it.

“Slowing for entry,” Culsten said.

Even with all her sophisticated inertia dampeners designed to make space travel not only possible but also relatively comfortable for the sentient beings cooped up inside Eagle’s massive metallic hull, Tazla thought she felt every last bit of the sudden brake force. Intellectually, she understood that this was not the case. That without the dampeners she and everyone else on the bridge would have found themselves splashed against the forward bulkhead. And yet she still had to strain hard against the forces pulling at her to remain in her seat.

Not a moment later Eagle was surrounded by perhaps the largest asteroids she had ever remembered seeing this close.

“I suggest we reduce our power output to minimal to make it more difficult for our pursuers to detect us,” Xylion said from where he sat beside her.

Tazla nodded. “Shut down all non-essential systems, however, make sure we can raise the transphasic shield in a hurry. I fear we might need it before all this is over.”

Xylion acknowledged and went to work.

Eagle trembled slightly and Tazla was sure that something had hit the hull. “Lif?”

“Just a little bit of debris. Sorry about that. Not much I can do about the smaller rocks,” he said without taking his eyes off his piloting instruments.

“Just keep us away from the bigger ones,” she said. “I can live with scratching up the paint job but I need us to be in one piece on the other side of this.”

“Commander, the Outlander ships have dropped out of warp. At least four vessels are pursuing us into the asteroid field,” said Leva.

“Bold move,” said Deen.

“They are smaller than us,” said Leva. “They may find it easier to navigate within the belt.”

“Maybe, but they don’t have me as a pilot, do they?” said Culsten and although she couldn’t see it, Tazla was certain a grin was decorating his lips. She really hoped that his hubris was justified and decided not to break his concentration with needless orders or update requests.

Eagle trembled some more and although unsettling, in the greater scheme of things, it was no worse than what they had been through recently.

“Dee, how long until we clear the field?”

“At this rate, thirty-four minutes,” she said and then continued, correctly anticipating the next question. “Then another twenty minutes to the threshold. That will give us approximately two hours until we expect the supercollider to power up again.”

“Two hours until the end of the multiverse,” Alendra mumbled from the tactical station.

Tazla shot her a sharp look to which her blue features turned slightly darker in embarrassment. “Not if we can help it, Lieutenant.”

“I wish Srena was up here to see this,” said Culsten as his fingers continued to race over his board to make constant course changes to steer the three million metric ton starship through an asteroid field that even a shuttle had little business flying through. “She’d love this kind of stuff.”

Tazla was briefly reminded of a situation about a year and a half earlier when the Andorian pilot had steered Eagle through a very similar asteroid field at her orders. The stakes hadn’t been nearly as significant back then but she hoped that the outcome was going to be equally successful.

Her thoughts were briefly interrupted as the ship banked hard to starboard to avoid clipping a massive asteroid that was spinning on its axis.

“That was a close one,” said Deen.

“We had a good fifteen-meter clearance,” said Culsten, making it sound like fifteen hundred meters.

“Let’s try to give us a little bit more room if we can, please,” Tazla said.

“I’ll do what I can,” the pilot responded.

Leva in the meantime was providing some good news. “We’ve lost two of our pursuers,” he said. “Both ships appear disabled following damage sustained from asteroid impacts.”

After what felt like the longest thirty minutes of her life, Culsten’s piloting skills had shaken the last two Outlander ships as well. One had suffered damage to their engines, while the others had slowed down so much, it had no chance of catching up to Eagle anymore.

“We are emerging from the asteroid field,” said Deen.

Tazla couldn’t remember the last time she was so thankful for an uninterrupted starscape the likes of which was now emerging on the viewscreen. “Any sign of our pursuers?”

“None, sir, it looks like we are clear,” said Leva. “Wait.”

She didn’t care for the tone in the Romulan’s voice and got out of her chair to fully face the tactical officer. “What is it?”

“I’m reading multiple contacts dead ahead.”

Taz turned back toward the viewer. “On screen.”

The image zoomed in closer to the area of space immediately ahead of Eagle. At first, she could spot nothing but the rich Amargosa starscape. Then there was movement. A lot of it. Not unlike cloaked starships dropping their invisibility shields, she could see several ships emerging from the darkness. It took her another moment to realize that these ships hadn’t been cloaked in the traditional sense. They had simply blended in with their surroundings due to their dark hull colors and the absence of any running lights that were only now coming online.

“Counting six Outlander vessels. We didn’t pick them up before as they were running in low energy mode,” Leva said.

“Same as us,” said Alendra quietly and then looked right at Taz, her eyes wide. “I steered us right into a trap.”

But Tazla knew that this wasn’t her fault and shook her head. “It was a good plan, Lieutenant. But sometimes, the other guys have good plans as well.”

“The Outlanders must have realized where our new course would take us and send some of their ships to wait for us here,” said Leva.

“Can we go around them?” Taz asked.

“Negative,” said the tactical officer. “We will not be able to avoid interception at this stage. Currently, they’ll be on top of us in less than five minutes.”

Tazla took her chair again. “Very well. But we’re not just going to sit here and wait for them. If we have to, we’ll go right through them,” she said with what she hoped was more confidence than she truly felt. She understood that they were out of options, and they certainly didn’t have the time to try and shake these Outlanders as well. Perhaps there was still a chance to reach the subspace threshold, even if it meant bringing along half a dozen uninvited guests. Best case scenario; the Outlanders would try to follow them through and either be destroyed or take significant damage in attempting to pass into in-between space. Of course, by that point, Tazla could only guess in what state Eagle would be and if she’d still be in one piece herself. “Lif, get us to the threshold, full impulse. Mister Leva, activate the transphasic shield and give me a targeting solution on the lead ship. Stand by all weapons.”

Her orders were quickly acknowledged and she could do little more than grit her teeth as she watched those now very prominent Outlander ships racing toward them on the viewscreen. After the abuse their improved shields had taken during their last battle, she wasn’t sure how far they’d get. The tactician in her told her that their chances of successfully fighting off that many ships were close to zero. In her mind, she was already desperately trying to think of alternatives that could give them any shot at getting back to the collider to find a way to stop it from wiping out everything that had ever existed.

Eagle herself didn’t need to make it, she realized. She hated the idea of sacrificing the ship but instantly understood that it was an acceptable loss. Perhaps if they could use the shuttles and the runabout, use Eagle as a decoy and then launch every support craft they had with the hopes that at least one of them would be able to get where they needed to go.

It was a desperate move but perhaps the only one they had left to make.

“New contacts approaching at high warp,” said Leva.

“More Outlanders?” she said.

“I don’t believe so.”

That response wasn’t quite good enough for her. She stood and quickly crossed the space between the command chair and Deen’s ops station. “Who are they and how does everybody manage to keep sneaking up on us? Don’t we have working sensors?” she said and then quickly berated herself for the sharp tone she had allowed to creep into her voice to reveal her frustrations.

“They’ve masked their warp trails using the prominent stellar radiation within the Diaspora,” she said. “Pretty clever trick, actually.”

Taz had no time to be impressed.

“We’re being hailed,” said Leva.

She glanced up at the viewer. “On screen.”

She was greeted by a familiar face. Garla stood on the bridge of the starship with a rather self-satisfied smile on her face. She was surrounded by other Krellonians, including Yorlo, although based on the way she stood apart from the others, it appeared as if she was in charge now. “It seems to me you could use a little bit of help.”

Tazla wasn’t quite sure how to express the immense relief she felt at seeing the Sentinel again, especially in command of what appeared to be a small strike force. Ultimately, she decided to keep her poker face and play it cool for the benefit of her own people, she told herself. “Seeing that you are here, you might as well give us a hand,” she said. “I take it you were successful in convincing your fellow kinsmen.”

Garla briefly glanced at Yorlo who stood a few steps behind her and to her side. “We had a few words but ultimately I believe I got my point across, yes,” she said and then returned to consider Tazla. “You’re looking at the new leader of the Krellonian Resistance. You could say I may have finally found my purpose.”

“And what is that?” Culsten asked. “Killing Outlanders. I suppose it’s always something you’ve been exceedingly good at.”

Tazla shot the helmsman a sharp look, letting him know that this was not the time for a philosophical argument.

“After all we’ve been through together, it really hurts me hearing you say this, Liftu,” she said and took a few steps closer until her face was the most prominent thing on the screen. “I’ve seen with my own two eyes that Outlanders and Krellonians can live and work together in peace and I’m convinced that achieving this is possible, even in this strange, twisted universe. Yes, this battle will start with trying to win our freedom but that is only the first step. A true star alliance is my goal and that is my real purpose here. That’s why they need me.”

“I hope you can succeed.”

She responded with a grin. “As you know, failure is not something I do well. I’ll make this work.”

As much as she enjoyed the conversation and Garla’s lofty aspirations, Tazla knew that for any of that to work, she still needed a universe to do it in. “We have very little--“

“Time, I know,” said Garla, cutting her off. “Leave the Outlanders to us and get to where you need to go.”

“Thank you.”

Garla offered the other woman a large smile. “Oh, I know that saying that couldn’t have been easy for you, Commander. I can tell it still bothers you that I play this game far better than you ever did.”

Tazla was about to fire back a terse reply, not comfortable with letting the irksome Garla have the final shot but the former Sentinel beat her to it.

“Enough words. May the Creator bless your journey. Garla out.”

“That woman sure likes to have the last word, doesn’t she?” said Deen with a little smirk of her own.

“Considering she just saved our collective butts, she can have it,” said Tazla, deciding that there were more important things to worry about than her ego.

“Garla’s ships are dropping out of warp and engaging the Outlander vessels,” said Leva and then looked up from his board. “Sir, I am not certain if the Krellonian vessels will be sufficient to stop the Outlanders. Their ships are tactically inferior.”

“But they’ll be enough of a distraction to get us past them,” said Tazla as she watched the battle begin to unfold on the screen. Garla’s small fleet had successfully drawn the Outlander ships away, keeping them busy enough to allow Eagle to slip away.

“We should help them,” said Lif. “If we stay behind, at least for a short while, we can ensure Garla has the upper hand.”

But Tazla resolutely shook her head. “We can’t afford the risk. Get us to the threshold now.”

But Culsten hesitated. “Commander, we do that, Garla and her people may not survive this battle.”

“And if we get caught up here, this entire universe and all others in existence may get wiped out. This is not a choice at all,” she said sharply.

Culsten seemed visibly torn, looking at her and then back at the screen.

Tazla had no time for this. “Lieutenant, follow my order or stand relieved.”

When he still didn’t act, she glanced at Alendra. “Lieutenant, relieve Mister Culsten at the helm.”

To her credit, the Bolian didn’t hesitate at all and promptly stepped away from the tactical station and made a beeline for the helm.

Culsten shook his head and turned his full attention back onto his console. “That won’t be necessary,” he said and quickly entered new commands. “Setting course for the threshold, maximum impulse power.”

Tazla gestured for Alendra to stand down, then took a moment to ensure that Eagle was indeed on the move again before she returned to the command chair to take a seat.

Culsten’s moment of defiance was not acceptable during a crisis but she also knew that everybody, including herself, was on edge and for now she was simply too relieved that they still had a chance to succeed that she was willing to let it slide.

Far greater challenges awaited them in short order and she was not convinced that they were truly prepared for any of them.
Part 6 - Last Grasp: 5 by CeJay
5


It had taken a while but Amaya Donners had finally allowed him access to parts of the Lead Belly beyond the common room and the living quarters to which she had originally restricted him and his team.

More specifically, he had been granted access to the ship’s control room on the upper deck and after having first laid eyes on it, he wasn’t so sure why she had felt it necessary to keep it a secret, it certainly wasn’t much to look at.

“Probably not quite what you’re used to on that fancy starship of yours,” she had said after having read his expression quite accurately, even if he had taken pains to try and mask his thoughts.

“I like it. It’s cozy,” he had said and almost immediately cringed at his own words.

In truth, he found it difficult to imagine being able to command a ship from such a cramped little bridge with barely enough room for him, Amaya and three of her crewmembers made up of a Klingon, a Farian, and a red-skinned Orion. Michael considered the small cockpit of a runabout spacious compared to this arrangement.

Amaya had frowned at his comment but said nothing further on the subject and neither did Michael, who was much more eager to focus on trying to reach Cygni-98 and the subspace threshold as quickly as possible.

Amaya had been able to push the Lead Belly to warp seven point two, causing the entire ship to rattle dangerously as it protested the strain being put on her spaceframe.

“Don’t worry, she’ll keep together,” she had said confidently, even if the expressions on the faces of her bridge crew were anything but encouraging. “She’s seen us through much worse.”

And to his surprise, her old ship had indeed managed to keep up that speed for a good two hours during which Michael had become so accustomed to the constant rattling around him, he had almost stopped registering it.

He tensed up again once they were approaching their destination. “What do sensors show?”

She turned her head from where she was sitting at one of three forward-facing stations, pinning him with a stern look. “I know you might be the captain on your ship but around here I give the orders.”

“Of course.”

“Sensors?” she barked.

“Nothing yet,” the Klingon grunted.

It wasn’t good enough for Amaya who jumped out of her chair and almost climbed over the station next to her to get a better look for herself. “There’s definitely something out there,” she said as she began banging the console with her fist. “Goddamned sensors are on the fritz again.”

Michael took a step closer to her. “Is it Eagle?”

“I don’t know but there’s a whole lot of activity right in our flight path and I don’t think--“

She was cut off by a shrill warning siren.

“What’s that?” he said, looking around to find any indication of what the ominous sound was heralding.

“Incoming,” the Klingon shouted.

Maya clambered back into her seat. “Told you there was something out there. Torpedoes don’t just appear out of nowhere,” she said. “Hold on.”

Michael grabbed hold of the back of Maya’s chair as she banked the ship sharply and then decelerated out of warp.

Three bright missiles of light shot past the forward viewport only barely missing the ship’s bow.

“I probably don’t want to know how close that was.”

She shook her head but was clearly too busy to formulate a response as her hands flew over her flight controls, sending the Lead Belly into one sharp turn after the next and making it difficult for Michael to remain on his feet.

“We’ve got sensor contacts,” the Orion woman sitting at the back station said. “A lot of sensor contacts.”

Michael didn’t need sensors to tell him that they had just escaped one battle only to drop back into the middle of another. He could count at least a dozen or so ships directly ahead, exchanging weapons fire. He couldn’t spot his ship among the combatants but he recognized some of the designs. “Outlanders?”
“Yep. Looks like the Krellonian Resistance has picked this exact time and spot to make their stand,” said Donners.

Michael shook his head. “That can’t be a coincidence.”

She turned to him again, judgment once more written all over her face. “What? You mean that chaos follows you everywhere you go?”

He ignored the jibe. “We don’t have time to get held up here. We need to get to the threshold deeper in the system.”

Another, particularly violent hit, caused the entire ship to lurch hard. Michael lost his footing and fell to the deck. A couple of explosions ripped through the small bridge including the console at which the Farian had been working. The man flew out of his seat and landed awkwardly as he hit his head against the bulkhead.

While Michael scrambled back onto his feet, he could see that the Orion woman had already tended to her fellow mercenary to check on him. She looked up and slowly shook her head.

Amaya angrily hit her console in response.

He made it back to her seat. “I’m sorry, Maya. I am. But we have to find a way to punch through this.”

She whipped on him again, this time he could see the anger in her eyes. “Don’t,” she seethed at him. “You don’t get to call me that.”

He nodded.

She quickly turned back to her controls, clearly having her hands full keeping her ship from turning to space dust. “And in case you had failed to notice, there are a lot of them and only one of us. And although we might not be their primary target, they’re clearly not treating us like friends either.”

“We’re being hailed,” the Klingon said.

“Sure, now they want to talk,” said Amaya and stabbed a panel on her board that caused a holographic screen to pop up between the viewports.

“Garla?”

“Looks like you’re one tough man to kill,” she said with a little smirk. “I was certain you had been assimilated by now.”

“I got lucky. And I had some help,” he said, briefly turning to Amaya who was not in the mood to exchange glances with him. “Where’s Eagle?”

“Off to save the universe, last time I saw her. Suppose that’s why you’re here, too.”
“We need to get to the threshold.”

Garla looked off-screen for a moment, perhaps to refer to her own instruments. “I do what I can to give you some cover, but ironically, these Outlanders don’t care for outsiders. I’m not sure how far you’re going to get until--“

She stopped suddenly and her facial expression grew significantly more concerned as she looked off-screen again.

“What is it?”

She re-established eye contact. “I guess assimilation is not yet off the table.”

“What?”

His question was answered a second later when the bright colors of the Amargosa Diaspora were suddenly blotted out by a massive wall of green, gray, and black.

“Oh hell,” said Amaya and frantically worked the helm controls.

The Lead Belly backed up enough to make Michael realize that they were facing a Borg Sphere. Not nearly as massive as the cubes they had encountered around Piqus, but more than enough to deal with Amaya’s old ship, and likely all the Outlander and Krellonian forces surrounding it.

“I had really hoped we had seen the last of them,” Michael said.

“You find that the Borg are like cockroaches. Just when you thought you’d gotten rid of them, they come back in force,” she said as she continued to attempt to put distance between them and the sphere.

Her efforts were stopped in their tracks when a bright green energy beam reached out for them and firmly took hold of the Lead Belly, trapping them like a fly in a spider’s web.

Garla’s image fizzled out on the holographic display amongst heavy interference only to be replaced by a face from Michael’s worst nightmares.

“My name is Tyrantus of Borg. Resistance is futile. Your life, as it has been, is over. From this time forward, you will service us.”

Amaya did a double take at the Borg drone now dominating the display before looking back at Michael. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Michael Timothy Owens. You will surrender to the Borg or you and everyone on your vessel will be assimilated.”

“What the hell is this?” Amaya said.

“In this universe, I--the version of me--was assimilated by the Borg,” he said.

“And now he’s after you? I can’t believe you managed to make this personal. With the Borg.”

“Believe me, not by choice.”

“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t just hand you over?”

Michael reached for the controls and found the right ones to turn off the holographic screen and dispel the image of his disfigured alter ego. “Because the Borg won’t keep their promises, because you already risked your hide to save me from them, because the fate of countless universes may depend on it,” he said resolutely. “Pick one.”

“Just needed a reminder,” she said with a smirk before her attention was redirected to the massive Borg vessel hovering just in front of them, so close, it felt as if it was near enough to touch. Multiple energy blasts and missile impacts rippled across the Borg ship's outer hull.

“The Outlanders and Krellonians are targeting the Borg,” said the Orion, now back at her station.

“Didn’t think I’d see the day that they are on the same side of anything,” said Amaya as she watched the sphere come under heavy fire.

“It’s not enough,” grunted the Klingon. “They still have us in a tractor beam.”

“And we don’t have the power to break free,” realized Amaya while focused on her piloting instruments.

Michael in the meantime had spotted something else. Something that seemed particularly concerning. The Borg ship had activated another energy beam, except that this one wasn’t a weapon. Not exactly. It made contact with the Lead Belly’s hull just behind the bridge module. He turned around and could see the sparks coming from the bulkheads. “We need to get out of here, now.”

“What do you think I’m trying to do?” Amaya shot back with frustration. “Goddamned tractor beam won’t budge. Maybe I can transfer warp power to--“

“No,” Michael said. “Off this deck. Now,” he said, and then, without hesitation, he reached out for her and practically pulled her out of her seat.

“What are doing?”

“They’re carving us up,” he said and pushed her toward the door. “Move.”

Her eyes opened wide when she realized what was happening. “Everybody out, now,” she yelled even as she followed Michael toward the exit.

Not a second after they had been through the doors and before they even had a chance to cycle shut again, a bright green energy beam sliced clean through the bulkheads as if they were made of butter.

The ship shuddered hard as the entire forward section was ripped off from the rest of the spaceframe.

“No, my people,” Amaya screamed and tried to turn back. Michael kept her in place since it was quickly apparent that there was nowhere to return to. The tractor beam had sealed off the bridge section and was now reeling it in toward the Borg sphere. Where moments ago Lead Belly’s bridge had been, there was now nothing but empty space, thankfully promptly sealed off by automated emergency force fields that did nothing, of course, to hide the ghastly damage done or Amaya’s crewmembers being pulled to their doom.

Lead Belly was struggling to maintain structural integrity after being sliced open. The force field was already fluctuating, energy conduits all around them were beginning to rupture and Michael could feel the deck plates under his boots starting to pull themselves apart. “We need to get off this ship.”
But Amaya was still rooted to the spot, unwilling to move from where she stood, her eyes still locked onto her bridge compartment being gobbled up by the Borg.

Michael grabbed her by her arm. “Let’s go,” he said.

She didn’t resist him but she still moved too slowly, he thought.

“Escape pods?”

“On the crew deck below,” she said.

He nodded and rushed toward the turbolift with her in tow.

They never reached it.

An energy conduit running alongside the corridor exploded just as they were passing by and it lifted them both off their feet.

Michael hit the bulkhead with his right shoulder first and with enough force that he was certain he had dislocated it. The pain shooting through his body was immense. Pain, however, had become a familiar companion to him as of late and one more time, he forced himself through it and refused to give in to it, refused to close his eyes no matter how much he was ready to let it all just wash over him.

He managed to get back onto his hands and knees. “Maya?” he cried, unable to see her in a corridor now filled with thick smoke and intolerable heat.

He stumbled over something and looked down to realize that it was her body.

“Maya,” he said again as he took a knee by her side.

She was lying on her side and when he turned her on her back, he noticed a large piece of metal piping that had impaled her side.
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