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He studied the expressions on her face carefully while she watched the same message he had played just a few hours earlier but he once again found that Tazla Star had seemingly perfected the art of disguising her true feelings underneath a practically unreadable mask of inscrutability which would have made a Vulcan proud.

Michael Owens had wrestled with the idea of showing his father’s recording to his first officer, a notion which would have been unthinkable just a year earlier and after she had joined the crew as a very much unwelcomed and distrusted addition to what he had always considered the tight-knit circle which made up the senior staff of Eagle. It had taken some time until he had been comfortable with having a woman who had briefly been a captain before being court-martialed and imprisoned for disregarding orders at his side. The fact that she had been found out to have been working for a shady group within Starfleet Intelligence which may not have always had the Federation's best interest at heart, hadn't helped much either.

Things had evolved quite a bit since those early days.

After first reviewing his father’s message, and then replaying it a number of times afterwards to ensure he had not missed any subtle nuances possibly hidden within the message, he had found himself with the dilemma that apparently the people he needed to rely on for this mission, were the exact same people his father had explicitly warned him against.

Regardless of what he had been told since the very auspicious beginning of this assignment which had started with Admiral Throl’s unexpected visit, he knew that he needed a second opinion on everything he had learned so far.

Normally that person would have been DeMara Deen who had functioned as one of his most trusted advisors and a reliable sounding board pretty much ever since he had watched her grow from a child into a young woman as well and an extraordinarily capable officer.

But since DeMara had been acting increasingly detached over the last few weeks, he had decided to bring Tazla Star into his confidence instead, and disregarding both the instructions he had been given by Jarik and his father’s warning, he had not only presented her with the recording but also brought her fully up to speed on what he had learned about the mission to prevent an inter-dimensional invasion by a subspace dwelling species.

“In the meantime, and no matter what will happen in the days and weeks, maybe months, down the road, there is just one thing that I need you to promise me. Don’t trust anyone.

The recording came to an end and Tazla Star leaned back in the chair she had been occupying, sitting opposite Michael, at his desk. She uttered a particularly colorful Trill curse under her breath.

He nodded as he turned the monitor back around so that it faced him once more even if his father’s face was now no longer displayed. “That’s precisely how I felt after seeing this.”

“Who do you think he’s referring to?” she asked.

He shrugged. “That’s the problem. I don’t know. And I don’t know how to find out either. It could be Throl. It could be Jarik or Maya. It could be all three of them and others. It could be nothing more than the paranoid delusions of a dying man.” He knew he didn’t do a good job of hiding his frustration. This message had thrown pretty much everything in doubt. Not just his mission, he could also not help himself but wonder if perhaps Amaya had been given a similar message, perhaps she had been told not to trust him, which certainly could explain her sudden change in attitude towards him. Or perhaps his father had been right in saying that she could not be trusted, perhaps something was wrong with her. The thought of all the questions this vague message raised, all the possibilities they suddenly evoked were driving him crazy and making him so much angrier with his father for having put him in this position. And then, of course, he had the audacity of dying suddenly, robbing him of any chance to be able to confront him about these suspicions and demanding answers for once and for all.

In short, Jonathan Owens had shaken to his core, his confidence in the people he needed to believe in.

“I don’t think it would be wise to dismiss it entirely.”

Michael uttered a heavy sigh and stood from his chair to walk over to the man-high window in his ready room which currently gave him, not only a great view of the Amargosa stellar nursery they were traversing but also of the starship Agamemnon which continued to travel with them at warp in close formation. “And therein lies the problem. I can’t afford to do anything less but heed the warning, even if there is a chance that it is nothing more than baseless paranoia. Not while we might be facing an imminent invasion by a technologically advanced and hostile force we seem to know next to nothing about,” he said and turned around. “But what if he’s wrong and this mistrust he has spread is only complicating an already difficult situation? What is the right move here? Can there even be one?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “ And it places us in the unenviable position in which the only people who do know what is going on are possibly the very same people we cannot trust with anything.”

Feeling a headache coming on, he began to massage his forehead. “You can see why I didn’t get much sleep last night,” he said and looked right at her. “What are your thoughts?”

If Star was surprised by her captain's show of faith and trust in her she did well to hide this. She glanced back towards the computer screen which was now blank again as if to recall every last word she had heard his late father speak in his enigmatic message. "I have some familiarity with the Department of Special Affairs and Investigations from my work in the intelligence community. I never met your father but I've worked alongside with, and on occasions perhaps even against, members of his agency. They don't exactly work like more traditional intelligence networks, they have no spies or run clandestine missions, as far as I'm aware, but they do keep things very much need-to-know. And in my experience, if SAI is involved in something, there is a side they want you to see and then there is the truth."

“I was afraid you’d say something like that,” he said and considered her words a bit further. “You said you’ve never met my father. How about Jarik?”

She shook her head. “To be honest, I know next to nothing about him. Which in itself is unusual. In my experience, people like that don’t usually come out of nowhere. You said you were Academy roommates?”

He nodded and took his seat again. "Yes. Good friends once upon a time before we drifted apart after we graduated. I did some digging. According to his file, he did some unremarkable work within Starfleet's administrative circles before joining my father about ten years ago. Nothing else stands out."

“If you were to look at my file,” said Star, “you would find much the same thing about my career up until Sacajawea. And it would mostly be a complete fabrication.”

"I considered that. The thing is I actually got a very good feeling about Jarik ever since I met him again on Earth a few weeks ago. Instead of keeping secrets like my father did, he seemed very open with me. I appreciate that it could all be a smokescreen but in the time I knew him at the Academy, Jarik has always been a straight shooter. In that regard, he took after his Vulcan mother. There wasn't a deceitful or malicious bone in his body."

Star seemed to contemplate her next words carefully. “I hate to bring it up, but what about Captain Donners? How much do you think you can trust her?”

“It’s a legitimate question,” he quickly admitted. “Three weeks ago I would have said that I’d trust her unconditionally.”

“And now?”

He shook his head slightly. “Now I’m not so sure. And I truly hate feeling that way about her.”

“I understand. But I would suggest, for the time being, that you remain careful around her. It might be a good idea not to share any of this with either Donners or Jarik,” she said, indicating towards the blank screen.

“I don’t think I have a choice. We’ll keep everything we know between the two of us until further notice and until we have a clearer idea who we can trust.”

“Agreed,” she said. “What about the crew? What do you want to tell them?”

Michael thought about this for a moment. It still irked him that he was keeping the people under his command, the people who needed to trust him, in the dark. It was a page straight out of his father's playbook and it didn't sit right with him at all. But trust, he had painfully come to realize, had become a very dangerous commodity. "Call a briefing for oh-nine-hundred tomorrow morning with the senior staff. As much as I hate it, we won't be able to disclose everything we've learned so far, as little as that might be. But we still have a relief mission to carry out, as well as attempt to gather more intelligence on this invasion and how the Krellonians might fit into all this. We are going to have to rely on one of our own if we want any hope of trying to uncover any possible connections."

Tazla Star offered a sharp nod but even she couldn’t entirely hide the glint of doubt in her emerald colored eyes. There was no point begrudging her over it. Michael felt exactly the same way. And he feared that this doubt wasn’t going to go anywhere anytime soon, sticking around like an uninvited guest, lingering somewhere in the background and just out of reach, until that moment it all came crashing down on them with a punishing vengeance.


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