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He hadn’t liked the idea much but in the end, he had given into Jarik and his father’s suggestion to take the Prism, along with Bensu, onto the Ring. Perhaps it had been Edison who had lobbied for the same approach, which had ultimately swayed his thinking.

The idea of mixing three clearly potent and not yet well-understood elements together, the Ring, Bensu and the Prism, had him concerned. Xylion and Bensu’s subsequent attempts at creating a mind-link with the Prism functioning as a conductor of sorts had not yielded any more actionable insights. They had also failed to replicate the outcome of their first attempt which had summoned some sort of shady figure which may or may not have been a subspace alien.

Since there was no guarantee that Star and the away team would be able to retrieve Garla, or that even if they did, the Krellonian agent could be convinced to cooperate with them, Michael understood that there was an acute need to continue to pursue multiple avenues. Especially considering the stakes, his father’s warning of an impending invasion of their universe still playing at the back of his mind, even if those fears had taken a temporary backseat over concerns of finding a way back home.

He had also made the decision that he needed to be more actively involved in finding a solution since his first officer was otherwise engaged. He felt this to be particularly important considering that both Jarik and his father had insisted on joining the away team. His first instinct had been to turn down their request, but he was also still convinced that both had an important part to play in solving their current conundrum, even if they continued to be frustratingly reluctant to share the entirety of their knowledge pertaining to the Ring and the Prism.

It was clear that he couldn’t trust either one of them and letting Edison lead the away team by himself was not an option he was comfortable with. Although he desperately wanted to believe Captain Edison possessed the same attributes which had made him a valued friend and officer in his universe, he also hadn’t entirely forgotten Star’s warnings about his recklessness which had directly led to the death of a man under his command.

Michael was not an officer who easily brushed aside regulations but considering the circumstances, he was convinced that he needed to lead the away mission even if he still had a bitter taste in his mouth from the last time he had done so and very nearly come to regret all of it.

So it came as little surprise that Xylion regarded him with a raised eyebrow when Michael stepped into the packed transporter room with a phaser and tricorder already strapped to his waist. He quickly raised a hand and spoke before the Vulcan had a chance. “Let me preempt you right there since I know what you’re going to say. I understand the risks and that leading an away mission is a breach of protocol. I’ve already covered this ground with Commander Leva,” he said. “If you wish, I will note your protest in my log but that will not stop me from joining the away team.”

“That will not be necessary,” Xylion said.

Michael couldn’t suppress a little smirk. Xylion had served long enough with him to know that once he had made up his mind, he tended to stick with his decision, regulations or not. He glanced at the other people assembled in the room; Edison, Jarik, his father, Bensu, Nora Laas, DeMara Deen and two SMT operators. “Any other objections?”

For a moment he thought that perhaps his security officer, who in the past had shown a proclivity to be especially protective of him, would also attempt some form of protest. She didn’t on this occasion.

Deen just shrugged. “It’s not as if we can talk you out of this.”

Michael considered Xylion again. “I understand we are foregoing the environmental suits. How confident are we that there is nothing over there that could hurt us?”

“We are not confident that the Ring is entirely safe since we have still not been able to survey more than a fraction of the structure. In fact, we have already witnessed its potential to be deadly. However, all scans that we have analyzed indicate that the atmosphere is breathable and that there are no harmful pathogens present,” the science officer said.

“I’d be the first to admit that I hate to sacrifice mobility in favor of bulky enviro-suits,” said Nora. “But I’d still be more comfortable with that extra layer of protection.”

“I fear it would get in the way of any attempts of creating another mind-link,” said Bensu.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Michael said. “We’ll get the lay of the land first and then decide on our next steps.”

Bensu nodded.

Michael could see that Jarik was carrying a small case and judging by the slight tingle he had felt ever since he had entered the transporter room, it was reasonable to assume that it contained the Exhibitor. He couldn’t quite keep a frown off his face.

Jarik took note. “Don’t worry, I’ll be careful with it.”

This didn’t exactly inspire him with confidence. “Please see that you do. Also, I hope I don’t have to remind you of away team procedures-“

Jarik shook his head, interrupting him. “You certainly do not. We may not be active starship officers,” he said, briefly indicating to the elder Owens. “But we are more than familiar with Starfleet regulations. You won’t have to worry about us.”

Owens Senior nodded. “It’ll be as if we weren’t even there, son.”

Michael shot Nora an almost commiserating look. He didn’t exactly envy her position. Not only was she responsible for security on an away mission to a mostly unknown and possibly hostile environment, now she also had to worry about the safety of her captain and two flag-rank officers, not to mention the captain of the other Eagle and the rest of the away team.

He considered Gene Edison last, noticing that he was not being accompanied by any of his other officers. Remembering how disorientating it had been to have two versions of the same people around, he was thankful for that decision. Apparently, Edison had agreed to try and keep the away team as small as possible this time around.

The captain of the alternate Eagle seemed to know what Michael was thinking. “You most definitely won’t have to worry about me,” he said with an easy grin which Michael reminded him a great deal of his old friend. “As far as I’m concerned, this is your mission and you take the lead. I’m just here as an observer and to represent the interests of my universe as it were.” He uttered a little chuckle. “Guess there’s no pressure on my shoulders then, huh?”

Michael offered him a grateful smile but couldn’t entirely wonder if he was being this accommodating because of the disastrous outcome of the last mission which some had squarely blamed on him. “All right, let’s get underway,” he said and looked at Nora. “Lieutenant, I suggest you and your team beam in first and give us the all-clear.”

She nodded sharply. “My suggestion precisely, sir,” she said and then quickly stepped up on the transporter platform, the stocky Tellarite operator Grunt and the dark-skinned and short-haired human woman Diamond, taking position at her flanks. Nora pulled free her phaser while the Niners raised their compact, non-standard carbines. The Bajoran glanced at Chief Chow behind the operator’s console. “Energize, Chief.”

“Happy trails,” he said with a wide grin and activated the transporter.

Moments later they were gone.

It didn’t take long for Nora to report in and once she had done so, declaring that the beam-in site was safe, Michael and the others took their positions and followed their recon team.

* * *

She couldn’t deny feeling some residual anger over the decision of not including her onto the away mission to retrieve Garla from within Krellonian space, however, considering that the captain had made the foolhardy decision to visit the Ring himself, she was mollified slightly that at the very least it was going to be her duty to keep him safe, rather than having to rely on somebody else to do her job.

Not that she could fault the Niners for the work they had done so far, both on Eagle as well as on Piqus, reaffirming her decision to suggest to the captain to bring them aboard. She had reviewed the report of the away mission to the subspace domain and while it had been a harrowing read, in all honesty, she couldn’t think of anything she may have been able to do better or different, had she been part of it.

Of course, she had long since abandoned the destructive tendency to endlessly analyze and question her decisions and choices. It had been exactly that kind of mentality that had nearly destroyed her after Gene Edison had died-killed while saving her life. She had managed to get over that loss, and the choices she’d made which had led to it.

It wasn’t exactly easy to get over that kind of psychological trauma when the very person at the center of it all was suddenly and unexpectedly back in her life, and on the very same away mission no less.

After their brief discussion in his quarters which she had belatedly realized had been a mistake, he kept a respectable distance to her after they had beamed over to the Ring.

She found the interior of the massive structure exactly the same way it had been last time she had been here. The only difference this time was the lack of a protective suit, giving her-and the rest of the away team-for the first time a literal taste of their surroundings.

The air was indeed breathable but it had a foul and stale quality to it like it hadn’t been breathed by another living being in decades. The smell was just as uninviting and she had to admit that she couldn’t quite get her skin from tingling slightly. As if the huge tunnel-like structure hadn’t already given her enough reasons to dislike being there, the added sensory perceptions made this place only more unappealing.

They found what they had taken to call the control sphere exactly in the same place as before, still hidden in a deeper layer of subspace, and once more she and the Niners scouted ahead to secure the area first. This time even Edison restrained himself and waited patiently with the others until they had given the all-clear.

She knew that Owens, his father, Jarik and Bensu had all seen holographic representations of the sphere but clearly experiencing the real thing still made quite an impression on them and they each took their time to study their surroundings more closely.

She was satisfied that Diamond and Grunt-the two SMT operators-behaved much more like she would have expected from professional soldiers or military personnel, showing far less awe and instead quickly focusing on any potential risks or dangers. Laas had briefed them both on what had transpired on their last visit.

After a quick survey of the circle-shaped room, the two Niners took up position opposite each other at the far edges of the sphere to give them the best possible coverage of the area.

Laas followed suit and placed herself at a ninety-degree angle to them which meant that between the three of them, they had eyes on everyone and everything inside the half-sphere.

She watched as Owens, his admiral father, Jarik, Xylion, Deen and Bensu began to discuss their next steps with Captain Edison noticeably remaining slightly apart from the group, staying true to what he had promised and being more spectator than participant.

Laas made sure to keep her eyes on him, not because she wanted to, but because she was convinced that the fatality on their last visit had been mostly his fault.

Edison noticed and seemed to take this interest in him as an invitation. She frowned when he began to make his way over to her, clearly not discouraged by the expression on her face.

He stepped up to her wordlessly and then positioned himself right at her side, keeping his eyes trained forward.

He allowed a few seconds of silence between them before he spoke. “You left my quarters rather abruptly,” he said without making eye contact.

“I shouldn’t have been there at all,” she said, equally keeping her eyes trained forward.

“I understand why you would think that. We are not the same people to each other as the ones we’ve both lost.”

She nodded. “That’s right.”

“But you cannot deny the similarities either,” he said after a moment. “Significant ones.”

She turned to look at him even though she had told herself not to. “Do you really believe that this is a good time or place to discuss this? Considering what has happened here not too long ago.”

He nodded slowly but didn’t speak.

She turned her eyes forward again, hoping that she had shut down any further conversation on the topic.

“What happened to Josè was tragic,” he said after a few seconds had passed. “And, yes, perhaps some of the fault for this death lies with me as his superior officer. I accept that.”

“With all due respect, Captain, you allowed yourself to get distracted in a critical situation,” she said, her voice stone cold while she continued to avoid eye contact.

“I suppose you’re right. And I will have to tell his family how his captain has failed him. That if he hadn’t, their loved one might still be alive. I will have to find a way to live with that.”

For a brief moment, she almost felt sorry for him but then told herself to keep her emotions in check. And so she did.

“I am going to tell you something I’ve never told anybody.”

She looked at him despite herself.

“Her death was my fault, too.”

Laas had no idea how to respond to that.

“Starfleet didn’t see it that way. For that matter, nobody on Eagle does either, not even those who were around when it happened. But I was her commanding officer and worse, I was in love with her. I don’t know if that blinded me to things, or not, but I could have done so much more. I could have saved her and all it would have cost me would have been my life. The truth is, I wish it had been me instead of her. Not a day goes by since I lost her that I don’t wish that she had never jumped in front of me and choosing my life over hers.”

* * *

It wasn’t difficult to miss that Bensu had made some sort of connection with his surroundings pretty much as soon as they had stepped into the sphere. Michael had seen it on his face but had decided against questioning him about it since all previous inquiries had resulted in the same result. He hoped, at the very least, something in this unusual place would manage to unlock some of the many secrets buried deep within him and which he was more convinced than ever, were the key to much they had come across so far.

“With your permission, Captain, I suggest we attempt another mind-link to determine if Bensu can establish contact with whatever psionic conduit exists in this place,” Xylion said after a having allowed Bensu and the others a few minutes to take in the sphere around them.

“It’s what we are here for,” Jarik said before Michael had a chance. “It’s why we have brought this,” he added and slightly raised the case containing the Exhibitor.

Michael shook his head. “We are not looking to create another gateway at the moment. We’re just trying to understand what we are dealing with and possibly making contact with the subspace aliens,” he said, still determined not to potentially strand his away team in another universe because Jarik and his father were overeager.

Jarik took a few steps closer to him. “I appreciate your concerns, Michael, but let’s remember what is at stake. Our own universe remains under threat of invasion. I don’t want to risk losing people either, but we both know that sometimes we don’t have a choice in those matters.”

He considered his old Academy friend closely and for the first time since they had reunited just a few weeks ago, he was beginning to question the man’s honesty. Of course, he had already proven that despite his earlier claims, he was more than willing to continue his father’s playbook and keep vital information compartmentalized, as was the case with the Prism, but there was something else in his tone that somehow rubbed him the wrong way. Michael was having the distinct feeling that Jarik couldn’t have cared less whose lives were put at risk as long as he achieved his overarching objective.

“And let’s remember that I counseled against sending that away team,” Jarik continued as if that point would change anything.

“Why our universe?” DeMara asked.

Michael had been so preoccupied with trying to discern Jarik’s well-guarded thought processes that he had nearly missed her question altogether.

She stepped closer, repeating her question.

Jarik glanced at her, seemingly irritated. “What?”

“If this Ring can create gateways to other universes, what makes you so sure that ours is the target of an alien invasion?” she said.

Michael had to admit that it was a pretty decent question and one which had not occurred to him before.

Jarik looked towards Owens Senior.

“We don’t know for certain our universe is the target,” the admiral said.

“Wait a minute,” said Edison, moving away from the edge of the room where he had stood next to Nora. “Are you suggesting that there is a chance that these aliens may be looking to invade our universe as well?”

Jarik nodded. “It is a possibility we cannot afford to dismiss. Or it might be that the gateways are merely an unintended side effect of the Ring’s true purpose of facilitating a transition from subspace into regular space.”

“Since the branes which theoretically separate quantum universes are located within subspace, it is possible that a particle accelerator of this size could affect branes in unknown ways,” said Xylion.

Michael wasn’t quite so sure if he bought into that theory since it seemed clear that the Prism was somehow connected to the Ring so intricately that his father and Jarik had apparently learned of its very existence by using the strange artifact. “From everything you’re saying, I feel more inclined than ever to try and understand more about the motivation of the people who built this thing before rushing to any conclusions,” he said and could tell that Jarik didn’t seem to appreciate where he was going with this. “Even if we can recreate a gateway that takes us back home, we won’t be any closer to understanding the full purpose of the Ring or the aliens’ plans.” He indicated towards the case which contained the Exhibitor. “Let’s not involve the artifact at this juncture until we have no other choice.” He regarded Xylion and Bensu next. “Go ahead with the mind-link but do so cautiously. Try to make contact with the aliens if possible but don’t push too hard. Not until we know more.” Michael thought he could see his father nodding slowly with approval. Jarik, on the other hand, seemed disappointed with the decision.

Xylion and Bensu took position near the center of the room and inside the ring of holographic consoles, both men kneeling on the floor, facing each other.

Michael and the rest of the team watched with bated breath as Xylion once more made contact with Bensu’s face to initiate the link.

Bensu gasped almost immediately. “This place, it’s like a crossroads of power and energy. I can feel it all around us,” he said while keeping his eyes closed. “There are countless strands intersecting and branching off into every direction.”

“We must try to focus on a single strand,” Xylion said, his voice staying calm as ever. “Determine its nature and purpose.”

Bensu shook his head slightly. “I’m not sure if I can. There’s just so many of them.”

DeMara had stepped up next to Michael, keeping her eyes on both men. “If nothing else, I think that may confirm that this place is indeed the central control hub for the Ring. Maybe even more.”

He nodded slowly.

“As before, make use of my mind to steady yours. It should provide you with the focus you require to ignore everything else but that one single strand.”

“Yes, I think it’s working. It’s beginning to crystallize,” Bensu said.

“Follow it. Let it take you to wherever it may lead.”

For a moment no more words where exchanged, or if they did, they were only heard inside their minds while Bensu’s expression became one of great concentration.

But Jarik’s patience was apparently running thin. “Can you determine a way in which to activate the gateway?” he said as he stepped closer to the center again.

Michael frowned at him, not happy with the interruption at this point.

“There is so much here,” Bensu said. “It is just one strand but it consists of hundreds, no thousands of smaller ones, all branching off the main one and merging back into it. All containing energy and knowledge.”

“About the gateway?” Jarik insisted

Michael turned to him. “Let’s give them some time.”

“Time might be something we don’t have,” he said and raised the case again. “We need to bring the Prism into this.”

Jon Owens reached for the other man’s upper arm. “Let’s just see where this leads us first, Jarik.”

But he shook his head. “You heard him, there are countless of these strands. It could take years to unravel them all.”

“Centuries,” said Bensu, even while his focus continued to be diverted inwards. “Maybe even longer. Unraveling all of this cannot be achieved in a lifetime.”

“Keep following that single strand,” Xylion said.

Jarik freed himself from Jon Owens’ touch. “We need to be more aggressive.”

“I’m not sure that’s wise,” the admiral said. “I believe caution may be-“ he stopped himself suddenly as his face was draining of color.

Michael immediately realized that something was wrong and stepped closer. “Dad?”

“I’m fine,” he said, holding up a hand to stop him from approaching. “I’m just getting a little dizzy.” He took a few steps backward, coughed a few times and then stumbled over his own feet.

Nora who was now standing closest to him, rushed to his side just in time to catch him as he collapsed.

“Dad,” Michael cried as he dashed to where he had collapsed in his security chief’s arms.

DeMara was just behind him.

Michael found him teetering on consciousness, unable to form sensible words. He glanced at DeMara who already had her tricorder out. “What’s happening to him?”

She shook her head. “I’m not sure. But he needs medical attention. Right now.”

“We need to take him back to the ship,” Michael said.

“There is no way to beam anybody out from within the sphere,” Nora said. “We need to get out of here before we can get a transporter lock.”

“Let’s go,” he said and helped Nora with carrying his father and DeMara bringing up the rear.

Michael noticed that both Xylion and Bensu had interrupted their mind-link and were now back on their feet, watching them carry the unconscious admiral out of the sphere. “Stay here and continue your efforts for now. I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he said but couldn’t quite keep his thoughts to stray from his father. For all their disagreements they’ve had over the years, including their most recent spat following the revelation that he had faked his own death, and no matter how much he had told himself that he was finished with his games, he wasn’t sure if he could bear losing him a second time.

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