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Michael beamed back onto the Ring without any further delay, already mentally chastising himself for having lost sight of his priorities. Yes, he was concerned for his father’s wellbeing, but clearly bigger matters were afoot and he could no longer afford to be sidetracked. Not if there were people, like Jarik, waiting in the wings to take advantage while he was distracted.

Of course, his father’s warning which like everything else he ever did, had been rather cryptic, remained near the forefront of his thoughts as he materialized within the superstructure again.

DeMara was waiting for him there.

“What’s happening?”

She shook her head. “Things are getting tense,” she said. “I think you better get in there.”

He followed her back towards the invisible layer which separated their current surroundings with the control sphere located even deeper in subspace. The first thing he spotted as he was back within that enigmatic bubble that seemingly existed within an endlessly dark void was Jarik and Xylion, having an animated conversation. Or at least one of them seemed animated. While both men were of Vulcan heritage, Jarik did a much poorer job of hiding his emotions, likely due to his human side.

Perhaps even more concerning was the fact that Gene Edison stood next to Jarik, apparently agreeing with his logic as if battle lines had been drawn.

Nora Laas and the two SMTs watched on from the far edges of the sphere, with the security chief already having taken a few steps towards the arguing parties and considering them with increasing tension.

Bensu stood to the side, not getting involved. Being the first to spot his return, he made eye contact with Michael, silently imploring him to bring this conflict to an end.

Michael was determined to do exactly that. “Gentlemen, what seems to be the issue?”

Both Xylion and Jarik turned to look at him, Jarik spoke up first. “Good, you’re back. How is Jon?”

Michael thought he did an admirable job of not letting the irritation of Jarik using his father’s given name show. He wasn’t sure why it suddenly irked him so much. He knew the two of them had become close to each other over the years. Perhaps it was because he was beginning to wonder who was truly holding the power between those two men.

In the end, he resolved that it didn’t really matter who of them thought was in charge. He had already made it clear that for the remainder of this mission, he was the one calling the shots. “He’s better but weak. Doctor Katanga hasn’t been able to determine what has caused his recent illness.”

Jarik offered a grin. “Jon is a tough bastard. I’m certain he’ll be fine.”

“What is the situation here?” Michael said, eager to refocus everyone’s attention.

“Mister Jarik is insisting that we attempt to utilize the Prism artifact,” Xylion said.

“We have exhausted all other options,” Jarik quickly jumped in. “And I believe I have been more than patient with our cautious approach. But it is time to start taking some risks. The stakes are too high for us to simply sit here and do nothing while those aliens are drawing up plans to invade our universe.”

“I agree,” said Edison. “And we don’t even know for certain if your universe is truly the target. It could be mine.”

“Or any other of the infinite numbers out there,” said DeMara Deen.

Edison acknowledged this with a brief nod. “The point is, we are doing very little at present to find out. We are playing a reactive game when we should be proactive. Otherwise, by the time we get hit, it might already be too late.”

“It is also possible that by taking action, without having a full understanding of the situation, we may help aggravate and accelerate an already perilous condition,” said Xylion, clasping his hands calmly behind his back.

“Sometimes we have to take risks, I believe this is an acceptable one,” Jarik countered.

Michael turned to look at Xylion and then Bensu. “Have you been able to learn anything further?”

“Only what we already suspected. That this is a focal point of energy which may very well control the entire Ring,” said Bensu. “With Xylion’s help I could see the strands of pure energy and thought all around us but I have not been able to isolate and focus on any single one of them the way I was able to do before.”

“Because you are missing the tool to be able to do that,” said Jarik and then gave Michael another meaningful look.

“Let’s think this through,” Michael said. “The first time you activated the Prism in the vicinity of the Ring, it activated a gateway which threw us into another universe and caused significant damage to the ship and crew, we can’t risk that happening again without knowing how to prepare for it.”

It was Edison who shook his head. “The last time we activated it, we very nearly made contact with these subspace aliens. If we want more information, that’s the course we should be embarking on.”

“I agree we need to re-establish communications with them, but the cost of doing so, right here and now, is too high. Besides, my father is in no condition to come back over here to activate the Exhibitor. He’s the only one who can.”

Jarik offered a little sigh and then took a few steps away from Michael, making use of the space within the sphere. Then he turned back around, resolve now seemingly etched into his face. “Look, I hate to be the one saying this, but if you are not able to make these kinds of decisions than it is time that somebody else does.”

This caused Michael to tense and he could see Nora take another step closer to them. “What does that mean?”

“Gene and I spoke earlier,” he said, making brief eye contact with the other captain who offered a nod to underscore his support. “We believe we need to do this and we also agree that if you are not willing to pursue this action, I need to take operational command of this mission.”

Michael knew exactly what he was talking about. It had been something he had feared from the moment his father had come onto his ship. It had not been assuaged by his assurances that they had no intentions of overriding his decision or assuming overall command over his ship.

It was clear to him now that Jarik had never quite shared that mindset. In fact, in hindsight, he could see how he had attempted to take charge of the mission pretty much from the moment he had come aboard and now that he appeared to have found the backing of another starship commander, he was ready to make the move he had been itching to take ever since this had begun. “That is not going to happen.”

“Michael, please don’t make this difficult,” Jarik said, adopting a more soothing tone which almost reminded him of what he had sounded like back during their Academy days when they had been roommates and the closest of friends. It felt like a lifetime ago now.

“You can’t be serious? You are staging a mutiny and want me to simply acquiesce and step aside?”

He shook his head. “It’s not a mutiny when the decisions are made by a superior officer.”

“My father is your superior officer.”

“Not since he was declared dead.”

Michael glared at this former friend but said nothing.

Nora Laas very slowly stepped up next to her captain, her hand not quite on her phaser yet.

“Listen,” Jarik said, clearly noticing the Bajoran’s aggressive stance. “This doesn’t have to become ugly. But if you escalate this matter now, we may be going down a road we can’t come back from. The best thing for everyone is for you to agree to use the Prism. The alternative is that Gene and I will need to take action to do this with or without your help.”

“How exactly are you envisioning this will go?” Michael said trying very hard to keep his seething anger in check and not doing a great job at it. “I have my father who is the only one who can activate the Prism. I have Bensu and Xylion who are the only ones who can use it to communicate with these aliens. You have nothing.”

“I have this universe’s Eagle which is in far better shape than yours,” Jarik said, letting some emotion seep into his tone as well. “Captain Edison’s crew already has orders to take over your ship if necessary. Don’t let it come to that.”

Now Nora did pull her phaser and the two SMTs also brought up their weapons, taking aim at Jarik and Edison. Michael raised a hand to let them know to hold their fire. He wasn’t going to be the one to start shooting, no matter the threats being levied against him and his ship. “You’ve been planning this all along, haven’t you?”

“There is still a way to resolve this amicably,” he said. “But I am convinced that if we don’t take action now, billions of lives might be at risk. I’m ready to take whatever actions are necessary to safeguard these lives, even if you are not.”

“Gene, don’t do this,” Nora said with her phaser in hand, but for the moment resting against her leg. “We spoke about regrets. Don’t make this one of them.”

Surprisingly, Edison did seem torn by hearing her say this. But only for a moment. “It’s the right call, Lass. Sometimes we need to be strong enough to make the difficult calls no matter how ugly they may be. I wish I’d had that strength a few years ago. Things would have played out very differently if I had been more decisive. I will not repeat my mistakes.”

“This situation is completely different,” she said.

He shook his head. “I don’t think it is. But the stakes are so much higher which is why it so much more urgent that we act now.”

“We’re wasting time,” said Jarik. “You can shoot us if you want but it doesn’t change anything. The other Eagle will take action within the next few minutes unless we resolve our disagreements and you follow my lead.”

“This is coercion of the lowest form,” DeMara said and took a defiant step forward. “And not befitting a Starfleet officer.”

“What you call coercion, I call trying to save the universe the only way I see how.”

Michael found himself between a rock and a hard place with seemingly all good options suddenly off the table. Take decisive action now and force a potentially deadly confrontation with another ship which was equal to his own in all the metrics had it not been for the significant damage they had taken after traveling through the gateway, or, give into Jarik and Edison, let them have it their way, bring back his ailing father, risk his life and possibly creating another gateway which would not only cause further damage to his ship and crew but also, quite likely strand his away team in an unfamiliar universe.

All his instincts told him to go with option one and he certainly didn’t care for the idea of backing down. He also knew that if he took action now, he had to do so quickly to eliminate Jarik and Edison and then brace for the ensuing storm.

Somebody stepping into the sphere behind him caused Nora and the two SMTs to whip their weapons at a potentially new target.

Alendra stopped in her tracks, raising her hands in surprise. “Whoa, take it easy. It’s just me,” the Bolian woman said noticably taken aback by the hostile welcome.

Michael glanced at her for only a second before focusing on Jarik again who he considered the bigger threat for now. “Lieutenant, things are a little heated at the moment. What is it?”

It took her a moment to speak up and only after Nora and one of the Niners took their weapons off her to aim them at Jarik and Edison again. Charm, the Tellarite, kept his weapon on Alendra, apparently still considering her a potential target. The Bolian seemed to do her best to ignore this. “Our comms relay outside the subspace threshold just picked up a message from Agamemnon. Apparently, there is some concerning chatter coming from Krellonian territory and they are moving closer to investigate. Captain Donners is concerned this could escalate quickly.”

Michael considered the news for a moment and then addressed Jarik again. “This changes things, wouldn’t you say?”

But Jarik shook his head. “It changes nothing.”

“Are you sure?” He glanced towards Edison. “From my understanding of this universe, the border with Krellonian space has always been a hot spot. If things went badly with the mission, the away team, as well as Agamemnon could be in trouble.”

Jarik spoke up before Edison could. “That would be a shame, but remember that I cautioned against sending that away team. Any fallout will be on your head.”

But Michael kept his eyes on the other captain instead. “Are you really willing to risk Amaya over this as well? See, I’m not going to back down here, I guarantee you that. I think Jarik is wrong and I will stand by my decisions and convictions.” It was a calculated risk, Michael knew, to show his cards early, but differently to what Jarik seemed to think, he was not averse to taking risks, as long as they were justified.

“Gene, please,” Nora almost pleased. “Let’s do the right thing here. I don’t want this to escalate any further than it already has. I don’t want to have to fight you.”

Michael didn’t know if it had been him or Nora who had ultimately gotten through to Gene Edison, and in truth, it didn’t matter. The other man nodded. “I’m calling this off, at least for now,” he said, looking at Jarik.

“What? No.”

“I am not getting dragged into a battle here if Amaya may need our help out there,” he said and headed towards the edge of the sphere that would take him back to the Ring, Michael and Nora letting him pass. He stopped just before he had reached Alendra and turned around. “This conversation isn’t over, merely delayed. For now though, priorities have shifted.”

Michael nodded, agreeing to that compromise and suppressing the urge to utter a sigh of relief of just having avoided a painful conflict. “Let’s head out,” he said and then shot Jarik another glance. “You can stay here for all I care but you’re not coming back on my ship,” he said and then briefly glanced at the case Jarik still carried which contained the Prism, considering for just a moment to try and make a play for it. He decided against it. It was too powerful to keep it in the care of a man who had proven dangerous and unreliable, but he also had just narrowly avoided one crisis, no point in trying to force another one, he decided.

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