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“It wasn’t me.”

“Well, she looked exactly like you.”

Tazla Star glared at Nora Laas and for a moment Michael was reminded of the rather unbecoming feud the two women had been engaged in for the first few months after the Trill had come aboard. He knew he hadn’t helped matter by keeping his new first officer on a short leash in the beginning while at the same time doing little to discourage the Bajoran security officer. He wasn’t proud of how he had handled that entire episode but he was fairly certain that those days were behind them now.

“The commander has about ten witnesses, including me, who can place her firmly on the bridge during that time,” said Michael, first considering Nora and then the other senior officers, as well as Garla, who had all assembled in the observation lounge. “There is no way she could have slipped unnoticed to get down to the science lab.”

“Considering our situation, we have to allow for the possibility that Lieutenant Deen and Nora did encounter Tazla Star.”

Michael had a feeling where Xylion was going with this and he didn’t like the sound of it at all.

“Wait,” said Deen. “You’re saying she was her counterpart? From this universe?”

“That is a valid hypothesis given the evidence.”

Nora shook her head. “I find that hard to believe. We’ve been here for less than four hours. How could she have tracked us down so quickly?”

“Maybe she didn’t,” said Star. “Maybe she was expecting us.”

Michael felt like they were jumping the gun. “Let’s focus on what we know so far,” he said and considered the science officer. “What do we know for certain?”

“We can say with a high degree of confidence that the Prism artifact which Admiral Owens and Jarik brought onboard, transported us on two occasions to two different quantum-universes, most likely with the assistance of a ring-shaped superstructure located in subspace and possibly constructed by a race of subspace-dwelling beings.”

Michael nodded to let him continue.

“We have further apparently witnessed the destruction of an entire quantum-universe by the same superstructure.”

“How is that even possible?” said Star.

“Well, theoretically, the universe--or a universe--could be destroyed by recreating the Big Bang and restarting cosmic inflation,” said Louise Hopkins. “But the amount of energy required for this would be beyond astronomical.”

“Ten to the power of nineteen electron volts,” said Xylion.

“To create that much power one would need…” Deen stopped herself suddenly.

“You would need what?” Star asked.

Deen, Hopkins, and Xylion were just looking at each other as if telepathically communing their impromptu findings.

“A massive particle collider accelerating the most powerful molecule known to exist,” said Garla.

Deen shook her head. “But there’s no particle that powerful.”

“Isn’t there?” the Krellonian said.

“We have already learned that the Ring structure was powered by an immensely powerful element unknown to us,” said Xylion. “We also know that the creation of a universe would have, theoretically required such a particle. It, therefore, stands to reason that the Ring structure is, in fact, a massive particle collider using that same molecule in order to create cosmic inflation from subspace to destabilize universes.”

Michael’s head was beginning to spin. Not because of the science starting to go over his head, but because of the implications being pondered here. He already knew that the particle in question, the Omega molecule, had been theorized to have been the driving force behind the creation of the universe and was therefore powerful enough to destroy one given the right circumstances. It was one of the key reasons why Starfleet had classified any knowledge on the subject to the highest level.

“What if this isn’t about an invasion at all?” said Star, aiming him a concerned look. “Maybe this is about destroying universes.”

“To what end?” Michael said and then looked at Xylion. “Wouldn’t subspace be affected by the destruction of universes as well?”

“Subspace forms the branes or layers which separate quantum universes. If universes were destroyed, the branes would no longer be required. However, since we are discussing highly theoretical concepts, it is difficult to predict this with certainty.”

“Not to mention that there are countless quantum universes,” said Deen.

Michael rubbed his forehead. “All right, there is no doubt we need to find a way to stop the Ring from doing any more damage. At the same time, we need to get my father and Jarik back, as well as the Prism. There’s no telling what this other Star could do with that kind of power.”

“I hate to add to our growing list of problems,” said the first officer. “But our most immediate issue is with Sentinel Culsten. If he was irritated before, he is downright furious after the EMP assault which affected his ships as well. He knows it didn’t come from us but he will have already learned that the EMP signature was Starfleet.”

“Our systems are mostly restored but we won’t be going anywhere while surrounded by Krellonian ships,” said Leva.

Michael considered that for a moment as he slowly regarded his officers until his eyes came to rest first on Culsten and then at Garla sitting next to him. “I think we have to start playing the cards that we have. Perhaps it is time for Sentinel Culsten to meet a familiar face.”

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