Deen’s proposed plan had worked flawlessly.
Once Garla and Culsten had beamed over to the Krellonian lead ship, the small fleet which had surrounded Eagle almost ever since she had arrived in this universe had backed off slightly, and showing no more interest in the reality-misplaced starship, Eagle was free to maneuver away and towards the coordinates of the threshold.
Even before reaching it, Xylion, along with Hopkins, Nora, and Bensu who had recovered sufficiently to join the away team, as well as two Niners for security, had boarded the Nebuchadrezzar which had slipped out from the main shuttle bay and flown in such tight formation with her mothership, that as far as sensors were concerned, the two had been indistinguishable.
Once the two vessels had reached the threshold location, the runabout had peeled off slightly to head right towards it, while Eagle had initiated a brief warp flare to momentarily hide both ships from sensors and what to anyone monitoring from afar would have looked like nothing more than an engine test.
Owens and the rest of the bridge crew watched on with satisfaction as the runabout disappeared as it slipped into the threshold exactly where expected.
Moments later a low-yield subspace burst originating from in-between space signaled to Eagle that the away team had successfully made the transition and Eagle went to warp, following a faint Starfleet warp signature which ostensibly belonged to the ship the alternate Star had used after adducting Jon Owens and Jarik.
It didn’t take them very far.
“I’ve lost it,” Deen said, unable to hide her frustration. “The warp trail has deteriorated beyond the ability of our sensors to detect it.”
“Is there any way to extrapolate the ship’s course?” Star asked.
But Deen was shaking her head. “Whoever piloted that vessel knew how to throw off pursuers. The trail itself was already erratic so as to give no indication of their final destination,” she said and turned her chair around to face her superior officers. “They could have gone anywhere from here.”
Michael noticed Star’s concerned frown that seemed to have been caused by more than just losing track of their prey. “What are you thinking?”
She turned to look at him. “The other me,” she said. “It just feels like she follows the same playbook I used to once upon a time. And if she is as I once was, or rather, what I could have been if I had continued that life…”
She didn’t continue her thought but Michael got the gist. She’d be extremely dangerous. Considering that she had already accomplished boarding them practically unseen and abducting two crewmembers and stealing a powerful artifact, Michael needed a few reminders of her abilities.
“But this also means that you might be able to foresee her next move,” he said. “If you were in her shoes, what would you do? Where would you go?”
She briefly pondered that question. “It’s difficult to say since we know next to nothing about this universe. But considering the methods she used, the EMP attack, and the ease with which she fooled us after boarding the ship, the entire operation felt very much planned. If that is the case, she’d be heading back to her base of operations to deliver her cargo.”
“So you don’t think she’s working for herself?” he asked.
She shook her head. “If she lived my life or anything like it, I don’t think she would. I was always ambitious but mostly I used my talents in the service of other people’s agenda.”
Michael could tell that it pained her to speak of her previous life, one she so desperately wanted to keep in the past. He stood from the command chair and took a few steps towards the front of the bridge and closer to Deen and Eagle’s current pilot, Srena. “All right, let’s say she’s taking our people and the artifact back to her masters. I can’t imagine they’d be going all the way back to Earth. That’s a long trip without a warp sled. What would be a likely destination for her?”
“The largest Federation installation in the sector, at least in our universe, is Starbase 123,” said Deen.
Michael turned to look towards Leva standing at the horseshoe-shaped tactical console. “According to long-range sensors, there is no sign of a starbase at those coordinates.”
“From what Sentinel Culsten told us, Starfleet is a very different organization in this universe. Possibly involved in some sort of internal conflict and with much more limited resources than what we have at our disposal. It’s possible that 123 was never constructed here, scuttled or otherwise lost,” said Michael.
“It also means we should probably keep our distance from this universe’s Starfleet as much as possible,” said Deen.
“Agreed,” Michael said. “But we still need to find our people and the Prism.”
Star stood from her chair. “I don’t think my counterpart would be headed to a major Starfleet installation in any case. She most likely works in the shadows and prefers to keep a low profile.”
“She could be headed for Arkaria,” said Leva as he worked his console again. “In our universe, it is the closest Federation system from our location and long-range scans confirm it is inhabited here as well.”
Star gave Michael a nod. “I think it makes sense to start our search there.”
“Very well. Ensign, set a course, and engage at warp eight.”
“Aye, sir. Setting course and engaging.”
On the large forward mounted screen, the colorful and star-packed vista of the Amargosa Diaspora shifted as the ship changed heading, and moments later countless dots of stars turned into streaks as Eagle jumped to FTL speeds.
Michael considered Leva again. “What do sensors tell us about a Starfleet presence in Arkaria?”
“I can’t get a detailed high-resolution scan due to the interference from the Diaspora but I definitely detect Starfleet signatures in the system,” the tactical officer said.
“Which means we need to be careful about our approach. Keep an eye on sensors and try to find a way to get us into the system without drawing too much attention to ourselves.”
“It might be too late for that.”
Michael turned back towards Deen at operations. “What is it?”
“I just detected three Starfleet ships on an intercept course, closing in fast. We didn’t detect them sooner due to the interference but they’ve definitely spotted us,” she said as her fingers danced over her console.
“Just what we tried to avoid,” said Star as she returned to her seat.
“We could attempt to outrun them,” said Deen. “We might be able to get to Arkaria before they reach us if we increase speed to warp nine point four.”
Michael shook his head as he followed Star’s example to get back to his chair. “We’d invite too much suspicion that way and would have to deal with ships in front and behind us.”
“You want to try and bluff your way through this?” Star said after he had joined her in his chair next to hers.
Michael tugged down on his uniform jacket. “Worth a shot. Ensign, maintain our course and speed. Let’s carry on as if nothing were the matter. What’s their time to intercept?”
Deen answered. “The three ships are currently at warp eight point five. Four hours until intercept.”
Star leaned over the side of her chair and towards the captain. “If this Starfleet is involved in an internal struggle, it’s possible that those ships are not friendlies.”
Michael nodded grimly. “I had considered that.”
“We may have a problem here,” said Deen, grimacing noticeably.
Michael straightened in his chair to brace for more bad news.
“All three ships just significantly increased speed. Now exceeding warp nine point five.”
“At that speed, they will reach us in just under one hour,” said Leva from tactical.
Tazla shook her head slightly. “That is not a good sign.”
“No, it’s not,” Michael said.
“I’ve been attempting to identify the three ships,” the tactical officer continued. “I’m still working on the two trailing vessels but I have a positive on the lead ship. It’s the Agamemnon, sir.”
That caused Michael to get out of his chair again and face the half-Romulan standing behind him, unable to keep the surprised look off his face. “Are you sure?”
“The transponder code doesn’t exactly match that of her counterpart in our universe, but her warp signature and hull configuration are a close match.”
Michael turned back towards the viewscreen as he momentarily pondered their options before coming to a decision. “Ensign, bring us about, and head towards the Agamemnon. Maintain speed.”
The young Andorian glanced at him briefly, perhaps to double-check that she had heard that right. Then she bopped her white-haired head. “Aye, sir. Changing course.”
“Contact in fifteen minutes,” Deen said and turned to look at him as well. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” she added sotto voce.
Michael returned to his chair once more.
“I suppose I do not have to remind you that Donners may not be her captain in this universe or that, even if she is, she might be a very different person from the ones you know,” Star said.
“It’s a roll of the dice, Commander.”
The next few minutes on the bridge were spent in mostly anxious silence as Eagle and Agamemnon, as well as her escort, were racing towards each other. Michael didn’t need to be told that from a tactical standpoint they were at a clear disadvantage if it came to hostilities. Eagle had suffered some damage during their latest quantum-transition, nowhere near as much as the time before that, and much of it was already repaired, but that didn’t change the fact that his ship wasn’t at one hundred percent.
But he had to believe that Amaya, no matter what universe they were in, wouldn’t force a violent confrontation. It simply wasn’t in her nature. Of course, he couldn’t help and wonder how much of that was simply wishful thinking and colored by meeting the now-vanished Amaya who had married his counterpart before he had been tragically killed.
“All three ships have raised their shields,” Leva said after they were just moments away.
“Now that is definitely a bad sign,” Star said, and Michael could feel her insistent look resting on him. When he didn’t answer, she continued. “We have to assume that if there are different sides in Starfleet here, we’re not on theirs.”
“We’re not on anybody’s side,” Michael said.
“I don’t think they know that,” she said.
He nodded and understood that this needed to be rectified. “Mister Leva, hail the Agamemnon.”
When he didn’t hear an immediate response, he turned around to see the tactical officer shaking his head.
“They are ignoring us.”
“What is their tactical status?” asked Star.
“All three ships are running with shields fully energized. Weapons, too, are powered up,” he said after checking his board.
The Trill first officer moved closer to the captain. “They’re coming in fast and hot and they’re in no mood to talk,” she said, keeping her voice low. “Their intentions seem pretty obvious.”
Michael kept his eyes on the screen, which had since shifted to show the three rapidly approaching ships, flying in a tight echelon formation. Judging purely from a visual perspective it was difficult to tell that these vessels were in any way different to the Starfleet ships he knew. The lead ship was clearly the catamaran-like Agamemnon with two smaller frigates stacked to her right.
It took him a few moments to realize that the hulls of those ships weren’t gleaming quite as meticulously as he would have expected from the famously well-crafted and maintained Starfleet ships, particularly under the stark glare of the combined star-power of the Amargosa Diaspora.
The reason for this became obvious just a moment later when he noticed the many patchwork repairs these ships seemed to have undergone, as well as what looked like temporary fixes to many of their major components.
“Try hailing the Agamemnon again,” Michael said as he positioned himself at the center of the bridge.
“Still no response,” Leva said. “The ships will be in weapon’s range in three minutes.”
Deen swiveled her chair towards him. “They are clearly on a warpath, Michael. I suggest we raise our shields.”
But he shook his head. “The moment we do that, we make it clear that we expect a fight.”
“Michael, this isn’t Amaya, you know that.”
He looked right into her sparkling purple eyes. She was right, of course, and as much as he wanted to believe otherwise, all evidence was pointing to the contrary.
“One minute to weapon’s range,” the tactical officer said.
Michael nodded slowly. “Activate the transphasic shielding and begin deceleration.”
Leva and Srena quickly acknowledged their new orders.
Standing fast in the middle of the bridge, Michael kept his eyes focused on the Agamemnon as she raced towards them with unveiled designs as if perhaps he could somehow, wordlessly impart on her captain the better angels of her nature.
It didn’t work.
“They are opening fire,” Leva said once they had come into range.
Not a moment later the ship trembled under Michael’s boots as the three vessel’s phaser blasts impacted against Eagle’s shields. He had never enjoyed the sensation of being fired upon, but the difference their new reinforced shielding did was noticeable.
“We will not be able to maintain warp speed while the transphasic shields are active,” Leva said.
Michael nodded. “Drop to impulse.”
Srena nodded and had Eagle back to sub-light speed within seconds.
“The Agamemnon and the other two ships have also dropped out of warp and are coming around for another pass,” the tactical officer said.
Michael could see it on the viewscreen, all three ships bearing down on them yet again, this time in a wedge formation with Agamemnon in the lead. And this time they didn’t limit themselves to phasers, throwing in half a dozen photon torpedoes into the mix for good measure.
This assault was more jarring, forcing Michael to briefly fight for balance in order to stay on his feet.
“Shields holding at eighty-nine percent,” Leva said. “However, I don’t recommend we play the bull’s-eye for much longer. We should return fire.”
It was obvious that it went against every instinct of his being to simply sit by idly and be fired upon without offering any resistance. Michael didn’t blame him. “Try hailing them again.”
The response they received was not the one he had been looking for. More phaser strikes and torpedoes smashed into their shields.
“Sir,” Leva said. “They are clearly not interested in talking.”
Michael just raised a hand to let him know to be patient just a little while longer. He understood their new shields wouldn’t last forever but they did give them an opportunity they otherwise may not have had. “Open a channel.”
“Channel open,” he said, doing a decent job to hide his frustration at his captain’s chosen tactic.
“This is Captain Michael Owens of the USS Eagle to the ships currently firing on us. I have no quarrel with you and do not wish to engage you in combat. I just want to talk. If you still believe that there is reason to fight afterward, I promise you, there’ll be plenty of opportunity for that.”
He let that sink in for a few seconds before he turned to look at Leva by his tactical board. He quickly muted the connection and then shook his head. “They can receive us. They just choose not to respond,” he said, just as he had to hold on to his console as the attacking vessels unleashed yet another barrage. “Shields at eighty-five percent.”
Michael indicated towards his console. “Put me back on.”
He followed the order, but Michael was sure he could see him suppress a sigh while doing so. He also didn’t miss the increasingly skeptical look in Tazla Star’s eyes who so far had chosen to remain silent.
Leva nodded to let him know the channel was back open and Michael turned back towards the screen just in time to see the three ships begin yet another run. “Amaya, if you can hear me, please listen to me. Whatever you think is happening here, I guarantee you that things are not as they appear. Just give me a chance to explain. One chance is all I ask for.”
Those ships continued to bear down on them at rapid sub-light speed, ready to unleash more deadly firepower. But this time, instead of firing, all three vessels simply sailed passed Eagle. The viewer quickly readjusted to show the trio of ships come about and then fan out while facing Eagle.
“I cannot imagine a single thing you could say to me that would change my mind about wanting to wipe you off the face of the galaxy,” said Amaya Donners as she appeared on the viewscreen, sitting in the captain’s chair at the center of her bridge.
She looked slightly older than the Amaya of his reality, or even the last version of her he had encountered. Her expression much harder and angrier than he ever remembered seeing on her face before. Her hair was severely short and her eyes lacked the compassion and joy he had always admired in her. And yet, she was undeniably Amaya Donners in every other way.
It took him a few seconds to take in the stark differences.
“What? You were so desperate to talk just a moment ago? Cat got your tongue?”
“Maya, I am not your enemy.”
At that, she laughed out loud, but without any warmth at all. “Since when? Don’t tell me you’ve decided to defect. You know, it wouldn’t even surprise me if you did.” Her face hardened further. “But it’s too late. I’d rather blast you out of the stars for what you’ve done rather than allow you to join my side.”
“What I mean to say is that I am not the Michael Owens you think I am.”
She considered him skeptically. “What kind of game are you playing? I am not falling for it.”
“This ship, me and everyone else on board, none of us belong in this universe. If there is another Michael Owens here, another Eagle, we are not them. We were transported to this universe by mistake.” He continued when she began to frown. “Look at me. Really look at me. Do I look like your Michael Owens?”
And she did. “Uniforms are different and granted your ship doesn’t exactly match the records we have on file. And God knows what’s up with those fortified shields of yours,” she said and shook her head. “But all that could be a trick. Some sort of new technology by the Guardians or an attempt to try and get the Preservers to lower our guard.”
Star had stood from her chair and joined Michael to address the other woman. “Sir, before today, none of us had ever even heard of the Guardians and the Preservers. At least not in the context you are using those terms.”
Michael could see Amaya’s eyes grow wide. “Star?”
She nodded. “Commander Tazla Star,” she said. “First officer of the USS Eagle. This Eagle. I take it that’s not the case in this universe.”
“This is insane,” Amaya said.
“It’s been that kind of week, yes,” Michael said.
Amaya seemed to consider matters for a moment without taking her eyes off him and Star. “All right, I want to hear that story and it better be a good one. You’ll beam over onto Agamemnon in five minutes.”
Star shook her head. “I don’t think I like that idea. A moment ago you wanted to blast us out of the stars, as you so delicately put it.”
“And I still might. Beam over, just the two of you, and convince me I shouldn’t or I’ll start firing again. Coordinates are on the way,” she said and then gestured for a crewmember to cut the transmission.
As soon as she was gone Michael headed for the turbolift.
“Sir, do I really have to spell out what an incredibly terrible idea this might turn out to be?” Star said after him, causing him to stop and turn to face her. “She’ll have us both and her animosity towards you is clear as crystal.”
Leva nodded quickly. “I agree. This is not a wise tactical move, sir.”
“I don’t like this one bit, Michael. I know we keep repeating this, but that woman over there is not the Amaya Donners we know. She doesn’t even seem anything like the one we met in the other universe,” said Deen.
He glanced at his officers, one after the other, before he spoke. “I take all your points. I understand that this isn’t the most cautious approach, hell, it might not even be prudent, but the fact remains that we are in a universe we know nothing about with two of our own kidnapped by unknown forces. If we want any chance of getting them back, not to mention the one device that can take us home, and possibly prevent the destruction of another reality, we have to find allies.”
“And you truly believe this Amaya Donners could be one?” Star said, sounding entirely unconvinced.
“I’m willing to take that chance.”
“I think your judgment is clouded by the fact that she has her face,” Deen said.
It was not unusual for DeMara to speak her mind to him, but usually not quite that openly and not in front of the rest of the crew. He scowled at her for the comment but she seemed unperturbed.
“My mind is made up on the matter. I will beam over to the Agamemnon,” he said and then glanced at Star. “I’m not ordering you to come along but I’d rather you did since she is expecting the both of us.”
She didn’t hesitate and nodded quickly. “Of course.”
He looked towards Leva next. “Commander, you have the bridge. Should anything happen to us while we are gone, you are to continue the mission at whatever cost. Find a way to retrieve our people and the Prism, return home and stop the Ring.”
Leva nodded as well, but unable to entirely hide his displeasure by his captain’s decision. It was, after all, a tall order for any person.
A few minutes later Michael and Star found themselves in the transporter room. Star made an argument to take phasers, even if just the tiny, type-I variety that could be easily hidden within the uniform but Michael vetoed the idea, arguing that they would likely detect them during transport and disable them.
They both stepped up on the platform and he gave the order to energize.
They rematerialized in a transporter room which looked fairly similar to the transporter rooms of the other Agamemnon he had visited recently, although, just like she had appeared much less pristine from the outside, the inside as well looked much more tired, dirty even and in desperate need of a few new bulkheads and consoles.
Maya Donners was waiting for them along with an entire row of armed security officers, all of which were carrying rifles as if they were getting ready to receive dangerously violent criminals.
As she had alluded to earlier, Amaya and her crew wore different types of uniforms consisting of black jumpsuits with colored shoulders and a mock turtleneck underneath, a style the Starfleet in his universe had retired about three years earlier. Judging by the patchy look of their outfits that was apparently also roughly the last time they had replicated new ones.
“Permission to come aboard,” Michael said and stepped off the transporter platform, followed by Star.
Amaya, who didn’t carry a rifle but did have a phaser holstered at her hip, took a moment to look him up and down. “Michael Timothy Owens as I live and breathe,” she took a small step towards him and then, entirely unexpectedly, brought up her balled fist and hit him in the chin with such force, he went down like a sack of maaza stalks.