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The blow had come so fast and he had been caught so entirely unawares, Michael Owens had crumbled unceremoniously to the deck.

Star jumped forward immediately but was forced to stop in her tracks when she was greeted with half a dozen phaser rifles pointed at her face. Realizing that fighting wasn’t an option, she turned towards Michael instead. “Are you all right?” she said as she knelt next to him.

In truth, Michael could not remember the last time he had been sucker-punched like that. It was not a common occupational habit as a starship captain, and the pain in his jaw was considerable, as were the stars swirling around his mind. He truly felt like he had stepped into a mirror universe, considering the exact opposite way in which the previous Amaya Donners had greeted him.

Determined not to reveal any more weakness in front of her, he confidently reached out for Star’s proffered hand and allowed her to pull him back onto his feet. “One hell of a right hook you’ve got there,” he said, giving Amaya an admiring look.

She smirked with obvious self-satisfaction. “I don’t know if I buy that fantastically ridiculous story of yours yet but that felt damned good, no matter where you’re from.”

Michael couldn’t help but rub his bruised jar. “Now that we have gotten that out of the way, perhaps we could try and have that conversation. Preferably with less punching.”

“We’ll see how it goes.”

Amaya led him and Star out of the transporter room and into the ship’s corridors with the heavy security escort following behind them. The rest of Agamemnon, Michael quickly realized, looked much like the transporter room had, like a ship that had been in one too many battles and had seen far too little maintenance in between. Compared to what he had seen on his previous visits to the ship, the crew complement felt thin, considering the small number of crewmembers they passed on their way to the turbolift, and almost none of the people he saw wore sciences blue.

Amaya led them to the observation lounge where two of the security officers took position outside and the rest joined them inside, guarding the two doors.

Apparently, Amaya had decided to host him and Star alone and none of her senior officers attended the meeting. Michael knew that in his universe, Amaya had several highly reliable people around her whom she trusted implicitly, he wondered if this was not the case here.

She took the seat at the head of the large conference table and Michael and Star took chairs where she indicated for them to sit, further down the table.

“So, let’s talk. You start. I’m dying to hear how you’re going to convince me that you’re not a complete and utter dirtbag,” she said.

Michael and Star exchanged a quick look before he began to tell her almost everything that had happened over the last few days. He left out a few details, including his strained relationship with her counterpart back in his universe, as well the finer details about Bensu and the Prism. But he laid out exactly how they had come across the Ring, how they believed it had been constructed by subspace aliens, how they had potential plans of invading regular space, how they had landed in another universe, and ultimately how it had been destroyed before ending up here.

Amaya listened to every word carefully and when it was over, she leaned back in her chair, letting out a long breath. “That is quite a story.”

“Tazla Star, a different version of her,” Michael said, glancing briefly at his first officer. “Boarded Eagle shortly after we arrived here and abducted two members of my crew, including my father. We have to get them back before we can attempt to return to our space and hopefully prevent the Ring from destroying another universe. But we’ll need help. We know next to nothing about this place.”

The captain of the Agamemnon considered him briefly before glancing towards Star and then letting her eyes wander back to him. “You know, there is only one reason I’ve even entertained the notion that you might be from another universe,” she said. “The Michael Owens I know would have killed Tazla Star on sight. The fact that the two of you are working together means you’re most definitely not from around here.”

“What happened?” Star asked.

“You, or rather the other you, killed his brother. And Matthew was a good man. A bit bookish and idealistic perhaps but a decent man.”

Michael wasn’t sure how he felt about that. When he glanced at Star at his side, he could tell how awkward she felt about this revelation and Michael gave her a reassuring nod, letting her know that he didn’t believe that she’d be capable of doing something like that. At least, he hoped, not anymore.

“Perhaps you could give us the lay of the land,” Michael said to Amaya, eager to move on. “As I said, our reality is very different from this one. We understand that there are at least two factions within Starfleet. The Guardians and the Preservers, you called them?”

“I don’t know where you’ve come from but if you don’t know about the Schism, I envy you and your universe. We’ve got the Borg to thank for it all. They changed everything.”

Star nodded. “We’ve had our run-ins with the Borg. They were always painful and we paid dearly on each occasion we had to face them but nothing on a scale that would have changed the fabric of our society altogether.”

“Consider yourself lucky then. It all started eleven years ago when the Enterprise somehow encountered the Borg in the Delta Quadrant. When she came back, she and her crew had been assimilated and become a vanguard to an all-out invasion. We fought back, hell most of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants joined together to oppose the Borg. It took us years but eventually, we drove them back. The thing is, after the Borg where gone, there was not much left. Those damned cyborgs wiped out entire worlds and the vast majority of the Alliance fleet.”

“But you rebuilt,” Star said.

“We certainly tried to. But in our weakened state, we were easy prey for opportunists. The Nyberrite Alliance, which had managed to somehow escape the path of destruction the Borg had brought came swooping in. Some saw their overtures as those of good Samaritans, they certainly positioned themselves that way at first, trying to help us rebuild our planets, treating or sick and injured and offering us resources and trade. Others realized their true intentions right away, how they were not much different to the Borg had been, except that they made assimilation a choice nearly impossible to refuse. Soon enough all former major powers had joined their cause, what remained of the Klingon Empire, the Romulans and the Cardassians joined with the Nyberrites to create a new alliance, controlled solely by the Nyberrites themselves.”

Michael was almost afraid to ask the question burning in his mind. “And the Federation?”

“Say about the Nyberrites what you will, but they are damned clever. They took over our formerly great Federation piece-by-piece, not by combat or outright violence, but by convincing former Federation members to join their alliance instead. By the time we even realized what they were up to, it was too late. Most of the few remaining core worlds decided to try and appease the Nyberrites by bending to their wishes and accepting their prohibitively expansive trade agreements designed to undermine and bankrupt us from within,” she said and Michael could sense the anger and frustration in her tone, the subject evoking a number of unpleasant emotions within her. “But a few of us decided that enough was enough and we banded together to try and oppose their insidious ways and fight to restore the Federation to what it had once been. But instead of fighting the Nyberrites, we’ve been fighting each other for almost two years now. The struggle has become an outright civil war between those who are looking to preserve the Federation the way it once was and those who are supposedly guarding what they have left.”

“Preservers and Guardians,” Star said.

Amaya nodded. “If I ever find whoever came up with those preposterous terms, I’ll strangle their neck.”

“So I take it that my counterpart is with the Guardians. What about this universe’s Tazla Star?” Michael said.

“She’s a wild card, I think. Officially she was with the Guardians as well but something happened about a year ago. Matthew Owens and a few others were constructing a secret device for us that promised to end this senseless struggle. You--or rather your counterpart--and a small fleet of Guardians were dispatched to find and I suppose secure the device for Guardians. In the process of that mission Star killed Matthew and Michael swore revenge. It’s the last time I’ve seen her and most thought her dead. Michael was convinced that she was alive and has been on a personal quest to destroy her by any means necessary. From what you’re saying, I guess he was right to believe that she’s still alive.”

Michael needed a moment to take all of this in. Not only had they traveled to another universe, but they had also, seemingly managed to get themselves right into the middle of a highly charged political, not to mention personal, quagmire involving their very counterparts.

“Here is something I don’t understand,” said Amaya as she leaned forward. “Why would Star expose herself like that now just to abduct a couple of people from another universe, one of whom is dead here?”

Michael could tell that Amaya, regardless of what universe she was from, was far from stupid and she understood that more was at play than what he had told her. He was not willing to reveal the existence of the Prism just yet and it was in fact something else that caught his attention. “My father--Jon Owens--he’s dead in this universe?”

She nodded and then apparently noticed Tazla Star’s concerned expression and offered her a little smile. “Don’t worry, as far as I know, your counterpart was not responsible for that one. Not that I wouldn’t put it past her.” When she locked eyes with Michael again, he knew that she would not let her question slip without a satisfactory answer.

“The Star in this universe must have somehow learned about the Ring and its ability to travel into other universes. The two people she took may be instrumental in making that possible,” he said.

Amaya Donners leaned back in her chair again. “And Star is not working alone. I’m not sure if her allegiance is still with the Guardians, with the Nyberrites or some other group, but the idea that they could have access to other universes is damned scary and could change everything.”

“That’s why we must find a way to get our people back,” said Star. “We believe them to be operating somewhere within the sector. Maybe out of Arkaria.”

Amaya nodded. “That makes sense. There has been heightened Guardian activity in that sector lately which considering its remote location is unusual. It’s why I’m out here in the first place, trying to gather intel on their plans.”

Michael turned towards his first officer. “Then Arkaria remains our best option to try and find your counterpart and our people,” he said and then glanced back towards Amaya. “Will you help us?”

She considered that for a moment. “I don’t like Star--my version of her--and I’m fairly certain her masters are even worse. But there is no way I can assist you getting into Arkaria. Not until we get some reinforcements out here and even then it won't be easy, we may have the Guardians outnumbered but they have the more powerful ships and superior technology.”

“How long until your reinforcements arrive?” he asked.

“Hard to say. This isn’t exactly a priority for Command right now. They are trying to win the struggle at home where the fight isn’t going well. They don’t worry too much about what’s going on all the way out here. It could be a day, it could be a few weeks.”

Michael shook his head. “We can’t afford to wait that long.”

“Well,” she said, with a small, mischievous twinkle in her eye. “You might find another way to slip into Arkaria without raising too much suspicion. After all, you and your ship fit right into that party.”

Michael did not like the sound of that at all.

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