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“We don’t have to be enemies, Captain,” the Deltan said, wearing what could only be described as one of the most amiable smiles Michael had ever seen, one that nearly made him forget that he was surrounded by a dozen or so men who had their rifles pointed at him and his team. Instead of a uniform, he wore an elegant and smartly tailored two-piece suit that matched the dark blue of his intense eyes.

“That is an interesting thing for you to say,” he responded, keeping his phaser raised even in the face of the overwhelming opposition they were up against. “Considering that you had my ship boarded and abducted two of my people,” he said and then looked around, trying to find the doppelganger Tazla Star who according to reports had been the front person in the raid on Eagle. But the Trill woman was not among those surrounding them now.

“Michael, listen to him. He is right. Altee is after the same things we are and together we’ll be able to help each other,” Jarik said while he remained next to the Deltan.

Michael shot the man he had once called a friend a poisonous glare. “You set us up. After all the things you’ve done, I don’t even know why I should be surprised. What exactly is he offering you?”
Jarik shook his head. “I just listened to what he had to say and it made a great amount of sense. You should too. We need allies if we want to try and get back to our universe.”

“We may have been able to get back just fine,” said Leva, “if they hadn’t taken the artifact and Admiral Owens.”

“From what I’ve been told, you had a very close run-in with the Krellonians. And let me tell you, the Star Alliance in this universe is far more powerful and dangerous than what you are used to,” Altee said.

“Your little stunt didn’t exactly help matters,” Michael said and then exchanged a brief glance with Sensabaugh who, along with his two operatives, still had his weapon up as well. His body was visibly tense and ready for action but the look in his eye seemed to make clear that he was not overly optimistic that a forced confrontation now could be turned into an advantage.

Michael didn’t have the tactical chops of the Niners team leader or even those of So’Dan Leva, but then he didn’t need to be a military genius to figure out that being surrounded by a dozen or so armed men, deep inside a hostile base, meant that the deck was decisively stacked against them. It didn’t help that his father by his side, who was coughing intermittently, was still weak from his affliction, was in fact barely able to stand on his own and would not only be useless in a fight but also likely be its first casualty.

Altee seemed to know exactly what Michael was thinking and took a few small steps forward, immediately causing Sensy to track him with his rifle. But the Deltan made no aggressive movements whatsoever, even raised his hands slightly to demonstrate his peaceful intentions.

Of course, his security detachment made no such overtures. “Listen, I think it is clear that we are at a bit of an impasse here. Sure, we could start shooting at each other, and you might even be able to take out a few of us, but ultimately, I’m afraid to say, you wouldn’t get far,” he said and indicated towards his ailing father. “The admiral will be among the first to go down and in his condition, that might even be fatal. So then why not put down your weapons and talk. I’ll make sure that your father gets the medical care he needs. After all, that’s what we were doing for him before you decided to liberate him from the infirmary. Let us find a way to work together to get you back home.”

“Michael,” his father whispered beside him. “You cannot trust him.”

He didn’t need to be told this. Although Altee was doing an immensely great job at the attempt, he was certain that the man had another agenda. None of this changed the fact that he didn’t really have another option. “All right, so what do you propose?” he said, but kept his phaser up for now.

Altee nodded. “We both know the Ring structure is dangerous. Far too dangerous to be left alone and unguarded, particularly with the Krellonians in the area who are likely already curious about it after your sudden arrival. And there are other powers in this universe who would go to any lengths to secure it for themselves.”

“You want to take control of it instead, is that it?”
“Captain, whatever you may think of me and this universe, I’m still a Starfleet officer. I like to believe that that counts for something. I want what you want. I want this universe to be safe and free of the strife and war that has ravaged it for so long. I believe you can help me do that and I, in turn, can help you get back home.”

The words all sounded right, as did the tone in his voice but Michael couldn’t ignore the nagging notion that the situation was still all kinds of wrong.

“Here’s what I’m offering,” Altee continued. “You and your officer may consider yourselves our guests for the time being, not prisoners. You’ll be allowed to move freely as is Jarik here until we have discussed how we can best help each other.”

“What about the rest of my team?”

“I understand your operatives are quite resourceful. So at least for now, I will have to insist that we keep them detained. But only until we have concluded our discussions and then you are all free to go. Your father, of course, will continue to receive medical care.”

“Think it through, Michael. It’s a much better deal than to start shooting at each other,” Jarik said.

He could see his father slowly shaking his head beside him but it was his concern for his well-being that ultimately made him choose his course of action. He nodded and lowered his weapon, and a moment later so did the rest of the away team.

“Thank you, Captain. I’ll make sure you don’t regret the trust you’ve shown me today. I suspect the two of us have much to talk about,” he said but before he could continue, an assistant--who had apparently been waiting out the stand-off between Michael and Altee’s men--quickly approached the Deltan and began to whisper something in his ear.

Whatever the news, it was clearly not positive, since Michael could see Altee’s visage slipping slightly for the first time, his carefully maintained smile and affable demeanor briefly replaced by a frown wrinkling his perfectly smooth forehead.

He exchanged a glance with the messenger and for just a heartbeat his eyes looked cold as stone. To his credit, he caught himself again quickly and the glower disappeared once more as he offered the young man a nod instead.

Then he glanced back towards Michael. “I apologize, Captain, but some urgent business has come up that will require my attention. But I am a man of my word. While we’ll have to confiscate your weapons and equipment for the time being--for safety reasons--I’d like you to consider yourself my honored guest. My men will show you to temporary quarters and I’m looking forward to speaking to you just as soon as circumstances allow,” he said and then indicated to his men who quickly moved in on the surrounded away team, not just taking weapons and tricorders, but also removing their combadges.

Michael offered no resistance and made sure the rest of his team fell in line as well. For now, he had made his choice, for better or worse.

His father, at his side, was trying to speak up but his words were lost in a coughing fit and Michael had to steady him to keep him upright once it looked as if he was about to lose his balance.

Altee looked concerned. “Removing Jon from the infirmary wasn’t a very good idea, I’m afraid. He is gravely ill and needs medical treatment. My men will escort him back there. And I’m afraid I will have to ask that your security detail is remanded to our holding cells, at least until you are ready to depart.”

Michael watched on quietly as Altee’s men followed his orders, escorting first his ailing father out of the room and then Sensy and his men. He exchanged a brief look with the Niners team leader as he was being led out of the room, making it clear that he was already thinking about potential next steps. In truth, he hoped the combat veteran had a few more plays in his bag of tricks since for the moment at least, he had nothing.

“Now, I really do have to excuse myself. I feel terrible about being such a poor host but I’m afraid I have little choice in the matter,” Altee said and then quickly found Jarik. “Why don’t you escort our guests to quarters while I tend to other matters?”

The half-Vulcan nodded briefly and then stepped forward while Altee urgently left the room with a small entourage. He did leave behind four armed security officers with Jarik and for a brief moment, Michael considered his odds to try and overpower them. But even with Leva’s help, he didn’t like their chances, not to mention that he no longer had any illusions which side Jarik would support if it came to a fight.

His former Academy friend offered him a small smile and then indicated towards the doors. “Shall we?”

Michael glowered at the man before he turned on his heel and headed for the exit, Leva right by his side and Jarik and the guards close behind.

Once outside Jarik led them down the corridor.

“I had not thought it possible that you could stoop any lower,” Michael said, turning his head slightly to make sure Jarik could hear him but avoided to make outright eye contact. “Are you so desperate to make alliances that you will sell us out to anyone we cross paths with?”

“Altee isn’t the enemy here, Michael.”

“Oh no? I suppose the assault he ordered on Eagle was a mission of mercy.”

“I admit that perhaps Star’s strategy was somewhat overzealous. This version of her is a rather intense individual. But I’m convinced that if there had been any other way, if we had not been surrounded by a fleet of Krellonian vessels, things would have gone very differently,” he continued while he walked behind him.

“And what exactly are you getting out of all this?” Michael wanted to know.

“My only interest is to secure the Ring and stop the subspace aliens from launching an invasion. Altee will be able to help us do that.”

He led Michael and Leva into a decently-sized double cabin that had been set up to serve as personal quarters, complete with chairs, tables, a couple of beds, and even some decorative although uninspired paintings and plants. At first blush, Michael could spot no replicator or any other form of technology inside. No matter how friendly those quarters looked, he recognized a jail cell when he saw one.

Jarik seemed to be able to read his mind. “Director Altee does not want you to feel like a prisoner. He has given you the same liberty and freedom of movement he has shown me, meaning you may move around freely throughout the facility. Within reason of course.”

Michael turned to regard his former Academy roommate again, studying him carefully as if he could determine the man’s true agenda just by the expression on his face. Although only half-Vulcan, Jarik’s mien was as carefully schooled as that of his full-blooded kinsmen. “Are you telling me that you are really trusting this man? So much so that you would give him your loyalty? You hardly even know him or his plans.”

“My loyalties aren’t in question.”

“Like hell they aren’t,” said Leva sharply which garnered him a brief glare from Jarik.

“You will see that all this is for the best,” he said. “I’ll return shortly with Altee and I’m certain you will understand once he explains what he has planned and why our cooperation is essential.”

With that Jarik left the room along with the guards. Michael was certain that the security detail remained just outside those doors.

“No offense, sir, but I cannot believe that man was ever your friend.”

Michael shook his head. “Neither can I,” he said as he began to take a closer look around the room, trying to find anything of use but quickly realizing that his first impression had been correct.

Leva was equally unsuccessful. “What are your orders?”

Michael uttered a heavy sigh as he considered his next move. “Something very odd is happening here. Something we haven’t figured out yet and I doubt Altee or any of his people are going to tell us exactly what that is.”

Leva nodded. “How do you suggest we find out?”

“For now, let’s take Altee up on his offer. Why don’t you test the limits of his supposed hospitality? Take a look around. See what you can find out. Don’t take any provocative actions just yet, there is no point in forcing another confrontation until we are ready.”

Michael nodded.

“What will you do?”

Michael allowed himself a rare smirk. “Our Tazla Star has at least one thing in common with her counterpart of this universe. She is extremely resourceful, not to mention insistent,” he said and he tapped the side of his neck.

Leva seemed to understand, offered him a nod, and then left the room.

Michael remained behind and sought out the compact refresher of the cabin. If there were listening devices in these quarters--and there was no reason to assume there weren’t--the fresher may have been the one area that was not being surveilled.

He activated the sink unit and splashed his face with cold water before regarding himself in the mirror for a moment. The eyes that looked back at him seemed much more tired than he had expected and he realized that couldn’t remember the last time he had slept.

It was of little consequence, of course, he already knew that rest was not one of the things awaiting him in the near future.

He began to carefully probe the side of his neck with his fingers until he felt the tiny, subdermal transponder device Star had insisted he had implanted before he left the ship. Thankfully, Altee’s people had not carried out an intensive body scan and therefore had missed the device which was hard to detect, even with sensors.

The device was powerful for its size and meant to be able to allow discreet communications over long distances by using the shuttle’s comms array as a booster but Michael was not sure if it was going to be strong enough to contact Eagle within a shielded activity.

His concerns were unfounded and apparently Altee’s people had not yet disabled the shuttle nearby.

“Captain, are you all right?”

Star’s voice reverberated across his skin and came across weak and distorted as if she was speaking to him from across a long tunnel. It was good enough considering their situation.

“The mission didn’t work as planned. It appears Jarik has made some sort of deal with the man behind his abduction. We were able to locate my father and the Prism but Jarik sold us out before we could return.”

“Damn that man. I wish I had insisted we put him in the brig after that last episode,” Star said.

Michael saw himself nodding in the mirror. He’d had that exact same thought as well. “Too late for that now.”

“If we perform a warp jump we can reach your coordinates within less than twenty minutes, send down an assault team and bring you and the others back.”

It was a valid backup plan and one they had discussed before he had set out on this mission but it was not without its flaws. “There are ships loyal to the man in charge here throughout this system. Even if you could get here avoiding them, there is no chance you wouldn’t be detected and be surrounded within minutes. Let’s keep that option as a last resort. So far Altee seems to be more interested in discussing his plans with me and he has been surprisingly civil about it. As if he wants me to trust him. Jarik clearly does.”
There was a momentary pause on the line. “Sir, did you say Altee?”

“Yes, Director Altee, I believe. He is the man in charge here. It appears he also instructed your double to assault Eagle.”

“Sir, whatever you do, you cannot trust that man.”

“I assume you are familiar with him. Or maybe his version in our universe?”

“Unfortunately, yes. He’s the man who recruited me into Starfleet Intelligence and quite possibly the most ruthless and manipulative person I’ve ever met. If he is anything at all like the man I know, he will stop at nothing to achieve his agenda. He will be extremely dangerous.”

He could hear her concern in the tone of her voice, even over the weak comm. channel. Tazla Star had shared quite a bit about her former life with him over the years and he did recall her mentioning a rather scrupulous senior official under whom she had served and who had been more interested in resolving his personal grudges than serving the best interests of Starfleet and the Federation.

“Yeah, I didn’t get a good vibe from that man. Now, I know why.”

“Sir, I urge you to reconsider an immediate rescue mission.”

Michael shook his head even if she couldn’t see it. “Not yet. I’ll make contact again in exactly one hour from now. If you haven’t heard from me in an hour and a half, you can come in guns blazing. Until then, I’m going to see if I can try and find out what is really going on here. Owens out.”

He disconnected the line and Michael glanced back at the man in the mirror. He found it difficult to recognize those eyes as his own. With each passing day, he thought they began to resemble more and more those belonging to his father. He wasn’t sure what could possibly scare him more.

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