Star had briefed him on the latest developments as soon as he had returned from Agamemnon, including on how she believed Garla had managed to beam onboard undetected using a personal cloaking device after Eagle arrived at the Krellon border a few days earlier to retrieve her and the away team following their escape from Piqus.
Star naturally blamed herself for allowing this to happen even if Michael was fairly certain that it would have been near impossible to detect her coming onboard.
Star pointed to the fact that Garla had been surprisingly disengaged at the time, apparently already planning her scheme to follow her and Culsten onto Eagle instead of making a play for them while they were still in Krellonian territory.
The news about the status of the ship and crew were more encouraging. Almost the entire crew had been successfully resuscitated or had awoken from their coma on their own and most where still recovering in sickbay. Since Louise Hopkins had returned to duty, she had managed to restore several primary systems, including sensors, impulse engines, and the main computer. The warp drive and defensive systems were next on her list.
Back on the bridge, Michael found Jarik who quickly assured him that his father was doing well and recovering in his quarters and Michael was more than happy to take him at his word for now.
“We cannot wait for him,” Jarik said. “We need to get underway as soon as possible. We obviously do not belong in this place and the longer we stay here, the greater the chance that we cause permanent damage.”
Star considered the half-Vulcan. “I thought you didn’t prescribe to the theory that this is an alternate universe.”
“I don’t know what this is,” he said, sounding almost defensively. “But we do have a mission to fulfill and we can’t do that without establishing control of the gateway.”
Michael nodded. It didn’t matter if this truly was an alternate universe or not, although all evidence he had seen so far seemed to strongly support that claim, they needed to find a way back home, of that there was no doubt. And currently, the only way they knew how to do that was to make use of the very same device that appeared to have brought them here in the first place.
He glanced towards Lif Culsten who sat at the helm. “Lieutenant, according to Mister Bensu, we should find the threshold to in-between space at the same coordinates we first encountered it. How close are we to those?”
The Krellonian quickly checked his board. “We’re practically already there. Less than two million kilometers.”
Michael glanced towards Leva next who had only just returned to duty and was already manning his usual post at tactical. “Commander, we’ll need shields to cross the threshold. Are they available yet.”
He dipped his head slowly. “We should have enough to get us through based on previous sensor data. However, I would strongly suggest avoiding going into battle until they are back to full power.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Michael said. “Raise shields and configure them to the same frequency we used last time we approached the threshold. Then share that information with the other two ships.”
Leva acknowledged and went to work.
Michael took his chair at the center of the bridge and Star and Jarik sat down in the seats flanking him.
“Last time we did this we had a very unpleasant journey,” said Star. “I’d rather avoid doing that again if we can.”
“Couldn’t agree more,” he said and found Xylion at his science station. “Commander, any thoughts?”
“We do not have sufficient information on the structure to establish its working parameters at this juncture. For example, we do not know if the vortex we encountered was an automated event or if it was triggered by our presence. However, it did not appear to form until we approached the structure. I would, therefore, suggest we maintain our distance to the structure until we can learn more about how it operates.”
Michael exchanged a quick look with his first officer. “Sounds like a sensible approach.”
“Sir,” Leva said. “Both Agamemnon and … uh … the other Eagle are confirming that they have raised shields and configured them to the required frequency.” He shook his head. “I’m not going to get used to this.”
Star smirked. “Let’s hope we won’t be here long enough that we have to.”
“Yes, I think one version of us is plenty,” Michael said.
“I don’t know, I wouldn’t have minded meeting my doppelganger and finding out what he’s been up to in this reality. Who knows, he may be a starship captain here,” said Culsten as he swiveled his chair around.
“Sorry to disappoint you,” said Michael. “But Edison had never even heard of you before.”
“That’s a shame,” he said but then a grin began to spread over his face. “Doesn’t stop me to imagine that, wherever he may be, he’s a really important man.”
Deen shook her head. “You mean like you are here?”
The Krellonian shot the woman at his side a scowl. “Tell me you’re not curious to meet this universe’s version of yourself,” he said and then glanced back towards the command area. “Imagine two DeMara Deens.”
“I rather not,” she said without making eye contact.
Michael found himself agreeing with her. “I think it would be for the best if we did everything we can to avoid any of our alternate versions while we are here.”
“That shouldn’t be all that difficult for you,” said Jarik.
Michael looked at the Vulcan by his side, wishing he had not mentioned this since it had invited several curious glances being directed his way.
“I have the feeling I shouldn’t ask,” said Star.
Michael tugged down on his uniform jacket, eager to move on. “Let’s get going, people. Mister Culsten, take us towards the coordinates. Nice and easy, one-quarter impulse and then thrusters only for the transition.”
The helmsman understood it was all business again and turned back to his station. “Aye, aye. One-quarter impulse.”
“Mister Leva, tell the others to follow us in. But advise them to keep a healthy distance to us and each other. We don’t know what happens when multiple ships traverse the threshold at once.”
Michael kept his eyes focused on the viewscreen in front but at this slow speed, it was practically impossible to even notice that they were moving at all or for that matter to see what it was they were hopefully heading towards.
“We’ll be reaching the target destination in thirty seconds,” said Deen monitoring her console and then continued to provide a countdown. “Twenty seconds. Ten seconds. Contact.”
Michael hadn’t consciously realized that he had gripped the armrests of his chair hard enough to turn his knuckles white until the stars had once again disappeared from the viewscreen to be replaced by the swirling and undefined salmon-colored mass which made up in-between space. He let out a little sigh of relief once he realized that the threshold had indeed followed them into this universe, or perhaps it had never left. More importantly was the fact that their way home was, if not assured, at least still viable.
And just like the last time they once more found themselves in this layer of subspace, the massive structure was still dominating the area as it had done before, a humongous artificial ring which would have dwarfed planets and even stars had there been any nearby.
“Both Agamemnon and Eagle have followed us across the threshold,” said Leva from tactical.
Michael stood from his chair. “All stop. Remember, let’s keep our distance this time.”
“Aye, sir. All engines stop,” said Culsten.
“Both ships are hailing us,” said Leva.
Star couldn’t suppress a small grin. “Yeah, I’d think they would.”
“Put them both on screen.”
The image promptly changed to show Amaya on the left and Gene Edison on the right, both still focused on what their viewscreens and sensor data were telling them.
“Quite a sight, isn’t it?” Michael said as he studied their surprised faces.
“My God, it’s massive,” said Amaya. “Who built it and how?”
“We believe a subspace dwelling race is responsible for constructing the structure with at least some form of assistance from the Krellonians. We don’t have all the details on how it was assembled but we do know that they possess technology far superior to our own,” said Jarik.
“That much seems obvious,” she said.
“Our sensors are unable to penetrate its hull,” said Edison. “How do we operate this gateway to send you back to where you belong?”
Michael shook his head. “We’re not sure yet. It’s what we’ll need to figure out. Last time we encountered the structure it activated on its own, possibly triggered by our proximity. I’d rather avoid another such incident and learn more about the device before we try that again.”
Amaya seemed to agree. “Considering the damage you took, that seems like a wise precaution. According to our initial scans, while we cannot penetrate the hull, we may be able to beam unmanned probes inside. I suggest we start our investigation that way.”
Michael turned to find his science officer to get an opinion.
“That should be feasible,” he said. “However, I would suggest we limit our initial attempts to a small number of probes. Since we have no way to determine the interior space of the structure, we may inadvertently cause significant damage should a transporter cycle be successful.”
“We could attempt to beam in a couple of micro-probes to try and get the lay of the land first,” Star said.
Michael nodded. “Let’s get started with that but we’ll do it from here. I do not want to risk approaching the gateway any further.”
“That should be possible as we are within theoretical transporter range of the structure,” Xylion said while Star was joining him at the science station at the back of the bridge to get the ball rolling on their plan.
Michael glanced back towards the screen and his two fellow starship captains. “I suggest we keep our efforts tightly concentrated for now considering what we already know this structure is capable of.”
Amaya seemed to agree. “Makes sense to me.”
“Just make sure you share any data with us as soon as you have results,” Edison added, clearly still less willing to cooperate than his colleague.
“Of course,” Michael said. “Owens out.”
Once the channel had closed Michael joined Star and Xylion at the aft science station. “What do we have?”
Star pointed at a heavily magnified section of the ring structure displayed on the monitor. “We’ve identified this area as a possible entry point. We are ready to start deploying probes.”
Michael couldn’t see anything special about the section she had pointed at. “Why that area?”
“The hull pattern in that particular section contains an approximately point five percent variation to hull patterns compared to the surrounding area,” Xylion said.
“In other words, you’re guessing.”
Star offered a sheepish look. “Essentially, yes.”
Michael glanced towards Jarik who had also joined them at the science station before he considered Xylion again. “Commander, hypothetically speaking, if this structure contained a powerful and possibly unstable molecule of some sort, what kind of damage could we be doing by blindly beaming probes inside of it.”
Jarik’s expression made it clear that he didn’t like the question since it was bordering closely on violating the Omega Directive, which not only stated that Starfleet was obligated to eradicate any attempts at stabilizing the enormously powerful molecule but also restrict any knowledge of the particles. Michael decided that the question needed to be asked regardless.
Xylion clearly found the query interesting enough to turn from his station to look directly at his captain for a moment as if prompting him to elaborate. “If such a molecule were to exist within the structure it would be highly dangerous to attempt beaming in the blind since we may accidentally breach any containment facility within the structure and destabilize any particles in the process.”
He had expected something like that.
But Jarik shook his head. “We have no other choice.”
Michael and Star exchanged glances, clearly neither of them entirely comfortable with the idea of potentially poking a sleeping bear. Everything they had learned so far seemed to indicate that the Omega particle had been delivered to this location, ostensibly for the gateway structure, but there was no way of telling if it was contained within and if so in what kind of quantities. Considering its size, the structure could have easily contained immeasurable amounts.
Ultimately Michael understood that this was most likely their only way back home, not to mention attempting to stop a potential invasion. He gave Xylion the nod to proceed.
The Vulcan hesitated for only a moment but then turned back to the science station. “Initiating first attempt.”
Michael held his breath.
As it turned out, the ring structure did not rip itself apart in a fiery explosion, taking Eagle and the other two ships with it.
Ship’s sensors lost contact with the probes the moment they had been beamed off the ship—as had been expected—and when Xylion attempted to lock in on those exact coordinates again to beam the probes back on board, all four probes returned damaged beyond recovery.
It took three more attempts, each one just as harrowing as the first for Michael until some of the probes finally yielded results.
“Sensor data from the latest probes indicates internal spaces sufficient in size to accommodate humanoids. Also reading the presence of gravity at a force of point eight gees as well as an atmosphere equivalent to a class K world,” said Xylion.
“Meaning we should be all right in environmental suits,” said Star, looking at Michael.
He nodded. “Very well, assemble an away team and let’s have a look inside.”
Star tapped Xylion on the shoulder and then pointed at Deen sitting at the operations station at the front of the bridge. Both understood and rose to their feet to follow her to the turbolift.
“I should go as well,” said Jarik.
Star stopped and glanced back at the half-Vulcan. “I don’t believe that is a good idea.”
“Quite honestly, Commander, I don’t care what you believe is or isn’t a good idea. I am the ranking officer here.”
Jarik’s outburst had been so sudden that most eyes on the bridge had turned his way. It also reminded Michael that his old Academy friend was more human than Vulcan.
Realizing that perhaps he had spoken out of turn, he addressed Michael in a much more contrite tone of voice. “I should go along.”
“Commander Star is right,” he said as he carefully studied Jarik’s expression. “We have hardly any idea what to find over there. We’ll keep the away team as small as possible for now. Once we have a better idea of what we can expect, we might send more people.”
There was no doubt to him that Jarik did not agree with that call but apparently he was not quite willing to challenge him on this and Michael was getting the feeling that the last word on this matter had not yet been spoken.
For now, he exchanged a quick glance with Star, reaffirming his decision and she left the bridge with Xylion and Deen following close behind.
Michael walked back towards the command area. “Mister Leva, please share our data with the other two ships and advise them that we’ll dispatch an away team.”
It didn’t take long for both captains to respond, Edison clearly not happy with the development. “I have been willing to give you plenty of latitude in dealing with this but I am not prepared to sit by quietly while your people are investigating this structure by themselves. I’ll be sending my own away team.”
“It might be advisable to keep away teams as small as possible,” Michael said. “At least for now and once we have a better idea of what we are dealing with,” he added when he could read from Edison’s face that he was not on the same page.
“A few more additional bodies won’t make a difference for a structure of this size. I am not compromising on this point. I’m sending my own team,” Edison said, clearly with his mind already made up.
A brief look at Amaya revealed that she was not going to interject on this occasion and Michael already knew that differently to Jarik’s earlier objection, this was not an argument he was going to win.