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“You can’t be seriously suggesting that that ship can help us get back to the Ring?” said Garla as she stared out of the shuttle’s forward viewport with doubtful eyes, studying the unremarkable starship they were approaching.

Michael couldn’t entirely fault her for the skepticism. The ship really wasn’t much to look at. As far as he could tell, it was an Antares-class freighter not entirely dissimilar to merchant vessels in his own universe, except that this ship was most certainly not a recent model as evidenced by its patchwork hull that was comprised of several mismatched panels and components, apparently keeping the bulky ship space-worthy but doing nothing for its esthetic qualities.

“She might not look like much,” Frobisher said, still sitting at the controls, “but her crew, and especially her captain, is resourceful and knows the Amargosa Diaspora inside and out. If there is a way for us to get to where we need to go, they’ll know about it.”

But Matthew was shaking his head. “This is a terrible idea,” he mumbled quietly.

“But just maybe the best idea among a choice of bad ones,” said Jon Owens with noticeable conviction as he stepped into the front of the shuttle and closer to the others. It wasn’t the first time that Michael had noticed that the man who had pretended to be his father, ever since he had unexpectedly entered his life a few days ago, seemed more energized than he had any right to be, considering his weakened physical condition. Michael had a good idea why that might be, after all, this Jon Owens had admitted to him that his primary goal in life--the very reason he had allied himself with such sinister and scrupulous characters such as Altee--was to find a way to reunite a family he had lost in his universe.

If nothing else had gone right recently, Jon Owens had certainly managed to achieve his objective, even if in reality neither Michael nor Matthew were related to him in the traditional sense, and neither was particularly enthused about the manner in which he had forced this unexpected reunion.

“We can’t just sit here and stare at each other,” Owens Senior said, briefly glancing at the freighter that had shown no signs of life since they had approached it inside the rings of a giant planet orbiting one of the countless bright stars of the Diaspora. “Shouldn’t we try and say hello?”

“Or we could take their inactivity to mean that they have no interest in meeting with us,” said Matthew.

Frobisher activated a couple of controls on his instrument panel. “Windjammers, this is Westren Frobisher of Arkaria Prime. We seek your assistance to traverse the Amargosa Diaspora. Please respond.”

Silence was all they received in return, the freighter simply hanging motionless in space surrounded by stellar debris.

“Perhaps they cannot hear us,” said Culsten. “Maybe they are experiencing technical difficulties.”

Frobisher regarded his instrument panel again and shook his head. “Sensors are not showing any abnormalities and multiple life signs.”

“In other words,” said Matthew, “they can hear us but they’re not interested in talking. We tried, let’s just get out of here.”

“And go where exactly?” Frobisher shot back. “We can’t go back to Arkaria with half the Dominion probably already looking for us and we won’t survive an hour against the Outlanders on our own. No, this is our only shot.”

“Any other ideas of getting their attention?” said Culsten.

“We could board her,” said Garla.

“Are you insane?” Matthew nearly barked, garnering him a death stare so intense, for a moment Michael worried that he had to physically restrain her from trying to throttle him right then and there. “You do not mess with these guys. They could make our life extremely painful. The last thing we want to do is waltz over there uninvited.”

“They won’t be a match for a Krellonian Sentinel.”

“Yeah, I don’t know what that is, lady,” Matthew said and Michael had to give him credit for the way he was standing up to her intensity, refusing to be intimidated by her. “I know you handled yourself admirably against those Jem’Hadar soldiers but back there you had the element of surprise. And we’re talking about an entire ship packed with ruthless killers.”

“I’ll have to agree with Matt on this one,” Michael said. “We’re trying to get their help, not take over their ship.” Matthew barely even acknowledged Michael agreeing with him, clearly, he had not yet forgiven him for the way he had assaulted Frobisher earlier, even if the man who had been the victim of his emotional outburst seemed to have long since moved past the episode.

“Windjammers, this is Frobisher,” the scientist tried again. “It is a matter of grave importance that you hear us out. All our lives could depend on it, including yours,” he said just before cutting the comms and regarding the crew packed into his small shuttle with a little smirk. “Never a bad idea to play up the drama.”

“It really isn’t far off the truth,” said Jon.

Michael had to steady himself when the ship shook suddenly while Garla held on to Lif before he could lose his balance.

He whipped his head back toward the viewport, fearing that these mercenaries had decided to attack them. Instead, he could see the telltale blue shimmer of a tractor beam.

“They’re pulling us in,” said Frobisher, pointing out the obvious once everyone onboard could feel the change in momentum and see the freighter’s hangar bay doors opening.

“Guess you’ve got through to them after all,” said Jon once he had found a place to hold on to as the ship continued to tremble under the force of the beam it was now caught in.

“I do not have a good feeling about this,” said Culten, keeping his eyes glued on the freighter and the shuttlebay they were approaching.

“Once we’re on board,” said Frobisher. “Just let me do the talking. I know how these people operate.”

“Right,” said Matt, sounding anything but convinced.

As was to be expected from an old freighter that looked like its best days were long behind it, the bay they were being pulled into wasn’t exactly pristine. In fact, Michael could not recall ever having seen a more dirty and disorganized shuttle deck on a starship before, although he was certain that his long career in Starfleet had spoiled him in such matters.

As they approached the expansive landing deck that was comparable in size to one of Eagle’s cargo holds, it became quickly obvious that the Windjammers used the large space in a very similar manner, judging by the many haphazardly stored and mismatched crates and containers stacked on top of each other in a way that would give a Starfleet quartermaster permanent nightmares.

He could see a halfway disabled shuttle shoved into the far corners and parts of at least four other similar-sized vessels littered throughout the deck as if somebody had decided to build a starship from scratch and without so much as a blueprint.

Much of the cargo stored here had spilled out of the containers and in one corner a number of barrels were leaking bright green sludge that not only looked toxic but according to the large warning labels plastered on the containers should only be handled with proper safety gear.

Michael didn’t have much time to take in the rest of the chaos in the bay as the shuttle was unceremoniously dropped onto the deck from a good few meters above it, the artificial gravity slamming the ship so hard, nobody inside remained on their feet.

“That’s what I call a warm welcome,” said Culsten as he helped Michael and then the others off the floor after he had bounced back up first.

“Don’t worry,” said Frobisher as he was righting his tunic. “These guys have some rough edges but they’re good people.”

Matthew was clearly of a different opinion but this time kept it to himself.

Frobisher activated the exterior hatch which opened promptly.

Michael felt a near irresistible urge to gag when his senses were attacked by a range of foul odors all at once, including what had to be rotting foodstuffs and leaking coolant fluids.

“Lovely place,” said Garla as she stepped out of the shuttle after Frobisher had disembarked.

Michael was the last man out and by the time he managed to get a good look at the shuttle bay, he realized that the place looked even worse up-close than it had from behind a viewport.

The large entry doors parted to allow a group of eight crewmembers to enter. Or at least, Michael assumed they were crewmembers. They were a mishmash group, all hailing from different races and he could spot at least one Orion, a Bolian, and a Nausicaan among them. They did not wear uniforms but rather civilian attire, some of which were clearly designed to appear threatening, such as the sleeveless vest that did nothing to hide the tall, green Orion’s massive arms or the two phaser holsters strapped to the Nausicaans chest.

The Windjammers, Michael quickly realized weren’t just mercenaries. This group looked like the type of pirates that back home in his universe was more commonly found in holo-novels rather than in real life.

Garla quickly tensed up, getting ready for a fight. Michael had seen her in action already and wasn’t so sure if she wouldn’t be able to prevail against these heavily armed men and women facing them now.

“If it isn’t Professor Westren Frobisher.”

The voice sounded eerily familiar to him.

A dark-skinned woman with a buzz cut and wearing a rather fashionable brown leather jacket pushed aside the tall Orion with ease as she stepped in front of the group.

“Amaya,” Michael said, recognizing her face instantly, even if very little else looked like the woman he knew. He couldn’t hide his astonishment at seeing her yet again, and seemingly disguised as a cutthroat privateer, even if surprises were becoming almost predictably commonplace since their sojourn into quantum reality had commenced.

She considered him briefly, shooting him an odd look, but then her eyes found Frobisher again and she quickly closed in on him.

Frobisher for his part put on his best smile. “Amaya, always a pleasure. I was hoping--“

He didn’t get to finish his sentence courtesy of the fist connecting with his jaw with lightning speed and flattening him to the deck almost instantaneously.

It was déjà vu for Michael, who subconsciously reached for his own face where a very similar-looking woman had placed a haymaker not so long ago.

This Amaya had a phaser in her hand in a flash, pointing it right at the sprawled out man on the floor. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t disintegrate your worthless ass right here and now,” she said as she hovered above him.

“I told you this was a terrible idea,” Matt Owens mumbled.


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