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“Welcome to the Lead Belly,” said Amaya Donners as she led Michael and the rest of his team into what could have been generously termed as a crew lounge. It certainly wasn’t the Nest or even any of the other smaller mess halls or recreation rooms one could come across on Eagle, but it did offer a few tables, a bar area with mismatched stools, and even a dom-jot table in the corner, albeit one that looked like it had been purchased in the previous century.

Michael didn’t care what her ship looked like. All that mattered was that it could take them back to where they needed to go, back to the Ring, to try and prevent it from fulfilling what he now believed could very well be its final apocalyptic purpose.

How exactly they were to achieve this, he didn’t know, but he understood that they had already lost far too much time in trying to stop the massive Omega accelerator, partly thanks to the man who he had until recently believed to be his father.

Mi casa es su casa,” Maya said as she spread her arms wide to present the less than impressive lounge. “As long as you stay on this deck, that is. There are some sleeping areas and a lavatory if you need to freshen up. If you get the foolhardy notion to venture beyond this level, however, my fellow associates have standing orders to shoot you in the head.”

“Charming,” said Garla, doing nothing to hide the sarcasm.

“Hey, that’s what one-hundred bricks of latinum buys you in the Diaspora these days. If you think you can get a better deal, I’ll be happy to show you to the airlock. I’ll even throw in a spacesuit as a parting gift,” she said and shrugged. “No guarantee it’ll work.”

“This will be fine,” said Michael and found that the larger of the few tables in the room also functioned as a computer display, currently showing a star chart of the sector.”

Amaya joined him along with Frobisher and Garla. “So, you need to get into Outlander territory,” she said. “You’ve got any specific destination in mind or is this some sort of adrenaline safari to see how far you can go before you get yourself blown to pieces?”

Michael was already working on the display and it didn’t take him long to locate his destination. He pointed at it. “This is where we need to go.”

“What’s in Cygni-98?” she said.

“A spatial fold that allows transition into a lower brane connecting the regular space-time continuum with a tertiary subspace manifold,” said Frobisher.

Amaya looked at him as if he was speaking Klingonese. “Right. Sorry I asked,” she said and then focused on the star chart again. “Won’t be easy to get there. And going there in a straight line would be tantamount to suicide. The Outlanders run a sensor net that covers that entire area of space and alerts their roaming patrols the moment anything comes even close.”
Michael nodded, remembering the immediate attention they had drawn after arriving in this universe.

“I suppose you gotta ask yourself: Are you sure that’s where you want to go? I hear Rura Penthe is supposed to be particularly nice this time of year. And it would be much easier to get there.”

“I’m afraid we are committed,” Michael said.

Maya looked him right in the eyes as if she was seeing something there she hadn’t noticed before. A smile crept onto her lips. “Well, I do like a man who knows what he wants. But I won’t be able to take you there.”

“By the Creator, I thought that’s what we’re paying you for,” Garla snarled at the woman.

“Calm down, Lady. I won’t be able to take you straight to that system but I can do the next best thing.”

“And what would that be?” she asked.

She activated a few panels on the star charts to center it on what looked like a space station within a couple of light-years from Cygni-98. “Amargosa Station,” she said. “It’s the main Outlander trading post in the sector and one of the few places within their territory where they tolerate foreigners.”

“That’s nowhere near to where we need to go,” Garla protested.

“Maybe not, but I have a contact there who knows a thing or two about circumventing the Outlander sensor net and who might be convinced to assist you for the right price,” she said and crossed her arms in front of her while Michael and the others offered nothing but skeptical looks in response. “Listen, you’re asking for a lot here. This is the best I can do. Otherwise, the airlock option still stands.”

“This is a joke,” said Garla and shot Michael an annoyed glare, making it quite clear what she thought of this plan.

He uttered a sigh and then nodded at Maya. “Get us there as fast as you can.”

She smirked again. “You’re used to giving orders, aren’t you?” She continued before he could respond. “Fine, your money gives you some prerogatives as long as you remember that I’m the captain on this boat.”

“I don’t believe that will ever be in question,” he said.

She gave him a quick nod. “Make yourselves comfortable,” she said and then left the room, presumably to get them going to where they needed to be.

“I don’t trust that woman,” said Garla as he watched her leave. “I’ve known her type. She wouldn’t think twice to sell us out if she gets a better offer.”

“Donners is a tough customer,” said Frobisher. “But she’s a decent sort at heart. Even if she does everything she can to hide that.”

“Sure,” said Matthew. “The sort to incinerate us on the spot for not paying up the debt she believes we owe her.”

“She has some rough edges,” Frobisher agreed. “But I’ve never known her to be deceitful.”

“The way I see it, she is our only option right now,” said Michael and glanced back down at the star chart for an estimate on how long it would take them to get to Amargosa Station. “I suggest everybody gets some rest until we arrive. I fear we are going to need all our strength before all this is over.”

The others nodded and Garla and Culsten walked over to a corner booth together to make use of the only padded seating in the room while Frobisher went toward the bar, possibly looking for refreshments.

Jon stayed close to Matthew but Michael quickly realized that the older Owens was simply staring at Matt which Michael thought was rather disturbing. Matt noticed it too.

“What?” he said curtly to the other man after a few seconds.

“It’s just remarkable how much you look like my Matthew,” said Jon.

“You know what, I don’t think I want to hear this,” he said and began to walk away.

“I understand,” Jon said and followed him. “Trust me, I know how strange all of this has to be for you. To see me and your brother back in your life after all this time. It isn’t easy to accept and it’ll take a while for you to adjust to the insanity of it all. That’s perfectly normal.”

“Nothing about this is anywhere near normal,” Matt shot back as he shook his head. “And I’m definitely not looking to adjust to any of it. I didn’t ask for you to come here and I certainly don’t want you around, I thought I had made that very clear,” he added and then turned his back again to walk away.

“If you like it or not, we are stuck with each other for now.”

To that, Matt turned around to face the other man. “Yes, we are. And you seem to take some strange satisfaction from all this, don’t you?”

“Son, listen to me--“

“No,” he said, interrupting the older man. “I don’t think I will. Because you need to understand for once and for all that I am not your son,” he said and gestured at Michael who had now stepped closer as well. “The both of you might look like people I once knew but you are nothing more to me than total strangers who have thrown my life into chaos. Do you understand?”

“Jon, give him some space, for Christ’s sake,” Michael said, unable to deny the awkwardness to refer to the man who looked like his father by his given name. He knew he would never call him ‘dad’ again.

But he shook his head instead. “The sooner we accept the reality of our situation the better. We may not have a lot of time--“

“Time for what? Get to know each other better? Be a family?” said Michael, now feeling his own anger beginning to well up within him. “What is this fantasy world you live in?”

“I am just trying to make the best of our situation.”

“A situation that you have created,” Michael shot back. “You brought us here when you activated the Prism. You could have taken us anywhere, back to our universe or any other where the chances of getting back to the Ring would have been far better than they are here but you chose to bring us to this place because of what? Him?” he said and pointed at Matthew. “Because you knew there was a Matthew here who you thought would be willing to call you father again?”

“It is not that easy,” he said.

“Oh, but I think it is,” Michael responded. “The entire universe--all universes--are at risk of complete annihilation and your sole focus remains bringing together a family that no longer exists. You know what? You do remind me a lot of my real father after all. Except that, with you, it’s all backward. You care for your family more than the fate of the galaxy, but at the end of the day, you’re still worried entirely about your own priorities, about what is best for you and your personal goals.”

“You know all this self-righteous talk is becoming quite tiring,” Jon shot back, his own voice now infused with mettle. “You claim to be so unwavering in your priorities but you’re little better than what you accuse me of.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh please,” he said, “I know that you’ve made decisions that have put your objectives ahead of the greater mission. You went out of your way to rescue DeMara Deen after she was taken by your doppelganger and you very nearly sacrificed an entire away team to go after a man who was clearly beyond redemption. And for what? Tell me, Michael, I truly want to know. Because if you hadn’t made those calls, if you had been as laser-focused on the task as you claim to be, perhaps we wouldn’t even be in this position now.”

Michael was momentarily speechless. Perhaps because he knew that the man had a point. The truth was, he had been in anguish over those decisions.

“So don’t stand there and lecture me like--” he stopped himself when he was gripped by a coughing fit, likely brought on by his outburst.

“All this reminds me of what it was like being part of this family,” said Matthew Owens as Jon was beginning to recover. “And you wonder why I don’t want anything to do with either one of you,” he said, turning on his heel to leave the room.

Michael considered Jon Owens who was getting his coughing under control slowly. “Are you all right?”

He raised a hand to keep him at bay. “Just … don’t,” he said and then followed after Matthew, passing by Amaya Donners who was casually leaning against the door frame. Michael wasn’t sure how long she had been standing there.

“I was just coming down here to let you know that we’re underway and that we’ll get to Amargosa Station in just under three hours but it looks like I missed one hell of a show.”

“Thanks,” was all that Michael could think to say.

“Family, am I right?” she said with a wink. “Who needs that kind of trouble?”

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