The mercenary Amaya Donners had not been kidding when she had made it clear that her guests were strictly limited to the small crew deck of her ship as evidenced by perhaps the largest Klingon Michael had ever encountered, guarding the access to the only turbolift.
Well over two meters tall, the warrior wore crisscrossing bandoliers across his otherwise bare chest as well as two disruptor pistols dangling from holsters at his hips and a mean-looking, serrated dagger strapped to his right leg.
He bared his teeth and offered a wicked smile when he caught Michael, along with Garla and Culsten watching him from further down the corridor, wordlessly inviting them to take their best shot, as if looking forward to the challenge of taking them all on at once. His body language seemed to imply it wouldn’t be a challenge at all.
“If you deliver a distraction,” said Garla, refusing to break eye contact with the Klingon down the hall, “I should be able to take him out.”
Culsten considered her with a stunned expression. “And how do you suppose you’ll do that? This hallway is barely wide enough for two people walking side by side.”
She regarded him with an almost paternal look. “Liftu, I believe you’ve known me long enough to realize that there are very few people capable of stopping me.”
Michael shook his head as he turned away from studying the massive Klingon to give the sentinel his full attention. “Your capabilities, as impressive as they may be, are not in question here. But I have no intention of forcing a confrontation with Donners and her crew. Not now that she has shown her willingness to help us.”
Garla crossed her arms in front of her chest. “That’s a mistake.”
Michael tried not to bristle at the blunt tone in her voice. In truth, he wasn’t used to people speaking to him in this manner and he had to remind himself that this woman wasn’t a member of his crew and barely a temporary ally.
She continued. “She only agreed to help because you made her a promise of payment that you may not be able to fulfill. I know her type, as soon as she realizes that the potential loss will outweigh the benefits, she won’t hesitate to cut us loose.”
“I don’t think she will,” he said.
“Please, Captain,” she said, sounding almost disappointed. “Don’t tell me you are so naïve that you believe you have a connection with this woman because you did so in another universe. You should know better than most that being familiar with her alternate versions means nothing here.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“Sir?” Culsten too seemed confounded by this.
Michael knew his theory wasn’t exactly proven. On the contrary, much of the evidence they had seen so far had made it unmistakably clear that people from different universes were similar to each other only on the surface, if at all. His encounters with Gene Edison, but more importantly, with his own other self, had made that painfully obvious.
But there was something else as well and he couldn’t entirely let go of it. “We have encountered Amaya Donners three times in each reality we have visited and in two she became one of our best allies, even if she started out hostile toward our goals. For all the differences we have seen, I am starting to believe that perhaps there is a pattern that transcends universes.”
“And you are sure you want to take a gamble on your gut feelings with everything that’s hanging in the balance?” she said, noticeably not swayed by his arguments. “This isn’t the time to play a hunch. Not if you’re serious in trying to stop the madness that is playing itself out here.”
Michael knew that she wasn’t exactly wrong. He had, after all, made a very similar case earlier himself. And yet, he couldn’t quite find it in himself to give up on Amaya. Not yet.
Garla could see it too. “You’re disappointing me, Captain. I didn’t think you were the person who would let sentimentality cloud your judgment. Perhaps you are more like your father than you were willing to admit.”
That point stung and he responded to this with a dark scowl that left her entirely unimpressed.
“You’re not just playing with our lives, but potentially with all of existence. Understand that there is a limit on how far I am prepared to follow your lead,” she said but before Michael could inquire further as to what exactly she meant by this, she turned on her heel and walked away.
He looked after the sentinel until she had disappeared. “Should I be worried about her?”
“She understands that our best chance, for now, is to work together. Don’t worry, sir, I’ll talk to her. She’ll listen to me,” said Culsten.
He considered his helmsman briefly and wondered how true that could be. How much the young man would be able to keep his headstrong aunt to toe the line, a woman who was used to blazing her own trail and for others to follow her lead.
He understood that he needed to keep an eye on both of them but for now, he had more pressing concerns. “Later. First, I’ll need your help with something else.”
He nodded quickly. “Of course.”
Michael led the other man away from the guarded turbolift entrance and to another section of the deck. “Garla does have one compelling point. We cannot afford to solely rely on Donners, the stakes are simply too high.”
“What do you have in mind, sir?”
Michael stopped in front of a dark computer terminal hidden away in a dead-end corridor. “We need to find a way to get a message back to Eagle to let them know where we are going. It’s been a while since I’ve attempted to jury rig a comms system. I’ll need your help.”
Culsten nodded and regarded the computer console. “I do what I can but there doesn’t seem to be any power feeding this workstation.”
“No, there isn’t,” he said and then stepped up to the bulkhead right next to the console and found a loose panel he had discovered earlier. He struck it so hard that he was sure it was going to leave a bruise but the panel dislodged from the wall and fell to the floor, revealing the circuitry behind it. “I’m hoping all that time you’ve been spending down in engineering lately has paid off.”
Culsten’s face turned a shade of red. He offered him a reassuring smile. “Relax, Lieutenant, I’m joking. But I’m sure you’ve had more recent experience working on power conduits than I have.”
“Yes, sir,” he said quickly and then turned his full attention to the relays.
It took their combined efforts, neither Michael nor Culsten were trained engineers, but after a few minutes they found the right connectors and the console came to life.
“How about that?” Michael said with a grin.
Culsten went straight to work. “It appears to be set up as a monitoring station but I believe I might be able to gain access to communications from here.”
Michael could see that currently, the workstation was showing several visual feeds from across the deck. He could see the crew lounge where Frobisher and Matthew were sitting together in conversation, Although Frobisher appeared to be the one doing most of the talking, probably trying to get Matt, who had become a reluctant tag-along, to fully buy into their mission.
Another feed showed Jon Owens by the makeshift bar in the same lounge, seemingly trying to find something to drink while he had given up, at least for the time being, to make peace with Matthew.
He couldn’t spot Garla on any of the six feeds but one showed the Klingon guarding the turbolift.
Lif had managed to gain access to the root folder quickly. “The good news is that this is a very basic setup with no significant safeguards in place. I should be able to get access to comms.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“Everything here has been configured so that any unauthorized access will be relayed back to the bridge. I’ll need some time to get around that and find a way to send a message that only Eagle can recognize.”
“We might not have a lot of time,” Michael said when he spotted the turbolift doors opening and the Klingon stepping aside to allow Amaya to stride onto the deck. They exchanged a few words before she continued down the corridor, heading in their direction. “Do what you can, I’ll try to buy you that time,” Michael said and then left Culsten to carry on while he sought out to intercept Donners.
He ran into her just moments after he had stepped out of the corridor that would have led to the security station. “Ah, our fearless captain. Come to check in on your valued guests again?” he said quickly.
She stopped and considered him with a hint of suspicion evident on her face and he immediately realized that he had come on too strong. Working in intelligence was clearly not in his future and he would have to leave that kind of work to the likes of Garla and Talza Star, he quickly surmised.
He tried to deflect from his awkwardness. “Are we close to Armagosa Station yet?”
It worked and she shook her head. “Not yet. But I’ve been doing some thinking.”
“It strikes me that I’m going to quite some lengths based on the promise of a decent payday but that I have no guarantees whatsoever that you will be able to keep your end of the bargain.”
Michael couldn’t help but hear Garla’s warning in the back of his mind again. “You’re looking for a down payment?”
“Well, I’m not in the charity business.”
“You have Frobisher’s shuttle,” Michael said.
She shrugged. “Sure, that counts toward something, I suppose. Tech like that could go for quite a bit of latinum. But times are tough. I’ll be lucky if it covers the debt Frobisher owes me and repairs the damage to my reputation he’s responsible for.”
Michael tried another tact. “And the notion that we are on a mission to save the universe, possibly all of reality, none of that rates with you at all?
“This again,” she said, sounding almost bored. “You’re still trying to sell me on the ridiculous notion that you people are from another universe.”
“Not Frobisher or Matt. But yes, the rest of us do not belong here.”
She considered him carefully. “That much is obvious. But the fact that you aren’t from around here doesn’t mean I believe you’re from another universe altogether.”
“We know each other.”
“I mean, where I come from. You and I. Or rather a version of you. We are close.”
That caused Amaya to burst out laughing, a sound Michael enjoyed only until he realized that it was prompted by how absurd she considered the notion that they could be close. “That’s rich,” she said once she had wiped away the tears. “So let me get this straight. You’re saying, not only are you from another universe but in that universe, the two of us are a thing? Boy, how convenient that we ran into each other all the way out here then, isn’t it?”
He nodded slowly. “The coincidence seems astounding. In fact, I’m starting to believe that perhaps coincidence has nothing to do with it at all.”
“You think it’s fate?”
“I don’t know. But before arriving here, we have visited two other realities and in each one, I encountered a version of you.”
She had mostly stopped laughing now. “I cannot figure out if you’re a very good liar or if you really believe the things you’re saying.”
“I think deep down you know that I’m right. Maybe it’s nothing more than a gut feeling, but you cannot deny that we share some sort of connection. One you cannot explain rationally.”
“You’re really full of yourself, aren’t you? You should know that I have vaporized men for just looking at me the wrong way,” she said as her hand settled on the grip of her holstered weapon. For now, it was a mostly casual move but the implications were hard to miss.
“Suppose for a moment that I’m speaking the truth.”
“That you are from another universe and that wherever the hell you come from the two of us live a blissful life together,” she said, unable to keep from uttering another laugh. “Tell me, do we by chance have children together in that fantasy of yours? Maybe a nice little house in the countryside surrounded by lush meadows?”
He shook his head. “No, but there was a reality where we were married. It wasn’t a happy life. It turned out she was a widow.”
“You know what,” she said. “I’ve heard enough of this. I’m not interested in hearing about these sugarcoated fantasies roaming around in your head,” she said as she turned away. “I’m getting you to Amargosa Station, you’ll pay me, or I’ll space you. That’s our deal.”
He took a step to follow her. “Your ship, the Lead Belly. You named her after your favorite musician.”
She stopped with her back turned toward him.
“Huddie Ledbetter. He’s from the same tiny Louisiana town you were born in. Near the Texas border and right by the bayou.”
Amaya turned around very slowly, revealing a facial expression veering between anger and befuddlement. “How’d you know that?”
“Because you told me,” he said and then shook his head and quickly corrected himself. “Because my Amaya told me. A long time ago. Her life was very different from yours. This entire universe is very different from mine but no matter where we go, some things stay the same.”
“I never told anybody about where I’m from,” she said as the hand on her weapon had become a far more threatening gesture now. “And there sure as hell isn’t anyone in this sector who knows about Lead Belly.”
“Then how can I know about this?” he said, undeterred by her hostile attitude. “You call yourselves Windjammers. I’m willing to bet that’s a reference to him as well. The instrument he played?”
She stepped closer to him but said nothing, her hand still on her phaser.
“The Amaya Donners I know, and the ones I’ve met, no matter what challenges they had faced in their lives, they all had one thing in common. And I can see it in you as well. You may play the role of the heartless pirate to survive in this world, but deep down inside you aren’t that person. You care and you want to do the right thing.”
“Stop,” she said. “Just stop.”
She shook her head. “No. Nobody calls me that, understood?” she said sharply.
“I have no idea where you’ve come from or how you know the things you know but let’s make one thing perfectly clear. You don’t know the first thing about me. You don’t know what I’ve done or what I’m capable of. And right now, you should count your blessings that I haven’t already spaced your ass for pissing me off. I’ll take you and your strange band of misfits as far as Armargosa Station because I am a woman who likes to keep her word. After that, we’ll part ways, one way or the other. If, however, you insist on continuing with this insipid talk of yours, about me being your good little wife, you won’t make it halfway there. Are you tracking me?”
“I get it.”
“Good,” she said and turned again. “And for the record, Windjammer is a reference to a sailing ship and not to an instrument to make sweet, sweet music with,” she said just as she rounded a corner ahead.
Not a moment after she was gone, Culsten appeared by his side. “That was close,” he said.
When Michael didn’t respond, his thoughts still will the departed Amaya, he continued. “I think I managed to get a message out using Eagle’s transponder code. It should seem like natural background noise to the untrained ear, but with any luck, Xylion will recognize it for what it is.”
It took him a moment longer to register what he had said and then turned to him. “Very good work, Lieutenant. Very good work, indeed,” he said as they walked away together even as he struggled to fully put his encounter with Amaya behind him.