Their escape from Amargosa Station had been a very narrow thing and they had not achieved it without some pain and bruises.
Jonathan Owens, who Michael was convinced was, if not too old, certainly far too weak to run and evade armed attackers, had twisted his ankle during their frantic dash through the station’s narrow corridors and back onto the Lead Belly.
Matthew and Michael had been forced to carry him in-between each other for the last leg and then deposited him carefully into one of the cramped cabins Amaya Donners had made available to them.
By the time they had gotten him onto the cot, Michael had felt the deck plates lurch hard underneath his boots, a clear sign that the ship had rather violently separated from the station and after just a few seconds he could feel the telltale shudder of a sudden warp acceleration.
“This is turning out to be an awful day,” Jonathan Owens said as he winced painfully while he was being lowered onto the cot. “But seeing the two of you working together is almost making all of this worth it.”
Matthew noticeably recoiled at those words and stepped back. “You just don’t know when to quit, do you?”
Michael regarded the man who resembled his brother so closely it was still both painful and miraculous to look at him. “Matthew, just let it go.”
The other man looked at him as if he had lost his mind and then took a step back, shaking his head. “Let it go? You’re just as insane as he is. Wes and I were living a good, peaceful life until you two came along. Within less than a day of meeting you, I’ve been nearly killed by Jem’Hadar troops, likely lost my home and my livelihood, been nearly killed by Outlander soldiers, and have become a wanted man by two governments who are well known to hold on to grudges indefinitely. You have ruined my life.”
“All of life is at stake, son.” Jon Owens said.
“I don’t want to hear it anymore, do you understand?” he said, piercing the man on the cot with a hard stare. “And get it through that old skull of yours for once and for all. I am not your son. You are nothing to me but a stranger. That goes for both of you. Stay away from me,” he said, turned on his heel, and left the cabin.
“He always had a stubborn streak,” Jon said after he had left.
Michael couldn’t help but smirk. “He got that from his father.”
“He’ll come around.”
Michael considered Jon Owens who had closed his eyes. He looked impossibly paler and weaker than ever before, this last episode had clearly pushed him way too far. “He is not wrong.”
“We might all be from different universes but there is a connection between us, I’m convinced of it. And you’ve felt it too, haven’t you? Deep down you know there is. That’s why you accepted me as your father ever since you’ve met me.”
“It’s because you lied to me.”
“There’s more than that.”
Michael felt his anger rising at this man’s hubris. But he also understood that he couldn’t afford to get lost in useless emotions and so he decided to let it go. At least for now. “Let me have a look at that ankle,” he said and rolled up his right pants sleeve.
“I’m dying, Michael.”
He shook his head. “Don’t be a drama queen. It’s just a twisted ankle.”
Jon Owens propped himself up on his elbows. “I don’t have much more time. I can feel it.”
Michael glanced up. “What can I do?”
He shook his head. “There’s nothing anyone can do. My body is breaking down on a cellular level. I’ve likely already lost the ability to heal my injuries. You’d just be wasting your time.”
Michael stood back up finding it increasingly difficult to keep his anger in check.
“Just let me rest for a while,” Jon said, apparently being able to spot Michael’s growing frustration.
He nodded and turned to leave.
He faced him once more by the doorstep.
“Just make him see, will you?”
“I’ll tell you what I told him,” he said. “Let it go.”
“That’s the one thing I cannot do.”
After leaving Jon Owens to rest in his cabin, Michael headed straight to the common area on the deck where he found Garla, Culsten as well as his local alter ego who had followed them onto the Lead Belly, along with a handful of Krellonians who had managed to survive the Outlander ambush on the station.
Garla who Michael was convinced had saved them all by her timely intervention and who had fought like a woman possessed, had not managed to get away unharmed.
She had taken a phaser blast to her side and she was now half sitting on one of the benches with Culsten Prime caring for her wound.
The sentinel had not been shy about removing the top half of her jumpsuit to reveal a nasty wound, and Michael very briefly marveled at the impeccable shape the woman kept herself in. It was likely the reason why she was still conscious.
“By the Creator, Lif, it’s like you’ve never used a dermal regenerator before,” she said as she winced in discomfort while he tried to apply the device to her wound.
“I’m not exactly working with state-of-the-art equipment here,” he said.
“Just let me do it,” she said and practically ripped the regenerator out of his hand.
“You’ll all be happy to know that there is no sign of pursuit,” said Amaya Donners as she strode into the room. “I’m crediting this to my nearly supernatural piloting abilities and lightning-fast reflexes.”
“There are no Outlander interceptors in the area,” said the other Culsten. “It’s why we chose this time for our meeting.” But even as he spoke his eyes were entirely glued to Garla on the other side of the room and Michael suspected it had little to do with her half-dressed state.
“You need to be very careful about your words here,” she said with noticeable irritation in her voice. “In fact, you should still be thanking me that I allowed your sorry ass to come on my ship after you nearly had us all killed back there.”
Her aggressive stance did not go over well with the few Krellonians who had accompanied him and who now reached for their weapons to confront Donners.
Amaya remained unimpressed, didn’t even reach for her own weapon dangling from her belt. “Really, that’s how you want to play this?”
Culsten waved them off and they backed down. “We are grateful for the assistance,” he said but only afforded her the briefest of glances before his focus returned on the sentinel treating herself. He took a few steps toward her and his counterpart. “Now, I need to know what is happening here. How is this possible?”
“Apparently, the universe is ending,” said Donners but with a total lack of the solemnity that statement seemed to call for.
“Who are you and where are you from?” Culsten said, ignoring Donners.
“If I had a slip of latinum for every time I’ve been hearing this lately,” Prime Culsten said as he watched Garla make pretty good progress on treating her wound.
“Listen,” said Michael, putting himself in-between the two sets of Krellonians, facing the natives. “Captain Donners is correct. The universe is in great danger and it is imperative that we get to Cygni-98 as quickly as possible. She seemed to believe that you would be able to get us there without having to fight our way through the Outlanders.”
But Culsten just stepped right passed him, approaching his doppelganger and his companion. “You are me. And you,” he said, focusing on the sentinel. “You are Garla.”
“Your abilities of deduction are incomparable,” said Garla while continuing to work on her injuries. “No wonder you’re a big deal here. Lif, perhaps you should get some pointers from your alter ego over there. Might do wonders for your career.”
Culsten Prime just scowled at her.
“How is this possible?” he said.
Garla looked up. “Let me guess. The Garla you knew was either a great hero or a great disappointment and she died in a horrible, and/or noble fashion.” When he didn’t speak right away, she continued. “We are from another universe on a mission, it seems, to save all universes. The sooner you accept that and don’t try to kill either one of us, the quicker we can get on with preventing the death of everything you’ve ever known.”
“This is a lot to take in,” he said.
Michael stepped up to him, not entirely appreciating Garla’s ironic and supersonic explanation of their circumstances. Not while this man was possibly their best chance to save the quantum-verse. “I understand. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of time. There is an alien species out there that has constructed a massive particle accelerator hidden in subspace and powerful enough to wipe out entire realities. We have already witnessed two of them being destroyed. This one could be next if we don’t get to Cygni-98 within the next few hours.”
“And you’ve come from one of those other realities?” he said as he looked around.
Donners held up her hands. “Not me. I’m still making up my mind if this isn’t all just the worst tall tale I’ve ever heard. I’m not ashamed to say, I’m just in it for the money.”
“Can you help us get to Cygni-98?” Michael pressed.
“Cygni-98,” he said to himself. “That’s deep within Outlander-controlled territory. Their sensor net would pick us up long before we even get close. Considering they are already on high alert after what just happened, this wouldn’t be easy.”
“Easy?” Garla laughed and then immediately regretted doing so judging by her pain-induced grimace. “I don’t even remember easy.”
Culsten nodded. “I can help you. But first, you’ll have to do something for me.”
Michael emphatically shook his head. “We don’t have the time to delay any further. The stakes are simply too high.”
But Culsten stuck to his guns. “It’s the only way I will assist you. Besides, it might be the only way to get close to Cygni-98.”
“There’s always a catch,” said Prime Culsten.
Garla shot him a quizzical look as she zipped up her suit again.
“Just something Louise likes to say. It’s a human thing,” he responded.
She rolled her eyes.
“We need to get to the Piqus system,” Culsten said.
“Absolutely not,” both Prime Culsten and Garla said in unison.
“That was our destination before Donners asked for this meeting and quite possibly the reason the Outlanders caught up with us at Amargosa Station. Piqus VII is home to an Outlander prison camp. A lot of my best men are being held there and freeing them might very well turn the tide in our fight against Outlander oppression.”
Michael’s feelings mirrored those of Lif and Garla. “We can’t get involved in a rescue mission. I’m sorry, but if we don’t stop that supercollider from activating again, none of this will even matter.”
“Piqus VII is also the main control hub for the sensor net in this sector. I know how to disable it if you get me there. Trust me, you won’t get within half a light-year of Cygni-98 while the sensor net remains operational.”
Michael reached for his forehead, trying to stave off a headache that had never really gone away over the last few days. It was threatening to come back to full force now. His priority was clear, had been ever since he had started to understand the awesome consequences of allowing the Ring to activate again. And yet he understood that without allies like this Culsten, they had little chance to succeed. Being separated from Eagle made things worse, although he wasn’t sure how much their chances would have improved having his ship’s resources at hand considering what they were up against.
“If Piqus is as important as you say it is,” said Lif Prime, “how can we even hope to get close to it, let alone free prisoners and shut down a sensor net? You expect the few of us to go up against what must be a heavily fortified position.”
“I have that part covered,” he said. “I managed to obtain access codes that will allow us to enter the system without raising suspicions. Besides,” he said and he focused on the sentinel again. “My Garla was a great leader who inspired countless Krellonians to put up arms against the Outlander tyranny, including myself. But I have to say, she wasn’t even half the fighter you are. With you on our side, I am convinced we cannot fail.”
Garla stood from the bench, still moving a little gingerly after treating her injury, and then squared her shoulders as she faced the other Culsten. “Let’s just be clear about one thing. I’m nobody’s hero.”
“But you’ll help us,” he said, sounding hopeful.
She uttered a heavy sigh. “I suppose I’m all in on trying to save reality as we know it. Whatever it takes.”
He seemed almost ecstatic to hear this.
“Everybody pump your breaks,” said Donners and took a few steps closer to the rest of them. “You may have recalled that I mentioned that my services do not come for free. I was hired to get you all in touch with each other and considering the unexpected dangers to life and limb involved in that mission, I am due for some serious hazard payment. Payment, I haven’t even seen the first glimpse of yet, by the way.”
“I told you,” Michael said. “You will get paid in full as soon as we reunite with my ship.”
She shook her head. “That promise only gets you so far. It certainly doesn’t get you a free ride on my ship to a heavily defended Outlander outpost.”
“If my access codes are valid, and I have reason to believe that they are, we’ll be able to slip by Piqus defenses entirely unnoticed,” Lif Culsten said.
“You forgive me if I don’t put much stock into your word, seeing that you very nearly brought the entire Outlander military down on us,” she said with a grin but very little actual humor.
“You’ll get paid,” Michael said. “I’m willing to double what we’ve agreed on. Just get us to Piqus and as soon as my ship catches up with us, you’ll never have to deal with any of us again.”
Amaya Donners took her time to consider Michael’s words, her eyes sparkling as they focused on him like twin laser beams.
He knew what she was doing, scanning his face and his body language for any sign of deception. Any hint at all that what he was promising her was not in fact reality.
He did his level best to pass muster but in truth, he had rarely ever felt so uncomfortable in his life. He wasn’t used to lying and he hated the feeling it gave him. It was made harder by the fact that he was doing it to someone who shared a face and more with the woman he was in love with.
After what seemed to him like an eternity, that smirk returned to her lips. “Well, strap in, everybody. This promises to be one hell of a ride.”