Tazla had woken with the mother of all headaches, worse even than the one she had remembered after the first time they had gone through the gateway.
She was certain she had spotted the captain jumping into the turbolift before she’d had a chance to even find her bearings. It had seemed like an uncharacteristic move for him considering the current crisis and she had no idea where his presence could have been required more urgently than on the bridge. Ultimately, she was relieved that he had weathered their latest transition unharmed.
She had spent the next few minutes checking on the rest of the bridge crew. Deen and Leva were dazed but most unharmed while Srena and a crewmember manning one of the bridge aft stations had been injured, neither of them seriously, but enough for her to have them sent to sickbay. The versatile Bolian Lieutenant Alendra had slipped behind the conn in the meantime.
The initial damage report seemed to indicate that the ship had taken a beating traveling through the gateway, not as badly as the first time they had made the sudden transition but certainly worse than their last journey when they had been far better prepared.
The captain returned to the bridge just as Leva completed a report she had asked for.
“Engines are at sixty-five percent power but weapons are offline and shields are running on auxiliary power. Communications are down as well but we do have sensors,” the tactical officer said and briefly glanced in the direction of the captain who was making his way down the ramp and toward the command area.
“Casualties?” he asked just before he had reached her.
“None have been reported so far,” Leva said. “Sickbay advised of about two dozen injuries but that number is likely to increase. The transporter room reports that we managed to retrieve our away team. Apparently, they’ve taken quite a beating on the Ring, virtually all members were wounded and are being seen to in sickbay.”
Owens nodded knowingly, leading her to suspect that that’s where he had rushed to before she had even been on her feet. Perhaps out of concern for his frail father who had been part of the away team to the Ring.
He glanced at her next. “I want security posted to sickbay.”
She had no earthly idea why he felt that was necessary but her quizzical look went unanswered and she decided to follow her orders. She walked up to her chair, titled her computer console in her direction, and then entered the necessary commands to advise the security department to dispatch a detail to the medical section.
“Now for the big question,” Owens said. “Where did we end up and is there any chance that we found our way back home?”
“The good news is that we’re definitely in Cygni-98,” said DeMara Deen as her fingers danced over her console.
“But is it ours?” she asked, trying her best to hide her own anxiety over the answer. After having visited two universes and having come face-to-face with what had been her nightmare version of herself, and watching her die, she was more than ready to be done with this reality-hopping business.
“Long-range sensors have taken a bit of a hit during the transition,” the Tenarian said as she kept working her panel. “It’ll take me a moment to get them back into full working order.”
The doors to the forward turbolift opened and Tazla watched Lif Culsten and Garla step onto the bridge. She had known, of course, that they had beamed over several people from the Krellonian flagship before it had been destroyed, but matters had escalated so quickly afterward, that she had admittedly not had the time to determine who exactly had been rescued.
She was relieved to see that Lif Culsten had made it. On the other hand, the sight of his aunt moving about the ship freely made her feel less enthusiastic, considering the intelligence officer’s history and after having witnessed first-hand what she was capable of. And perhaps she was also still slightly peeved that the woman had bested her at a game she had once excelled at.
“Good to see you made it off that ship in one piece,” Owens said to his helmsman.
“Thank you, sir.”
“We were the only ones to make it,” said Garla.
It took Tazla a moment to understand what she meant, after all, they had managed to beam dozens of crewmembers across the stricken Tenarian ship. But then, just like the last time they had witnessed the destruction of an entire universe, nobody who had called it their home had been immune to its sudden end, even if they had been on Eagle at the time.
Owens and the rest of the bridge crew seemed to understand and let the comment pass in silence. It wasn’t enough, or even close to appropriate, to commemorate the end of a staggering number of people, Tazla thought. In fact, she felt the urgent need to distract herself from a thought truly unfathomable. “You’re out of uniform, Lieutenant,” she said after the moment had passed.
Culsten looked down at the elaborate Krellonian attire he was clad in. “Apologies, Commander. We had to improvise on short notice.”
Owens nodded. “We’ll let it slide for now,” he said with a small smile on his lips.
“Where are we?” Garla asked.
“That’s what we’re trying to establish,” she said and took a step closer to ops. “Any luck with those sensors?”
“Not exactly. But I have picked up multiple contacts.”
“Confirmed. We’ve triggered some sort of sensor alert,” said Leva from tactical, causing most heads to turn his way. “I’m reading eight starships that have amended their course and are now headed in our direction. The closest one will reach us in less than two hours.”
“Can you identify the ships?” she asked.
“The configurations resemble Krellonian designs.”
“Krellonian?” said Garla and then stepped closer to the main viewer. “Put it on screen.”
Tazla was just about to reprimand the woman for her audacity to give orders on this bridge. It was obvious that the sentinel was used to giving orders and she wanted to make it perfectly clear that she had no authority on this ship.
But when she spotted Owens nodding slowly, she indicated toward Leva instead to do what she had asked for.
The screen shifted to show a starship at warp. Its hull had that same chrome glint that she had seen on other Krellonian vessels but the ship was too distant to make out many details. “Magnify.”
The image zoomed in closer to reveal that it didn’t quite share the same design philosophy of the Krellonian ships in their universe, nor those they had encountered in the two others for that matter. This ship looked far more stream-lined compared to what they had come across before, not totally unlike a large missile, with a pointed forward section and a much wider aft quarter where three warp nacelles were seemingly incorporated into the ship’s superstructure.
“That’s no Star Alliance ship,” Garla said. “But I’ve seen this configuration before. It almost looks like…”
“Looks like what?” Tazla asked when she didn’t elaborate.
The Krellonian woman just shook her head. “No, that couldn’t be.”
“Considering what we have seen so far, I wouldn’t be too quick to rule anything out,” said Deen and Tazla found herself agreeing wholeheartedly.
“I’m reading another set of contacts now heading our way,” Leva said as he continued to monitor his board. Tazla could see the growing frown on his face.
“What is it?” she asked.
He looked back up. “I’m afraid we’re quite familiar with these designs,” he said and tapped a few commands to change the viewscreen.
Tazla felt a cold shudder run up her spine at what it revealed. It was a sight she had hoped not ever having to see again. It had haunted her nightmare for the better parts of the last few years.
The six purple and gray ships were shaped like large scarab beetles with warp nacelles attached to their sides like wings.
“The Dominion,” said Owens, he kept his voice low but the bridge was quiet enough that it carried.
“I think we can safely say that wherever we’ve landed, this is not home. There was no reported Dominion activity in the Beta Quadrant when we left,” said Tazla who, keeping with old habits, made it part of her daily routine to stay up with any and all intelligence briefings she could get her hands on, including one or two which were not meant for general distribution and she was able to obtain thanks to the connections she still maintained in the community.
“And we can also assume that they are not heading our way to invite us to tea and scones,” said Deen before she glanced at Owens.
“The Jem’Hadar ships are traveling at high warp and will reach our position in approximately three hours and forty-six minutes,” Leva said. “There are now a total of twelve ships heading our way. There is no way we can take on all of them. Not in our current condition. Maybe not even at full strength.”
Owens nodded slowly. “We can’t stay here. Options?”
“We could slip back through the threshold and in-between space. It’s very likely that the crew of those ships are not aware of its existence. None of the people we’ve come across in the other universes did,” said Deen.
But Tazla shook her head. “It’s too risky. They can likely see us just as clearly as we can see them. Which means if they spot us disappearing, they might just be able to find the threshold as well and follow us.”
“Which would give them access to the Ring,” Owens said, agreeing with her assessment. “Can we outrun them?”
Alendra who was still sitting at the helm turned her chair with a discouraging expression on her face. “Unlikely. Engineering reports that warp engines are only partially available. It doesn’t look like we could muster much more than warp six, maybe warp seven. Not enough to get away from those ships.”
“The Krellonian vessels are fairly spread out,” added Leva. “We are not exactly surrounded yet but that net is tightening quickly.”
Lif Culsten took a few steps toward the center of the bridge and then turned to look at the captain. “What about the Moebius Cluster?” he said and then looked at Tazla. “In our universe, it spreads out across almost the entire expanse of the Amargosa Diaspora and is almost impossible to navigate.”
“Impossible to navigate is the key term,” said Garla. “No one is foolish enough to even think of going close to that cluster. The gravimetric forces alone are enough to tear a ship apart within minutes.”
Culsten shot her a self-satisfying grin. “It’s how we came after you on Piqus and we made it in one piece,” he said and looked back at the captain. “I can pilot us through that and I’m certain our pursuers have the same mindset as my overcautious aunt here.”
“That’s not a term people tend to associate with me,” she said coolly.
Tazla could well imagine that to be the case. But more pressingly, she was not convinced at all of the helmsman’s brash plan. “That was a runabout you piloted, not a three-million-ton starship. There is no way we’ll fare anywhere near as well in the cluster even with you at the controls. And that trip was among the worst ones I’ve experienced. In multiple lifetimes.”
“Maybe there is a way we could survive,” said Leva who once more caused the attention of most of the bridge crew his way. “We may have an advantage all these other ships lack.”
Tazla understood what he meant but Owens beat her to the punch. “The transphasic shield,” he said.
“We’re not in great shape,” she said after thinking what it would mean to try and venture into an area so hostile, Eagle could be torn apart with nothing to protect her but a newly installed and barely tested shield system that even under optimal conditions was a significant power drain. “Will we have enough energy to keep it operational long enough to escape those ships?”
The question had been posed, primarily, to Leva but the half-Romulan tactical officer had no immediate response ready.
The captain, however, had already made up his mind. “It’s our best shot for now and the longer we stay put and do nothing, the worse our situation gets. We’ll just have to figure things out on the way,” he said resolutely and glanced at the Bolian woman at the helm. “Lieutenant, set a course for the Moebius Cluster, preferably one that keeps us well away from any ships trying to catch up with us. Best possible speed.”
The woman nodded sharply and went to follow the order.
Michael Owens offered Tazla a very brief glance and just enough to reveal what the confident tone in his voice had successfully masked.
He had no idea if this was going to work.