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It wasn’t often that Eagle’s main science lab was this well guarded.

Michael found two security guards outside the doors as he approached. And not just armed with hand phasers as was standard procedure, these crewmen were wielding rifles, giving him a brief and disturbing flashback to the worst days of the Dominion War. He tried to shake off those thoughts and ignore the growing desire to exchange their current predicament for any of those miserable days he had spent studying seemingly endless casualty reports or the threat of Jem’Hadar attack ships swooping down on them at any moment.

The war had taken its toll. It had been one of the darkest periods in Federation history, and yet, no matter how bad it had gotten, the stakes had never been as high as they were right now. Sure, the entire Federation and their way of life had been threatened on a nearly constant basis by the paranoid and order-obsessed Founders that controlled the Dominion, but existence itself, whatever shape it took, had never really been in doubt. Certainly not for an entire universe.

Michael realized that Tazla Star had been right. Regular mortals such as he had no business having to contemplate the fate of all life everywhere. That was firmly within the scrutiny of the deities and would drive a lesser being such as himself mad over time, he was certain.

He entered his authorization code into the panel next to the doors and after a moment they parted to allow him into the lab.

Inside he found another four, heavily-armed security crewmembers spread out in each corner of the lab. At the very center stood a platform that held the device he had come here to ponder, secured inside a level ten force field bubble.

After the alternate Tazla Star had managed to abscond with the Exhibitor so easily, his Star had instructed Nora Laas to implement a security plan that would make it far more challenging for anyone to attempt and steal the device a second time.

Michael thought that Nora had more than delivered. Besides the six-man strong detail providing around the clock security, access limited to authorized personnel, and even then, only after the computer had verified their identity through a multi-stage verification process, the security chief had also secured the lab with additional shielding that made it virtually impossible to beam in and out. She had also ensured that the force-field protecting the device had multiple redundancies that would keep it active even if the rest of the ship lost power. Two command-level officers were required to deactivate the force field and remove the Exhibitor from the lab.

All this would have seemed like overkill had it not been for the fact that Michael was more convinced than ever that the Prism that could only be accessed via the Exhibitor was the key to preventing the death of another universe.

“Still hard to believe that such a little thing could play such an immense role in potential saving all of reality.”

Michael turned upon hearing the familiar voice to find DeMara Deen. He had not seen her when he had stepped into the lab but she had found him staring at the force-field protected device. He nodded slowly and then looked back at the unimpressive-looking rod. “Have we learned anything more about it?”

She stepped up next to him. “I doubt that we will. Special Affairs had this in their possession for years and hasn’t been able to make much progress. I doubt we will in a few days.”

“Considering who ran Special Affairs during that time we should probably keep an open mind and maintain a healthy amount of skepticism about everything we are being told about it.”

“We certainly haven’t given up on it,” she said, still at his side. “Pretty much all of Xylion’s people and a good number of engineers are currently pouring over every bit of data we’ve managed to glean from it so far. But it’s not much.”

He didn’t speak right away as his eyes remained glued to the device and it took him a moment to realize that the ensuing silence between them was becoming awkward. It had been like this between them for a while now.

Michael had a good idea why she was far less talkative than usual. Although a whole lot had happened since then, he still remembered their discussion a few days earlier that had turned into an argument about their relationship. He knew he hadn’t handled it very well and that he needed to find a way to address it before it could become this ugly thing between them.

Recent events hadn’t exactly given him an opportunity for a good old-fashioned heart-to-heart and then there was that look in her eyes every time he was near. He thought he knew exactly what it was and where it had come from.

“I know I’ve been a little distant lately,” she finally said before he could broach the subject.

“I understand.”

“I know he wasn’t you. Intellectually, I understand that,” she said without looking at him.

“It wasn’t easy for me to encounter the other me, to see what had become of Michael Owens in that universe. I know it was worse for you. What he did.”

She shook her head. “It’s not even that,” she said. “Yes, he fooled me into thinking he was you and he attacked me and kidnapped me. All that I can handle. It’s just…” she let the words linger there for a moment.

Michael turned to her and he could see that look in her eyes again. A sense of uncertainty.

“He did all those things while looking exactly like you.”

“You don’t think I’d be capable of something like that, do you?”

She took a few steps away. “I don’t know, Michael, I don’t think so.”

That was difficult for him to hear. The fact that she didn’t immediately discount it was painful.

DeMara turned back to him, noticeably keeping a distance. “There is a difference between what we know to be true and what we feel to be true. I know it wasn’t you, I know you wouldn’t behave as he did, but it doesn’t change the fact that when I look at your face…” she stopped again, shaking her head with frustration.

He nodded. “It’ll take time. I think once all this is over, we’ll all need time to make our peace with what has happened. There’s coming across our doppelgangers which is bad enough, then there is considering the end of everything that ever was or ever will be. I see a lot of counseling sessions in our future.”

At that, she grinned. “A starship captain volunteering to get counseling? And I thought this couldn’t get any stranger.”

He laughed.

She was ready to change the subject. “How’s the Admiral doing?”

He sighed. “Not well.”

Her eyes landed on the Exhibitor again. “Do you think he’s still in shape to use it again? We may need him to do so before this is over and as far as we know, he’s the only one who can.”

Michael had been pondering that very same question. “I’m not sure. To be honest, I fear that trying it again could end up killing him. He seems to have gotten weaker every day since all this started.”

“Since he came back from the dead.”

He nodded. “And then there are things that Jarik alluded to about my father before he was killed that have started to give me pause and question his motives. I don’t know how much I can trust him.”

She had clearly not heard this before and offered him a quizzical look in response. But Michael was not quite ready to talk about this.

“Well, there is no reason you couldn’t try it.”

That caused him to give her a puzzled glance.

“Best theory we have so far is that the Exhibitor is somehow keyed into the Admiral’s biosignature, possibly through his DNA.”

“Of which I’d share half,” he said.

“It is worth a try, don’t you think?”

And yet he felt a cold shudder running up his spine while considering activating the Exhibitor and attempting to summon the most powerful force he had ever known.

His first officer’s voice interrupted his growing sense of dread. “Star to Owens.”

He answered without delay. “Go ahead, Commander.”

“We’re approaching Arkaria Prime, sir. I think you might want to come up here.”

“On my way, Owens out.”

“To be continued?” she said once the audio channel had been closed.

Michael briefly wondered what part of their conversation she was referring to and ultimately settled on the Exhibitor. He shot it one last look. “I sincerely hope not,” he said and then quickly left the science lab.

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