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Michael stepped out of the aft turbolift and onto the bridge just in time to witness the streaking starfield on the holographic viewscreen shift to a deceptively static one. This, along with the gentle rumbling of the deck plates beneath his feet confirmed that Eagle had dropped out of warp.

As he walked down the ramp leading down to the command area, he noticed that there wasn’t much to see on the viewer, even the startling mixture of stars and colors had given way to the more routinely dark void of space since Arkaria was located along the outer edges of the expansive Amargosa Diaspora.

Star got out of the captain’s chair as soon as she spotted his approach. “We’ve arrived at the outer periphery of the system. The Oort Cloud should shield us from any sensor activity from within the system.”

Michael took to his chair.

“I’ve got Arkaria Prime right where it is supposed to be,” said Lieutenant Stanmore who was currently operating ops.

“On screen,” Star ordered.

The main viewer shifted once more, this time to reveal the sight of the turquoise sphere hanging in space where, as far as Michael was concerned, this nightmare of a mission had first started just a few days earlier.

At this distance, he wasn’t able to make out much more. “Magnify, please.”

Stanmore’s fingers danced over his console and the screen promptly zoomed in closer until the globe filled out the entire height of the viewer.

“I’m not seeing the Remmler Array but there appears to be a smaller orbital installation in its place,” said Star.

Michael nodded, spotting it as well. It was not nearly as large as the massive installation designed to purge a starship’s hull of particularly harmful concentrations of baryon particles. The station that existed in its place was multiple times smaller. It did contain a dry dock facility of sorts, but this one did not appear as if it could support a ship of Eagle’s size and the adjacent control spire looked old and worn-out.

“What about the planet?” Michael said.

Alendra, who was stationed behind him at tactical, already had the scan results prepared. “Sensors read a population of about four-hundred million. That is roughly comparable to our universe. The vast majority are Arkarians but I’m also reading other bio signs, including Bolians, Vulcans, humans, and various other races,” she said. “The non-Arkarian population appears far larger than on our Arkaria.”

“Curious,” said Star.

He glanced at her and nodded in agreement.

“What about our friends in the Dominion?” she asked. “Any sign of them in or around the planet.”

Stanmore was back up. “Sensors are not detecting any Dominion signatures in the proximity. However, we are currently limited to passive scans only. Active scans may give us more information.”

“And put a bright spotlight on us,” said Michael and shook his head. “Let’s try and stay as inconspicuous as we can for now.”

“Sir,” said the Bolian officer at tactical. “I’m not detecting any Starfleet or Federation signatures either.”

Michael stood from his chair to glance toward Alendra. “Our Arkaria isn’t exactly a hotspot of fleet activity either. The same may be the case here.”

But Alendra shook her head. “I’m not detecting any Federation signals at all. Not on Arkaria, not in this system, not even in this sector or any that neighbor it.”

Star stood as well to join her captain. “Which means the Federation may be significantly smaller here than in our reality, or…”

“Or it doesn’t exist at all,” said Michael, finishing her thought.

She nodded. “I suppose a cautious approach is called for.”

“Remind me of the last time it wasn’t,” he said and then turned toward the helm console where the young Risian woman Aliris was currently piloting the ship. “Ensign, set a course for Arkaria Prime, full impulse.”

She nodded and followed his command, setting Eagle in motion again.

“Lieutenant Stanmore, keep a close eye on the planet and the rest of the system. Let’s keep sensors passive until somebody takes a closer look at us. Let me know as soon as you detect any kind of Dominion activity.”

“Aye, sir,” the blonde officer replied and focused on his instruments.

“That orbital station may not be the Remmler Array but it might be just what we need to get us going again,” said the first officer.

Michael had been thinking the same thing. “I guess it’s time we introduced ourselves,” he said, although he was certainly not looking forward to it. He had come to the conclusion that Starfleet regulations of non-involvement didn’t apply exactly in the same way in an alternate universe as they did when encountering non-space faring races or time travel. The Starfleet brass may have held a different opinion on the subject, but then again, they were not the ones finding themselves in the middle of a quagmire that was spelling doom for entire universes. Whatever Prime Directive-like implications may have been drawn up by Command for such a situation, they had left those behind a long time ago, right about when they had witnessed the annihilation of an entire reality.

It wasn’t Starfleet regulations that filled him with the anxiety of getting involved in the affairs of yet another universe but the fact that things had gone spectacularly wrong the last two times they had allied themselves with the locals. “Lieutenant Alendra, try hailing the orbital station,” he said, tugging at his uniform jacket and preparing himself for another difficult encounter, dreading what it might lead to this time.

“We’re getting a response,” she said. “Putting it on screen.”

“Just hang on one moment,” a voice said even as the visual pickup remained dark. “Just a moment, let me just set this upright, hold on.”

Michael shot Star a curious glance. He wasn’t sure what he had been expecting but this certainly hadn’t been it. His first officer had returned to her chair and shrugged, clearly not sure what was happening either.

He looked back at the screen that presently displayed nothing. “My name is Michael Owens from the starship-“

“Just, you know, give me a second here, all right? I have this all set up in a jiffy,” the other voice interrupted. “Where is it? Where is it? I know it was somewhere around here.”

Confused, Michael found Alendra next but the Bolian shook her head. “Channel is definitely open and there is no indication of interference,” she said, confirming that nothing was malfunctioning, certainly not on their end.”

“Yes, yes, it’s all just working perfectly fine. Just give me a goshdarn second here, will you?”

“Take all the time you need,” Michael said to the unknown person, not quite sure what else to say.

“Ah, there you are. It’s all good. No problem. No problem at all.” Something was being lifted away from the visual pickup and suddenly the entire screen was filled with the roundish face of a middle-aged human male with narrow eyes and a balding head. “It’s just where I thought it be,” he said as he reached out for the pickup device and jostled it slightly, causing the image to shake until he seemingly had it in the position he wanted it to be. “There, perfect,” he said and then leaned back in a chair and revealed that he was sitting in an office of sorts. Although not much of it was visible, the parts he could see looked rather grimy and filled with junk. A small round viewport behind his left shoulder revealed a glimpse of Arkaria Prime from orbit.

The camera angle remained slightly askew but Michael didn’t have the heart to tell this to the red-faced man who was already sweating slightly.

“Welcome to Hutchport. You have the pleasure of addressing the manager and sole proprietor, Calvin Hutchinson, but, and let’s just get that out of the way from the start, nobody calls me Calvin. Hutch is fine. Here at Hutchport, we offer the most efficient and affordable maintenance this side of the Diaspora. The only thing brighter than our service, are the stars of Amargosa.”

The speech was clearly a well-rehearsed sales pitch and judging by the rather unenthusiastic delivery, he had given it a countless number of times.

“Well, Hutch, it seems we’re very fortunate then to have found you. My name is Michael Owens and as it so happens, we are in needs of some maintenance-“

“Whoa, Nellie,” he said, interrupting Michael before letting loose a long whistle as he glanced at something else, presumably another screen, somewhere outside of the pickup range. “That’s one hell of a ship you’ve got there. Don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that.”

“We’re not exactly from around these parts,” Michael said.

“You can say that again.” He turned to look back at him but this time did a double-take and then actually leaned in closer to the pick-up until most of his face filled the screen once more. “Wait a minute, wait a minute,” he said. “You are human.”

Michael nodded. “That’s right.”

“What kind of business do you have with a ship like that?”

It wasn’t difficult to ascertain from the way this conversation was going that things were very different in this universe to the ones they had visited previously. But Michael had no intention of getting into details with this man. “It’s a long story and-“

Hutch waved him off. “You know what? I don’t want to know. I don’t need to know. This smells like a lot of trouble and I’ve long since made it my personal policy to stay well away from trouble. I suggest you just move on along with your fancy ship and take your problems elsewhere.”

“We’d be more than happy to get going but we’re in need of some repairs first,” said Michael.

But Hutch was decidedly shaking his head. “Well, I suggest you look somewhere else for your maintenance needs. If you’re the brave type, you can try your luck in Outlander territory. Or go and pay Shantok a visit. She runs a halfway respectable facility in orbit around Tessen III. She may not have my vast expertise but I’m sure she’d be happy to accommodate you.”

Michael glanced at Stanmore at ops.

“Tessen is located in the neighboring sector and is twenty-three light-years from our position,” the officer said, correctly anticipating Michael’s unasked question.

Michael didn’t need a computer to tell him that even at high warp it’d take them days to travel that far and that was time they didn’t have. Time, the universe didn’t have. “Unfortunately, our needs are too pressing to allow for that option. We’ve just traversed some of the more challenging areas of the Diaspora and require urgent repair.”

His eyes opened wide. “You took your ship through the Moebius cluster? My God, man, be happy your still alive to tell the tale,” he said. He seemed torn for a moment. “To be honest, I wouldn’t mind taking a look under that hood of yours. It’s been a long time I’ve seen a piece of such pristine engineering come through here.”

“We’d gladly offer you a tour.” That hadn’t been his first choice but the truth was, they were desperate.

“It’s just not worth the risk.”

“All we need are some raw materials,” Michael said, trying a different tact now. “We can affect repairs ourselves. In fact, we’ll more than happy to complete them elsewhere. And I’m sure we can find something to compensate you for your assistance. Some pristine technology, perhaps?”

His eyes lit up for a moment. “You’re a tempting devil, mister,” he said, giving Michael hope that he was getting through to him.

But then shook his head resolutely. “I just cannot risk it, no matter how enticing you make it sound. My suggestion is to take that gleaming ship of yours out of this system before it catches the attention of the wrong kind of people. And whatever you do, do not contact me again.” He stabbed a control on his desk and the connection shut down.

“That could have gone better,” Michael said.

“We don’t have a lot of options,” said Star as she stood from her chair to join him by his side.

“What do you suggest?”

There was a gleam in her eye that seemed both encouraging and a little scary at the same time. “I’ve dealt with people like Mister Hutchinson before. I think I know how to get through to him.”

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