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Eagle had taken a beating, that much was undeniable as Michael digested the latest damage report while he made the short trip from his ready room to the observation lounge for a senior staff briefing.

And it hadn’t been just because of the latest battle with the Jem’Hadar. His ship had been in bad shape even before they had ever taken fire from their pursuers, thanks to three separate inter-dimensional journeys, something Eagle had certainly not been designed for.

Even so, it had been the handful of seconds between when they had dropped out of warp and before they had brought up the transphasic shield to survive their passage into the Moebius Cluster’s hazard zone, that had taken the hardest toll on Eagle as she had been relentlessly pelted by those Dominion ships.

It was bad enough that Hopkins had yet to provide an estimate on repairs to the main phaser couplings or the torpedo guidance system, she wasn’t even sure if long-range sensors could be brought back online without an infusion of raw materials and heavy equipment only a starbase could provide. Worst of all in his eyes was the fact that they had taken two casualties. An unlucky human crewman on deck twelve had broken his neck when the ship had hit the Bok globule and a lieutenant in engineering had been killed when an EPS conduit had overloaded in her section. The young Andorian woman had saved two crewmembers thanks to her quick actions once she had realized the impending catastrophe but had been unable to escape the explosion of super-heated plasma herself in time.

Hopkins had called her a hero in her report and Michael had every intention to ensure she’d receive the highest honors Starfleet could bestow for bravery in action, even if he was sure that any posthumous awards would come as little comfort to her loved ones once they learned of her fate.

Michael knew it had been naïve to expect that they’d be able to complete this mission without sacrifices but that hadn’t stopped him from aspiring to such a goal.

For a brief moment, he considered how the death of two crewmembers seemed to pale in comparison to the annihilation of entire universes, and yet, he had long since learned that there was truth to the saying that the death of one or a few was a tragedy, while the death of many was often no more than statistics.

He did his best to shake those macabre thoughts out of his mind as he stepped into the briefing room where he found most of his senior officers already seated around the table, along with Sentinel Garla and Lif Culsten at her side.

He was glad to see that Xylion and Nora Laas, who had been part of the away team to the Ring and who had been injured while there, appeared to have fully recovered.

The Vulcan science officer spoke up first. “Sir, it appears there has been an oversight,” he said. “Bensu has not been invited to this meeting.”

Michael shook his head. “Not an oversight.”

He raised his eyebrow. The only indication of his puzzlement. “I assume that we will be discussing the supercollider and its ability to annihilate quantum-verses and our strategy to prevent it from repeating it from doing so again. Bensu is our primary subject matter expert relating to the structure and its builders.”

“I’m well aware of that.”

“Michael, this makes no sense,” DeMara said from where she was sitting to his left. “If we want any hope of putting a stop to whatever is going on here, we’ll need his input.”

“I know that Mister Bensu has shown some remarkable insights into our situation,” Michael started but was cut off by DeMara.

“Insights?” she said with noticeable disbelieve. “We wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for his efforts.”

“All right, people,” said Tazla Star from his right, speaking in a firm tone. “Let’s all remember that this is a Starfleet ship and that the captain has the final say on who takes part in a meeting and who does not. Now, I think we all need to focus on where we are and what we need to do next.”

Michael offered his first officer a small nod but he could tell by the look in her emerald eyes that she wasn’t entirely sure why he had made certain decisions. In truth, neither was he.

The far doors to the observation lounge opened and Michael feared that he had to confront Bensu about his decision in person, something he was not prepared to do just yet.

Instead, it was his father who walked into the room.

Michael stood. “Dad?”

All eyes turned toward the admiral.

“I believe I need to be here for this.”

But Michael shook his head. The man looked haggard and frail. His face was much paler than he had seen it ever before and he wasn’t quite sure how he had managed to get out of Katanga’s clutches yet again, not to mention keep on his feet. “You should be in sickbay.”

He raised a hand. “Yes, I know. And I’ll go back there. But for now, you’ll need my expertise. Just let me sit down and give me a minute to catch my breath.”

Michael wanted to protest yet again but Jon Owens was insistent enough to make Nora get out of her chair and offer it to him. He couldn’t really blame her, his father looked about ready to keel over.

Nora seemed happy to remain standing.

Michael took his seat again, his eyes lingering for a moment longer on the admiral but when he didn’t make eye contact, he regarded his chief engineer instead, indicating for her to provide her report.

“Well, good news first, I guess,” said Louise Hopkins. “The transphasic shield has worked like a charm so far. It’s fully stable and based on the current energy drain we should be able to remain within the cluster for at least nine to ten hours before the warp core will no longer be able to feed the shield’s power needs. We’ll have to put up with some increased stress on the hull that won’t make for smooth sailing while we traverse this area of space but I suppose that’s a small price to pay.”

Leva continued. “From a tactical perspective, we’ve already established that the Dominion ships cannot follow us into the cluster. Although we don’t have access to long-range sensors at present, there is no indication that they are attempting to come after us.”

“That begs the question as to where we go from here,” said the Trill first officer, glancing toward Michael.

“This all started--it seems an eternity ago now--as a mission to gather intelligence and ultimately prevent an incursion by a subspace race into our domain. I think it is safe to say that our mission has now fundamentally changed. The Ring structure is capable of wiping out entire universes and rather than invading them, these subspace aliens have made it clear that they intend to destroy them.”

Nora leaned forward in her chair. “But I still don’t understand why. What do they gain from doing this?”

Nobody in the room had an answer to that question. “Their motivations are something we should try to establish but our priority, for now, is to find a way to stop them. And I want to make this very clear. Going forward that will be our primary focus. We’re no longer trying to stop an invasion, it’s not even trying to find a way back home. We will not allow the Ring to bring down another universe, no matter what we must do to accomplish that.” He let his gaze wander across the room, ensuring to make eye contact with every single person at the table to stress his resolve in this matter. He was encouraged that nobody seemed to disagree. He also understood that he had pledged his life, and the life of every single person on this ship, to this one task.

“If the supercollider continues to operate the way it has in the past, it activates every forty-seven point four standard hours. That means that we have forty-four point eight hours to find a way to prevent it from reactivating. That is contingent on the assumption that the process is not triggered prematurely,” said Xylion.

Michael nodded. “We cannot rule out that it won’t. This means our timetable on returning to Cygni-98 has to be as soon as possible.”

“With the Dominion and the Krellonians patrolling the area, that won’t be an easy task, particularly in our current state,” said Star, and Michael was forced to agree with her.

“Perhaps those Krellonian ships could help us,” said Garla, doing little to mask her interest in those vessels or perhaps more accurately, the people who crewed them. “If we could find a way to communicate with them, perhaps we could make a deal.”

“I don’t know,” said Culsten at her side. “The Dominion ships and the Krellonians seemed to be in lockstep. They definitely didn’t see each other as hostiles. And that’s bad news for us.”

Michael nodded. “Agreed. I think we need to find a way to avoid them both.”

“That’s going to be a challenge,” the tactical officer said. “The entire area seems to be under heavy surveillance.”

“Head for Arkaria.”

All heads turned toward Jon Owens.

He answered the unspoken questions. “Eagle is in bad shape. We won’t make it halfway back to Cygni-98 in our condition. Arkaria Prime may be the only safe harbor within reach for us and our only chance to make necessary repairs. The Moebius Cluster should allow us enough cover to get there virtually undetected by whoever is out there looking for us.”

“What makes you so sure that Arkaria is a safe harbor?” Michael asked skeptically.

“Sure?” he said, shaking his head. “Oh, I’m not sure at all. But I think we’ll have to take some risks. We know that the universes we have visited have had some very noticeable distinctions from each other but some patterns have remained consistent. Arkaria was an important space outpost in all of them and that might be true here as well. And it is within our reach. Where else would you propose we go, without the ability to rely on sensors? And we can’t affect repairs on our own.”

Michael couldn’t deny that he made a certain amount of sense. He also realized that he had done his homework before joining the meeting. He seemed to be fully aware that Eagle was not going to go far without some outside help.

Star nodded slowly. “I think it might be our best shot for now. The Moebius Cluster spans much of the Diaspora, from here all the way to Arkaria, we know that. We can dip in and out of the hazard zone to use warp and until we get there and most likely continue to elude the Dominion that way.”

“Very well,” he said after a moment. “Let’s make that our destination. But if there is any indication at all that in this universe, it’s a Dominion outpost, we’ll need a backup plan.” He glanced at Xylion next. “Once we have found our way back to the Ring, how can we hope to stop it this time?”

“During our last attempt we encountered a man called Gary Seven inside the structure’s control room,” the Vulcan said.

“And his cat,” added Hopkins.

This caused some eyebrows to climb toward the ceiling, Michael’s included. “I’m sorry, I thought you said his cat.”

“It’s true, though I’m not sure I fully understand how that feline creature factors into all of this,” said Nora where she stood, crossing her arms in front of her chest.

“I think you’ll better start at the beginning,” said Tazla Star, no doubt feeling just as befuddled as Michael.

“With assistance from SMT operator Ivory and myself, Bensu was able to make contact with an individual who introduced himself to us as Gary Seven, and claimed to be a member of an inter-dimensional agency tasked with protecting the quantum-verse.”

“And clearly not doing a great job at it,” said Nora.

“At his suggestion, we created a more powerful mind-link that included all members of the away team. This allowed us to learn more about the nature of the Ring structure and its builders and eventually slow down the supercollider. Regretfully, we did not have the resources at our disposal to stop it altogether.”

“And you think we can trust this agent?” asked Star.

“I believe Bensu would be able to answer this question better than any of us since he spent the most time with him,” said Xylion. “But he gave us no reason to distrust his motives to try and stop the supercollider.”

“I’ve been thinking,” said Hopkins, looking at the Vulcan sitting on the other side of the table from her. “We whipped up that psionic resonator pretty much on the fly to enhance the mind-link supporting Bensu. With our resources here on Eagle, we could likely fashion a much more effective device to support those efforts.”

Xylion offered a short nod. “I have been considering this as well. And Eagle has at least thirty-five crewmembers with inherent telepathic abilities. If we could utilize all of their efforts, as well as a more sophisticated psionic resonator, we should be able to establish a much more powerful mind-link to oppose the forces of the subspace aliens.”

“But we would still be reliant on Bensu to guide our efforts,” said Michael, not liking the sound of this at all.

“Yes,” Xylion said. “He is the only person we are aware of who possesses the ability to create the psionic connections that can directly affect the subspace beings and the supercollider.”

“Even Gary Seven seemed impressed by his powers,” said Nora. “And that man struck me as somebody who has seen some strange things in his lifetime.”

Star turned to Michael. “I think for now we have to pursue it. Do everything we can to be prepared to put this plan into action unless a better opportunity presents itself.”

Michel nodded but said nothing.

Star took that as an affirmative and when it became clear he wasn’t going to add anything further, she addressed the rest of the people in the room. “Louise, your priority remains on repairs. See what you can do to give us weapons, we might need them to get back to Cygni-98 or maybe even to Arkaria. And we need to be able to see where we are going, so sensors are also high on that list.”

The engineer nodded. “Weapons will be tricky but I might be able to give us some phasers. As for sensors, we’ll be able to use systems from our auxiliary craft to at least give us some idea what’s out there.”

“Good thinking,” she said and looked at Xylion next. “Commander, the priority for the science team is to work on that psionic resonator. Use whatever resources we do not need for repairs to create something to give us the edge. I’ll get started on collecting our telepaths but I’ll need your help to prepare them for the task ahead.”

“Understood,” he said.

She addressed Nora next. “Lieutenant, make sure your team and the SMTs are ready at a moment’s notice. I don’t expect Arkaria to be anywhere as friendly as the one in our universe.”

“We’ll be ready.”

“Commander Leva, if Arkaria doesn’t pan out and we run into another Dominion fleet out there we’re going to need a strategy to get us out of there alive.”

“I may have some ideas for that.”

“Lif, set a course for Arkaria, make use of the Moebius Cluster as much as you can but keep in mind, we need to get there as fast as we possible, so we can’t stay hidden in here, traveling at impulse.”

“It won’t be a straight line, Commander, but I’ll get us there with plenty of time to spare.”

“Good,” she said and then briefly considered the remaining officers. “Everyone else, do your jobs and help where you can. Remember, our new mission is to stop the subspace aliens by any means necessary. It’ll be nice if we found our way back home while doing that, but that’s not our priority anymore. This won’t be easy, in fact, this will likely get a lot worse before it gets better,” she said and then briefly made eye contact with Michael again who gave her a nod to proceed. “But as I was reminded not too long ago, the bravery of this crew is beyond reproach.”

Michael could see nothing but determined faces looking back at them, even Garla, who until recently had worked to thwart their efforts now appeared to be determined to do whatever was in her power to stop the collider.

A small yet confident smile graced Star’s lips. “Let’s go and save the universe.”

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