Amargosa Station was an impressive sight, not so much for its size or design but rather for its location and its architectural ingenuity.
The station had been built into the inside of a cracked moon, orbiting a massive gas giant and Michael had some serious reservations about the longevity of the structure the way it had been seemingly hastily merged to a dead satellite that, in all likelihood, had already commenced a slow but steady death spiral toward the planet it orbited until it would eventually be swallowed up whole by it.
The fate of Amargosa Station, however, was not a significant concern to him at present as Amaya Donners gathered his team in Lead Belly’s docking port.
“We’re about to dock,” she said as she strode into the antechamber that led into the airlock. “I don’t know what kind of space stations you people are used to, but Amargosa isn’t a very happy place and I’d rather not spend a minute longer on there than I absolutely have to. The plan is as follows: We go in, I’ll take you to my contact and we get the hell out again.”
“That’s fine with us,” said Michael, nodding.
Amaya glanced at Culsten and Garla. “And I suggest the two of you stay on the ship.”
“Your concern is touching,” Garla said sharply. “But I have no interest in staying behind.”
Amaya uttered a heavy sigh as if she had expected this kind of resistance. Then she turned toward a locker, retrieved two long cloaks, and threw them at the other woman who caught them easily. “If you insist on being stubborn, at least wear these. You do us no favors running around Amargosa and advertising that you’re Krellonians.”
Garla was just about to offer another retort but Michael beat her to it. “An acceptable compromise, I’m sure,” he said, pinning her with a look that was sufficient to make her relent before she followed Culsten’s example and begrudgingly pulled on the concealing garment but not before complaining about its general state and its unpleasant odor.
If she was unhappy about how dirty and smelly her disguise was, Michael couldn’t imagine how she felt about the station once they had set foot on it.
He hadn’t been in this universe for long but from everything he had seen and heard about it, the fact that there was no Starfleet or Federation and that its people lived in mostly poor and borderline lawless conditions, had given him a fair idea of what life in this reality was like.
Amargosa Station turned out to be worse than what he had imagined.
It reminded him a little bit of the stories he had heard of orbital ore processing stations that the Cardassians had employed to strip mine planets they had conquered.
After boarding, they had been quickly ushered onto the main concourse that on most starbases he had been on would have functioned as a promenade of sorts with storefronts, entertainment establishments, restaurants, and other facilities. Some of those existed here as well, but mostly it was a dark, dirty thoroughfare for Krellonian workers carrying minerals and ores that were being mined from the broken moon.
Large walkways above were reserved for Outlander races, many in uniform, although the few, massive, ursine Buoth he spotted up there didn’t bother with much clothing at all, as they were covered with thick brown or black fur.
Clearly, a great many of those Outlanders were guards, actively monitoring the traffic below, armed with batons or guns that could be wielded quickly.
The station was generally in a poor state, the floors they walked on were covered with dirt and waste with plenty of floor plates missing outright, making the cramped space even more treacherous to navigate. Entire wall sections were uncovered to reveal old and barely functioning conduits and electronics and the smell was a near toxic mixture of unprocessed minerals and metals, along with the stench of too many unwashed bodies huddled together in a far too small place.
“Charming locale,” Jon Owens said as he pushed past two Krellonians precariously balancing a stacked but broken anti-grav carrier between each other.
“I’ve only been here once before,” said Frobisher. “And at the time I had promised myself to never come back here again.”
“It grows on you after a while,” said Amaya who led the group across the concourse with relative confidence. She had left the rest of her crew behind on her ship, arguing that the last thing you wanted to do on Amargosa was bring a crowd.
Seeing this station and the masses of workers here, Michael understood her argument completely, in fact, he now realized that even the size of their team was likely too large for it.
“Just keep your heads down, don’t talk to anyone and for God’s sake, do not touch anything,” she said as she continued to lead them single-file through the throngs of people.
“This contact of yours. Who is he?” Michael asked as he squeezed himself past two Nausicaans, the few non-Krellonians or Outlanders he had seen on this station, both of whom offered angry grunts in response.
“Somebody who hopefully knows how to get you where you need to go. I’ve arranged a meeting in one of the cargo holds a few decks down. We should have a bit more room down there to breathe, not to mention, privacy.”
“What’s his name?” he said. “In case we get separated.”
She kept her pace but didn’t respond.
Michael caught up with her and reached out for her shoulder. “Wait, you don’t even know your contact’s name?”
She pulled back, freeing herself from his touch, and shrugged. “We’ve only ever spoken via subspace where we use code names. He goes by Gray.”
“You have no idea what your contact even looks like?” said Matthew, not quite able to mask the astonishment in his voice. “And we are trusting this person with our lives because?”
“Whoever Gray is,” she said with annoyance, “my contact has never let me down, never broken a promise, or sold me a bad product. So, you could say, Gray has been far more reliable than you and your partner have been. I take reliable over faces and names every time.”
But Matthew was not impressed. “Wes, I think we should rethink this.”
Michael responded in his stead. “We’re already committed and we’ve come too far to try and come up with another plan now.”
“There are no other plans,” Amaya said. “Not if you’re serious about trying to get deeper into Outlander territory. It’s this or I can leave you right here and you can try your luck with the local authorities. I’ll be out of the latinum you still owe me but it’ll almost be worth it for the entertainment value of seeing you skinned alive by the T’aq.”
Michael couldn’t tell how serious she was but one glance toward the walkway and the ferocious-looking lupines stalking above, he didn’t have a difficult time imagining those creatures being able to administer such punishment.
“We’ll carry on,” said Michael and found everyone else in the group in agreement. Everybody but Garla, he realized.
The sentinel had stopped walking and was now looking at an altercation a few meters away in front of a large industrial elevator that had apparently broken down in-between decks.
In an attempt to clear the lift’s cargo of heavy ores, a few Krellonian workers had accidentally spilled two cases of valuable minerals.
A uniformed, humanoid Kidrip was in the process of savagely beating a male Krellonian who, although bigger than the guard, offered no resistance as his face was being pummeled. A slightly younger female worker was already on the floor, her face bleeding as well from another beating.
Another guard, a reptilian Zel, stood nearby watching on with a rifle in his hand, and keeping other Krellonians from coming too close.
Garla was watching all this with a deep frown etched into her features.
“Come on, there’s nothing we can do, let’s go,” said Culsten.
“Those are our people, Lif,” she said angrily without taking her eyes off the gruesome scene.
He shook his head. “No, they’re not. Not really.”
“Doesn’t matter what universe we’re in. Those are Krellonians.”
“Maybe,” he said. “And I know it’s wrong. But I also know that in our universe, a scene like that, but reversed, with the Outlanders being beaten by Krellonians, wouldn’t exactly be headline-grabbing news.”
Garla shook her head in disbelief. “Right now, I don’t care. I can’t just stand here and do nothing,” she said and began heading for the elevator.
“We don’t have time for this,” said Amaya with annoyance after being forced to stop for the Krellonian sentinel. “Get her back in line. She gets herself involved and she may as well be signing all our death warrants.”
Michael understood and quickly moved to intercept Garla. He managed to get to her just before she had reached the mass of onlookers around the public beating. Apparently, the Outlanders were happy enough for others to witness their form of punishment, no doubt to serve as a warning for everyone else.
He managed to grab her by her upper arm before she could close in any further. “Think this through. You attack them here and we’re in a world of trouble. We may not even make it off this station in one piece. Our mission is too important to take that kind of risk.”
“Where’s that famously arrogant Federation morality now, Captain?” she said in a tone icy enough to give him chills. “Does it only apply when it suits your needs?”
Although he kept his voice down, he matched her intensity in tone. “My morality comes with the wisdom to understand when it must be applied and when greater imperatives take precedent.”
Garla freed herself from Michael’s grasp. “When I see something wrong, I’ll act on it. That’s my imperative.”
Before he could say anything else she had slipped out of his fingers and disappeared within the crowd surrounding them. “Goddamnit,” he mumbled quietly to himself. He wasn’t armed, Amaya had seen to that, but he very much doubted that a weapon would have done him much good in this situation. His best chance now, he understood, was to get his team back to the ship as quickly as possible.
He glanced once more toward the Outlander continuing to beat the Krellonian worker who did little more than moan and bleed, his face already a deformed mess, with no sign of Garla anywhere, before he began to turn back to the rest of his people.
But before he had managed more than a step, the sentinel was back at his side. “Let’s get going,” she said forcefully
Michael was momentarily confused. He looked back at the elevator but couldn’t see anything having changed and wondered if she had reconsidered after all.
“Now,” she repeated urgently.
And then he realized that the Kidrip was slowing down delivering the punishment. He took a step back and reached for his side where Michael was sure he could see something akin to blood. Too dark in color to belong to the Krellonian.
Michael understood what must have happened. Garla had somehow managed to slip close to the Outlander without being noticed and had likely delivered a fatal blow with a sharp weapon. He also understood that they better be as far away from the scene of the crime as reasonably possible before the Outlanders realized that one of their own had been attacked.
He quickly made it back to Amaya. “Let’s go. Now.”
She didn’t hesitate and the team was back on the move and when Michael glanced back one last time, the look on the Kidrip guard’s face was still one of perplexity, not yet understanding that he was likely already dead.
Amaya led them to a small staircase that didn’t see a lot of use and then descended four decks in a hurry. Michael made up the rear, mostly to make sure they were not being followed but also to help Jon Owens along who was not just the oldest member of the team but also, by far, the slowest.
The lower decks were more bearable than the concourse. It wasn’t empty, there were still workers lugging around containers and the occasional guard, but it was a far cry from the packed conditions above and they managed to traverse the corridors without further altercations until they reached their destination.
The cargo hold was truly massive, easily the size of Eagle’s main shuttlebay, probably a bit larger. It was also packed with rows and rows of shipping crates waiting to be loaded onto freighters.
Amaya navigated the maze with admirable confidence until they reached an artificially created clearing, surrounded by crates and containers.
Two Krellonian laborers were checking the inventory but upon seeing the away team they quickly decided against sticking around and disappeared deeper into the cargo hold.
Garla shook her head with disgust. “Our people have been reduced to skittish kergs in the woods, hopping away the moment they even suspect trouble nearby.”
“The Outlanders have not been kind to them,” said Matthew.
“That’s an understatement,” added Culsten, referring to what they had witnessed above.
Michael turned to Amaya. “Where this contact of yours? Where’s Gray?”
She leaned casually against one of the crates and crossed her arms in front of her chest. “They’ll be here. My contact has never let me down before.”
“But when?” he said. “In case I haven’t already stressed the urgency of our task before, we are on a tight clock here.”
“Keep your shirt on,” she said as she was making herself as comfortable as possible. “You can’t expect everyone to work on your schedule. Besides, you better start thinking about how you’re going to pay me. Charm and looks are only going to get you so far.”
“I told you, you get your latinum once we manage to rendezvous with my ship. Hopefully, your contact will be able to make that happen.”
Garla, however, didn’t seem content to wait and was already on the move again. He stopped her before she could leave. “Where are you going?”
“Please tell me they at least teach you rudimentary tactics in Starfleet? Take in your surroundings, Captain. What does this look like to you?”
He did as she had suggested. The area they had been led into was enclosed on all sides by containers stacked too high to climb across. Three narrow walkways between containers led in and out of the area. Michael understood straight away. “Great place for an ambush.”
She nodded. “Who knows, all this may work out. But if you don’t mind, I’ll err on side of being prepared for our contacts being less than friendly and find a better vantage point. You stay here and play the bait. Shouldn’t be too difficult for an experienced Starfleet officer.”
He couldn’t argue her logic even if he hated the condescending tone in her voice. After serving as a starship captain for the last five years, it had been a long time since anyone had spoken to him in this manner, and quite frankly, he was getting sick of it.
Garla, of course, didn’t care, nor did she give him an opportunity to air his grievances since she promptly departed into one of those narrow alleys.
“Looks like being skittish is an inherently Krellonian trait,” said Amaya with a large smirk on her face.
Michael just shot her an annoyed look in response.
The next ten minutes felt excruciatingly long to him considering that by now the station had to be on high alert from Garla’s assault on an Outlander guard. His far greater concern was the fact that they only had a very limited window, according to Frobisher, to return to the supercollider and stop it from at best, annihilating another reality and at worse, taking the entire quantum-verse with it.
Garla’s caution proved to be justified when he spotted a set of two Krellonians appearing at each of the three walkways. These men and women were not the same types of laborers they had predominantly encountered on Amargosa before. If their clothing was anything to go by, they seemed to have much more in common with Amaya’s crew, which led Michael to believe that they were mercenaries of some kind. This seemed to be confirmed when they brandished weapons they promptly aimed at him and his team.
“What is this?” Amaya said as she stood from where she had been sitting against a container for the last few minutes. “We’re here to meet with Gray.”
“In this time and place, taking precautions, comes with my line of work,” said a voice that sounded familiar to Michael.
It was so familiar, that he glanced at Lif Culsten first only to find that he hadn’t spoken.
Instead, the voice belonged to a man who walked out of one of the walkways, emerging behind two armed Krellonians and who looked almost indistinguishable from his helmsman.
“Amaya Donners, I presume?” he said, glancing at the captain of the Lead Belly.
She nodded but said nothing, clearly recognizing his face and looking back at Michael for answers.
“I’m Gray,” he said. “And from what I’m hearing, you have a rather lucrative business proposal for me.”
Nobody spoke and it clearly irritated him. “First off, I want to know who I’m doing business with. I know you,” he said, pointing at Donners. The rest of you look like humans,” he added, glancing over at Frobisher, Matthew, and Jon Owens with his eyes coming to a rest on his doppelganger who was still wearing a coat that did a decent enough job to hide his features within its hood. “What about you? Who are you supposed to be?”
Michael shook his head and took a step forward, ostensibly to put himself in between the two men. “It doesn’t matter who he is,” he said. “I’m the one paying the bills.”
“See, that’s not going to work for me. As you can imagine, my enemies far outnumber my friends. The only reason I’m still alive is because I know how to keep one step ahead of those trying to kill me. So I’ll have to insist.” He gestured for two of his people standing closest to him and they stepped up with their weapons drawn. “Show your face.”
Culsten, clearly not seeing another option, complied and threw his hood back to reveal his long gray hair and his face.
The other Culsten’s reaction was not surprising. “By the Creator, what is going on here? Who are you?”
“That’s a long story,” said his alternate.
But the other Culsten was not in a mood for stories, that much was clear, as he quickly shook his head. “The bastard Outties are behind this, aren’t they? They’re trying to replace me with somebody they can control? It’s not going to work. Kill them all.”
Before Michael could even start pleading his case, Garla reappeared. He hadn’t even seen her approach but all of a sudden, she stood directly behind the enraged Culsten, something sharp and shiny glinting in her hand and pressed up against his throat. “You might want to reconsider that. See, you wouldn’t even be the first Lif Culsten I’ve watched die in the last few days.”
His guards wheeled around to take a beat on Garla but none had a clear shot with their boss blocking the way.
“Tell your people to take a breath and lower those guns. We wouldn’t want one of them to accidentally perforate you.”
“Do as she says,” he said between clenched teeth.
His people slowly put down their weapons.
“You’re Garla,” he said, apparently having been able to recognize her voice. “How is that possible?”
“It’s as the man said. A long and complicated story. But we are not working with the Outlanders and we need your help to get into their territory.”
“I don’t believe you.”
That’s when the shooting started.
It didn’t come from Michael or his team nor the other Culsten and his people and he painfully realized that Garla had remained right after all. Except that she had been wrong about who was ambushing whom.