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current_story:threading_the_needle_part_1

Threading the Needle, Part 1


ON

Location: Galorndon Core, Reman Neutral Zone
Timeframe: Present Day

In slow-moving fashion, a pair of diametrically constructed spacecraft calmly orbited a roiling, gray-clouded planet. The two vessels – one a pearlescent battle-wounded Luna-class starship emblazoned with the “HMS Republic” Starfleet registry, and the other a diminutive green raptor-shaped Romulan courier craft – were dwarfed by the sprawling, smokey charcoal atmosphere below. The planet's weather patterns below betrayed a violent meteorological environment through occasional bouts of lightning that erupted erratically across hundreds of kilometers of cloud tops. This seemingly chaotic undercurrent was the perfect electromagnetic camouflage for the cavernous underground settlement established deep within the planet's crust below.

Buzzing among the dark granite stalagmites and stalactites of the honeycomb-like network of caves, Starfleet personnel and uniformed Romulan military alike went about their business of operating numerous computer consoles and tending to complex engineering constructs replete with luminescent instrumentation of mechanistic design. Cables and optical wire harnesses were neatly affixed to the ancient lava-hewn stone walls interconnecting each chamber, interrupted only occasionally by modernistic light sconces linking them all together.

The activity in this complex was collaborative in nature, as if their cooperation was vital to their continued survival. Stenciled signs were posted outside different rooms and caverns inscribing the function of each one, and written in both Romulan and Federation standard. The long, winding corridors laid out several major operational areas, to include an engineering laboratory, life support control, a transporter complex, cargo holding warehouses, as well as numerous rooms, offices, and dormitories. Deep in the heart of the sprawling multiplex, a tactical control center acted as the central nervous system of the base. Larger than a starship bridge, the roomy cavern hosted a number of different consoles and display screens, as well as doorways that led off to smaller conference rooms and offices. The level of design and organization indicated that this joint base had been operational for some time. Nearly each set of instrument panels were manned by both a Romulan officer and a Starfleet attendant, each of whom worked in tandem on a set of tasks. One such grouping of consoles was an Ops station, and joining the two uniformed attendants was Victor Virtus of the HMS Republic, who stood in watch behind them. The three were monitoring twin screens that splayed a pair of LCARS title boxes. One read “REPAIR STATUS: HMS REPUBLIC”, while an adjoining one read “AEROSPRITE DATABANK DOWNLOAD”. Based upon Vic's newly-donned, cleaned-up uniform, as well as the constant flow of updated engineering data scrolling across the screens, it was evident that the spacecraft in orbit were not here to lend assistance, but rather, to seek refuge and recovery.

Elsewhere, in one of the more quiet caverns, a moderately-furnished study had been established. Unlike the other more austere chambers, this one was more embellished, and adorned with bookshelves, a library computer console, chairs, and reading tables among a pair of sofas in front of a holographic fireplace. The multi-lingual sign at the entrance read “LIBRARY”, and at this late hour, it was sparsely occupied by only four patrons who went about their business in silence. At the computer console, Doctor Saal Yezbeck from the USS Republic universe sat unobtrusively, perusing the data banks that resonated soft muffled chirps that were barely audible in the tranquil room. Recessed in another corner, a spacious mediation booth had been constructed, with pillows along the floor and beaded curtains in the background that formed a subdued metallic image of the Vulcan IDIC symbol.

Situated in the center of the booth, John Carter sat in a lotus position, his legs crossed, neck and back erect, and eyes closed in deep mediation. This version of John Carter was the antithesis of his surroundings, portraying the scraggly, brutish appearance of a brigand, from the unkept weaves of his long brown hair, to the pirate-esque eyepatch affixed to his left eye, to the rough-shaven five-o-clock shadow on his face. His black leather vest accentuated the Terran Empire tattoo on his bare shoulder, which seemed to scream malevolence to all who laid eyes upon him. However, that did not seem to deter the robed Vulcan who knelt in front of him, his hands pressed firmly and intently into pressure points on John's face. The two were peacefully locked in a prolonged mind-meld, watched intently from across the room by a tall man in black, waiting patiently as the meld wore on into it's third hour.

With a quiet, observational demeanor, the man formerly known as Doug Forrest surveilled the pair, seemingly expectant that the meld would break at any moment despite the current length of its duration. Recently taking on the persona of John “Theo” Carter in the USS Republic universe, the rogue former Intel agent from an alternate reality watched on as Saal completed his research at the library computer. Downloading the information to his personal PADD, the former USS Republic surgeon unobtrusively approached his Intel comrade to report on his findings.

Theo regarded him as he approached. “Well?” he asked in a hushed voice, hoping he would be able to shed some light on their predicament without disturbing John and the Vulcan. “What have you found out?”

“It's interesting,” Saal explained quietly in return. “Most of the history and pre-history of Earth occurred exactly in this reality as it did back in our own reality. The major changes started happening a little over three-hundred years ago at the start of the Atomic Age, where the countries of Britain, France, and the United States started taking different paths. According to these records, instead of nation states coming together to form the United Nations back in the mid-20th century, the British Commonwealth became the main political player.”

Theo turned his head to face Saal with a quizzical and confused expression. “The British Commonwealth?” he exclaimed. “I thought the United Nations was the precursor to the United Earth world government, not the Commonwealth. How did THAT happen?”

“Well, apparently, France and the religious nation state of Israel joined the British Commonwealth in 1956 circa the old-world calendar,” the doctor explained while reading from the PADD. “That allowed them to gain economic control of a strategic global waterway called the Suez Canal, leading to a nuclear arms crisis with a communist superpower known as the Soviet Union. However, an alliance with the United States activated a mutual defense clause in favor of the Commonwealth, and forced the Soviet Union to back down. A cold war persisted between the United States-allied Commonwealth and the Soviet Union until the 1990s when the Soviet economy collapsed and the nation state was dissolved into independent daughter states.”

“That sounds a little more familiar,” the former Starfleet Intel agent recalled. “But it still doesn't explain what happened to cause the British Commonwealth to rise to power instead of the United Nations.”

“It does if you think about how wealth was acquired in those days,” Saal suggested. “Political power back then was accumulated through acquisition of resources. Specifically, refined metallic gold, but also a mined liquid hydrocarbon that was used as a fuel for most of the automated machinery at the time.”

“Oil,” Theo concluded. “I remember reading about that from my academy texts. Wasn't it derived from fossilized organics?”

“Yes,” agreed Saal. “Algae, to be specific. It was what they called a 'fossil fuel' back in the 20th and 21st centuries. It's uncontrolled use caused a violent climate shift on Earth back then, but that's a separate topic,” he admitted, returning to the research he collected on the PADD.

“By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, the planet's fossil fuel commerce shifted towards the British-Franco Empire,” Saal further explained. “This made the Commonwealth the dominating economic power for the rest of the 20th century. By 2008, the economic influence of the Commonwealth merged with most of Europe in what became known as the 'British-Franco Eurozone'. Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, the United States economy collapsed into chaos due to financial scandal. Known as the 'Great Recession', a meltdown of Earth's mercantilistic-style economy started in 2008, spreading around the globe, and resulting in an economic collapse following a worldwide pandemic in the years 2020 and 2021. Attempts were made for the next several years to restart the global economy, but the United States continued to fall behind economically, compounded by a disastrous tsunami in 2022 off the northwest coast of the United States, which decimated the populations and economic infrastructure of most of the cities along the Pacific coast of North America.”

“That's terrible,” Theo commented with surprise, not remembering such a violent geologic event from his history lessons years ago. “Obviously they recovered and progressed into Starfleet at some point. When did things start turning around?”

The question had Saal to fingering through a few more pages on the PADD before answering. “According to this, it wasn't until 2025 when a British economic bailout was arranged for the United States and other nations affected by the economic collapse,” the doctor further explained. “By then, poverty and unrest had descended upon all nations outside of the Commonwealth, leading to widespread starvation and numerous civil wars that required Britain to consolidate the military authority of several countries in an alliance called the 'North American Treaty Organization'.”

“Yes, I remember that,” Theo recalled. “Wasn't that supposed to be part of the United Nations at some point?”

“Not according to this,” Saal explained, thumbing through the PADD. “Apparently, the military alliance was absorbed under the flag of the British Commonwealth. At the onset of World War Three, all nations within the Commonwealth found themselves under attack by the forces of Colonel Phillip Green and the Eastern Coalition. The war went nuclear, leaving many of the planet's major cities and governments in ruins. By then, the remnants of Earth's nations met in San Francisco to declare a cease-fire in 2053, ending the war, and re-establishing the British Commonwealth as the sovereign government of the entire planet.”

“Instead of the United Earth government,” the man formerly known as Doug Forrest finished the explanation with dawning cognition. “Very interesting.”

“The history since then has unfolded in a very similar manner as our own reality,” the doctor concluded. “Only that the British Commonwealth – today called the 'Royal Confederation of Planets' – is the ruling government here, and not the Federation. Of course, that doesn't explain any of THIS,” Saal commented, motioning to the activity around the caverns. “Romulan resistance against the Remans? The REMAN Empire? All the humanoid civilizations in both the Alpha and Beta Quadrants destroyed? This is a nightmare…”

“Agreed,” a calm voice came from behind them. It was Lieutenant Commander Victor Virtus, of the HMS Republic.

The commander, after having had time to tend to his ship and crew, as well as review the Aerosprite's hybrid Federation/Romulan databanks from the orbital downlink in the Operations Center, finally found a respite in which to meet with the two individuals he had Shanghaied from an alternate reality. After acknowledging his presence, he motioned for Theo and Saal to join him at the two opposing sofas by the holographic fireplace, separated by only a low-profile walnut brown coffee table. Inviting them to sit, Vic chose the opposite sofa in order to to face them while they talked.

“I've just completed a cursory review of your ship's computer databanks,” informed Victor. “Now that you've had the same amount of time to review the differences between our quantum reality and yours,” Vic elucidated to Saal's recent trek though the library computer, “let me continue your research, Doctor Yezbeck. Like you said, the Earth recovered from global catastrophe during the twenty-first century under the flag of the British Commonwealth, and did so much in the same way as your Federation. Contact with the Vulcans was made by Zephram Cochrane, Starfleet was founded, and eventually, an interstellar republic was formed called the Royal Confederation of Planets. While different in name, nearly everything that happened in your Federation also happened here in the Confederation. We had a Four Years War with the Klingons, we had a Captain Garth and Captain Kirk, and coincidentally, a Khitomer Conference and Khitomer Accords, eventually leading to an alliance with the Klingons and several decades of peace before the Cardassian Border Conflict and Dominion War. Everything that transpired since the formation of the Confederation up until a few years ago parallels nearly everything that occurred in your reality.”

“Obviously, something happened to change things,” commented Theo. “Nothing like these robotic insectoids you mentioned on our way here have terrorized the Alpha and Beta Quadrants in OUR reality.”

“No, they did not,” Vic shook his head. “The fact that they didn't tells me roughly where our two realities diverged, and why your arrival here is so important to us.”

“Please elaborate.”

“On stardate 57442.6,” continued Vic. “John Carter, after stealing a runabout from the Galaxy-Class HMS Republic, flew to Alpha Zeta Three, pursued by Captain Michael MacCrae of the HMS Yorktown. Carter succeeded in eluding the Yorktown, and landed the runabout on the planet near the ancient alien construct known as the Guardian of Forever. He was never heard from nor seen again.”

“That didn't happen in our reality,” Saal revealed while sharing confused expressions with Theo “Doug Forrest” Carter.

“Indeed it didn't,” the Malthusian commander agreed, an ever-so-slight 'stop-interrupting-me' tone in his voice. “But here, his disappearance caused our two realities to diverge drastically, and an instance occurred prior to his disappearance that gave me the first clue that the divergence was due to a crossover between your quantum reality and ours. Before leaving Republic, John Carter had admitted to Lieutenant Commander Shannon Harris that he was not HER John, suggesting that some unknown consciousness had taken over Carter's body. It is at this point that I theorize that the consciousness of John Carter from YOUR universe had replaced the one from OUR universe, and was inhabiting his body here until he disappeared at the Guardian of Forever.”

The perplexity in both Saal and Theo's face betrayed their bewilderment.

“I'm afraid that you lost me,” the man formerly known as Doug Forrest admitted. “Are you telling me the 'soul' of OUR John Carter got magically transported into the body of the other John Carter on the HMS Republic?”

“Essentially yes,” Vic confirmed. “However, I do not attribute it to 'magic' as you say. I am a scientist, and magic to me is simply a layman's way of explaining phenomena that is not yet explainable by science.”

Theo “Doug Forrest” frowned, trying to ascertain if he had just been insulted.

“If I may continue, I'll explain,” Vic led on, his 'stop-interrupting-me' tone becoming a little more pronounced. “When John Carter went missing here, the two realities – yours and ours – parted ways in a most unexpected manner. Your alter ego – the Doug Forrest in OUR reality – was the one who saved Cestus Three from a Gorn invasion, and was rescued by myself in command of the HMS Republic following John Marshall's death at the hands of the Gorns.”

Both Theo and Saal raised their eyebrows in surprise at the revelation. Surprised into silence, they both transfixed onto Vic's story.

“In our universe, no subsequent 'Republic Eight' hearing took place following the Cestus Three event, as described in the recorded news reports on your ship's computer.” Vic turned to look at the former Intel agent from the USS Republic universe. “Here, in our reality, Doug Forrest was hailed in the press as the hero of the Cestus Three incident of stardate 57502, and was promoted to Captain in Her Majesty's Fleet before being transferred to Starfleet Intelligence Headquarters. The Republic then went on with myself serving as first officer and first-lord-of-the-engines, and captained by Kimberly Roth.”

Vic fell silent as he gave the newcomers time to let the reality of his words sink in. After a moment, he asked, “perhaps, Mister Forrest, you would elaborate on what happened to you – in your reality – during and after Cestus Three?”

Theo was still dealing with the emotional rush of such a divergent set of events. He shook his head to clear his thoughts before answering.

“I… I wasn't the hero of Cestus Three,” he explained with confusion and trepidation. “Technically, the press labelled Captain Marshall as that, but it was actually Commander Carter who saved the day back then. He helped me interrogate an Andorian agent named Anathon, getting him to admit that there was an intelligence duck blind on the planet. He later released that information to the Gorns and the press to rob Starfleet of a means to cover up the incident. The information leak caused us to be put on trial, but we successfully defended ourselves. Carter continued on as First Officer of the USS Republic, and I became the ship's intelligence officer.”

“Interesting,” Vic replied. “And then what?”

“Um… we went on a mission near Tholian space, and then we were reassigned,” he recalled. “The Republic was put under the command of a civilian-run branch of Starfleet, and assigned to Deep Space Nine for scientific exploration duty in the Gamma Quadrant. My intelligence sources told me that it was done to protect us from Admiral Kostya in the wake of the Cestus Three disaster.”

“Who?”

“Kostya,” Theo reiterated with what he thought would have been obvious. “You know… originally the chief of Starfleet Operations? Now retired and recently became the President of the Federation?”

The quizzical look from Victor Virtus of the HMS Republic caused Theo to frown and look back towards Saal for an answer. For his part, Doctor Yezbeck received the non-verbal request to look up Kostya, and returned to his PADD. He sifted through more pages of information before coming up with a match.

“Wow,” the doctor exclaimed after a moment of research. “There's no record of an Admiral Kostya in the Starfleet records here in this reality.” He thumbed through more information, and examined it with a puzzled expression before explaining. “There WAS a Chief Petty Officer Kostya, but he died aboard the HMS Melborne during the Battle of Wolf 359.” He shook his head in confusion as he read. “Records show that he was once an academy cadet, but was kicked out before he could graduate, and never given a commission. An admiral named William Decker expelled him after he violated academy conduct rules. Kostya spent the rest of his career as an enlisted engineering technician before his death.”

“Fascinating,” Vic commented. “And you say this man was the leader of your Federation in your reality?”

“He was the bane of our existence!” exclaimed Theo with rising anger. “He was doing everything he could to destroy our careers! He operated a secret base in the Gamma Quadrant to build weapons from stolen alien technology! He directed Starfleet Intel to take my intelligence credentials away, and stranded me for four months on Farius Prime! The man's a menace!”

“Farius Prime?” asked Victor. “What were you doing there?”

Taking a deep breath, the man formerly known as Doug Forrest explained about how John Carter and Kim Roth assigned him and Sean McTaggart to track down a renegade member of the USS Republic crew, the operations chief, Ensign Kuga. He also explained about the nefarious Gorn Poison that nearly killed Lieutenant Nathan Hawk, and described how both Saal and himself had stumbled upon Prince Shavis and his mutant Kafarians at Farius Prime, as well as how he tried to warn Starfleet Intelligence about the pending Remnant attacks on the Federation.

Upon these explanations, Victor Virtus's expression became increasingly hardened and focused, scrutinizing every word that Theo Carter spoke. When he finished talking, Victor Virtus interlaced his fingers in thought for several moments before voicing his response.

“You have provided me with the final piece of information,” Vic stated sternly. “John Carter never sent our Doug Forrest and Sean McTaggart on any sort of mission to find this 'Ensign Kuga' you speak of. I don't even know who that person is. Our last Chief of Operations on the Galaxy Class HMS Republic was Lieutenant Robin.”

“Lieutenant Robin?” questioned Saal, the name stirring a memory inside him, thus spurring him to inquire further. “Robin who?”

“That doesn't matter,” Vic responded soberly, intent to keep the subject on a specific topic. “The 'who' that matters in this instance is Prince Shavis. In this reality, he was a terrorist criminal captured while attempting to cross the border into Federation space with eighteen unregistered Orion ore freighters, along with the mutant Kafarians you mention. Starfleet Intelligence was tracking them for six months – led by the Doug Forrest of THIS reality, if I'm not mistaken – and was able to stop their incursion before they crossed the border. Several platoons of Starfleet Marines died trying to subdue the Kafarians, but they eventually prevailed. The Remnant attacks of your reality never occurred in this reality.”

At this point, the former Doug Forrest of the USS Republic universe became physically shocked and emotionally livid. “Those bastards!” he hissed to himself. “Those rotten stinking bastards!” With clenched fists, Theo exclaimed, “we could have stopped the attacks if they had listened to us! They should have LISTENED to us!” His face collapsed into his hands in defeatism, withdrawing from the conversation to regain control over his anger and disbelief.

As Theo worked to collect his demeanor, Saal spoke up in his place. “What happened here?” he asked, motioning to the room around him. “If the Remnant attacks never happened, why is your reality so fractured?”

“The former informs the latter,” the HMS Republic Vic responded cryptically. “I assume that all of the mutant Karafians were killed in your reality?” As Saal nodded affirmatively, Vic filled in the rest. “A pity that didn't happen here,” he responded wistfully. “In our reality, they were captured alive, and were incarcerated on a penal colony on Rigel Seven up until several weeks ago. That's when everything starting going to Hell.”

“Care to elaborate?”

The HMS Republic commander did indeed elaborate, making light of their current dire predicament. He explained how the incarcerated Kafarians were assimilated by an unknown contingent of Borg that had been separated from the rest of the collective at some point in the recent past. He elucidated on how the mix of the two hive-minded species had created a super-race of killer cybernetic insectoids (now called “Xenoborg” by Confederate xenobiologists), which swarmed in all directions from Rigel Seven. In a short few weeks, the new species – now armed with transwarp technology and an insatiable appetite for humanoid flesh – had established themselves in every major empire in the Alpha and Beta Quadrants, their populations growing at a geometric rate as they feasted on the population. With Her Majety's Fleet decimated, only sporadic hidden outposts like this one were still able to hide from the plague of Xenoborg breeding and devouring the remnants of their civilization. Victor Virtus concluded that had they eliminated the Kafarians in the first place three years ago, the galaxy would still be intact.

“You see,” Vic calmly explained to the distraught Theo Carter, whose fuming rage was subsiding at the new revelations. “The removal of John Carter from this reality three years ago had follow-on effects with devastating impacts. Without John being there at the Cestus Three event, and our Doug Forrest being promoted instead of discredited by Starfleet Intelligence, he never went to Farius Prime as a rogue Intel agent, and instead, the Kafarian mutants were captured; not killed as they were during the Remnant attacks in your reality. As a result, they had the opportunity to evolve with the Borg and breed, building up their forces on Rigel Seven, and merging their knowledge together to impart this present-day attack on the Confederation and surrounding empires. In effect, the Xenoborg took these past three years to out-evolve both the Borg and the mutant Kafarians, taking on the mission that Shavis originally started: To destroy all humanoid life. And now, we see the results of his vision coming to fruition… all because John Carter wasn't here in this reality.”

Theo and Saal sat with shellshocked faces as the HMS Republic Victor silently allowed them to absorb the news. After a minute, Saal exclaimed, “I could use a drink.” It was clear that he and 'Theo' were both at the edge of mental burnout at the new information.

Vic looked back across the room at John Carter and the Vulcan, both of whom remained locked together in their protracted mind meld. Turning back to his guests, Vic paused in thought before standing up. “I think they'll be at it a while longer,” he spoke of the two meditators in the booth. “The commissary is two caverns down. It's late, so we shouldn't have trouble finding a spot of Romulan Ale at this hour.”


The commissary of the joint Starfleet/Romulan subterranean complex was about the size of the Ten Forward lounge on the Galaxy Class USS Republic, though not nearly as opulent. Tables and chairs were neatly spaced around the flat, stone-hewned floor, and a pair of wall-mounted food dispensers were situated near a short, untended wet bar stocked with various alcoholic and syntheholic concoctions. While a Tellarite attendant in a food-service uniform wiped tables near one side of the room, Vic, Saal, and Doug 'Theo Carter' Forrest settled down at a corner table near the far side, nursing their shot glasses full of the well-known luminous blue elixir from Romulus. The three were engaged in an in-depth conversation about quantum-temporal physics, led by the obvious subject-matter expert of the group, Victor Virtus from the HMS Republic.

“Every time you time-travel,” the Malthusian engineer-turned-starship commander explained, “you run the risk of not returning to your own quantum reality. In practice, it’s actually quite hard to ensure that you re-enter the exact quantum reality you left. Unless you have a Vulcan calculating your time warp algorithms, you’re more likely to enter a slightly altered reality than return home to the exact reality you left from. In plain speak, when a time warp excursion is completed, there are subtle differences that set apart the originating timeline from the one that is returned to.”

“But that would mean anyone who has time-travelled is living in an alternate reality,” reasoned Doctor Yezbeck, taking a small sip of his drink.

“Not necessarily,” Vic explained. “Usually, these differences are so insignificant that they go completely unnoticed, like a salt and pepper shaker switched around on a dinner table, or the location of a book moved around on a single bookshelf. The slightly-altered reality will naturally slip back into the correct one as a matter of spacetime physics. Occasionally, the differences are more pronounced, causing the traveler to question if they indeed returned to the correct timeline, and while return is slightly more difficult, the differences often provide an understanding of how to get back to the correct timeline by 'setting things straight', if you will. Only rarely are the differences in the realities so pronounced that it sets in motion a cascade of alterations causing a quantum inversion into a completely different reality. When that happens, it takes a feat of titanic proportions to set things straight again.”

“Is that what happened here?” Theo asked. Although he held the glass of ale in his hands, he had yet to take a drink. By unconscious instinct, the former Intel agent always waited to observe the effects of a commonly-poured libation on others before indulging in it himself.

Vic nodded while swallowing his own sip of ale. “From the information we gathered on your computer, we can conclude that the timeline of the HMS Republic and the USS Republic were very similar up until the events of three years ago. What has yet to be understood is why John's body here in this reality was taken over by the consciousness of the John Carter from your reality. To know that, we've got a few more items to sort out. Tell me, what exactly was happening to your John Carter around stardate 57442?”

“Well, let's see,” Saal recalled, casually tapping the rim of his glass with his index finger. “That's about the time the Republic was assigned to Delphi Station, right after the Kreltan conflict.”

“That sounds about right,” Vic nodded. “Those same events happened to the Galaxy Class HMS Republic. Go on.”

“And Captain Marshall got himself relieved of command while we were all on shore leave, only to have a change of heart a few days later, and tried to get his command back,” Saal recalled with slight emphasis and disdain at the latter part of the sentence. “Oh, I remember now!” he exclaimed as a memory flashed through his mind. “Carter was brought to sickbay because of a fainting spell! He was rushed to a surgical suite with his synaptic pathways completely saturated with chroniton radiation. It was impacting his entire nervous system.”

“Very similar events here,” Victor Virtus confirmed. “John was in dire straits. He was undergoing a physio-temporal transition that we couldn't explain. We tried to get Lieutenant Commander Bombay to understand what was going on, but he couldn't comprehend why John was dying. Instead, he wrote him off as a casualty. The commander tried to overrule Doctor Cromwell when John's body was put on life support, but the doctor called security and put Bombay in the brig instead. Fortunately, it put Captain Marshall back in charge of the ship, and we were allowed to revive John.”

“'Lieutenant Commander' Bombay?” Saal questioned, pausing to take another sip from his glass of Romulan Ale. “He was a captain in our reality, and, yes, he tried to 'pull-the-plug' on John, but ended up arresting Leon along with the rest of the MDs in sickbay instead. Without any qualified MDs available, Bombay couldn't order the life support module shut off, and decided to leave Carter to die on the table from chroniton radiation sickness. I don't know what happened next. I was confined to my quarters.”

“If events were similar here, I think I can answer that,” Vic replied. “John was in possession of a futuristic artifact that I theorize caused the physio-temporal issue in the first place. It was a PADD used by a human from the far future. His name was Daniels, and all traces of him had left the ship months before the incident except for this one artifact John kept in his quarters.” There seemed to be more to the story that Victor wanted to add, pausing in thought momentarily to reduce his glass of ale to about half full. Swallowing slowly, he used the pause to prevent himself from revealing too much, returning to the facts at hand.

“I had Lieutenant Hawk coat the inside walls of the surgical suite with Y-T-T alloy,” he continued. “The PADD had a quantum field generation algorithm that allowed two dimensions to exist as one within a small spacetime envelope constrained to only the area within the alloy's perimeter. I can only assume it was how Daniels was able to transport through time in the first place. My plan was to isolate the foreign chroniton particles that were saturating John's nervous system from the normal time-flow particles that already existed in his body. Once I accomplished that, it was Leon's job to re-integrate his nervous system through synaptic stimulation. At first, I thought we had failed, as his body phased out of existence. But as quickly as it disappeared, it phased back into existence, and Leon was able to revive him.”

“So, it worked?” Saal asked while taking another swing of ale, assuming that everything turned out okay as it did on the USS Republic. As with Vic, he too reduced his glass to about half-full.

“Not quite,” Vic qualified the success. “After he came to, John was confused. He was talking about a ship named the USS Firestorm, which led us to suspect that something was wrong, as there was no such ship prefix in Her Majesty's Fleet. He was intent on leaving the Republic. Leon, Shannon, and myself chased after him as he headed towards the shuttlebay. While the official records state that he stole a runabout, in truth, we chose to let him go. We each knew he wasn't of this universe, and we were resigned to letting him find his own way back to his reality, hoping that OUR John would return to us. He never did.”

“How could you be so sure that THAT John was not YOUR John?” Theo asked, still nursing his glass without drinking. “Couldn't he have had some sort of anxiety dream from his ordeal?”

“John had been to sickbay before, prior to that episode,” explained Vic. “Hours earlier, to be precise. The build-up of chroniton radiation back then was evident from neurocellular scans. I had already begun suspecting that an extra-temporal force had been manifesting within John's body hours before his quantum phasing. After he awoke from his phasing incident, John lamented to himself about an unknown collaborator, stating that 'he missed'… 'he missed'. This was the final clue that told me that the version of John we were dealing with was not OUR John. He was either a time traveller, or at worst, a quantum reality-traveller. Not that the two are much different,” he commented as a side note. “But either way, it was obvious he was attempting to re-enter another spacetime reality. THAT John Carter did not belong here. He needed to leave, and I was content to let him.”

“Why did he go to the Guardian of Forever?” asked Theo. “No one has gotten that thing to work since the Enterprise visited there over a hundred years ago.”

“Again, I believe there was a extra-temporal collaborator working with the John Carter of your reality,” Vic reiterated with another sip of ale. “Who or what, I do not know. That information left our universe with him.”

“But isn't the Guardian just a time portal?” Saal interjected. “I thought that you said we're dealing with different quantum realities, not just different timelines?”

“True,” admitted Vic. “But as I said, each time you time-travel, you run the risk of not returning to your own quantum reality.”

“Right,” returned Saal, feeling as if his point was proven. “You said it's hard to ensure that you re-enter the exact quantum reality you left. How would John Carter have known that he arrived back to the correct quantum reality by using the Guardian of Forever? Couldn't he have just as easily gone astray into another timeline? What would keep him on track?”

Vic's drink neared empty as he continued. “The easiest explanation is that there are natural vortex bridges linking different realities that make it easier to traverse between them. While there are nearly an infinite number of quantum realities, they all exist sub-divided into localized networks that I call 'domains'. Each quantum domain has its own specific time-flow current, where all realities naturally drift towards a single localized point in spacetime. You can think of them as branches of a river flowing towards the main channel. The Guardian of Forever taps into that main channel. Eventually, that main channel will end up flowing into ocean unless you can work your way back upstream into a side channel.”

“The ocean?” Theo replied, his still-full glass of ale becoming conspicuous compared to the other two scantly-filled goblets. “What's that? Some sort of spacetime abyss?”

“You might say that,” Vic replied. “Others might consider it a place tantamount to Hell or damnation. Like the ocean, you wouldn't wink out of existence or fall off the edge. You would simply get so far from shore that it would take a lot of power to swim back. In our particular quantum domain – where the USS Republic and HMS Republic realities exist – the 'ocean' is a single alternate reality that most of us are quite familiar with…”

“The mirror universe,” Saal completed the thought with solidifying comprehension. As the pieces fell into place in his mind, he took one last swallow of his drink to finish off the ale.

“Exactly” confirmed Vic, giving a slight toast in the doctor's direction. “The reason that so many quantum reality excursions to the mirror universe occur is simply a matter of quantum-temporal physics. The flow of time in our quantum reality domain is constantly moving from each of the individual timelines – including both yours AND ours – into a single channel leading to the mirror universe. Oh, you can get back to your own reality by swimming back upstream, but you have to know how you got there in the first place.”

“Like a riverboat navigator knowing which turn to take in a river basin,” Theo translated.

“Good comparison,” Vic lauded, finishing off his own drink and placing the empty vessel on the table. “Figuratively, the Guardian of Forever is an excellent riverboat captain, and would have been a natural choice for your John Carter to have gone to for navigating back to your reality, assuming he had a collaborator to help him operate the Guardian as I theorize he did.”

“Obviously, the Guardian isn't the only means to travel between alternate realities,” the former medical officer from the USS Republic extrapolated, a touch of cynical presumption creeping into his voice. While he was hinting towards a question as to why their own John Carter chose the Guardian of Forever over alternate forms of quantum travel, it was his former Intel colleague that turned the subject towards their own recent crossover into the HMS Republic universe.

“Good point,” Theo piped in. “Why didn't John use a similar method to get home as you did to bring us here? For that matter, HOW did you bring us here?”

“We brought you here using a nearby micro-signularity that was traversing through this sector of the Neutral Zone,” Vic replied. “We were using it to scan subspace across multiple quantum realities in this sector. It was a longshot, but we hoped to make contact with the USS Republic, which I've been able to do a few times in this reality before now.”

“So John hasn't been the only one breaching quantum-temporal barriers lately?” Saal accused, his notion being confirmed by a nodding of Vic's head.

“You've crossed over before,” Theo confirmed soberly as he took note of Vic's non-verbal hesitancy. His honed Intel training was instinctually zeroing in on another set of forthcoming facts, and he chose to pounce on the opportunity to learn more. “How did you do it?”

“Well, it wasn't of my own accord,” Vic admitted, leaning back in his chair. “But I'll try to explain. Certain physical objects with dissimilar quantum signatures to the spacetime they are inhabiting have the tendency to attract and collect chroniton particles if given enough time. If these particular objects stay outside of their original spacetime continuum for extended periods, a critical mass of chroniton particles will eventually impart bursts of chroniton radiation if they happen to pass by natural gravimetric phenomena. Aboard an operational starship, this happens all the time as they hop from star system to star system. It can be anything that causes a ripple in spacetime, no matter how insignificant. It could be a distant graviton wave from colliding black holes, a neutrino burst from a pulsar several parsecs away, or even a fluctuation from a nearby unstable wormhole. They each could cause the built-up critical mass of chronitons around the object to emit a radiation burst if they pass close enough. Whatever the trigger, when it happens, a subspace pocket of alternate spacetime can briefly form, causing a quantum reality crossover event. It's usually benign when it occurs only around physical objects and no intelligent being is present. However, if a person is in the physical vicinity of the object, they can be pulled briefly into another reality along with it until the chroniton radiation burst dissipates. On a few occasions, I have been subjected to a quantum reality crossover event that lasted less than a minute each. Since I have been unable to locate the object in this reality, I can only assume that the crossover event was initiated in an alternate reality. Namely yours.”

Regretting that he had dug deeper, Theo confusedly shook his head over the complexity of Vic's dialog while Saal attempted to comprehend. “Are you saying there's something in our reality that doesn't belong there, and it's caused you to have random crossovers into our universe?” the doctor asked, the alcohol helping to clear his mind.

“Correct,” affirmed the HMS Republic Vic. “However, it couldn't be the Daniels PADD that I mentioned earlier. That was… reclaimed by it's former owner.” As with that previous discussion about Daniels, Vic raised his eyebrow in dissatisfaction, seemingly wanting to elaborate on that final point, but choosing to hold back.

“Maybe Daniels' PADD is still around in our reality?” Theo offered. While he took note of Vic's unusually laconic dialog regarding Daniels, he chose to ignore it for the moment, as he didn't feel he had all the facts yet concerning the current subject.

“No,” Vic shook his head. “As I've said, I personally was victim to at least three crossovers myself. Each time, I had my own tricorder, and the chroniton radiation signatures did not match. Whatever the object is, I have not been able to trace it yet. Though, I theorize a greater than ninety-five percent certainty that it's aboard the Luna Class USS Republic in your universe. We were using the micro-singularity in hopes to pick up another chroniton radiation burst from it, thus re-locating the USS Republic. We found you instead.”

“About that,” Saal asked. “How did you know where to look? It's not like we filed a flight plan.”

“Had the Xenoborg attack not happened,” Vic explained. “The HMS Republic was scheduled to be patrolling this sector of the Reman Neutral Zone, so we postulated that if we were going to find the USS Republic of your quantum reality, chances were good she would be here. Like I said, it was a long shot. We were wrong. The USS Republic was not where we expected it to be. Fortunately, our search still proved fruitful by locating you.”

“Yeah,” Theo replied sheepishly, remembering the temporal side effect of activating the cloaking device while there was still residual Kemocite particles in his blood. “You got lucky with that one.” He recalled how the cloak's tachyon radiation reacted with the Kemocite, causing a massive harmonic temporal surge that showed up as a sector-wide spacetime signal flare. It was completely unintentional, and apparently caught the attention of the HMS Republic from across the quantum reality gap.

“In my experience, there's no such thing as luck,” Vic stated flatly, a touch of accusation in his voice. “As I've said, spacetime in our quantum domain flows like a river towards the ocean. We were fishing in the river, and just because we didn't catch that sturgeon we wanted doesn't mean we can't reel in a bass fish when it comes along.”

Theo “Doug Forrest” frowned once more, trying yet again to ascertain if Vic had just insulted him anew.

“By the way,” Saal asked. “How did you open the vortex to get us here once you noticed our quantum-temporal schism?”

“That was easy. We generated a minor resonant graviton beam using the main navigational deflector dish. It widened the aperture of the micro-signularity just enough to pull your small craft through with a tractor beam. It was like pulling a berry out of a gelatin dish.”

“So you can use it to send us back?” the doctor asked in return, a touch of eagerness rising in his voice.

“Unfortunately, no,” Vic said to Saal's dismay. “After we pulled you through, the stress of the graviton beam caused the micro-signularity to collapse into a small subspace compression anomaly. It's no longer able to bridge different quantum realities or timelines anymore.”

Saal and Theo's heads sunk in defeat, looking down at their ale glasses in dismay.

At that point, Vic realized his “guests” had absorbed about all the negative news they could tolerate for the moment. Considering that he still had more that he wanted them to know, the HMS Republic commander decided to leave the topic of quantum reality traveling alone for the moment, allowing his thoughts to drift back to the nexus of their current predicament: The John Carter in the here and now. He spied the digital chronometer situated above the wet bar, noting the time. “Judging from previous sessions, that mind-meld should be about done by now,” he announced. “Let's head back to the library and see if John is awake.”

The three stood up, and in single file, walked out of the commissary, passing the Tellarite food service attendant who was cleaning tables near the door. Theo was the last to leave the room, placing his glass full of Romulan Ale on the table, without even a drop consumed throughout the entire conversation. Eventually, the Tellarite made his way to the table that the trio had recently occupied, collecting the two empty glasses that Saal and Vic had used. Spying Theo's full glass, the porter paused to look cautiously towards the door momentarily before choosing to finish off the drink himself.


Although the conversation in the commissary had lasted a good half-hour, when the three returned to the library, John Carter and his Vulcan companion had yet to complete their mind meld. In fact, it took almost another hour before the two roused from their joint trance. While John remained sitting in the mediation booth, rubbing his fingers into his temples, the Vulcan stood up and turned around to face the three men sitting across the room. Smoothing out his mediation robes, the son-of-Sarek strode over to the trio as they stood up from their seats to greet him.

“It's good to see you again, Y'lair,” said Doctor Yezbeck with recognition and muted surprise. He had not laid eyes upon his medical colleague in nearly four years. The last time he did, it was just before the Vulcan left on an away mission to fight Kreltans at a Demon Class planet in the Delphi Sector. The mission was led by the USS Republic's chief tactical officer at the time, Commander Matthew Riggs. Y'lair never came back from that mission.

For his part, the alternate-reality Y'lair cautiously raised an eyebrow, replying, “if you say so, doctor. Though, I think it's fair to inform you that we've never actually met before.”

“Understood,” Saal agreed. There had already been far too many confusing and uncomfortable role changes between alternate versions of his associates during this short tenure in an alternate reality. So, the doctor was willing to let sleeping dogs lie and not inquire further.

Theo, on the other hand, was a little more forthright. “What's your story?” he asked directly. “Are you from the HMS Republic too?” It was a legitimate question, since Y'lair was wearing Vulcan meditation robes and not sporting a Starfleet uniform as Vic was.

“John Carter and I came from the mirror universe, as you call it,” Y'lair elucidated. “When he found me, it was a year ago aboard the SS Tranquility. His mind was in chaos, as he appeared to have a split personality.”

In the meditation booth, the mirror universe John Carter finally roused. His one uncovered eye blinked vacuously a few times before he eventually stood up, rubbing the eyepatch over his covered eye, and strode over to the four individuals at the mention of his name. This version of John was imposing; more so than the version from Saal and Theo's universe, and while they shrank slightly at his sinewy approach, neither Vic nor Y'lair seemed affected by his burly demeanor.

“Hello, John,” Vic welcomed him stoically. “How are you feeling?”

“Rested,” he replied calmly, stroking his rough-shaven chin. “How are our guests?” he asked, turning his uncovered eye towards the displaced newcomers from the USS Republic universe.

“We could be better,” Theo/Doug Forrest admitted. “This is a lot to take in.”

“I'll say,” Saal piped up. “There's still many unanswered questions. Like why OUR version of John Carter stayed put in our reality back before Cestus Three when the one in this reality – you – didn't.”

“The John Carter of your reality didn't disappear three years ago because he took my body,” the glowering, coarse version of John replied. Under regular circumstances, the words he spoke could have been dismissed by Theo and Saal as those of a crazy person. However, the situation and discussion they just had with Victor Virtus – the very synthesis of a sane man – were far from normal, and so, Carter's words were accepted as truth, if not fantastical truth. “My katra… my 'soul' so to speak… lived on, but ended up in a body I would never have expected,” he spoke in an unusually loquacious manner. He motioned to his brawny physical form, as if it were separate from his consciousness. “This body I now inhabit was where my mind woke up months later after blinking out in that surgical suite on the HMS Republic. I woke up in a universe totally different from the one I left. Names and faces were familiar, but the way of life and roles everyone filled were totally different. Everyone was sadistic. Violent, greedy, and power hungry.”

It was clear that this version of Jonathan Carter was not the one they knew from the USS Republic universe. Nor did it seem that his outward appearance matched the consciousness that was speaking. On the outside, he bore an ogre-like appearance, battle-worn and evidently honed for conflict and hostility to the extent described. On the inside, however, his calm expression and smooth upper-class demeanor was of a sophisticated nature; almost Vulcan-like in bearing, and possessing a nearly parallel intellectual capacity. So much so, that it suggested Ylair's mind-melding may have bestowed upon him more than just emotional stability. If Theo and Saal hadn't known better, they would have guessed they were talking to a professor from the academy, and not the scientifically benighted “flight jock” they knew and loved from the Galaxy Class USS Republic.

“So, your katra floated along the main quantum reality domain and ended up in the mirror universe?” asked Doctor Yezbeck, putting his newly-acquired quantum-temporal knowledge from Victor Virtus to good use.

Carter nodded affirmatively. “For months, I lived a dual personality in that universe. I had to share consciousness with the katra in this body. Believe me when I say that this outside appearance is fitting to the other guy who shares this body with me. He's a cold-blooded killer and convict, plain and simple. He's an animal. If I hadn't met up with Y'lair in that universe, I might've lived the rest of my life as a dual personality, sharing this body with the psychopathic katra of the John Carter from the mirror universe. Y'lair saved me. He gave me emotional control over the other katra. Together, we've been able to keep THAT consciousness… at bay. THAT John Carter – the original katra of this body – is basically asleep. He isn't aware of his surroundings at the moment. When Y'lair and I first got control over him in the mirror universe, it allowed me to come up with a successful plan get me home.” John looked around the room with his sole functioning ocular organ. “Such as it is…”

“He still needs regular melding to keep that alternate personality under control,” explained Y'lair. “When we left the mirror universe together a year ago, it was with the understanding that I would help the John Carter katra of this reality find peace. We need to find him a new vessel into which I can transfer him. A new body.”

“A new body?” asked Saal with surprise and trepidation. “You don't just drop a seed in the ground and grow a new body! Since you say that OUR John from the USS Republic took YOUR body, what happened to his?”

“Without the mind, the body dies,” Y'lair iterated. “Since the katra of the USS Republic John Carter found it's way to the body of the HMS Republic John Carter, the body of the former likely floated along the quantum reality slipstream for months until it settled somewhere in the mirror universe. Long dead, it was probably deposited somewhere remote, decayed, and turned to dust by now.”

“So there's no where else for you to transfer the katra to?”

“Not at the moment,” Y'lair explained cryptically. “Though we're working on a plan that might be able to 'find' him another body…”

Saal frowned, his medical 'sense-of-rightness' starting to give his brain a red alert. “What do you mean 'find'?”

Y'lair looked towards Victor Virtus and John Carter stoically, as if silently sharing a thought that only they knew.

With a pensive expression, Vic answered Dr. Yezbeck's question. “There's a possibility we could go back in time to your universe and attempt to capture John's body before it disappears and dies.”

There was a moment of silence where the five individuals stood looking at one another, reaching an apex on tenterhooks. Theo and Saal looked at the HMS Republic Vic and mirror universe Y'lair and John Carter with rising anxiety. The latter three seemed to have a veiled plan conceived prior to the arrival of USS Republic universe refugees. That clarity was becoming obvious to the formal Intel agent and his medical cohort. There was only method of time travel they he knew of in this universe that didn't involve a high-warp slingshot around a star: The Guardian of Forever.

“Wait, wait, wait!” Theo Carter finally released the tension with panicked comprehension dawning in his voice. “Talking to the Guardian in YOUR universe is YOUR job, not ours!” It was evident that he assumed the plan was to send him and Saal to the Guardian's planet to activate the ancient device, then travel back time to retrieve the body. A plan he did not relish in the least.

“Alpha Zeta Three is clear across the quadrant from here,” Vic piped in, shaking his head to refute Theo's notion. “Odds are, if we tried to get there, we'd be destroyed by the Xenoborg. Considering we have no idea how the John Carter from the USS Republic universe was able to interact with the Guardian in the first place, it would be a fools errand to even attempt.”

“Great,” Saal replied sourly. “We're glad you agree. So if we're not going to the Guardian of Forever, what's your plan?”

Realizing what he had to say might take a greater amount of convincing, Vic countered with another idea. “I think it's time we talk this over with the admiral,” he declared.

In unison, Saal and Theo both responded “The admiral?”


Though the hour was late, the tactical command center of the Galorndon Core base was its usual beehive of activity, especially considering the dire state of the quadrant's predicament. The entire complex was at a constant state of alert, yet through the tense atmosphere, a lean, almost petite feminine figure stood commandingly in the center of the room. She was contemplative, looking from one large viewer to another, calmly absorbing the information scrolling across the various arrangement of screens around her. Her hair was bright blonde, and tied up into a bun with short trestles feathering down along the crown of her forehead. Her bright blue eyes surveyed the the tactical situation coming in from all monitors, and her Caucasian complexion was accentuated by flush peach cheeks, thin cerise lips, and a small mole on the lower right of her chin. Etched into her face were the seasoned wrinkles of an experienced military officer in her late forties, and the single-pip rear admiral rank on her collar advertised that she was the sole person in charge of room.

“What's the status of the Xenoborg fleet in sector 221-G?” Rear Admiral Elizabeth Shelby asked with a slight Kansas accent.

“No change from last report, admiral,” a Romulan operator replied from the long range sensor console. “The fleet has not yet finished consuming the remnants of the Alphan civilization on Alpha Carinae.”

“We still think they're going to move on to Zeta Gruis from there,” explained a lieutenant in operations gold sitting next to the Romulan. “They shouldn't pose a risk to us.”

“Very good,” the admiral acknowledged. “Maintain yellow alert and silent running. Keep inter-system data traffic to a minimum. Communications, any passive signals from Deep Space Five?”

The communications ensign in science blues over her shoulder shook his head. “Negative, admiral. Not a word.”

“The last of the lifeboat beacons ceased operation about an hour ago,” informed another Romulan operator seated next to the communications ensign. “The Xenoborg fleet from Iota Pavonis finished them off before moving on Starbase 718.”

With an exhalation of futility, Shelby frowned and nodded her head in silent appreciation of the report despite its negative overtones. The furrow in her forehead deepened just before the door to the control room slid open. Through it walked five individuals: Victor Virtus, followed by Y'lair, John Carter, Theo Carter, and Saal Yezbeck.

Upon seeing the man formerly known as Doug Forrest, Shelby's face exploded into jubilance and relief.

“Doug!” she exclaimed, a wash of emotion flooding through her normally stolid face. “Doug! I can't believe it!” In barely-contained exuberance, Shelby ran down the ramp and threw herself onto Theo Carter in a passionate bear hug.

“I knew they didn't get you!” Shelby spoke into Theo's chest in displaced reassurance, much to the chagrin of the man formerly known as Doug Forrest. Beside him, Saal Yezbeck smirked in amusement at the spectacle.

“We sent out sensor probes and listened on comm arrays for days to pick up your signal!” she unloaded on him. “But I knew you weren't gone! I knew we hadn't heard the last of Captain Forrest!”

Surprised into silence, Theo was at a loss, and simply patted her on the back while looking around in embarrassment. While he and Shelby were friends in the USS Republic reality, he hadn't expected their reunion to occur with such open and unrivaled affection.

As she looked up into his eyes, Shelby's smile lessened as she noticed the lack of passion in Theo's eyes. “It isn't you, is it?” she finally realized after a moment, sadness creeping back into her voice. “You're not him? Are you?” Her embrace on Theo loosened, Victor Virtus cleared his throat behind her.

“I'm afraid it's as I told you, admiral,” Vic explained. “Our guests are from an alternate reality, and some events that occurred there may not have occurred here.”

After listening to Vic, Shelby still held onto some hope that the Doug Forrest she knew was still dwelling somewhere inside Theo Carter. “Don't you remember?” she tried to stir a memory in him, gazing into his eyes. “We met when I was first officer of the HMS Chekov. You were part of the team that rescued us after it was destroyed. I proposed to you a month later… We married just before I took command of the HMS Trident… Captain Picard officiated our ceremony…”

The man formerly known as Doug Forrest was speechless. The shock of the idea that he and Shelby were married – let alone by the famous Jean Luc Picard – hit like a photon torpedo. As the admiral looked into his eyes for an answer, Theo stammered a few words before forming a coherent reply.

“Yeah, I remember the rescue, but…” he looked genuinely confused, thinking back to the incident. “You never asked me to marry you… You married Captain Calhoun instead. Remember him? The Xenexian captain of the Excalibur-A? You went to Xenex just so you could go through some sort of prenuptial trial in preparation for the wedding ceremony.”

“Calhoun?” Shelby looked at him quizzically, shaking her head. “I don't remember any Captain Calhoun. There was a Mackenzie Calhoun I was involved with when I was at the academy, but… that was years ago. He and I lost touch.”

Theo, on the other hand, clearly remembered Calhoun. Admiral Nechayev of Starfleet Intelligence assigned the Xenexian to him in a training capacity before doing some field work about ten years ago. When he had heard Calhoun was going to marry Shelby, it secretly broke his heart.

The former intel agent was both confused and touched by her words. He had known Elizabeth Shelby for years in his own quantum reality, and even harbored a secret crush for her the whole time. However, that crush had never materialized into anything more, and he privately blamed Calhoun for it. Nevertheless, he was now facing the ultimate reflection of a “what-could-have-been” situation right before his eyes, and it left him both humbled and troubled on a personal level.

“Liz, you and I never married,” Theo patiently explained, mustering as much tenderness as he dared to show in present company. “We became friends after the Chekov was destroyed, but nothing more. You met up with Calhoun before being assigned to the *USS* Trident, and HE proposed to YOU. You accepted. The last I had heard from you, you had just been promoted to admiral and took command of Space Station Bravo.”

Finally, recognition creeped into her face. Her smile disappeared as did her embrace of Theo, much to his dismay. “I'm sorry, I was mistaken,” she explained, her voice dripping with regret and despair, and just a touch of embarrassment. It seemed like tears were welling in her eyes for a moment, but as quickly as they came, she repressed them back down into her soul.

“We evacuated Bravo Station,” Shelby informed him, now avoiding his gaze. “We'd been setting up this base here for months as an alternate cargo transfer site closer to our allies in the Reman Star Empire. The New Thallonian Protectorate was assisting in providing relief supplies to the Romulans, so we built this place in secret to secure the supply lines in this sector. I had no idea we were going to have to use it as an operational base some day.”

Taking a step back away from Theo, Shelby straightened her uniform before turning to Victor Virtus. “What can I do for you, commander?” she asked, firmly pushing into the background the emotional scene that had just transpired.

For his part, Theo let a hint of remorse glimmer within his eyes. His heart was bleeding deeply from the prospect of a lost love in his own quantum timeline, and it ate away at him.

“I've spent a great deal of time debriefing our guests,” Vic revealed to the admiral. “Doctor Y'lair, John Carter, and myself would like to go over the plan with you in detail before getting your blessing.”

“Yes, of course…” the admiral agreed, motioning towards the door to her adjoining ready room. “Shall we meet in my office?”

“What about us?” Saal exclaimed while Theo attempted to re-acquire glances with Admiral Shelby without success. It was clear she was actively avoiding further eye contact with him, and it left a knot in his stomach.

“Once we've cleared up the details on the plan, we'll involve you,” Vic explained. “For now, please wait out here.”

As the four shuffled into the admiral's office, Saal watched as the door shut, flapping his arms once in futility and annoyance. “Well, that was rude,” he exclaimed before turning back to his friend. “If you ask me, this whole alternate reality is filled with a bunch of killjoys.”

Theo, on the other hand, was in no talking mood, and remained silent. He only stared longingly at the closed door in remorse before somberly finding a place to sit and wait.


Theo “Doug Forrest” Carter and Saal Yezbeck waited outside the conference room for what seemed like hours. They had no idea what the four individuals were discussing behind closed doors. With pent up anxiety, they absorbed the hither-and-thither of the control complex as staff tracked no less than a dozen Xenoborg fleets throughout the vicinity of the Neutral Zone, watching them closely to see if any threatened the Galorndon Core complex. Once, a Yeoman in command red came by to offer them coffee as the morning shift came on watch, which they gratefully accepted. Soon after they finished their drinks, the door to the admiral's office slid open, and Victor Virtus beckoned them to come inside and sit across the table from the other four individuals.

“Gentlemen,” the admiral formally began. “Commander Virtus and myself, along with Y'lair and Commander Carter, have each come to an agreement on the best way to solve our mutual problem.”

“Correction,” Doctor Yezbeck interjected while crossing his arms defiantly. “OUR problem was forced on us against our will.” Regardless of the circumstances, he felt it was important to set the record straight that neither he nor Theo were willing participants in being pulled in to this quantum reality.

“Nevertheless,” Shelby stressed. “It's still a set of problems that need to be solved, and it's important that we focus on how we can solve each of them while also getting you home.”

“Yes, let's talk about that,” Theo spoke for the first time in hours, meeting Shelby's eyes for the first time since she broke contact after her misidentification of him as her husband. His eyes were less tender than before, expressing what only could be considered spurn or scorn.

“Maybe you've heard of the Iconians?” the John Carter asked him.

“No,” Theo shook his head. “Who are they?”

“They're an advanced race of beings that died out nearly 200,000 years ago,” John explained. “We found the remains of their homeworld civilization at coordinates two two seven mark three five nine. That's only a few sectors away.”

“You've been there?” Saal asked.

“Yes,” John nodded. “That's how Y'lair and I got to this reality. As soon as we crossed over from the mirror universe, we found ourselves in an abandoned city here in this universe. It looked to have been devastated by some kind of ancient orbital bombardment, but we didn't have time to do much exploring. We immediately sent out a subspace signal using our communicators, and the HMS Republic picked it up and rescued us.”

“Why did you end up on that planet in particular?” the retired doctor continued asking questions.

“An Iconian transportation device still exists in that abandoned city,” he informed them. “It can transport not only across distances, but also spacetime; similar to the Guardian of Forever except that it doesn't possess its consciousness. Vic and Y'lair have developed a way to operate the gateway remotely by subspace transmitter. Based on how our crossover from the mirror universe occurred, Vic thinks we can use it for quantum-temporal travel by using the HMS Republic's warp field generator from orbit.”

“Of course he does,” Saal replied sourly as he picked up on the endgame, realizing that it would probably involve sending him and Theo on a quantum-temporal excursion that didn't sit comfortably in his stomach. “So what are you wanting from us?”

“I won't lie. Your mission is complex and risky,” the gristly version of John warned. “Y'lair and I will go with you in your ship, back to YOUR universe… to the very moment that the body of YOUR John Carter died aboard the USS Republic. As it fades away in the surgical suite, you need to intercept the phase-out, and beam the body aboard while under cloak. Then, you must heal the body, have Y'lair transfer MY katra into it, then return us back to THIS quantum reality. The HMS Republic timeline should then go back to it's natural course, in parallel with YOUR timeline: I will have never left, the Cestus disaster will have unfolded as it should have, and I'll be able to send OUR Doug Forrest on the mission he was supposed to have gone on, which allowed the Remnant attacks to play out in the way they should have.”

The air in the room became palpable. “Are your out of you MIND?” an incredulous Theo “Doug Forrest” Carter shot back at John and the admiral. “Millions of people died in those attacks!”

“It beats trillions dead, which is what we have now,” said Admiral Shelby defiantly, meeting his gaze with fire in her eyes. “And the Xenoborg will never come into existence.”

“Right,” replied John with no hint of being moved by Theo's outburst. “Those 'millions' you speak of are already dead in the here and now. What we want is to make sure that the rest are still alive when I return in my new body.”

The thought gave Theo pause while Saal spoke up. “Your 'new' body?” scoffed Saal. “And what are we supposed to do with this body this you're in now?” he motioned to the body of the mirror-universe John, his expression at the same level of incredulity as Theo's. “You said that the mirror-universe John is sharing it with you, and that he's an animal! We have no idea what he'll do when when your katra is no longer there to control him!”

“You'll have to beam him and Y'lair back into the quantum slipstream as soon as possible,” Vic explained. “You need to let that 'river' of quantum reality take them back to the 'ocean', as I explained to you earlier. Keep John sedated long enough until he is no longer aboard your vessel, and Y'lair will make sure he gets back to where he belongs.”

“You mean send them back to the mirror universe?”

“Yes,” affirmed John. “That's where this body came from, and that's where it needs to return.”

“If you do these things,” Vic concluded. “All timelines should be restored, and you'll be able to return back to the USS Republic universe at the moment you left.”

Theo and Saal looked at one another, as if exchanging non-verbal thoughts. The two former Starfleet Intel cohorts often knew what each other was thinking back in there operative days. Now was one of those times. The plan was crazy from their point of view, and filled with so many holes that it seemed impossible to fill them all.

“Wait a minute,” interrupted Saal after a moment. “If this Iconian gateway is anywhere near the size of the Guardian of Forever, there's no way a spacecraft bigger than a Type-15 shuttle could get through it.”

“We considered that,” Vic explained. “As I mentioned, we got you here using a micro-singularity that we were tracking through the Reman neutral zone. While it did indeed collapse into a small subspace compression anomaly, it might still be of value to us in this mission. If you fly your ship close enough to the event horizon while maintaining your warp field, the compression anomaly will reduce the physical size of your ship and its occupants to a size large enough to enter the Iconian gateway.”

Theo and Saal nearly fell off their chairs in disbelief.

“Are you out of your MIND?” shouted Saal.

“This is ridiculous!” exclaimed Theo. “You're going to SHRINK US DOWN to fit through the gateway?”

“The calculations are sound,” Y'lair explained as Vic and the admiral exchanged their own glances of ambivalence about convincing the two refugees from another quantum reality. “I've reviewed each equation and operational algorithm. They are sound, and collaborated by multiple models. They WILL work.”

“I'll back that up,” Vic added. “If executed correctly, the subspace compression anomaly poses no danger to you or or vessel. Once we've reduced your volumetric profile, you'll then accompany the HMS Republic to the Iconian homeworld. There, I'll use the warp engines to institute a static warp bubble in direct line between the gateway on the planet surface and the Iconian sun. Meanwhile, you will steer your vessel to the gateway, activate it remotely with the time-warp calculations created by Y'lair and myself, then enter into a quantum slipstream through the gate that sends the Aerosprite backwards in time and space. If calculations hold, it'll be like crossing the transwarp threshold and breaking the warp ten barrier. Per the Theory of Infinite Velocity, you'll exist momentarily in every location of the universe at once.”

“Wait a minute,” beckoned Doctor Yezbeck, his anxiety about the plan unrelenting. “That's only been done once during the Voyager expedition to the Delta Quadrant! I've read the Voyager logs, and that had detrimental health effects on the crew member who did it.”

“We've considered that too,” Y'lair explained. “Your subatomic interspace will be vastly reduced in your compressed condition, and the quantum warp eddies that affected the Voyager crewmember shouldn't affect your miniaturized DNA molecules. Your DNA will be approximately 20 times smaller than normal-sized DNA, and it would be physically impossible for the quantum energy to affect you genetically as it did with the affected Voyager crewmember.”

“If we can exist momentarily anywhere in the universe,” Theo asked. “How are we able to make sure get to the moment when the body John Carter phases out aboard the USS Republic?”

“Yes, and what about beaming him in our compressed condition?” Saal pointed out. “His body will be full size while our transporter pad will be only a few centimeters tall!”

“From ship logs, we know the exact position that the HMS Republic was in at the exact moment that John Carter phased away from this reality three years go,” Y'lair informed them. “Since the event happened in both realities, the USS Republic should be at the same position at the same time too, else the crossover between our two realities would never had happened in the first place. My quantum time warp calculations will send us on a very precise parabolic course through transwarp towards the Delphi sector before reaching perigee and returning us to the Iconian homeworld very shortly afterwards. While we could technically fly to just about any place in the universe, the transwarp window will last only about 30 seconds aboard the Aerosprite, so we can only choose one location before having to return back to the gateway. Therefore, we will accelerate backwards in time to before stardate 57442, then forward through time via the slingshot maneuver.”

“And our size?” insisted Saal.

“Space is relative, but atomic masses will be the same,” Y'lair stated as if it was obvious. “Only the intra-atomic spaces will be reduced. I'll be programming the transporter to assemble matter into our compressed condition inside the Aerosprite, then for beam out, I'll program it to reassemble matter back to full size.”

“I suppose you'll also explain how we're going to shift through quantum realities as well as time travel?” Saal asked, the tone of disbelief still evident.

“The ship's Romulan singularity warp drive will still be active,” Victor Virtus answered, his first-lord-of-the-engines expertise kicking in. “And our static warp bubble above the planet will be in flux. The gravitational ripple caused by the two will change the resonance of your ship's quantum signature, thus accelerating you through different quantum realities while also traveling through time. You'll cycle through multiple different quantum realities within our quantum domain network, and at the same time, months will pass in minutes. Fortunately, you'll be able to manually slow down at specific time intervals by manipulating the output field of the artificial singularity in your Romulan warp drive.”

“Like pinching a water hose,” John explained to the flabbergasted USS Republic universe refugees. “But it'll only last a short time, so you'll have to hurry.”

“Agreed,” Vic affirmed. “It will allow you to slow the time flow down to normal speed, just long enough to initiate transport.”

“With the cloaking device engaged,” Y'lair continued in place of Vic. “You'll start back to where the Galaxy Class USS Republic was on stardate 57442. At the proper moment, you'll slow the time vortex down and beam John Carter's body from the sickbay surgical suite just as it fades away. This will prevent a paradox in your quantum reality, as the body of the HMS Republic John Carter will shortly thereafter return to the USS Republic, with the mind of the USS Republic John Carter still inhabiting it. That timeline will progress untouched. Meanwhile, I will then transfer the lost katra of the HMS Republic John carter out of THIS body,” he pointed to the mirror-universe John Carter, “and place it into the recovered body of the USS Republic John Carter.”

“As the quantum slipstream passes through this reality,” John picked the plan back up from Y'lair. “You will beam the body of the USS Republic John Carter with my katra, back to the HMS Republic universe at a time just before the Cestus Three event. It really doesn't matter when, as long as it happens before Cestus Three. Wherever I am in the alpha quadrant, I'll be able to make my way back to Republic and ensure that Doug Forrest is able to fulfill his mission.”

“Prior to exiting the Iconian gateway in your quantum reality,” Y'lair interjected to finish the plan. “You will have to beam the mirror universe John Carter and myself directly into the main spacetime flow of our quantum domain. If my calculations are correct – and they are – the quantum slipstream will naturally deposit us back into our quantum reality at about the same moment as present day. Everything should then fall back into place in each of the three quantum realities.”

“What about US??” Theo stressed. “Saal and I will still be a pair of shrunken dupes in a toy Romulan spaceship surfing along quantum spacetime somewhere!”

“With your warp drive still engaged,” Vic explained calmly. “Your quantum-temporal trajectory around the Iconian sun will send you back towards the planet. I'll still be aboard the HMS Republic in orbit around the Iconian homeworld, and will be maintaining the static warp bubble to act as a quantum anchor for you. You'll need to keep your Romulan singularity warp field active and move quickly back to the planet in order to re-enter the Iconian gateway… 'Thread the needle' so to speak. If Y'lair's calculations are correct, you'll emerge at the same gateway in YOUR reality instead of ours.”

“…And our size?” Saal was able to ask while a fuming Theo was shaking his head in silence.

“The micro-singularity should still be on its same course through the Neutral Zone in your reality as it is here in our reality,” Vic explained. “We'll give you it's coordinates. Find it. Use your ship's navigational deflector to create a graviton beam, then collapse it into a subspace compression anomaly as we did. You can then take a reverse course along it's event horizon to bring you back to full size.”

“Alternatively,” Y'lair added. “If you fly to a habitable planet or full-sized space vessel, you can use the reprogrammed transporter to beam yourselves back to full size. You'll lose the use of the Aerosprite, but you'll be back to your normal volume. Either way, reassuming your full size is probably the simplest part of this plan.”

With a shake of his head, Saal guffawed at the audacity of the convoluted proposition. Meanwhile, Theo calmly listed off each waypoint, as if to highlight the sheer insanity of it. He stared directly at Shelby with cold eyes while he spoke, while she met his gaze silently but with equally firm resolve.

“Let me see if I got this straight,” he started. “Shrink us down to the size of a mouse… send us backwards in time to another universe… switch out different versions of John Carter without getting noticed… then switch universes AGAIN into THIS universe… drop off one of the John Carters here three years ago… then drop off the OTHER John Carter along with Y'lair into the quantum spacetime abyss… all before getting back to OUR reality in OUR time, while hopefully finding a way to get us back the correct size BY OURSELVES… do I have all of this right?”

His tone made it clear than neither he nor Doctor Yezbeck were convinced that the plan was going to work, regardless of the brainpower in the room stating that it would. In fact, his hostility towards it was building with each word they spoke since walking into the admiral's office. The man formerly known as Doug Forrest was about to stand up and give the most vindictive diatribe to what he saw as the most ill-conceived plan ever devised to right a perceived wrong. However, as he looked back into Elizabeth Shelby's eyes once more, the resolve he saw earlier was no longer there. Instead, it had been replaced with desperation. Not a panicked desperation reflective of a person who had lost all hope, nor worried if someone would or wouldn't take a specific course of action. Rather, it was more of a soul-seeking desperation. She bore the heart-wrenching expression of a person who lost a piece of themselves, and who was trying to speak out to them for the very last time before parting into oblivion.

“Doug…” Shelby tenderly addressed him from across the table, her voice becoming soft and raspy. “You were my husband in this reality. I lost you two weeks ago to the Xenoborg, and I don't want to lose you again. I wouldn't send you on this mission if I didn't think it had a good chance of success. I knew the Doctor Y'lair of this reality – as well as Doctor Virtus here – for a very long time. They're both the smartest people I know on the topic of quantum-temporal physics. If this is going to work – and I think that it will – these are the people you want on your side.”

Theo looked at the two multi-awarded Doctors of Philosophy sitting next to her. Though Y'lair was from a different universe, he had gained the same level of confidence as Victor Virtus did in this universe. He was putting the lives of both himself and Saal into the hands of people he'd known for a long time – yet never met once before today. The John Carter he knew and respected was both here in front of him, yet waiting for them somewhere else in another universe. As for Shelby, he settled his eyes squarely on her. A woman he knew as a friend, yet cared for on a deeper level, was now before him as a symbol of a realized love he never had the courage to profess in his own universe.

“I know you haven't any reason to trust us,” she spoke, her eyes betraying perhaps the purest of all truths. “But know this: I WANT you to get safely back to your reality. Just as much as I need your help to fix OUR reality. I'm asking you to do this – to TRUST us – because I KNOW that you can do it. My husband can do this. Therefore, that means that YOU can too.”

Taking stock of her words, Theo “Doug Forrest” Carter took one last glance towards Saal. For his part, the former USS Republic surgeon looked at him and shook his head while shrugging his shoulders, as if saying “I'll follow your lead kid, but this is the craziest stunt you've ever pulled.”

Turning back to Shelby, he gave the only answer possible given the circumstances.


No sooner did the door to the admiral's office slide open than did the six individuals emerge in single file. John Carter and Y'lair marched away out of the control center with purpose, while Admiral Shelby purposefully strode towards the engineering monitoring station. By the time that Victor Virus, Saal Yezbeck, and Theo Carter came out, two individuals who were seated outside the office stood up in anticipation of their arrival.

“Leon,” Vic greeted the sandy-blond HMS Republic medical officer. Looking towards the frail, thin man in a gray jumpsuit who stood when Leon did, the commander of the Republic greeted him as well. “You must be Captain Stryker. You're looking much better than when Leon admitted you to sickbay.”

“I wasn't quite myself,” the scraggly-bearded, brown-haired former prisoner replied. “I'm afraid I don't remember much until Doctor Cromwell revived me in the Republic's ICU bed.”

“We've been nutritionally reconstituting his metabolism all night,” Leon explained. “He's been doing very well.”

“I had my first hot meal in years,” the liberated captain explained. “Thank you for rescuing me,” he turned to Saal and Theo.

“Don't mention it,” Theo replied. “I'm only sorry it didn't happen sooner.”

“Is this all you came down here for?” Vic asked Leon.

“Well, you said wanted a staff meeting at 0800, but it seems to have been overtaken by events. The Yeoman told me you would be done with the admiral 'momentarily', which was thirty minutes ago.”

“Hmmm,” the Malthusian engineer murmured while glancing at the chronometer on a nearby control station. “I seem to have forgotten to send out an update memo.”

“Don't tell me you forgot what time it was?” Leon chided with a smile.

“Certainly not,” Vic quipped. “I knew exactly how long we would be in the admiral's office. I simply reprioritized the order of events. We still need a staff meeting with the senior officers to discuss our next steps. Gather Lieutenants Pakita and Jarin, and let's meet in the main conference room in fifteen minutes. Where's Shannon?”

“In the base infirmary,” Leon informed him. “She's taking care of the rest of the injured crew. I already called her and told her to meet us here.”

“Shannon?” the frail captain exclaimed with dawning disbelief. His face went ashen, causing Leon to look towards him with concern. “Shannon Harris?”

“Yes,” Leon frowned, pulling out his medical tricorder as Captain Stryker's heartbeat tripled and his expression turned dazed and stunned. “Do you know her?”

He was about to answer when an astonished voice shot across the command center.

“Ted!” reverberated a feminine voice. Across the room by the entrance, a green-eyed scarlet-haired lieutenant commander in medical blue stood gawking at them in stupefaction.

OFF

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