Even at warp, the Amargosa Diaspora was quite the sight to behold, a starscape of countless suns arranged in close proximity to each other, ranging from the ultra hot and bright dark-blue main sequence stars to white and orange giants all the way up to the dimmer and cooler M-types.
It was also quite a challenge to navigate, requiring ship pilots to make constant, minor course correction and limiting their cruising speed to warp seven.
And yet Michael Owens' focus remained not on the mesmerizing background vista or the hard work being carried out on the bridge by his helmsmen, but on that other starship, traveling in close formation just a few short kilometers to their starboard bow and readily discernible from the windows of his quarters.
It had been six hours since he had received his briefing on Arkania IX and both Eagle and Agamemnon had set out towards Krellonian space. He had tried to reach out to Amaya twice during that time with no success.
“Lieutenant Deen to Captain Owens.”
Her voice had not come over the comm system but from much closer. He diverted his eyes from the windows to the other side of the table he was sitting at to see DeMara returning his look expectantly.
It took him a moment to realize that she was asking him to pass the tray filled with freshly replicated toast slices which sat on his side of the breakfast table and that she had likely asked for it at least once before while he had been distracted with his thoughts. "Of course, sorry," he said as he reached for the tray and passed it along.
“You still haven’t told me what this mission is all about,” she said as she took a couple of slices and began to butter them up. “You know the rumor mill is in full effect. Cleary more is happening here than just a relief mission.”
He frowned. He was still not comfortable that the crew, especially his senior officers, were left in the dark about their latest assignment and he knew he had to change this soon. Jarik's instructions had been clear regarding the confidentiality requirements of the mission, but he had to find ways to read in people he trusted and whose support he was going to depend on for next few days or otherwise this mission was doomed before it had even started. "I'll schedule a briefing soon."
“That’s not what has you so distracted this morning though, is it?”
Michael uttered a sigh, realizing that he wouldn’t be able to keep his true thoughts from the perceptive Tenarian. “It’s Amaya.”
“Right,” she said and quickly went back to finish preparing her toast with fruit-based preserves.
“She’s been very distant lately, ever since the funeral when I realized that we had both been on Earth at the same time. And then talking to her yesterday, it almost felt as if we were strangers.”
“I’m probably not the right person to offer relationship advice,” she said without making eye contact. “But sometimes people just drift apart.”
He nodded slowly even if he had a hard time understanding why this would have been the case with Amaya. She had given him no signs at all over the last year or so and after their relationship had become more than mere friendship that she had regretted the path they had embarked upon. "Maybe," he said, hoping that this was not the case but also not quite missing that his breakfast companion seemed somewhat disinterested in this topic of conversation. In fact, she had appeared rather dispassionate about a number of things lately, and he couldn't help wonder if perhaps her suspended performance was to blame. He knew that his critique certainly hadn't helped matters.
He felt that he needed to clear the air; it wouldn’t do having two important people in his life being annoyed with him at the same time.
But before he could broach the subject, the comm system piped through an actual message into his quarters. “Bridge to Captain.”
He recognized So’Dan Leva’s voice. “Owens here. Go ahead, Commander.”
“Sir, we’ve just received a message from the Agamemnon. Captain Donners is requesting permission to beam aboard.”
He exchanged a surprised glance with DeMara who merely shrugged “Very good. Permission granted. I’ll meet her in transporter room two.”
“I’ll relay the message.”
DeMara grabbed a half-eaten slice of toast from her plate and stood. “Well, sounds like your worries were unfounded.”
"Yeah," he said, halfheartedly. "But still, doesn't this all feel a little forced to you? Requesting formal permission, relaying messages via the bridge? That's not really her style."
“She’s following protocol, Michael, you can’t fault her for that,” she said and headed for the doors.
She shook her head. “I just thought I’d give you two some privacy.”
He left his chair. “You don’t have to go,” he said but realized, even as he was saying the words, that in truth, he wanted her to.
And she could see it too. She was kind enough not to call him out on his bluff. "I should get back to the bridge anyway. There are a lot of stars out there; it helps to have a couple of extra eyeballs focused on sensors," she said and then left without waiting for his response.
He walked over to his washroom to quickly freshen up and brush his hair before he'd head out to greet her in the transporter room. On his way towards the doors, he stopped, thinking of something else. "Computer, play some ambient music. American Blues. Early to mid-Twentieth century," he said, knowing that Amaya was particularly partial to that genre of music.
The computer quickly trilled in acknowledgment and filled his quarters with the gentle but sorrowful tones of a singer of a long bygone age, strumming on his guitar.
Not a moment after, the annunciator to his quarters notified him of a visitor which to Michael felt like a rather inconvenient time. He quickly stepped up to the doors which opened to reveal Amaya Donners already standing there.
“Hey,” he said surprised. “I was just coming to get you.”
She stepped into his quarters after he had moved aside to give her room. “You know me, never the patient sort.”
He turned to face her and allowing the doors to close behind him. “Well, I’m glad you came over.”
She spotted the food on the table. “Did I interrupt breakfast?”
He shrugged it off. “Not really. Want to join me?”
She looked over the second table setting. “Dee?” she asked.
“Yes. She just left.”
She nodded but made no move to sit at the table.
“I can get you a plate,” he said and headed towards the replicator.
“No need,” she said. “I won’t be staying long.”
He stopped halfway to the replicator and turned back. “Oh?”
He guessed it wasn't difficult for her to spot the disappointment on his face and she uttered a little sigh. "Listen, Michael; I know things between us have cooled a little bit."
He offered a smile. “I guess. We’re both pretty busy people after all.”
She nodded but didn't reciprocate the smile. "That's right. I mean look at us. We're so busy that for the majority of the time we can't even see each other in person. Every time we try to arrange leave together something comes up either on my side or yours. And then, the one-time coincidence puts us in the same place at the same time, all I get to do is express my condolences to you, almost in passing, after your father died."
“I don’t blame you for that. And I appreciate you made the time for the funeral.”
She took a step towards the window as if to study her own ship in closer detail. "This isn't about blame. It's about the practicality of two starship captains being more to each other than just friends. We both have an enormous amount of responsibilities placed on us. Now with this latest crisis, perhaps more so than ever since the end of the war."
Michael was not willing to give in so quickly. He took a step towards her. "We made it work during the war, and it wasn't easy for either one of us then."
She finally turned to look him in the eye. She didn’t speak right away.
“What are you saying here? You want to break this off?”
“What is this anyway?” she said. “You and me? What would you call it? It’s not really a relationship in that sense of the word. Talking to each every other week or so, seeing each other maybe every other month and worrying for most of the rest of the time.”
“I will always worry about you.”
She scowled at him, and he realized that he had phrased that wrong. "What I mean is that we have been friends for a long time. And we'll always be friends. Worrying about each other is what friends tend to do. It shows that we care."
She nodded slightly, acceding to that point. “Yes, but it’s easier when there is less pressure.”
“Pressure?” he said, finding her word choice a little peculiar.
She seemed to sense it too and began to rub the bridge of her nose in apparent frustration. Whatever she had come here to say, it was apparently not going quite the way she had envisioned it. "Listen, I just think we need to slow things down a bit. At least until this crisis is over."
“There’ll always be some sort of crisis.”
She said nothing.
He nodded, the message was clear enough. “Very well. Let’s focus on this mission and saving the galaxy before we decide where this other thing between us is going.”
Her smile felt forced and never quite reached her eyes. “Thanks.”
She pointed towards the ceiling to indicate the music that was playing over the speakers. “I love Huddie Ledbetter.”
“Lead Belly. I know,” he said. “Ever since you’ve told me that you grew up in the same place he was born. Tiny town in the bayou.”
Her smile widened slightly. “Yeah, I guess I do like to tell that story.”
They remained in quiet reflection for a spell while the four-hundred-year-old singer lamented over where his girl had been and where she was going to go.
The song came to an end, and Amaya headed for the doors. Then she stopped, reached into her uniform jacket and dug out a thin isolinear chip from an inside pocket. She handed it over to him. "I almost forgot about this."
“What is it?” he asked as he took the plastic strip.
“It’s from your father. He asked me to give it to you before…”
She didn't have to finish the sentence, and the look in her pained eyes made it clear that she didn't want to talk about it further either. She left without saying another word.
His eyes lingered on those now closed doors for a moment, unable to stop wondering where he had gone wrong to allow it to get to this point and why he had not tried harder from letting her go.
Michael glanced down at the chip in his hand. If it had really come from his father as she had claimed, he had to wonder why he had given it to her instead of just passing this on to him directly. But then again trying to understand anything his father had done while he had still been alive had often seemed like a mostly futile gesture.
He walked over to his desk, sat down in front of his desktop monitor and slotted the chip into the interface.
The music immediately stopped playing and the image of his father, alive and well, appeared on the screen. Based on the background and the time index, the message had been recorded just a day before his death at his base in Far East Russia and after he had visited him there.
It was an odd feeling seeing him alive again, knowing that this was likely the last message he had ever recorded, at least to him.
“Son, I will have to keep this short. I know that you are not inclined to accept my offer to come and work for me. God knows you inherited that stubbornness from both your mother and me. To be honest, I didn't really expect you to. You are a starship captain, and I suppose at heart, that's what you'll always be. I've never truly had that same drive, but I recognize it in men and women who have made it their life's mission to sit in that chair and try to change the galaxy for the better.
I am trying to do the same thing but on a much larger scale and I will need your help doing it.”
He looked off-screen for a brief moment, reflecting on what he had said. Or perhaps on what he was about to say next.
"We've had our differences in the past; I understand this. And I also understand that some of it, maybe the majority of it, was because I involved myself far too much in your life and tried to do the same thing with your brother before he—left us. But you have to believe that I always had a good reason for doing so. That there was more at stake than the happiness of one family.”
He sighed, and it was clear he didn't exactly relish going down that particular road again and reopening old wounds.
"Michael, I said I would need your help, and I understand that you are not willing to do so based on the very little I've been able to share with you so far. But regardless if you end up deciding to join me here or not, I truly hope that I will be able to rely on you with whatever may happen going forward."
Jonathan Owens uttered a little laugh, amused by his own words.
“I’ve gotten a little bit too comfortable with my own secrets. Forgive an old man for being overly cautious with information which could be fatally dangerous in the wrong hands. I promise I will be able to tell you more soon,” he said before his face became much more serious once again. “In the meantime, and no matter what will happen in the days and weeks, maybe months, down the road, there is just one thing that I need you to promise me.
Don’t trust anyone.”
And then the message stopped, and his father's face disappeared.
Michael was flabbergasted.
And he was angry. Angry with a man he had spent most of his life being irked with and only just realizing that even after his death, this would not soon change.
“Goddammit, dad, what have you gotten me into?”