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She strode into the shuttle bay to find that the runabout Nebuchadrezzar had already been lifted from the below hangar onto the flight deck, ready for takeoff. The large bay door at the far end of the cavernous hall stood fully open. Since both Eagle and Agamemnon had returned to Cygni-98 to transfer the runabout, the open doors allowed for a splendid view of the colorful Amargosa Diaspora with only an invisible forcefield between the inside of the ship and the cold vacuum of space beyond it.

The four SMT operatives who were to join her mission had already arrived, standing near the runabout, they were going through what looked like last-minute equipment checks, reviewing their heavy weaponry and several additional cases they were planning to bring along, clearly planning to be prepared for any eventuality.

Other than the team leader Reynolds Sensabaugh or Sensy as his people liked to call him, the team was made up of Ivory, the tall Vulcan female operative of few words, Grunt, the short but stocky and seemingly permanently ill-tempered Tellarite and the Boslic woman Violet who had seemingly taken her moniker from the bright color of her hair.

But it was Lif Culsten who approached her pretty much the moment she had stepped foot in the shuttle bay. “Commander, a quick word before we go?”

She nodded while she kept her course for the runabout. “Let’s make it brief, I want to get underway as soon as possible.”

Lif fell in step beside her but seemed hesitant to enter the ship. He shot a glance at the SMT operators in earshot before he looked back at her. “Somewhere more private perhaps?”

It was clear he didn’t want to have this conversation in the open but at the same time, he was determined not to board the Nebuchadrezzar. Tazla decided she didn’t have time for this. She stopped and turned to face him. “What is it, Lif?”

He uttered a little sigh when it became obvious that she wasn’t willing to take this discussion someplace else. “I just don’t think I should be on this mission.”

“Oh really? And why not, if I may ask?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Last time I ran into my aunt, she wanted to kill me for betraying her trust. If we need to bring her back here, the last thing she’s going to do is come with me. You stand a better chance of getting her back if I stayed as far away from her as possible.”

Tazla looked him straight in the eye, trying to determine the real reason he didn’t wish to go. The fact that Lif had been unhappy about returning to Krellonian space in the first place, that he had been so opposed to the entire notion that he had avoided meeting with his aunt even after both she and the captain had urged him to do so, none of that was much of a secret and she suspected that after escaping Krellonian space the last time, he had hoped not ever having to return there again, regardless in which universe. “We’re heading back into Krellonian space, Lif. Last time I checked you are still the only Krellonian onboard. I think that is good enough of a reason to include you in this mission.”

“But this isn’t even my home. For all we know this Star Alliance may have nothing in common with the place we visited a few days ago,” he said.

She shook her head. “Everything we’ve seen of this reality so far indicates that things are very similar to our own quantum-verse. It’s just that the details are all a little different. And even in that case, this would still make you our most logical guide.”

He broke eye contact for a moment and Tazla was wondering if he was trying to think of another argument to keep him from going. “Things didn’t exactly work out so well last time I went into Krellonian space,” he said when he looked at her again.

“I remember, I was there,” she said.

“So maybe it would be for the best if this time—“

She didn’t let him finish. “Look, Lif, you’re going and that’s all there’s to it. Like it or not, you are our subject matter expert on both the Krellonians and on Garla. In my eyes—and in those of the captain’s—that makes you mission-critical. And I don’t want to waste any more time arguing this.”

He got the message and nodded slowly. “I’ll go ahead and prep for take-off then.”

She offered him a wide grin. “That sounds like an excellent idea.”

He trotted off towards the runabout with his shoulders noticeably slumped.

Tazla didn’t miss the looks she was getting from some of the SMT operators who had listened in on the conversation. Violet, in particular, seemed to have taken some interest in the exchange, judging from the smirk playing on her lips as she looked up from what looked a lot like some sort of portable missile launcher she was currently inspecting. Tazla silently prayed to any deity that would listen that they wouldn’t need that sort of armament on this mission.

Before she could address the operators, she heard the heavy doors of the shuttlebay opening and when she looked that way, she spotted Nora Laas come rushing towards her.

“Commander,” she said before she had even reached her. “I have no idea what happened but for some reason I was not notified of this mission in time. My apologies.”

“None are necessary, Lieutenant. You are not on this mission.”

The blank look on her face seemed to speak of genuine confusion. “What, why not?”

She rubbed her forehead. Now, this was definitely not a conversation she wanted to have in the open. “It’s complicated. Let’s just say that your presence will be required here.”

It wasn’t enough of an explanation for the Bajoran. “Commander, I am the chief of security. You are about to embark on a mission to extract a high-value target behind enemy lines, more than likely against her will. We already know that Garla is an extremely capable and dangerous individual. You’ll need me.”

Tazla turned her back slightly to shield herself and this conversation from the operatives. “I am not disputing that.”

“Then what is the problem? Let me come along and make sure this mission will be successful.”

She tried a different tact. “Do you think the Niners are not up to that task?”

Nora briefly glanced over Tazla’s shoulder to consider the SMT members for a moment. “Of course not. They have proven that they’re highly capable. But I didn’t ask for them to be transferred to Eagle to replace my role on away missions.”

“This isn’t about you, Lieutenant.”

Nora, however, saw right through that bald-faced lie. “Oh no? It feels like it is since I would have been the first choice to ensure security on such a high-profile mission. What’s happening here, Commander?”

Tazla uttered a sigh and decided that there was no point in dancing around it any longer, not if she wanted to depart on schedule. “Captain Edison requested for you to remain behind,” she said and watched Nora’s face twist into a mask of growing anger. “To provide ongoing support in securing and investigating the gateway structure.”

“This has to be some sort of joke,” she said, doing little to hide her frustration.

Tazla shook her head. “I’m afraid not. It wasn’t my idea and the captain has agreed to Edison’s request since his ongoing cooperation is going to be essential,” she said. “So please, do not take this up with the captain,” she added since she knew that the fiery security chief had a tendency to take her grievances right to the top.

“Don’t worry, Commander, he’s not the one I am going to have words with,” she said, turned on her heel and rushed out of the shuttlebay just about as quickly as she had arrived.

Not a moment after the doors had closed behind her again, Tazla could sense that Violet had stepped up next to her. “You should have considered joining the Teams, Commander. No pesky personnel issues here,” she said with a wide grin, clearly enjoying Tazla’s frustrations before she boarded the runabout.

The other three members of her team followed suit, each one passing her by and giving Tazla a very brief glance as if in silent agreement with Violet, including the tall and reticent Vulcan woman. The Tellarite, as if to stay true to his handle, offered her a simple grunt as he walked by her last and following his team members onto the Nebuchadrezzar.

Tazla stood there just a moment longer, watching silently as the four operators boarded the runabout and then shook her head. “Things can only get better from here on in,” she said quietly and in doing so perhaps hoping that by saying it out loud, it would make it come true.

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