Even if Lif Culsten had not known where to find Central Plaza, it would not have been difficult to locate it considering that seemingly half the local population was on their way there or had already assembled in the large square almost entirely surrounded by the tallest buildings in the city.
It didn’t escape Tazla’s notice that the event had only drawn Krellonians, most likely since all the Outlanders they had come across were being kept behind fences, not much better than prisoners.
Many of the Krellonians who had come together at Central Plaza appeared to belong to the military or other official institutions judging by all the uniforms she noticed. There were practically no children or elderly people as far as she could see, leading her to believe that the city was not home to a significant civilian population at all.
The plaza was quickly filling to capacity with a good few thousand people, she guessed, all of whom seemed to have arrived here for a single reason, all focusing their attention on a large stage which had been set up at the far end of the plaza, just below one of the many skyscrapers surrounding the plaza.
The audience didn’t have to wait long for the speaker to arrive and as soon as she appeared on the stage an eerie silence settled over the crowd.
“I think we’ve just found who we’ve been looking for,” Sensy whispered and still managed to garner a few annoyed glares from Krellonians standing nearby.
Garla was followed by a man with an even more familiar face, this one belonging to nonother than Lif Culsten. Both were dressed in sleek and almost featureless black suits with the yellow rose triangle on the right shoulder of their jackets.
It would have been near impossible to make out any details of the two people on stage from where the away team was standing had it not been for the fact that the smooth and tinted windows of the high-rise building immediately behind the stage had turned into a massive screen, at least ten floors high, which displayed both Garla and Culsten as larger than life figures to the entire crowd and which identified her as Instigator Garla and him as Sentinel Culsten.
Garla took position behind a simple podium with Culsten standing just behind her and to her right.
Garla took a moment to look over the assembled crowd which remained almost perfectly silent while awaiting her to speak.
“Today I announce that Piqus is stronger and more powerful than ever,” she said, her amplified voice booming across the plaza from multiple speakers.
The crowd immediately broke out in loud cheers.
“We are an example of what strength and determination can accomplish in the Alliance. We are not just a role model to other worlds, we are setting the tone for the rest of the Alliance to follow.”
The cheers erupted once more.
Garla continued without waiting for them to die down. “Our factories produce the most powerful weapons and equipment in the long and storied history of the Alliance. Our workforce is envied the galaxy over. Our production quotas are unrivaled throughout Krellonian space and beyond. Piqus is Power.”
There was another pause for loud cheers and applause.
“We have contributed a more than significant share to the greatness and might of the Star Alliance and proven for once and for all that as Krellonians, we are the superior race in the galaxy. That there is no limit to what we can accomplish.”
Louder cheers this time.
“Tonight, I will depart for Krellon to meet with the Paramount and the Central Council and we shall lay out a strategy for Piqus and the entire Alliance to show the rest of the galaxy that nothing can stand in the way of Krellonian power and determination.”
The crowd remained enamored with what they were hearing judging by the ongoing reaction to her words.
“There will come a day, in the not so distant future, that Krellonians will be known the galaxy over as a force to be reckoned with. And that future will be fueled by the fire of Piqus forges.”
Garla went on for quite sometime after that to speak in mostly vague terms about this new future, pausing every so often, as she had done throughout, to allow for more jubilant reactions from the thousands of people who had assembled to listen to her.
After ten minutes, Tazla had mostly zoned out, the themes seemingly repeating themselves endlessly as she pandered to her audience in ways that she had heard from countless despots before.
When she was finally done, she determinedly walked off the stage, taking little time to bask in the final, thunderous applause of the crowd, with Lif Culsten following her closely.
“Did she just declare war on the galaxy?” Violet said, keeping her voice down, but with the loud cheers all around them there seemed to be little chance for her to be overhead.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Culsten said. He had long since pulled up the hood of his jacket to try and hide his face as best as he could, clearly quite cognizant that his counterpart was an important and instantly recognizable person on this version of Piqus.
The crowd didn’t linger for the most part and also quickly dispersed save for a few groups here and there.
“Was she like this in our universe?” Sensy asked.
Culsten shook his head but still seemed too preoccupied with what he had just witnessed to offer any words.
“Most certainly not.”
This had not come from any member of the away team and Tazla and the others whipped around upon hearing the voice.
It had belonged to a woman who had stepped up just behind them, her own hood was obscuring her face. She took a moment to look around, perhaps to make sure nobody else was paying attention to her, and then pulled back the hood.
“Garla,” Culsten said, clearly surprised to see her.
Tazla instinctively reached for her phaser hidden under her jacket and so did the other operatives. Ivory and Violet quickly stepped sideways in order to flank the Krellonian woman they had come here to retrieve.
Garla seemed to take little notice of this, her eyes still focused on the stage at the far end of the plaza where her doppelganger had just recently given her speech. “That woman is nothing like me,” she said and then looked around. “This place is nothing like the Alliance I know. This is nothing more than a slave labor camp.” Her angry eyes finally found Tazla’s. “What have you done?”
She shook her head. “This is not on us. In fact, this is the doing of your allies. They built the Ring which created a gateway that brought us here.”
“An alternate universe?”
“That is insane.”
“And yet the evidence seems difficult to ignore,” said Tazla. “You need to get in touch with those subspace aliens and find a way to take us back home.”
But Garla didn’t respond. Instead, she just stood there, staring into the distance at a world she knew and yet was entirely foreign to her.
Tazla was running out of patience. She stepped up behind the woman and reached for her shoulder to turn her around. It was a move she quickly came to regret since the Krellonian woman whirled around much faster than she had anticipated, holding something in her hand which glinted under the powerful floodlights illuminating the plaza.
Tazla jumped back as fast as she could but not quickly enough as not to be clipped by the razor-sharp blade which easily tore through her shirt and drew blood from her side.
Garla pushed the surprised Tazla back so that she stumbled over her own feet and fell to the ground.
Tazla pulled free her phaser but by the time she had a beat on the other woman, she was already sprinting across the plaza, her hood once more covering her features and using scattered groups of people for cover.
Culsten and Ivory were quickly at Tazla’s side.
“Are you all right?” he asked her as he took a knee next to her.
She looked down at the small slice in her shirt and then inspected the wound underneath which although had drawn blood, was not much more than a scratch. She quickly pulled herself back onto her feet. “I’m fine.”
“What are our rules of engagement,” Sensy asked after he and the remaining operatives had joined her as well.
Tazla raised her phaser. “I’m done playing nice. Let’s go after her and take her back. I don’t care if we have to stun her and drag her unconscious body back to the runabout.”
With that she took the lead, quickly crossing the plaza and following Garla’s footsteps.
Fortunately, with the late hour and Instigator Garla’s big speech behind them, foot and vehicle traffic which could impede their chase, or worse, shut it down altogether, had died down significantly and the away team didn’t encounter many Krellonians as they followed Garla through the city.
Ivory who had quickly taken the lead again was particularly adapt it seemed at picking up her trail. But even the Vulcan was not perfect and after a few minutes, the chase began to slow.
“I am no longer certain which way she has taken,” Ivory said as they were approaching a junction in the road.
“This place may be foreign to her,” Culsten said. “But most of the city’s layout is very similar to the one in our universe. That’s giving her a substantial advantage in evading us. Not to mention that she’s a trained Sentinel of the Eye.”
Tazla tried not to let that get to her. After all, she had been in a very similar line of work once upon a time and while Garla clearly had some years on her in experience, and seemed to have the physical fitness and prowess to match hers, it had bothered her that the woman had already bested her twice. “You’ve been to this city. In our universe.”
He shook his head. “I spent maybe half a day there. She’d been on Piqus for months.”
Ivory took a left at the intersection. “There is a twenty-three percent chance she has chosen this direction.”
That was good enough for Star who followed her.
It had been a poor choice as they walked right into an armed Krellonian patrol.
“Halt,” the lead soldier barked as soon as he spotted the away team. The rest of his eight-man patrol raised their rifles.
The away team followed suit but Tazla could see right away that they were outnumbered and outgunned. She guessed that their SMT escort was better trained and more capable than a group of Krellonian grunts but were they good enough to incapacitate eight soldiers who had weapons trained on them and doing so without drawing the attention of an entire platoon? She knew that more often than not, the outcomes of unplanned confrontations such as these depended as much on luck as they did on pure skill.
“Identify yourselves,” he said angrily, no doubt upset over having what seemed like a group of Krellonians draw weapons on him and his patrol.
This time Culsten stepped up without having to be prompted, lowering his phaser as he addressed the patrol. “You recognize me, surely. These are agents acting on my behalf. Let us pass.”
Tazla thought he sounded pretty convincing but regrettably, this lead solider was not as easily duped as the last one they had encountered. Perhaps somewhat confused by his very different attire then his alternate had sported just a short while earlier. “I will have to call this in.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
The squad leader turned to find the person who had said this and for a moment Tazla was tempted to give the order to use the distraction to eliminate the patrol. But once she realized who had come to their unexpected rescue, she decided to let it play out instead.
“Instigator,” the guard said and quickly lowered his rifle.
Garla confidently strode towards the patrol which quickly parted for her as she continued on towards Tazla and the away team before stopping just a few short meters away.
“It was my understanding that you had departed for Krellon,” the squad leader said.
She turned to look at him with an exasperated expression. “I would have already left if you hadn’t interrupted my plans by needlessly interfering with official concerns.”
The man looked chastised. “Apologies, Instigator, we were not aware. Is there anything else we may be able to assist you with?”
Garla turned back towards the away team and Tazla could see a look in her eyes she didn’t care for at all, and immediately came to regret not having taking action sooner.
“In fact, you may. Sentinel Culsten and I have important business to discuss. The others are foreign spies and need to be arrested.”
It was too late to think of a countermove, the guards were upon her and the SMTs within a heartbeat, quickly disarming them of their phasers and with their rifles at point-blank range.
She caught Sensy giving her an intense look and she was sure that he was already thinking about making a move, not having a phaser was probably not going to even slow him and his people down. But Tazla didn’t like their odds and just shook her head.
Culsten in the meantime was drawing no further attention from the soldiers and was free to move. He stepped up next to Garla, shaking his head. “Don’t do this,” he whispered.
“It’s already done.”
He found Tazla’s eyes and she hoped she was successful in imparting on the young Krellonian that it was now up to him to find a way to get them all back to Eagle.
“Justicar, remove these people at once,” Garla said.
The last thing she saw of the person she had been sent to retrieve as she and the others were being roughly manhandled was her striding away confidently, Lif Culsten following in her wake much less self-assured than his counterpart had appeared earlier.