His counterparts reaction to seeing Lif materialize less than a hundred meters from where he stood with his men, investigating the abandoned Starfleet shuttles, was a far cry from the way Instigator Garla had responded to coming across her double, leading him to believe that this universe’s Lif was much more volatile than he had ever been.
He could see the other man practically snarling at their sudden appearance. “Imposters,” he cried. “Federation spies,” he added and was the first one to bring up his weapons, even while his soldiers still appeared momentarily baffled at seeing him and Garla appear before them.
The transporter, unfortunately, had not deposited them immediately next to the runabout, instead, the away team found itself on the wrong side of a ravine, very much in the open and making them an easy target.
“Get to the runabout,” Star shouted even as she brought up a rifle she had appropriated from a prison guard earlier, fully realizing that considering the numbers they were up against, they stood little chance
Lif and the rest of the team set in motion, rushing towards the ravine.
“I want the imposters alive,” Lif heard his counterpart shout to his men, just before the firing started.
Ahead of him, the three Niners had already made it across the small plank bridging the gully and were returning fire. Lif didn’t turn around but from what he could hear, the SMT operatives had far better aim than the Krellonian security forces.
Star went across the makeshift bridge next but before Garla managed to get to it, she was struck and went down.
Lif quickly slid down in the dirt next to her. “Are you all right?”
Garla checked her shoulder where she had been hit but Lif could see no signs of a wound or blood. Instead, a small, circular tag seemed to have attached itself to her jacket.
She winced when she tried to pull it off. “It’s dug itself into my skin,” she said.
“What is it?”
“Looks like a transporter inhibitor,” she said. “Your counterpart seems serious about capturing us alive.”
Lif felt a sudden sting in his right arm and when he brought it up he realized that he had been tagged with a similar device.
He turned to look back. He could see that most of the soldiers had taken cover behind their own shuttle, three of their comrades had not made it behind cover in time.
The other Lif Culsten, either very bravely, or stupidly, was rushing towards them with three more soldiers. His escort kept their phaser fire focused on Star and the Niners on the other side of the ravine in order to attempt and suppress them, but his double was clearly zeroed in on him and Garla, seemingly desperate to capture them both now that he had ensured they could not beam away.
“Let’s go,” Garla said and pulled herself up. “Once we get to the runabout, these inhibitors won’t matter.
They reached the ravine shortly thereafter Garla rushed across the narrow plank first. But Lif hesitated, noticing that the simple board spanning the gap was beginning to show noticeable cracks.
“Lif, come on,” Garla urged him from the other side.
“It doesn’t look like it’s going to hold,” he said after he tried to put just a single foot onto the wooden board and he could feel it give way under his weight. The gap was too wide to jump.
“No time, get down,” she yelled and brought up her weapon.
Lif looked around to see one of the soldiers close to reaching out to him. He immediately went low and not a moment later the solider was wiped off his feet by a well-aimed phaser blast from Garla’s rifle.
Too late did he realize that his counterpart had been just a step behind the felled soldier, close enough to see murderous anger in his eyes, the other him launched himself at Lif and both men tumbled backward and onto the plank.
It improvised bridge may have held one Lif but it had no chance against the combined weight of both of them crashing down on it. The wood tore apart with a loud crack and they tumbled down into the ravine.
The impact was softened only marginally by a shallow pool of dirty water at the bottom and was still forceful enough to expel any remaining air in his lungs, and painful enough to make him believe that he may have broken his back.
Lif had always liked to believe that his Krellonian bone structure was able to absorb a greater amount of damage than those of most of his humanoid colleagues and it seemed to him that he continuously found ways to put that theory to a test.
Far above him, he could see Garla looming down at them, yelling at him, but the hard landing had robbed him of his auditory senses.
She disappeared moments later since it was obvious from the blasts of phaser fire crisscrossing the rift above that the shootout hadn’t ceased just because he and his counterpart had tumbled down the ravine.
Fighting through the pain in his back, Lif managed to turn himself over on his stomach, his hands slipped on the wet and smooth ground. He found a way to drag himself out of the water and onto the drier shoulder. He spotted a Krellonina phaser where it had landed just a few meters away. When he heard a rustling sound, he turned his head to see that his counterpart had also come to, his eyes wide and still mirroring furious anger, likely only exacerbated after his fall. He had also spotted the phaser.
They both launched themselves at the weapon at what seemed like the exact same time. Lif’s entire body felt like it was on fire but adrenaline and survival instincts won out and his hand reached the handle of the weapon first.
It did him no good.
The other Lif was on him perhaps a nanosecond after, pulling him away from the phaser and causing it to slip from his fingers.
“You’re an imposter,” he shouted. “Are there no limits to the Federation’s audacity? Have you no shame?”
He shook his head. “This is not what this is,” he said but was cut off by the fist hitting his face.
Somewhere in the far reaches of his mind, Lif thought of a joke about beating up on oneself and how painful of an experience that could be.
“Federation lies,” the enraged counterpart shouted, getting ready to keep pounding him.
Lif’s long honed reflexes as a pilot where split-second decisions were not uncommon, reasserted themselves and he pulled his head away, causing the other man to strike empty ground instead.
He tried to find the phaser again but couldn’t see it where he lay and decided he needed another way to turn the tables. Using the momentary distraction caused by the other Lif injuring his hand, he used his body as a weapon and launched himself at his opponent, sending them both rolling down the narrow shoulder and back into the water.
He quickly realized that while his piloting career had given him faster reflexes, his counterpart was a far more experienced fighter and stronger as well.
Using momentum gained from their roll and his superior strength, the other man lifted him back onto his feet and pushed him hard into the side of the ravine, causing Lif to scream out in pain as he felt the jagged rocks being driven into his back.
The other Lif hesitated, taking a moment to study his opponent more closely. He reached up to touch Lif’s bloodied face. “By the Creator, what are you?”
“I can explain,” Lif said in-between coughing fits. As the adrenaline was starting to subside, his body was beginning to shut down.
But his double had no such patience and his grip became like a vise, ripping at Lif’s face as if offended by its mere existence and causing him to scream in pain once more.
A shadow fell over both men and Lif thought he could hear a rushing sound approaching. They both looked up.
Somebody was coming down, seemingly gliding out of the sky.
He knew exactly what he was looking at, after all, he had seen this in action not too long ago in a very similar and yet entirely different place.
His counterpart was a far more surprised by seeing the purple-haired woman swooping down towards them wearing gravity boots.
Lif took the chance to head butt the other man which he was certain must have hurt him just as much as it had hurt Lif. But the surprise of the sudden impact had forced his counterpart to stumble backward.
He recovered quicker than Lif had anticipated and with his back in pain and his face bleeding from being torn at, he wasn’t in much of a shape to offer resistance.
“Mind if I cut in here,” Violet said from above and aimed her boot thrusters right into the other Culsten’s face, causing the man to howl and dive for the shallow stream to cool off his burned face.
She came to a hover less than a meter above Lif and reached out with a hand. “Need a ride?”
He nodded eagerly. His last experience of being a passenger on gravity boots hadn’t exactly been pleasant but he was more than ready to leave this place and never ever set foot on a planet called Piqus ever again.
He took her hand as she continued to descend towards him, placed one foot on her hovering boot and held on tightly. Remembering the last time he had done so, when Nora had been his savior, and she had complained about how tight he had pressed himself against her, he offered the Niner an apologetic look.
The Boslic woman just smirked at him. “Don’t worry, I’m not the squeamish type.”
But Lif’s concern quickly refocused when he realized that his counterpart had recovered again and had found the phaser, bringing it up to take a shot at them both. “Watch out.”
Violet must have seen the danger from the corner of her eye and yet was not quick enough to bring her own rifle up to fire first. Instead, she jerked sideways, trying to avoid the incoming blast. It still struck her shoulder and she was forced to let go of her weapon which fell out of her hand.
The impact pushed them both backward and Lif once more struck the rock wall painfully, along with his would-be rescuer.
“Hang on,” she shouted as the impact had caused her to momentarily lose control of the boots and they blasted forward and right into the surprised other Culsten, knocking him over in the process.
Violet regained her balance and they began to gain altitude.
But there ascend was arrested when Lif felt something holding him down.
“You’re not going anywhere, Imposter,” he screamed while he held on to Lif’s right boot with both hands, his weight enough to keep them both suspended in mid-air.
“Can’t shake him free,” she said.
“Give me some slack,” Lif responded.
She seemed to understand and reduced the thrust of the boots, causing them to slowly drop back towards the ground.
“I’m going to rip you apart and find out what you truly are,” the other Culsten roared angrily as he eagerly watched their descend towards him.
“There’s something that people have been saying about me lately,” Lif said to his enraged counterpart as he continued to draw nearer. “I think it’s doubly true for you. You have a real attitude problem,” he said just before he smashed his boot into the other man’s face with as much force as he could.
Culsten let go and dropped to the ground while Violet and Lif shot into the sky.
They were immediately greeted by phaser fire from the remaining soldiers who had taken cover behind the shuttle. It was promptly answered by a phaser blast from the runabout which was now hovering a good ten meters above the ground.
The blast ripped the shuttle to shreds, killing several soldiers instantly and causing others to scramble for additional cover.
Violet steered them towards the runabout’s open airlock where Garla was already waiting to pull them both inside.
“Are you all right?” she asked as she took a knee where he had collapsed against the bulkhead of the airlock. “You look terrible.”
“Pay no attention to that. Truth is, I feel so much worse.”
Garla and Violet helped him inside the cockpit of the Nebuchadnezzar to allow the outer door to close.
Star was sitting at the controls and through his blurred vision, he could already see the planet’s ubiquitous cloud cover approaching rapidly, Star having wasted little time to get them back towards space. She turned the pilot seat to look at him. “Is he okay?”
“Judging by the return of his insufferable wit, I’d say he’s fine,” Garla said.
Ivory had provided him with a towel and was using a medkit to treat his wounds while he looked up at Garla from the chair they had placed him in. “I always thought you liked my wit.”
“It was never your most endearing attribute,” she said but offered him a smile.
“I’d love to say the worst is behind us but I’m afraid that might not be strictly accurate,” Star said after she had turned back to the controls.
The runabout had already cleared the atmosphere and was racing away from Piqus VII’s gravity well to allow Star to activate the warp engines.
“I am already detecting signs of pursuit,” she said, studying her instruments. “A lot of it. Seems like we kicked the proverbial hornet’s nest.”
“My counterpart will not let us go without a fight. The man has some serious anger issues. It was written all over his face,” Lif said, nodding gratefully at the Vulcan operative who had finished using a dermal regenerator to heal his more obvious wounds and had also administered an analgesic via hypospray which had numbed him of the worst of the pain.
“In fairness, I don’t think I would be too happy if I was in his shoes right now either,” Garla said.
“Talk about déjà vu,” said Lif and then spotted his aunt’s quizzical look and realized that it was not a term that easily translated into Krellonian. “We’ve been through this already. Except for last time you actually were in his shoes while we were running for our lives from you. How does it feel to be on the other side of things?”
She shook her head. “Honestly, I don’t care for it at all.”
Lif felt the runabouts deck plates rumble slightly and then looked back towards the viewport to confirm that they had just jumped to warp speed.
He gingerly got up off his chair to join Star at the front. He needed Garla’s help to keep himself steady though. “Transfer controls to me, Commander. That’ll free you up to keep an eye on sensors.”
The Trill considered him for a moment as if to check if he was truly up to this after what he had just been through but apparently was convinced enough by his resolve and did as he had asked.
To Lif, few things came more easily to him than flying a starship and he didn’t need his still aching bones or back to do that.
“I’m reading multiple vessels in pursuit,” she said. “Long-range sensors have also picked up border patrols ships closing in on us.” She turned to look at him. “Can we make it to the Moebius Cluster?”
He shook his head. “Not if we want any chance of outrunning our pursuers. I think we go for a straight shot and try to get to the border before we get cut off,” he said as he reviewed the best course back into the Amargosa Diaspora and towards Federation space.
Star nodded in agreement. “Let’s do it. I don’t think we’re going to lose our pursuers at the border but with any luck, we might be able to get back to Agamemnon before they catch-up with us.”
Lif quickly entered the new course and throttled-up the engines.
“Don’t count on the Lif Culsten of this universe to be as easily deterred as I was,” said Garla as she had taken a seat at one of the aft stations to monitor the pursuing ships. She activated a few panels and after a moment Lif’s monitor displayed what she had already discovered, his eyes opening wide.
“They’re not just scrambling a few ships,” Garla said. “That’s an entire fleet, big enough for a serious incursion. Agamemnon will not be enough to turn back that tide.”