There seemed to be no shortages of crises as of late, Michael mused, as he realized that after only just barely escaping the apparent annihilation of an entire universe, just after being nearly obliterated by a Krellonian fleet, they were, yet again, facing a very similar opponent, once more surrounded by a potential adversary.
The Culsten on the screen wasn’t currently paying attention to Eagle and the bridge crew, leading Michael to assume that even though they could see each other, the connection was temporarily muted, likely awaiting his arrival.
Star immediately turned to face him when he stepped down the incline connecting the aft turbolift to the command area at the center of the bridge. “Captain, good to see you back on your feet. Are you all right?”
“As good as can be given the circumstances. Bensu, it seems, is the only member of the away team who has been seriously affected. He is still unresponsive. My father was still unconscious when I left sickbay but the doctor assures me he should recover,” he said and then took a moment to glance around the bridge, finding it mostly in good shape and more or less the way he had last seen it, which certainly had not been a given considering their most recent experiences. Deen, Culsten, Leva, and Alendra were all at their stations with the helmsman paying particularly close attention to yet another double of his currently occupying the screen.
Michael wanted to inquire about the status of his ship and crew but considering that the other Culsten looked as if he was becoming somewhat impatient, he decided he needed to focus on the matter at hand.
Star seemed to understand this as well. “He and his ships, six in total, showed up just a few minutes ago. We were still trying to get sensors working after our arrival here.”
“Any ideas where we are?”
“Not yet,” she said. “But evidence suggests that we are neither where we were nor where we want to be.”
Michael nodded. “Good guess. First impressions on this version of Lif Culsten?”
“He goes by Sentinel Culsten. He hasn’t started shooting at us yet, which is always a plus. He’s confused as to where we’ve come from, which I suppose is understandable. I am not clear on their relationship with the Federation but I don’t think he’s particularly happy to see us,” she said. “I’ve made sure he didn’t get to see his counterpart.”
At that Lif Culsten at the helm turned around to look at his two superior officers, looking somewhat grateful for that decision. One could hardly blame him considering his recent experiences with his double from an alternate universe.
“Let’s keep it that way for now. At least until we know more about who we are dealing with this time,” Michael said and glanced towards Leva at tactical, giving him a nod to reopen the channel.
The tactical officer confirmed with a bop of his head that the connection had been reestablished.
Michael tugged at the bottom of his uniform jacket and redirected his focus towards the screen. “Greetings, I’m Captain Michael Owens of the starship Eagle. Sentinel Culsten, I presume.”
“Indeed. And please accept my gratitude for deciding to join us,” he said, his tone sharp, calculated, and containing noticeable sarcasm.
“I apologize for the delay but it was unavoidable. We have arrived here not entirely of our own volition.”
That seemed to catch his interest. “Sounds to me you’ve got a story to tell, Captain.”
“I suppose we do.”
“I appreciate that this region is technically neutral space but you can understand that we would be somewhat concerned about Starfleet activity in this area, particularly since you have never shown an interest in the Diaspora before. Frankly, I would think Starfleet is far too preoccupied these days to venture all the way out here.”
Michael and Star exchanged brief glances, neither of them certain what he was referring to before he looked back at the Krellonian. “We don’t expect to remain in the area for long, Sentinel. And I can assure you that we have no intention of venturing anywhere near Krellonian space.”
Culsten smirked. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been concerned about Starfleet activity. But I want to make something very clear to you; we have no interest whatsoever in getting involved in your internal affairs and the Star Alliance is on good standing with the Nyberrite Alliance. Having said that, I am curious to find out what brought you here. Your vessel appears to have taken damage. I would be willing to offer technical assistance to any of your vital systems.”
“That’s very gracious of you, Sentinel,” Michael said, even if he couldn’t help but wonder what exactly he was referring to. He knew of the Nyberrite Alliance, of course. In their home universe, which clearly wasn’t this one, it was an organization not too dissimilar of the Federation, albeit far smaller, made up of a dozen or so member worlds which had banded together to create their own space force dedicated mostly to defense. Michael had never visited their space since it was located at the far end of Federation territory, but he knew that they were known for their willingness to recruit skilled people from any background.
Their last experience with the Krellonians still fresh in his memory, he was rather disinclined of repeating that episode and decided that keeping them at a safe distance was probably the smarter play. “However, I believe we have repairs well in hand over here. Once they are complete, we will be getting on our way again.”
Culsten seemed to consider this for a moment. “In that case, I’d like to extend an invitation to you and your senior officers to visit my ship as guests while you carry out your repairs,” he said and then continued when he apparently noticed Michael’s unspoken reluctance. “If it makes you feel more comfortable, we can do it the other way around, I’d be happy to visit your ship instead. I haven’t heard a good story in a while and one look of you is telling me that yours won't disappoint.”
Michael didn’t like either suggestion but he was getting the distinct impression that this Culsten wasn’t a man who liked to be turned down and as it stood, Eagle was in no condition to get into another fight. So he nodded. “Very well, we’d be honored to have you come onboard, Sentinel.”
Culsten was all smiles. “Outstanding. I’ll beam over within a standard hour and once we’ve received your coordinates,” he said and then vanished from the screen.
Michael took a small breath and considered his officers. “Thoughts?”
“I say that for him, he certainly is nothing like the last version of Lif we’ve encountered,” Deen said.
“I don’t like him,” said Culsten.
“He seemed friendly enough,” offered Alendra who had stepped up from one of the aft stations she usually manned.
“Too friendly,” Leva quickly added. “He’s fully aware that he has the tactical advantage and he may see our presence here as a threat.”
“If he wanted us gone, he could have attacked us already. The fact that he is willing to beam onboard doesn’t speak of hostile intentions since he risks becoming a hostage should hostilities ensue,” said Alendra, causing the two officers to glower at each other for a moment.
Michael turned to his first officer for an opinion.
“I think it’s clear he has an agenda. But this is also our best opportunity to learn more about where we are.”
Michael nodded. “I’d rather not stay here any longer than we absolutely have to, Commander. But I have to admit, part of me is curious to learn where exactly we have landed this time. Our main priority, however, must remain clear. We need to get back home and stop the subspace aliens using that Ring. What’s our current status?”
“Better than last time we went through a gateway,” she said. “However, sensors, shields, and warp engines are still down. Louise is working on them now in that order and last I spoke to her she is optimistic that all ship functions will be restored within a couple of hours. About five percent of the crew is unconscious but we suffered no serious injuries in the transition.”
Michael nodded, appreciating hearing some positive news for a change. “We need to get up and running again as soon as possible and find a way to return to in-between space. If the Ring is capable of destroying entire universes, our mission has just become a whole lot more critical.”
“Are we absolutely positive that’s what happened?” Star said.
“Right now there’s nothing we can be absolutely positive about. Bensu seems to be the only person who can answer a lot of these questions and he is not responsive at the moment. For now, let’s see if we can get these Krellonians off our back and return to our mission,” he said and glanced towards the other Culsten sitting at the helm. “Lif, I want you to remain out of sight while your counterpart is onboard. The same goes for Garla. In fact, I want the guards around her doubled. We can’t have her go off again the same way she did last time.”
“See to it, please.”
Culsten nodded and left his post to ensure his orders were carried out and to keep a close eye on his aunt.
Michael turned back to his first officer. “All right, let’s get ready to welcome our guest. I don’t want him to get the impression we are hiding anything but we can’t tell him the truth either.”
Star smiled. “Once upon a time, that’s exactly how I used to make a living.”