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Jarik was waiting for him outside the transporter room as he was making his way to receive their Krellonian guest, shadowed closely by a security officer and Michael couldn’t help but frown at seeing a man who he had once counted as one of his closest friends. It seemed like a very long time ago now.

He shook his head even before he started to talk, already guessing what he had planned. “You are not taking part in this meeting,” he said resolutely.

“I believe it is important that I do.”

Michael stepped up closer, nearly invading his personal space, but he wanted to make sure that there could be no misconstruing his next words. “You should consider yourself lucky that I haven’t confined you to quarters after what you’ve done.”

Jarik didn’t speak right away, instead, he simply regarded him for a moment. “Everything I’ve done was what I believed to be in the best interest of the mission which, in case you had forgotten, is to ensure, not just the safety of the Federation but perhaps of our entire galaxy.”

“Yes, and how has that gone so far? What price have we paid to ensure our own safety? We were just witnesses to the destruction of an entire universe.”

“We don’t know that for certain.”

“I think we got a pretty good idea.”

Jarik seemed to take a moment to collect his thoughts, or perhaps consider an alternative strategy since whatever he was doing at present didn’t appear to work. “I thought you might want to know that your father is awake.”

It was a cheap shot, Michael understood that, but at the same time, he couldn’t help but feel thankful to hear that news and found himself nodding slightly. Things had progressed so rapidly ever since he had recovered from his own episode that he had not found the time to check on him. “How is he?”

“Still weak and restricted to sickbay but your doctor seems to think he should be back on his feet soon.”

Michael knew that if his father had not managed to escape Katanga and sickbay yet, he truly was sick, considering how he had successfully stood up to the veteran physician earlier even though his health had clearly not warranted his premature medical release.

“With your father still recovering, I am the ranking officer on this ship, Michael. I also have significant insight into the Krellonians from my research of this sector of space--and granted, I know these aren’t our Krellonians, but we’ve established obvious parallels between universes already.”

Michael glared at the other man. “I want to make one thing very clear to you. I no longer recognize your authority. Not since you threatened to assault my ship to take over command. And the moment this mission is over and we are back in our universe, I will make sure that you’ll face a court-martial for your actions.”

If those words had affected Jarik, he did well to hide it. “You do what you need to do. In the meantime, I do what I have to. And I have to be at this meeting.”

Michael was sick of arguing and somewhere deep down he felt like he didn’t care anymore what Jarik did or didn’t do. “I don’t know what working for my father did to you over all those years but I don’t even recognize the man you used to be.”

“We all change, Michael.”

“Yeah,” he said and nodded. “Some of us more than others.” With that, he turned towards the transporter room and stepped inside, Jarik following him.

Tazla Star and Nora Laas were already waiting for them inside. Michael had decided to keep the delegation meeting with Culsten as small as possible, considering how poorly things had gone the last time they had run into a counterpart of their helmsman.

Nora stood by the freestanding computer console, next to transporter chief Chow. “Sir, the Krellonian lead ship is awaiting our go-ahead to initiate transport.”

Michael exchanged a quick look with Star who in response subtly indicated towards Jarik, which Michael simply acknowledged with an annoyed expression, making it clear that his presence hadn’t been his idea. Star, it seemed, got the message: Keep an eye on him.

“We’re ready on our end. Give the word,” Michael said.

Nora gave Chow the nod and then stepped around the console to join the others as they took position to face the transporter platform.

A green-blue beam shimmered into existence on the dais, which quickly began to coalesce into the familiar body of Lif Culsten. The sentinel wore a dark, form-fitting uniform that showed off his splendid physique and he wore his silver hair much shorter than their Culsten, showing off his earless head. He glanced around for a moment with what appeared genuine curiosity before he found the captain.

“Welcome aboard, Sentinel,” Michael said.

“Thank you for having me,” Culsten said and took the two steps down the podium.

“I might be mistaken, but I believe this may be how you say ‘hello’,” Michael said and then pressed his palms together, pointing his fingers in his direction.

Culsten followed the gesture. “Quite correct, Captain. You honor me by showing such knowledge of my people. Not something I’ve come to expect from those hailing from the Federation.”

Michael acknowledged this with a quick nod before turning to his officers. “I believe you’ve already met my first officer, Tazla Star. This is my security chief Nora Laas and Jarik.”

Culsten repeated the greeting gesture for each member of the delegation. “A pleasure to meet you all,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind if I left my entourage behind. I thought it is best to have a more intimate conversation.”

“That suits us just fine, Sentinel. Why don’t we head somewhere more suited for that conversation,” Michael said and pointed towards the doors.

Culsten nodded and headed into that direction, stepping through the doors and onto the corridor where Michael led him towards the nearest turbolift.

Their guest seemed to be taking in his surroundings with great interest. “This is quite a fine ship you have here, Captain. Nebula-class, I believe?”

“That is correct,” he said.

“As I mentioned before, we don’t come across many Starfleet vessels out here so you can understand my curiosity as what has brought you so far from your own borders,” he said as the five of them stepped into the turbolift.

Star ordered the lift to take them to the observation lounge on deck two.

“Our mission out here is highly classified, which means, unfortunately, we are not able to share any of the details with you,” said Jarik, immediately garnering him a subtle scowl from Michael. He too thought it was the right approach to keep the more spectacular details of their unusual journeys to themselves for now, but Jarik’s tact was unnecessarily undiplomatic.

“As a sentinel, I can appreciate the importance of operational security,” Culsten said.

“I believe I have some, albeit limited, understanding of what a sentinel does,” said Star. “And forgive me for saying this, but you appear fairly young for such a position.”

Michael had wondered the same thing, after all, this Lif Culsten appeared very much the same age as their own. Certainly, he looked physically fitter and his darker eyes seemed to speak to a man who had been exposed to a far wider range of experiences than their helmsman, and yet he would have been surprised to learn if Sentinel Culsten was more than thirty years old, certainly much younger than Garla.

“No offense taken. But I can assure you, I have more than earned my position. Some of my enemies in the past have underestimated me because of my youth. I can say without embellishment or conceit that most have come to regret this. You see I had an excellent teacher whom I admired a great deal. I took up her mantle when she was tragically killed.”

Michael had an inkling who that teacher may have been.

“Now that you know a bit more about me, it’s time we talk about you,” he said quickly. “And since you are operating so close to our borders, in an area of space neither of your Starfleets normally operate in, I feel I am entitled to a few answers.”

Michael and Star exchanged a surprised look by his turn of phrase before they disembarked from the lift and shortly thereafter stepped into the observation lounge, which afforded them a great view of the area directly aft of the ship.

Michael hoped that the threshold into in-between space was still somewhere out there but the quickly developing events over the last few hours had prevented them from trying to find it again.

He pointed at one of the seats around the conference table. Culsten was happy to take up the offer with the rest of the group quickly sitting down around him.

“I’ve been wondering, Captain,” Culsten said after he had taken his seat. “Which faction exactly do you belong to? Guardians? Or is your allegiance with the Preservers?”

Michael had no idea what he was talking about but guessed that it related to some sort of political group unique to this universe.

“We are with the Guardians,” Jarik said.

Michael shot him a look, not sure if to be thankful for his quick thinking or upset that he had just, quite possibly, dug them into a hole by offering such a blatant untruth.

“I see,” said Culsten. “I’m sure you understand that the Krellonian Star Alliance must remain neutral in your conflict.”

Michael nodded. “We are not here to look for allies, I assure you.”

“Good. Now then, why are you here?” he said and then quickly raised a hand. “I don’t need to know about your classified details. But a sudden appearance of a Starfleet vessel in the Amargosa Diaspora will need to be explained to my superiors.”

“What if we were to say that we are on a scientific expedition?” said Star.

Michael liked that. And it wasn’t exactly a complete fabrication, more like a significant understatement.

It didn’t go over as well with Culsten, however. Or at least, Michael thought it didn’t but he couldn’t tell exactly since the Krellonian had started to laugh out loud. He caught himself again quickly. “I apologize for my outburst but I don’t think anyone in this quadrant is going to believe that Starfleet is still in the business of dedicating capital ships to scientific undertakings. Not even the Guardians.”

The more he was hearing about this version of Starfleet, the less he liked the sound of it, and the more desperate he was to find a way to get out of this universe as soon as possible. This time, hopefully, without it tearing itself apart in their wake.

“Unless, of course,” Culsten said. “You are working on some sort of weapon in order to get the upper hand over the Preservers. Now that I could believe. And it would concern me at the same time.”

“We are not working on a weapon,” Michael said but couldn’t help think that even that was not entirely the truth. What else could have been responsible for the terrible fate of an entire universe?

More than ever he understood that they had to find answers to that question as soon as possible and before the same fate could befall any other reality. A task made more difficult with Culsten’s fleet surrounding them.

The sentinel considered him carefully as if trying to peer right through his eyes and for a brief moment, Michael feared that perhaps, in this universe, Krellonians were telepaths. “I want to believe you, Captain, I really do. But all I have for now is your word on that.”

“What else would you require?” said Star.

He seemed to think that over for a moment, or at least make a show of it. “A full inspection of your crew and ship would go a long way to show your cooperation and trustworthiness.”

“Out of the question,” Jarik said so sharply, all eyes in the room turned towards the half-Vulcan. “We were more than happy to cooperate with you so far, allow you to come on our vessel, and have a polite conversation about your concerns. But the truth of the matter remains that this is neutral space. We have as much right to be here as you do.”

“I have not disputed that,” said Culsten, his tone remaining civil but starting to show signs of an edge.

“An inspection of this ship is crossing a line. You have no authority in this area of space and judging by the fact that you have not attempted to force the issue yet, tells me that you will not resort to force without explicit approval from your government.”

Culsten now glared at the other man. “Do not make the mistake to confuse my courtesy for weakness.”

“I suggest we end this now,” Jarik said, looking at Michael. “The sentinel here clearly has his own agenda and we are not in the least interested in allowing it,” he said and looked back at Culsten. “So let us part ways to allow us all to continue with our respective tasks.”

Michael was about to object to Jarik’s bold and, in his opinion, unnecessarily blunt suggestions when Culsten stood from his chair. “Very well, I can see this has been a waste of my time,” he said and looked towards Michael. “He’s right. I won’t attempt to force the issue for now. Carrying out an assault on a Federation starship in neutral territory is not worth the paperwork I’ll need to file. But I know your up to something out here, starships don’t just show up out of nowhere. So I am going to stay right here and keep a very close eye on you to make sure that I find out exactly what that is,” he said and then turned on his heel to head for the doors.

Michael could tell there was little point in trying to get him back to the table so he indicated for Nora to escort him back to the transporter room.

The security chief nodded sharply and then quickly got up out of her chair to chase after Culsten who was apparently so annoyed, he didn’t want to wait on anybody.

Once both were out of the room, Michael turned towards Jarik, trying hard to keep his own rising irritation in check. “What the hell was that?” He didn’t do a great job at it.

Jarik didn’t seem concerned about being the target of his ire. “There was little point to continue this dance. He was merely looking for an excuse to search the ship, something we can not allow.”

“You don’t know that,” Michael shot back. “And perhaps we could have found a compromise if we had continued to talk, an opportunity which you blatantly sabotaged with your accusations.”

“Tell me, Mister Jarik,” said Star, not sounding quite as upset as her captain but her eyes reflecting a similar annoyance. “Is diplomacy not a trait held in high esteem in the Department of Special Affairs or is it that you are just dead awful at it?”

Jarik stood. “Diplomacy is not going to get us anywhere in this situation.”

“I see,” Michael said. “But having an irritated and distrustful Krellonian senior official and his fleet shadowing our every move does?” Michael said.

“There’ll be other opportunities.”

Michael looked at him dumbfounded before he slowly turned to Star. “Remind me to keep Mister Jarik away from any future meetings with the Krellonians or anyone else for that matter. In fact, let’s make sure he doesn’t have any off-ship communication privileges from this point forward.”

Star reached for a padd on her desks and typed in a few commands. “Done.”

“You are making a mistake,” Jarik said. “I can still be helpful.”

Michael shook his head. “If this is the help you can offer then I think we are all set without you. You have shown repeatedly that you cannot be trusted. I am not entirely clear what you are trying to accomplish but this will mark the last time you will be involved in any decisions pertaining to this ship and her mission.”

“You are making a--“

“You are dismissed,” Michael said, cutting him off and indicating to the security guard who had been assigned to him.

She promptly stepped up behind him, making it unmistakably clear that he was to follow her at once.

Jarik hesitated just a moment longer before he turned to the exit and left, his guard one step behind him.

Michael uttered a heavy sigh once he was gone. “I knew it was a mistake to include him. I just wish I had listened to myself.”

“I’ll remind you to stay true to your instincts next time,” Star said.

“Thanks.”

“What now?”

Michael wished he knew. He left his chair and walked over to the large windows currently showing little more than the star-filled space of the Amargosa Diaspora which, as in his universe, was bright and colorful. Somewhere, in the not so far distance, he hoped the threshold leading back to the Ring still remained. But no matter how close it was, with half a dozen ships surrounding them, it was next to impossible to reach it undetected. “We need to figure out what the hell happened back there. In the other universe. How the Ring factored into all that and if it is even still there.”

Star stood as well. “It better be. It might be our only way back home.”

Michael turned to face her and nodded. “We need to understand where we stand and collect theories on what happened and how we can stop it from happening again. Bensu would be a real asset to that conversation but I don’t believe he has recovered yet.”

“I take it we are excluding Jarik.”

“Absolutely.”

Michael noticed her becoming pensive. “You disagree?”

She quickly shook her head. “No, not at all. That man is clearly a menace in more ways that one. It just struck me that for all his bluster and boisterousness, he was right about one thing.”

Michael nodded slowly, realizing it now as well. “He knew that Culsten was not going to make a move against us. Could have been a lucky gamble on his part.”

“Perhaps,” she said, clearly not fully convinced.


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