Lif couldn’t help but wonder if he looked that ugly when he was angry. Of course, the man on the screen wasn’t him, but the physical differences were marginal at best.
Lif didn’t sit in his usual chair at the helm station, the Andorian ensign Srena held that position for now while he stood with Garla near the port side bulkhead of the bridge to remain hidden from the visual pickups which were transmitting an image of the bridge back to the Krellonian ship.
“I don’t even know why I should be surprised by what happened,” said his counterpart on the screen. “I knew the moment you suddenly showed up on sensors that you’d be trouble.”
“This was not an assault against you or your forces. We were the sole target,” the captain said as he stood at the center of the bridge with Tazla Star flanking him.
“So you keep saying. And I believe you. We detected another Starfleet signature nearby which disappeared by the time our sensors were up and working again. Which means you’ve brought your foolish little war all the way out here. As I told you before, I will not get involved in your asinine internal Federation crisis.”
Lif felt a frown coming on. How often had this been a line delivered by Captain Owens or other Starfleet officers, he wondered. It felt strange being on the receiving end of that statement. And did they usually sound as arrogant and self-righteous when proclaiming it?
Owens shook his head. “We have no intention of asking for your assistance. We are not looking for you to get involved.”
“I can’t help but feel that I already am.”
“You don’t have to be. Whoever attacked us took two of our people hostage. I intend to get them back.”
Sentinel Culsten kept his eyes intently focused on the captain. “There’s still something you’re not telling me. And I have a feeling that it is something important. I’m not sure I am comfortable letting you leave here until you’ve given me more to go on.”
The captain glanced over to Lif and Garla for a moment. As far as the Sentinel was concerned, he was looking somewhere off-screen since he could not see them from his end. The captain finally nodded, clearly having anticipated something like that. “Very well,” he said and looked back the other Culsten on the viewer. “You are right. We’ve been keeping something from you. The truth is, we are not from around here at all.” He gestured for Garla to join him, which she did.
“By the Creator, what is the meaning of this?” he said, unable to hide his total astonishment at seeing her.
“My name is Garla. Sentinel Garla,” she said.
“That is impossible. You died. I attended your funeral.”
“That is disconcerting,” said Garla. “But I assure you, I am alive and well.”
Owens gestured for Lif to join them as well.
“What manner of trickery is this?”
“It’s no trickery at all,” said Owens. “This is my helmsman, Lieutenant Lif Culsten. As I said, we are not from around here.”
Sentinel Culsten took a moment to regard his doppelganger and Garla. “You’re from another dimension? Another reality?”
The captain nodded.
“I suppose that explains a few things,” he said without taking his eyes off the two Krellonians.
“We are looking for a way back home, that is our mission. But before we can do that we need to recover our people,” the captain said. “I am not asking you to assist us in that task, I can appreciate how that would complicate the political situation here. But I need you to let us leave here so that we can do what we must.”
“This … this changes things.”
Lif couldn’t tell if this was for the better or worse.
Then he nodded. “Fine. Try and get your people back, although I believe it won’t be an easy task. My only condition is that Garla and my counterpart stay here. As my guests as it were.”
The captain quickly shook his head. “I cannot agree to that.”
“It is the only way I’ll allow you to leave, Captain. I cannot risk for two Krellonians to be discovered on your ship by Starfleet and casting suspicions on the Star Alliance taking sides in their conflict. No matter if they are from this universe or another.”
Lif didn’t like the idea at all and not just because he had a feeling that his double wasn’t being entirely honest about his motivations.
“Captain, I think it is a reasonable request,” Garla said. “I’m happy to be Sentinel Culsten’s guest for the time being.”
“Give us a moment, Sentinel,” Owens said and when Culsten nodded his assent, he indicated to Commander Leva to cut the transmission before focusing back on Garla. “This was not part of the plan. I can’t just hand the two of you over to these people.”
“We don’t have a lot of options here,” she said. “And now that he is aware of our existence, I doubt he’ll ever let us go until he’d had a good look at us.”
“He did seem to speak very highly of her as her mentor earlier,” said Star when Owens regarded her for an opinion. “I don’t love the idea, either, but we’re stuck here in more ways than one if we don’t get the Prism back.”
“And my father to operate it,” Michael said. “Which still leaves us with the issue of how we are getting back to the Ring. I am not yet ready to share that piece of information with our new friend.”
Deen spoke up from her seat at operations which she had swiveled all the way around. “If it is still located where we found it previously, we’re about five-hundred kilometers from the threshold to in-between space, which is roughly in the same direction as the residual Starfleet engine signature we detected. We should be able to head towards the threshold at impulse without suspicion and then allow a shuttle or the runabout to slip into null-space while we pass by it at very close range. If our distance to the threshold remains small enough, our own mass and energy output should conceal the shuttle from sensors.”
“That just might work,” said Star.
The captain seemed to consider this plan. He glanced towards Lif. “How about you, are you ready for this?”
He desperately wanted to say no since, in truth, the last thing he wanted to do was face yet another doppelganger of his, after the last one had very nearly killed him. But with all eyes now resting on him, including Garla who seemed almost eager to go, he knew he had no choice in the matter. “Yes, sir.”
“Very well,” he said and found his science officer. “Commander, prep a runabout and assemble an away team. I want you and Bensu to head back to that Ring and get a head start on understanding how it works and how it can take us back home.”
Xylion offered a short nod and then quickly left the bridge.
Owens considered Garla and Culsten next. “You realize the two of you will be on your own over there? I don’t have to stress to you to be extremely careful about what you do or what you say.”
“You do not,” said Garla. “After what we’ve seen of the Star Alliance in the last universe we’ve been to, it’s hard to imagine that this place could be much worse. We’ll handle it.”
Lif immediately wished that Garla had not used those words. Humans, he had learned, had a superstitious belief that required little more than being overly optimistic about a difficult situation in order to bring about misfortune. Garla, he feared, had just jinxed them all.