He couldn’t exactly claim to feel euphoric about the upcoming meeting and considering that the last time he had come face-to-face with an alternate version of himself, the other Lif Culsten had tried desperately to kill him, he thought that most people would appreciate his reluctance.
Most people did not, apparently, include Garla who seemed noticeably curious to find out about this universe’s version of the Krellonian Star Empire, including his counterpart and likely her own. In truth, it wasn’t easy to fully understand what was on the veteran Sentinel’s mind these days. Although they had grown somewhat closer lately, primarily since he had been forced to stick close to her as to Commander Star’s orders ever since she had been brought back to Eagle, she had not exactly opened up to him.
It was clear that Garla’s grand plans to save the Star Alliance from itself had failed. From what Lif had pieced together, she had entered into some sort of arrangement with the subspace aliens who seemingly had promised her the tools to reshape Krellonian society in exchange for her assistance in providing essential elements to their particle supercollider.
As it had turned out, however, whatever it was that the aliens had shown Garla to secure her cooperation, had most likely been an alternate reality instead of a possible future for their own.
She hadn’t spoken much about those setbacks since they had returned from the other Piqus, and he had no way of knowing if she had been shown a Star Alliance which had been torn apart entirely by civil strife and unrest or if she had witnessed a society she seemed to have been pursuing all this time, one in which Krellonians and Outlanders lived entirely separated and segregated lives, perhaps one in which their people had never even conquered and subjugated the other races.
Or maybe, the aliens had shown her both possibilities, a dark future which didn’t seem so far-fetched considering the current tensions in the Star Alliance, and another one where things had gone very differently.
He knew Garla wasn’t a gullible individual, couldn’t afford to be in her position, but whatever she had been shown, it had to have been incredibly convincing for her to dedicate so much of her time and resources to assist the aliens and pursue her lofty ambitions to transform the Star Alliance.
The first thing Lif noticed as he began to fade back into a solid state, after having been beamed from Eagle to his counterpart’s flagship, was the massive ursine Buoth standing near the far wall, and although he had seen many of his kind before while he lived in Krellon space, his mind immediately flashed back to his most recent encounter with a member of the bear-like species, in a backyard on Piqus VII, when an enraged Buoth had nearly torn him limb from limb had he not managed to kill the massive creature in the nick of time.
His entire body tensed even before the rematerialization had completed and he felt a sudden cold sweat come over him.
Garla, at his side, also responded to the sight, but the Sentinel was bracing herself for a fight instead, the fact that she had beamed over unarmed not stopping her.
“Welcome aboard the Yellow Rose. Sentinel Culsten bestowed on me the honor to greet you and escort you to his quarters.”
It took Lif a moment, and a calming breath, to register that the Buoth wasn’t posing an immediate threat. In fact, he appeared to be the transporter operator, or possibly a security guard, standing behind a console and doing little more than looking at the two newcomers.
Lif did recognize the man who had spoken. It was another Outlander, a much lither, almost diminutive compared to the ursine, Kridrip. He had met the man before--it was Tenn, Garla’s assistant.
Next to him stood a Krellonian guard, wearing a uniform not entirely dissimilar to what Star Alliance officers wore in his universe, but instead of chrome armor, he wore a lighter jacket, coated it the same kind of reflective material. Instead of a rifle, the female officer wore a holstered sidearm as she stood at attention next to Tenn.
Garla stepped off the platform first and seemingly had taken in the transporter room and its inhabitants in mere moments before she addressed the female officer. “Thank you for having us. I am looking forward to meeting your sentinel.”
The woman looked at her with noticeable confusion etched into her dark features, before she glanced at Tenn next to her.
“Yes, indeed,” he said. “And he is very much eager to meet both of you. Forgive me, but I have not yet introduced myself. I am Chief Justicar Tenn, Second on the Alliance cruiser Yellow Rose,” he said, putting the slightest emphasis on his position as if trying to clear up any misunderstanding.
Surprisingly, Garla, who he was certain prided herself in not missing details, appeared to have overlooked the subtle but visible rank insignia on the two officers’ jacket sleeves. They were not an exact match to those used in the Eye or the Star Alliance Navy, but they were close enough to make it obvious that Tenn held a much higher position than the Krellonian woman at his side.
Garla recovered quickly, although she did seem somewhat uncomfortable in addressing the man she chiefly knew as her assistance. “My apologies, Chief Justicar. Things are a little different where we come from.”
He quickly shook his head. “None are necessary. Please, if you’d like to follow us, I’ll take you to the see the Sentinel now,” he said with a smile.
Garla nodded and the two officers set out with Lif and Garla following closely.
“What’s going on here?” Lif whispered to her as they stepped out of the transporter room.
But Garla just hushed him and they walked into a corridor, right behind their escort.
Lif’s father had served in the Star Navy and as such, he’d had enjoyed opportunities to visit Krellonian cruisers when he had been younger and before he had left his home for the Federation. The Yellow Rose was not exactly a mirror image of those ships but it was close enough that he quickly recognized it as a ship of the line. What was decidedly different here, however, was that at least half the crew they encountered seemed to be made up of Outlanders, something that would have been unheard of in their universe. Lupine T’aq, humanoid Kridrip, and even reptile Zel made up this crew, making it the most diverse Krellonian vessel he had ever set foot upon. And these crewmembers weren’t merely support personnel either, judging by the similar rank insignia on their sleeves, most of them were officers or otherwise held comparable ranks to their fellow Krellonians.
Lif could tell that Garla was taking notice of this as well.
Tenn led them to a turbolift of sorts, one with entirely transparent walls that allowed quite an impressive view of the surrounding space as it traveled along the outer hull of the ship. The short trip to their destination was carried out mostly in silence as both Garla and Lif took in this strange and yet also familiar universe and the people who called it home.
The female guard waited outside Sentinel Culsten’s quarters while the Chief Justicar led them inside where Lif was once more greeted by an uncanny mirror image of himself.
Sentinel Culsten was sitting behind an expansive wooden desk that had a passing similarity to Garla’s large desk in her office. He wore a more elaborate outfit than his officers, a coat like smock with a gold and silver embroidered black shirt underneath which to Lif looked almost regal, featuring elaborated, possibly hand-sewn patterns. It seemed more ceremonial than something a sentinel would wear as a routine outfit and was certainly far more impressive than Garla’s utilitarian and form-fitting jumpsuit.
The other Culsten wore his hair in a shorn mohawk, with a broad patch of silver hair running up the very center of his otherwise bald head and tapering off in a braided ponytail going down his back.
He stood the moment he spotted Garla and Lif. “It is even more stunning seeing you in the flesh,” he said, his eyes noticeably gleaming with excitement as he rounded his desk.
Tenn stepped aside wordlessly to allow the sentinel an unobstructed path to the two visitors.
Sentinel Culsten wasn’t shy of getting close, just short of invading their personal spaces, and studied their faces with obvious curiosity. “The resemblances,” he said. “Uncanny.”
They said nothing as he continued his inspection, trying to get a look at them both from various angles. Then, as if spotting the looks in their eyes for the first time, he took a step back. “As you can imagine, I have quite a few questions.”
“That’s understandable,” said Garla.
“But first, drinks,” he said and quickly headed for a cabinet close to his desk. He promptly retrieved three glasses and filled each one halfway from a tall, brown bottle. He took two glasses and indicated towards a seating arrangement made up of four large, well-cushioned chairs facing each other. “Please sit down,” he said as he handed a glass to each of them.
Lif took his, as did Garla before Culsten retrieved the third one for himself. Together they took the chairs, Lif and Garla on one side and Sentinel Culsten on the other.
Lif’s counterpart kept his sparkling eyes on the duo as he sipped from his beverage and Lif followed suit, immediately recognizing the taste as a popular, although expensive liquor brewed on Yooktku, the homeworld of the fifth, former Krellonian subject race. It had a pleasant burn to it.
“So, you hail from a different universe. A different reality,” he said.
Garla nodded. “That is correct.”
“Amazing,” he said. “Our scientists have long speculated of alternate universes besides our own but your appearance here is the first concrete proof of their existence.” He focused in on Lif and the uniform he was wearing. “I can see that your reality differs a great deal from ours. You are in Starfleet?”
“Yes. I’m serving on the Eagle as a helmsman.”
“A helmsman,” he said and did a poor job to hide his disappointment. Considering his counterpart was already a sentinel at a relatively young age, one of the most prestigious positions in the Star Alliance, it was perhaps understandable that he considered Lif’s rank underwhelming.
“But Starfleet and the Federation, from what I hear, are a very different place where we come from.
“The Borg didn’t wipe out half the quadrant in your reality?”
Lif’s eyes opened wide with surprise, trying hard not to imagine the horrors this reality had seemingly endured. Then he shook his head. “No. We pushed them back.”
“Impressive,” he said and glanced back towards Garla. “And you? You are not with the Federation?”
“No,” she said, and Lif thought that she sounded almost offended by the notion. “I am a Sentinel for the Eye of Krellon.”
His features lit up at hearing this. “Just like your counterpart on this side.”
“Is she here as well?” she asked.
Culsten took a large gulp of his drink. “No,” he said and then stood to return towards the cabinet to replace his glass. “She died,” he added with his back to his guests.
Lif turned his head to see how Garla had taken the news but her facial expressions remained unreadable as she kept her eyes on the other sentinel. “How?”
He uttered a sigh. “A senseless accident. One that should never have occurred,” he said, his voice having lost its earlier excitement.
“An accident?” Garla sounded incredulous.
Sentinel Culsten turned to face her. “Yes. A warp core containment failure on her personal shuttle. Less than a year ago. We lost a great leader that day. You see, Garla--my Garla--she was more than family to me. She was my mentor. Everything I know about the galaxy, I learned from her. She was a person with incredible vision for the Star Alliance and losing her set us back decades. I’ve been fighting a seemingly futile battle with shortsighted politicians and bureaucrats to fulfill her legacy ever since we lost her and I took her place but I’ve made little progress. But now,” he said, his voice taking on the same enthusiasm and excitement it had before. “Now, this could all change thanks to a most unexpected twist of fate.”
“How so?” Lif asked but wasn’t sure he truly wanted to hear the answer to his question.
Culsten took a step forward. “Because fate has delivered you,” he said. “And if you are just half as formidable as my Garla was, together nothing will be able to stand in our way.”
Lif had feared something like that and when he looked back towards Garla, she still refused to make eye contact with him. Instead, she stared back at his counterpart with a determination he had seen mirrored in her face before. It had heralded nothing good.