“I have to admit,” Garla said, “it’s been some time since I’ve had such a satisfying meal.” She placed her utensils onto her recently cleared plate before she reached for her beverage. “My sincerest compliments to the chef.”
Sentinel Culsten nodded with a smile. “One of my most noteworthy contributions to the Yellow Rose’s crew complement was investing into bringing onboard the best cook in the fleet. Considering the resulting uplift in morale, it seems to have paid off.”
“It most certainly has,” she said. Although quite a few things had been more than troublesome over the last few days, the meal Garla had shared with the Sentinel, Lif, and Chief Justicar Tenn, in the sentinel’s quarters and at his behest, had not been one of them. The whirlwind of recent events had not given her much of a chance to try and relax over a good meal, and, in fact, even back on Piqus, while overseeing first the construction of two hidden asteroid bases and then the production of the powerful Omega molecule and all the various complications that had arisen from that undertaking had not given her much time for the finer things in life.
She glanced over to where Lif was sitting and while he too had finished his meal, he looked far less pleased with their indulgence, no doubt still far too concerned with the issues at hand, including the rumors he had uncovered relating to his counterpart.
As for Garla, it had become very clear that Sentinel Culsten was a very different kind of person than Lif, certainly his ambitions were significantly greater. But the man appeared passionate about the Star Alliance, much like she was, and while his methods and perhaps even his designs were circumspect, she was very well aware that the same could have been said about her just a week prior.
She had accepted his invitation to his quarters to share a lavish meal as she had often found that the best way to truly understand a person was to observe them when they were at their most relaxed and fully at ease. That’s when people more often than not let their guard down and allowed for a glimpse into their truest self.
“What’s the status of the repairs?” Lif asked the Kridrip second in command of the Yellow Rose.
“This is not the time to talk business,” the sentinel said with a good-natured smile. “I invited you here tonight so that you may take your minds off all your troubles even if just for a short time. I promise you; they’ll all still be waiting for us after we’ve had dessert.”
But the chief justiciar shook his head as he wiped his mouth with a napkin after having finished his own meal. “I don’t mind at all,” he said quickly. “And news pertaining to our operational status is actually positive for a change. Partially to your efforts, our engineering team is putting our capability at nearly eight-five percent. Which is fortunate considering--“ he stopped himself as he realized he had misspoken.
Lif regarded him with a quizzical look. “Considering what?”
Instead of responding, Tenn made eye contact with the Sentinel.
Culsten simply nodded. “It’s quite all right. There is no need to keep secrets from our new friends,” he said with that smile. “Besides, I had already planned on sharing our new orders after dinner.”
“New orders?” Garla said.
He nodded. “We’ve only received them a few hours ago. We have been rerouted to rendezvous with another task force in the sector. It appears Alliance Central is concerned about increased Federation activity in the area. Long-range sensors have shown multiple Starfleet ships from both factions having entered the Amargosa Diaspora. They are not sure why they have decided to bring their civil war all the way out here, so far away from their core worlds, but they are concerned that it could spill into our territory,” he said and considered his double quite carefully as he spoke.
Lif shook his head. “I don’t know anything about this civil war. It does not exist in our universe.”
Culsten nodded. “That’s my understanding. However, your ship and crew might very well be involved.”
To that, he emphatically shook his head. “Captain Owens will do whatever is in his power to try and stay out of matters pertaining strictly to this universe.”
“Unless, of course, it would help him in his mission to return his people to where they belong,” the sentinel said with a little smirk.
To that Lif had no answer.
“To be honest, I would hardly blame him for doing whatever he had to in order to return to your universe. From everything I’ve heard, it is a much better place for the Federation than this reality,” he said and then found Garla’s eyes. “I am not certain the same can be said for the Star Alliance.”
Garla understood what he was playing at. He had not yet given up on trying to convince her to stay here with him. If everything Lif suspected was true about him, she couldn’t help wonder how far he’d go to ensure she remained.
“Now, how about that dessert I promised?” he said as his grin widened.
Garla waved him off. “Not for me, thanks, I’m stuffed.”
“And I should return to my duties. Repairs are progressing well, but we must be certain that we are in top shape in case we do run into Starfleet,” Tenn said.
Lif also shook his head, indicating that he was not interested in eating more.
“Quite a shame, I’ve been told it is the most electable tallaberry pudding this side of Krellon Prime,” he said and shrugged. “Oh well, another time.” He activated a control on the table they were sitting at and a moment later the doors opened to allow four low-ranking crewmembers to enter his quarters to swiftly clear the large table.
Garla noticed not for the first time that the wait staff was made up of various races including Krellonians. She was still getting used to the idea that here, Outlanders and her people worked side-by-side like equals even when it came to menial tasks.
Within less than a couple of minutes, the table was cleared and the dinner guests were once again alone.
“I have to admit, I am slightly concerned with these new orders,” said Garla as she considered the Sentinel. “We still have many wounded who will require medical treatment we cannot provide on this ship. Not to mention the status of our escort ships.”
Culsten leaned back and regarded her with a growing smile which left her slightly befuddled. “I apologize, I am merely realizing once more how much you remind me of the Garla I knew, the one who was my mentor for so many years. She too was so very concerned about the well-being of her people.”
“Are you saying that you are not?” she said.
“Of course, I am. In fact, I made sure to advise Alliance Central that our escort ships must return to base for repairs and to see to our wounded before I would consider accepting any new orders. ‘Take care of those who serve you and they’ll take care of you.’ I learned that from her.”
She nodded slowly. It wasn’t a saying she recalled ever having uttered but it certainly made a great deal of sense to her.
He stood from his chair. “Now that you’ve all turned me down on what would have been a most exquisite treat, I must insist that you join me for a drink,” he said as he walked over to a cabinet to retrieve a bottle.
Tenn stood also. “I wish I could, Sentinel, but as I said, pressing matters still require my attention.” He briefly made eye contact with Lif and Garla before regarding Culsten. “Sentinel, accept my gratitude for this invitation and this most splendid meal,” he said and then, without waiting for any further response, quickly left the quarters.
If Culsten was irritated by his hasty departure, Garla couldn’t see it.
“And I am simply too tired to be pleasant company at this hour,” said Lif after leaving his chair as well. “If you’ll excuse me.” He offered Garla a pointed look which made it quite clear that he wanted her to come along.
“I fully understand,” Culsten said as he returned with the bottle.
Garla stood as well.
“I hope you at least, will do me the honor to share just one drink before you depart,” he said, looking straight at her. “Besides, I would love the opportunity to continue our earlier conversation.”
Lif didn’t seem to like the idea but Garla couldn’t deny that she still remained curious to find out more about this version of Lif Culsten. She offered her nephew a quick look. “Go ahead, Lif, we’ll talk later.”
He hesitated for a moment, not pleased about leaving her behind but then relented. “Thank you for the meal, Sentinel.”
“We are practically the same person, you and me. Call me Liftu,” he said, still wearing that wide smile that had seemingly been plastered on his face all evening.
He nodded. “Of course,” he said but stopped short of calling him by his own name. “Have a good night,” he added and then left.
Culsten looked after him even after the doors had already closed behind him. “A very serious young man, isn’t he?”
“He wasn’t always like this,” she said, recalling her nephew’s carefree attitude of his youth. “But he’s been through a lot over the last few days. I cannot blame him for how he feels after everything he’s seen.”
Culsten poured her a drink, a very rare fermented juice hailing from the highlands on Yooktku, she noted. In her universe, it was a beverage so expansive that even she could not afford to partake of it regularly. “I’d love to hear all about it at some point,” he said and poured himself a glass as well.
“I assume with these new orders your plans for the Nyberrites in the sector are taking a temporary setback,” she said without reaching for her beverage.
He was much less shy about imbibing, however, and took a sip. “For now, yes. But I most certainly haven’t given up my on pursuing the matter,” he said. “Or on you.”
“You still wish for me to join you?”
He walked over to a comfortable seating area away from the dinner table and bid her to join him.
She picked up her glass and followed.
The large windows there allowed for a majestic view of the space directly ahead of the ship.
He took a seat and indicated for her to use the one opposite which she did. “Absolutely. It seems fate has brought us together, no?”
“How do you figure?”
He took another sip, clearly enjoying the taste of the expensive drink. “Consider that I lost my Garla in a senseless accident just before we could truly combine our strengths to bring about real change for the Star Alliance. And then, of course, there is you, coming from a very different place where, from what you’ve told me, the Star Alliance is a sad reflection of what it is here, and what it could have been. To be honest, it almost sounds as if its decline and perhaps even its demise are inevitable.”
She couldn’t disagree with the sentiment even if it pained her a great deal to hear it out loud.
“I am not sure if I share your ambitions,” she said.
He nodded slowly and then nodded toward the still full glass in her hand. “You haven’t touched your nectar.”
She looked right into his eyes for a brief moment and then placed the glass on the small table between them. “To be honest, it isn’t quite my kind of drink.”
He nodded slowly, still smiling. “It is amazing how much the two of you are alike. She never much cared for it, either.”
“I take it you are aware of the rumors,” she said, considering him carefully.
She responded with her own smile, one which she knew didn’t reach her eyes. “Please, you wouldn’t be much of a Sentinel if you didn’t know what people say about you behind your back. What they believe you did.”
He shrugged. “People are entitled to their opinions. Even if they are inaccurate.”
“It doesn’t bother you?”
“I have more important matters to concern myself with,” he said and took another sip. “You should try it. It truly is worth every last credit.”
“Such as conquering the entire galaxy?”
He uttered a short laugh. “That sounds dramatic.”
“Some people would say irrational.”
“A few hundred years ago, before we became the empire we are now, some people thought it was irrational to believe Krellonians could ever work side-by-side with other races. Perhaps, in your universe, people believe this to this day. And look at us now.”
“So, you envision this great Star Alliance to be an empire of equals?” she said and then shook her head. “Even the Federation understood that not everyone wants to join their cause.”
“Some will join, others will come to realize that there is no other choice,” he said.
She nodded slowly. “I see.”
He laughed suddenly causing her to shoot him an empty look.
“I’m sorry, it just feels so much like we’re treading old ground here. I must have lost count of the times I’ve had this conversation with you.”
“Not me,” she said.
He nodded. “No, not exactly with you. I don’t know why I thought you would be different when you are so similar to her in every other way,” he said and finished his drink. “Especially considering that my counterpart appears to be nothing like me at all.”
Garla watched him carefully as he leaned forward to reach for the glass she had discarded and then emptied it in one big gulp.
“It tends to spoil rather quickly if left in the open,” he said and placed the empty glass next to the other one. “What?” he said when he noticed her hard stare. “Did you think I was trying to poison you with this?”
“The thought had occurred to me.”
He uttered another laugh. “You have no idea how disappointed I am that you cannot imagine the things I can see for the future of the Star Alliance. You, like her, could have contributed so much to that cause. I recognize that same dedication and intensity in your eyes. You have that same ability to motivate people and convince them of the righteousness of your ways. Together we could have easily marshaled more than enough support within the Eye, the Navy, and Alliance Central to commit the Star Alliance to a course of true greatness.”
He stood suddenly but when Garla tried to mirror his move she felt her body fail to respond to her commands.
He walked over to the far corner of his room to an ornate desk. “I suppose I should have known that you were not up to the task,” he said as he opened a drawer to retrieve something.
Garla was beginning to feel a rather unfamiliar sensation and she was now berating herself for having been so careless in the first place. It was not very often that she experienced true panic but then again, she was not used to feeling this helpless.
“See, my Garla would have realized much sooner that I would never attempt something as gauche as poisoning her drink. She would have known that it would be the nanites in her food that she needed to worry about,” he said, turning around and holding a large dagger in his hand. “I am well aware that people don’t believe I am a worthy sentinel but let me ask you this,” he added as he began to slowly approach the immobilized Garla. “What kind of sentinel would fall into a trap designed by her own apprentice? And for that matter, who wouldn’t want to follow a man cunning enough to not just dispatch one sentinel but two of them?”