He hadn’t really felt comfortable at all during the entirety of the meal his counterpart had arranged for him, Garla and Tenn, probably because it had been rather obvious that Sentinel Culsten’s main interest had been Garla rather than his other two guests.
He had quickly jumped at the chance to get out of the man’s quarters once the opportunity had presented itself and was somewhat disappointed that Garla had chosen to stay behind.
Lif was getting increasingly worried that Garla would succumb to his offer of staying behind in this universe to work with him. Perhaps, he wondered, it was because he seemed as calculating and ambitious as she had been when she had made a deal with the subspace aliens. He had held out hope that she had learned from her mistakes but now he was starting to think that perhaps she hadn’t.
He knew that Garla had invested significant amounts of resources, time, and perhaps even emotion into her failed plan to remake the Star Alliance into a truly prosperous empire and while in hindsight her vision of what she had called a stand-alone society had been misguided, her passion to create a better society for Krellonians and Outlanders alike had been genuine. It was clear that she was trying desperately to find a way to redeem herself after her failure and that perhaps she was convinced that she could make a real difference in this universe instead.
The thought had troubled him so much that although he hadn’t been able to wait to get out of the sentinel’s quarters earlier, he found himself back in front of his doors just a minutes after he had left.
He wasn’t sure what exactly had prompted him to walk back into the quarters uninvited, not even bothering to use the annunciator.
He wasn’t sure what he’d expected to find but his counterpart hovering over Garla while brandishing a dagger had certainly not been on the shortlist.
The sentinel turned to look at him, a deep frown etched into his features giving evidence to his annoyance of being interrupted. Lif couldn’t help wonder if it wasn’t more than that. It had not been difficult to sense that his counterpart did not think much of him, perhaps because he considered him weak for having chosen to align himself with the Federation in his universe, or perhaps because he felt that his existence challenged his position or his sense of his sui generis nature in the universe.
Garla for her part didn’t seem able to move. Her body twitched slightly, as if she had registered somebody having entered the quarters, but it appeared impossible for her to turn and look at who had joined them.
“Well, isn’t that convenient?” said the sentinel as he took a step toward Lif, casually raising the dagger. “You just saved me the trouble of having to find and dispose of you as well.”
Lif’s fight or flight instincts told him to run but he fought against them as best as he could. There seemed little doubt that the other him, trained as a sentinel, would be a far better fighter than he had ever been. But he also knew that if he left now, even if he managed to escape unharmed, Garla’s fate was likely sealed.
“You wouldn’t be the first version of myself I had to fight this week,” he said with faked bravado as he mirrored his counterpart’s move. “Guess which version is still standing?”
He knew he was stretching the truth pretty hard. Sure, he had been forced into a nasty hand-to-hand battle with his alter ego in the last universe they had visited. But his demise had not come at his hands and in fact, the Culsten from that reality had very nearly gotten the better of him if it hadn’t been for the timely intervention of an anti-grav boots equipped Niner. He knew there was no chance a rescue team would come swooping in this time.
The proud boast had the intended effect, however, and Sentinel Culsten was momentarily confused by the statement. Lif used this to his advantage. He rushed the other man and tackled him to the floor before he was able to wield the dagger.
He remembered Nora’s combat training for facing an armed opponent and tried to go for his weapon, attempting to disarm him quickly but his counterpart clearly was equally aware of this tactic and drew the dagger back before Lif could reach it.
With the blade out of reach for the moment, Lif knew he had to press his advantage any way he could and began to punch him hard in the face, until his knuckles began to hurt, desperately trying to ignore that it was his own face he was pummeling.
Culsten took the hits in stride and before Lif could deliver a fourth blow, the other man intercepted his arm, and then using his superior strength and agility, lifted him off of him with his legs and knees only to use the momentum he had created to flip him clean across the room and causing him to crash into the very chair he had been sitting at earlier during dinner.
“Perhaps I have underestimated you,” the sentinel said as he spat blood and slowly pulled himself back onto his feet. “Considering how easily I disabled your friend, supposedly a sentinel in her universe, it seems I should have taken care of you first.”
Although it was well-known that Krellonian bones were particularly dense and less likely to bruise or break than those of humans, for example, Lif still felt as if his ribs were on fire. The pain kept him too dazed to move as he watched on helplessly as the sentinel approached, once more bringing up his blade.
“Why are you doing this?” he said, now desperate to buy himself some time.
“Honestly? I didn’t want any of this. When I first saw Garla on your bridge, I thought perhaps this was going to be a second chance for all of us. A second chance to claim the glory the Star Alliance so rightly deserves.”
Using the chair next to him, Lif pulled himself back onto his feet as well, doing his best to ignore the stinging pain he felt all over. “You mean conquering the galaxy?”
He shrugged. “Somebody has to bring order to the chaos.”
“You know, in my universe, there was a group of people who shared those exact same ideas. Determined to expand their dominion over both the Alpha and Beta quadrants. It didn’t work out for them either,” he said, grabbed a wine bottle from the table, and swung it hard towards the sentinel.
Culsten saw it coming and defensively raised an arm which caused the bottle to smash to pieces before it could hit anything vital.
But Lif simply swung again, this time with the destroyed bottle, its sharp edges ripping through clothing and flesh.
Culsten winced from the pain but didn’t let that stop him from striking back with a quick succession of strikes, the first one against Lif’s face, dazzling him momentarily, the next one aimed at his bottle-wielding hand, causing him to drop his makeshift weapon. The third strike hit him right in the solar plexus and forced him to double over in pain.
Culsten grabbed Lif by the hair to pull him back up and then threw him back against the table behind him and pressed the razor-sharp dagger to his throat.
Lif could feel the cold blade against his skin, very much aware that it wouldn’t take much to cut him wide open. Most of his weight was pushing against the glass table behind him and he could start feeling it giving way slowly.
But the Sentinel was hesitating as he considered the other man up close.
“Not easy killing somebody with your own face, is it?” said Lif through carefully labored breaths and clenched teeth, trying to suppress his pain as best as he could. “Much less complicated when it is just you mentor.”
“I didn’t want to kill her. But she lacked vision. If it had been left up to her, the Star Alliance would have shriveled up and died, becoming an easy target for the Nyberrites.”
“So you killed her to preserve the Alliance?”
Lif grabbed him around his neck and slowly pulled himself up and closer to his face, even if in doing so, the blade was beginning to painfully cut into the skin of his vulnerable throat. “Then what is your excuse for trying to kill her now?”
He had no immediate answer but Lif hadn’t expected one. Instead, he threw himself hard against the table behind him, slipping out of the sentinel’s grasp and the blade at his throat and smashing the table in the process.
Even before he had landed among the broken shards of the table, he kicked at the sentinel’s knee as hard as he could, causing the other man to lose his balance, and then with strength fueled purely by adrenaline, he pushed himself back up, lowered his shoulder and rammed it into his midsection at full speed.
Both men tumbled backward, halfway through his quarters, and then went flying over the sofa on which Garla had been sitting, spilling all three of them onto the floor.
The sentinel recovered first and got back onto his feet while Lif was still on his hands and knees. “You are really starting to become a nuisance,” he said and kicked him hard into his already sore ribs, flipping him onto his back.
As Lif turned his head slightly, he could see the glint of the dagger that had slipped just underneath the sofa they had stumbled over.
Culsten saw the weapon at the same time and both men lunged for it.
Lif was in the better position to grab it first, but the Sentinel was faster.
Moments before his counterpart would have reached the hilt, however, his forward movement was suddenly arrested and it took Lif a moment to realize that it was thanks to Garla. She had regained some of her mobility and just enough to grab him by the ankle.
Determined to take full advantage of the situation, Lif retrieved the dagger.
By the time he had a firm grip on it and pushed himself back onto his feet, the sentinel was driving the heel of his boot hard into Garla’s face, forcing her to let go of him.
The sudden momentum, however, caused the sentinel to stumble forward at the same time as Culsten was bringing up the dagger and bracing himself for another round with his counterpart.
Sentinel Culsten’s eyes opened wide as the blade penetrated cloth and flesh, driving itself into his midsection.
Lif looked down to see that he was still holding fast to the hilt while half the blade was now buried inside Culsten’s chest, blood spurting forth from the wound and beginning to soak his hand.
Culsten stumbled forward as he coughed up blood but Lif steadied him before he could fall. He tried to pull out the blade but his alter ego grabbed hold of his dagger-wielding hand to keep the blade put.
The two men locked eyes. “I knew you had it in you. We’re much more alike than I would have given you credit for.”
Lif tried once more to pull the dagger back but Culsten fought him all the way and in doing so, the blade buried itself a few centimeters deeper into his chest.
“Maybe there is hope for you yet,” he said as blood was beginning to stream out of his mouth.
Lif felt the other man’s grip slacken and enough to allow him to let go of the hilt.
Culsten stumbled backward a few steps, seemingly determined to stay on his feet as long as possible. After a couple of seconds though, gravity won out and he collapsed hard onto his back.
Lif just stood there, paralyzed, watching the blood bubble around his mouth as he was fighting to draw breath.
“Lif, help me up.”
Garla shook him out of his trance-like state and he found her trying to climb back onto the sofa even though her legs were apparently not obeying her commands.
Lif quickly got to her side and helped her sit on the couch.
“I cannot believe the bastard managed to poison me. Something like this would never have happened in our universe. I would have seen it coming light-years away,” she said, apparently angrier at herself than she was at the man who had tried to kill her.
“Are you going to be all right, you think?”
She nodded slowly. “Seems to have been a paralyzing agent,” she said and scowled at the sentinel on the floor. “He clearly wanted to do the final deed himself.”
Lif followed her gaze and could no longer spot any kind of movement, the eyes of the man wearing his exact face were wide open, staring up at the ceiling while blood continued to pool around his torso and trickled down from the corner of his mouth and nose. It was, he thought, by far the most disturbing thing he had ever seen.
It took him a good while to finally divert his gaze from the sight of what very much looked like his own dead body. “What do we do now?” he said and considered Garla who had managed to regain control of her arms and was working hard to get her legs back under control as well.
“Chief Justicar Tenn to Sentienl Culsten. Your presence is urgently requested on the command bridge.”
Lif looked up towards the ceiling upon hearing the voice but when he regarded Garla again he realized that she was quite intently staring at Culsten’s dead body. “I believe that much is quite obvious,” she said before making eye contact once more. “Don’t you think?”