He had made his way to sickbay as soon as he had heard that she had regained consciousness.
They may have had their differences recently and their blossoming relationship had cooled somewhat after their fateful shore leave to his homeworld a few weeks earlier, but he still cared deeply for her and had been worried when she had been among the crewmembers who had not immediately regained consciousness following Eagle’s unexpected trip into what some of the crew had begun to refer to as the Rabbit Hole.
Lif hadn’t exactly fared particularly well himself. He had been on his way to the bridge when the ship had been sucked into the anomaly and then in a stroke of misfortunate had found himself in a turbolift speeding through the ship when the artificial gravity had failed suddenly and slammed him so hard into the ceiling and then the floor that he had suffered a concussion.
However, he had been released just a couple of hours after he had been admitted to sickbay since the understaffed medical personnel found itself somewhat overwhelmed with the high number of unconscious patients, nearly a quarter of the crew, to give him anything more than the most urgent medical care.
Since so many crewmembers were either still insensate or recovering, many of the patients had been transferred into secondary wards and it was there where he found Louise Hopkins sitting up on a bed and arguing with Doctor Barry Nelson.
“You are not yet cleared, Lieutenant. I must ask you to stay put until we had the chance to have a proper look at you,” the young doctor said.
“From what I hear, we’re in pretty bad shape. The warp core and most of the primary systems are down. The sooner I can get back to engineering, the sooner I can make sure we do something about that.”
But Nelson shook his head. “I can’t worry about that. My priority has to be your well-being.”
A noticeably exhausted nurse was standing not two meters away, trying to get Nelson’s attention who was clearly required elsewhere. “Doctor, we still need to complete the diagnosis for the patients in ward C and E. We’re already behind schedule.”
Hopkins picked up on this quickly. “I bet that’s not easy to do without having access to the main computer.”
Nelson regarded her with a pointed stare but then visibly gave up on his argument with a heavy sigh. “Very well, you win,” he said and produced a small device from a nearby tray, attaching it to her temple. “But you’re wearing a cortical monitor until further notice and until we can confirm that there are no other side-effects. At the first sign of any dizziness or lack of focus, you come straight back here or I’ll have security corral you.”
She offered him a wide smile. “Deal.”
The nurse finally managed to drag Nelson away but not before he gave Hopkins one parting look. “And get the computer up and running again. That’ll be all the thanks I need.”
“You bet, Doc,” she said and stood from the bed.
“I had no idea you could be so persuasive. Ever consider moving onto the command track? You’d make a great captain,” said Lif as he approached her.
She smirked. “No, thanks, engineering suits me just fine. Besides, I’m lucky Katanga isn’t around. No chance I could’ve talked him into letting me out of here.”
“I’m really glad you’re all right and back on your feet,” he said and followed her out of the patient ward.
“Glad you made it in one piece as well. But there’s no time to waste, apparently whatever we’ve come across did a real number not just on the crew but our systems as well. Half the ship seems to be down.”
He nodded. “And that isn’t even the oddest thing.”
“I’m a bit behind the curve. What else happened?”
“Well, the prevailing theory is that we have landed in an alternate universe. Either that or the anomaly we found has induced some sort of mass hallucination,” he said as they stepped onto the corridor and headed towards the nearest turbolift.
“You’re kidding?” she said without slowing her pace.
He shook his head.
“Is this the one where we all have evil doppelgangers?”
“I’m not sure. But there is another Eagle. In fact, she’s right here. And Gene Edison is in command.”
That caused her to stop well short of the turbolift. “No.”
“Does Laas now?”
Lif understood the significance of her question straight away and was surprised that he hadn’t thought of it earlier. Nora Laas had been in a short-lived but intense relationship with their version of Gene Edison until he had died. Killed in action while saving her life. He had no idea how the infamously hot-tempered Bajoran security chief would take the news. “I don’t think she’s awake yet.”
“I hate to say it, but I kind of hope she sleeps through the entire thing,” she said as she continued towards the lift and they both stepped into a waiting car. “Main engineering.”
The lift set in motion and for a moment the two of them simply stood there, side-by-side, in silence.
“Computer, stop lift,” Louise said, bringing the car to a halt. “Are we going to talk about it?”
“About Edison?” he said, shooting her a perplexed look.
She rolled her eyes. “About Piqus and about what happened after we left.”
Lif shrugged. “I did what I thought was right to get us out of a tough spot.”
“By suggesting that you surrender to Garla on the outside chance she’ll let the rest of us go?” she said, unable to hide her disbelieve.
He didn’t really want to have this conversation now, but he knew they had put it off for too long already. They had barely spoken more than two words since their escape from Krellonian territory a few days earlier.
“I have the feeling that perhaps you bought into her delusional fantasy about magically solving all of Krellon's problems by separating your people from the Outlanders somehow.”
“It’s not delusional,” he said defensively.
“So you do believe it. That separation is the way forward? Putting aside for a moment that segregation has never been the answer to a society’s problems, how would that even work? From everything I’ve seen, the Outlanders have become an integral part of Krellonian society. And how about those who don’t want to be segregated? Is she just going to remove those by force? Is she going to build walls to keep everyone in their own little ghettos?”
The truth was that he didn’t know the answer to any of those questions since Garla had never revealed the details of her plan that she claimed would not only prevent the Krellonian Star Alliance from heading towards inevitable civil war, she’d make it so that the ‘Great Shame’, the systematic enslavement by his people of various alien races who were now collectively known as the Outlanders, would no longer be a factor causing friction between the two separate groups. She had made it sound as if she was looking to rewrite history itself. “I don’t know, Lou, we didn’t get that far before she tried to kill me. But for all her frustration over my betrayal and all her other faults, at least she is the only person in a position of power I’ve ever seen trying to make an actual difference. That has to count for something.”
But Louise was not convinced. “It counts for nothing if her plan ends up in genocide. I’m sure people like Colonel Green, Khan Noonien Singh, and Governor Kodos started out with good intentions as well.”
Lif wanted to counter that it was entirely unfair to compare his aunt with such villainous examples in history but he didn’t get the chance when he heard the first officer’s voice over the intercom
“Star to Lif Culsten, please report to the main shuttlebay on the double.”
The two left it at glaring at each other instead of continuing the argument.
“You better get going and I’m already way overdue in engineering,” she said.
“Computer, resume lift to main engineering and to main shuttlebay.”
The computer trilled in acknowledgment and set the car back in motion towards deck twenty-four and main engineering since that had been its first destination requested. Lif and Louise rode the rest of the way in silence, exchanging brief glances once the doors opened again to allow Louise to exit.
Lif uttered a heavy sigh he hadn’t realized he had held back after she had left and the lift headed back upwards and toward the shuttlebay on deck five.
These arguments between him and Louise had become far too frequent as of late for his liking and he was beginning to wonder if their relationship had been a mistake after all.
He refocused his concentration on the task at hand when the turbolift deposited him on deck five, wondering what Star needed him for in the shuttlebay. Since he was among the most experienced pilots on the ship, he might have been required for an impromptu shuttle mission, and he did not miss the three small vessels already arranged on the deck as he stepped into the large and extensive bay. He could, however, not see Star anywhere.
The only response was the sound of his echo reverberating off the high bulkheads.
He approached the three shuttles.
“I’m afraid your first officer couldn’t make it.”
He whipped around upon hearing the familiar voice and immediately froze.
His aunt was standing right behind him with a pointed at his chest. “Garla?”
“Surprised to see me again, Liftu?” she said as she closed in on him, forcing Lif to step back to try and keep his distance.
“What’re you doing here?”
“What do you think I’m doing here?” she said as she continued to advance.
Lif ran out of room when his back hit the parked shuttle behind him. “You’ve come to finish me off, is that it? To take your revenge.”
“And why shouldn’t I?” she said and indicated towards his chest with her weapon.
Lif understood what she wanted and he removed his combadge and dropped it onto the deck.
“You betrayed me, Lif. You betrayed your entire people. It wasn’t enough that you turned your backs on us the first time, you had to come back and twist that dagger, didn’t you?”
“You know, the funny thing is, you’re right.”
That admission gave her pause and she stopped.
“Yes, I did turn my back on my people. In fact, I couldn’t wait to get out of the Star Alliance and I jumped at the first opportunity I got to leave that place. I knew even then how truly broken our society was and realizing that there was nothing I could do to change it, I chose to run away from it all instead. But I was willing to believe that you had found a way to fix all that. I was starting to believe in your passion and that maybe you had a solution to turn our people from the abyss.”
“Until you threw that away when you chose to side with your new friends instead of standing with your people. With your family,” she said, doing little to hide the venom in her voice.
He had no defense to offer. He knew he’d more than likely make that same choice all over again if he was placed in that position once more. Naturally, he couldn’t share this with her if he wanted any chance at getting out of this confrontation alive. “So you hid away on Eagle for days just to satisfy your urge for satisfaction, is that it? All your grand plans to save the Star Alliance from itself have suddenly taken a backseat to you settling a personal grudge. Call me a traitor to my people, if you must, but I don’t see your priorities being any less selfish.”
She paused for a moment but the hesitation passed quickly. “Of course, you wouldn’t,” she said and took two more steps closer to him. “I’m taking you back, Lif.”
“You may find that won’t be that easy.”
“I’ve evaded your supposedly ingenious Starfleet crew and technology for days now. I know exactly how to get out of here.”
He nodded. “I’m sure you do. But unless you have a plan on how to get back to our universe, we’re not going anywhere.”
The puzzled expression on her face gave ample evidence that she hadn’t yet realized the predicament they all now found themselves in. “What are you talking about?”
“Honestly, I’m surprised you didn’t already know. We tracked down the portal your allies have built. But instead of taking us into subspace, it dropped us into an alternate universe.”
She quickly shook her head. “That’s nonsense.”
“Then how do you explain what happened to us and the ship? Half the crew is still unconscious and most of our systems are offline. No doubt you must have experienced the transition as well.”
That too gave her pause as she began to consider what he had said and likely her own experiences after Eagle had been pulled into the anomaly. She was momentarily distracted by her own thoughts, her weapon no longer pointing at him. Lif considered making a move against her but then, remembering her lightning-fast reflexes she had already demonstrated once before, he decided that he didn’t care for his chances and stayed put.
“We’re a long way from home, Garla.”
The heavy doors at the far end of the shuttle bay opened and Lif felt a sense of relief when he spotted Tazla Star and DeMara leading a small team of heavily armed security personnel inside.
It was short-lived. Garla saw them as well and within just a second she had grabbed him and positioned him like a shield in front of her with her phaser pushing into the side of his head.
“Lif, are you all right?” Deen asked as soon as she spotted him and while she and the team approached carefully.
“Other than that phaser pointed at my head, I’m fine.”
“That’s close enough,” Garla said when Star and the others had come within ten meters.
The first officer did stop and indicated for her team to do the same, however, neither Star nor the security team lowered their weapons which were all leveled at the two Krellonians. “It’s over, Garla.”
She shook her head. “No, not quite yet.”
“You have my professional respect for being able to stay undetected as long as you did and that little diversion you’ve sent us on was particularly clever. It may even have worked if you hadn’t been up against somebody trained in counter-intelligence,” Star said as she raised her phaser to line up her shot.
“I’ll keep that in mind for next time we meet,” Garla said.
“There won’t be a next time. There is no way out of here. Surrender,” she said. “Or don’t,” she added with a shrug. “We can just stun you both and sort it out later.”
“I wouldn’t try that if I were you,” said the Krellonian Sentinel. “I have a very itchy trigger finger which could go off by the slightest movement. If you don’t want to pick up Lif’s brains from the deck, I suggest you withdraw.”
The two women exchanged silent stares as they were measuring each other up, one intelligence officer against another. Who would call the other one’s bluff first?
It turned out to be Star. “I don’t think so. You’ve been on this ship for nearly three days. If you had planned to kill Lif you would have had plenty of opportunities to do so. I think you want him alive.”
“Are you willing to bet his life on that?”
Star made eye contact with her hostage. “What do you think?”
“I think you both make good points. I’d just rather not be the man in the middle in this bet,” he said.
“This isn’t over,” Garla said and then shoved Lif hard into the direction of the Starfleet team.
He landed painfully on the deck and by the time he looked back around he could just see her shimmer out of existence. “What gives?”
But apparently, the Trill had already expected something like this. “She’s wearing some sort of personal cloaking device. That’s how she’s been able to evade us. Stay down,” she said and then quickly adjusted her phaser. She leveled it towards her last position again and then fired a single wide-beam pattern which covered a significant area in front of her
It paid off. Garla was hit and her cloak fizzled out again as she stumbled down onto the deck.
Star and the security team closed in. “Ready to surrender yet?”
Garla looked up. She had lost her weapon when she was struck by Star’s phaser and seemed out of options. And yet that little smile playing on her lips didn’t seem to support her predicament. “Well played, Commander. Let’s see if you thought of everything, shall we?” she said and then tapped the top of her right boot.
Star fired again but this time she connected with nothing but the empty deck after Garla had already dematerialized.
Star uttered a Trill curse under her breath.
“That was a Starfleet transporter signature,” Deen said who had recognized the familiar blue light patterns into which Garla had disappeared.
Star nodded. “She must have configured one of the transporters while she had the chance.”
“This means she could be anywhere,” said DeMara.
“Bridge to Commander Star.”
“Go ahead, Lieutenant,” Star said when she heard Alendra’s voice.
“Sir, we just detected a shuttle materializing just off our starboard bow. It’s one of ours.”
Lif had to admit he was somewhat impressed. “She beamed one of our shuttles right out of the hangar bay and into space.”
“And something tells me her right along with it,” added DeMara.
“Lieutenant, can you get a lock on the shuttle or whoever is inside and beam them back on board?”
“I’m afraid not, Commander. Targeting sensors are down.”
“What about a tractor—“
Star never got a chance to complete her sentence. “Sir,” Alendra said, interrupting the first officer. “The shuttle has just gone to warp.”
Lif looked at the clearly unhappy first officer. “And with engines down, we can’t follow.”