He couldn’t remember ever having felt less comfortable in his own skin as he walked down the corridors of this alien yet also familiar starship wearing clothes not his own. Perhaps it was because the heavy attire belonged to a dead man, or, more likely because everyone they encountered as they made their way through the ship greeted him as if he was that man. The very same one he had killed just minutes earlier.
“This is insane,” he said quietly to Garla walking by his side. “We’re never going to get away with this.”
His aunt jabbed her elbow sharply into his ribs to force him to be quiet just in time for two ship officers coming down the corridor, both of them making eye contact with the person they believed to be their commanding officer.
“Sentinel, you asked for an update on the secondary engine manifold,” the man on the left said as they stopped in front of him and offered a quick salute. Lif recognized his rank insignia, a moderatus, roughly equivalent to a lieutenant commander in Starfleet. “Primary intake valves are now operating at eighty-five percent.”
Lif found himself at a loss for words.
“I understand you requested that we improve performance to ninety percent or better,” the moderatus said when Lif didn’t respond, taking his silence as displeasure. “However, if we expand any more resources on the engine manifolds, I am not sure that we will be able to keep weapon systems unaffected.”
A gentler jab from Garla broke him out of his stupor. “Yes, of course. Engines are a priority,” he said quickly, trying to recall what he knew of Krellonian starship specifications. “But not higher than weapons, not in our current situation. Have you considered siphoning power from the secondary system core by routing plasma flow through sub-light converters?”
The two officers exchanged quick, confused looks before the second man, who held a slightly lower rank, spoke up. “That’s not an approved procedure as far as I’m aware, sir.”
“But perhaps it could work,” said the moderatus, immediately garnering him a curious glance from his colleague. “The subspace engines and the secondary core do use the same energy conversion frequency and are located in close physical proximity to each other. If we suspend the engines during the procedure--“
“We might be able to increase power flow to the manifolds,” the other man said, nodding along in agreement. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of this procedure but theoretically it should work.”
“Well, gentlemen, it sounds to me you have a solution. Better get to it,” said Garla.
But the two men seemed uncomfortable taking instructions from a person they considered to be dead and instead made eye contact with Culsten again.
Lif nodded. “You heard her, let’s stop wasting time and get me ninety or better.”
They both saluted sharply and continued down the corridor.
Garla looked after them until they had disappeared around a nearby junction. “See, now that wasn’t so hard.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” He felt as if he had held his breath throughout the entire conversation.
“You just managed to fool the chief engineer into believing that you are who you say you are. I think we’re off to a pretty good start here,” she said with a little gleam in her eyes. “And pray tell how did you just come up with a completely new and unorthodox procedure out of thin air?”
He shook his head. “I didn’t. It’s something my father once showed me when he taught me how to fly a shuttle.”
She raised an eyebrow in surprise. “A shuttle?”
Lif shrugged his shoulder. “I thought I’d give it a try. What’s the worse that could happen?”
Clearly, this didn’t impress her nearly as much and she grabbed him by the arm to encourage him to continue on their way to the command bridge. “This whole thing could blow up underneath our feet?”
“Even more reason to stop pretending I’m somebody I’m not and get out of here. I’m sure we could get access to an actual shuttle or an escape pod.”
“And go where? We’re surrounded by Krellonian ships.”
“We could try and make it back to in-betweens pace. They still don’t know it even exists.”
“We won’t get that far,” she said and shook her head again. “No, for now, this is our best option until a better opportunity presents itself.” She stepped into a turbolift and when Lif didn’t follow her inside, she just snatched him and pulled him inside.
“This is a terrible idea, Garla.”
“It will work if you just commit to the role. Trust me, I’ve done it before. Nobody has reason to suspect you and as long as you exude confidence, people will believe. The sentinel was practically the same person you are. Perhaps a bit more arrogant and deluded but otherwise the same man.”
As the lift set in motion, Lif shot her a dark glare.
“Fine. A great deal more arrogant and deluded. Just channel the worst parts of your personality and you should be fine.”
“Right,” he said with little confidence. He couldn’t quite get the last times he had tried his hands at pretending to be a spy out of his head and how badly each one of them had gone. They had made him swear off from any foolish notions he had once held of working on clandestine operations. He just didn’t have the nerve for it, he had decided. And yet, here he was, once more thrust into such a situation against his better judgment. The fact that Garla, at his side, was a master at such games gave him little comfort and he wouldn’t have hesitated for a second to switch places with her.
The turbolift doors opened and they stepped onto the command bridge which was abuzz with activity. Most of the combat damage the Yellow Rose had taken had been seen to, at least on the bridge, and crewmembers were busily moving from station to station with purpose, giving Lif the distinct impression that something serious was afoot.
Chief Justicar Tenn spotted the two new arrivals and waved them over. “Sentinel, we have a development you need to be aware of.”
The serious tone in his voice didn’t help to put Lif at ease in the slightest.
They joined him where he stood in one of the control aisles dissecting the bridge and when Lif didn’t speak straight away, Garla took the initiative. “What have you found?”
“Trouble”, Tenn said as he manipulated his controls until the large screen above the console showed several energy signatures that appeared to be heading their way. Judging by the relative distance, they were closing in quickly. “Sensors just detected this a few minutes ago.”
“What are they?” Lif said.
“Starfleet signatures,” said Garla when Tenn gave Lif an odd look, perhaps surprised a sentinel had to ask such a question.
Lif nodded quickly. “Yes, of course. But why are they heading our way? The Federation hasn’t threatened our borders directly in years.”
“It must be related to their recent fleet activity in the sector,” Tenn said once more and made eye contact with Lif. “It appears you were right to be suspicious of their presence here, Sentinel.”
He studied the energy signatures on the screen, trying to determine if Eagle was among the half a dozen contacts moving their way. “Yes, quite so.”
“We have to assume that this is a hostile move against the Star Alliance. I suggest we interrogate your counterpart immediately,” the justicar said. “He may have pertinent information relating to this situation.”
Lif gave him an odd look. “My counterpart?”
“He is a Starfleet officer, is he not? He should be able to provide us some insight into their motivations.”
“That’s not … possible,” Lif said, wishing he had come up with a better line but he was making things up as he went along. Never a great tactic when trying to cast off suspicions and, quite literally, get away with murder.
“Forgive me for questioning you, Sentinel, but I think it is worth the effort.”
Garla mercifully jumped in. “Lieutenant Lif Culsten isn’t from this universe. He doesn’t know this version of Starfleet. It is likely that you know more about how the Federation operates in this universe than he would.”
“Still, he is familiar with these types of vessels. He served on one himself. We have never engaged Starfleet in combat before. His help could be useful, even if we have to coerce his assistance.”
For a moment nobody spoke.
Lif could feel the tension among them rising to an awkward level and quietly cleared his throat. “My counterpart will not be able to assist anyone. Not anymore,” he said, trying to keep his facial features relaxed and free of any emotion as he stared right into the Kridrip’s eyes.
The justicar nodded slowly. “I understand.”
“You were implying they are hostile?” Garla said and Lif was thankful that she was refocusing the conversation.
“Yes. Our sensors confirm that all ships have shields and weapons active. They know we are here. I believe they mean to attack.”
“How much time do we have?” said Lif.
Tenn checked the console again. “Less than thirty standard minutes until weapons range.”
“An interesting challenge, don’t you think, Justicar?” he said with a cheerfulness he hoped didn’t feel too force since he was feeling none of it. “An opportunity to test ourselves against Starfleet. What would be your tactical analysis?”
Tenn once more looked over his board before he gave his response. “We are outnumbered but I don’t think we are outgunned. Starfleet is not the power it once was. If these ships were from their Preserver faction, which we know to be the tactically inferior of the two, I would say that our chances to prevail without further support from our fleet were high. But our data indicates these ships belong to the Guardians.”
Lif offered him a wide smile. “And what does that mean to you, good Justicar?”
He hesitated only a moment. “I believe it remains a battle we can win. But not unscathed. Our only two options are to withdraw or stand and fight. We cannot get reinforcements to our position in time.”
“Quite an astute analysis of our situation,” Lif said as he nodded with satisfied agreement. “Prepare the fleet for either option, Justicar.” He glanced towards Garla. “Come with me, I’d like to hear the thoughts of another sentinel on this, even if she doesn’t belong here.” He turned and headed to the most forward part of the bridge where the single command chair stood apart from the rest of the room and therefore would afford them some privacy.
“Take it easy with the attitude there, Lif,” Garla whispered to him as they approached the chair. “The man may have been an overbearing fool but he wasn’t a caricature.”
“I’m doing my best,” he hissed back through clenched teeth. “In case you forgot, I’m not the master spy here.”
Once they were clear of the rest of the bridge personnel and Lif was reasonably happy that the crew was too busy with preparing the ship to pay them close attention, he allowed himself to relax slightly. “What the hells do we do?”
Garla seemed to consider that for a moment. “The question is: Why are they headed this way? From everything I’ve heard about this Federation, they have far larger problems maintaining order within their borders to make moves against their more powerful neighbors.”
“It has to be related to the Ring. It’s the only thing that makes sense,” he said as he glanced at a nearby screen to confirm his suspicions. “Their heading is taking them directly towards it and we just happen to be in their way.
“But from what I could see, Eagle was not among those ships,” said Lif.
“Which could mean that they were unsuccessful in rescuing their people and the Prism. Worse, Starfleet still has both and intends to use it.”
“That shuttle sounds pretty good right about now,” Lif said wistfully.
“I think that option just went out of the airlock.”
“You mean like we will once we are discovered.”
Garla turned to face him, positioning herself so that her back was to the rest of the bridge and nobody could overhear what she was telling him. “We have to stand and fight, Lif. It’s our only choice.”
He wanted to shake his head but a sudden and very noticeable alert klaxons caught his attention as the entire bridge was doused into dark blue light.
“What now?” he said.
Tenn quickly approached. “The Federation fleet has just increased their speed and changed to an attack formation. They’ll reach our position in five minutes, sir.”
“Looks like now you lead us into battle,” Garla said quietly before Tenn could reach them.