Icarus weaves between the enemy drones, its shields absorbing their disruptor fire. The drones blink around the ship, struggling to keep up as Icarus speeds toward the Gla'hua mothership.
On the bridge, Avala reports, "Shields are holding for now. I can't say for how long."
"Rylek," orders Captain Rashid, "bring us as close to the mothership as you can. Within the power coil if you're able – if we're right on top of them, they might think twice about shooting at us. Pon, can you disable those drones?"
"I got a few of them. But it looks like each drone uses a different frequency. Crafty. Crafty fishies."
Avala says, "Sir, they're blinking in front of us. It looks like they want to block our path to the mothership."
"Transphasic torpedo spread, Ms. Avala."
Four torpedoes launch from the fore of the ship towards the drones and the mothership. One drone fires at them with its disruptors, which refracts around the torpedoes' transphasic field. Another drone then blinks in front of one of the torpedoes and is struck by it. The torpedo explodes and the drone whirls end over end, then rights itself and flies into a second torpedo. Both are destroyed in the resulting explosion. Two other drones collide with the remaining torpedoes. One of the drones is destroyed, while the other orients itself to fire on Icarus, plasma leaking from its aft section.
"Enemy drone off our port bow, heading straight for us!" Avala shouts.
Icarus lurches to one side as the drone passes through its shields. One of the three talon-like wings of the drone scrapes the upper saucer section of the ship, tearing off a piece of the outer layer of the hull.
"Shields are down, Captain," Avala reports through gritted teeth.
The bridge rocks as enemy fire scours the ship. Rashid says, "Get us to that mothership, Rylek!"
"Ten seconds, Captain," Rylek replies with an air of forced calm.
Icarus speeds around the drones to the large outer coil of the Gla'hua ship, looping between the coil and the inner sphere of the ship. Drones blink around the ship but stop firing.
"Looks like they don't want to take a chance on damaging the mothership," observes Pon.
"Preservation of the Gla'hua will be their aim," offers Mab'aa from the back of the bridge. "But take care, Captain Rashid, for the Gla'hua is of supreme value to me as well."
"Don't worry, it's a bluff. I have no intention of harming your people. Rylek, keep us close to that coil," Rashid orders. "Avala, open a channel to the Gla'hua."
"Gla'hua ship, this is Captain Rashid. Cease your attack immediately or we'll open fire on your power coil."
There is a momentary pause, and the crew stares intently at the viewscreen.
"Captain, I'm reading a massive power surge in the coil," Sorensen reports.
"Get us out of range towards the mothership's inner hull!"
Icarus plunges towards the inner sphere as the coil fires a burst of bright scarlet energy at them, narrowly missing the ship before being reabsorbed into another section of the coil. The drones follow close behind, still not firing.
Suddenly four Gla'hua armed with energy pikes materialize on the bridge. Rashid shouts, "Computer! Intruder containment mode!"
Grey walls materialize around the crew's seats, separated by narrow corridors running in all directions. Their seats and consoles seem to spread apart as the corridors holographically appear to elongate, then turn at random ninety-degree angles like a Rubik's cube. The walls surrounding Rashid become screens showing the view in front of the ship, the crew seated at their consoles, and the baffled Gla'hua intruders lost in the corridors.
"Welcome to the death labyrinth, fishies," Pon cackles. Avala, seated directly next to her, draws her phaser. Rashid does the same, setting it on the arm of the captain's chair and gripping its hilt tightly. Behind her chair, Mab'aa's eye stalks search hir surroundings, disoriented.
The Gla'hua intruders gesture to each other and venture off in various directions, gradually adapting to the changing gravity to walk along the walls up, down, and sideways through the corridors.
"Steady as she goes, Mr. Rylek," says Rashid.
Sorensen, seated beside Rylek, says, "The drones are holding position around us."
"Pon, I need shields!"
"Working on it, Captain," the Tellarite replies.
A Gla'hua emerges from a corridor behind Pon, pike drawn. Reflexively, Avala fires and drops hir. Another leaps forward over hir stunned comrade, and Avala grabs hir pike and ducks, using the alien's momentum to hurl hir overtop of her to the floor. The pike and Avala's phaser clatter underneath her console. The Gla'hua rolls to hir feet and faces Avala, towering half a meter over the Andorian. With a hiss, s/he lunges forward, grasping with hir four hands as Avala narrowly dodges to the side. She dives for her phaser, but the Gla'hua swings hir tail and knocks Avala backwards, and she crashes into her console and topples over. S/he grabs hir pike and holds it over Avala. Before s/he can bring it down, Pon seizes hir head and slams it hard into a wall. The intruder crumples to the floor.
"Thanks," Avala says, climbing back to her feet and wiping a stream of dark blue blood from her mouth.
"Thanks yourself," Pon grunts, returning to her seat. She taps her console and says, "Captain, I'm diverting power from engines to shields. Bringing them online now."
"Great work." Rashid glances at her screen. "Rylek, Sorensen, you've got incoming!"
A Gla'hua steps out of the corridor behind them and fires a burst of energy from hir pike. Sorensen narrowly dives aside in time and the blast hits her console, causing it to vanish. Rylek leaps to his feet and seizes the Gla'hua's neck. S/he collapses.
"Hah!" exclaims Rylek. Then he glances at Sorensen and says, "I mean, I am gratified that I have successfully performed a nerve pinch."
She smiles as he returns to the helm. Rashid says, "One left. Mab'aa, get down."
Mab'aa lays low, and Rashid says, "Computer, bridge setting."
The corridors vanish, revealing a confused Gla'hua in the center of the bridge. Rashid shoots hir and s/he drops.
"Nice work, everyone," Rashid says. "Keep us close to the central sphere, Rylek."
"Drones still holding," says Sorensen.
"Gaaaaaaa," croaks one of the Gla'hua. Sorensen pulls out a tricorder and scans hir. "Captain, these aliens are not stunned – I'm reading full synaptic activity from all of them. If I had to guess, I'd say their motor functions are temporarily disabled. And that one," she says, pointing to a Gla'hua near Pon, "has a broken neck."
"It was self-defence," mutters Pon.
"Will they survive?" Rashid asks.
"I'm not sure," Sorensen replies. "I suggest we use the transporters to hold them in the pattern buffers until Dr. Alomar can take a look at them."
"Do it," Rashid orders. Sorensen dematerializes the aliens.
Mab'aa leans in to Rashid. "Your mercy surprises me. I had thought my kin dead."
"That's not the Federation way," Rashid tells hir. Glancing at the viewscreen, she asks, "We appear to be at a standoff. Tell me – what do you think they'll do next?"
"The hand-guiders are considering their options. They have zeal for battle, but little experience. But they will not be idle for long."
"Noted." To the crew, "We hold here for now. Our top priority is to find Commander Sparks and get out of here." She looks at the drones hovering around Icarus. "And let's try to be quick about it."
Chief medical officer's log, supplemental. Repairs to the alternate Icarus' main systems have been completed, and we are ready to set off. However, it appears that the crew have engaged the Gla'hua in battle. To my frustration, the captain – my patient – has been rather tight-lipped about our planned course of action.
Alomar finds Rashid in Science Lab 2. She has connected a tricorder to a workstation and is staring at a holographic image of Icarus being pursued by drones towards the Gla'hua mothership, with data showing the lines of connection between the mothership and drones.
"Is that their current position?" Alomar asks.
"No," Rashid replies. "I believe this was about fifteen minutes ago." She turns to him. "You think we should go help them."
He nods. "Two ships are better than one. And we could be there very quickly."
She peers at the hologram. "I completely understand. But believe me, Tomas, there's only one way to help them. Things can only happen the way they happen."
"I have noticed that, since we rescued you, you've been fond of that particular tautology."
"Have I? Picked it up from a friend."
The simulated lines suddenly blink green one by one. Rashid smiles. "Excellent. Tomas, let's go to the bridge. Do you mind grabbing that tricorder?"
He takes the tricorder and is overwhelmed by a powerful stench. "Dios mio. Where has this tricorder been?"
"The most secure place on the ship," Rashid says, walking ahead of him. "Pon's mud storage unit."
They ride the turbolift to the bridge. Alomar says, "You seem very certain of what is to come."
"I am," she answers. "At least, up to a certain point. Beyond that…" She trails off.
He nods. "I think I am beginning to understand all of this."
The door opens. Rashid takes the tricorder and connects it to the helm. "Computer, download program Rylek Zeta-3."
"I don't know about this program," the computer says. "The timestamp is impossible, and the program itself is crazy."
"Just do it."
Alomar says, "I can't understand why you use that Tellarite behavioural subroutine."
"Oh, the computer? She's fine. We just like to joke around with each other." Rashid enters some commands into the helm.
"You do realize this is the ship's computer you are talking about."
She does not look up. "If it wasn't for her, I would have lost my mind more than I already have." She taps the console and looks up. "There. Now we wait."
He sits next to her at ops. "We will be entering undiscovered country for you soon, won't we?"
"Yes. Like I said, I have some idea of what's coming, but only up to a certain point."
"Are you afraid for our lives?"
She looks into his eyes. "To some extent. But really… I'm worried that none of it means anything. Our mission, our lives, the Federation itself. What are we really doing here?"
"We're explorers, on a very important mission to learn about the final frontier of the galaxy."
"I used to believe that, Tomas. I did. But now… now I feel like we're just playing out this pre-ordained script."
"It is common for temporally displaced persons to experience difficulty coping with their experiences. The human mind did not evolve to deal with time travel and its rather… disturbing implications." He leans forward. "But you felt that you had a very specific script to play out, did you not?"
"Yes. That woman I met… who I found so long ago in that escape pod, who I cajoled and screamed at to give me some hint of what was to come… after you found me, I had to become her. I had to. Because everything we experienced out here – they're still just barely hanging in, and there's so little margin for error. If I'd made even a tiny change from what I'd seen that other woman do, we could have lost everything."
"It's funny," Alomar says. "We met because of theatre. You were always a great actress."
"Well now that I'm on the other side, and I've seen my past self saying the things I said – she was acting just as much as I was. Same with the battle with the Gla'hua. She's acting. She tries to be a captain, but she's – I was really, really scared, but terrified that if I let the crew know it, everything will fall apart."
"Perhaps that's what it means to be a good captain. Perhaps duty is mostly theatre."
Rashid looks down. "Maybe. But if you strip away the theatre, the façade of being a captain, a leader, a respectable person, what's left? Just this organism, this chemical soup of neurons and contradictory impulses. We think our lives have a narrative, a purpose, but do they? Or are we just a set of chemical processes playing themselves out?"
"Take it from your doctor," he smiles. "I am deeply and intimately familiar with the chemical soup. That is what we are in a very real sense, but we are also human beings. Our choices and our relationships are real, and they matter."
She smiles back, weakly.
After a journey through the starlit corridors of the Gla'hua ship, Sparks follows Mab'aa and his small entourage of maintainers to an immense, spherical chamber. They emerge from a tall porthole into a wide catwalk which divides the sphere into an upper and lower hemisphere. The catwalk surrounds an inner sphere of water which is suspended in the center of the chamber, approximately a hundred meters in diameter. In the center of the water are a cluster of yellow, weakly glowing lights. A group of two dozen Gla'hua stand ahead of them, pikes in hand. Sparks recognizes the one at the front as the Decider.
"Decider," Mab'aa addresses hir, "Please allow me to access the Mind. I must read its patterns."
"No, Mab'aa. Your journey ends here. You and these Federation have disrupted the Equilibrium, and it must be restored."
Mab'aa steps forward. "You will not destroy me. The Outsiders have foreseen a purpose for me. I must read the Mind's patterns."
"No," repeats the Decider. "The hand-guiders and I have consulted with the memory-keepers. Disruption of the Equilibrium brings the wrath of the Outsiders. To placate them, we must destroy the intruders and the lie-tellers, and all those who bring discord. So has it always been, and so will it always be."
"Hang on," Sparks interjects. "What about my ship? Icarus is no threat to you or to the Equilibrium."
The Decider looks at him. "The Hand now strikes at Icarus. None can long resist its fury."
"Listen. You don't have to destroy us; there's a better way."
"It has been decided."
The Gla'hua raise their pikes. Mab'aa spreads hir arms wide. "You do not understand. All is transpiring as the Outsiders have foreseen it. I must access the Mind. Only then can the sickness be cured."
The Decider steps forward and cocks hir head. "Will you restore the Equilibrium?"
"As I have said," Mab'aa says, "there is no Equilibrium. All things die, even the Gla'hua. But this sickness is not the end of things."
"No, I cannot allow this." The Decider and the Gla'hua point their pikes forward.
"Wait wait wait," Sparks shouts, holding his hands in front of him. "This sickness. You said you consulted your memory-keepers. Has there ever been a sickness like this before?"
The Decider regards him warily. "There has not. But neither have there been intruders like you, Federation."
"Alright. I understand that you think we caused this, but I swear to you that we didn't. There's something else going on here, and we can get to the bottom of it. Together." He gestures to Mab'aa. "Mab'aa knows how to read the patterns, right?"
"That was Mab'aa's function, yes."
"Well, Mab'aa said that's what the Outsiders want. And maybe by restoring Mab'aa's function, you take a step towards restoring the Equilibrium."
"Mab'aa does not believe in the Equilibrium."
Sparks nods. "No, but you do. And what if Mab'aa can tell you something about the Mind that you didn't know before? You're the Decider – don't you want to have as much information as you can have before making a decision?"
The Decider turns to Mab'aa. "Very well. Fetch a node, and bring it to the Dry to read its patterns."
Mab'aa bows, and hir followers nod amongst each other in relief. Mab'aa walks towards the sphere of water and leaps into it, swimming towards the center. After a moment, s/he returns, holding one of the yellow lights. It is a globe approximately sixty centimeters across, and its yellow light dies out when Mab'aa rests it on the catwalk in front of the Decider.
"That globe," Sparks says softly to one of the other maintainers near him. "What is it?"
"It is a node of the Gla'hua's Mind."
Mab'aa places all four of hir hands on the globe, and its top hemisphere slides open. The globe projects a complex array of holographic symbols above it.
"You see," says Mab'aa. "The pattern is scrambled. It is nonsensical. This sickness affects all of the nodes."
"What has done this?" the Decider asks.
"It is the Outsiders. By observing us, they create us."
Just then, Mab'aa vanishes. The Decider looks around. "Mab'aa has invoked the Outsiders' anger! Destroy the lie-tellers!"
"No no no no! I've seen that node before!" Sparks says quickly. "We have one!"
"That is not possible," one of the maintainers says. "All the nodes abide with the Mind."
"It is true," the Decider says. "I have beheld the Mind myself."
"Well, somehow we have one."
"Is it on Icarus?"
"Not exactly. But we know where to find it. If you let my companions here and on Icarus live, I'll tell you where it is."
The Decider considers this for a moment. Then, "I am the Decider, and it is my function to make and execute decisions. This decision has been made." To the pike-wielding Gla'hua, "Kill these lie-tellers, but take the alien to Xu'ab. If there is any truth to his tale of an extra node, the Hand will coax it from him."
The Gla'hua open fire on Mab'aa's followers, gunning them down as they scatter and try to flee. One of the Gla'hua seizes Sparks, and he struggles against the alien's grip as they follow the Decider from the chamber.
"Susan, can you locate Isaiah?" Rashid asks, staring anxiously through the viewscreen at the looming Gla'hua mothership and drones zipping around them.
"Negative, Captain," Sorensen replies. "We can't scan through the hull."
"Captain," Avala offers, "I have an idea. I think we should be able to cut through the hull using the phasers and shoot a probe through, which we can use as a relay to lock on to his signal and beam him out. If we divert power to the phasers, I think we can cut through within thirty seconds."
"We'd be dead in half that time," Pon says. "Those drones may not be shooting at us now, but if we open fire on their mothership, you can bet your blue ass that'll change."
"Pon, focus on the task at hand," Rashid tells her. "What's the status on disabling the drones?"
Pon slams her fist on her console. "There's just not time! These frequencies are too complex. If I had a few hours to run a full analysis on the computer… You know, this would be a whole lot easier if we'd installed that transpectral imaging array like I suggested."
"Get started; it's our best chance right now," Rashid orders. She steps forward. "Any chance we can outrun them, Rylek?"
"It is doubtful, Captain. Even if we jump to warp, the drones would be able to destabilize our superspace field within seconds."
She paces back and forth. "What about the stealth system? That seemed to work before."
"The stealth system is only really effective if no one knows what to look for," Pon tells her. "I think they'd be able to configure their sensors to find us without too much difficulty. Unless…" She trails off.
"What is it?"
"The other ship, Captain. If we could jump to warp and immediately turn on our stealth system, while the other ship simultaneously appeared within their sensor range and dropped stealth mode, it would appear that we'd warped to their position, and the drones would probably go after them and we could make a break for it."
Rashid nods. "Good. So we need to get a message to them to coordinate this."
"Therein lies the problem," Pon says. "How do we get a message to them without giving away their existence?"
Sorensen suggests, "We could piggyback it on a subspace carrier wave. It would look like a background navigational signal."
"That would only work if they knew exactly what to look for," Avala replies. "They'd have to configure the sensors to detect it."
"But," Rashid points at her, "what if you configure the sensors now? If they are us in the future, won't they still be configured that way?" She pauses. "Or better yet… why not just leave a note?"
"A note, Captain?" Avala asks.
"Rylek," she says, "I want you to do a navigational program for the autopilot. Take the other Icarus' last known position, and plot a course that will take them out of warp near the edge of the Gla'hua's sensor range. Then download it into a tricorder. We'll leave the tricorder on the ship. Pon, what's the most secure place we can put it?"
"That would be my mud storage unit, Captain," Pon grins. "Can't let that rare vintage be exposed to the normal pressures of life aboard a starship. It has its own built-in climate control and shielding. I designed it myself."
Rashid makes a face. "Alright…. Well, as long as it's secure there. Set the program to –"
"And," Pon interrupts, "We can download our sensor telemetry for the drones on there as well. Alomar and the other Rashid have lots of time over there; they can run an analysis so that they can disable all the drones as soon as they drop out of warp!"
"Make it so," Rashid tells her.
Rylek asks, "It will be necessary to set the program so that the other Icarus arrives at the precise time index that we activate our stealth system. When should I program the other Icarus to arrive?"
"Well…" Rashid begins. "I guess sooner is better."
"Captain, aren't we putting a lot of faith in a temporal paradox here?" Sorensen asks. "What if the other Icarus doesn't arrive? We'll be an easy target for the Gla'hua."
Rashid sits. "I share your concern. But we don't have a lot of options right now. And so far, all evidence suggests that they are who they say they are." She rotates the chair. "Mab'aa, do you have any insight into this?"
"Things can only happen the way they happen," Mab'aa replies.
Rashid stares at hir for a moment. "That's… a bit cryptic."
"What I mean is that I have seen you in the realm of the Outsiders. This suggests to me that you have the same power as them."
"And what power is that?"
"Power over time." Mab'aa stares at her intently. "My people fear time. Time's linear march is anathema to the Equilibrium, and thus to us. But the Outsiders understand time, and thus have mastery over it. They can observe past and future, and by observing it, they create it. Through your understanding of time, you have that power as well."
"Whole lot of nonsense, if you ask me," Pon growls.
"Maybe not," Rashid counters. "Think about it scientifically. Ever since we encountered that other ship, we've been developing theories as to how it got here. Well, time travel is our best theory so far. You said yourself that it's likely that the Outsiders have time travel abilities. Since we know time travel is in play here, it stands to reason that that's how the other Icarus got here. Have we seen anything yet to disprove it?"
Pon and Sorensen shake their heads.
"Then we're not putting faith in a time paradox; we're trusting the evidence. And we're trusting ourselves to interpret it accurately. We're scientists. That's what we have to do. It's our best chance of getting out of here."
Sorensen nods. "Alright."
Rashid turns to Rylek. "Set the time index for thirty seconds from my mark. Then download the programs, and prepare to go to warp and engage the stealth system. Don't take us far; in fact, keep us within five hundred klicks of the Gla'hua mothership. I don't want to create any more of a warp trail than we need to."
"Course laid in, Captain," Rylek says.
They sit in a tense silence for a moment. Rashid says to Pon, "And don't forget to put that tricorder in your storage unit after this is done."
"Don't worry," Pon replies, her eyes wide.
Rylek announces, "Engaging warp engines…. Now."
The viewscreen flashes briefly, then returns to the sight of the Gla'hua mothership. Avala says, "Stealth system engaged."
"It worked!" Sorensen grins. "The other Icarus has arrived. The drones are heading for them… getting closer… they've disabled the drones!"
"Shall I plot a course away from here, Captain?" Rylek asks.
"No. Keep us close to the mothership. Divert power to phasers and ready a probe. It's time to get Isaiah out of there."
"I don't think that's a good idea," Pon counters. "We should make a run for it; this may be our only chance to get out of here. I've detected a supermassive black hole which we could reach within two minutes at maximum warp. Our engines can withstand the pressures a lot better than they can. They'd be idiots to follow us."
Rashid looks at her. "I appreciate your suggestion, Commander, but we're not leaving without Sparks. Avala, ready phasers."
"Captain," Pon protests, "they can still use that energy coil, and who knows what else. We need to cut our losses and get out of here, or we'll lose the ship."
"My order is final. Fire on my mark…"
Pon stands up. "Let me remind you that with Commander Sparks gone, I'm acting first officer. Under Starfleet regulations, if the captain has become emotionally compromised, I have the authority to relieve her of duty –"
"Stand down, Pon." Rashid stands and faces her. "You're crossing the line."
"No. You're emotionally compromised. You can't handle the thought of losing one of your crew on your first mission." She steps close to Rashid. "If you can't make the hard decisions, you are unfit to command this ship."
The two women stand eye to eye as the crew watches in uncomfortable silence. Rashid says, very softly, "Look around you, Pon. Look at the crew. Who do you think they're going to side with? Which of us has wasted no opportunity to alienate everyone on this ship?"
The Tellarite's dark eyes glance at Sorensen, Avala, Rylek. Avala reaches for her phaser.
"There's a reason you're not in command of this ship, Pon," Rashid continues in a low voice. "You may have built this ship. You may be indispensable to this mission. You may be one of the best scientific minds in the Federation. But there's more to being a Starfleet captain than all of that. You need to inspire loyalty. The crew needs to know that when things get tough, you'll fight for them with everything you've got. And if there's a chance that we can rescue Commander Sparks, we've got to take it. I can tell you that everyone here agrees with me. So, I'll say it one more time: stand down, or I'll have you confined to quarters."
"You can't. You need me."
They stare at each other for another moment. Then Pon looks down. "Very well, Captain." She mutters something about humans in Tellarite and skulks to her seat.
"Avala, phasers. Fire."
The ship's phasers begin to bore a hole into the hull of the inner sphere of the Gla'hua ship. The outer coil begins to crackle, and the ship rotates away.
"Stay with them, Rylek," Rashid says.
"Energy buildup in the coil, Captain," Sorensen reports.
"Adjust shield harmonics to compensate."
A bolt of red energy shoots from the coil at the shields. The ship rocks under the barrage.
"Shields at 70%... 55…" Avala says.
"Shields down to 20%," Avala continues. "We're almost there… wait! Shields are back up to 40%."
"I'm using the deflector array to repolarize the shields," Pon growls. "It won't last long, so work fast."
"I'm through!" Avala shouts.
"Susan, fire the probe!" Rashid orders.
"Probe away." She peers at her readouts. "Got it. I've locked on to his comm signal."
"Drop shields and energize on my mark. Then get us out of here towards that black hole, maximum warp."
"Aye, Captain," Rylek replies.
The lights flicker and sparks fall from the ceiling when the shields drop. Then, with a hum, the ship slingshots around the mothership and enters warp.
"Did you get him?" Rashid asks Sorensen.
"That's a negative. I got his comm badge and what's left of his environmental suit," Sorensen answers, swallowing hard. "Sorry."
Avala looks down. Rashid says, "You tried."
Avala's console beeps. "Captain, they're coming after us. The mothership is."
The viewscreen shows the mothership close behind them. Sorensen reports, "Looks like they're using some kind of slipstream drive."
"Take us toward that black hole and get us as close to it as we can safely."
A blast of energy rocks the ship. "Arriving at the singularity, Captain," Rylek announces. "Dropping out of warp."
A thin, reddish corona of light surrounds the pitch-black sphere which fills their viewscreen, absorbing the light of the dense stars all around them. Icarus speeds toward the object, with the Gla'hua mothership close behind, firing towards them. The energy dissipates as it is drawn toward the black hole.
"Take us to the edge of the event horizon," Rashid orders.
"Taking us in," Rylek repeats. The bridge shudders under the gravimetric stresses; a bulkhead breaks loose from the ceiling and crashes to the floor near Rashid's chair.
"Sir," says Sorensen, "We're being bombarded with Epsilon radiation. The shields aren't keeping all of it out."
"It'll keep the Outsiders away," Rashid observes wryly. "What about the mothership?"
"They're still coming," Avala replies.
"Gla'hua ship: this is Captain Rashid. Cease your pursuit immediately. Your ship can't withstand the gravimetric forces here."
"This is the Decider. You cannot escape the Hand of the Gla'hua. The Equilibrium must be restored."
"You are a fool!" Mab'aa shouts. "You will bring about the end of the Gla'hua."
"The decision is made."
"They've closed the channel," Avala says. "They're still coming… wait. They're slowing."
"Get us away from them," Rashid orders.
Icarus continues forward past the black hole as the mothership gradually slows and begins drifting deeper toward the event horizon.
Sorensen reports, "It looks like they're being pulled into the singularity."
"It must not happen this way!" Mab'aa says, fidgeting anxiously. "We must do something."
"We've got another problem, Captain," Pon announces. "I cross-referenced the time index on the other Icarus computer with the rate of decay in their dilithium reserves. By my calculation, the cyberattack that shut down their computer – that's going to happen to us within twenty-five minutes."
"Why are you only telling me this now?" Rashid demands.
"I thought we'd be dead by now," Pon snaps back.
"Is there any way we can help the Gla'hua escape from the gravitational well?"
"If I went over there, I might be able to reconfigure their slipstream drive to help them break free. I doubt they'd welcome our assistance, though."
"Mab'aa, what do you think?"
S/he is still staring awestruck at the mothership drifting slowly into oblivion. "The Decider has taken a path far more dangerous than I ever thought possible. But still, hir purpose is to maintain the Equilibrium. S/he may listen to reason, now that the error of hir ways is manifest."
"Channel open," says Avala.
"Gla'hua ship. You are in grave danger. We can help you. Let us send our engineer to your ship to help reconfigure your engines."
"No…" comes the reply. "All is lost."
Mab'aa steps forward. "All is not lost, Decider. The Outsiders have shown me the end of the Gla'hua, but it is not this way. You may still save the Gla'hua. You may still restore your Equilibrium. Let these people help – it is your only chance."
After a long pause, the Decider asks, "Why would you do this, after all we have done?"
"It's the Federation way," Rashid answers. "We value all sentient life."
"Very well. Send your engineer."
Pon stands, and Rashid turns to Mab'aa. "Go with her."
The alien bows hir head. "You are truly an enlightened people."
"What kind of people would we be if we let a civilization die?" To Sorensen, "Is the probe still in place?"
"Good. Beam them over. And configure the sensors to detect any temporal rifts. That will tell us when the Outsiders' cyberattack is coming."
Pon walks towards the turbolift, then turns. "You're sending another member of your crew onto that deathtrap."
"You're not arguing."
"No. I'm not." She looks into Rashid's eyes. "Don't forget about the cyberattack."
"Let me worry about that. Go help those people. And don't forget to put that tricorder in with your mud." She stares at the Tellarite. "Good luck, Commander."
She nods. "Captain."
"What are we going to see when we arrive?" Alomar asks.
Rashid stares at the viewscreen as the thick stars shoot past. "The Gla'hua mothership is being pulled into the event horizon. Pon is over there trying to help them reconfigure their engines to escape, but there's not much time. And Captain Rashid knows that a cyberattack is about to cripple Icarus and is trying to figure out a way to stop it."
"She won't, will she?"
Rashid shakes her head. "She shouldn't be trying to prevent it. She knows what she needs to do."
They drop out of warp. Icarus, scarred by disruptor fire and the stresses of the black hole, is holding position next to the Gla'hua ship, which is receding slowly into the black hole.
"Hail the other Icarus," Rashid tells Alomar.
Rashid sees her own face on the viewscreen. "Hello, Captain Rashid."
"Hello, Captain Rashid."
"You're trying to prevent the cyberattack. But you know that you can't."
"It'll cripple the ship. We can't help the Gla'hua if our main computer is offline."
"We can. You need to go help Susan."
Confused, the other Rashid looks at Sorensen. "She's right here."
"Only because you will help her."
On the screen, Rylek turns to his captain. "She may be correct, Captain. In Lieutenant Sorensen's memories, you persuaded the Outsiders to release her."
"But the Outsiders exist outside our timeline. How can I get to them?" Her eyes widen. "I have to take Icarus through the temporal rift once it opens. That's how you got thrown back in time."
Rashid nods. "The rift will be opening soon. You need to plot your course before the cyberattack hits."
The other Rashid looks at her crew. "Once the course is set, you have to stay and help the Gla'hua. Be ready to transport to the other ship on my mark." She turns to the viewscreen. "Lock on to their signals. We also have four injured Gla'hua in the transporter buffer; I'll transfer them to your ship as well." She looks into the eyes of her future self. "Looks like I'll have some time to myself, won't I?"
Rashid nods. "I wish there was another way."
"Well, it's like Mab'aa said: things can only happen the way they happen."
Alomar turns to Rashid. "I'm detecting a temporal anomaly."
Rashid looks at her counterpart. "Are you getting this?"
"Yes," she answers, standing over Sorensen and watching her readouts. "Position confirmed."
"Course laid in, Captain," Rylek says.
The Rashid on the damaged ship says, "Alright, all of you: get to the other ship. I'll see you all very soon."
Rylek stands and gives the Vulcan salute. Avala hugs her and says, "Good luck."
"Thanks. And say hi to Isaiah, when you find him."
Sorensen hugs Rashid as well. "Thank you. Thank you for doing this."
"It's nothing, Susan. Just promise me you'll find me."
"I will. I already have." She steps back and faces the viewscreen. "We're ready. Three to beam up."
Alomar activates the transporter control. "Got them, Captain. And the Gla'hua are in the pattern buffer."
Rashid watches as her double pilots Icarus towards the subspace rift. The lights flicker. "Their main computer is failing," Alomar reports.
Then the other Icarus travels through the rift, and both disappear.
The door slides open and the crew enter. Rashid stands and cedes helm control to Rylek, and smiles. "Great to see you all again."
Avala looks around. "This Icarus is in such good shape now!" Her console beeps as she sits. "I'm getting a transmission from the Gla'hua ship, audio only."
"Put it through," Rashid says as she tugs her uniform top down and sits in the captain's chair.
"Is this Icarus?" the Decider asks. "The Gla'hua's eyes are deceiving… we saw two of you…"
"It's a long story," Rashid says. "What's your status?"
Mab'aa's voice says, "Captain Rashid, we have been told by Lieutenant Pon that we need to restore full power before we break free. She says we need to bring the Mind – what you would call the main computer – back online. And the Decider told me that you have a node of the Mind, which may be able to restore our systems."
"Mid-sized, bluish-grey sphere?" Rashid asks.
"That is it. I cannot imagine how it has come into your care, but if you have it, we must connect it with the Mind so it can restore the patterns. Our transporters are down, so you must bring it over yourself."
"We'll do that right away," she tells him.
The Decider says, "We are forever in your debt. Also, I must tell you that your Commander Sparks is alive. But he is in the custody of Xu'ab and the hand-guiders, and I fear they may kill him soon. They no longer obey my command; they consider me a lie-teller."
"Still, that's good news that he's alive. Stand by for transport," Rashid says. To Sorensen, "Can you get us aboard the ship?"
"I can get you aboard, to the area where I found Sparks' things," she says, "But beyond that, I don't have any kind of accuracy. Once you're there, you'll have to make your way on your own. The environmental suits have pattern enhancers, though – if you take those with you, I'll be able to lock on to your position."
"Good. I'm going to rendezvous with Mab'aa and get to their computer core. It's too dangerous to take that node with me – once I give you the signal, transport it to my position." She turns to Avala. "Vanda, Tomas, I want you to beam over and find Isaiah. Susan, you have the bridge."
The crew nods. Sorensen says, "Make sure you take environmental suits in case you need them. It looks like about 65% of the interior of that ship is water, and I'm detecting some hull breaches."
"Acknowledged." Rashid, Alomar, and Avala enter the turbolift and leave the bridge.
After a moment, Rashid's voice says, "Ready to transport."
Sorensen replies, "Energizing."
She sits back in her seat. Rylek asks, "Did they arrive?"
"They did. So now, we stand by, I suppose."
"Indeed." He studies his console. "It is a welcome reprieve."
"Yes." She drums her fingers. "I can't believe that temporal paradox thing worked. You leaving that program in the tricorder. I thought we were done."
"Temporal mechanics are complex. But they do possess their own internal logic."
"That's true." She looks at him. "Do you know what I was thinking?"
"I thought, 'Well, we might die here, but at least I won't have to talk to Rylek about the mind meld.'"
Rylek's mouth almost twitches into a smile. "I had a similar thought process. Again, Lieutenant, I am deeply sorry about my lack of expertise…"
"No, no, Rylek, that's what you get when you start poking through my messed-up mind. I should have warned you."
"Well, you need not be embarrassed. After all, you have witnessed some rather… personal details of my life as well, and have seen how dysfunctional I am. Perhaps we both require counselling."
She smiles. "I think you're probably right."
They sit in silence. Then Sorensen says, "And you know, I think you were right about what you said, before the meld."
"You're a damn good pilot, even if you're not the most Vulcan-ish Vulcan. But I'm glad about that too. You don't use logic as an excuse for being an asshole."
He raises an eyebrow. "I try not to." He pauses. "I am glad you are here, Susan."
"I'm glad you're here too, Rylek."
Rashid, Alomar, and Avala, clad in environmental suits and carrying phaser rifles, materialize in a room on the Gla'hua mothership. One wall is an open porthole, outside of which they can see the starlight distorting into a dull reddish haze surrounding the looming black hole. There are containers around the room, many of them spilled, leaving strange implements strewn across the floor. The Decider, Mab'aa, and several other Gla'hua stand in front of them.
"Good. You have arrived," the Decider says. "You are in Dry Storage. Commander Pon is sending you the layout of the Gla'hua, with your respective paths indicated. The way to Xu'ab and Commander Sparks will take you through Dry areas, but getting to the Mind will be more difficult."
Pon's voice comes over their comm units. "Like s/he said, getting to the Mind is going to be tough. There are massive internal hull breaches throughout the ship. You'll have to go through some dry areas, some areas of vacuum – and to make matters worse, there's this huge internal ocean on this ship which has broken out of its holdings and is now flowing through large parts of the ship, carrying chunks of debris with it. And the gravity is all over the place."
"Understood," says Rashid. "Lucky thing I've spent the better part of the last few months in environmental suits."
"Huh. Yeah. I forgot about that. Well then, you'd better get moving before things get worse. I'll be monitoring your progress, and will let you know what to expect."
"Thanks, Pon. Stand by." She sets down her phaser rifle. To Avala and Alomar, "Go get Sparks, and be quick. Leave the suits for now – you'll move faster without them. But don't forget to take the pattern enhancer unit."
"And beware the hand-guiders," the Decider warns.
"Damn it, I'm a doctor, not a commando!" Alomar swears. He looks at Rashid. "Good luck."
"To both of us."
The Decider says, "I will return to my interface. Alert me when the Mind has been cured, and I will follow Commander Pon's instructions. Mab'aa will take you as far as s/he can."
"Good. Let's go."
Rashid follows Mab'aa through winding, rounded corridors illuminated by phosphorescent algae. From time to time, the ship shudders under the gravimetric stresses of the singularity. In the background is a dull roar which becomes louder the further they go.
"That's the water, isn't it?" Rashid asks.
"The current is too strong for me," Mab'aa replies.
"What will happen when this is over? Can you repair the damage?"
"The fixers will heal the Gla'hua, but it will take time. The Gla'hua has never been wounded this deeply in memory."
They reach a large door which seals the corridor. Pon's voice says, "There's vacuum beyond that airlock. Tell Mab'aa to program it to open, and then to get the hell out of there. You'll be sucked through as soon as it opens, so be ready."
"Understood." She turns to Mab'aa. "Set it to open, then hang on to something."
Mab'aa manipulates controls on the door, then steps back twenty meters and attaches hir mouth to the algae on the wall. The door opens, and Rashid is thrown forward through the door, down a long, pitch-black corridor. She uses the jets on her arms so that she is travelling feet-first, then activates the jets on her boots to slow herself. Eventually the air dissipates and she magnetizes her boots to the wall.
"Alright," continues Pon. "Now you're going to go forward about five hundred meters."
"Got it." Rashid de-magnetizes, and activates the jets to propel herself down the corridor.
"Careful," Pon warns. "You might –"
Rashid crashes up to the ceiling of the corridor with a loud thud that reverberates through her suit.
"– find that the gravity is a bit erratic in there."
"Thanks, Pon," Rashid says, picking herself up and walking along the ceiling. She scans ahead of herself. "I'm reading another airlock ahead of me."
"Don't go through there. Your best bet is actually to cut through the floor and go down a level. But once you do, things might get a bit… moist."
"I hate that word," Rashid says, training her glove phaser on the floor and firing.
"It's a great word in Tellarite," Pon taunts her. "Moist moist moist."
Rashid's phaser beam cuts through the floor, and a massive spray of water erupts into the corridor, eerily silent in the vacuum. She shields her faceplate. Fragments of the floor begin to tear off, narrowly missing her. "Where am I going?"
"Downstream. You'll have to be careful not to damage your suit. You won't be able to see much, so rely on the tricorder to see what's ahead of you. I estimate you'll be going at about ninety kph, for a total of about three klicks. Then you'll enter the central axis of the ship."
"Alright, I'm taking the plunge."
"Stay away from the walls!"
Rashid walks towards the breach in the floor and climbs through head-first. She is immediately thrust forward in the fast current. The roar of the water fills her ears. With her glove and boot jets, she makes micro-corrections to stay in the center of the corridor, her heart pounding in her chest.
"Ninety-degree turn to the left, coming up!" Pon warns her.
Rashid brings her arms ahead of her and activates her glove jets at full power to keep from crashing into the bulkhead, then swings her legs to the right and activates her boot jets, propelling herself to the left with the current.
"Nice one," Pon tells her. "Your muscles will be killing you tomorrow. Know what's great for sore muscles? Mud."
"Less than an hour ago you were trying to relieve me of command," Rashid says, dodging a broken airlock, "and now you want to share your mud with me?"
"Yes. Well, it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. That sort of thing happens all the time on Tellarite ships." There is a hint of sheepishness in Pon's voice. "You're reaching the central axis. Once you do, you'll need to go against the current."
Rashid is carried out into a wide, vertical cylindrical area full of fast downward-flowing water. She magnetizes her boots and gloves to the wall.
"All you need to do is get across to the other side and upstream by about a hundred meters. That's where I am." She pauses. "And I hope there are no hard feelings about what happened."
Rashid climbs along the wall against the current. "I'll tell you what," Rashid says, firing her phaser to deflect a falling piece of bulkhead. "Once we get back, you and I are going to have a long talk. In the mud."
"Really?" Pon asks excitedly. "I tell you, once you've been in the mud, everything about Tellarite culture will make sense to you."
Rashid activates her boots to leap across a breach in the wall, then re-magnetizes. Suddenly, she is struck from above by the body of a Gla'hua and knocked free. Struggling against the current, she uses her boot jets to slow her fall, then angles herself towards the wall and re-magnetizes.
"Are you alright?" Pon asks.
"Just fine, just fine." She does another short burst of jets to propel herself along the wall. "I'm almost there."
"Good. Activating the airlock."
A door slides open, and Rashid propels herself towards it, seizing its lower edge with her glove. She pulls herself upwards onto a catwalk in a dry area. There is a sphere of water with yellow lights in the center. Half a dozen Gla'hua bodies lay off to one side.
"Rashid to Icarus. Susan, I've made it. Beam the globe to my location."
Rashid takes the globe and steps forward into the sphere of water. As she propels herself forward, the globe in her hand begins to glow yellow, and suddenly snaps forward to connect with the cluster of similar globes in front of her. They change colour and glow a bright white.
"Rashid to Pon. It's done. I think the Mind has been reactivated."
"Power is coming back online. Nice work, Captain. You never cease to amaze."
"I told you, it's on the second Icarus! Let me contact my ship – we can help you!"
Sparks is haggard and worn from Xu'ab's interrogation. His hands are bound behind him by a black, gelatinous mass affixed to a rail at the edge of a catwalk. The catwalk surrounds a vertical passageway. When Xu'ab took Sparks here, it was filled with still water held by gravitational forces into a cylindrical shape, allowing the Gla'hua to travel up and down between decks, but now the water rushes downwards behind him. The room is circular, approximately fifteen meters in diameter, with a broken, partially open door opposite Sparks.
Xu'ab towers over him. "It is too late for that, Federation. You have disrupted the Equilibrium and poisoned the Mind of the Gla'hua."
"That wasn't us!" Sparks protests.
"Do not lie to me!" Xu'ab roars, jabbing Sparks in the gut with an ornate silver pike. Electricity courses through his body, and he cries out in pain.
"I'm telling you the truth!" he gasps. "Listen to what I'm saying."
"All of this is your doing. You come here, you bring ruin to the Gla'hua." Xu'ab shocks him again, and he grits his teeth.
"I…" he groans, spitting blood onto the catwalk. "I don't think you care whether I'm telling you the truth or not."
"I already know the truth."
"Then why am I here?" The ship shudders, and water sprays over Sparks. "What do you want me to say, Xu'ab?" he shouts.
"Tell me how to restore the Equilibrium!" Xu'ab snarls.
"You know I can't tell you that!"
Xu'ab holds the pike to Sparks for a long time, and his uniform begins to burn as his body spasms. Eventually, s/he draws the pike aside, and Sparks' head lolls to one side, eyes wide.
"You Federation are not like us," Xu'ab says slowly. "You live meaningless half-lives, devoid of purpose. Of the Equilibrium. Of anything larger than yourselves." Sparks coughs up blood. "You cannot know what eternity means, what it means to be part of a larger life. You live half-lives, just as you live in the Dry but not the Water. Let me show you how empty your life is."
S/he seizes Sparks' throat with one hand, and pushes him backwards so that his head is under the rushing water. After a long moment, Xu'ab pulls him back out, and Sparks coughs uncontrollably.
"I think," Sparks wheezes, "I think this isn't about… about the Equilibrium at all. This is about you." He looks up. "You don't give a damn about your people, your ship. You never have." He coughs up water, then says slowly, "Your ship is falling apart, but you're here. With me. Hiding. Hurting me so you can feel like you have some last shred of power. You are a coward. You… you are purposeless."
Xu'ab shoves him under the running water again. He shuts his eyes against the water's force, trying to hold his breath, struggling. Then Xu'ab's claw releases around his neck, and he falls forward, gasping. There is phaser fire coming from outside the door.
"Stay here and hold them off!" a woman shouts.
He opens his eyes. Avala climbs through the broken door, phaser rifle in hand. Her antennae point towards Sparks.
"Let him go."
Xu'ab steps forward, and she opens fire. The phaser bursts bend toward Xu'ab's pike and are absorbed into it. With a hiss, Xu'ab returns fire, and Avala runs along the catwalk, dodging. A blast from Xu'ab's pike clips her shoulder, and she drops the phaser rifle. It clatters towards Xu'ab.
Summoning all his strength, Sparks leans backwards over the rail and kicks Xu'ab hard with both feet. The alien falls forward, dropping hir pike. Avala rolls to her feet, facing Xu'ab, poised in a ready stance. Xu'ab charges towards her, but she hops to one side, then leaps onto Xu'ab's back, wrapping her arm around hir neck in a choke hold.
The Gla'hua hisses and grasps at her, hir claws tearing her uniform. Then s/he falls and rolls onto her back, and Avala pushes herself off hir in time to narrowly avoid being crushed. She scrambles for the pike as Xu'ab rolls back to hir feet and grabs Avala's boot. Her fingers wrap around the end of the pike as Xu'ab pulls her towards hir. Avala rolls onto her back beneath Xu'ab, who reaches for her with all four hands, claws extended. She brings the pike up into Xu'ab's underbelly, and Xu'ab is thrown backwards, landing on hir back. Avala climbs to her feet and holds the pike ahead of her.
Thrashing hir tail, Xu'ab roars and returns to hir feet once more and lunges at Avala. She jumps to one side and brings the pike against Xu'ab's flank, unleashing another electrical shock. Xu'ab collapses, and Avala continues to hold the pike against the spasming alien, gritting her teeth. Eventually, Xu'ab is still.
Breathing heavily, Avala drops the pike and brushes her hair from her eyes. Then she rushes to Sparks, kisses him deeply, then takes the phaser rifle and fires at the gelatinous material holding his hands. It dries, and he breaks his hands free and collapses on the catwalk.
"Come on," she says. "Alomar is outside." She wraps his arm around her shoulders and carries him to the doorway. Alomar is crouched behind a piece of rubble, exchanging fire with a group of Gla'hua.
"I've got him," she gasps.
Alomar taps his comm badge. "Alomar to Icarus. We have Sparks. Lock on to my signal and beam us up."
They dematerialize. Moments later, water rushes through the corridor.
"Rashid to Pon. It's done. I think the Mind has been reactivated."
"Power is coming back online. Nice work, Captain. You never cease to amaze."
Pon turns to the group of brown-scaled Gla'hua surrounding her. "Did you hear that? We have power. What's our status?"
One of the Gla'hua examines a readout at the base of a structure which supports a series of interlocking rings which glow a bright scarlet. "The Fin is returning to full capacity."
"Yes, the Fin, the Fin," grumbles Pon, striding towards the structure. "It's a gnarfing slipstream engine! I feel like I'm violating the gnarfing Prime Directive by helping you people." She shoves the Gla'hua aside. "Setting the drive to maximum output."
The ship shudders. One of the other Gla'hua announces, "The Gla'hua remains in the grip of the Old One."
"Alright, we need to divert all available power to the slipstream drive. Get it from sensors, weapons, life support if you have to."
The Gla'hua gape at her. "We must not interfere with the operation of the Hand and the Eye. It is not our function."
"WELL MAKE IT YOUR GNARFING FUNCTION!" Pon bellows. The Gla'hua get to work.
"Commander Pon, sir," ventures the Gla'hua she had previously pushed from the console. "If I may… the Mouth of the Gla'hua – what you call the power coil – I believe there is energy at the edge of the event horizon on which it can feed. If we open the Mouth, we can draw on that energy."
Pon looks at the alien. "Energy collectors. Yes. Do it."
She steps aside and the young Gla'hua taps the controls. The power coil crackles to life, increasing their output. The ship shudders violently, and the scarlet rings glow brighter and spin around each other with increasing speed.
"Make sure the structural integrity field holds!" Pon shouts. "Or the bones, or whatever the hell you call it."
"The Fin is nearly exhausted!" the young Gla'hua says.
"That's alright, we're just about there… just about…"
And suddenly, the ship is thrown loose from the gravitational well and spins end over end away from the singularity.
"The Fin is exhausted," the Gla'hua reports.
"That's alright – you've done it!" Pon claps hir on the back. "What's your name, kid?"
"Lu'ga'a, sir," s/he says.
"Well, Lu'ga'a, I believe there may be hope for your species yet." She turns to the other Gla'hua. "Congratulations, all of you – you've saved your civilization from extinction. Give yourselves a round of applause, slap your flippers… whatever it is you do."
They begin to chatter excitedly amongst themselves. One of them calls out, "And to you, Commander Pon, we owe a great debt. Your deeds will be the stuff of legend among the fin-guiders."
"Hooray." She taps her comm badge. "Pon to Rashid."
"Rashid here. Great work, Pon."
"Thanks, Captain. I'm bringing transporters back online."
"Great. Transport me to your position."
Rashid materializes next to Pon. Moments later, they are joined by the Decider and Mab'aa.
"Captain Rashid, Commander Pon," the Decider says, "We owe you a great debt –"
"You shut the hell up," Pon interrupts hir. "This entire situation was your fault. Flying that close to a black hole; what the hell were you thinking? You almost obliterated your entire species. If it were up to me…"
Rashid holds up her hand. "Enough, Pon." To the Decider, "You don't owe us anything. Will your people be able to repair the damage?"
The Decider bows hir head. "It may take many generations, but the fixers will make the Gla'hua whole once again."
"Good. I hope this can be the beginning of a long and positive relationship between the Federation and the Gla'hua."
"A new Equilibrium," Mab'aa muses.
"The Equilibrium endures forever," the Decider says. "We hatch, we eat, we shit, we spawn, we die. But we need not do so alone."
Rashid bows her head. "I am glad to hear that." She looks around. "But we need to return to our ship."
"Goodbye, Federation," says Mab'aa. "May your journey be a safe one."
"And yours," she replies.
"Remember that the fin-guiders saved your scaly asses," Pon growls to the Decider, "so maybe let them near the water a little more often. They're looking dry."
The Decider turns to the fin-guiders and bows to them, spreading hir hands. Rashid taps her comm badge. "Rashid to Icarus. Two to beam up." She shoots a look at Pon. "Energize."
"Come on, Captain, I'm only trying to introduce a little egalitarianism…" Pon mutters to Rashid as they vanish from the Gla'hua ship.
Icarus shudders as it passes through the temporal rift, and the helm control flickers in and out of existence under Rashid's fingers. Finally it abruptly comes to a halt, and she is thrown forward from her seat.
The damaged ship is still. She climbs to her feet and looks at the viewscreen. It is dark.
"Computer," she says, "damage report."
"This is the auxiliary computer. Main computer has been disabled by some kind of cyberattack. Extensive structural damage throughout the ship. Long range sensors offline. High levels of radiation detected. Get off the ship now."
"Oh god," Rashid says, "you're that Tellarite behavioural program that Pon installed."
"That's right," the computer replies. "The ship has become a deathtrap. Get off now."
"Sorry, but you're stuck with me for the time being," she tells it, sitting at the science console. "Can you activate the main viewscreen?"
"The viewscreen is one of the few systems that's actually working."
She stares at the pitch blackness on the screen. "Can you tell me where we are?"
"No. The stellar cartography data was in the main computer."
She runs a scan of her surroundings. "I'm not detecting any sign of stellar activity… wait, what's that?" She stares at her readouts. "Computer, what can you tell me about that object at bearing four two three, mark one?"
"That has to be a sensor malfunction."
"What do you make of it?"
"It looks like a massive singularity. Enormously massive. Approximately 9% of the mass of the entire Milky Way galaxy. It's giving off large amounts of Hawking radiation."
"There's more, too," Rashid says, a look of confusion on her face. "It looks like the basic structure of matter is different here. I'm not detecting any baryonic matter anywhere." She freezes. "I remember this from advanced astrophysics at the Academy. This is part of the process of the heat death of the universe. I think we're in the distant, distant future."
"I have no way of confirming that," the computer says.
Her console beeps. "Wait a minute. There's something there. An object. Looks like some kind of remnant of the old universe. Computer, take us closer."
The ship hums as the impulse engines engage. The viewscreen remains unhelpfully dark.
"I don't believe it," Rashid says. "It's the Gla'hua ship!"
"Its power signature is extremely weak," the computer informs her. "It looks like most of the energy is powering some sort of structural integrity field which keeps its molecular structure intact. I'm not getting any lifesigns." Rashid's console beeps again, and the computer continues, "Correction: there is something going on aboard that ship."
"Take us in."
"I'm also detecting several more temporal rifts surrounding the ship. There are subspace signals travelling between the ship and the rifts."
"What are you detecting on board the ship?" Rashid asks.
"There are several unusual phenomena aboard. There are two different types of lifesigns on the ship, both very weak. One of them is probably embryonic Gla'hua stored in cryogenic suspension."
"A clutch of eggs," Rashid muses. "Maybe the last of their kind."
"The other is harder to explain. They could be biological lifeforms, but they seem to be suspended in some kind of subspace field."
"That could be Susan," she says. "I want to beam over to the ship."
"I don't know about that. There are some strange energy signatures which I can't identify."
"What kind of energy signatures?"
"They're highly localized, and they don't seem similar at all to anything else around us."
"Rylek suggested that the Outsiders could be non-corporeal entities," she says.
"It's a possibility."
"I'm going over there. Take us within transporter range, and beam me over."
"If you say so. But it's a bad idea."
"I didn't ask for your opinion. Remind me to disable your personality subroutines when I get back." She takes the turbolift to the transporter room and puts on an environmental suit, then enters a command into the transporter controls. She steps onto the platform. "Energize."
She materializes into total darkness, and her breathing is loud in her suit. She activates the light on her glove and shines it around. She is in the chamber of the ship which houses the Mind, but there is no atmosphere and no water. A cluster of dark nodes remain in the center of the chamber, and there are more sitting on the catwalk in front of her. As she moves the flashlight around the room, she sees several dark, semi-transparent shapes, approximately the size of a Gla'hua.
She sees a strange rippling out of the corner of her eye, and shines her light on it. Her tricorder shows that it is one of the energy signatures. It is roughly oval-shaped, approximately two meters tall. There are several more of the energy fields, and they are moving to surround her.
"Hello?" she ventures.
Can it perceive our presence? comes a voice in her mind.
How did it come to be here?
It travelled through the rift.
"Are you the entities the Gla'hua call the Outsiders?" she asks.
What is it?
It appears to be one of the beings from the Gla'hua computer's records. I believe it is one of the Federation. The ones who appeared during the Mind Sickness Event in the Gla'hua's historical record.
It is like the one whose memories we are reading?
"Susan?" she asks them. "Is she here?"
Has it come to retrieve its comrade?
That is the most plausible hypothesis.
She looks around. "Why have you taken her?"
Have we learned anything from our probe of their computer system?
We have not yet been able to process that information.
"Your probe disabled our computer system," she tells them. "And I think you disabled the Gla'hua's computer system the same way. This 'Mind Sickness Event' you were talking about – it's your doing."
Does it believe that we caused the Mind Sickness Event by our probe of their computer?
Impossible. We simply observe.
She looks around. "You're scientists, aren't you? You found the Gla'hua's historical record, and are studying the events from it. That's why the Gla'hua say that you appear whenever there's a disruption of the Equilibrium! Except that your methods are crude. You affect the timeline by doing it. Mab'aa was right – by observing the events, you create them."
Is it possible that it understands our purpose in studying this relic of the Epoch of Corporeal Lifeforms?
Doubtful. This being is simply a composite of biochemical processes. We have seen no sign of true consciousness. It is not like us.
Rashid rolls her eyes, and begins scanning the dark shapes. Her tricorder registers human lifesigns. "There. That's Dr. Sorensen?"
Has it found its comrade?
It would appear that it has.
"Send her back to the ship."
Suddenly, the Gla'hua ship begins to hum, and the Mind's nodes begin to glow yellow.
How has the ship reactivated itself?
It must have drawn power from this creature's ship.
It is beginning to move – where is it going?
It is heading towards one of the portals. The one which leads to the earliest point in the Gla'hua's historical record. We must leave this relic so that we are not taken with it to the early stages of the universe.
Should we return the specimens to their proper places in the timeline?
Yes. We do not have time to reactivate every rift – send them back to the closest available point in time to where we found them.
This Federation creature is troublesome – what else do we know of them?
Very little. Like all the species the Gla'hua encountered, they are a mere blip in the history of the Epoch of Corporeal Lifeforms. They are of no great significance.
Sorensen's shape disappears, along with the other lifeforms being held in subspace. The energy patterns also vanish. Rashid activates her comm unit. "Rashid to Icarus. Beam me up."
She takes one last look at the Gla'hua ship. Instinctively, she grabs one of the nodes.
Rematerializing in the transporter room, she sets down the node, takes off her helmet, and walks briskly towards the turbolift. "Report."
"The Gla'hua ship appears to have used drawn some of our power to reengage its basic systems. It is moving towards one of the rifts. Also, they appear to be sending the suspended lifeforms through various rifts. Some of the rifts are beginning to close."
"Deck 1," she says as she enters the turbolift. "I'm sending you the data I gathered over there, and flagging one of those lifeforms as Susan. Trace the rift she's been sent through; it may be our only chance to get home."
She reaches the bridge in time to see the Gla'hua ship, its power coil glowing a dull red, passing through one of the rifts.
The bridge changes to stellar cartography mode, which is eerily empty. The computer pings one of the rifts. "This is the rift they sent Susan through. But it's closing fast. We'll never make it through, even at maximum impulse."
"Shit. What about the other rifts? Try to find the one with the closest phase variance to that rift."
After a moment, the computer pings another rift, closer to them. "Here. This one is almost identical."
"Set a course, maximum impulse."
"I have to warn you that based on the data you sent me, we're dealing with massive periods of astronomical history here. That rift could still send you hundreds of thousands of years from your proper time period."
"No. It'll be close enough," Rashid says.
"How can you possibly know that?"
"Just do it."
They enter the rift, and the ship begins to shudder once more. Then it stops, and the familiar dense starscape fills the viewscreen.
"We've arrived. But with the main computer down, I can't tell you where – or when – we are."
Rashid smiles grimly. "It's alright. We're here."
"You also told me to remind you to disable my personality subroutines."
"I'll get around to it," she says. "But maybe you can keep me company until the crew finds me."
"I don't want to be demoralizing," the computer says, "but what makes you think the crew is going to find you?"
She walks towards the viewscreen and stares at the starfield. "They'll find me. Things can only happen the way they happen."
Captain's log, Stardate 136477.8. Dr. Alomar has treated the injured Gla'hua who were aboard our ship, and we've returned them to their mothership. We've left the Gla'hua and are now in orbit of a red dwarf, completing final repairs to Icarus. I am now faced with a choice which I never imagined I'd have to make during my long period of isolation – that despite everything that the crew and I have been through, we might actually be able to continue our mission.
"It's interesting," Alomar says as he stares at a medical tricorder. "When I was treating those Gla'hua, I discovered that they can actually never become unconscious. It is a fascinating adaptation to an environment where day and night have no meaning."
He is standing over Commander Sparks and running a dermal regenerator along his arm. Rashid, standing next to him, replies, "That explains why Mab'aa was aware of their presence while he was held by them, but Susan was not."
"Did you ever tell Mab'aa about your experience with them?" Sparks inquires.
"I tried to explain it all to him, but he didn't seem particularly interested. He seems to almost consider them gods, and that they'd chosen him for some particular purpose. Even though they probably picked him more or less at random for his familiarity with how their computer system worked."
"What was it that Arthur C. Clarke said?" Sparks asks. "That any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic?"
Alomar says, "The Gla'hua are a fascinating species. Where we are constantly seeking to better ourselves, they strive above all else to say the same. And yet there they were, at the very end of the universe."
"Mab'aa said that the ship had always existed. I guess, in a way, he was right – they went from the end of the universe back to the very beginning," Sparks says.
"It doesn't make any sense," Avala interjects, sitting on a biobed nearby. "Where did they come from originally? There must be some parallel timeline where they first evolved."
"Who can say?" Alomar closes his tricorder. "Well, Commander, I'm pleased to give you a clean bill of health. Make sure you get lots of rest over the next week."
"You know," Rashid says, "I promised Pon I'd join her for a mud session. I could really use a wingman."
"Tellarite mud is legendary for its therapeutic properties," Alomar tells them. "Although the aroma is somewhat of an… acquired taste."
Sparks looks at Rashid. "A wingman, eh? Is that an order?"
She smiles. "Consider it a favour. I'll owe you one."
He stands up and stretches, then winces. "Alright, I'm in." He looks at Alomar and Avala. "Any other takers?"
They look at each other. Avala smiles. "What does it say if you're willing to prescribe it but not experience it yourself, doctor?"
"Very well. Let's go."
They enter the turbolift. "Deck 3," says Rashid.
"There's another thing I don't understand," Avala says. "So the Gla'hua ship went through the rift to the distant past, and then maybe took those eggs out of stasis to restart the species. But how did the ship know to go through the rift? You said there weren't any living crew on board."
Sparks replies, "The Gla'hua seemed convinced that their ship was a living entity and they were all parts of its body. Maybe there's more truth to that than we thought."
The turbolift door opens and they walk to the lounge, covering their noses and mouths against the stench of the mud. Pon sits naked in a large, mud-filled tub in the center of the lounge.
She grins. "You're here! All of you! Join me – you won't regret it."
The crew looks at each other. "No backing out now," Rashid tells them, unzipping her uniform.
They take off their clothes and gingerly climb into the tub.
"Ahhh," Rashid says. "That's actually really, really nice."
"Would I lie to you, Captain?" Pon asks.
"No, Pon. If there's one thing I can say about you, it's that you're consistently, brutally honest."
"Thanks." She looks at the crew. "So? What are we talking about?"
Alomar leans his head back. "We were trying to puzzle through the temporal paradox that is the Gla'hua species."
"Ah yes. I'll tell you what I don't understand – Captain, how did you know to take that computer node? The other ship had gone through the temporal rift before we even knew what it was."
"I wasn't lying when I said I had no idea what it was," she tells them, eyes closed. "All I knew was that my future self thought it was really important. That's why I grabbed it from the ship in the future, and that's why I was so adamant that we needed it."
"There it is again!" Avala says, rubbing mud on her shoulders and face. "You got the information from your future self, then passed it on to your past self. Where's the causality?"
"Temporal paradoxes," Pon grins. "They're a bitch."
The comm beeps. "Sorensen to Rashid. Captain, I'm getting some fairly interesting data from one of our probes."
Rashid opens her eyes. "I'm in the common lounge right now, Susan. Why don't you come down here and tell me? Bring Rylek with you. The computer can take care of things for now."
"On our way, Captain."
"Which reminds me, Captain," Pon says, "you've reinitialized the computer's personality subroutines! I'm pleased, but I thought humans found Tellarite computers intolerable."
"Well, I guess we sort of bonded while I was stranded."
Pon looks around. "You're all becoming a bit more Tellarite all the time."
"God help us," Alomar says.
The door opens and Sorensen and Rylek enter, then stop in their tracks. Rylek's eyes are wide.
"Come on in," Rashid tells them. "Mud's great!"
The two look helplessly at each other. Avala smiles at Rylek and slides over to make a space next to her, patting the edge of the tub invitingly. Rylek looks at Sorensen. "Perhaps it is the logical course of action."
Sorensen looks around. "Alright… in the interest of crew bonding." They disrobe and climb into the tub.
"So, Susan, what have you got?"
"I was analyzing data from one of the probes, and there's no doubt about it. The first evidence of a Class M planet here in the Core. Not only that, but based on the subspace signals emanating from the planet, I'd say it's highly likely that there's an advanced civilization there. At Warp 3, we could be there in a little over a week."
The crew looks at Rashid. Alomar says, "Zia, you've been temporally displaced, you've endured long periods of isolation, and you've had a rather visceral experience of the death of the universe. It's enough to take a psychological toll on anybody. As your CMO and your friend, I suggest that you consider returning to Federation space for rest and counselling."
She looks at each one of them, silent for a long moment. "You're right that it's taken a toll on me, and I will definitely get counselling. I can't get out of my head what the Outsiders said – that we're just biochemical processes, that the Federation is just a blip in the history of the universe. I mean, I don't think they're any different themselves… but being there, at the end, in the total darkness where even the stars themselves are dead – it really drives that point home."
She takes a deep breath. "My husband's a painter. I used to get really frustrated because I couldn't understand his work. It was so abstract, so seemingly random. Eventually I worked the nerve to tell him that I didn't understand his art at all. And he told me that he was trying to express the fundamental paradox of life – that in a very real way, there is no deeper meaning to everything we perceive, that it's really all these random processes. But as sentient beings, we see it as meaningful, as art, as something that's beautiful."
She chokes up, and a single tear runs down her face. "What we're doing out here is something beautiful. Even this moment here, with all of you, is beautiful. You don't know how much I missed each one of you. And even if there's no deeper significance to the Federation, or to my life, I still want to spend it here, with you, learning a little bit more about this beautiful part of our beautiful universe." She smiles through tears. "So we'll set a course for that planet. We'll continue our mission."
Sparks, Sorensen, and Avala smile at her in silence. Rylek swallows hard. Alomar takes Rashid's hand and squeezes it.
"But really," says Pon, "all you need is mud."
Rashid gazes out the porthole. The dense starfield shines silently.
That's the end of Icarus, my attempt at envisioning what a new Trek miniseries would be like on contemporary TV. Let me know what you think! Perhaps Captain Rashid and the crew will return…