Walking behind Jimmy, I am led through nearly empty corridors of a starship that is at once real and surreal – a world inside a mirror without my reflection.
The first 15 hours passed as a progression of confusion and fear, while I lay in sickbay, convinced I was delusional or suffering from aberrations of brain injury or something worse.
The 'something worse' gnawed at me like an empty stomach; churning up a reflux of twisted thoughts and unreasonable fears while I was powerless to make the unrelenting torment cease. It taunted me as a frightful afterimage on my closed eyelids, hence the name of my serendipitous scientific discovery – Palinopsis Descartes Gedanken.
Twenty two hours can pass as an eternity when nothing is as it should be; when friends I have known for more than half my lifetime see me as a stranger; when the pain in my head and the fury in my ears threaten to obliterate my sanity...
As we enter the turbo lift, the security chief stands silent and solemn next to me. He's not spoken. He wouldn't. He knows nothing of me, but I know him – knew him. I wonder if he understands the quivering in my body is only partially due to the disastrous combination of meds the chief medical officer was forced to administer.
If I am able to leave this world, I have no guarantee the microbial hitch-hiker within me will provide the same portal back to the world where I belong. Calculated risk or blind faith, the difference matters little now. A difference that makes no difference is no difference.
After 15 hours swimming in a river of pain conjoined with fits of violence, like being saved from drowning in the Mississippi, I began to see a light through the murky water. The light appeared closer and brighter until it became the intensity of a neutron blast.
Our minds were joined. I knew. He knew.
Whether by sheer chance, or my body's adrenaline level, or due to his weakened state in the process of contacting my mind behind the madness – my training kicked in. I forced his hands away from my face and flung myself off the biobed, slamming my back against the bulkhead and sending him backside against the adjoining unit.
The heaving of his chest and stridor-like breathing indicating distress, I automatically moved to render medical aid. It was then I knew we were not alone in the sickbay. The others surrounded him before I made half the short distance.
In that moment, using the biobed to steady my body, I thought, 'I'm home.'
Wishful thinking. Even a cursory survey of the sickbay brought me back to…wherever here is.
Bleak is the best word I can use to describe it – no adornment on the walls, medical equipment that has not been updated in at least fifteen years, stark design and dreary color scheme.
I am not home.
While Spock repelled attempts by Kirk and McCoy to steady him, I suddenly and inexplicably wondered if the madness was a result of the pain in my head or the pain, which still persists on some level, a is a result of the madness. A few short taps on the antiquated medical scanner provided the answer.
It didn't take long for me to recognize the little rougarou as an ancient microbial life found entombed at one of the archeological sites on Q'a'ta'Orbin. Damn my hobby.
A different kind of fear gripped me as I remembered I was not on board the USS Enterprise-A – not in my world, not in my reality – another dimension.
In the next seven hours, the situation and the prognosis showed little improvement. Using a laboratory as poorly equipped as their sickbay, McCoy and his staff did what they could. Even my advanced knowledge did little to advance the effort.
Make no mistake. Their failure to reverse the effects of my predicament is in no way a reflection on their skill or dedication to the task.
This CSS Enterprise is, even here, the most coveted posting in their Star Coalition, offering the hand of friendship knowing it is likely to be returned with bite marks – the hand is offered nonetheless.
This ship orbits a dead planet enveloped in a beresium-poisoned atmosphere.
I am – she is – as dead as the Torbin who lived there.
At some point before she died, the galaxy of this dimension reached a cataclysmic point of divergence; perhaps rendering the choice she made to accompany the doomed research team to Exo III a natural byproduct.
But I digress. I am finding it difficult to assemble and organize the events of those 22 hours - there are hours I cannot recall, the combination of hydrocortilene and bicordrazine, no doubt.
A plan was set in motion. Likely Spock is the only other person on this ship who believes this bird has any chance of flying. This was not his scenario-of-first-choice. (Let us just say he offered a reasonably logical alternative and let it go at that.)
Before reaching the observation lounge, we pass a bulkhead where, on the USS Enterprise of my reality, carefully engraved plaques emblazoned with the names of honored dead are reverently placed – among them, Kevin A. Matthews and Jamison K. Rayburn, both killed in the line of duty, 2267.
As I stop, Jimmy finally speaks, "Commander, time is short." I cannot think he would have used those words if he had known how near the truth they are. With limited resources and time, I was presented with a choice between a chance to live a short life or a shorter life. Both scenarios carried the distinct possibility I would also die immediately.
To say there was no hesitation in my decision would be a lie – I did think about it for all of two seconds, possibly three.
And so, here at the wall, I find the same honor given to their dead, not with the same pomp and circumstance, but with the same reverence. Name, rank, and date of death were hand-etched onto dye cut circles of material scavenged from what I recognize is the most costly metal used in the construction of a starship. Somewhere on this ship is a bulkhead with a huge section cut out of it.
Unlike the wall on the USS Enterprise, Jimmy Rayburn's name is absent. In this dimension, he did not die on Exo III as a result of my stubborn quest.
He stands next to me, undoubtedly misinterpreting the tear running unchecked down my cheek.
Kevin's name is etched on the ninth medallion from the right, fifteenth row. If I am not responsible, how did he die? Did he live long enough to have a family? Does someone besides his father, and me, think of him?
Choices made can seem so frivolous in the wake of far flung and unintended results. To go or no to go…how much difference would it have made if I had reversed the decision in either dimension?
Regrets are oh so convenient, for we would rather blame ourselves than deal with the unknowable. How phenomenally conceited we can be – a revelation which we should all have the opportunity to confront.
We have arrived at the observation lounge where it began. James Kirk, captain of the CSS Enterprise stands at the view port studying the view of a planet shrouded in death, a planet that when I left it less than two days ago was thriving by comparison, even in its dire circumstance.
As Jimmy excuses himself and turns to leave I offer my hand. "Thank you Chief Rayburn, you have been very kind."
Understanding the gesture without need to know the reason, he shakes my hand before he leaves. Joining the captain of this vessel at the view port I can't help thinking of the last time I was here:
For the crew of the USS Enterprise, Q'a'ta'Orbin was an interlude in their lives, just as countless other planets had been for me during those many years I was nearly 'one of them.' Standing at the view port in the observation lounge, watching the planet as it began to appear smaller, I felt less one of them than ever. Even the soft sonata from Allie Gyers' piano could not make the Enterpris-A feel like home.
Every ship has its own soul, and the Enterprise I knew, soul and all, had exploded into oblivion five years ago; it had been even longer since I had felt the deck of that ship beneath me and heard the beat of its heart in time with mine.
I didn't notice the music had ceased until I felt Allie's presence at my side. For a few moments, we watched, saying nothing, as the planet became more distant.
As she turned to leave me with my goodbyes, Allie whispered in her soft Kentucky accent, "Don't stay here too long or McCoy will surely give you grief."
Without diverting my attention from the view port, I barely smiled and agreed with only a nod.
Closing my eyes, I savored the afterimage of Q'a'ta'Orbin, on its way to recovery and fully illuminated by its sun.
I was leaving it behind. I had left them in good hands. It was done.
I felt the subtle change in the ship as its velocity increased. Even without feeling its soul, I felt its…
Now, Kirk turns to me and asks, "Are you sure you won't stay? You could live longer here. Your chances of surviving at all are greater here. Spock tells me you could make a real difference – here."
"I have a responsibility to warn the others in my own dimension who might be affected, before they suffer my fate, before it is too late for them."
"I do understand that, Doctor Chapel. But no one will be served by your death and the possibility of that is even greater if you go through with this."
"Now you sound like your first officer. Believe me, Captain, he has given me the risk assessment and cold numbers…I've made my choice. Life, whether we like it or not, is defined by the choices we make, the large and the small. Hopefully, we make them on the best information available. But, no matter the basis, what matters most is how we deal with their aftermath. You, above all, should understand that."
"I am prepared for the consequences, Captain. I can't think you would make a different decision if you were in my place."
"Fair enough," he says, and realizing the window of opportunity will soon be upon us, he heads toward the turbo lift and then stops.
"He called me Jim. My brooding, remote, coldly logical first officer called me Jim. I've been trying to get him to do that for years. A few minutes in your mind and…What did he see?"
An unmistakably familiar gleam lights up his eyes when I answer, "Hope."