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The expression on Leonard McCoy's face as the doors to the bridge slide open to admit him is enough to make certain members of the crew squirm uncomfortably in their seats, but Spock merely regards the doctor's arrival with a smooth shake of his head.
"Let me guess," McCoy barks as he approaches the first officer. "It's Jim."
"That is correct, doctor."
McCoy reflexively pinches the bridge of his nose. "What sort of idiocy has the damn kid gotten himself into this time?"
"According to our only witness, he simply disappeared from the shuttlecraft."
McCoy starts. "Uh . . . excuse me?"
"An unknown form of subspace interference disabled the shuttlecraft during its descent through the planet's atmosphere. The Enterprise lost contact with the craft for approximately four hours immediately after the crash. Mr. Scott was able to reconstruct a primitive communications system and informed us of this situation only a few moments ago."
McCoy pinches with such ferocity that his head jerks away on instinct. "The shuttle . . . crashed?" A mask of horror crosses his face as the dredges of his aviophobia claw at the edges of his consciousness. "Damn," he mutters, in an effort to drive the images away.
"Mr. Scott appears to have been unharmed, but the remainder of the landing party remains unaccounted for."
"Not including Jim?"
"According to Mr. Scott, his disappearance occurred prior to the crash and seems to be a precursor to it."
McCoy shakes his head. "What? You're saying that one thing caused the other?"
"There is not factual evidence to suggest such, but it is not difficult to assume that the same interference that caused the shuttlecraft's failure also contributed to the captain's disappearance."
McCoy sneers despite himself. "Seems a little too neat and tidy for me."
"It is the simplest explanation, doctor."
"I know, Spock. I get it. 'The simplest explanation must be the right one.' It just seems a little too far-fetched for me that some sort of subspace interference is going to make a man simply vanish like that. Something just doesn't smell right."
"Doctor, it is impossible for—"
"It was a figure of speech, Spock."
If Spock is perturbed, he does not show it outright, and neither does the doctor portray any qualms about his forthright manner with a superior officer. The Vulcan learned many months ago that certain aspects of the militaristic nature of Starfleet were inevitably lost on Leonard McCoy.
"Regardless of your instincts, doctor, it is entirely possible for such interference to contribute to the situation. Most likely, it is a result of a spatial disturbance, or a weakening in the stream of space-time, though the fact that such an incidence did not register on our scanners is most unusual."
"Space-time . . . are you saying that Jim was somehow pulled into another friggin' universe?"
"That appears to be the general consensus, doctor."
"Dammit, Jim" McCoy mutters mostly to himself, "can't anything ever go right with you?"
"You are perturbed, doctor."
"Yeah, Jim has that effect on people," McCoy grumbles. To Spock, he adds: "So, what did you call me up here for? Other than to tell me what I already know?"
"As the chief medical officer of this vessel, your responsibilities—"
"Mr. Spock, I know that already."
McCoy can detect the gentle movement of Spock's eyes as the latter glances around the bridge. The crew members present are proceeding with their tasks almost too diligently, as if making a point to appear busy with work, and obviously the Vulcan is searching for a modicum of privacy.
"Come with me, doctor," and, without turning his head, he adds: "Mr. Chekov, you have the conn."
McCoy follows him into the hall. The Vulcan begins to traverse the hall at a measured pace, his arms behind his back, and motions for McCoy to follow with a gentle motion of his head. The doctor falls into step beside him, his arms crossed and his eyes thoughtful.
"Negative. I am merely exercising a certain amount of discretion where the other members of the crew are concerned."
"Treating this is a personal matter?"
Spock intentionally lowers his voice as the duo passes a collection of people shuffling with purpose down the hall. "I believe that the captain would deem it necessary, should the event of his incapacitation arise, that I invoke your assistance."
"He's told me the same."
"We can only assume that the captain is dead."
McCoy's face blanches, and he holds up a hand in a defensive gesture, stopping in his tracks. "Spock, don't you think you're being a little too serious?"
The Vulcan continues for several paces before stopping. He turns without breaking his stance. "No, doctor. We must treat the situation as such. I will assume the duties of acting captain." He turns with the intention of returning to the bridge. "I assure you, doctor, that I would prefer not to have to think of the captain in this fashion, but at the moment, our priority is the protection of the Enterprise and her crew. Mr. Scott may be in authentic danger."
"What, and ignore Jim all together?" McCoy assumes an almost protective stance, and there is an accusatory tone to his voice. "Are you out of your Vulcan mind?"
"Unfortunately, doctor, it is necessary to differentiate between the physical and the metaphysical danger. The captain is currently beyond our help. Mr. Scott and the away team are not."
McCoy lets himself slacken. "You want me to prepare a medical team?"
"Indeed. Please remain on standby. I will return to the bridge and make contact with Mr. Scott to ascertain more details on the conditions surrounding the planet. I will inform you when your expertise will be necessary."
The detached tone of the Vulcan's voice makes McCoy's skin crawl in a myriad of emotion: anger, irritation, trepidation. "With all due respect, commander, sometimes I wish you didn't need me."
It is slightly unnerving how every aspect of the scenery is same monotonous shade of blue. It is not the pristine color of the Terran sky or the crystalline shade of the ocean, but a dead and emotionless hue, a blue closer to black. It is a suffocating color that inexplicably seems to stretch out for eternity simply because there is no feature to break apart the singular plane.
Kirk glances askance at the entity. He is walking abreast of it at a pace more befitting a funeral dirge than a purposeful procession, though it could be that he is lost in the illusion of motionlessness because every single rock is the same exact shape and color as the last one, like a photograph poorly duplicated into the semblance of a landscape.
They are walking along the equivalent of a road, dictated as such simply because the blue may be a fraction of a shade lighter than the rest of the dirt around it.
"Where are you taking me?" Kirk has the sudden urge to swallow his tongue because the question sounds so stupid. Words seem to flow unhindered from his throat in this place, and his head swirls like he is inebriated.
You are walking the road.
"It has to have a name or something."
It has existed since before the advent of words or speech. A name is not necessary.
Irritation buds deep in Kirk's chest, and he cannot help but balk at the patronization. "It has to go somewhere."
It will take us to the place where everything converges.
"Where everything . . . ?" His expression is incredulous. "To the center of the universe?"
To have a center suggests a corporeal form.
A corporeal form, Kirk repeats in his head. He finds himself looking down at his upturned palms despite himself, verifying that he really does exist in this backwards and illogical dimension.
"Stop being so damn esoteric."
It is impossible for you to understand.
"Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence."
Do not be deterred, James.
No one understands.
Kirk shakes his head. "Look . . . uh," he pauses, thinking. "Do you have a name?" When the entity gives no indication of responding he adds: "you knew mine before I even met you, which is slightly creepy, by the way."
My name is unnecessary, for there is not a person still living that remembers it.
Kirk feels something in his gut curl up and die. It leaves behind a cold, empty feeling.
But since you insist, I believe, in the words of your people, that my name would be . . . Anathema.
Kirk cannot explain why the temperature of the air around him suddenly drops several degrees.
"Anathema, eh?" he replies weakly.
I was not much liked by the people of Terra, James.
There is a ruffling sound, like dead leaves scattering in the wind, and Kirk realizes it is the sound of his own laughter. "You . . . you've been . . . to Earth?" He blinks, and his eyes feel heavy, leaden. "Wait. How did you know I'm from Earth?"
I know everything, James. I know everything from your past and your present. It is the blessing and the curse of my existence.
Kirk stops. "Wait just a second, here. I'm not going any farther until you start explaining some things to me."
The tugging of the invisible chain jerks him forward again, and he has to brace his feet to keep from falling. "Dammit, Anathema!"
The entity has remained completely still during the entire outburst; even its arms have not strayed an inch. It continues to stare at Kirk with the azure colored eyes that are just too bright to be real.
I am not authorized to explain these events to you, James.
Kirk's hands are clutching at his throat, though there is nothing there for him to grasp. "Why the hell not?! Who is, then?"
You will see everything in time.
"You've gotta stop dragging me around in circles, here."
Anathema does not turn so much as its body suddenly faces in another direction in a flash of light.
I am . . . I am truly sorry.
The stumble in the entity's voice is so unexpected that Kirk finds himself staring.
This will be difficult.
The entity raises one arm and gestures vaguely into the distance.
Kirk lets his eyes wander in the direction of the outstretched fingers and feels his heart freeze like ice and shatter in pieces around his feet with a physical force that nearly doubles him over in agony.
Footprints are etched in the ground, weaving as if lost. They stop abruptly beneath the collapsed forms of two very familiar figures.
He can discern Chekov and Sulu, their bodies so intertwined that it is difficult to ascertain where one ends and the other begins. They give the impression of a cohesive unit, as if they had supported each other through the last moments of life, and now held one another together through eternity. Poetic, had it not been the lives of two of his closest friends and crew members mercilessly snuffed out.
He can not tell how they died, and that fact is the most disturbing. Life simply stopped in a whirlwind of trauma that left their bodies broken with no visible source.
He blinks away the misty haze. "But they weren't . . ."
Anathema stops him with an upraised hand, and Kirk's throat threatens to close as if under the force of a choking grip. An intense pressure blossoms behind his eyes, and his thoughts flutter out of existence.
"Why is this happening?" His voice is hollow.
The entity is completely still.
I cannot explain that, James.
Kirk lets his head fall. "Of course you can't, dammit." He glares at the corpses for a heartbeat, tracing the outlines of the bodies with his eyes. His body suddenly explodes with movement, and he drives his fist toward Anathema and is able to make a connection somewhere in the vicinity of the entity's face and . . .
He finds himself prostrate on the obscure, flat ground, with his arm thrust dumbly in front of him, fist still balled in rage. Anathema glances down at him, completely expressionless.
You know that such an action is useless.
Kirk rolls onto his back, breathless, and glares up at the entity with a disapproving glare in his eyes. "How the hell did you do that?"
Get up, James.
Kirk snaps a curse as he struggles to his knees. Every motion he takes seems to require a tremendous amount of energy, like trying to walk through deep water. There is an emptiness hanging in his chest he feels he will never be able to satiate. "This. . . this can't be real," he speaks, somewhere between a whisper and a moan.
I can assure you that these deaths are as real to the people that experienced them as yours will be. They are dead, gone from this plane, and that will never change.
Kirk sees red for only a moment, until reason settles his thoughts. "This plane?" He shakes his head as if to dislodge harrowing thoughts. "I have a feeling I'm not in the universe that I'm supposed to be in, am I?"
There is a theory that the people of Terra postulated many years ago, that there exists a universe for every single possibility. You are at the crux of such a universe. What you see is real, what you experience is real, but it is not the universe that you existed in hours before.
"You brought me here."
Because there is something at the end of this road.
Something you must see.
"The rest of my dead crew, is that it?" He whirls to gesture at Chekov and Sulu, and emits an audible cry of disdain or surprise or pain. "What . . . where the hell did they go!?"
Where there previously had been an intertwined helix of broken bodies is now a chasm of empty space. The cobalt-colored dirt is undisturbed, as if they never existed.
"Anathema!" Kirk whirls, eyes ablaze. "Since I can't kick your ass, you are going to have to start explaining things to me." He lowers his head and glares at the entity. "No more games."
This is not a game, James.
To be continued.