(He looked up and saw nothing but miles of ocean, so dark it was black. An elaborate cage held him immobile against a black sand floor. Over that, a thick, crystal dome kept the water’s heavy secrets at bay, but it was spiderwebbed with cracks--)
Someone was saying his name. No, they were saying a name. It wasn’t his name, but it was a named he responded to.
“Here, I’m here,” he replied, trying to figure out if he was, in fact, anywhere. His voice crackled and buzzed over the bridge audio, and he winced to hear it.
Thousands of subsystems clamored for his attention. He fell back on rote habits, and sorted them by priority relative to keeping the ship stable and the crew safe. Deck breaches in hundreds of locations, the docking thrusters were nonfunctional, and the stellar sensor array was half dead.
The Pilot and Jim Kirk were both grateful for what remained of the ship's processing power just then. “That flare was a little more powerful than I’d anticipated, Captain. It collapsed our warp field.” The navigational computers were already trying to determine where they’d wound up. A binary system’s gravity well held them for the moment, though they were much too close to the smaller blue dwarf for his comfort, and the sheer number of offline systems was daunting.
Most of the damage was from the attack, except the problems with the data processing systems, which were his own fault. He grimaced and tried to bring the computing clusters back online; all save one refused. It would have to be enough.
The ship groaned. He locked down the empty decks and looked over the damage report, and his heart sank.
“Captain, the warp core is failing.” Jim Kirk hated to admit it; the Pilot was resigned. “It won’t give us much more than half a subcycle.”
Yzzorthil tapped at her seat arms. “Is our orbit degrading?”
“It is. I can make some adjustments and buy us more time.” For what, he didn’t need to say.
Another deck began to collapse. He evacuated the crew in it towards the hangars. The captain stood from her seat.
“Pilot, broadcast this shipwide.”
“My crew, it pains me to do this, but I am afraid that our enemies have damaged the Dancer too severely.” Jim Kirk thought it felt strange to have someone’s voice echo over every sensor that was wired directly into him. “We must evacuate the ship and report to the closest starbase. Please secure your tasks as required by general evacuation orders and make your way to the hangars.”
The evacuation order made some new systems available to him, and he put them to work stabilizing the ship further. The Dancer’s crew began filing into the lifts and shuttles to make good their escape. He felt pushed to the very limits of his capacity in keeping the ship stable while simultaneously overseeing the mass exodus of shuttles from the numerous hangars.
The Pilot was always evacuated last, hence why the captain was accompanied by two systems engineers when she stopped by a communications console in one of the halls leading to the hangars. Other crew filed fast her; no one ran, but they didn’t tarry.
“Captain.” He already knew what she was going to say. He knew because Jim Kirk had been born in this particular briar patch, and the Pilot had done the calculations already.
It took her a moment to work up to speaking. “If we disengage you from the system, there’s a chance the last of the shuttles won’t be able to make it clear of the ship. The AI was not designed for emergency use of this magnitude.” The pain in her voice was evident to the Pilot. He traded his Praxidian visualization for what he knew now was his real one, and while the systems engineers behind her shrank back from the strangeness of it, she and her assistant were undaunted.
“It’s okay, Captain. I’ll keep the ship’s orbit stable until everyone is clear.”
She made what the Pilot knew was the formal bow reserved for higher ranking leaders in the great clans. He returned it in kind.
“It has been an honor, Pilot. I am sorry.”
Jim Kirk thought of the subtle signal hiding just beyond the border nebula, and said, “Don’t be.”
The ship trembled, and with a final look, the captain and the last of her crew left down the hallway.
He took some time, once the captain was gone, to just be. It felt he’d been given no such opportunity since he’d been born (as Jim Kirk or the Pilot), and for a handful of the longest seconds of his life, he drifted in a degrading orbit around a binary star system, savoring the feeling.
Reality intruded, and he answered it only with reluctance. The star’s gravity well was tugging harder and harder at the Dancer. Jim Kirk had been in a situation like this before, except this time there would be no saving the ship. The Pilot shuttled power around, rerouting this and that until he could fire the thrusters long enough to move her out of the star’s hungry grasp while still maintaining life support and evacuation systems. Shuttles rocketed away, tearing free of the star’s pull and fleeing into the emptiness beyond. They would trickle towards the closest Praxidian starbase--not far, fortunately, but with that Collindran squadron out there, they couldn’t risk distress calls. In a handful of minutes, the last of them sped away, and he was well and truly alone.
The remains of the stellar sensory array warned him that a prominence was forming. There wasn’t enough power in the ship to get clear of it, and anyways, once the warp core gave out the Dancer would fall into the star. The Pilot felt only peace; the Dancer had done her duty, and after a long, eventful life studying the stars, she was ready for what came next. What better place to take her rest than in the arms of what she loved most.
The system began to degrade around him; the power grid flickered and the engine core dimmed and the computer system unraveled one module and subunit at a time. The carefully constructed prison that had held Jim Kirk’s mind separate from the Pilot’s collapsed.
He lay at the bottom of an ocean abyss, bound in an elaborate cage. The dome that had kept everything he was outside shattered, and memories flooded in, filling the empty rooms the Pilot had pondered over for so long.
Citizen, what is your name?
The taste of satisfaction at beating a ridiculous test.
An ambassador’s bittersweet joy at meeting him, so hard to understand, paired with the overwhelming sense of loss for a planet consumed by hatred.
Excitement for his first mission.
The only father he’d ever had, lost to him before he could thank him for all he had done.
A different ship dying around him.
They lodged into the crevasses of his mind, taking root and dragging him upward--then he came to a jarring halt. The remnants of the rigid cage clung with fierce tenacity. The ship’s systems wouldn’t relinquish him without a fight.
You are the Pilot of the Praxidi starship Dancer in the Void.
He clawed at them, certain that he had to escape or be crushed by the weight of what he was. He wasn't very careful about it, and the process was painful in the extreme, leaving horrible gouges in him that stained the water red. The last one snapped free from the ocean floor, and he struggled upwards, but the cage was stubborn and fragments clung to him here and there. They slowed his ascent and whispered to him.
You are the Pilot.
The darkness receded into blue which bled into watery white. Overhead, consciousness beckoned, glittering against the waves. His fingers brushed the surface, grazing the other side. The remains of the cage tried to hold him under, and the part of him that had flown at warp speed and touched the faces of stars feared what lay beyond the water.
I am the Pilot.
The part of him that had been at war with the universe since taking its first breath gathered up and reached again.
I am not.