Beneath the Enormous Sky by Niobium
Summary:

A post-Star Trek Into Darkness adventure, concerning a mysterious entity known as the Pilot. Spoilers for Star Trek Into Darkness.


Categories: Alternate Original Series Characters: Ensemble Cast - AOS, Kirk, James T. (Pine), Uhura, Nyota (Saldana)
Genre: Action/Adventure, General
Warnings: Adult Language
Challenges: None
Series: Becoming
Chapters: 4 Completed: Yes Word count: 9424 Read: 8725 Published: 18 Jul 2013 Updated: 18 Jul 2013
Story Notes:
I am not an astrophysicist, so it would be a good idea to suspend disbelief. I tried to use what I do know and what the internet could provide in a fun manner which will hopefully amuse without insulting.

1. Chapter 1 by Niobium

2. Chapter 2 by Niobium

3. Chapter 3 by Niobium

4. Chapter 4 by Niobium

Chapter 1 by Niobium

***

His first memory as a Pilot began with a distant voice made of clicks and buzzes. Beneath it a constant humming rose and fell in a steady cadence, like thousands of insect wings all working towards a common harmony. Somewhere within that rhythm, the voice resolved into language.

“Pilot engaged.”

With those two words, the knowledge of being formed around him and awareness snapped into place. He knew what he was and what he needed to do, and how to go about doing it.

The first thing on this considerable list was to introduce himself to the captain and crew. “This is the Fifth Pilot of the Dancer in the Void, online and ready for operations.”

Hearing his own voice piped out over the ship gave him a strange feeling he couldn’t account for. Even though his consciousness was minutes old, he thought it should feel different to hear himself speak for the first time.

“Well met, Fifth Pilot.” The captain’s voice was warm and pleasant. Through the bridge cameras he could see her standing at the center of a group of systems engineers, flanked by her assistant. “I’m quite pleased to make your acquaintance. I apologize that you’ve been dropped into things like this, but your predecessor’s death was unexpected. As such, your maiden voyage won’t involve a fine send-off from one of the stations.”

He was still acclimating to the sensory input, and it took him until the captain had finished speaking to form a good, solid understanding of where they were: in the middle of a highly active stellar nursery.

These were young stars, blazing bright and hot, and their interactions with one another, the molecular cloud birthing them, and the rest of space promised to be violent. The stellar sensor array was maxed out collecting everything it could. (He made a note to optimize the distribution process over the computing clusters when he had a spare second.)

“No need to apologize, Captain. This is what I was made for.”

“To be sure. In that case, set a course for the Klikitakt System, maximum speed, and we’ll be on our way.”

The navigational computers laid out the options in elaborate detail. He chose one, tweaked the results to his liking, and prepped the warp drive. “Ready on your command, Captain.”

“Proceed, Pilot.”

He nudged the drive, and the ship shot to warp with an eagerness that left him giddy.

***

His first dozen cycles settled into a routine in short order. He picked up things faster than the systems engineers expected, and so the captain was forever making new, more challenging requests of him. He thought such a hefty responsibility should have weighed on him, yet it felt natural; in fact he could almost swear that he’d been under such pressure before. (That was nonsense, of course, because in terms of consciousness, he was brand new.)

One element outside of the routine, and which served as a source of constant distraction, were the various blank regions in his memory space. In the virtual subsystem they had the essence of empty rooms, with dented floor coverings and dirty basins and yawning cabinetry lingering like the shadows of former occupants. He asked the system engineers about them, and they indicated they might be left over from his training, when large amounts of information had been placed in holding patterns until he could assimilate it, though even they couldn’t be sure. Pilots were bred to have much more complex mindspaces than the rest of the race, and that had the unavoidable side effect of making them unpredictable.

He would spend much of his sleep cycle in these rooms, trying to sort out what they’d once held. On his eighteenth cycle in service he was no closer to an answer when he went into one of them, and discovered that it was no longer empty.

***

The previous waking phase had ended on a disconcerting note. As it drew to a close, he asked the captain (as he always did), “Anything else, Captain?”

Yzzorthil was older for her post, and it was widely whispered among the crew that she would never step down. This was considered improper, though the Pilot was glad his captain was bucking the trend, since he liked her. (She reminded him of--)

“Well, Pilot, it occurs to me, you’ve been running our Dancer for several cycles now, and you’ve yet to give us a face to relate to you. I am sure some of my crew would prefer to think of you as a fellow crew member, and not a disembodied voice.”

He hesitated. He’d never resolved himself in any fashion, so this was a new exercise for him, and a daunting one. Still, he already had a reputation as a Pilot who was game for anything, and found himself saying, “Yes, Captain. Should I use the viewscreen?”

“That would be fine.”

His training data indicated he should go with what was natural, at least at first. Manipulation of visualizations took time to master, and it was easy to make a mistake and display oneself as a blobby mishmash of parts and colors.

He rendered the first thing that came to mind, and the result defied expectations in the most horrible ways. If the captain herself hadn’t been waiting, he wouldn’t have displayed it, but she was, and so he did, then braced himself for the crew’s reactions.

Their nerve bundles twitched, betraying surprise or outright shock, and they fidgeted. The captain, always the essence of diplomacy, only tilted her head. “Quite interesting, Pilot.”

“Thank you Captain.” A bright chirp sounded on the bridge, and he was grateful for the distraction. “We’re a half-cycle from Korialthax Major, Captain.”

“Excellent. I see your alterations to the warp core have made it more efficient, as you indicated they would.”

“I can’t take all the credit for that, Captain. The engineers did the real work.” Through the lenses of the bridge cameras he could see the crew exchanging nervous looks with one another. He resolved to spend the next handful of sleep cycles drawing himself in a less horrible fashion.

“Well, then our thanks to you and the engineers both. The sooner we examine those stars, the better.”

“Of course, Captain. If that’s all, I’ll start my sleep cycle now.”

“Dismissed, Pilot.”

He had never been more relieved to disengage from the main grid and turn it over to the waiting AI. He couldn’t help but feel like he was fleeing into his rest phase, and to assuage his concerns, he pulled the virtual subsystem into the mix of modules which would occupy him while his mind rested from running the ship. More practice with his resolved display was certainly in order.

A glowing black room formed around him, containing only a simple reflective surface. He told himself he was still new (relatively speaking) and it was reasonable for him to make mistakes at something as esoteric as rendering a physical shape, and looked at the bizarre thing he’d created.

He had assumed his creation would look like the crew, but apart from standing on two legs and having two arms that ended in some number of fingers, what stared back at him was nothing of the sort. While they had exoskeletons blended seamlessly into cybernetic parts, he had formed himself entirely of flesh and nondescript clothing, with no metal or chitin evident. In places that his plain, trim, black outfit didn’t cover him, he had skin, freckled and pale and dusted with yellow hair. Praxidian eyes were solid colors and varied from reds to blues to blacks; his were white with color at the center, black set in blue. The crew had large nerve bundles that grew out from their heads, some long and lithe, others short and thick, in a variety of colors and patterns. He had more hair, close cropped and yellow fading to brown.

He clamped down on frustration at his lack of natural ability for this one small thing (it could disturb the sleep phase and then he’d be debugging inconsistencies for most of the next waking phase). There was nothing preventing him from drawing himself in the virtual space as one of the crew, so he’d just have to pull something together based on his observations of them. This was almost certainly a remnant from his training; some species on file that had particularly high resolution data available.

The empty rooms were a good location to do that sort of work, and he moved to one--only it wasn’t empty now. A being stood in it, and his surprise was such that an immediate security response triggered. He squelched the alarm and did a log overwrite, all while still staring at the individual and trying to process what he was seeing.

An initial scan showed the source signal was housed somewhere in the main communications grid, without an apparent origin. This was problematic and one of the hallmarks of a hacking attempt, and he would have started a diagnostic on the spot, except the being looked like him.

They didn’t in specific terms--their skin was dusky brown, their hair was black, long, and swept back, and their eyes were black-brown. They were also built quite differently, delicate and lean and graceful where the form he'd devised was much more solid and blocky. The plain black outfit was the same, though, and they were the same species, he was certain. His initial search produced a handful of records regarding similar races (but not an exact match, which he would have to look into later), and the Pilot decided he must look like a male and this one was presenting as a female, which could account for the difference in overall shape.

“Who are you, and what are you doing in here?” It came out more irritated and demanding than he intended.

Something about his questions seemed to bother her. Instead of answering him, she asked, “You’re the Pilot?”

He shouldn’t answer. He should be gearing up the security systems and asking the engineers to run a diagnostic. He couldn’t say why he didn’t do either of these things, though. “Yes.”

“How long have you been piloting the ship?”

“Eighteen cycles, give or take.” He paused. “Why do you look like I do?”

She arched an eyebrow at him, and though he shouldn’t have known it he was certain she was mocking him. “I mean--you’re not like the crew. They’re mechanical-biological hybrids and have exoskeletons and external nerve bundles.” He looked down at himself, then at her. “You don’t look anything like them. Why not?”

“Why don’t you?”

That he refused to answer, and tried to make it clear by crossing his arms over his chest.

Her features softened. “What did you do, before you were the Pilot?”

“I’m not answering another question until you answer one of mine.”

She glanced away, looking like she was listening to something he couldn’t hear. “I look like you because I am like you.”

“You’re a Pilot?”

Her expression changed. He knew it to be sadness. (He shouldn’t know that, he shouldn’t know anything about these weird bodies they were wearing or how they conveyed emotion.) “Before you were a pilot, what were you?”

“Before?”

“Yes, before.”

“I’ve always been the Pilot.” It bothered him that the answer didn’t ring with certainty.

“You’re sure?”

He couldn't tell if she was fishing or if he’d betrayed his inner concerns somehow, so he decided to evade the question. “It’s hard to be sure about anything that isn’t the ship. Controlling it takes up a lot of my attention.”

She looked around them. “And what’s this?”

“I work here sometimes.”

“Why is it empty?”

He didn’t want to tell her he didn’t know why. “Why are you here?”

She ignored the question, and moved through the room, kneeling down to look at the strange impressions on the floor. When she reached out to touch one, he felt something deep inside of him twinge in panic.

“Don’t.” The room shook with the force of his voice. She stood in a single swift motion and watched him with wide, wary eyes.

They stood like that for a long time (by his own estimation), and then she composed herself and asked, “What’s it like?”

That one he could answer without hesitation. “It’s amazing. I play tag with comets and hide in nebulae and race light itself. I walk between the stars. This is what I was made to do.”

“Maybe you weren’t made to do it like this.”

His concern level ratcheted up several notches. “What?”

The room shifted to night black. He blinked, surprised, as a report flooded over him; it was always difficult to manage input in the sleep cycle, with so much of the grid’s organizing power unavailable to him.

He studied it, growing angrier by the second, then dismissed it so he could focus on her. He gave her what he hoped was a dangerous look. “Someone’s hacking into one of the communication subsystems.”

“So you handle security too?”

“I have an AI that watches over things for me when I’m busy, and I check any elevated reports. Like this one.”

“Sounds like someone’s up to no good.”

“Yeah.” Access to the primary security system resolved next to him as a white, glowing rectangle crawling with red and blue lines. Using it would, unfortunately, reconnect him to the main grid and begin a new waking phase--but she didn’t necessarily know that. “Let’s see who.”

She gave him an icy smile and her resolved form vanished.

He pulled in as much information on the dissipating connection as he could, though that was precious little, so he dismissed the security interface. There was no point in alerting the engineers or the captain when he didn’t have much to go on. If she came back, he could do a proper examination of the signal. It might, of course, mean more ridiculous questions, though if he were being honest with himself, it wasn’t her questions so much as his reactions to them that bothered him.

Before you were a pilot, what were you?

He had always been the Pilot. Hadn’t he?

Chapter 2 by Niobium

***

He spent the rest of the sleep cycle trying to make a proper Praxidian visualization of himself. This proved relatively easy when he put his mind to it, though once he had the form, he found he didn’t actually want to use it. It felt off and incorrect somehow. He decided it would be reasonable to use it when interacting with the crew and captain, and otherwise stick to his initial resolved form in the virtual subsystem. He wanted to learn more about it, whatever it was.

The following waking cycle was a good one. He used his new Praxidian visualization, and the crew seemed immensely more comfortable with it. There was a brief moment of excitement when an active region on a young, blue star released a coronal mass ejection when one hadn’t been expected, and he had to make an emergency warp jump to avoid it. No one was injured and the ship suffered no damage, and the captain was pleased with his ability to respond to the unpredictability of their study subjects. He set the computer cluster to processing all of the stellar sensor data from just before the CME in fine detail (he wanted to be able to predict them better) and entered his sleep cycle feeling accomplished.

The interloper was back, in a different room this time. This one he’d taken to calling the atrium, because half of the roof and one of the walls were constructed of black metal and glass, and looked out onto a starlit sky. (He couldn’t place the constellations, despite going through every starchart on the ship’s drives.) He didn’t care for her being there; the nameless skies made him overly fond of this particular room.

“You again. Tell me why I shouldn’t trace your transmission and report you to the captain right now.”

“Because you know me.”

His surface instinct to deny the claim was overridden by deeper one that said she was right. He tried to reconcile them and found he couldn’t. “You’re breaking into my ship, and I really don’t appreciate that.”

“Then turn me in.”

He should. She was driving him insane. Yet-- “Why did you come back?”

“Because I need you to remember who you are.”

“I’m the Pilot.”

“No, that’s not who you are, that’s what you are. It’s what they’ve made you. Who are you?”

He tilted his head, regarding her with fascination. She seemed brittle and hurt somehow, and he couldn’t begin to comprehend why. “I’m one of the thousands of Pilots running a Praxidian ship. I’m the Pilot of the Dancer in the Void. I’m part of a mission to study the stars of the Levanth Quadrant of the Praxidian System. Who else could I be?”

“Then why are you still walking around in here looking like that?”

The real answer to that played into her questions too well, so he went with, “Would you rather I look like this?” and switched to the Praxidian visualization. He’d kept the unremarkable black clothing and even the color scheme of the other rendering--his chitin was gold and spotted and his eyes were blue-black, and his nerve bundles golden brown--but it was clearly not something she recognized. She sighed and rubbed at her eyes, and the communications subsystem popped up a flagged, outbound transmission. He rerouted it to his own subprocessor and tried to follow the process, but it was a slippery thing, written to hide among the ship’s own legitimate communications and heavily encrypted. He would have to keep her talking if he wanted to decrypt it and isolate its source. He put his own subcluster on the job.

“Guess not,” he said, and went back to his other visualization, and was satisfied when she refocused on him and relaxed a fraction. In the back of his mind he watched the decryption process chew away at the transmission.

“Your usual charming self is just fine.”

That gave him pause. “Usual?”

She sighed and looked away, shaking her head. “I can’t believe you don’t remember me.”

(If you don’t tell me your name, I’m gonna have to make one up for you.)

He was distracted by the random thought and missed the completion of the decryption process, and the security system lunging at the signal caught him by surprise. Her shape flickered. A two-way audio signal was available now, and he loaded it up. Her eyes widened in alarm and she took a step back from him.

“Lieutenant.”

He knew this new voice, he could swear he did. He felt whole subsystems in the ship pulse in response to his reaction.

“Who is that?” The virtual system distorted around them.

Her expression tightened with pain. “It’s--”

“Lieutenant, we are out of time.”

The security system had powered up a full trace. His sleep cycle would be interrupted once it locked on.

Her form rippled and vanished, and the trace died. With nothing left to work on, the modules wound down their efforts, and he was left with only the brief audio clip to puzzle over.

He stayed in the atrium, listening to the words and voices and re-examining everything she’d said to him until the end of his sleep cycle.

***

The next waking phase was slated to be one of his busiest. They were moving into an older portion of the Quadrant, through a collection of dying stars. Their magnetic fields and gravitational wells played havoc with the long-range scanners and made navigation dicey. Warp fields were more fragile here, and much of his idle time between missions was spent fine tuning the warp core and shield generators to compensate for the harsh environment. The missions themselves were a constant game of tug-of-war with the dwarfs’ gravity wells, made all the more interesting by the occasional pulsar.

He sank into that rest state with a true understanding of mental exhaustion. The atrium formed around him, and there stood his visitor.

“I really don’t have time for your questions today,” he said, and resolved a simple navigation system panel next to him. “If you didn’t notice, we’re tiptoeing through a graveyard.”

“Almost as bad as a nursery.”

“The nursery’s much easier to deal with. No pulsars.” He altered the next waking phase’s route and re-ordered the missions to account for it.

“True enough.”

Her lack of inquiry caught his attention, and he looked towards her. “You’re not asking me any questions.”

“You said you were busy.”

“I didn’t actually think that would stop you.”

She smiled. “You know me too well.”

The virtual subsystem warped around them, disorienting him. The navigation module winked out.

“What are you doing?” He reached for the security system, ready to push himself awake if it was needed. There was reassurance in her expression, and it made him pause.

“I found an access point into the module that’s feeding your visual cortex.” The room flew apart, and a ship resolved around them like a painting, and he knew in an instant that this was his ship. His.

She stood there watching him. He walked around the bridge, touching a panel here and a chairback there. He stopped at the captain’s seat and stared at it. He looked up at the viewscreen, which was showing a large landmass whose place and name he knew. As he said each name, the visual kept zooming out.

“Starfleet Headquarters. San Francisco. California. North America. Earth.”

The simulated bridge began to rattle apart around them. She ran up in front of him, blocking his view, and he knew her name now.

(They don’t have last names on your planet?)

“Who are you?” she demanded. Then, “What’s your name?”

He had the answer; he’d had it all along, yet it took seeing her here, in that setting, with that chair and those instruments and on this bridge and that planet on this viewscreen to make him say it.

“My names is James T--”

***

The defense system was the highest priority process on the grid, and it dragged him out of his sleep cycle without so much as a by-your-leave. It took him much too long, in computing terms, to interface with the new module, and he discovered that there was twice as much interfacing to do because he was two beings at the same time.

“Pilot, report.”

Jim Kirk was confused as hell. The Pilot, on the other hand, was already pouring through the tactical manuals while the results of the long-range scan (successful thanks to his hard work in calibrating the sensors last waking phase) displayed.

Collindran warships, a half-dozen of them. Jim Kirk didn’t know what those were, but he knew a hunting party when he saw one; the Pilot, on the other hand, was entirely too aware of their armaments and capabilities.

“It’s a Collindran squadron, Captain. Six ships, all hunter-killer class.”

The Collindran were a similar species to the Praxidi, and lived in a neighboring system. Unfortunately, all neighborliness ended there; the two races had been at war on and off for several Maxima now. This was, in theory, an off time, with numerous treaties and armistices calling for an end to hostilities, but of course they were out in the middle of a stellar graveyard, and who could say what happened to ships that vanished in the depths of space?

“Bring the additional shield generators on-line, Pilot, but don’t raise them just yet.”

“Done, Captain.” The communications system pinged him for his attention. “They’re hailing us.”

The captain was some time in responding. “Let’s see it, then.”

The Collindran captain stood with his bridge crew in a formal array. They were hoary, frayed beings to the Jim Kirk’s eyes; to the Pilot’s, they were attempting to look affronted and in charge.

“Our sensors have detected anomalous readings from your ship. Do you carry something questionable and dangerous on board?”

There would be no pleasantries, it seemed. The captain offered none in turn. “Nothing outside of our mission parameters, as per the accords covering the Levanth Quadrant and all directly adjacent systems.”

“Then what is the source of the discrepancy? Could it be this is a new type of vessel?”

“Your records will show you it is not.”

“And yet we have never seen a Pilot signature of this like before, Praxidi. We insist on examining it.”

The Pilot saw one of the systems engineers at the back of the bridge twitch. The captain betrayed nothing. “And why do you insist?”

“So we may learn how this Pilot differs from the others and record it appropriately.”

“The Pilots are not made to be poked and prodded and examined; as such, I do not acquiesce to your request.”

“No creature so fragile could manage a ship of that size and complexity. You will allow us to board your ship at once.”

The Dancer had minor offensive systems; some neutron torpedoes, a few batteries, and mines for work on asteroids and comets that could be repurposed. Nothing to manage a group of warships this size. It did, on the other hand, have immense defensive capabilities, including a shielding system that had Jim Kirk itching to fly the ship through environments he wouldn’t have ever hoped to tread in before.

The captain was no doubt banking on the later when she made her gesture for the Pilot to cut the transmission.

“Raise the secondary shields and go to warp.”

He had them up just before the first volley landed. The Dancer shuddered, and the Pilot spun the warp core into action and took the closest route. Unfortunately, it was a short one, and they would drop out in a minute or less.

“How much of that can we withstand?”

“If they start using their torpedoes, probably four or five attacks before the secondary shields fall; another one to two on the primary. Once they’re past those, they’ll know the weaker points on the hull to target.”

“Can we keep warping away?”

“The paths through which we have a stable warp field are short and choppy, and their ships are fast--and they’ll follow us by exit vector, there aren’t enough options to throw them off. Every time we have to drop out and correct our course is another attack they can launch.”

“How many corrections from here to the closest base?”

“Ten more.”

The jump dropped them closer to the edge of the stellar graveyard; the Collindran warships were already waiting, torpedoes ready. The secondary shields dropped twenty percent, and several systems began to struggle. The Pilot fired back, more to force the Collindran to scatter and delay another volley than anything else, and took the next jump.

“How many of their ships could we hope to destroy with our own weapons?”

“One, maybe two. Those are the newest design we have on record. They’ll have countermeasures, and they’ll be fast.”

The ship dropped out of warp into another volley. The captain gripped her seat in anger.

With the Pilot’s voice, Jim Kirk said, “There’s another option, Captain.”

“What do you propose, Pilot?”

“We warp back to Klikitakt Major.”

“Why?”

A temporary shielding gap let a blast through, and the ship lurched.

“Because we know a hell of a lot more about stars than they do.”

His turn of phrase gave the captain pause, then their shields dipped another five percent from a Collindran volley. Her nerve bundles twitched. “Very well, pilot. Take us to Klikitakt Major.”

He made no attempt to mask their exit vector, and the Dancer sped towards the familiar system as fast the drive could manage. Jim Kirk thought it might be the most amazing thing he’d ever experienced.

***

The Pilot bought them some time by making a few unexpected jumps, and at one point he even had a faint hope they’d lost the Collindran, but they caught up in only two more hops. By the time they reached Klikitakt Major, the secondary shields were gone, the primary shielding system was close to failure, and the ship was limping. Numerous hull breaches had forced evacuations into other, less vulnerable areas of the ship, and their weapons systems were offline. The warp core wouldn’t hold up under much more abuse either.

Klikitakt Major Orrazil loomed ahead, wild and dangerous in the way only a small, blue-spectra star could be. Furious active regions riddled its surface like twisted barbed wire, and the stellar sensor array threw an entire series of warnings up as soon as they came within range of the last recorded prominence. He shut them all off and rerouted the array output to himself directly, making adjustments to what he would receive and what to send into the cluster. Readings flowed by, and he searched for a familiar pattern in them.

There.

The Collindran warships warped into the system. So did an additional ship, somewhere beyond the edge of the red and gold nebula that marked the borders of Klikitakt, but Jim Kirk wasn’t worried about that one, and the Pilot had too much else to do.

He spent some time letting the Collindran get close. If they were too far away, they'd be able to escape his trap on impulse alone. Once he was sure their attention was focused on the Dancer and not her hostile environs, he set the ship into orbit over the active region he’d picked. The Collindran followed at maximum firing distance; this close to the star, their weapons failed to hit their target more often than not. He had to keep rebalancing what was left of the shields between their pursuers’ lucky hits.

The data pouring off the array showed the active region coiling in on itself. He prepped the warp drive and plotted a course.

“Captain, permission to go to warp at my discretion.”

“Granted Pilot.”

“Thank you.”

Sensors warned him the Collindran ships had spun up their warp drives as well. Jim Kirk smiled to himself, and for a handful or torturous seconds they orbited the star, soaking attacks with the shields and watching the active region churn.

The star’s photosphere rippled and the stellar sensor array shrieked a shipwide alert. The Collindran ships began to back away on impulse power, but there was no chance they could get clear in time without going to warp. The Pilot was nervous about timing this by instinct. Jim Kirk had spent a lifetime living on nothing else.

The active region seemed to suck in a breath. The Collindran ships all fled, winking out in a panic. When the last one had vanished, the Pilot released his hold on the warp core.

In his perception time slowed to a crawl. The stellar sensor array blared another symphony of warnings at the same time the warp field formed, and the Dancer hovered on the edge of faster-than-light travel. He thought he could feel the energy of the flare as it welled up out of the star, and realized that he’d neglected to shut off his direct feed from the array.

Everything snapped back into realtime. The field propelled them out of their orbit as the flare erupted, and the sheer amount of data swallowed him like an avalanche and tore him from consciousness.

***

Chapter 3 by Niobium

***

(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.

“Pilot, report.”

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.”

“Broadcasting, Captain.”

“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.

“Pilot.”

“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.

Chapter 4 by Niobium
Author's Notes:
I see J. August Richards or Dule Hill for Kevin Riley, and if this is wrong I am disinterested in being right.

***

Jim Kirk gasped awake to find his face wet with tears and his body encased in suffocating darkness. Before panic could properly set in, cracks of light formed around him, and a strong shove tossed him out into a dazzling brilliance that flashed and shrieked with alarms. He struck a curved, hard, unyielding floor and the impact almost knocked him unconscious.

He choked and dragged in his breaths and tried to make sense of his surroundings. He wore a bodysuit of coppery-red, finely woven metal and was lying on the floor of a spherical room. Cabling and components lined the entire interior, and the top was ringed with running lights, some white and some flashing in yellow and blue. He rolled onto his back and saw dozens of finger-thick, graphite-colored snakechains dangling, limp and useless, out of a gaping, silvery pod with a black, padded interior. A gleaming white arm suspended the pod from a high point on the arcing wall, where it terminated into a black shutter hatch.

He felt weak and limp and hopelessly confused. The last thing he could remember was the shuttle crash. No, that wasn’t the last thing. He remembered Uhura asking him what his name was. (Maybe that was just a crazy dream his mind had conjured up, like an inside joke?) He remembered--

“Captain.”

His mind seized on Spock's voice. When he made to reply, his throat felt like he hadn't used it for months. “Spock,” he choked out, looking around. Then he saw them--behind him, Spock and Scotty had cut an opening into the flickering chamber. The room lunged around him, and he struggled to his feet, grabbing at some of the wall cabling to steady himself. “Please tell me what the hell’s going on.”

“We will explain on the way back to the Enterprise.”

Scotty looped one of Jim’s arms around his neck and they guided him through their cut door. The ship was clouded with steam and smoke and it sounded like every alarm possible was going off.

Spock took the lead and flipped open his communicator. “Lieutenant, we have the captain and are on our way back to the shuttle. Our ETA is five minutes.”

Scotty, meanwhile, gave Jim the shortest possible version of events. "They were using you to run their ship. Sort of like if the bridge crew was just one person."

Jim attempted to focus on Scotty, but focusing wasn't a high priority for his mind just then. "What? How--how could that even work?"

"I imagine it's got something to do with this." Scotty glanced at the coppery suit for emphasis. Jim looked down at it, which turned out to be a mistake as he lost his balance and pitched forward. Spock helped Scotty get him standing again.

Uhura’s response finally came through, distorted and barely audible. “Make it quick, Spock. Gaila says this star’s acting up. We’re ready to lift off as soon as you’re back.”

“It’s gonna form a prominence any minute now,” Jim said, and wondered how he could know that. Scotty and Spock exchanged a glance, and moved as fast as Jim’s condition would let them.

The second Scotty closed the hatch Uhura blasted off from the precarious ledge they were perched on. Jim collapsed into a seat and stared out the viewscreen, dizzy and light-headed. They were within what looked like a large, open hangar with numerous levels whose only contents were strange, alien shuttles that looked too damaged to fly. Their blue-black, curving, swept-back forms seemed familiar to him, though he couldn't place them with an actual memory. It was a rough ride away from the ship, dodging debris at every turn; Uhura had some choice things to say about his former captors on more than one occasion.

When they cleared the bulk of the dying vessel--it was night black, with a vertical bow and flared stern, and easily twice again the size of the Enterprise--the smaller component of a binary star system dominated their view. Even with the viewscreens polarized the blue dwarf was hard to look at for long. The enormous ship became smaller and smaller against the blazing backdrop as they pulled away.

A polite alert told them a stellar event was beginning. A ribbon slowly looped out of the star’s surface and arced over the ship.

Jim stared out the window, watching the vessel break apart under the forces of the prominence. He thought he should feel vindicated (that ship had been not much more than an elaborate prison), yet where satisfaction should have been he was empty.

Having no pity upon our withering...

Next to him, Gaila asked, “Captain?”

He hadn’t intended to say it out loud. “Nothing.” He cleared his throat. “Did their shuttles get clear?”

“Yes, Captain--all of them. We kept our distance.” Out of the corner of his eye he saw Gaila giving him a look. He didn’t dare meet her eyes, not just then.

“Good. They’re probably twitchy right now.” He ran his hands through his hair and turned to Spock, who was helping Uhura fly the shuttle. “Okay. How long was I in there.”

“You have been missing for three months.”

He groaned. “The last thing I can remember really well is the shuttle accident.” He froze. “Shit, Spock, did anyone else--”

“Minor injuries.”

Relief made him sag in his chair. “They found me before you did?”

“It would appear that is the case. When we arrived at the crash site, there was evidence of another ship nearby, and though you were missing, none of the crew had seen anyone approach the remains of the crash. It was some weeks before we could determine a way to trace their warp signature. The design of their ships is quite unique. By then, they had moved on to another system, and proved difficult to track.” Spock looked over at him, and Jim knew a polite request to provide more information if he felt up to it when he saw one.

He had to work to dredge up the memories. Everything in his head was a tangled mess, like he’d unpacked from an interplanet move by emptying his boxes into one gigantic pile in the middle of the floor. “Their Pilot died. They were in the middle of an important mission. Something about surveying stars.”

“That’d explain why the ship was tough as nails,” Scotty supplied. Jim blinked at him. “You shoulda seen the kind of abuse it took, Captain. A half-dozen warships pounding on it, and it still held together long enough to make eight warp jumps and safely evacuate the crew. What I wouldn’t give for just five minutes to examine their shield generators.”

Spock gave Scotty a look which conveyed his rapidly dwindling patience, and the engineer held up his hands in self-defense. “Hey I think they owe us now, I mean they stole our captain and plugged him into their ship like he was some kind of peripheral device!”

Jim tried to ignore their exchange as he concentrated on sifting through what he knew and what he thought he knew. They refocused on him when he started talking again. “I think they didn’t have another Pilot on board, so the systems engineers decided to convince the captain they had a suitable...alternative.”

Uhura and Scotty looked disgusted, Gaila’s eyes blazed with righteous fury, while Spock seemed intrigued. “Do you think the captain knew you were not their Pilot by choice?”

“I think she figured it out eventually.”

Spock nodded, and fell silent for a brief spell. Then he said, “This complicates the diplomatic aspect of our presence here. We may wish to relay our reports to Starfleet Command, and see if they would prefer to hold off on initiating contact with them.”

“I like that idea. Especially if they’re in the middle of hostilities with...” Jim winced, trying to remember, then sighed and gave up. “Whoever those other ships were.”

The shuttle chirped, and Uhura said, “Lieutenant Uhura to Enterprise. We have the captain on board. Requesting permission to land.”

Sulu’s voice held a note of relief. “Good to hear back from you, Lieutenant. Permission granted for Bay 4.”

Once the shuttle had landed, he found the ability to get out of his chair was beyond him, and Spock had to help him up. His legs felt weak and useless, and he was cold everywhere, and couldn’t stop shivering.

“This is probably a problem,” he said to no one in particular. Scotty and Spock both helped him off the shuttle.

McCoy was there to greet them with a gurney, but Jim didn’t make it that far. Things stopped making sense, including walking, and his breath felt frigid and painful in his chest. Everyone was talking and he couldn’t understand them. He thought someone said his name (McCoy, it was McCoy).

The hangar tipped sideways and dissolved into confusion.

***

When he woke up, he was in medbay, and nearby Dr. M’Benga was chatting with Kevin in front of a data panel. The fine-mesh metal suit he’d been wearing was gone, replaced by a plain set of regulation black shirt and pants. His skin felt sensitive, and the soft material irritated him more than it should have.

The instruments set into the bed informed them he’d woken up, and they joined him. Kevin had a tablet while M’Benga was carrying an injector.

“What’s in that,” Jim asked, eyes on M’Benga. His voice sounded hoarse.

“Just something to help stabilize you.” M’Benga held it up. “Want me to have McCoy give it?”

Jim managed a laugh and shook his head. Though he braced himself, it didn’t hurt all that much; certainly, he’d had much worse. With that unpleasantness over with, he looked at the two of them in turn. “So. Any permanent damage?”

“Fortunately no,” Kevin said, and offered him the tablet. Jim took it, glad he was at least strong enough for that, and glanced over the highlights of the various tests while Kevin continued. “Whatever technology they have, it’s astonishingly advanced. I’m sure that suit had a few thousand microfilament connections all through your nervous system, and it didn’t leave a mark on your CNS when we took it off. Really amazing stuff.”

“Amazing, but not harmless,” M’Benga said, giving Kevin a dry look. He reached over and tugged the shirt back from one of Jim’s wrists. Jim winced and yanked his arm away; the skin underneath was mottled with a an angry rash.

Kevin sighed. “Sorry about that. We tried to be as careful as possible.”

Jim held his wrist until it stopped throbbing. M’Benga explained, “Your skin’s a little irritated from the removal. That shot had some antihistamines in it to calm things down. Other than that, we didn't find any tissue damage. There is evidence of recent bone fractures we don't have on record. Whatever caused those, they must’ve taken care of it.” M'Benga's expression turned sympathetic.

Jim swallowed against the inherent implication. He decided that it was okay to tell himself it had been the shuttle crash. He started to feel the shot coming on, and laid back on the bed. “What about--” He tapped his head.

Kevin reached over to swipe at the tablet. A new set of tests filled the screen. “We haven't found any injury, though things are a little chaotic. You’ve got elevated activity levels in a few places. We’ll have to see if that persists, but it’s not hurting you right now.”

“Elevated?”

“Your brain’s handling information faster.” Kevin shrugged. “I’ve got three of my best researchers and their staff going over all of this. As soon as they have more for me you’ll be the first to know.”

M’Benga had gone back to the data panel on the wall. Over his shoulder, he said, “And I’ll send Leonard in *after* he wakes up.”

Jim’s laugh was more of a cough. “Did you have to sedate him?”

“No, I just let Spock talk him into it.”

That’d do it. “If he tries to give you any shit about not waking him up let me know.”

“Oh, I plan to say you ordered me not to wake him.”

“Fair enough.”

They left him to his devices, which M’Benga warned him would consist of sleeping in short order. (It turned out his idea of stabilization involved Jim not being conscious; Jim wasn’t sure this made him any improvement over McCoy as a medical professional.)

He’d convinced Kevin to leave him the tablet, and used it to pull up a view from outside the ship. Spock had taken them to their next objective, a small M-class planet in a system formed around a blue hypergiant, with the Enterprise orbiting one of the planet’s moons. He zoomed in on the star as far as the Enterprise’s sensors could go--nowhere near the detail the Dancer had been capable of--and stared at it for a very long time.

Someone came to stand next to him, and he glanced up to find Uhura.

“Lieutenant,” he said, and managed a tired smile.

Her answering smile was equally tired. “Captain.”

“Thanks for getting me out of there.”

“You’re welcome. But it wasn’t all me, sir.”

“I know.” Though his memories from before she’d put him on the bridge of the Enterprise were spotty at best, he could remember enough. “You just had the thankless task of trying to wake me up.”

“I think Lieutenant Gaila would argue spending three days trying to develop an encryption algorithm you couldn’t break in under two minutes was also pretty thankless.”

He blinked. “Wow. Really? Three days?”

“She says she should be able to publish a couple of papers on it.”

He started to say something about how much he was going to enjoy making it up to her, and stopped himself just in time. Uhura raised her eyebrows at him, and he gave her his best ‘nice try’ smile, then sobered.

“I don’t remember any of it really well, so if I said anything, ah, I'm sorry.”

“You didn’t. Well, nothing I wasn’t expecting.”

He thought back on what he did remember. “Why couldn’t you just tell me who I was?”

“Spock was worried that trying to force the reality on you might conflict with whatever they’d done. Since we didn’t really know what that was, helping you figure it out for yourself seemed safer.”

“Worried?”

She gave him a faint smile. “You didn’t hear that from me.”

“I’ve already forgotten.” He felt his eyes start to shut of their own accord. The shot was taking its toll, and Uhura left him to his rest.

He laid back on the bed and let his eyes close, and saw the long, gleaming, black form of the Dancer silhouetted against a star. If he let himself go, he thought he could even feel his connection to the ship again. The pull of a gravity well against her orbit; the heartbeats of dozens of stars in the back of his mind; the murmur of the crew going about their daily tasks.

He wondered if he would never be just Jim Kirk again. He also wondered if tomorrow he would start to have a much harsher, uglier idea of what had been done to him. For now, though, with who-knew-what medications waging a war in his system against exhaustion and the fallout of three months spent in some sort of stasis pod, it was hard for him to think straight. He decided to not bother, and laid on the bed, letting memories bubble to the surface until he fell well and truly asleep.

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