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***

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.

***



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