The pulsing of the emergency lights came in thumping synchronicity to the thudding in Kharth’s skull as she came to. Her gut ached worst of all, the pain spreading across her abdomen and around to her back, and she had to roll, not rise, to take in her surroundings.
Main Engineering on the USS Odysseus. Spotty and intermittent signs of systems functioning. The crumpled shape of Cortez a few feet away.
‘Isa?’ she groaned, but Cortez did not move, and with a wince, Kharth raised her head to see the silhouetted figure before the shimmering warp core. ‘Templeton?’
Robert Templeton looked like he’d not only been left in the wilderness for several years, but dragged backwards through every bush on it. He was leaning heavily against the main warp core control panel, muttering to himself as buttons flashed red and warning alerts blatted, clearly thwarting whatever he was attempting. At her voice, he turned, and his expression folded.
‘You’re still moving,’ Templeton rasped, voice rather detached. ‘I guess I didn’t kill you.’
She sat up slowly, and while he watched her, he didn’t move. His phaser was holstered at his hip, but she couldn’t see hers. ‘Your weapon was set to Stun. Was it not meant to be?’
‘I didn’t…’ His gaze dropped, focusing on something else for a moment. Then he shook his head and muttered again. ‘Doesn’t matter. You don’t matter.’
Kharth did not risk moving further, even as he turned away. She kept her voice as soft as possible to still be heard. ‘Can I check on Commander Cortez?’
‘Robert. Can I check on my friend?’
Templeton gave a sharp shake of the head, then waved a hand at the crumpled Cortez. ‘Go. But don’t – don’t distract me.’
Kharth crawled across the deck rather than rose, and reached for Cortez’s pulse. Steady enough. She dropped her voice more. ‘Isa? Come on…’
A low groan, then Cortez’s eyes flickered open. ‘Tell me we’re back in Kansas, Toto.’
‘I have no idea what you’re on about.’
‘…yup. This is real.’ With assistance, Cortez sat up and slumped against the panel, taking in the situation as focus returned to her eyes. ‘I forgot how much it sucks to get shot.’
‘I try to not be on the receiving end, no.’
Her eyes fell on Templeton, narrowing as she squinted to see the display. ‘Hey, if you keep trying to cut the injector feed, that’s going to collapse the whole warp field!’
Templeton froze, looking back at them. Whatever he had been trying to access from Main Engineering, it looked like the computer wasn’t letting him get very far. ‘I know,’ he rasped. ‘Why do you care?’
‘Uh, because then the ship gets ripped apart in subspace?’
‘Exactly.’ His eyes flashed like this was a useful insight, like this was an exchange of scientific ideas. ‘And why do you care about that?’
‘Uh… because then we’d die? And generally that’s considered a bad thing.’
‘Commander Templeton.’ Kharth tried a similar firm tone that had done something to impact Airex’s reverie. ‘I know you’ve been alone for a long time, separated from Commander Airex. I can’t imagine what it’s been like. But we’re very much real, we’re not a figment of your imagination. We’re a rescue mission, we’re here to rescue you.’
‘Oh,’ said Cortez with more dawning realisation. ‘I gotta keep putting this one out there, yeah: okay, so you and Saeihr here were pen-pals for a bit, but seriously, why would anyone on this ship hallucinate me? We’ve barely met.’
Templeton’s expression flickered. ‘You are new,’ he mumbled. ‘But then again, the corridors stopped turning on themselves. I managed to get down here. That’s all new…’
‘It’s new because we arrived, and we’re changing things,’ said Kharth. ‘We’ve mitigated some of the phenomenon’s effect on the ship, and if you let Cortez take a look at the warp core -’
She’d half-risen, only slowly, but it was ample time for Templeton to snatch his phaser out and level it at her. ‘No!’
Her hands came up as she sank back down. ‘Okay. Okay.’
‘I know how this goes,’ said Templeton, voice now approaching a whimper. ‘Every time I come close to getting out, one of you comes, something comes, and tries to convince me to let things stay the same, let me stay in the dark, and you always say it’s about survival but it’s about just – it all going on forever, isn’t it?’
Cortez glanced at the panel he was at. ‘Why are you trying to blow up the ship?’
‘Over and over, round and round in the dark, and it doesn’t end, and there’s nothing real, and there’s only one way to stop that, isn’t there?’ said Templeton in a tumbling mess, as if he didn’t need to complete thoughts, as if he expected them to know the unspoken in his sentences.
Kharth’s breath caught. ‘I get it,’ she said anxiously. ‘Or, I think I get it. You got stuck on your own for impossibly long, and every time you thought you had a way out… something showed up to stop you.’ You spent forever alone in the dark, and so your mind started spitting hallucinations at you until you don’t know what’s real and what’s in your head. And every time you came close to killing yourself, your subconscious spat out another hallucination to try to talk you down from the ledge.
But Cortez stiffened. ‘Oh my God. Was Airex right, then? You killed Kimathi?’
Kharth could have smacked her, but Templeton flew across the space to ram the phaser into Cortez’s cheek, faster than she’d have expected for a man in his state. For a heartbeat she considered making her move, but her body was still sluggish from the Stun, and she knew she’d only make it worse.
‘You know how many times I shot Kimathi?’ Templeton snarled. ‘You know how many times I shot Airex and shot the captain and shot Tegan? Which one? Which one do you mean?’ Cortez froze, and after thudding heartbeats, he shoved her away and turned back to the controls. ‘Unless you can help me with these systems, shut up.’
Both of them sank to the deck as Templeton stalked back to the controls, and Kharth stayed put several moments to make sure his attention had drifted before she slid up beside Cortez. The engineer’s chest was heaving, her voice almost too low to be heard as she breathed, ‘That phaser’s not set to Stun any more.’
‘Then let’s not piss him off,’ Kharth murmured. ‘What do you think he’s doing?’
‘If he wants to blow up the ship, there are countless ways he can do it from here. The only thing on our side is if the main computer core isn’t in temporal alignment; if requests time out or it can’t run a check fast enough, a lot of the more sophisticated systems just won’t happen,’ came Cortez’s eventual low reply. ‘I could probably do a work-around, but he’s – what’s his training?’
‘Ops,’ said Kharth with a sigh. ‘But he came up as a quartermaster and personnel officer, took it as the command track.’
‘Oh, good. The Jock Ops, not the Nerd Ops. We’d be dead if Thawn snapped and tried to kill us all.’
‘Don’t put yourself down. You’d kill us all way quicker than Thawn.’
‘That’s true,’ said Cortez, her breathing slower as jokes calmed her. ‘I’ve got that instinct of going for the throat. She’d want to give us a villainous monologue first.’ She lifted her eyes to sweep around the gloom of Main Engineering, and though Kharth hoped she was coming up with some genius scheme to use the Odysseus’s systems in their favour, she instead said, ‘So how do we get out of this?’
‘I was hoping you had a plan,’ Kharth muttered. ‘Airex will get to the bridge. Tell the others what happened.’
‘You mean the Dav Airex who was almost as cracked as Templeton?’
‘Airex came to his senses and had a conversation with us. Templeton shot us and still thinks we’re figments of his imagination trying to stop him from killing himself. He’ll pull through for us.’
‘Great. Just great.’ Cortez rolled her eyes as Kharth looked over. ‘We’re in a situation this bad, and all you’ve got is “I’ve suddenly rediscovered faith in the ex who gave me massive trust issues?”’
Kharth winced. ‘Let’s be fair. I had trust issues before Dav. But it doesn’t sound great when you put it like that, no.’
‘Let’s call that Plan… Q.’
‘What’s A through P?’
Cortez let out a slow breath, eyes still dragging around Main Engineering in a desperate hunt for anything that might give them an advantage. ‘Still working on that.’