He nodded at her and held her closer. He could feel her weight in his arms as they embraced, could smell her fragrance and when their lips touched, he could sense her skin, her warmth, her entire being.
None of those sensations lasted. With his eyes closed and his mind focused on the kiss they were exchanging, he could already feel her slipping away from him.
When he finally looked at her, Amaya Donners was dissolving in front of his eyes. “No, stay with me,” he heard himself beg.
But she wasn’t even looking at him anymore. Or rather, she was looking through him now, as if he no longer existed even while it was she who was fading out of reality. He tried to grab on tighter to her but in the end, all he came away with was empty air until even the specter of her appearance had dissolved into nothingness.
“Amaya,” he cried as if shouting her name loudly enough would force her to reappear.
He heard his voice endlessly reverberate in the dark void that had opened where she had been just moments ago.
She didn’t return but somebody else did.
The figure of Gene Edison suddenly swam into his vision. He was certain it was Edison even though much of his face was distorted and almost unrecognizable. His former friend and first officer didn’t linger either and instead, he too disappeared in much the same way Amaya had.
Edison was soon followed by other familiar faces: Tazla Star, DeMara Deen, So’Dan Leva, his father, Nora Laas, and at an increasingly faster pace, every single person he had ever known appeared in front of him, albeit briefly and only to vanish inside the void.
And it didn’t end there. Once they had all come and gone, other objects followed suit. The starship Agamemnon appeared only to be swallowed up by infinite nothingness. Then the Fearless, the first starship he had served on as an ensign fresh out of the Academy, followed by the Columbia, his first command and then ultimately Eagle herself. He watched stunned and helpless as Earth briefly manifested itself and then vanished, as did Andor, Vulcan, and Tenaria, entire stars and even galaxies disappeared until he started to feel the pull himself.
He tried to brace himself against it, tried to move away from the void but it was all for naught, the force of it was overwhelmingly strong.
As he approached the threshold and just before he was sucked inside, he realized that the outer edges of the dark, endless void were shaped like a perfect ring.
The darkness swallowed him whole just as the feeling of nothingness, of eternal solitude, insignificance, and misery began to take hold of him completely.
Michael awoke with a start to find himself lying on a biobed in sickbay.
The overhead lighting was such a stark contrast to the darkness he had been plunged into just a moment ago that he needed to bring up a hand to shield his eyes.
What he had experienced, it hadn’t felt like a dream at all. It was still so raw in his memory, the sensations so acute, touch, smell, sight, all of it felt as if it had truly happened and yet he knew that it couldn’t have been possible.
As his eyes were beginning to adjust to the light and he began to lower his arm again, he spotted a face entering his vision, looking down at him with a frown he quickly recognized and which made him wonder if Doctor Elijah Katanga had been off the day they had taught bedside manners at medical school.
“Look who has finally deigned to rejoin the land of the living,” he said before he consulted his readings displayed on the monitor above the biobed. “How do you feel?”
It took him a moment to find his voice. “Not as well as I would like, to be honest.”
At that Katanga actually offered a tiny smirk. “A starship captain admitting to his own weakness? Will wonders never cease?” He picked up a tricorder and began to scan him for additional details. “Although I’m sure you are still understating the matter, considering that you smashed right into a bulkhead and suffered a nasty concussion in the process.”
It was only now, that the dreamlike sensations and the associated dread were beginning to fade, that he was starting to feel his physical body, especially the pain from his bruises and his aching bones.
“I’ve treated the concussion and your vitals have almost fully recovered about an hour ago but I thought it best to keep you unconscious a while longer to give your body the chance to heal.”
“I wish you hadn’t,” Michael said. Considering the intensity of his visions, he would have gladly accepted any kind of physical pain in order to avoid that nightmare. He tried to push himself up on the bed but was forced to stop when his body began to protest his movements.
Katanga quickly placed a hand on his shoulder. “Easy now, your not really in shape to go gallivanting around yet.”
“You can give me something for the pain.”
That trademark frown was back on his face. “You know, pain can be a good thing, Captain. It reminds us of our limitations and when we need to slow down and let our bodies heal.”
Michael stared right at the octogenarian doctor.
It didn’t happen often but on this occasion, Michael won the wordless argument and Katanga backed down, reaching for a hypospray on a nearby tray and injecting it into his arm. The sensation was almost immediate and Michael could feel his body relax and the aches subside enough to allow him to sit up and swing his legs around. “Much better, thank you, Doctor.”
He nodded reticently, clearly not entirely happy. “You just take it easy for a few hours. I have little scruple to relieve a starship captain of active duty if I have to. Wouldn’t be the first time either.”
“I have no doubt,” he said and attempted to stand. Katanga actually had to steady him when he initially threatened to lose his balance. “Just a little dizzy from lying down so long,” he quickly said, preempting another lecture from the doctor.
He looked around sickbay and found Nora Laas and Xylion already sufficiently recovered to be sitting on their beds. Jarik also seemed to be awake, although he was still lying down. His father and Bensu still appeared to be unconscious.
“What happened after we beamed back on board?” Michael asked while he tried to search his memory, which remained fuzzy and mostly obscured by his recent dream vision. He recalled having been beamed back onto the ship from the Ring and thought to remember Star’s voice calling out but other than that he was having difficulties putting it all together.
“We went through yet another of those blasted portals. God knows where this one has deposited us. Thankfully we were a little bit more prepared this time. DeMara and I managed to inoculate the majority of the crew against the side effects we’ve seen last time we went through one of those things. I believe our industrious chief engineer and Taz managed to do the same for the ship itself.”
Michael nodded as he walked over to Xylion and Nora who had both gotten back onto their feet to huddle together. “How are the two of you?”
The Bajoran security officer gave him an affirmative nod. “I’ve had worse,” she said.
Michael offered her a smile. He was fairly certain that she was understating things much more than he had done earlier but then he wouldn’t have expected anything less from his tougher-than-nails security chief.
“The experience of passing through another gateway was unpleasant, however, I believe I have mostly recovered my strength,” the Vulcan said.
“Did either of you experience anything while you were out? Visions or dreams of any sort?”
Both Nora and Xylion answered in the negative and Michael didn’t get the impression that either of them was attempting to hide anything. Of course, this made the fact that he had been faced with such disturbing imagery all the more concerning.
He and Xylion approached Bensu next who remained unconscious on his biobed. “How about him, Doctor?”
Katanga brought up his tricorder again for additional scans but quickly shook his head. “Bensu is the only member of the away team who has not regained consciousness yet. Now, this isn’t necessarily a reason to be concerned. We already know that losing consciousness is a side effect from traversing these gateways and we still have a few people who remain affected by this.”
Michael moved on to his father.
“He has not suffered any serious injuries I have not been able to address and his vitals, including his brain patterns, are stable. Considering his recent medical history, however, I’d rather not wake him for now,” Katanga said in a tone which made it very clear that he was not going to have another argument about his prescribed medical treatments.
On this occasion, Michael decided that he was probably right.
A sudden scream caused both him and Katanga to whip around towards Bensu. He had awoken suddenly, his entire body shaking uncontrollably and only Xylion’s quick reaction, grabbing him by the shoulders, appeared to have kept him on top of his bed.
Nora quickly jumped to the other side of the bed to help the science officer to try and keep Bensu steady.
It appeared to be a tough fight, as Bensu’s body refused to stop shaking or screaming for that matter. His eyes were eerily wide open as if he had seen a ghost and yet they didn’t seem to be focused on anything.
Katanga and Michael quickly joined the others, as did a small group of nurses and med techs prompted to action by Bensu’s toe-curling screams.
“What’s wrong with him?” Michael asked as he watched the nurses and Katanga taking over for Xylion and Nora, trying desperately to hold down the thrashing man.
Katanga, however, was too busy giving instructions to his people, asking for various medical compounds that were hopefully going to calm him down.
It took a few minutes until they found the right combination of drugs to at least stop the screaming and the seizures but Bensu’s eyes remained wide open as he was mumbling incoherently.
It wasn’t until Michael managed to get closer to him that he could hear what it was he was saying over and over again. “The universe is dead. The universe is dead.”
It gave him chills mostly because he already suspected that he was exactly right. In some way he still couldn’t explain, the alternate universe they had visited had suddenly and unexpectedly been utterly annihilated, including Amaya Donners and every other person or object inhabiting it. It was still difficult for him to even grasp the full scope of this and its implications.
Bensu finally stopped his mantra and the seizures fully subsided, allowing a couple of nurses to place him onto his back again.
“Bensu, can you hear me?” Katanga asked a few times but although his eyes remained open, he didn’t seem responsive at all. The doctor looked at Xylion next. “Has he ever exhibited these kinds of symptoms before?”
“Not as far as I know,” Xylion said.
“What do you think is wrong with him?” Michael asked.
“Honestly, I have no idea. This is definitely a much more extreme reaction than we have seen previously. Most of his anatomy is still a mystery to me, although on the surface his vitals appear to be within a range I would ordinarily class as acceptable.”
“Bridge to sickbay.”
Michael looked towards the ceiling, recognizing Star’s voice.
“Is Captain Owens awake?”
“I am, Commander. How’s my ship?”
“Glad to hear your voice, sir. I would have hated to have to argue with Eli to have to wake you. We’ve taken some damage from our latest transition but not nearly as much as last time.”
“Understood, Commander. Are we back home?” he said and fought the urge to hold his breath. The short pause in Star’s response didn’t help matters.
“I think you better come up here and see for yourself.”
“I’ll be right there, Owens out,” he said and then looked at Katanga who he was sure was about to raise an objection. “You have another patient who will require your attention more urgently than I do,” he said and glanced at Xylion. “Commander, stay here for now and provide the doctor with any assistance you can dealing with Bensu.”
Xylion offered a brief nod, understanding that since he had been instrumental in creating Bensu’s synthetic body, he understood his physiology better than anyone else on board.
Michael wasted no time to get out of sickbay and before Katanga could try and find a reason to keep him contained.
The short journey to the bridge was not a pleasant one for him. Besides some ongoing dizziness and lingering aches, he was plagued by a multitude of disturbing thoughts, chief among them was the apparent destruction of the other reality which it now seemed they had managed to escape in the nick of time. He couldn’t stop thinking of Amaya having vanished in front of his eyes. He could also not shake the sensation of dread his vivid visions had left in him.
On top of all that, he was also worried about Bensu and his father’s health which had already shown signs of failing. The matter of the subspace aliens and their poor reaction to their attempts to communicate with them was also an ongoing concern and he couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t a link to their unexpected behavior and the destruction of the alternate universe. He didn’t even want to think about the still unresolved threat of an invasion.
By the time he had reached the turbolift, he had resolved that he needed to face one crisis at a time, and for now, the most pressing concern was where the gateway had transported them to. He desperately hoped it had brought them back home but something in Star’s voice had made him doubt that.
Those fears were confirmed when he emerged from the turbolift and stepped onto the bridge to be greeted by another, familiar face displayed larger than life on the main viewscreen.
It belonged to a man who had been desperate to kill them all not too long ago and Michael felt an immediate tightness in his stomach upon seeing yet another version of Lif Culsten.