If everything else had been equal, battling the Heracles would have been a tall order, even if Federation starships in this reality had not benefited the same technological advancements in weapons systems that had occurred in his universe, the Heracles still had over one million metric tons on Eagle and with the additional mass also came more weapon emplacements and firepower.
But things were exactly equal.
Even as Eagle entered the subspace fold, the Ring was already in motion, spinning on its axis with increasing speed that in turn created powerful gravimetric waves against which the larger ship was clearly struggling.
Of course, Eagle was not immune to this either.
“Target their weapons and engines and open fire,” Michael ordered as soon as Eagle had completed the transition, determined to take the offensive for once. He was getting tired of having to play defense. They desperately needed a win.
Heracles was caught unaware by the attack and awkwardly attempted to lumber out of Eagle’s way while returning fire.
“Can you detect the away team?” Michael said as he held on tightly to his chair while the ship rocked hard underneath him, not so much from Heracles’ phaser fire but rather from the increasing gravimetric shear the ship was exposed to.
DeMara worked her console like a master pianist, her fingers dancing across the ops panels. “I am detecting six faint signals that are consistent with the energy signature of the armbands. Although sensors cannot say for certain, there is a good chance it’s the away team and that they are located within the Ring’s control sphere.”
“Try hailing them.”
“The Heracles has deployed an active jamming field,” said Leva, the tone of his voice not optimistic. “Comms are not able to penetrate it.”
“Can we beam our people out?”
“Possibly,” said Deen before she offered him a quick but skeptical look over her shoulder, revealing that she didn’t think it was a worthwhile attempt. “But with the current level of interference, it could go horribly wrong as well.”
“I recommend we don’t attempt to retrieve the away team at this point.”
Michael glanced at his first officer by his side.
“The Ring is active and we may be too late to stop it now,” she said to clarify her suggestion. “If that happens, we will need a way out of here before we get crushed.”
“And the only way out is another gateway,” Michael said, finishing her thought but then shook his head. “I am not giving up on this universe just yet. There must be a way to stop the Ring. Suggestions.”
“We don’t have nearly enough power to even attempt to stop the output of the supercollider,” said DeMara Deen. “I don’t even know if there are enough starships in the universe to produce that much energy. In this one or any other.”
“What if we targeted the Ring?” said Star. “Could we attempt to stop it by destroying it, or at least damaging it sufficiently to interrupt the particle acceleration process?”
“We would have to do so without exposing the particles that power the collider,” said Michael, referring to the extremely powerful and unstable Omega molecules they suspected were the source of the super collider’s immense capability and the catastrophic damage they could cause if they were accidentally destabilized. Although Michael mused that whatever Omega could do to the fabric of space-time paled in comparison to the destruction of an entire universe.
“If we do manage to damage or destroy the Ring, how would we find our way back home?” said Leva from tactical and Michael realized that he had no answer to that question.
A brief glance at Star made it clear that she didn’t have a solution either.
“We know that people have managed to travel between universes before so there must be other ways for us to get home,” he finally said. “And even if we can’t, I’d rather us being stuck here than do nothing while another reality is wiped out.” It was the right decision, of that he had no doubt, but he also couldn’t deny that he dreaded the notion of having to stay in a universe in which the Federation was a mere shadow of its former self, fractured and at war with itself.
And a host of other questions would suddenly have to be considered if they stayed here for good. Which side would they support in this civil war? Would they join the ranks of his counterpart and fight for the self-proclaimed Guardians, trying to maintain a fragile status quo, or would they join the so-called Preservers, and support their struggle to recreate the Federation they had lost, even if that meant having to oppose overwhelming odds by facing off against the superior powers that now controlled much of what had once been their territory.
Or did the Prime Directive apply to other universes as well and was he supposed to avoid all and any conflict and instead find a quiet place far removed from the frontlines of this war to live out the rest of their lives? Prime Directive or not, perhaps the latter was the most sensible choice among a long list of bad ones.
“Honestly, I think it’s a moot point,” said Deen. “I’m not sure our weapons would be able to penetrate the hull of the collider and our scans have not revealed any structural weakness we could exploit to damage it from within.”
Michael’s relief at not having to contemplate a scenario where they had to carve out lives in this twisted universe was entirely overshadowed by the worst-case scenario of this reality collapsing just like the last one they had visited while Eagle was crushed by the increasing gravimetric shear.
“Captain, the Heracles,” said Leva sharply, focusing everyone’s attention on the viewscreen that showed the large Galaxy-class starship they were currently engaged with.
Michael felt a sickening sensation growing deep within his stomach as he realized what had startled the tactical officer.
The Heracles was disappearing.
“It has begun,” said Deen, her voice somber as she stared at the viewer.
Not a moment later the other ship had stopped firing altogether and the bridge crew watched on with stunned silence as she faded out of existence, understanding perfectly well that this was not a localized phenomenon. It was the death knell of an entire universe being wiped out.
The event lasted perhaps five seconds but to Michael, it felt like an eternity and still not enough time to fully contemplate the magnitude of what had just happened here. What he had allowed to happen. For a second time.
Perhaps somewhat mercifully, he did not have the opportunity to dwell on this staggering loss for long. The ship lurched violently underneath him, nearly throwing him out of his chair.
Both Star by his side and Srena at the helm were less lucky and hit the deck hard.
“Shields are down, structural integrity is being compromised on decks three to nine. Hull damage reported on all decks,” Leva said with noticeable concern in the tone of his voice as he added to the seemingly endless list of things that were going terribly wrong for all of them.
Michael got the picture; the ship was coming apart. They would not be able to survive in in-between space much longer.
A glance at the screen now showed the Ring superstructure spinning at a mind-boggling rate as the Omega molecules were being accelerated and smashed together at velocities sufficient to create the energy to destroy a universe. Swatting away one more measly starship in the process seemed like a mere trifle in the bigger picture.
Star quickly picked herself back up from the deck, ignoring a minor cut running up her temple, and then helped Srena back in her chair before returning to her own. “We need to get out of here now.”
“Point me in a direction and I’ll take it,” he said, attempting and failing to hide his growing frustration.
“We may have to chance heading back the way we came,” she said.
“I would not recommend that,” said Deen as she turned to glance at them both. Michael noticed that her eyes were wet, although she did an admirable job of keeping the anguish she felt in check. “Worst case scenario, we perish along with that universe the moment we attempt to reenter it. Best case: The threshold to get us back there has been wiped out alongside the rest of that reality.”
“Sir, with Heracles gone, the jamming field has also ceased,” said Leva.
Michael cursed himself for having failed to think of that, however, in his defense, a lot of things were happening all at once. “Hail the away team.”
“There’s still significant interference from the gravimetric shear and attempting to pierce the secondary subspace layer they are located in. I cannot be sure if they can receive us,” the half-Romulan said.
“Divert all power not dedicated to keeping us in one piece towards communications. Boost it as far as you can and then open a channel,” he said, now holding on to his chair for dear life, fearing that if he lost his grip on his armrests for just a tiny bit, he’d go flying across the bridge.
Computer consoles all around him were overloading and exploding in a hail of sparks, at least two crewmembers manning aft stations had already been injured, possibly severely. Time was running out.
“Eagle to away team. The collider appears at full power and we have visual
confirmation that it is being successful. The gravimetric interference is threatening to destroy the ship in a matter of minutes,” he said and took a quick breath. “Our only chance now is to escape into another universe. I think we’d all love to go home but honestly, any place but here will do.” He briefly glanced at Tazla Star who offered him a nod in agreement. “I don’t know if you can hear this, but if you are able to open a portal, this would be a really good time to do it.”
That was it, Michael knew. It was all he could do.
Up until very recently and before universes had started to die on his watch, one of his worst fears as a starship captain had been to feel entirely helpless in the face of an imminent crisis and the knowledge that nothing he could do could save his ship or crew.
The lights on the bridge faded out as the ship continued to buck like a wild stallion determined to throw off its unwanted rider.
The only light came from the subspace layer itself via the transparent dome on the ceiling of the bridge, as the viewscreen and every single console that had not blown out yet went dark.
Sitting there in near darkness, with his ship moments away from tearing itself to pieces until there was nothing left in all of the infinity of the quantum-verse as a testament that they had ever existed at all, Michael couldn’t help but be reminded of T.S. Eliot’s morbid quote.
He closed his eyes.
This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.
Book III: Uncertainty Principle