The world around him was blurred and out of focus but bright enough that the light hurt his eyes.
It took a moment until he could be sure that all his extremities were still connected to his body but the dry sensation in his mouth seemed unwilling to pass.
His mind caught up slower than his body. Only after he had started to stir did he also regain glimpses of what had transpired and even then, he struggled to distinguish actual events from a powerful, soul-crushing vision he had experienced. At least, he hoped it had only been a vision.
It had been both depressing and confusing, it had felt like somebody had dropped all his worst nightmares into a blender and mashed them together until it had become impossible to distinguish one from the other. To tell apart what had been memories of things that had come to pass from possible premonitions of what could still take place in the future.
The name punched itself through his foggy consciousness, not unlike a razor-sharp knife driven right through his cerebrum.
It caused him to respond physically, and he jerked upwards far quicker than his body was prepared to. Naturally, he paid the price.
Lifting himself off the floor suddenly, his feet gave out almost immediately and he painfully slumped back onto the carpet uttering a low moan that never reached his ears.
The anguish that had spread through his being forced him to try again, but slower this time and with a greater appreciation of his obvious weakness.
The bridge had steadily come into focus again and he was able to distinguish and recognize familiar shapes and patterns all around him.
He managed to get back onto his hands and knees and tried to call out.
“Report,” he said but mostly only inside his own mind as the word refused to form on his lips and sounded more like an unintelligible gasp to his ears.
He spotted his chair nearby and reached out for it with a trembling hand. Once he had found purchase, he held on to the cushion as if his life depended on it.
Slowly yet steadily he managed to drag himself into his seat and then allowed himself a moment to take a deep breath and survey his bridge.
There was noticeable damage. The starboard wing console by the bulkhead to his right-hand side had clearly burned out, likely from a power surge, and was flickering on and off. The main viewscreen was without power and he could see an exposed conduit near the doors that led to his ready room.
Although he knew well that assessing his ship’s status purely based on what he could see did not tell him the full story, he had to admit that he had seen his bridge in far worse conditions than it appeared now.
He was far more concerned about his crew.
DeMara was slumped over her ops console to the left and Ensign Srena was lying on her side immediately next to her chair at the conn to the right. Tazla Star was lying flat on her stomach not far from her usual seat.
He forced himself to fight through the soreness of his body and made it out of his chair and then half walked, half stumbled over to where his first officer was lying. He practically fell to his knees beside her and, holding his breath, he reached for her neck to find a pulse.
His anxiety abated slowly once he felt the steady beat in her veins. Carefully he turned her on her back, a few strands of her bright red hair came loose from her bun and framed her face. More importantly, however, her chest was rising and falling the way it was supposed to.
Satisfied, he made the arduous task of getting onto his feet once more and then made his way to ops. He gently reached out for DeMara, bent over the console, and pushed her back into her seat. She uttered a little moan as he did so which was proof positive that she too was alive.
The Andorian helm officer was breathing as well but he didn’t like the angle of her head and decided against moving her in case he’d inadvertently injure her by doing so.
The voice inside his head caused him to snap up suddenly as if somebody had punched him unexpectedly.
It was only now that he remembered the Ring and the universe it had attempted to tear apart while they had been stuck in the middle of it all. The gateway that had started to form at the dead center of the superstructure and the away team he had left behind on the massive particle collider designed to wipe out entire realities.
The SMT operatives, Nora Laas, Louise Hopkins, Xylion, his father, and …
There was a small voice buried deep inside the back of his head that told him exactly what he needed to do first. What both regulations and logic demanded he focused his entire attention on without further delay. Check the rest of the bridge crew and assist his officers to take back their stations so that they could assess and assist the rest of the ship. Get a damage report, find out if there had been casualties and that sickbay was able to deal with them appropriately. Ensure the ship was safe from dangers; internal and external. And, of course, find out if they had finally managed to find their way back home.
All those actions he knew had to take priority and yet he was already on his way toward the turbolift, a fear he couldn’t quite explain driving him on, refusing to let up and allow him to focus on all the things he ought to be doing.
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Star attempting to get off the floor but by then he was already in the lift, thankfully still fully operational.
“Transporter room two,” he croaked in a voice that sounded nothing like his own and yet seemed to be enough for the computer to understand.
As the lift sped toward its destination, the many myriad images in his fever dream reasserted themselves in front of his mind’s eye. Edison and Amaya, Jarik and Altee, his father and the Ring, but more than anything else, one single individual had taken hold of his thoughts and refused to let go.
“Now it begins. Now it ends.”
The lift doors reopened and disgorged him onto deck six where he nearly stumbled over what he hoped was merely an unconscious crew member lying in the corridor.
He never stopped to check on his status.
Instead, he continued toward the two large door panels of the transporter room that obediently parted before him.
And then he froze.
There on the transporter platform, he found the away team. Somehow, and he couldn’t remember when or how they had managed to get beamed back on board. All of them were there, some were bleeding and clearly injured, likely requiring immediate medical attention.
But at that moment, he wasn’t concerned for any of the unconscious bodies littering the platform.
For there was one who had not shared their misfortune. One who just stood there, among the unconscious bodies, tall and with seemingly not a single scratch on his dark skin.
In his hand, he held a small, silver device he immediately recognized as the Exhibitor, the unassuming instrument that contained within it the awesome power of controlling the Ring and quite possibly the fate of entire universes.
Bensu, standing perfectly still not unlike a stone statue, was staring at him without speaking a word, his face an empty mask devoid of emotions.
And Michael just stared back.