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Chapter One: A Private Anecdote
Landon Cary Dalton
I sit in my chair, staring at the view from the window of my hospital room. It is a nice view, but I have already grown tired of it. I have memorized every detail of every building on Starbase 11, or at least the portions within my limited sight. In some of the nearer buildings I am able to see the faces of some of the occupants. My favorite is a lovely young redhead who lives in the nearest building. Sometimes she stands on her balcony to enjoy her view. She has a look of innocent sweetness on her young face, as if she has never encountered any of the hardships and difficulties of life. I envy her.
The moon has risen. This moon appears to be much larger than the Earth's moon. It is encircled by a bright ring, not as impressive as the rings of Saturn, but still a lovely sight. I do not know the name of this moon or of any of its features, but I have their images memorized as well. I have named the various features after people and things that I have known. That range of sharply pointed mountains I named for Spock, a dear friend of mine. The horse-shaped sea I call Tango after a horse I once owned on Earth. The prominent crater in the Northern Hemisphere I call Boyce.
The lovely ring I have named Vina, for someone I think about often.
Commodore Mendez is very good to me. He has visited me at least once a week since my arrival here. He must have a very busy schedule commanding the starbase, but still he finds time for me. I wish I had some way to express my appreciation, but my injuries prevent me from expressing anything more complex than "yes" or "no."
Last week Mendez "accidently" allowed me to see the active duty roster. It was displayed on the viewer long enough for me to see my own name still listed on active duty.
"Fleet Captain Christopher Pike."
It was a noble effort on the part of the commodore to maintain my morale. This is, of course, an impossible task. My life has come to an end. The delta radiation has left my body a wasted husk, unable to move. The chair keeps my blood pumping in a vague imitation of life, but my heart knows the hopelessness of it all. My life has become nothing but an agonizing wait for death.
I watch as a shuttlecraft lifts off and flies in my direction. I entertain a shameful fantasy that it will malfunction and crash through this window to end my suffering. I am angry at myself for such thoughts. I ought to be able to find some way of dealing with this.
Then it comes to me again. I remember that same silly little thought that has occurred to me many times in the past thirteen years. It is a foolish, pointless thought, but it amuses me. I am physically unable to laugh, but inwardly my gloom lifts for a moment and my spirit rises with the thought.
"What if all of this isn't real?"
I dearly wish I could share this thought with José Mendez. He is a very sober man when on duty, but I recall him having a wicked sense of humor in private. He would appreciate the thought.
It is not that the thought reveals any great wisdom or that it possesses any deep meaning, but it is a thought that deserves to be shared. It has come to me at several crucial moments.
Yes, I'd love to tell this to Commodore Mendez, but I suppose it will have to remain a private anecdote. Even if I could express it to him, portions of it pertain to matters Starfleet has declared "Top Secret."
"What if all of this isn't real?"
If anyone has a cause to doubt the reality of his life, it is me. I was the one who visited the now-forbidden planet called Talos IV. It was there that I encountered the Talosians, a race of beings with incredibly developed mental powers. The Talosians were masters of illusion. I was shown a series of alternate versions of what my life could be. I experienced life on Earth, Rigel VII, Orion, all the while never leaving the cage in which I had been placed.
Since that day I have carried the thought with me. How do I know that I'm not still in the cage? How do I know that I'm not still on Talos IV, and that all my life since then hasn't been an illusion?
I guess I can never know with absolute certainty. Not that I've ever seriously doubted the reality of my surroundings. Still, the thought comes to me time and again. Strangely enough, the silly little thought has sometimes been of service to me.
The thought came to me that day on Corinthia VII. The Enterprise had been dispatched to survey this Class-M planet for possible future colonization. Information on the planet was sketchy, but there was no evidence of any sophisticated life-forms.
I led a landing party of six, including Spock, Dr. Boyce, Lt. Tyler, and two ensigns, Williams and Trawley. We beamed down to a dry riverbed near the planet's equator. Every planet I have visited has possessed its own unique beauty. This was a planet of purples and grays under a turquoise sky. A few scruffy red bushes dotted the landscape. Steep bluffs bordered the riverbed. Each of us drew out his tricorder and began our initial survey.
"Remarkably little microbial life," I commented.
Dr. Boyce kneeled down and scooped up a handful of soil. He let it cascade through his fingers in front of his tricorder.
"In the air, very little life," he said. "But the soil is teeming with it."
"Unusual," I said.
"Not really," said Boyce. "The same is true of Earth, though not to the same extent. There is life in the soil."
"Very well," I said. "You and Mr. Spock begin your survey. Mr. Tyler, take Ensign Trawley and establish our base camp. Ensign Williams and I will scout the perimeter."
I saw the look in Williams's eyes. It was his first time on a landing party. He was thrilled to be chosen to join the captain on a hike. I wanted his first away mission to be a memorable one. You only get one first time.
"Any suggestions, Ensign?"
He stuttered a bit at first. He was eager to impress me.
"I suggest we look for a way to get to the high ground overlooking the riverbed. That would give us the best vantage point to scan the surrounding area. We can probably find an easier place to climb if we go up the riverbed."
"Sound reasoning," I said. "Lead the way."
Williams began to march upriver. He tried to conceal the grin on his face, but I saw it just the same. I had grown more tolerant of eager young ensigns in recent years. I also enjoyed living vicariously through them as they experienced the thrills of space exploration for the first time.
Williams was about ten yards ahead of me when he stopped suddenly. He turned and looked at me.
"What do you see?" I asked.
"I'm not sure," he replied. "It looks like a sinkhole, or maybe the mouth of a cave."
Williams turned back to face the hole. I had only closed about half the distance to him when I saw him suddenly grab for the laser at his belt. I felt an immediate sinking feeling and grabbed for my own laser.
"Williams, get back!" I shouted. I was too late.
The creature was enormous. It rose quickly from the hole and reared up, its head towering a good twenty feet above Ensign Williams. Twin mandibles, ten feet long, hung from the enormous head. The mandibles snapped closed with a sound like thunder. The beast was covered with a thick carapace that looked as if it were made of the same stone as the surrounding cliffs. It was supported by dozens of clattering legs.
Williams hesitated only for a second before he began firing at the blocky head of the monstrosity. I could see that the carapace was being burned by the laser, but as the beast jostled about, Williams was unable to keep the beam focused on any spot long enough to burn through. I doubt if the creature could even feel the beam.
I added my laser to the battle, but I faced the same problem as Williams. Pieces of the creature's shell were burning and flaking off, but the damage wasn't deep enough.
"Williams! Retreat!" I shouted at the top of my lungs. He couldn't hear me over the creature's bellowing. He started to back up, but the creature was far too fast. It dove at the ensign and the massive mandibles snapped shut.
Williams was cut in two at the waist.
The beast dropped back into the pit. I raced to the edge, but the creature had vanished into the depths of the ground. Williams's legs lay nearby in a twisted heap. His torso had apparently been dragged into the pit by the murderous thing.
I settled to my knees in horror. Once again I had seen an innocent crew member lose his life for no good reason. Once again I experienced the hopelessness, the nagging feeling that I should have been able to do something to prevent this.
I drew forth my communicator to inform the others. Before I could begin to transmit, I heard a loud noise from the direction of my companions. It was the roar of a beast like the one that had just killed Williams. Then I heard the wailing screech of laser fire.
I stood and began to run down the dried riverbed toward my friends. I was determined not to lose any more people on this accursed planet.
The sounds of laser fire continued. That was encouraging. It meant my crewmates were still alive. But it also meant that they were still in mortal danger.
I came to a bend in the riverbed, and an awesome spectacle greeted my eyes. One of the loathsome beasts had emerged from its underground lair and was laying siege to my companions. Spock and the others had climbed the riverbank until they had their backs against the sheer face of a cliff. The cliff was far too steep to climb, and any descent was cut off by the monstrosity below. All four crewmen blasted away at it continuously, but it stood its ground.
I contemplated trying to draw it away, but this didn't seem a very promising strategy. It was too fast for me to outrun, and once it got me it would return to its attack on my companions.
As I examined the beast, I came to realize that its underside was not nearly as well armored as its top. If the underbelly was soft, then a laser might be able to do some damage there. Spock and the others couldn't possibly hit the beast's underside from their position high above.
It was up to me. I would have to rush underneath the creature, dodging its dozens of clattering legs. Our only hope was that the laser could rip its belly open.
For a moment I looked for alternatives, but could find none. Still I hesitated, unable to launch myself at the horror that threatened my friends.
Then the thought occurred to me. I don't know why I should think of it at that moment, but I did.
"What if all of this isn't real?"
The thought was all that I needed. It broke the tension in my mind. The thought that this might all be some Talosian illusion was funny to me. I actually laughed out loud at the absurdity of the thought.
Then I ran. I ran harder than I had ever run before. With my own laughter still ringing in my ears I ran between the monstrous legs. I sprinted up the creature's length, firing blindly overhead. I felt the splatter of warm liquids on my back. I kept firing until I emerged from beneath the beast's shadow.
I turned to face the creature. If I had failed, there was no point in running further. I stared at the bulky head of the creature. Its mandibles were still. Suddenly the creature's legs began to wobble. Then the beast collapsed. It fell into a massive heap of dying flesh.
My companions rushed down the hill to my side.
"Chris!" shouted Boyce. "Chris, are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Doctor. This blood all belongs to that thing."
Trawley slapped me on the back.
"You saved all our lives!" he was shouting. "Can you believe that?"
Technically Trawley was being overly familiar with his commanding officer, but I overlooked it for the moment. The situation warranted a little laxity in discipline.
"Let's get out of here," I said, reaching for my communicator.
"Chris, I can't believe what you just did," said Boyce. "I'd never have been able to summon up the strength to take that beast on by myself. What possessed you to do that?"
I just smiled at him. I didn't know how to tell him what was going on in my mind at that moment. I never did tell Boyce that I had saved his life because of a momentary indulgence of a foolish little thought. I wish I had told him now, because I will never again be capable of sharing that story.
Trawley was also present the next time that the thought occurred to me. He had risen in the ranks quite a bit by that time. He was a full commander. His first command was an old class-J cargo ship that was being used for cadet training.
He had matured quite a bit in the decade since our adventure on Corinthia VII, but he still had a worshipful look in his eyes when I came aboard for an inspection. His cadets were no younger than he had been when he joined the crew of the Enterprise, but still Trawley called them his "kids." I still saw Trawley as one of my children.
Trawley had only been aboard the ship himself for a week. He and the cadets were going to have quite a job getting this vessel into working order. Trawley was a good, thorough organizer. Given time he would be able to restore this ship to mint condition.
None of us knew it then, but time was not on our side.
Trawley gathered the crew together on the cargo deck and introduced me to them. They looked to me like children playing a dress-up game.
Trawley insisted on telling the cadets about our experience on Corinthia VII. I could tell that he had told this story many times before. He had perfected his delivery of it over time. My own memory varied a bit on some of the details, but I didn't quibble.
There was one detail, however, that I was surprised by. I couldn't imagine how he could know this particular detail.
"...and do you know what the captain did just before he attacked the creature? You'll never guess this in a million years. He laughed! I swear, I could hear it all the way up the cliff wall. He laughed!"
The cadets laughed as well. I considered telling Trawley the whole story that day, but I didn't get around to it. I was a little embarrassed by all the attention, so I decided not to bring the subject up again. Now I'll never get the chance.
Later that night I was alone in my cabin, reading the cadet reviews. They looked like a good bunch of kids. It looked like Starfleet was going to be in good hands for another generation.
Suddenly a shudder rolled through the ship. A lump formed in my throat. The shudder wasn't really all that bad, but sometimes you sense when a disaster is bearing down on you.
I stepped out of my cabin. The corridor was filled with terrified cadets. Alarm klaxons began to sound. One frightened young girl emerged from her cabin wearing nothing but a towel. Her eyes were already filling with tears.
I grabbed her by the shoulders. I kept my voice calm, expressing a cool confidence that I did not feel.
"Everything is going to be all right. Go get dressed and report to your station."
She straightened up and returned to her cabin. I looked at the confused crowd of cadets that had gathered in a circle around me.
"What's the matter with you people?" I shouted. "Get to your posts!"
Shame is a good motivator. The embarrassed crew members ran for their stations, eager to show me they knew their jobs.
I raced down to the engine room. The hatch was sealed. I looked through the porthole into the room beyond. I could see billowing clouds of gas.
A baffle plate had ruptured!
I could see the motionless bodies of half a dozen cadets. They might already be dead. I knew I couldn't leave them in there, but I also knew what delta rays can do to a man. For a moment I froze, unwilling to face the horrors on the other side of the hatch.
Then the thought came to me again.
"What if all of this isn't real?"
I didn't laugh this time. I knew as I looked that this was very real. If I didn't act fast, none of those cadets had a chance.
I felt a blast of heat as I opened that hatch, only I knew it wasn't really heat. It was the delta radiation knifing through my body. I stumbled in and grabbed the nearest cadet. She was wearing the thick protective coveralls of an engineer. That was good. That would help to minimize the effects of the radiation. I, on the other hand, had no such protection.
Six times I entered the engine room. Six cadets I pulled from that chamber of horrors. Two of them would die later at Starbase 11. But four of them would survive.
As for me, I'm not sure if I would count myself as a survivor or not. I cannot move and I cannot speak. All I can do is sit, looking and listening to the world around me.
I sit here and I stare at the ringed moon and at the lovely young redhead. I look at a world that I can no longer participate in.
And I think. I think so much that my head hurts. I am fearful of the days to come. I am afraid that my mind will begin to wither and die. It frightens me to think that my sanity may begin to leave me.
In the midst of the horror that my life has become, the idea returns to me again. Once again I imagine that I am back in my cage on Talos IV. I dream that all of this is just an illusion, soon to be replaced with better dreams. Perhaps the Talosians will send me back to Mojave next, or back to Orion.
"What if all of this isn't real?"
Inwardly I laugh. But I know that this is real. This isn't Talos IV. This isn't an illusion. But for the first time in thirteen years I wish that it were. Perhaps it is a sign of my weakening spirit, but I wish I could trade this reality for a dream.
I wish I were back in my cage.
Copyright © 1998 by Paramount Pictures