He fell through total darkness for so long that he reached the point where it almost felt like flying, and he couldn’t be sure he was falling anymore. There was no sound of air rushing past him, and no feel of wind whipping at his clothes, in fact the only indication of movement was the inexorable pull of gravity. He wondered if he might be in a particularly dark region of space.
He was getting comfortable with that version of events when he struck a sandy surface. Despite the duration of his fall, the landing wasn’t too much worse than rolling off his bed in a drunken stupor at the Academy had ever been, and he sprang back to his feet. Adrenaline made his heart pound.
He was dressed in a black, regulation undersuit. The ground beneath his bare feet was plain black sand, fine-grained and gleaming under a narrow shaft of light that came from somewhere far overhead. Between him and that light source (and anything else) was a thick, clear, glass dome. Beyond that lay darkness.
He spared only a second to ponder how he could have fallen onto the sand without hitting the dome (or breaking every bone in his body) and set to looking for a way out. He tried digging underneath the glass, and this only revealed more glass or sand that refused to come loose. He took to pounding on the barrier and shouting. Maybe there was something or someone out there in the black that could hear him?
He stopped once he was too exhausted to move anymore, and leaned against the glass, panting. Wherever he was, he had to think of a way out. There had to be some way.
A flash out of the corner of his eye was his only warning. He turned to block whatever it was, and his arm was struck aside with such force that his teeth ached from the pain. A series of articulated metal arms, brassy-gold in color, were heaving themselves out of the sand and reaching for him. They each ended in a dozen, small, finely-wrought fingers, and moved with the smooth, whirring sound of precise machinery.
He darted out from under the closest arm’s reach, running for a different side of the dome, but fell to the sand when one of the other hands caught him by the ankle. He twisted and tried kicking at it with his free foot, and another arm grabbed that one as well. Now that he wasn't running, these two set to dragging him into a cage-like construct the rest had formed of themselves, with five remaining to chain him at his ankles, wrists, and neck.
Anger and panic threatened to overwhelm him. Their grip was firm, though not (thankfully) painful. He took a handful of ragged breaths and shouted up at the light, "Why are you doing this!"
There was no response. Now that the cage had him, the arms fell still, and the only sound was his own labored breath and his heart pounding in his ears.
Think, he told himself. You have to think.
He slowed his breathing and listened for anything that wasn’t himself, hoping for a clue or some sort of inspiration. Gradually he began to hear something else coming from overhead, and when he looked up he saw water splashing down onto the glass. He couldn't see the source; it came from somewhere far above, near the long line of light.
The water flow grew steadier. He had a moment of panic about the possibility of being trapped under dome as it filled with water, and was relieved to see it wasn't seeping in through the sand. Well, that was something.
He tried to calm himself. There was a way out of this, he just had to think it through. He needed to be as logical about it as possible, just like...like...
He tried, and tried, and couldn’t come up with the name. Now he was panicked, because that was a name he shouldn’t have been able to forget, any more than he could forget his own.
Which he realized, with mounting terror, that he also didn't know anymore.
The water was roaring down overhead, and had risen so far that it almost covered the dome. He could feel it now as it picked up speed; his memories and thoughts and experiences, all bleeding out of him into the rapidly filling lake. He thought he caught bits and pieces as they drained away, though perhaps that was just desperation.
It's gonna be okay, son.
Frustration that his friend couldn’t understand an obvious gesture of friendship.
Elation at finding out she had survived (he should know her name and her race but those were both already gone).
Another friend refusing to leave him behind.
The purpose of the test is to experience fear.
Despite being on the verge of tears he laughed, because fear was the only thing he had left now. He held onto it, hoping it would remind him of things. If it worked, he might have to thank--
You are the Pilot of the Praxidi starship Dancer in the Void.
The call echoed around him and through him. He froze, waiting, listening. The lake had become a sea now, hundreds of feet deep, and the light was fading.
You are the Pilot.
The words pulled at some new part of him that was growing stronger even as the rest drained away. He resisted with all that he had left. "No, no, I'm not. That's not who I am."
But who was he? He was an empty shell, and the voice filled the emptiness. The sea deepened into an ocean--miles upon miles of memory and thought and experience--and everything vanished into a darkness so deep he thought the universe might be at an end. (The grip of the cage and the pressure of the water around the dome reminded him otherwise.)
"Don't do this," he whispered. “Please don't do this.”
You are the Pilot.
He gripped his nails into his hands, hard enough to draw blood, trying to hold out as long as he could. The voice worked its way into every corner of him and wouldn't be denied. There was nothing left to deny it anyways, save for this last sliver of defiance whose source he couldn't even name.
You are the Pilot.
Between one shuddering breath and the next he recognized what it was: a call to him, waiting for a response, and he knew what that response had to be.
With that understanding he felt the last pieces of whatever he had been before that moment lose hold. He braced himself for whatever would come next, and answered.
I am the Pilot.
In the darkness under the ocean, someone screamed.
Jim bolted awake, the relentless voice and his own screaming and the Pilot's acquiescence still thundering in his ears. Gaila touched his arm, and he flinched as the contact brought his mind crashing back to reality. He was shaking and coated in a fine sheen of sweat despite his temperature controlled quarters on the Enterprise.
He cursed under his breath and slowly laid back on the bed. The various electronics scattered around the room offered just enough light to dispel any lingering memories of the bone-numbing darkness under the ocean.
Gaila reached over to stroke his face, and he took several deep, slow breaths.
"I wasn't me anymore," he whispered, and though he thought it sounded like nonsense, he felt her nod in understanding. Without thinking he rolled over and reached for her. She gathered him up, and he hid his face against her neck. She stroked his back and he sighed, exhausted.
"Sorry I woke you up."
She shook her head, dismissing the apology, and began murmuring something in an Orion language. He barely understood enough of the dialect she practiced with him to follow the words, but it had the cadence of a poem or maybe a song, and it was soothing. Sleep reclaimed him in short order.
As she held him in the dark while he trembled from the after-effect of the nightmare, Gaila decided that it would be best if Commander Spock kept her off any Praxidi diplomatic missions from here on out. She couldn't be certain that, should they ever come across the ones who'd done this to him again, she wouldn't kill them on sight.
To comfort herself as much as him, she recited Ujia's Song for the Warriors, which told of that goddess' brutal vengeance on those who'd brought harm to her loved ones. He fell asleep again, though it was some time before she could do the same.