The USS Discovery drops from warp eighteen hours after leaving Earth.
Even this meager perturbation in the fabric of spacetime sends a ripple through the black holes that loom on all sides of the ship. Reality itself shakes at the Discovery ’s arrival, as a forest might in a cold wind.
In the wide forward viewscreen, the Rostrum claws its way through space like the mutilated jaws of a thousand slavering mouths. Black holes loom like fate, singularities twisted into agonized shapes in their efforts to keep reality intact. Normal space is long behind them. Only these horrific blights and yawning rips in reality remain, and the sight is disturbing to the point of physical terror. Whatever had happened here all those millennia ago, it had nearly spelled the end of the universe as they knew it.
For the first time since his onboarding, Captain Christopher Pike feels that perhaps taking on this assignment was a mistake.
It is clear from the silence across the rest of the bridge that the crew shares his sentiment. The position of the captain’s chair does not give Pike the ability to see any of his bridge complement’s faces; however, Detmer and Owosekun are both rigid in their seats. Detmer’s typically lively hands are still upon her console. Tactical and comms are both silent. Even science has nothing to say on the matter; despite the proximity of one of the greatest scientific anomalies in the known galaxy.
The ship itself trembles. A deep groan echoes through the Discovery ’s superstructure, as if begging them to turn back.
Pike clears his throat. He straightens his spine, remembering their mission.
“Tactical, Science…scan the system. Singularities aside, I want to know if there are any traces of Red Angel interference. Tachyon residue, mycelial readings, anything.”
“Aye, sir,” Rhys and Nilson reply in unison.
“Detmer, how’s our ship looking?”
Lieutenant Detmer’s hands finally fly into motion. “We’re at ninety-eight percent impulse at the moment, engines to full. Our flight plan dropped us into a zone of cancelling vector forces, but it won’t stay that way for long.”
“Keep monitoring the situation, pull Lieutenant Airiam for manual calculations if you have to. Owo, status?”
“All systems online, long-range sensors powered down for maximum energy savings. Hull stress is rising by eight point four kilonewtons per second.”
Owosekun turns in her seat. “We have approximately one hour before we’re ripped apart.”
“Then let’s be ready. Mr. Stamets?” Pike opens the channel to Engineering via his armrest control. “Are your people in position?”
“ We’re ready, Captain ,” comes the tenor voice over the bridge. Pike settles into position in his chair. Uncomfortable, tense, ready to beat a swift retreat at the slightest signal of unrest.
“Then let’s hope your miracle appears.”
In the darkness of the spore lab, Ensign Sylvia Tilly sways back and forth, her fingers tapping at her console.
“Doctor Culber, are you doing alright?” She calls over the tricorder.
There’s a few muffled sounds from the other end of the feed.
“ Well, I’m covered in fungal ooze and feel like I’m in an esophagus. But other than that, I’m great! ”
The Rostrum is a thin spot indeed; the doctor’s voice is so clear and so loud that he could be standing right on the other side of the console. The physical evidence of the proximity of their two universes is downright eerie.
“Yeah!” Tilly manages in response. “Yeah, I know the feeling!”
Minutes crawl by. At his terminal, Paul Stamets runs scans and calculations. He monitors the short-range sensors, checking over and over for signs of Red Angel appearance. Commander Reno sits on the floor, her legs dangling inside an open port in the lab’s floor decking. A handheld monitor sits in her lap, interfacing with the EPS grid that will supply the power for the transfer of Culber’s consciousness across the network.
Inside the white-lit drive is the massive, smelly fungal cocoon. The giant hulk of mossy organics is clearly rotting; its once-brown carapace now a sickly gray. Outside of the cocoon, a compact heart-lung machine beeps and chirps, with several leads disappearing into the fungus’ interior.
Keeping the inanimate body of Hugh Culber alive and functioning, so that his consciousness might have a chance to occupy it.
“Uh—” Tilly mumbles. Her voice strengthens after a brief false start. “That’s…forty-five minutes down. Commander, what if—what if the Angel doesn’t show?”
“It will,” Stamets states resolutely. “It will. It has to.”
From her post at the EPS hub, Reno waves her handheld screen a little vaguely. “Bridge is starting to get antsy. As is everybody else, from the looks of it.”
As if to illustrate Reno’s point, the ship bucks. A metallic boom shudders through the deck, the wall, the air itself.
“Yeah,” Reno continues, as if nothing at all had happened. “Hull stress is at seventy percent of maximum tested value. If this goes on for much longer, we’re gonna get ripped apart in the space blender.”
“ Commander Stamets! ” The intercom crackles loud with Pike’s voice. “ Our window is closing rapidly. I suggest you get your project going now! ”
“But—” Stamets grinds his teeth. “But sir! We have barely enough power to keep the lights on!”
“ They told me you were the brightest minds in the galaxy! Figure something out! ”
“Commander!” Tilly’s young voice is frightened. “We really can’t wait much longer for a miracle to appear!”
Indeed, Tilly’s console appears to be smoking. With a squeak, she leaps backwards as what appears to be a dented bulb of air rises out of her terminal like a bubble to the surface of a pond.
Stamets’ jaw drops. Reno emits a soft curse.
“That’s a rip in spacetime, Ensign,” she calls. “Don’t touch it!”
“Oh fuck, oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck,” Tilly mutters as she trots across the lab to place herself behind Reno. The bizarre spherical bubble rises to the ceiling of the lab and disappears into nothing.
Silence holds fast in the dark room.
“I’m no temporal physicist, but I’m almost certain that’s bad.”
Reno’s voice is unperturbed, but unease splits her expression.
“There’s variables here that we didn’t plan for!” Tilly exclaims. “No one’s been here in decades, we didn’t know what could happen!”
Right on time, the intercom crackles once more. “ Commander Stamets, if I don’t hear any ideas from you within one minute I’m pulling the plug! ”
“No!” Stamets shouts. “No, we’ll do it! We have a plan!”
“We do?” Tilly queries at the same time Reno states, “Bad plan, friend.”
“Do you see much of an alternative?”
Stamets all but runs to the opposite terminal. “Stamets to Engine Room, fire up back-up generator three and be prepared for a site-to-site fuel transport!”
“Stamets!” Reno shouts.
“We have to do this!”
“We don’t know what we’re playing with here!”
“Yes we do! Tilly ran hundreds of tests, nothing happened!”
“Nothing that we know of!” Reno leaps to her feet. She plants herself in front of Stamets, who is pulling canister after red spore canister out of the back wall. “We are in the worst area of the universe to be playing God right now!”
“I’M NOT PLAYING!” Stamets roars.
In the open area of the lab, Tilly suddenly understands Commander Stamets’ plan.
“ What is happening ?” A tinny, barbed wire voice demands from the tricorder. “ Why has he not gone through yet ?”
Reno is still arguing with Stamets, thus Tilly takes it upon herself to answer.
“We’re um—we’re getting power from an alternate source! Stand by!”
“Computer, initiate site-to-site inorganic transport, spore lab to engine room!”
Tilly turns just in time to see fear flash across Reno’s face. At Stamet’s feet, a large orange shimmer swirls to life and disappears. Horror murks Tilly’s chest as her eyes travel from Stamets to the dark wall at his back.
The storage ports behind the main terminal of engineering are empty. The containment units of red spores are all gone.
Reno bites out a curse and takes the doorway out of the lab at a sprint.
The cavernous engine room of the USS Discovery is unusually hot when Jett Reno arrives. Metallic clanks issue from the tanks and metal piping that snake the room’s vast interior. Distant rumbling shakes at the walls. Steam hisses from the grates in the floor. It’s all very dramatic, Reno notes. Far too dramatic, for a starship of this caliber.
They must be in a bad way.
Lieutenant Linus’ forked tongue snakes in and out of his mouth as he works, darting from display to red-flashing display as he attempts to put out fires. The alerts shimmer across his scaled skin. The lizard man is well-made for this job; the temperature in the room is pushing forty Celsius. Reno leaps into battle beside him, sweat beading at her temples.
“Where’s the payload!” She shouts. Linus gestures broadly behind him, aft of the main reactor. Reno leaps a knot of pipes and slides down an access ladder.
“Holy shit, it’s working!” Comes an exclamation from the smoke.
“Power at two hundred thousand to the thirty tera-joules and rising!”
Reno rounds the corner of an electrical booth. Her heart sinks in her chest.
A pair of ensigns are working fast at the massive carapace of Back-up Generator Three. The generator is the length of Reno’s quarters and twice as tall. Pipes and wires the width of Reno’s body spiral upwards from the alternator, carrying electricity through the bowels of the ship and into Engineering. At the generator’s main compartment, a circular spore canister interface has been welded onto the durasteel.
She and Stamets had spent weeks working on this side-project. But Reno had never imagined that they would use it here, now, like this.
One ensign plugs glowing red canisters into the hastily welded spore interface, tossing the empties beneath the generator’s metal body. The other’s hands fly across the control panel, pulling tabs as if his life depends on it. The readouts are all angry red. The system is overheating.
“Jesus Christ,” Reno mutters. God help her with these pudgy-faced ensigns who had never built a motor in their lives. She storms towards the generator. “You!” She barks at the ensign at the control panel. “Go over there and get some back-up coolant! We’re running way too hot! You!” The ensign with the glowing red jar in his hands looks ready to flee in terror. “Titrate those canisters! Do you want to blow us all sky high? Slow down! Is there a comm down here!”
The ensign with the canister nods quickly.
“Then get the hell on it and comm for back-up! As many hands as we can get, we’re far outside manufacture reccs on this thing!”
Reno throws open every air vent on the generator’s surface. She then strides to the back wall of the engine room. In a move she has only done once before, during the Hiawatha ’s critical tailspin into engine failure, she overrides the code for climate control. The industrial heaters typically keep ambient temperature of the Discovery at a livable value, protecting their fragile organic bodies from the ice-cold vacuum of space.
But right now, a little vacuum chill is exactly what they need.
The temperature of the engine room plummets like a meteor. Klaxons blare their typical alerts, echoing through the cavernous space. With concerned eyes, Reno monitors the readouts, the display screen upon the generator. The spores’ strange combustion reaction. Matter to energy in a direct conversion.
Stars know they need all the energy they can get. But there is the ingredient X, the factor that no one can predict.
The time component. The tachyon radiation.
In an area of already-mangled spacetime, such a component could prove their salvation, or their undoing.
“We have power!” Tilly shouts next to the reaction cube. “Transfer initiating!”
“Yes!” Stamets punches the air. In the glowing spore drive, the fungal cocoon begins to glow hot white-blue, as it had weeks ago during their battle with the fungal hitch-hiker. The power-meter at the side of the cube is rising, numbers flashing too quickly to make out.
In another universe where phosphorescence glows across pulsing ground and red tints the sky like amber flame, the creature May Ahearn watches her fungal transporter close over the Human doctor’s face.
“You will keep your promise?” She whispers to him.
“You know I will,” Culber replies. “We have a treaty.”
The brown knots cover the doctor’s brown face entirely. With practiced Human hands, May picks up the tricorder at her side.
“They’re doing it!” Nilson’s elated voice echoes across the bridge. “Reaction cube is online, the transfer is underway!”
The bridge erupts into cheers.
“Power is at nineteen point eight to the twelve terajoules! The red spore conversion is working!”
“I’ll be damned,” Pike murmurs at the captain’s chair. In a louder voice, he calls “Detmer, how are we doing?”
The lieutenant’s hands are shaking above her console as she holds the ship still via manual stabilization. “The computers are compensating for the drift! But our vectors are fluctuating! As the engines fatigue, the ship won’t be able to keep up!”
“Owo, the hull?”
“Ninety percent max pressure! We’ll buckle in under two minutes!”
The Discovery shakes out an agonized groan. The deck screeches, girders and struts protesting the singularities’ competing forces.
“Sir?” That’s Saru’s voice.
“Stamets!” Pike barks. “What’s our time?”
“ About one minute until he’s across !”
“Cutting it close.”
“Engine room!” Pike barks. “Status!”
Clanging and distant shouts issue across the intercom. A hiss cuts the air; something has clearly burst.
“ Going—fine! ” From the gritty tone of voice, Commander Reno could well be holding the engines together manually.
“ Backup reactor at full throttle! Honestly—the limiting factor is—ship’s hardware! We’re not rated for this amount of raw power! ”
“Well, keep working on it!”
“ You want me to update the ship’s EPS grid in the next thirty seconds —”
Commander Saru’s shout cuts through the intercom. Irritated, Pike spins to face him, but the look on Saru’s Kelpien face jolts him out of his anger.
“I’m picking up massive fluctuations from the Rostrum! These temporal distortions are well beyond the anomaly’s typical values!”
Indeed, as Pike looks out the forward viewscreen, the maw of singularities seems to be writhing. Black holes shudder and twist. The sight is nauseating; spacetime itself seethes into sharp tangles before Pike’s very eyes. And deep in his bones, he feels a vast, fundamental shudder through the fabric of the air itself.
“Gravitational waves like nothing ever charted!”
“My console’s going haywire!” Nilson cries.
“Something big is happening out there!” Rhys’ voice issues from Tactical. “The sensors don’t know how to process it!”
“Tachyons…” Pike murmurs. The byproduct of the strange red spores are having consequences in the immediate environment.
All around the Discovery , in every direction of known space, black holes seethe, dark whirlpools in a howling maelstrom. The Rostrum ripples like water over the edge of an unseen cliff.
With the USS Discovery in the eye of the storm.
“Transfer is ninety-four percent complete!” Ensign Tilly calls. Her console displays a map of Hugh Culber’s brain activity. Red alert sirens scream. The deck is shuddering beneath their feet, and a low, persistent groan creaks through the walls and ceiling. Competing forces at work; the Discovery is being actively torn apart.
Commander Stamets is kneeling in front of the reaction matrix, handheld screen on his knees. “Come on, come on come on—”
With an electric fizzle, the console nearest to the door of engineering sparks and erupts into flame. Tilly yelps. Sparks fly from the ceiling as the room shakes. Acrid smoke fills the air.
“It’s alright!” Stamets shouts. “It’s alright, we’ve got this!” His gaze does not leave the glowing fungal cocoon in the middle of the reaction cube. Within the cube, his partner’s body. His partner’s life.
“We’ve got this,” he whispers. And for the first time since he was a very small boy at his mother’s sickbed, Paul Stamets closes his eyes.
Sickbay One is completely silent. The entire alpha shift complement has clustered around the main terminal in the side-wall. On one half of the screen are the fluctuating temporal readouts of the Rostrum. On the other half of the screen, a terrifying visual display of the ship’s surroundings.
Space itself pulses. Black holes flare loud in one moment, only to retreat into the black of space as if vanished. Singularities vibrate like soundwaves, perturbations in the shimmering cosmic backdrop of stars. They are rubbing an already-raw area of spacetime with the equivalent of twenty-grit sandpaper.
“Look at those spacetime distortions,” comes a terrified whisper.
“It’s like we’re in the center of twelve neutron stars put together,” says another.
“Gravitational waves like that aren’t possible.”
Lieutenant Philippa Georgiou rubs at the starburst scar beneath her jacket. She watches the singularities pulse and howl against the influx of raw tachyon radiation, fighting the unfiltered time that pours into their depths from the engine room of the USS Discovery . Philippa recalls her battle in the Sarcophagus, the split second between being stabbed through the chest and dying, her heart shredding itself to pieces as it beat against the knife, struggling to keep her alive.
She knows exactly what is about to happen.
Tilly’s shout rings across the lab. In the echo of her call, the exposed portion of the EPS grid explodes. Fire rips through the hole in the floor, shards of metal and plexiglass whirling like shrapnel into the spore lab. Tilly shrieks and drops behind her console. Bits of sharp metal strike the terminal stand like bullets. Overhead bulbs burst, screens puncture and go flat with digital snow. The lights go out as the spore lab goes offline.
The reaction cube goes dark.
“No! NO!” Face bloody, uniform shredded, Paul Stamets bangs desperate fists on the glass wall of the spore drive. “Come ON! Come on come on come on! Hugh!”
Hands sliding down the transparent steel, Stamets crumples to a supplicative kneel in front of the drive. He casts the plea out to the universe, through the invisible veins and muscles that bind everything and everyone, the mycelial network and normal space. Himself, and the man he loves, whose soul is in transit between here and there.
“One hundred percent!” Tilly screams.
In front of the spore cube, Stamets’ body unclenches.
And in the next moment, The Rostrum collapses.
Outside of the USS Discovery ’s durasteel hull, the range of black holes fold in on themselves like a house on fire. In their dying throws, the singularities emit a blazing roar. The noise shears spacetime itself, shaking reality upon its bedrock. Every crewmember on the Discovery feels the sound in their bones like the dying breath of God.
This is the reverse of the Big Bang. The end of everything. The universe crumpling like a spacecraft in the throes of explosive decompression.
On the Discovery ’s bridge, Christopher Pike closes his eyes, prepared to meet his God, wherever they may be.
“Oh my God…” Comes Nilson’s whisper.
“It’s stabilizing,” Saru’s voice is incredulous. “The field is—it’s stabilizing!”
Detmer looks up from the helm, Owosekun unfolds from her protective hunch. But behind the first officer’s console, the Kelpien man’s relief quickly turn to horror, and the entire bridge complement quickly understands why.
The tachyon background radiation is disappearing.
Slowly at first, then faster and faster. Numbers at the corner of the forward viewscreen flicker too quickly to see. The universe attempting to right itself, to keep from snapping like a thread with an anvil tied to each end. Sucking up waves and waves of time itself to patch the distortions, to keep reality whole .
The black holes dissipate. The singularities shudder in their courses and vanish. For the first time in many millennia, the Rostrum rights itself. Spacetime stabilizes.
And then it overshoots.
Captain Pike stares through the floor-to-ceiling window with stunned eyes. All around the Discovery , the rips in reality have disintegrated to nothing. As have the stars. As has the backdrop of space. The bridge crew watches in helpless silence as their surroundings mute to a dark gray-black.
Disappearing as the fundamental particles that make up the notion of time vanish from existence.
The five-lightyear expanse grows stiller and stiller, colder and colder, until the calamitous decline finally levels off within the range of one one-millionth of a degree of absolute zero. And in the absence of the fundamental building block of reality known as time, heat transfer staggers and oozes to a near-stop.
Within the Discovery ’s razed spore lab, Paul Stamets cradles Hugh Culber’s warm, breathing body in his arms.
But outside of the lab, outside of the ship, in every direction within a five-lightyear radius, there lays nothing but cold darkness.
Nothing, but nothing.
A dead spot upon the galaxy.
Without heat transfer, electromagnetic waves die at their source. All drive systems are dead in the void because energy cannot transfer through its surroundings. No propulsion. No communications. No sensors. No way to signal for help.
The USS Discovery is trapped like a fly in amber.
Within the heat death of the universe.