Hester looked down, but right before it looked like he was going to shut off the camera, he said, "There's one thing... I don't even know if it's possible, but given that I'm wearing the body of a guy from the 21st century after time-traveling back to an alternate reality where I'm an extra on a television show, my bounds of 'possible' have been stretched a lot wider than I ever imagined in Iowa. So maybe it's worth a shot. If you guys can bring back Finn... he was a good guy and my friend. Okay, he was a halfway decent guy in his own surly way, and 'friend' might be stretching the point a little, but whatever. If this is going to end, then he deserves to see the end of it. Oh, and Andy wants to tell him 'I told you so', and I kinda want to see his reaction. So I'm putting it out there. I don't know if you can, or if you will, or if you guys decide we're all being too demanding and get us all blown to smithereens on deck nine. But what's the harm in asking?"
The camera went black, and Matthew Paulson looked up at his father. "I figured you'd say no, but he brought me back. I sort of owe him one."
"We both owe him a lot more than that, son. But this might be a little harder to pull off than he thinks." Paulson bit his lip. "I'll do my best, Matt. I can't guarantee anything. Let me give Nick a call to see if he's got any ideas."
"There are a dozen ways to do it, sure," Weinstein said, ticking them off on his fingers as he spoke. "Mirror universe, time travel, cloning blues, alternate universes, mistaken identity, long-lost twin, phlebotenum accident, quantum, robots, advanced alien technology, government conspiracy, reset button... but none of those would be their Finn. Having a stranger show up looking like their friend would be worse than what we did in the first place." He paused to consider this. "Okay, maybe not, but that's also part of the problem. He died gruesomely, on camera. You'd have to hang enough lampshades on that to decorate your entire house."
"We're talking about Chronicles of the Intrepid, Nick. The internal logic of our episodes has never been an issue before," Paulson said.
"You don't have to tell me that twice. I read over some of the third-season scripts last night. But our little visitation made me want to take more pride in my work, which by necessity involves producing work I can be proud of. So if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it right, and that's going to take some time to plot out." Weinstein stroked his beard as he considered the problem. "At least it's an interesting dilemma. If we do it right, it'll be television gold. Of course, if we do it wrong, we'll be the laughingstock of Hollywood."
"So what else is new?" Paulson pointed out.
Weinstein slapped his notebook down on the cheap wooden table- cautiously, just in case it broke under the impact. "Settle down, kids, or daddy's not giving you the assignment, and then none of you get paid. As I'm sure you've heard through the eight thousand ways to spread gossip in Hollywood, the seventh season of Chronicles of the Intrepid will be the last, and I intend to make it the best goddamn season of this show that we've ever had."
"I like that you don't challenge yourself," David remarked.
Weinstein ignored that. "I've also been asked to do a favor for a friend of Mr. Paulson's, regarding a specific, very minor, character. For your reading pleasure, a copy of 6x13 has been made up for each of you. Take a look at page 24." He opened his copy to the designated page, waiting as the other writers got there in their own time and fashion.
"Oh, look, another dead redshirt sacrificing his life and bodily integrity to protect his captain. What makes this one so special, aside from the ludicrous gibs involved in killing him off?" Joe asked.
Weinstein grinned. "You get to figure out a way to bring the character back from the dead, as close to normal as possible, in a way that makes sense to someone other than a crack-addicted lemur suffering from post-concussion syndrome."
"His head exploded. You're gonna need a lot of scotch tape to fix that one," Peter pointed out.
"Not the one whose head exploded, the guy who got crisped by the guy whose head exploded," Gail corrected him.
"We're not supposed to care about the random redshirts, why should I remember this one?" Peter said. "Furthering that point, why does someone care so much about this redshirt?"
"Pete, did you miss the part about a 'friend of Mr. Paulson'?" David asked.
But Gail was frowning and flipping pages in the script. "Crewman Finn... that was Nick McNeill. The only time I ever remember him smiling was when he left the set after that scene. Why would he want to come back?"
"The answer is always money," Peter said.
"The answer is 'Mr. Paulson made a request, we get paid to write things for him, not ask irrelevant questions about the things he asks us to do,'" Weinstein said, not liking the direction of the conversation. It figured that Gail would have remembered the personality of the random extra who had played Finn. "Now, let's figure out which ridiculously unlikely possibility we're going to pull out of our ass to jump-start this whole thing."
For the first time in a very long time, Nick McNeill was something that a stranger might have mistaken for happy. Jake's recipes were going over better than either of them had ever dreamed of, and Nick's work on the phones and behind the scenes of every club in town meant that Bit Part Brewery was taking off like a rocket. If things kept up like this, it looked like he was going to be a Hollywood star in a way no one would ever have guessed.
The phone rang, and he leaped on it with slightly more urgency than a lion taking down a gazelle. "Bit Part Brewery, Nick McNeill speaking. What can I get you?" he asked.
"Hey, Nick. It's Brian. You got a minute?"
Nick searched his memory for a Brian, came up with two, and said, "Sure. How's it been? Film business treating you good?"
Brian paused, which Nick was pretty sure meant he'd guessed the wrong Brian. "I'm actually still on Intrepid, believe it or not. They made a couple of creative changes, kept my character around."
"Sorry to hear it."
"Pays the bills. Even a little more, sometimes. Scuttlebutt says they're going to have the recurrers playing a big part in the series finale, make us look good to the big studios."
"Promises like that go a dime a dozen, man," Nick warned him, his voice warming slightly as he remembered which Brian he was dealing with. Abnett was a good guy- bit of a flake, but fun to hang out with.
"Paulson's not a complete dick. Way I heard it, they're shutting down Intrepid completely- no reunions, no movies, no spin-offs, no nothing- so they want to make sure we've got a shot at something when it's all over." Brian paused. "I hear they liked you when you had that scene last year. They said you were very realistic."
"Which scene, the one where my guy died?"
"No, the other one," Brian said. "But Marc says Paulson wants to try and bring you back in for the series finale."
"Marc. Marc Corey? You're chummy with that prick now?"
"He's not as much of a prick as you think. He's been treating extras like people since that incident last year with the tannins."
Nick snickered. "Mitch told me about that, and his 'public double' bullshit. Like he's famous enough to have a body double? How'd you get tangled up in it, anyway? Mitch mentioned you, along with some girl you never got around to mentioning."
"It's a long story, and I think you have to be drunk to believe it," Brian replied after a long pause.
"I own half a brewery, getting drunk is not exactly difficult for me. But look, I'm done with the acting gig. Things are going great here. I'm making my own break. I don't need anyone else's. Hey, man, it was great talking to you, but I'm expecting a distributor in, like, ten minutes. Let's go out sometime."
"Sure," Brian agreed. "See ya then."
"We have a complication," Weinstein told Paulson.
"Still can't plot your way out of a paper bag?"
"The plot is not the problem. It's convoluted, but once I threatened the junior writers with the removal of body parts, they helped sort things out. The problem is that McNeill doesn't want to be part of the show."
"The guy who played Finn."
"Then we'll recast..." Paulson stopped. "No, we can't do that, can we? Shit. Can you work with clips, CGI, and a body double?"
"Do you want to risk sending back the wrong guy? They didn't with your son."
"Nick, you're a cheating bastard."
"Only in emotions and high-stakes poker games," Weinstein reassured him. "I asked one of the other guys to feel him out, just in case, since one of my kids said the guy didn't exactly love the job, and I can't say I blame him, all things considered."
"Get me the contact information. I have my ways of making people like the things they have to do."
"Bit Part Brewery, Nick McNeill speaking. What can I get you?"
"I like when I can get the man I'm looking for on the first try. Cuts down on the fuss and bother. Nick, this is Charles Paulson from Chronicles of the Intrepid."
"Well. Brian was serious when he said you wanted me back." Nick's eyes narrowed, and his voice took on a suspicious tone. "Why? Why me and not one of the million other actors walking around Hollywood and looking for their big break?"
"Because recasting the part doesn't fit with the creative vision we have. It's you or no one, and no one is not an option."
"So why not use one of the other eight hundred extras you've run through on that show?"
Paulson hesitated. "A friend of my son's made a very specific request. I owe him a rather large favor, and if I can repay him in this way, the books are even."
"So I should take time off from my very successful business to get thrown around by badly written monsters and cheesy special effects for peanuts because you owe someone else a favor? Forget it. I'm out of the biz. Find another chump."
"Peanuts were not in the conversation. I plan on paying you day rate and a half. Is that what it'll take to get you to sign the contract?"
"This is seriously starting to freak me out to, like, stalker levels. Why me? And am I going to end up dead in a ditch afterwards?'
"Absolutely not. It's a good opportunity to get you some exposure."
"I don't need acting exposure if I've given up acting," Nick pointed out- but carefully. Jake still had the bug, and pissing off powerful people in Hollywood never ended well for anyone.
"I didn't specify acting exposure. I can get you ad time during the show."
Nick leaned back in his chair and considered this latest development. Bit Part was a little higher-brow than the target demographic for Chronicles of the Intrepid, but other than that, it was a good fit. And if he could drum up a little business for the brewery by doing this, then it might be worth all the stupidity and frustration that came with the profession. "Day and a half, you said?"
"You may have to do a bit of acting for two- depends on how the final script works out. Hence the time and a half."
"Get us three spots and show me the paperwork, and it's a deal."
"I'll send it over as soon as it's done," Paulson promised.
"We've got a script," Weinstein reported.
"We've got an actor."
"I also have beer," Paulson said, handing over a bottle to Weinstein.
"How did you end up with beer?"
"Mr. McNeill asked me to buy a six-pack of each of their products in order to prove how serious I was. My options were limited, and God knows beer won't be wasted around a bunch of TV people."
Weinstein took out his keychain and cracked open each of their bottles in turn. "To those we've killed in brutal, horrifying fashion."
"And to those we saved because of it," Paulson added.
They toasted. Weinstein slid a copy of the script to Paulson. "Read this through and tell me if you spot any more horrible plot holes. If not, we're good for tomorrow, right?"
The shuttle hurtled through space, its path wobbly, guided by an inexperienced and desperate hand. The autopilot had long since failed, but that was for the best, since he needed to save as much power as possible to get him to his destination. He'd never piloted a shuttle before- at least, not alone- but he'd seen it done and he'd spent more than his fair share of time on the Academy simulators. That was going to have to be enough. Failure was not an option.
The aft monitors showed him the lightning-quick flash of Bragian pulse beams meeting Cirquerian neutrino missiles. His imagination filled in the high-pitched whine of the beams and the dopplering crump! of the missiles exploding. Every instinct he had screamed at him to hit the thrusters and get the shuttle out of there faster, but the sad truth was that the shuttle was already going at its top emergency speed. Anything else would have either cracked its overstrained little engine core or stripped away the last remaining traces of burned durenamel from its frame.
His brain helpfully told him that the Bragians had betrayed their Cirquerian allies, since both had been allied with the Forshan leftward schism, and furthermore, the Neddor would be along any time now to sweep up the pieces, if there were any great Neddorite Galaxy-Birds left after the Calendrians had demolished their shipyard in trade for the destruction of Nistar Four...
He shook his head to clear it of the political machinations. None of them mattered to him anymore. The Universal Union had broken down, shattering into its components as system after system left to honor old treaties or make new strategic alliances. After the complete obliteration of Mars Dock had sent enough debris onto Earth to kill billions, and after three-quarters of the Space Fleet was lost at Cochrane Station, the Dub U had ceased to have any authority over its member planets.
Then the real war had started.
By his reckoning, it was almost certain that the shuttle Toluca was the last Dub U ship left in the galaxy, and he was de facto head of the fleet. The Intrepid was nothing more than a memory, the last ship of the line sacrificing itself for... he couldn't even remember anymore which side they'd been on, what cause they'd been trying to push, whether they were even trying to end the war or just survive.
If this final crazy plan worked, it wouldn't have ever happened. If it didn't, he'd be too dead to care. Either way, he was done with running and done with denial.
The torus of the Celestial Sentry gaped below him, the only thing visible on the surface of the planet. Star-speckled black filled the hole with emptiness, giving him a target for the shuttle's last dive. "Help me find a way to end this!" he begged it. "I know this war could have avoided- but only you know where, when or how! Help me, please!"
A voice like the voice of God filled his mind and the world. I will help you, but it will cost you your life- and your death, it warned.
Captain's Log, six-oh-niner-seven-five-seven-oh. Intrepid is taking her turn at patrolling the Gamma Arcturus system, home to an immensely dangerous and powerful life-form. As per Directive Six, no ships are allowed to land on Gamma Arcturus. Showing the flag has traditionally been enough to send those who would try to harness the power of the life-form for themselves. After the events of Brannon Nine, the crew seems relieved at the relative calmness of this assignment.
Dahl fidgeted at his console, nervous in a way he couldn't define. If Jenkins's calculations were correct, the extreme calm aboard the Intrepid was the prelude to the pure insanity of a season finale; more, this would be the series finale Paulson and Weinstein had promised them, so everything was likely to be more over the top than usual, even for the Intrepid. Would you call this the calm before the darkness before dawn? he wondered.
Then Hanson barked out from tactical, "Sir! Sensors detect a shuttle heading towards us!" and Dahl realized the calm was over.
"Broadcast the Directive Six warning!" Abernathy snapped.
"The ship came from the planet, sir!" Hanson said, his eyes wide.
"Evasive maneuvers, Kerensky! Hanson, lock sensors on that shuttle! Get me registration, weapons status, life signs, even its damn bumper sticker!" Abernathy ordered.
The Intrepid juddered to the side as Kerensky's fingers danced over the controls. Dahl held on to his console for dear life, somewhat jealous that the Narrative was letting Hanson keep his footing to get the information Abernathy had requested.
"Sir! It's the Toluca!" Hanson shouted.
"The Toluca? When was someone going to tell me that one of our shuttles was out for a little joyride?" Abernathy snapped.
"The condition of the shuttle would suggest that the shuttle's journey has not been particularly pleasurable," Q'eeng remarked from his position at the captain's right.
"Sir? According to the computer, Toluca is still in the shuttle bay," Duvall reported from security. "Permission to confirm with hangar staff?"
"Do it, Duvall!"
"Bridge to shuttle bay. Please confirm the current whereabouts of the Toluca," Duvall said.
"Hester here. I've got visual on Toluca, right where she should be between Superior and Geneva."
"Acknowledged," Duvall said, closing her phone.
"Hanson, open hailing frequencies!" Abernathy ordered.
"Open, sir. Audio only."
"This is Lucius Abernathy of the Universal Union ship Intrepid. Who are you? And what are you doing with a clone of one of my shuttles?"
Static crackled in the air before a hoarse voice said, "Intrepid? Thank God. I've been looking for you. Permission to dock?"
"I'm not too keen on letting strangers on my ship without a proper introduction. Can you open up visual?"
"No, sir. Don't have the power left," the shuttle pilot said.
"Sensor readings confirm his statement. The... other Toluca's systems are failing," Hanson reported.
"All right, permission granted. End communication." Abernathy paused and opened his phone. "Shuttle bay, this is Captain Abernathy. Prepare for a visitor. Keep your pulse guns at stun."
"Aye, sir," came acknowledgment at the other end.
Abernathy turned to his bridge crew. "I'm going to greet our visitor. Can't do that without a proper welcoming party. Duvall, you've got a steady gun hand and medical training. Dahl, I might need your xeno experience. Keep your pulse guns on stun, same as the hangar crew. Mr. Q'eeng, you have the bridge."
Dahl could actually feel the tension rise and snap as the Narrative retreated. Abernathy relaxed just a touch. "Come on, Dill, Davis. Let's hope it's not an evil mirror shuttle or something."
Duvall and Dahl followed Abernathy off the bridge and to the shuttle bay. "Why can he only get our names right when the Narrative's got him?" Duvall muttered.
"Weinstein's a hack, but he knows how to line-edit," Dahl whispered back.
The second Toluca rested at an angle in the middle of the bay, scorched and dented, the white durenamel dulled to gray with dust and char. The tips of its wings were gone, shorn off with the cauterized effect of a pulse beam. The hatch was slightly ajar, just enough to let in fresh air. "Looks like it's been through a war," Duvall said.
"It has," a rough voice said. The hatch opened completely, and a dirty figure in a tattered Dub U uniform stumbled out to offer a half-hearted salute. "Good to see you again, Captain. Never thought I would."
Duvall gasped. Dahl couldn't even manage that. Abernathy, in the grip of the Narrative, burst out, "Who are you?"
"Lucas Finn. Official rank is Ensign, but I'm the last survivor of the Dub U fleet."
Dahl heard a choked noise from somewhere in the vicinity of the maintenance bay, but the only thing his brain could come up with was, Huh, I never even realized I didn't know Finn's first name.
Abernathy looked grim. "I think we'd better have a talk about that, Mr. Finn. Follow me to the conference room. We'll meet the rest of the senior staff there for a briefing. Dahl, Duvall, have your pulse guns ready."
"Aye, sir," Dahl said, elbowing Duvall in the ribs until she responded. It unnerved him that Finn... well, this other Finn who looked like hell but wasn't dead and charred to a crisp... wasn't alarmed at the sight of the pulse guns trained on him.
Then Finn whispered, "Maia..." with something that looked like hope on his face, and Dahl started to suspect why he was so calm.
The senior staff sat around the conference table, staring at Finn with varying levels of interest and confusion. Finn ran shaking fingers through his tangled blond hair and said, "I came here from the future to try and prevent a galactic war that destroyed the Dub U and left countless trillions dead."
"Well, that's about the only good reason to muck about with time," Hartnell muttered.
"How did this war you describe come about?" Q'eeng asked, leaning forward and steepling his fingers.
"It starts when the Intrepid is assigned to escort the Calendrian pontifex to the peace talks in... what's today's date?"
"Six-oh-niner-seven-seven-seven-oh," Dahl said before he could stop himself.
Finn jerked and stared at him. "Thanks, Andy. I think." He shook his head. "That's only four months before the last date I'm certain of, and the war had already exploded by then. I don't understand. I begged the Sentry to help me stop the war, but how am I supposed to do that in the future- and in a different future?"
"The Sentry? The Celestial Sentry? My God! That was my first mission as captain of Intrepid! Directive Six came out of that mission!" Abernathy burst out. "Don't you know what you've done?"
Finn pinned him with a look that stopped him dead in his tracks. "Captain, it was a choice between breaking an order created by dead men and saving the galaxy. As de facto head of Space Fleet, I chose to save the galaxy."
"Perhaps if you elaborated on the events of your timeline, we would be able to ascertain the point of divergence and devise some means of transporting you there," Q'eeng suggested.
"All right. Okay. We were assigned to escort the pontifex to the peace talks. The rebels attacked and badly damaged our engines, so we were unable to continue. The Nantes was the backup, so they came- and immediately fired on the pontifex's ship. Captain Abernathy concluded that there was a Calendrian spy embedded in the crew of the Nantes and organized an away team to board the Nantes, discover the spy, and restore Captain Bullington to her command. Maia-" Finn's eyes darted to Duvall, then back to the table- "Crewman Duvall had served on the Nantes, and as part of the security team, knew the ship well. Too well. That knowledge of the ship's secret hiding places led her into a trap, where Crewman Jer Weston was waiting for the away team. He detonated a biological bomb he'd been storing in his head, killing the entire away team, except for Crewman Duvall. Duvall was framed as the spy and court-martialed, with the verdict being guilty and the sentence being death. The spy fed the Calendrian rebels information about Space Fleet's weaknesses and weapons systems, allowing them to go toe to toe with us. Then-"
"Well, there's the point of divergence! Lieutenant Kerensky led the away team, and Crewman Duvall wasn't on it! Weston was brought in for questioning, and the bomb went off in our custody," West said.
"But was the spy ever found?"
"There never was a Calendrian spy. Jer Weston orchestrated events for his own twisted agenda," Abernathy said.
"He had it in for you bad, sir. I know that much now. That's why he set off the bomb when he did. And that's what made it so easy for Sandra Bullington to use him as her cats-paw."
The room erupted in uproar. Q'eeng brought calm to the noise. "Captain Bullington is a decorated and highly regarded officer of the fleet."
"If spies were easy to spot, they wouldn't be very good spies. She was a lieutenant on the Nairobi when it was detailed to Calendria during the last flare-up of hostilities. You can see that on her record. And she's had a history of sympathy for the underdog. She asked for the Nantes to be the backup ship, then baited Jer into firing on the pontifex's ship to lure you in." Finn took a deep breath. "Could that be why I was brought to this place and time instead of the one I was looking for?"
"There's only one way to find out, Mr. Finn, because there's only one being who knows why you're in this place and time," Abernathy said. "We have to break Directive Six and contact the Celestial Sentry."
Again the tension rose, again it snapped, and Dahl felt the Narrative retreat into the commercial break. Finn blinked. "Jesus Christ, it's good to see you all again. Maia, how the hell did you not end up on that away team?"
Duvall looked at the senior staff and didn't answer. Dahl said, "She had a bad case of Orynxian Dropsy. We took her place on the away team and helped Lieutenant Kerensky capture Weston, then got the privilege of being there when he was questioned."
Duvall opened her mouth to say something, but Dahl shot her a look that said, Let's not mention to Finn that he died because Jenkins turned out to be right and the people writing this show are a bunch of hacks.
"Lucius, are you trying to get us all killed? Directive Six-" Hartnell started.
"Jon, do you have a better idea? Because I am shit out of them right now," Abernathy interrupted, his voice low and intense in a failed attempt to keep anyone else from hearing.
"Telling Fleet Command about Captain Bullington's rebel sympathies might be a better start!" Hartnell said.
"On the evidence of an illegal traveler from a parallel universe? All she would have to say is that the other Sandra is a spy, not her, and she'd be free to go. We have to find some way of catching her in the act, or something, before we even attempt to turn her in," Abernathy pointed out. He stiffened as the Narrative caught him up again. "Mr. Q'eeng, Mr. West, tune the communications array to the necessary frequency to communicate with the Sentry. Lieutenant Kerensky, be ready to lead an away team to the planet in case the Sentry decides it's not feeling chatty. We'll need your piloting skills to get through the atmospheric conditions the Sentry likes to throw up. Now let's get to work."
As they got up and filed out of the room, Kerensky asked Abernathy, "Permission to select my own team?"
"Granted. I wouldn't have you as part of my senior staff if I didn't trust your judgment."
Kerensky's expression suggested that he had a different opinion of the matter, but he knew better than to say anything. "Crewman Duvall, Lieutenant Dahl, I’d like for you two to join me.”
“Aye, sir,” Duvall said, and Dahl echoed her.
Kerensky took out his phone and dialed. “Kerensky to Hester. I’m putting together an away team in case we have to go down to the planet and talk to the Celestial Sentry face to face. I’d like you on it. I think you have enough of a stake in this that you should be there.”
“All right,” Hester said, sounding puzzled.
“If it’s necessary to go down to the planet, we’ll meet you at the shuttle bay. Kerensky out.”
“Captain, we have tuned the communications array to the Sentry’s preferred frequency,” Q’eeng reported some time later.
“We can’t keep the array here too long, or we’re going to end up maintaining accidental radio silence, and Fleet Command will come down on us like a ton of bricks, so whatever you need to say to the Sentry, say it as quickly as you can,” West added.
Abernathy nodded, put his hands behind his back, and said, “Celestial Sentry! I am the mortal Lucius Abernathy you spoke to many years ago! I have kept my word and guarded you from unwanted visitors. Did you send us the mortal Lucas Finn?”
“I really wish he’d stop using my full name,” Finn muttered.
The mortal Lucas Finn requested my help. It amused me to aid him. I sent him to the place-time required for him, the Celestial Sentry replied. West let off some unintelligible cursing at the power surges that roared through the system at the Sentry’s answer.
“How can this be the place-time he required if it is not the place-time he asked to change?” Abernathy pressed.
To effect a change requires tools. The tools are in your place-time. When he has the tools, I will bring them all to the other place-time.
“Tools? What the devil does it mean by that?” Hartnell asked.
“He’s not going to be able to make the changes he needs to make alone,” Abernathy realized. “He needs people from our time in order to make the changes. But who? And how?”
The linchpins and the charmed ones, the Sentry answered.
A console went up in sparks. “That’s the end of that conversation,” West said. “And won’t explaining that particular sort of damage to Central Supply be a treat?”
“The linchpins and the charmed ones,” Abernathy mused. “Linchpins to what? Charmed how?”
“Sir? I think I might be one of the linchpins,” Duvall said. Dahl stared at her in blank horror. “Finn mentioned me as a member of the away team and the reason for your alternate’s death. That might be the linchpin the Sentry’s talking about.”
Dahl’s mind raced a mile a minute. Charmed ones. It’s talking about the protection the Narrative provides to main characters. Like Kerensky. Like me. “I volunteer, sir.”
Kerensky’s face was drawn and Dahl recognized the train of thought as the one that he had just finished with. “Captain, I think that away team you asked for is going to serve more than one purpose.”
“We’ll work out this puzzle of the Sentry’s. All of us, together. It’ll take time, but if that’s one thing we always have when facing the Sentry, it’s time,” Abernathy declared.
There was a moment of silence, then Finn asked, “Can I get something to eat at the mess?”
“Stop poking me, seriously,” Finn said to Hester in the mess hall. Dahl and Duvall sat to either side of him, and Hanson and Hester had joined them from their off-duty positions.
“It’s kind of hard to believe, okay? And I’ve seen some unbelievable shit,” Hester replied, still pale with shaking hands.
“Yeah, I know it’s hard for there to be two guys as devastatingly handsome as I am in the universe, but here I am. Where am I, anyway? On-duty?” Finn asked.
The others exchanged a look. “Were you wondering how we knew about Weston?” Dahl asked, trying to lead into it gently.
“You took him into custody,” Finn said.
“And he detonated the bomb in custody.”
“Yeah, and… oh.” Finn looked at each of them in turn. “So when were you assholes going to mention that I was dead?”
“I was getting up to it!” Duvall protested. Dahl looked at her. “Eventually!”
“So I got killed by an exploding head. Seriously? I know people die in weird fucking ways on this ship, and you wouldn’t believe some of the shit that I’ve seen since the war began, but an exploding head? Seriously?” Finn shook his head.
“Seriously,” Hester said. “And I think I have to apologize.”
“Was it your head?”
“Since my head is still attached to my shoulders, even if it hurts like hell sometimes, I really doubt it. But… shit. We have to tell him about the show.”
Finn smacked the table. “You guys still buy into Jenkins’s crazy-ass theory of batshit insanity?”
“Finn… it’s not a theory. We went back in time to the show.” And Dahl explained the whole trip: the exploitation of Narrative physics by using Kerensky, their time in 2012, his and Kerensky’s experiences meeting their doubles, Hester’s plan to save Matthew Paulson, the deal they struck with Charles Paulson to end the show safely. The others chipped in their thoughts as Dahl spoke, describing what it had been like to meet the people behind the scenes.
Finn listened to the whole thing, and when Dahl was done, said, “Did my last will and testament say that you could spend the wake ingesting my entire fucking stash at once? Because that is the batshit bugfuck craziest thing I have ever heard, and Andy- my Andy on my timeline- once explained Forshan reproduction in the context of the leftward schism.”
“The batshit bugfuck craziest thing you’ve ever heard is probably the reason you and your timeline both exist,” Hester said sharply.
“Jasper?” Dahl asked.
“Jasper?” Finn echoed. “Your name is Jasper?”
“Your name is Lucas?” Hester pointed out.
“Guys, can we get back to Hester’s claim?” Hanson asked.
Hester took a deep breath. “So when I made the video, I added another message. I asked the writers to come up with a way to save you from getting killed by an exploding head. I thought it sucked that you didn’t get to see the end of the show, so if there was a way to do it, I’d really appreciate it. Since I saved a guy’s life while I was over there, I figured that they might want my appreciation. So they wrote this mess. So that’s why you and your timeline exist. So that makes me the linchpin in the meta way, like Maia is in the episode.” He made a face. “I really hate these conversations.”
“So you and Maia… but who are the charmed ones?” Finn asked.
All of them turned to look up at the voice. Kerensky looked back at all of them. “I’m the one you said gets beat up to show that the main characters can get beat up. But because Marc has a long-term contract, I don’t die.”
“What's that asshole doing here?” Finn asked. “Maia, are you still screwing him?”
“When I get bored,” Duvall allowed.
“I thought this was the good universe,” Finn muttered.
“It’s amazing how your view of the universe changes when you meet the person who plays you on television,” Kerensky explained.
“And that’s all any of us want to know about that,” Hester said.
Kerensky rolled his eyes. “Jesus Christ, you guys, you still think I-“
“Finn just came back from the dead, let’s not accidentally kill him again before the end of the episode,” Dahl said to defuse the tension. “Anatoly, you think the away team has to be you, me, Maia, and Hester?”
“And our visitor, of course,” Kerensky said, nodding towards Finn.
“If you guys are friends with Hester, why do you still keep calling him Hester?” Finn asked.
“Because Jasper is a fucking ridiculous name,” Hester replied. “And I wouldn’t talk, either, Lucas.”
Finn made a disgruntled noise in the back of his throat. Hanson cleared his throat. “Again with the not killing each other before the plot complication is cleared up?” he suggested.
“If we’re part of the plot complication, then we can’t kill each other. The Narrative won’t allow for it,” Dahl said.
“Hate these conversations!” Hester chimed in.
The away team gathered around Finn’s shuttle. “Now, we don’t know for certain how the Celestial Sentry will deal with you, but I learned in my experience with it that it likes to have things back that have been through it. That means your Toluca, Mr. Finn. You’re fortunate to have a pilot like Lieutenant Kerensky to take you down through the atmospheric disturbances the Sentry creates to help stop unwanted visitors. I understand that Crewman Hester also has pilot training.”
“Some, sir, but I’m not a quarter of the pilot Lieutenant Kerensky is,” Hester said.
“Well, between you, you should be able to keep the shuttle together, even in this condition. We don’t know what the Sentry expects you to do when you’re on the planet’s surface, or even if you’ll go through the Sentry before hitting the planet. I want you to use your best judgment, but follow Lieutenant Kerensky’s orders and remember the Temporal Directives. Any change you make in the past could be catastrophic to our future. Do you understand?”
“Aye, sir!” they chorused before piling into the shuttle and getting ready to head down to the planet. The tension around them eased until it was just their own fears and concerns, without the looming sense of something else hanging over them.
“So this is probably the panoramic view of space, the planet, the shuttle, the-“
“Andy, enough with Jenkins’s bullshit TV nonsense,” Finn interrupted, though not without casting a look at the front to make sure Kerensky was too occupied with the controls to hear them.
“I know about Jenkins and his theory, because it’s not a theory, because I met the actor who plays me,” Kerensky said over his shoulder. “At least now I have an explanation for all the bullshit that happens to me on away teams. I used to think the captain had a voodoo doll of me, or blamed me for some kind of indiscretion in his past, or just wanted to get rid of me, or something. Being the designated sufferer of the bridge crew by a TV writer who doesn’t like an actor actually makes more sense.”
Finn shook his head. “Christ. You’re all off your nut. I thought this universe might make more sense than the one that collapsed into galactic war.”
“So what made you decide to play the big damn hero, anyway?” Duvall asked. “You’ve always seemed to have all the heroic streak of a thief in the night. Didn’t you have a bolt-hole you could make an escape for and forget the Dub U?”
“I thought about it. But I wanted to make a stand. You’re my friends- were my friends- and you all died. Badly. I owed you something.” Finn paused. “Besides, the worst market for my usual line is a galaxy caught up in religious war. Everyone needs to prove they’re holier than the next thou around the corner, or else they’ll get executed. My options were limited.”
“There’s the Finn we know and remember ever so fondly,” Hester muttered.
“You’re the one who asked for him back,” Dahl pointed out.
“And you have no idea how many times I’ve regretted it in the last hour.” But Hester’s eyes kept drifting towards Finn, the way Charles Paulson’s had towards him in Burbank, and Dahl knew that he was lying.
Before he could bring it up and make everyone feel uncomfortable, the shuttle started to rock back and forth. “What’s going on?” he asked instead.
“How many times did Captain Abernathy warn us about the Celestial Sentry’s tendency to throw up atmospheric disturbances to keep people from coming down to the planet?” Duvall replied.
“Which is stupid, since it wants us to go down there, but I think this is part of the Narrative,” Kerensky added as he jerked the shuttle around the worst of the turbulence. “All of you hold on to something! This is going to be the least pleasant ride of your lives!”
“I find that hard to believe,” Finn muttered.
The shuttle jerked sharply, shaking so that they all felt it in their bones. The battered Toluca had lost part of its wings during the first dive to Gamma Arcturus, so it was even less maneuverable than a regular shuttle. Kerensky’s fingers moved over the controls with grace and deftness, if not speed. “How low is the power level on this shuttle? I can hardly see the controls,” he said to Finn.
“I think West had some of his guys working on it while I was getting debriefed about the end of the world, but there wasn’t much to work with when I came through,” Finn replied.
“All right, hold on to something harder,” Kerensky warned them, and he turned the shuttle sharply towards the planet, its nose straight towards the dim flicker of the Celestial Sentry that awaited them below. The engines screamed behind them as they responded to the demand for power- a demand they were less and less able to answer.
“Kerensky, do you really need me to tell you how many alarms are going off right now?” Dahl asked.
“Are there any that aren’t?” Kerensky answered through gritted teeth as he feverishly calculated the proper angle and ran his fingers lightly back and forth across the panel to keep the shuttle on course.
“No one’s in the bathroom,” Hester called from the back.
“Thank you for that utterly useless piece of information, Crewman Hester!” Kerensky snapped, his words lost amid the din of a dozen klaxons blaring a warning of some kind of failure or another somewhere within the shuttle.
“Is he always this cranky when he doesn’t get his way?” Finn asked.
“Ask Maia,” Hester suggested.
Duvall settled for glaring at them all with death in her eyes, and they were suddenly reminded- whether by experience or Narrative fiat- that she was security and therefore could kill them in several different ways if they gave her reason to.
“Is it just me, or are things evening out a little bit?” Dahl asked.
“There’s a path of less homicidal air that I’ve been able to steer us to. I think the Sentry remembered that we’re supposed to be paying it a visit,” Kerensky answered. “Toluca just might make it after all.”
As if in answer to his fateful words, the shuttle suddenly picked up speed and hurtled straight into the fathomless depths of the Celestial Sentry. Everything disintegrated into a welter of images from across space and time, then faded into black.
“My head hurts,” Dahl complained.
“Feels like about six wars have been fought in mine. Shouldn’t we have been allowed to get drunk before having this kind of headache?” Duvall asked.
Dahl fought to get his eyes open, but when he succeeded, he was sorely disappointed. The inside of the Toluca was black as midnight. “Everyone make it through okay?”
“Define okay,” Duvall said.
“Other than you. Anyone else? Anyone?"
But only silence answered them.
"Um. Shit?" Duvall said.
"That's a really good description."
You must anchor this vessel until the life-price and the death-price are paid in the necessary place-time. This vessel is bound to this place-time now. It is a stationary point, the Sentry explained.
Duvall held her head. "Andy? Any chance you could translate that into non-mystical mumbo-jumbo?"
"This is not the kind of thing I studied," Dahl muttered. "Um, Celestial Sentry? What happens to the vessel when both… the life-price and the death-price have been paid?"
Without an anchor, it will not ever have been in the place-times of your mortal lives, the Sentry said.
"Doesn't Gamma Arcturus have a methane-based atmosphere?" Duvall asked.
Dahl's eyes went very wide, and he started rummaging through the emergency packages for air tanks and envirosuits.
"Why is it so dark?" Hester asked.
"The shuttle must have lost power when we made the transfer. It didn't have much left in it anyway," Finn replied.
"And gotten smaller. Someone's leg is in my lap, and since it's not Maia's, it needs to be elsewhere," Kerensky added.
"Maia? Andy? You guys okay?"
There was no answer. Hester reached out and touched a panel. "Hey, guys? We're not on the shuttle. Or a shuttle. We're in one of the cargo tunnels, which means we have about five seconds before Jenkins starts to wonder why we're crashing his turf. Can we not be in the cargo tunnel?"
"Let's get somewhere where no one will find us, so we can work out our plan of attack. My past self is on duty, so we can use my bunk," Kerensky suggested. "Hester, can you work out where on the ship we are so we can get there?"
"Or we could try opening a hatch," Finn said in disgust, fumbling around in the tunnel until he found one of the access hatches. He peeked out to make sure no one was in the corridor, then gestured at the others to follow him. "We're not that far from Maia's bunk."
"Then I know where we are," Kerensky said, immediately taking the lead.
Hester and Finn followed him, ducking out of sight whenever someone passed by them, moving too quickly for most people to notice their faces; if anyone did, the usual effect of a senior officer's presence took over, and they hurried to get away before Kerensky scooped them up for an away team.
"How did I never notice this before? How have none of us ever seen it?" Kerensky asked as crewmen scattered around him in terror.
"Because you weren't allowed to see it," Hester pointed out. "You were part of the story. Now that you're not part of the Narrative, you get to experience what the rest of us do."
Kerensky shook his head. "Even when I was an ensign, it was not like this. People never got close, of course, because we knew that this was a dangerous job, but this is just… I am glad this is the last episode. I want the crew not to be afraid of the officers anymore."
Finn rolled his eyes to the heavens. "Speaking of which, or at least speaking of something that's more relevant than the mindless terror of the lemmings, we do have a reason that we're back here. We have to find some way of revealing to the crew, and to Fleet Command, that Bullington is the spy, and we have to do it in a way that doesn't either create my timeline where everything goes to hell in a handbasket, or completely erase your timeline and leave you fucked over. I don't give a shit about you, Lieutenant, but I sort of maybe already fucked over Hester once. I'm not doing that again."
"That might actually be the nicest thing you've ever said to me." Hester tilted his head as he walked, considering the matter. "Actually, yes. It is the nicest thing you've ever said to me. Of course it had to be from an alternate universe version of you."
They were soon at Kerensky's bunk, and he punched in the code to open the door. "As a lieutenant and a member of Intrepid's senior staff, I have some security access that you might not have," he explained. He looked a bit sheepish when he added, "And one of my friends below decks before I was promoted taught me some tricks that I have chosen not to remember for a very long time. I think between us we'll be able to get the proof of Bullington's treachery to Fleet Command. After that, we get to figure out how to get to Gamma Arcturus and back to the Celestial Sentry."
Finn nodded and started giving names and dates, and Kerensky cross-referenced them in Intrepid's database, introducing programs that would send alerts to certain low-ranking personnel at the Universal Union's headquarters in Boston. "You can't send it to the admirals themselves, of course. They're too busy with a half dozen other things, and they'd just dismiss the alert as the work of a crank, or worse, someone trying to frame Bullington. But there's always someone in the lower ranks who wants an opportunity to move up and is therefore always open to fresh information. And guys like that are the guys like us- people who have ways of finding things out and have the time to put everything together,” Finn explained.
“So how do you avoid changing the past that Kerensky and I came from by introducing all this new information?” Hester asked.
“Time release. There are certain operations that I know failed. We're making sure that they fail. And many of these require time to research. By the time we return to our present, the time will almost be up. The announcement of the results will be coming in three days after the day we left,” Kerensky said. “If we haven't fucked up. If we have, then we disappear in a puff of logic.”
Hester fidgeted as Finn and Kerensky worked. “Guys. Stupid question. How the hell did anyone know that was a bomb in Weston's head? We all know now how ridiculously bad that plot point was, but how was our Finn fast enough to get himself killed? Someone has to warn him. And it has to be me. Narratively, I'm invisible.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Finn asked.
“The guy who plays me on the TV show was in a motorcycle accident before this episode was filmed. He was in a coma. He couldn't be in the episode. I'm not going to be expected to play any part in what's going on.”
Finn rolled his eyes. “We are not on a fucking television program. We're in the past of a universe that may or may not end up being an alternate timeline for either you or me. Can't you tell the difference between crazy shit that makes sense and crazy shit that doesn't make sense?” He sighed and added, “All right, let's go.”
“What? Where are you going?” Kerensky asked.
“Meet us at the cargo tunnel where we first came in,” Finn insisted. “We don't have much time. We have to get to the captain before the bomb goes off, or else both our timelines will be erased from history- and so will we!”
The urgency in his voice meant one thing, and one thing only- the Narrative had taken him up again, pushing him towards whatever goal the writers had in mind for the end of the series, and Hester had an idea of what that might be.
They left the bunk and looked around. “Any ideas?”
“Finn- my Finn-”
“Can you not with that?”
Hester rolled his eyes. “In my timeline, Finn said he and Andy went to check on her and found her unconscious in her bunk. So they should be by here at any moment.”
They ducked into a crossing corridor and watched past!Finn and past!Dahl go by. Hester came out behind them and called, “Finn! Hey, you got a sec?”
Past!Finn hesitated, but said to past!Dahl, “You go on ahead. I'll catch up.”
Past!Dahl nodded and went on ahead. Past!Finn said to Hester, “What's the matter with you? I'm part of an away team to the Nantes to figure out why they fired on the pontifex's ship, I can't-”
Finn punched him in the face. Hester stared at Finn- at both Finns- and spluttered, “What did you do that for? How are we supposed to warn an unconscious body about a bomb?”
“Because I'm going to take his place. My place. You guys told me what happened to me in this timeline. We can't risk changing your history. Temporal Directives, remember? I know myself better than you do, no matter how long you've known me. If you told me- especially the me that I was before the war- that I was gong to die protecting someone else from a bomb, I'd find every way possible to prevent that from happening.”
“And yet here you are going off to get blown up,” Hester pointed out.
“Yeah, well, I know I'm going to die. If this doesn't work, I end up back in my war-torn universe where someone or another will take a potshot at me and I go boom. If it doesn't work, then I get to hang around until my atoms go pop or something. There can only be one of a person alive in a universe. It's a paradox or something. I dunno, Andy's the one with existential training. But the Celestial Sentry said there was a life-price and a death-price to be paid for what I did, and I know what the death-price is.”
“I don't have time to argue with you, Jasper. I've got an away team to be on.” Finn took off down the corridor after past!Dahl, leaving Hester with a stunned pile of past!Finn.
“Oh, hell,” Hester said, and he slugged past!Finn again to make sure he was out, then started dragging him towards the cargo tunnels and safety. He slapped the panel once, twice, three times, trying to get it open, and it refused to open. “Come on!”
The hatch opened. Hester breathed a sigh of relief and hauled past!Finn into it. "Oh, hell," he said, realizing that there was no way for him to contact Kerensky to work out the next step on getting back to their own time. For all he knew, Kerensky could have shown up as soon as the hatch door closed, and they'd spend the next two years on opposite sides of the hatch waiting to get back.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
Hester flinched. "Long story," he said to Jenkins, who had materialized out of the darkness.
"Who hit him?" Jenkins asked, gesturing at past!Finn.
Jenkins studied past!Finn for a moment. "Not that I necessarily blame him, but I didn't think he knew how much of an asshole he was."
"It's really complicated," Hester said.
"You guys got tied up with the Narrative again, huh?" Jenkins asked.
"You could say that. You could definitely say that." A bolt of inspiration struck Hester, and he said, "And I don't know when it's going to come back for us. You'd better go before it decides to use you as a plot device."
Jenkins's eyes narrowed, but the fear Hester had put in him was enough for him to take off down the tunnel. Hester settled back to wait, hoping that Kerensky would finish whatever he was doing in his bunk with the information that would keep Bullington from betraying the Universal Union before past!Finn woke up and started to ask angry questions about why he'd punched him in the face.
He didn't know how long it was until someone knocked at the hatch. He could think of no reason for anyone but Kerensky to be out there, but he opened it cautiously anyway. Kerensky stood there, but confused enough that Hester said, "Which one are you?"
"We don't have time, Jasper," Kerensky said.
"Come into my wonderful spacious tunnel," Hester said.
"How did you know I wasn't my past self?"
"You knew my name," Hester replied. "You didn't find out my name until after we retrieved the message from Forshan."
"Observant of you, Crewman. All the messages have been sent, and once we return to our own time and place, Bullington's plans will fall apart. We just have to figure out how we're going to get back to Gamma Arcturus and return to the Celestial Sentry. We can't take a shuttle; it would end up lost in time and the timeline would change."
"How could taking just one shuttle affect the timeline?" Hester found himself asking.
"Suppose there's an away mission that Intrepid's not able to complete without that shuttle? It could change the fate of a planet, and on the fate of a planet hangs the fate of the universe. We'll have to find our way off the ship at the next station or planet and buy passage on a ship elsewhere until we can find our way back to the Celestial Sentry. It won't be easy, but we do what we have to do for the sake of two timelines and our own ship," Kerensky said in the quick, hurried tone of the Narrative.
The death-price has been paid. The life-price lies in the hands of the mortal Jasper Hester. I will claim that which is not of this place-time, the Celestial Sentry announced.
Everything went black.
"Sevens," Duvall said hopefully.
"Go fish," Dahl replied.
Duvall fumbled around the pile of cards with gloved fingers. "I had to end up stranded on Gamma Arcturus in a dying shuttle with the one member of Space Fleet who doesn't play poker."
"You could always go for a stroll. I hear the scenery is beautiful," Dahl said.
"It's your turn," Duvall said.
With ill grace, Duvall handed Dahl a pair of cards. "Should it be taking this long for them to make the changes in the past? It's time travel. You'd think they'd be back just after they left."
Balance must be preserved, mortal Maia Duvall, the Sentry interrupted.
Duvall jumped. "Holy crap, that thing is loud."
"Infinite power, presence in every moment of time and a reach to every patch of space, able to see an infinity of might-have-beens and an eternity of what-ifs… I think it's entitled to be loud," Dahl said.
The Celestial Sentry said nothing, but a very loud sense of smugness suffused the shuttle.
"Sixes," Dahl said.
"Go fish," Duvall told him.
As he reached for the pile, there was a wild spinning of colors and a lurch that was more mental than physical, though both Duvall and Dahl flinched at it. The death-price has been paid. The life-price has been paid. The choice has been made. The need of the mortal Lucas Finn has been answered, and I have summoned back the tools, the Sentry announced.
"Yes, there does appear to be a tool in my lap," Duvall said, moving Kerensky off of her.
"How long will we be able to anchor the shuttle here, Sentry?" Dahl asked.
As long as is needful and no more, the Sentry answered.
Dahl picked up his phone and dialed. "Let's hope the signal can get through the atmospheric conditions… Dahl to Intrepid!"
"What's your status, Lieutenant Dahl?" Abernathy said through the tinny connection of the phone.
"Toluca won't lift. Lieutenant Kerensky's mission must have succeeded, because the shuttle is no longer part of any extant timeline and is bound to the Sentry's planet. From what the Sentry has told us, once we're off it, the last thing anchoring it to this timeline will be gone. Request another shuttle to bring us back to Intrepid," Dahl said.
"We'll do our best, but you know how the Sentry is about unwanted guests. Might have a little trouble getting you a ride."
"We'll be waiting, sir… it's not like we have a lot of other options. Dahl out."
"At least we've got enough for a decent game of poker," Duvall said.
Past!Finn- the only Finn left now- groaned. "I think we're going to have some other things to do instead," Hester said.
By the time they were able to explain even half of what had happened to Finn, the second shuttle had arrived. "Geneva to Toluca. This is Hanson. I brought envirosuits for all of you so you could make the transfer safely," came over Dahl's phone.
"I didn't know you could fly a shuttle," Dahl said.
"You learn a lot of interesting things when you're young, rich, and bored. I got some refresher training over the last year to make sure I was up to speed on the current shuttles, and here I am, ready to chauffeur you back to Intrepid. There were two suits on board your shuttle, right?"
"As per Dub U code," Dahl said.
"You have enough power to set up a shield around part of the compartment so we can get the suits to the rest of your crew without giving them a lethal dose of methane poisoning?" Hanson asked.
"Negative. We've barely got enough power to keep life support going. I think the Sentry's helping us, but I wouldn't want to tempt it," Dahl said. "Can you bring Geneva closer and extend the walkway?"
"I'll bring her in as close as I can, but my fine piloting skills aren't that practiced," Hanson said.
Kerensky gestured at Dahl to hand him the phone. "Ensign Hanson, this is Lieutenant Kerensky. While you bring Geneva forward, I'll try and juice Toluca towards you and take care of the finer points of docking the two shuttles. Between us, we should be able to bring the shuttles close enough together that you can extend a walkway and bring us aboard Geneva safely."
"Aye, sir," Hanson said, and ended the call.
"Crewman Duvall, I'm going to need that seat," Kerensky said.
Duvall nodded and moved into the back. Kerensky took the helm and started to inch the Toluca towards the oncoming Geneva. None of them dared to say a word. The atmosphere in the shuttle was tight and tense with foreboding.
"Twenty meters," Dahl said from the co-pilot's seat.
"You can see those controls?" Finn asked.
"Barely. Just enough," Dahl said. "Fifteen meters. Thirteen. Ten. Nine. Engines completely out of power, Lieutenant. We're going to have to wait for Geneva to make the final approach and roll out the walkway."
The tense silence fell over them again, as they waited for Hanson to bring the other shuttle closer and align it with the hatch. Finally, Hanson's voice came over Kerensky's phone. "Lined up, sir. Extending walkway now."
The shuttle shuddered momentarily as Hanson extended the walkway. With one last shiver, it settled into place. Hanson's voice on the phone sounded a bit tinny when he said, "Walkway in place, sir. Coming through in my suit to ensure that it's in place. It's going to be slow going. So far, so good. The seal is secure. Minimal leakage- nothing fatal, but I'd hurry if I were you. Sir."
"Acknowledged, Ensign. Return to Geneva and wait for us," Kerensky said. "Crewman Duvall, you'll be first through the passage. Call when you're on Geneva. Crewman Hester, you'll follow. Crewman Finn, you'll be next. I'll follow you. Lieutenant Dahl, you'll be last off Toluca, as you're safely suited and we expect Toluca to disintegrate once you're gone. Let's get moving."
Duvall opened the hatch and crawled through the walkway, moving slowly so as to not dislodge it and doom them all to an agonizing death. As soon as she was through, Kerensky's phone buzzed and Hester went through. Finn followed, though not before saying, "Someone needs to tell me what the hell's going on here when we're done."
"You're not going to believe it, but we'll try," Dahl promised.
Once Finn was safely through, Kerensky followed, leaving Dahl alone with the shuttle. Your work here is almost done, the Sentry assured him, and there was something familiar in its voice, though he couldn't make out what it was.
"Thanks. I think."
"I'm through, Dahl," Kerensky said through the phone. "Come through the walkway and let's get back to Intrepid."
Dahl took a deep breath in his suit and began to climb through the walkway. It sagged under his weight slightly as he made his way at a slow crawl to the hatch of the Geneva, which hung open, surrounded by the faint green tinge of shields so that the lethal methane atmosphere wouldn't penetrate into the shuttle and suffocate the other members of the away team. Hanson wouldn't be able to afford the power to keep the shields up too much longer, not if he wanted to have enough power to get them all back to Intrepid in one piece.
Dahl moved faster, aware that the increased rate of speed made the walkway less stable. Finally, he was through to the Geneva, retracting the walkway and closing the hatch behind him before he removed the helmet of his suit. "Let's go home," he said.
Hanson took the controls of the shuttle and brought them up through the howling winds and raging storms of Gamma Arcturus, leaving behind the Celestial Sentry and the emptiness of deep space that filled its torus.
We will see what your mortal lives hold in the places and times you will yet see, the Sentry boomed- but none in the shuttle heard it.
Abernathy paced in front of the screen in the conference room. "Did you or did you not break the Temporal Directives?" he demanded of Kerensky and Hester.
"I believe we closed a stable time loop," Hester said.
Kerensky nodded. "If we had not followed Mr. Finn- the alternate version of Mr. Finn- and used the Celestial Sentry to travel back to the past, you would have had no way of knowing that Crewman Weston hosted the biological bomb. All hands would have died in that room, and Bullington would have had a free hand to act as she wished. We did what we had already done, because otherwise we wouldn't have done it and we would have ended up with the alternate timeline that Finn came back to warn us about. If we hadn't made any changes, sir, we would have broken the Temporal Directives and created an alternate timeline, possibly even a new alternate timeline."
"Lieutenant Kerensky's analysis, while a bit simplistic, is most likely accurate. We can only be certain of what has come to pass in our current timeline, but as we are not currently embroiled in war with either the Calendrian rebels or the Forshan's schismatic forces, it seems safe to presume that the necessary changes were made to ensure that Mr. Finn's timeline did not come to pass," Q'eeng said.
"What I don't understand is why that hunk of rock demanded four members of our crew and kept two of them on the planet. Was that just for its twisted amusement?" Hartnell asked.
"We were told that we were needed to anchor the alternate Toluca in place, sir. If we had gone through and there had been no anchor for it, it would have ceased to exist, which would have meant there was no safe way to return the others from the past," Dahl explained.
"Not much amusement was involved, sir," Duvall added. "Not unless it enjoys watching mortals play card games."
"No mortal can understand the motivations of the Celestial Sentry. We have no idea what its purpose was in allowing that alternate Finn to pass through. And you say the alternate is dead and this one was brought forward from our past?" Abernathy asked.
"The alternate Finn said that he was doomed anyway, because either he was going to have to go back to his war-torn time or he would be wiped out of existence by the destruction of his timeline. He wanted his death to have some kind of meaning, not be a senseless waste of life. So he substituted himself for the one native to that timeline, so that he would be able to warn you and then-Ensign Dahl about the bomb," Hester said.
"So what do we do with me? Sir?" Finn asked.
"You're more than welcome to take up your old role with Intrepid once we get the paperwork sorted out and get you up to speed on developments that have happened since you were removed from your previous time. Intrepid cares for all of her own," Abernathy said.
"Thank you, sir. I'll consider all my options. This is something I hadn't expected, to put it mildly," Finn said.
"We're glad to have you back, Crewman Finn. Lieutenant Kerensky, escort him back to crew quarters and find him an empty bunk. Senior staff, I need you back on the bridge. The rest of you are dismissed." Abernathy and the senior staff, except for Kerensky, left the briefing room.
Finn looked around at all of them. "So what do I do now? What do we all do now?"
"We go on with our lives. We explore. We discover. We live, we love, we learn, and we never stop," Dahl said.
A sense of heavy foreboding lifted over the room, and Dahl took a deep breath. "Wow, that was some sanctimonious crap. Sorry, guys. Now I know why Weinstein stuck to blowing things up."
"So that's it? That's the ending?" Hester asked.
"They probably finished it with some kind of dramatic image of the Intrepid flying off into space," Dahl said.
"Would you stop it?" Finn burst out.
Duvall rolled her eyes. "I need a drink. Hanson, you coming?"
"Yeah, I could use something after that piloting job. Harder than it looks," Hanson said, getting up and following Duvall out of the room.
Kerensky's tablet blinked. "Well, this is interesting. Message from Fleet Command, from an Admiral McNeill. Except there is no Admiral McNeill. Let's see what it says." He tapped it and watched a text message scroll up. "All right, I'm instructed to read this only if the following parties and only the following parties are present: Andrew Dahl, Lucas Finn, Jasper Hester, and Anatoly Kerensky."
"Gosh, what a coincidence," Hester said.
Kerensky continued to read off the screen. "Brian thinks this worked last time, so we're going to try it again. This is the last time any of us are going to intrude on your universe. We're only shooting this with the actors who were involved with the trip, plus Nick, since we think he deserves to have some idea of what's going on, even if he's not going to believe any of it."
"I don't believe this bullshit!" Finn burst out.
Kerensky looked down at his tablet. "Nick doesn't believe this bullshit and just said as much. For those of you who are wondering, Nick McNeill is the guy who played Finn on the show. He wanted out, and that's part of why we originally killed off the character. And for that, Finn, we're very sorry. You don't know how sorry we are. I think that's why we were so open to Hester's message and found a way around it.
"But the show's over now. All of you are free to live your lives however you want. We're not going to be able to interfere anymore. That's both sides of the coin. You might end up getting killed in the next battle or something. Or you might live to a hundred and twenty and die in bed. But that goes for all your crewmates, too. They're free. And we don't know what that's going to mean, but we have ideas. We think you're going to find some changes on Intrepid, not because of us but because of the lack of us.
"So good luck, from us to… us.
"Signed, Charles Paulson, Nick Weinstein, Brian Abnett, Marc Corey, and Matthew Paulson. And Nick McNeill, even if we have to buy him a lot of drinks to explain it first."
Kerensky looked up from the tablet. "And that is the end of that."
Finn blinked and looked around the room. "So when were you assholes going to tell me I was dead?"