"Amens, Williams!" The transport officer barked across the bay. I begrudgingly picked up my bag and lugged it over to the officer.
He barely took his eyes off his consoles as I approached, "Ensign, you're either a very popular officer or very very unpopular, the Admiral has arranged a private shuttle. Pad 8."
"I'm afraid it's more the latter sir." I ashamedly replied.
The Transport officer stopped, looked in my eyes and sternly addressed me , "I didn't ask. Pad 8."
I slinked off with my bag as he continued to glare at me. A brand new runabout sat waiting for me on the indicated pad. The pilot seemed to be inspecting the craft, he paused when he saw me approach.
"Ahh. Ensign Amens I presume? I have been expecting you, I'm finishing my preflight check, go ahead and step aboard. There will be plenty of seats," he smiled as he finished. The pilot was clearly Denobulan, and like most of his species he seemed to be an amiable fellow. I regret I wasn't in the mood for pleasantries and merely nodded before walking past him.
I sat alone in one of the crew modules for a while, thinking about how I got here, when I heard the runabouts' systems power up. I think I would have preferred to remain alone, but the pilot was very nice and I didn't want him getting the wrong impression of me. I stood up to head out to the main cabin when I caught my reflection in the mirror of the open storage locker.
I tugged at the sleeves of my uniform which were perpetually wrinkled from being constantly rolled up. Though I was an average height for a humanoid female they always seemed to have trouble getting my sleeves the right length. Fortunately, as an Engineer, I was given considerably more leeway on my uniform presentation than most officers and rolled sleeves gave the impression of a busy technician. My hair on the other hand, I had to finally cut short due to repeated warnings from superiors. I missed my long hair occasionally, but the shorter style suited my duties. However it remained a constant battle to keep locks of hair from falling in my face. My Trill spots, blonde hair and blue eyes garnered attention wherever I went, a fascination I never really understood even when I was reminded that the combination is a bit of a rarity. I had been called pretty, not often, but more than once. Though in my own assessment I felt I was barely average. Perhaps it's because I didn't spend nearly as much time on my appearance as my roommates at the Academy. I took one last look at my reflection and patted my tummy, upset at my inability to lose that last 5 pounds, and shut the locker.
I walked into the cockpit in time to see us escaping the upper atmosphere. The light from the windows rapidly slipping from blue to black. The pilot was pleased to see me as I sat down in the Ops seat.
"Welcome Ensign. You are just in time, this has always been my favorite part of the trip. You can see Earth Spacedock on the port side, McKinley station is coming up to starboard, and we will pass close to Tyco city on Luna before we go to warp."
I half smiled, "I've seen it a few times, I guess it's lost its magic for me."
"Oh, that's too bad," He responded in his naturally cheary manner, "I have been piloting shuttles back and forth between Earth and the border stations for oh.. 20 years now? And it still gets me every time." He paused to look over at me before continuing, "I'm terribly sorry Ensign. The name is Quinix."
I imagine I looked about as cheerful as I felt, and he deserved better, I attempted a friendly response. "Amens, nice to meet you." I waved awkwardly. Somehow despite meeting literally hundreds of unique species, I still struggled to know when it was appropriate to shake hands. In spite of my discomfort, he seemed pleased with my response and smiled before returning to his console. I felt like I should say something, anything, to keep a conversation going, so I stammered out the first thing that popped into my head. "Umm… am I really the only passenger on this trip?"
I immediately felt stupid the moment it came out of my mouth, but it amused Quinix nonetheless, "Yes you are Ensign, except for some last minute cargo. I assure you, there is no need for you to keep me company. You are welcome to stay in one of the crew compartments, or make use of the lounge. I had a wonderful young lady who once spent the entire trip on the science console. I tried to tell her that this is all well traveled space, there's not much that's unexplored, but it did not dissuade her one bit."
"Oh, that's okay. I'll just hang around here I guess." As I responded his face stretched out into one of those wide smiles Denobulan's are known for.
"Suit yourself Ensign. We will be going to warp as soon as we clear the lunar orbit."
I settled into my seat and watched as we skirted past the moon. I think Quinix was showing off a little when he flew us as low as regulations would allow. I must admit he was very knowledgeable about human history in space. I had never taken the time to visit the Tranquility Base space center on Luna, but from the runabout you could see the landing site for the first human lunar landing. I became so absorbed in his historical recollections that I didn't realize I was actually enjoying myself for the first time in days. He told me all about his peoples early history in space, about his family, and even the 'highlight of his career', the time he got to shuttle Ambassador Spock to a conference near Vulcan.
It was hours into our trip and several of Quinix's stories later before one question brought me back to my own sad reality. "So, Ensign, what brings you here in the first place?" Quinix stirred his drink while he awaited my answer.
My smile faded from my face as I contemplated my answer. "Oh, yeah. Well…" I looked toward him, hoping maybe he would see my discomfort and release me from my obligation to answer. But he patiently waited, smiling as openly as ever. I grasped for a vague but satisfactory answer, "I'm just not very popular with a certain Admiral."
"Admiral Toh?" He asked.
I was surprised and confused by his response, "Y..yeah…how did you know?"
"An educated guess. My orders came directly from the Admiral himself. And I don't get to talk to Admirals very often."
I fidgeted a bit as I responded, "He's a… He's a good man. But I made a few mistakes, like I always do, and he…" I gestured to indicate being kicked out.
"Well if you were working close to an Admiral you cannot have been that bad. Admirals only surround themselves with the best and brightest when they can help it." Quinix smiled broadly in a transparent attempt to cheer me up.
"Well in this case I was assigned as a low level engineering assistant as part of the design program at the shipyards. The Admiral chose to oversee that project himself and I.. well.. I never should have opened my mouth."
As I finished, Quinix stopped stirring his drink and looked up at me, "I knew I had seen you somewhere! You were that young lady on the Federation News broadcast, talking about the advanced ship designs."
I winced, "I was kind of hoping no one had seen that."
"I must say the new Prometheus and prototype Phoenix class ships are fascinating departures from common starfleet design, it's no wonder you were so excited to talk about them. Though I'm not sure what you meant by the robot thing."
"It was a joke, I was trying to make a very bad joke. You know those old Earth kids shows where a set of robots would join together into a larger robot?" I looked at Quinix for recognition, but he seemed even more confused. "No? Anyway, no one in our department had clearance to talk to anyone about the designs, and that was apparently the Admiral's 'Last Straw'. Hence, why I am here with you today, being transferred to the furthest backwater outpost he could think of."
I looked away ashamed when I suddenly felt Quinix take my hand, "Amens, you need to stop looking at this as a punishment and more like.. An opportunity. Everyone can use a fresh start now and then, so in some ways this is a gift. " This strange man I had barely met looked into my eyes with a gaze of genuine care and concern I hadn't experienced in a long time. The all-too-brief feeling of warmth and comfort faded quickly when he continued, "We all make mistakes after all and you're young! It's practically to be expected." He then patted my hand and turned back to his console.
I realized I had unconsciously put my hand on my own tummy. His comment inadvertently triggering feelings of trepidation. I knew he meant well, how was he supposed to know I was a joined Trill after all? Technically a portion of myself wasn't young, not by conventional terms, but almost certainly older than Quinix. By Trill standards however my symbiont was young, I am only it's third host. And while most Trill gain a sense of well-being, wisdom, and confidence from their symbionts, I did not. I was left a confused mess of jumbled memories and emotions that I'm still trying to sort out. Some days I can't help but blame the Amens symbiont for bringing me nothing but misery.
Quinix suddenly interrupted my train of thought, "You hungry?"
I took my hand off my stomach, "Oh no.. no.. A little tired."
"Feel free to nap wherever you like. I'm told that chair is quite comfortable when its reclined."
I timidly searched for the recline buttons on the chair, "Are you sure? You don't mind?"
"Quite sure Ensign. I will keep the noise level down."
While I was hesitant to accept his offer, the thought of sitting alone in a crew module contemplating my past mistakes was even less appealing. I nodded in gratitude and settled into the seat putting my feet up on the console. I glanced in Quinix' direction to be sure it was okay, he didn't seem to mind and kept to his controls. I had my fair share of personal problems, but getting to sleep on a starship was not one of them, especially in a command chair. The steady drone of the ships engine, the fairly regular status indicators and even the gentle beeping of another officer on the controls was better than counting tribbles for me. Unfortunately my comfort level had also twice gotten me into trouble for sleeping on duty. I must have been tired because shortly after closing my eyes I slipped into unconsciousness. My usually erratic mind somewhat settled by the comforting presence of another caring individual.
I was aroused some time later to the sound of a gentle voice, "Amens? .. Amens… Ensign Wake up.." I squinted as I opened my eyes and stretched, the cockpit seemed unusually bright, but I didn't have a sense of why just yet. "Sorry to disturb your sleep Amens, but I took a little detour and I thought you would appreciate the view."
I fully opened one eye, and then quickly the other and gasped as I beheld the sight outside the cockpit windows. A rainbow of gaseous clouds swirled slowly around the ship amongst brilliant seas of young stars sparkling like gems. Unearthly hues of red, gold, green and blue cast a glow unlike anything I had ever experienced. I understood the science behind it, and yet it was altogether mystical to behold. That something so beautiful could exist in the deep black emptiness of space would make the most devout atheist feel spiritual. It felt so close that I wanted to reach out and touch it, as if I could run my hands through the colorful clouds and see them swirl together in the wake. It was at this point I realized I was standing on my chair and craning my neck to see out the windows in every direction.
"Federation charts call it the Medusa Nebula. But we had a different name for it back on Denobula."
"It's amazing Quinix," still enraptured by the view out the windows, I barely looked at him as I spoke, "I've seen Nebulas at the academy but a holo-recording doesn't do it justice this is.. just.. amazing."
Quinix smiled, "I'm glad to hear not everything about space travel has 'lost it's magic' Ensign."
I looked at him puzzled for a moment, then remembered my own words and smiled before returning my gaze to the beauty of the Nebula, "You are certainly full of surprises Quinix. So these are actual young white dwarf stars all throughout here?"
"That's right, The brilliant greens are oxygen, the red is from hydrogen, in fact all the colors are made from ionized gases..."
".. and they move outward from the core star, losing electrons as they travel," I continued from memory. "I've read all about it, but I've never actually seen it happening, it's spectacular. I don't even remember seeing a Nebula on our flight plan."
"It wasn't. I made a little detour."
"I can't imagine being able to come to a place so beautiful whenever you want, I'm jealous"
"Oh no. I haven't been here since I was very young. It was what sparked my desire to join Starfleet. I've yet to see anything quite like it in all the galaxy."
I stopped looking out the window and slowly got down from the chair. I looked at Quinix whose gaze was also directed outside but his eyes were unfocused as if lost in thought. I hated to distract him, but I couldn't hold back a burning question, "So you did this for me? You took me here.. Just to be.. Nice?"
His eyes blinked back to life, he seemed concerned now, "Oh I hope I haven't overstepped my boundaries Ensign."
"Oh, no no, it's just… why?"
As I settled back into my seat awaiting a response, his warm smile returned, "Sometimes we all need a reminder that there is still some beauty left in the universe. All is not duty and rank and procedure. Even in Starfleet."
I had to admit that I was a little overwhelmed by his kindness. I had allowed myself to be consumed by a darkness of my own creation and here was a stranger I had barely met, reaching out into the darkness with a helping hand and an open heart. It was an odd sensation to feel cared about by someone who owed me nothing.
I started to say thank you when I caught something moving in the corner of my eye. Outside of the main window something that could have easily been mistaken for a star, was moving. I watched it for a moment as it slowly drifted in one direction, then suddenly shot upward, and then roughly back the direction it started from. It was clearly not a natural movement, it appeared to be moving with agency. A glowing speck amongst thousands of other specs, but this one calmly moved about the cosmos in a very unnatural way.
"Quinix. Do you have any idea what that is?" I asked as I roughly pointed in it's direction.
He was puzzled at first, but I could clearly see the moment he caught sight of this unusual phenomena, "No Ensign, I do not. I'm going to run a scan."
He reached over toward the science console and activated the scanners as we both intently watched this unusual object. However the moment the Runabout's scanners switched from passive to active scanning you could see a change in the behavior of the object. It's once calm drifting suddenly became faster and more erratic. It was hard to say for certain, but it appeared almost like it was irritated.
"Quinix, I think maybe we should turn the scanners off and just leave."
Quinix hesitated as he watched the mystery object before finally nodding an agreement and terminating the scan. We both watched intently to see what would happen next. The object seemed less erratic but it didn't return to drifting either. There was no question now that this object moved with a purpose, and that our actions had an effect on it. But now wasn't the proper time or place to postulate on it's awareness or purpose. We were alone in a small craft, completely off course, and unable to communicate with the fleet. I think we both held our breath in that moment.
The object finally slowed, drifted for a moment and then suddenly inexplicably it seemed to be moving right towards us. Growing brighter and brighter in the window it didn't take long to figure out that it's size and distance were deceptive. It was getting closer, and it was clearly very large, and very angry.
Quinix set to work on his controls, "Activating impulse drives."
As the drive spun up I punched feverishly at my controls, "Raising shields. The nebula is affecting our shield strength."
"Let's hope we won't need them Ensign." Quinix took the controls and started to turn us away from the steadily closing object.
The object had just cleared the starboard edge of the window when the first impact came. It sent the ship spiralling deeper into the Nebula. As we attempted to reduce the spin and regain control the view outside the window spun madly, periodically catching a glimpse of the object still in pursuit.
Quinix only just started to slow the spin and return us to a steady course when we were hit yet again. This time the inertial dampeners could not compensate and we were sent flying across the cabin. The force of the gravity plating competed with the centrifugal force of our spin pinning me to the wall of the cabin and nearly overwhelming me with a feeling of nausea. Fortunately Quinix was stronger than I was and he pulled himself up to the command console and fought to again correct the vessels path. The moment the spin slowed down I dived into the Ops seat. I was met with dozens of warning indicators blinking insistently. Systems were down all across the ship, our shields and warp drive hovered close to failing, and life support wasn't doing well either.
"Quinix, we can't take another hit like that."
"I know Ensign, I have an idea." I could see him queue up a micro torpedo and launch it without a set target. On one display I saw the mystery object rapidly approaching yet again, and another display showed the torpedo getting further and further away.
"Quinix, impact in 8 seconds."
He didn't acknowledge me, he only stared at his readouts, for what I don't know. I looked again at the countdown to impact with the object and hoped Quinix knew what he was doing. Suddenly he slapped the manual detonation button and the distant torpedo burst in a brilliant flash of light. The mystery object seemed to halt it's attack. On my display I could see it swirl about and then suddenly dart off in another direction.
I exhaled and sat back in my seat, relieved. "That was genius Quinix. Thank you. I don't think the structural integrity fields would have held if that thing hit us again." I expected to hear a response of some sort, but I heard nothing. "Quinix, are you.." It was then that I realized he was transfixed on something else outside the ship. I turned in the direction he was looking, there I saw the horror he was transfixed upon. The torpedo's detonation had set off some sort of plasma filament. A burning ribbon of fire spiraled outward from the detonation site, and it seemed to be headed in our direction.
"Quinix.. Quinix! Get us out of here!" I called to him in a panic.
He slowly turned to me with the empty expression of a man who knows what is coming and said only, "I'm sorry Ensign."
I looked back out the window just as the ribbon of flame struck the ship. The shields collaped almost instantly, and the cabin grew phenomenally warm as the plasma fire burned all around us. Lights and consoles blinked off as the ship rocked violently in the pressure waves. We held on as best as we could as the ship was tossed about. The heat and brightness subsided almost as quickly as it started. The ship slowed and the hull creaked in unearthly ways. The duranium composite structure strained against the temperature change as violent heat suddenly dropped back to the frigid cold of open space.
For a moment, it was quiet.
I slowly released my death grip on my chair and glanced about furtively before finally opening my mouth. "I think we... "
I was never able to finish my sentence.
The side of the runabout burst open. I instinctively closed my eyes the instant it happened, but I knew that I had been ripped from the cockpit and thrown into space. The explosion was the loudest sound I had ever heard, followed immediately by an indescribable silence. The next sensation was pain. Overwhelming pain, as every nerve ending felt like it was burning and freezing simultaneously. I convulsed as my lungs fought for non-existent air. The pain and the struggle felt like an eternity, and then all at once it stopped. There was no pain. There was no sound. It was oddly peaceful.
It was in this brief moment of peace that I had painfully managed to open my eyes. Through the fog of my own irises I could see the runabout drifting quietly away. A massive gash ripped across the starboard side and the light from the nacelles blinking and fading. A trail of debris spewed out from the gash in my direction. But beyond all the destruction, was this nebula. It was even more beautiful from here, floating outside of the confines of the runabout. Completely enveloped by the twinkling stars, and brilliant swirling colors. I was all at once at peace, prepared to let go in this beautiful place.
Just as I felt I could slip away I saw one last curious sight. My Comm badge. It had come free from my uniform and floated in empty space, just outside of arms reach. It's proud Starfleet emblem still shone brightly in the light of a thousand stars, slowly spinning, almost mocking me. It was the last thing I can recall seeing before everything faded away.
And then there was nothing.