The subspace distortion yawns in front of the Hera, gravitometric forces more powerful than a black hole drawing them in no matter how they struggle, and LaForge knows in that moment that she won't be going home again.
It's hard to be a Starfleet officer and a mother. Silva's seen that with shipmates and superior officers, torn between transferring to desk positions on starbases or leaving their children behind... with fathers, if the father isn't also on a starship, or family or friends if neither parent can bear giving up the stars.
It is even harder to be a Starfleet officer and the mother of a blind baby.
Ensign Silva LaForge is 23, a year out of the Academy and barely started on her career, when her first born child is diagnosed as permanently blind, his optic nerve undeveloped. It's a crushing blow. Ed, 20 and still in the Academy, offers to drop out and take care of Geordi; his true passion is exozoology, and there are other avenues besides Starfleet to be able to study alien life forms. Admittedly, none of them are as good as Starfleet or as cutting edge as Starfleet, but they exist. For someone who dreams of exploring space, giving up Starfleet would be a far more painful choice. But Geordi needs to be kept on Earth, where the cutting edge medical science is. They can't simply clone and implant new eyes or put in ocular implants; her boy hasn't got an optic nerve, and they tell her that if a way hasn't been found to give him some sort of visual input by the time he is eight, it will never be possible. His brain will finish developing its visual cortex, possibly using that region of the brain for something completely different, and even if future technologies do allow the growth of the optic nerve or something similar, his brain won't be able to handle the input.
They tell her to prepare for the possibility that her son will be completely blind for his entire life.
Silva LaForge is not used to giving up.
She says goodbye to the stars, for now, possibly for ever. An ensign doesn't have much pull to go out on indefinite leave, and Starfleet is rather hostile to family needs; a person who leaves Starfleet to care for a child will never be taken seriously for promotion again, she is told. The first officer of the ship she serves on even suggests that maybe she should tell Ed to give up Starfleet so she can stay. She has too much respect for her commanding officers to tell the older woman to go to hell... not in so many words, anyway. There are desk jobs available at HQ, and she can commute from home in the suburbs of Mogadishu via transporter to San Francisco. Starfleet Medical is right there, and there are state of the art day care centers for disabled children that promise to stimulate Geordi's other senses and help him learn to speak sooner.
It lets her be near Ed while he's at the Academy, anyway.
After the Academy, Ed finds excuses to stay on Earth. Scientists can usually find a way. There's a massive shortage of eager young Academy-trained science officers who are actually willing to stay at HQ and do the grunt work of science analysis; the elderly scientists who can't work in the field do all the exciting parts of that, leaving the endless paperwork to the young, and the young find excuses to escape it and flee to the stars as soon as they can. Once Ed graduates the Academy, he takes a job in the hellhole that every other exobiologist his age is fleeing, and stays on Earth with Silva and Geordi. It's not a sacrifice most Starfleet officers would make for their spouse and child, and Silva never forgets it.
Ariana comes along when Geordi is four. While he's usually something of a shy boy, not really warming up to his day care playmates so much, he adores his little sister, frequently asking if he can help take care of her. Sometimes Silva puts Geordi on her lap, and Ariana on his lap, and puts a bottle of breastmilk in his hand and helps him guide it to Ariana's mouth. Later she watches him do it himself, as he sits on the couch next to Silva and she holds Ariana low so he can reach. His tiny brown fingers brush over her even tinier face until she chomps her pink little gums on his fingers, and then he knows exactly where to put the bottle he's holding in his other hand so Ariana can suck on it.
When he is five, Starfleet Medical comes up with the VISOR. It doesn't require an optic nerve; it feeds directly into visual cortex. Geordi is considered a prime candidate for prototype testing, as only children with developing visual corteces are thought to be capable of learning to interpret its broad-spectrum input and only children who lack working optic nerves are thought to need something like the VISOR at all. For weeks, Geordi stumbles about in confusion, his blank world now a wild confusion of colors, and they aren't even the colors Silva sees; she can't get Geordi to believe her that a blue plastic bouncing ball and a blue baby onesie for Ariana are even the same general hue, let alone the exact same color as they appear to human eyes. She sits with him and traces his fingers over shapes, reminding him of what he knew they were a month ago. Circle, triangle, square, oval, hexagon, rectangle. Again and again she has him trace her face, Ariana's face, Ed's face, until he can match the visual input with the tactile impressions he's always known.
And then one day he just gets it. He stops bumping into solid objects, as he spontaneously develops edge detection, learning how to see boundaries. He can recognize Silva at a distance, and runs to her in the day care even before she speaks. He can't see his own face; when he looks in a mirror he doesn't see a reflection, apparently. Too much of the spectrum the VISOR perceives goes through mirrors instead of bouncing back. But for the first time, he can see other people's faces, even if what he sees isn't precisely what everyone else can see.
He has terrible headaches, and sometimes cries off and on for the entire day. No analgesic that's safe for a five year old actually works to combat them. Frequently he leaves the VISOR off so his head won't hurt, but he needs the input to train his brain into using visual cortex for visual perception, so Silva is always after him to put it back on. He loses it, frequently, one time leaving it behind in a sandbox where a little girl picked it up to use as a hair band, and they don't get it back for a week. At one point Silva has four of the damn things lying around in the house and can't find any of them when it's time to go out. But as time goes on and he becomes more used to vision, more unwilling to do without it, and better able to handle the headaches, it gets easier.
He's six. Ariana's two. Neither of them need her so very badly anymore. And she loves her babies, but oh, god, she misses the stars, she misses the wonder and excitement of exploration and the thrill of piloting a starship, all that power at her fingertips.
The Dexter Benjamin is a small Starfleet courier ship, for transporting messages that are too sensitive to entrust to even the best-encrypted channels and people whose safety depends on absolute secrecy. It is never away from Earth, and Starfleet HQ, for longer than two months at a time. Captain Haldane's willing to take her on as a pilot; most Starfleet pilots like longer missions, bigger starships, and more excitement and variety in the missions.
She says goodbye to her babies for the first time in their lives and takes off for a month. It's the hardest thing she's ever done, but it's the right thing for her own sanity and self-worth.
Opportunity comes up when Geordi's eight. Starfleet's establishing a space station in orbit around Verena III, a newly discovered world where carbon-based life forms rub elbows with crystalline silicate life forms. It's an exobiologist's paradise, and like any space station, families are allowed to live there. There's not so much need for a pilot on a space station, aside from frequently ferrying scientists to and from the surface through the vicious sandstorms that occasionally spring up and block the transporter, but branching out and getting some cross-training will be good for Silva's career.
Ed's thrilled because his career, somewhat stalled by the need to care for children since he graduated the Academy, is finally moving in the direction he originally joined Starfleet for. Ariana's thrilled because Mommy will be home every day. Geordi's thrilled because he's in space, and because Fleet brats tend to be more mature and accepting of differences than the Earthlubber kids at his school in Mogadishu were, so the few other kids present on the station are all more willing to accept him as a friend than most of the many back home. Only Silva finds this a step backwards. She was finally to the point of being Dexter Benjamin's primary pilot, trusted with some of the most daring and dangerous runs the ship had to undertake -- most courier missions were boring and routine, but the ones that weren't were memorable. Now she's almost a supernumerary, working as a shuttle pilot and doing Astrometrics surveys and Ops and occasionally even subbing in security, because of her courier background having some security overlap, but without a real defined role of her own.
Jobs come and go. There's nothing either of them can do that defines a 'career', no five-year or longer assignments, because there's nothing either of them want to do for such a period of time that would be compatible with both staying together and bringing their children along.
Silva's still stalled out at lieutenant, unable to get ahead because Starfleet doesn't reward officers for prioritizing family, when she sees Geordi off to the Academy. It's been his goal ever since Verena III and Station J-21; he's gone back and forth between specializing in the sciences like Ed, being a pilot or navigator like Silva, or going on an engineering track, but the basic idea that he'll go to the Academy has never been in question.
Ariana accompanies Ed on another long-term planetary mission, and Silva finally gets the five-year posting she's always wanted on a deep space explorer. She misses half of her girl's teen years, catching only bits and bobs on leaves every six months or so. She'd have missed Geordi anyway because he spends four years living at the Academy, although maybe if he'd had a home to return to on Earth he'd have done so.
This isn't the family life she wanted. Her mother had four children and her mother before her had three, and they all lived within easy aircar jaunts from each other, no need to burn transporter credits to get all the cousins together for family get-togethers. Nowadays all her siblings live near each other, and near the cousins, and only she and her family are outliers. Ed's family life was more like the one they have now, where long separations and communications over the comm network are as common as family togetherness, and Geordi and Ed are easygoing about it, neither of them seeming to feel any sort of loss just because the family is rarely all in the same place at the same time. Silva thinks Ariana might be more like her family, more like her, and she thinks maybe her daughter resents her and Ed, or resents Starfleet, or all of the above. Ariana, when she's on Earth, spends a lot of time with her first and second cousins. She attends college on Earth, at the super-prestigious University of Nairobi, and becomes a mathematician, and has as many as seven cats and three dogs at a time. She welcomes visits from her mother, but there's always an undertone there, a certain sharp note of 'I won't be like you.'
Silva tries, very hard, never to let her daughter see that this hurts her. She's always tried to make the absences seem normal, never to make a big deal of them or act as if it pained her to leave her kids behind as much as it really did, because she thought the kids would respond to their mother's cues and if she acted as if going away for months was normal, the kids would accept it. Now she wonders if that was right. Geordi never talks about his emotions much at all with her; he's always upbeat, always cheerful, and she raised that boy, she knows that isn't how he is all the time, but they have so little time together and if he wants not to let anything negative mar his time with his mother, she can do the same for him. Ariana doesn't really confide much; she snipes sometimes, but the kind of girl talk Silva could share with her own mother has never come easily with them.
She wonders if they know she loves them. But it would be ridiculous to say so, because of course it goes without saying that she loves them, and they must know that. Her kids aren't stupid. They know how she feels.
In the years since Geordi went to the Academy and Silva was finally free to take the good assignments, her career has finally taken off. Two promotions within five years, to Lieutenant Commander and then Commander. First officer of the Grax. First officer of the much larger Per Aspera. By the time Geordi's landed a spot on the flagship of the Fleet and Ariana's on tenure track, Silva is captain of the small science vessel Satomaru, with Ed as her chief science officer. And then, after six years, she's offered the captain's chair on the significantly larger exploratory vessel Hera.
Hera is more of a standard Starfleet ship, less pure science and more variety in the missions, than Satomaru was. The science officer of such a ship needs to be a jack of all trades, not an expert in one. Ed doesn't qualify. He could get a posting aboard Hera -- more than half of Satomaru's crew is transferring with her, which, when added to the crew already there and the crew transferring in from other vessels, will leave her with a crew that's two-thirds Vulcan. But his career would be hurt by stepping down from chief science officer to being just another science officer in the department.
He says goodbye to her and leaves for a teaching position at the Academy, an interstitial job to tide him over until something new and really good comes along. She invites Geordi and Ariana to the launch party. Geordi shows up for a few hours, but can't squeeze in time for a personal visit the next day, in amidst his duties as chief engineer of the Enterprise. Ariana doesn't bother to show up at all.
It's an old pattern, though. They're all busy. They all put career before family. It's what she and Ed taught them to do, even though both of them nearly destroyed their own careers in the first few years of Geordi's life by putting family first. It's what almost all of Starfleet does. She'll catch up with Geordi and Ariana later. Ariana's married now, and busy trying to get tenure, and dare Silva hope for grandchildren in the near future? And Geordi's practically married to his ship. That boy needs a girlfriend. Or a boyfriend. It's too bad his best friend has no emotions, because from what Geordi says he's so close to Data Silva would be matchmaking the two of them if Data could feel love. He's a good guy, from what Geordi says, a loyal friend, but for her boy Silva wants someone who can love as passionately as Ed loves her and she loves him.
There wasn't supposed to be a subspace distortion in this sector. There were no reports previously of any unusual gravitometric forces. It's as if it came out of nowhere, as if it spontaneously sprang into existence, a maw that's drawing her ship in.
They've thrown everything they had at it, trying to close off the opening, push back against it, pour more power into the engines to escape, and nothing's working. The stresses are tearing the ship apart. There's hull breaches on multiple decks. The Vulcans reporting the cold hard facts that mean they're all going to die are so calm, and she has to be calm too because she's the captain, and just like with children and their mother, the crew look to their captain for cues as to how to feel. If you want your kids to face your departure bravely, act like it's no big deal. If you want your crew to face their death bravely, stare it in the face yourself and stay calm, even as you fight with everything you've got. Maybe the Vulcans don't need the help, but a third of the crew aren't Vulcan and Silva's got to set an example for them, at least.
She always knew it might come to this, for her or for Ed or for Geordi. Starfleet's not safe. But it's funny that she's said goodbye so many times and come back so many times it's just never occurred to her that someday it would be the last time.
She wishes she could send a final message, but the gravity will suck in any message buoy she tries to fire off and they can't spare the power from the engines and the structural integrity field to try to send a subspace transmission. No guarantee it would get out of the gravity well, either. This thing's behaving like a subspace black hole, something that will draw in anything traveling slower than warp nine and nine nines.
At the end of her life she wonders if anything she did was the right thing. Was it right to leave her children behind to go back into space as early as she did, as often as she did? But how would they have learned to follow their own dreams if they'd had the example of a woman who stifled hers to look to? Should she have pushed harder to make sure Geordi and Ariana spent time with her when they could? But they're grown adults and she couldn't very well force them, and what sort of relationship would they have had if she'd been the kind of person who played those games with her children?
No. She made the right choices, in the broad strokes at least. The only thing she has left to regret is how long it's been since she told them she loved them. But surely they know anyway.
As the whirlpool of gravity tears her ship apart, Silva LaForge says goodbye to her husband and her children, one final time.