Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Chasing Starlight (4792)

This post has been revised from the original publication.

(Continued from "Blue Valley")

[Blue Valley]
    April walked out alone into the night.  He kept walking, across the valley, until a dark sprawl of landscape surrounded him, far from the light of town.  It was quiet.
    He sat down in dirt and grass, craning his head upwards.  The stars were barely visible, fuzzy blotches through the indigo of Blue Valley's thick atmosphere.  It reminded him of a planet he had visited in another lifetime, a place called Kaliarktos.
    After a long set of Shaar's particularly delicious melancholy singing, the Harmony had played out and emptied.  Patrons, both locals and Arc officers, returned to their homes or the ship, or went other places.
    One more planet after this... Azarath Prime... then he was done.
    B'Eryn would tell him he had to work through it.  He had tried.  But as the month rolled by, with Arcadia going from one star system to the next, setting up or aiding in the setting-up of colonies, he found himself going through the motions.  He had stopped caring.  This just wasn't the life for him anymore.  How long would he push himself?  How long was he going to put up with it?  How long would he endure this self-inflicted torment?  He had been telling himself it was the only life he had ever known.  But what difference did that make?  What difference, really?  Not enough of a difference.  It wasn't enough.
    A man could have everything in life, and it would still not be enough.  There would still be something missing.
    Is the glass half empty or half full?, an old axiom asked.
    But it wasn't that simple.  This wasn't about perception.  This was about fact.  After everything, everything he had been through in life... and he had been through so much, so very, very much... after everything that happened, he was still incomplete.  There was something missing.
    He could not analyze it anymore.  Analyze, analyze, analyze... ask questions endlessly... Been there, done that.  Often, and too much.  He was still asking questions.  Still possessed no answers.  He had been back and forth, between different assignments, different places, from the Federation, across the galaxy, to the ends of the universe and beyond.
    And he was incomplete.
    He once thought it depression, some form that even the most advanced Federation medical science could not cure, as impossible as that seemed.  But that wasn't it.  He had seen doctors.  He had been treated as much as one could be.  He knew that wasn't it.  It was something else.  He was meant for something else... other things, other places.
    And he had been hiding from it.  Avoiding it.  The truth.  For far too long.
    He looked to the sky, past the clouds, past the stars... past those ends of the universe... past all the other dimensions beyond.
    He had to leave.  He had to find himself.  Had to know who he was.  He was not Stephen April.  Stephen April no longer.  Stephen April died, a long time ago.  Whoever he was, he was not that person anymore.  He needed to leave, and go find out just who he was.
    But not in this universe.  Not in this life.  Any answers to be found wouldn't be found here.  Not here... but on the other side – in that place all living beings had yet to explore.
    He was ready.
    All things had to end.
    Nothing went on forever.

[Starfleet Command – Earth]
    Some people believed there was a reason for everything.
    There was a reason for the grim mood pervading the conference room in Starfleet Command, just as there was a reason the various admirals had gathered in person – those available to attend – rather than using holo-communications.  Admiral Spitzberg Stiers, last to arrive, walked in and took a seat.
    "We've lost five more ships."
    Around the table, the commanders of the Federation's primary naval force accepted this with a tense resignation.  They were beyond surprise by now: They had been losing ships.
    At the head of the table sat Fleet Admiral Lisa Lauren Hartwell.  At only 42 Earth-years of age, Hartwell was the youngest woman yet to hold the office of Grand Admiral.  She was also the second in Starfleet's history to come from a background in the Sciences Division, and as such brought a scientist's perspective to the table.
    But today was not a day for a scientist.  Today she had to be someone a little bigger.  She had to be a grand admiral, truly, in every sense of the term.
    She faced Stiers with that knowledge in mind, palms placed flat on the table, and asked, "Which ships?"
    Stiers put up a list of names: Hesperia, Xanadu, Discovery, Humanity, Celestial.  "In addition to the Dream and the Vision," he said, "that makes seven, an astounding seven Quantum-class ships destroyed in the last three months by the Lavir."
    The Lavir: An enemy not entirely unknown, but not known well enough... a race with access to as many galaxies as the Federation tried to explore, and a mysterious means of reaching them.  Their technology was as equally mysterious when it came to weapons systems.  Apparently they didn't use ships of their own; none that the Federation could recognize.  But they still managed to attack, and sneak up out of nowhere, with devastating results.
    Hartwell shook her head, expression as close to shock as she would allow.  "How many casualties?"
    "All," Stiers reported.  "Except Humanity, which managed to launch lifeboats before the wormhole closed.  Most made it back alive."
    "The Lavir have yet to make any formal announcements regarding these attacks," added T'Plasio, a Vulcan admiral; an observation without objection.
    "They're targeting ships in the Quantum Fleet," Stiers said.  "Ships with slipstream drive.  The implication: They'll curb the UFP's slipstream usage, or restrict the Federation to traditional warp transit... or both – possibly part of a greater agenda... perhaps an anti-Federation agenda.  Since most of these attacks occurred in other galaxies, that carries an extra implication: They'll curb our access to other galaxies, or contain us to this one."
    "In addition, they're subverting holographic systems."  This came from steel-faced Constantine Gunriver, to the left of Lisa Hartwell.  "Hacking the sensor grid, using tactile interactivity to sabotage and interfere with Starfleet operations... a method used quite effectively.  Investigation indicates they caused the Vision to fly blind, into a gas giant."
    "And just last month," Admiral Castino inserted, "the entire space-traffic control grid went down in the Spaktrose sector.  This requires investigation and research.  But the necessary reaction is clear: Cut back on holographics."
    "Have these attacks yielded any connection to the Nem-Loth incident?" Hartwell asked.
    "None that we can detect," Stiers said.  "Which might be the only good news in that."
    Brenda Shoemaker sat up – former captain of the USS Liberty, ex-wife of Stephen April; now a rear admiral... ironically, in the position April once held when he was admiral.  She looked into the faces of the other admirals; a look with purpose.
    "We can't back down and let ourselves be intimidated."
    "Agreed.  But meanwhile," Stiers said, "it's time to face the truth and make the hard decision.  Having a slipstream fleet has made targets of the ships in that fleet.  We recommend dismantling the fleet and falling back on more standard warp drive, in concert with transwarp conduits to accomplish the same goals.  We can't eliminate the technology, but we can contain it and reduce the risk to the lives of our people."
    Hartwell looked to Shoemaker, who was accustomed to making hard decisions.  Had been all her life.  The Borg civil war... the Cirean invasion... near-death and destruction of her ship, the Liberty... keeping her daughter away from her 'father'....
    Shoemaker looked in turn to Stiers.  "Like Spitfire said," a nickname Stiers picked up while commanding the Pride, "it's a hard decision.  The slipstream project has operated successfully for thirty years."  She let out a sigh.  "But, one way or another, all things have to end."  She nodded.  "We concur."
    The Quantum Fleet had its time, with great impact on the shape of the Federation.  That would be its legacy.
    Shoemaker imagined how Stephen would take it.  He had been a major advocate of the program.  She had no way of knowing for sure what his reaction would be.  The man she thought she married turned out to be a clone – one of the reasons she divorced him.  The same reason they had little contact since his return earlier that year; why she didn't object to his refusal to meet their daughter, nor her daughter's mutual obstinacy.  She doubted he would take it lightly.  Or, perhaps he would be relieved, to command a 'normal' starship again, if he desired.  But she had no way of knowing for certain how he'd react.  The true, original Stephen April no longer existed.  He was... in a sense... dead.
    "Captain Clicker."  Hartwell's adjutant, a snow-white furball perched on the table, sprouting two short, black prehensile stalks, received her attention.  "Issue the recall," she said.  "Every ship in the Quantum Fleet is to report to the nearest available starbase for immediate decommissioning."
    The 'Borg tribble' whirled up a question in response, speaking in cymballine tones:
    § "And the ships in other galaxies? <TINK!>" §
    "They'll have to open wormholes and return to base, like the rest... if possible."
    The word no one uttered or asked about was the one word on many a mind: War.  Would the Federation go to war?... a decision only the Federation Council could make.  There had been no official war to speak of since the Dominion War ended 22 years prior.  It came close a few times, but was always (sometimes narrowly) averted.
    Like the decision to close the slipstream program... not one made lightly or with enthusiasm.

     In Michigan it was summer: Old buildings, erected centuries ago, as early as the 1800s, still stood in the West Michigan Metroplex, preserved as historical landmarks over the centuries, amid green fields, under a warm, sun-lit sky.  A beautiful time for walking... to take in the fresh air, the sights and the people.
    Stephen April sold his house years ago, before Arcadia's temporal jump.  So he took residence in a hotel on the shores of Lake Michigan, and ventured out from there.  It was as beautiful and pleasant as he remembered.  Paradise.
    He first went to see Walter Geon.
    "I'm not Stephen April," the man who appeared to be Stephen April explained to Geon.  "This life... his life... isn't mine.  I've had people tell me that I'm meant to be here, like there's some divine purpose for my continued existence.  But I can't tell you what it is.  Sometimes I think I feel it.  Other times, I wonder if I'm deluding myself, if it's just vanity or wishful thinking."
    Walter Geon, one-time chief medical officer of the USS Questor... the ship April commanded before Arcadia... stared at the face of Stephen April with disbelief.  It would have been twelve years for April, since he saw the Questor's CMO.  It had been that plus twenty more years for Geon.  Geon was pleased to see him at first, until April revealed the reason for the visit.
    "So: I think the only thing I can do is put what's left of him... this body..."  April gestured over himself.  "...where it should be.  With the rest of his family."
    It was not every day one's former captain showed up... and asked for assistance in committing suicide.
    Some cultures frowned on ritual suicide.  It was not unknown on Earth.  In this era of respect for rights and self-determination, some believed or came to the understanding that they had had their time, and wanted to end it on their own terms, gracefully.  They had a choice.  No one had the right to deprive them of it.
    But it was often indicative of mental troubles.  Depression.  Anxiety.  Other causes.  And the reason suicides happened so rarely in the Federation was because the symptoms leading up to them were detectable, and treatable.  Normally, with humans, that treatment would take place.
    Except, again, in some cases....
    And not everyone was human, or subscribed to the belief that they had to be treated.  The civilization of Kaelon II practiced ritual suicide every day, a tradition the Federation respected for the sake of diplomatic relations.
    Geon stared at him, trying to gauge April's seriousness.  Finally deciding that he was indeed serious, he started to object.
    April cut him off.  "You owe me a favor," he said.  "You owe Stephen April a favor.  I've come to collect."
    It was a bit eerie, hearing someone refer to themselves in the third person.
    "If you aren't Stephen April, then I'm not obliged to help you," Geon stated.  "I don't have to help you at all.  I may no longer practice medicine, but I'm not in the business of helping people to kill themselves."
    "Is that a no?"
    Geon grew hesitant.  April had the potential to make things very ugly for him.  He had been removed from his position on the Questor, banned from medicine altogether, and dishonorably discharged from Starfleet.  April kept them from tacking a prison sentence to the terms of his punishment.  But if he revealed the missing details, the details Starfleet didn't know about in the situation leading up to his disenfranchisement, that could change.  The Federation had abolished physical prison sentences.  The tendency to commit crimes was just another genetic disorder, a chromosomal flaw which could be treated, and was, in the Federation.  Result: Low crime rate.  Few actually served prison time nowadays: There were no prisons.  Had been none since 2375, after the Elba II breakthroughs in research.
    But Geon didn't look forward to the hassles of treatment.  Sure, they made it clean, easy, painless... and he had not really committed a crime; more like chose the lesser of two evils in a difficult situation (though it had still cost him his career)... But it was still a hassle he did not want to go through.  There would be questions, detainment, bureaucracy, investigation into his current occupation... Just a big hassle.  On top of all that, he did not care to relive the experience of his past.  He felt terrible over it the first time.
    It came down to making the right decision.  The moral decision.  If he killed a Starfleet officer (former captain no less), how would that look?  What kind of investigation would that get?  He shuddered to think of it.
    "I'm sorry," he told April (or the man who looked like April, but said he wasn't).  "But, yes... I'm afraid the answer is no.  Good day, sir.  Now please leave."
    April stood his ground.  He wasn't leaving.  Not until Geon paid his debt.  Not until he helped him in some way.
    He ended up walking for days.  He resisted the urge to revisit old hangouts.  Some no longer existed, replaced by new structures or environments.  Most... all... no longer interested him.  They existed in memories... memories belonging to another man, who, like those places, no longer lived.  He, and they, belonged to yesterday.  He did not come to get in touch with the past.  He came to find his future.
    He had considered changing his name.  But he was not sure what name to pick.  Then again, he reminded himself, as he reminded himself previously: He was the closest thing to Stephen April left in this world.  It would be a dishonor, in a sense, to forsake that name.  Someone had to care that Stephen April once lived.  Who else would pay him that respect?
    Eventually, he traveled into Muskegon, site of the April family cemetery.  There, slabs and columns of stone, marble and polygranite marked the gravesites, the final resting places of almost every family member for the last three centuries... as exquisite as the old buildings, crafted with care, and style.  He lost all track of time, walking through the rows of markers, reading names and dates on each and every one.  Coming to a lavish pair near the center, towering two body-lengths above him, he slowed, walked all the way around them, studying them closely, then stopped.
    He traced his fingers over letters etched into the smooth polygranite.  Mark Robert April.  A fanciful column to the left marked Lucille "Maven" Henderson's burial place; Mark April's wife.  The parents of Captain Robert Mark April (Maven wasn't imaginative with names), first captain of the NCC-1701, the legendary Constitution-class Enterprise.  Stephen read their biographies when he was a kid.  He recalled some of the details.  Mark was a magician, a "mentalist" entertainer, Maven a member of Starfleet's MACOs back then, a black ops division called "MACO-X".  He tried to imagine what life must have been like, really like, in their time.
    They weren't the earliest known ancestors in the April line.  It went back to Earth's American Revolution, with names like Benjamin Martin and Francis Marion, Daniel Boone and controversial Lydia "America" Grier; and back further, to Alban Richard Wallace, to Sigtrygg of Norge.  Most of April's ancestors came from the western end of Eurasia: Deutschland, France, Éire, Britain, Nederland.  Mostly he knew only the names.  They hadn't kept meticulous records.  In some cases, wars resulted in the loss of such records over the centuries.
    Was he their descendant?  Did he have the right to call himself their descendant?
    For all of his efforts and accomplishments, who cared?  Who cared for Stephen April?  Who cared that he lived, now or before?  Who would care once he was gone?  His so-called friends?  Those living who were supposed to be his family, none of whom he could count on in a bind?  None.  No one.  It was hard to care for others when others cared only about themselves.  No: That was being too kind.  Those others cared about no one, not even themselves.
    Topaz once told him something, and was right: This was not the 25th century.  This was not the Federation, and it was not an age of enlightenment.  It was in reality the 21st century, a primitive age of primitive people with uncaring minds.  And in that, it was realization: realization of something he should have seen by now.  What had he done with his life?  What good was it?  What did any of it mean?  What did he, or anyone, do anything for, if no one cared?
    April looked to the soaring top of the mausoleum at the cemetery's center.  His father... Stephen April's father, Robert Elijah 'Eli' April, former CO of the medical ship Horizon... had moved almost every genetic ancestor whose remains survived, to this cemetery – the final resting place for the April family.  Eli and his wife Lorraine... Stephen's father and mother... were here.
    Stephen April had a place waiting for him, here.  Neria's remains never made it from Khalindar to Earth, but a plot had been established for her.  She would be remembered here, on Earth, in ways no Khalindarian would ever honor a woman.
    It was a primitive setup.  No holographics.  No energy-based technology.  Just stone, or what passed for stone, and stillness... his father's doing as well.  Honoring our beginnings, Eli April called it; doing it as humans once did for thousands of years.  A serene quiet gripped the cemetery.  Calm... peaceful.
    April felt comfortable.  Completely comfortable, surrounded by ancestors and other members of his family... as if he belonged.  A kinship with the dead: Not a feeling he remembered ever having before.  As if this was where he was meant to be.  Not 'out there', among the stars, but here... back on Earth, where he began.  Where it all began.
    He'd had his complant removed, his comtacts, and his nanomods.  He looked on the world with natural eyes, free of any foreign technology.. . except for the hypodermic syringe.
    It came out of his pocket, in his hand.  He held it up to the sunlight, absorbing its shape, its semi-metallic shimmer... reassuringly smooth in construction, cool in his fingers.  It was somewhat difficult, obtaining a replicated design of an old-style hypo, used before an integrated module was added, which monitored the needle's contents and prevented lethal overdose.  Difficult, but not impossible, for a man with resolve, and adequate knowledge of pharmaceuticals.
    Cool, smooth, and reassuring, it pressed into his neck with a faint, almost silent hiss... one of the last things he would ever feel in this life.
    He sat down by the base of a large, reddish-brown gravestone, in the green grass, leaned back and closed his eyes, to the warmth of sunlight.  He didn't want to leave.
    He was home.
Far away
This ship is taking me far away
Far away from the memories
Of the people who care if I live or die
I will be chasing a starlight
Until the end of my life
I don't know if it's worth it anymore....
    – Muse, "Starlight"

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