This story was made in collaboration with @Vance.
In a starbase high in the orbit of Tyaap, Ensign Nin K’mnzi began his shift with a large cup of coffee and his favorite breakfast: a bowl of brussel sprouts and millipedes glazed with honey. He sat at his desk in the anteroom of his boss’ office. Setting his meal aside for the moment, he idly scrolled through messages waiting in an ever-growing queue.
With restraint, his eyes ignored the timer on the wall. He knew what day it was. Everyone on the Starbase knew. Hell, probably most of the Federation would be paying attention to this moment nine years in the making. An eye drifted toward the clock. He doggedly focused on his terminal screen.
The door behind him opened and he stood. “Commander Lauren,” he said without surprise. Her scheduled shift wouldn’t start for several hours, but that meant nothing. Even after two years on the job, he wasn’t sure she actually slept. “Another long night, ma’am?”
“Have you started today’s checklist?” she asked ignoring the question.
“No, ma’am. Going through correspondence.”
“Forget it. Anyone asking for more time is too late. Follow me.” Lauren was already walking out door.
Nin followed behind with a PADD. Trying to keep up with his Human compatriot, the Kit’s tail whooshing contentedly and ears perked for anything that may demand his—or Lauren’s—attention.
They entered a turbolift and the Commander ordered a trip to the hatcheries. “Ensign, you know what today is, right?”
“It’s, uh, ‘Winter’s Rest’, ma’am. Although you have it marked as ‘Jelly Day’ in your calendar,” he replied uneasily. When Commander Lauren didn’t answer right away, he went on: “on this day, Tlith will secrete and spread Brain Jelly on their eggs, passing on their memories to the next generation. After which, they’ll, um, die.”
“And how long have we waited for this day, Nin?”
He consulted his PADD. “Eight years, ten months, eleven days, ma’am.”
“Consensus! how the time flies.” There was a bitterness to her voice; a weight that had carried long years orbiting a doomed alien world.
She led Nin into a series of rooms where Tlith were to enter and secrete their brain jelly before moving on to an area specializing in Tlith palliative care. Despite the warm colors and occasional murals along the walls, he knew this place existed as a last stop for many. Even the cold air reminded him: the Tlith’s Winter was here. It sent a shiver down his spine, ruffling his fur.
They walked a twisted labyrinth of corridors and rooms, corridors and rooms. Only by virtue of his sense of smell did Nin know they were making progress and not becoming lost. That same sense told him who they were chasing. “Commander, ma’am, if I may speak freely?”
“Am I going to like what you have to say?”
“No, ma’am?” he replied uncertainty.
“Then that’s your answer.” They walked a few more steps before Lauren muttered. “Go ahead, Nin.”
“Ma’am, the last time you spoke to Captain Voyrays, it was heated,” he said, choosing his words wisely. “Perhaps we should—”
A look from Lauren told him that she wasn’t interested in the rest. “I am the Chief Engineer of this Starbase. Voyrays and I have been working on this project years before you were born.” A beat. “Did I ever tell you how proud I was to serve with your mother?”
Nin was first surprised, then touched by the sudden topic change. Lauren never mentioned it, though he knew his mother served in Starfleet where she died in the line of duty. And, despite this fact, her service was one if the reasons he joined. “No, ma’am,” he replied with awe. For a moment, he wondered if his posting under Commander Lauren had been entirely by chance.
“I wasn’t there when she died. In fact, a lot of people I loved are gone now. So, Voyrays is not going to die until I have a word with them.”
He consulted his PADD. “We’d better hurry, then. Two sections, then a left. Sixth door on the right.”
When they reached the door, Lauren dug her nails into her palms; a habit she had developed years before. Nin knew it meant she was nervous or scared or anxious or all three at once.
For his part, Nin just wanted out of this place. His sensitive ears heard all the mechanical or squishy sounds that came with the process of collecting Tlith brain jelly. At least the Counselor and I will have something to work on this week.
Lauren palmed a door. When it didn’t open, she flicked her wrist and a holographic display appeared. Deftly and quickly, the engineer manipulated the display and forced the door open.
Captain Voyrays was wearing a hospital gown. Normally a figure larger than life to the young ensign, Voyrays seemed worn. Tired. Like they had been drained of their very essence.
Nin blanched at the sight, his stomach already doing summersaults.
“What do your think you’re doing, Lauren-Commander?” they asked with a hollow voice. “I am on my way to join the others.”
“You didn’t say goodbye.”
“I already told the crew, you included.”
Nin quietly took a step back and waited in the corridor. He was an unwitting participant in this moment and he had no interest in whatever the conflict between Lauren and Voyrays was about. He used his PADD’s camera to smooth out his patchwork red and black fur—anything to distract himself.
“We’ve known each other for over a decade, Voy,” she replied, pacing the room. “You’re my closest friend. My teacher. My confidant. I wouldn’t even have this job without you, so forgive my impertinence for wanting to at least walk you to your deathbed.”
A variety of colors flashed across Voyrays’ forehead; dots shifted quickly. For the uninitiated, the colors were little more than mood rings stamped on Tlith forehead, but for Nin and Lauren, they recognized the conflict within Voyrays.
“It will not be pleasant,” the Tlith said, his forehead landing on a neutral grey, as if they had resolved that Lauren would stay whether they liked it or not. “Many have already passed on. More will before I am done. Can you watch a friend die?”
“Hey,” she said, her voice shifting to a gentle tone entirely unfamiliar to Nin, “I’ve been with you every step of the way. Even Mister Pradhan went home years ago and he freaking inspired Trimurti to name themselves.”
Trimurti, the artificial intelligence at the heart of Project: Distant Spring. Named after the amalgamation of the Hindu gods Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. When Nin came to understand the meaning of the name, he thought it was Yet Another Egomaniacal AI. But, as he learned how the AI would create new technologies, preserve the entirety of its seed vaults, Tlith eggs, and technology, then remake a whole world through targeted terraforming, it invoked in the Kit a wonder like none other. Surely, he thought, if there are gods, they wield instruments such as these. It frightened him to speak of the machine; it was always watching and listening within the station.
He had lost pace with the conversation, distracted by his rumination. Nin’s ears caught the choke of a sob. “I love you, Voyrays. I don’t want you to die.”
The Tlith nodded in the Human convention, their forehead and expression conveying deep affection and appreciation for Lauren. “This is where we must part ways, Lauren-friend. Do not despair,” they said, snatching a tear from Lauren’s cheek. “When my children emerge in the Springtime, they will know our friendship. They will know how you sacrificed for our people. They will know your dedication to our cause. And I will live on in them; the children you helped bring to bear.”
“Whoa, hold on, you don’t expect me to raise them, do you?” she asked in a more humorous tone, desperately trying to fight down her grief.
“You already have,” they replied.
Heavy tears pooled in Lauren’s eyes, like a dam on the brink of collapsing.
Nin looked on as Lauren and Voyrays leaned on one another. They shared the embrace for longer than the ensign could measure. When they did move, he found himself padding behind the officers toward the final chamber where the Tlith would, as they had for countless millennia before, die together.
But as they walked the corridor, rarely encountering another Tlith, Voyrays became weak to the point Lauren had taken much of their weight. Nin wanted to help, but at only a meter in height, there was little he could do.
“Jeeze, you’re heavy,” she said. “And squishy.”
“My apologies, Lauren-friend. It is becoming hard to walk and see.”
Mercifully they came to the door. Nin rushed to open it, then froze. “Oh my,” he said, his ears and tail falling at the sight of so many bodies. They were arranged in clusters; final moments of community as the last drops of life drained away.
He wasn’t prepared. Nin was a clerk; a keeper of schedules and records. There was nothing in his job description that included death. He rushed out of the room and steadied himself against the wall as he dry-heaved.
“Your ensign is broken,” Voyrays said in a dreamy way, is forehead dots blinking in white as humor took him.
With a glance back at Nin, his boss replied in her typical stern voice: “regurgitation on this deck is reserved for Brain Jelly retrieval only, K’mnzi.”
Voyrays and Lauren entered the chamber together, laughing.
Sometimes Nin thought he heard her laugh. Other times cry. He waited for an hour. Two hours. He busied himself with his PADD. First with work, then with pictures from home. Grief begets grief; whenever someone passes, we are reminded of our own loss. It crawls back up through the years to needle us once again.
He was looking at a picture of his mother, beaming with pride as Nin stood with his Academy uniform on. One pip. He touched his color. One pip. Though he couldn’t know it, the cry which rose from his throat came with Lauren’s and a million billion other living, loving creatures who were, in that moment, losing someone—a piece of themselves carried by the consciousness of another.
Wordlessly, they returned to the office. A monitor showed the progress of jelly collection on the station and surface. Progress was swift, with few delays. It seemed they would keep the timetable set forward by the Tlith Consensus and Federation Counsel. Nin was pleased, if only that their work would be over soon.
“What will you do after this, ma’am?” he asked, trying to be casual. Not willing to share the weightiness of his heart.
“Ensign, there is no after. Trimurti is clever but this was only the first phase. Once collection is done, this entire project—starbase and all—is headed for the new Tlith planet.”
“Oh. How long until the Tlith emerge, ma’am?“
“Seventy years, give or take a few years.” She paused for reflection. “I’ll be over a hundred years old, Nin.”
“What do you plan to do until then?”
“Keep the lights on for our children, until it’s time. Trimurti will have its processors full doing terraforming and construction. Someone needs to make sure the cryo tanks are working, the engines humming, the robots running.”
“I am perfectly capable of multitasking,” Trimurti chimed in helpfully, startling Nin.
Lauren laughed. “Yeah, but if the Tlith have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t do this alone.”
“Of this, I agree,” the AI responded.
“Sweet consensus,” she sighed. “Alright, Nin: let’s head down to engineering. We have a lot of work to do.”
The Kit followed obediently, taking notes and sending messages. Chief Engineer Lauren of the Starbase Distant Spring had dozens of tasks and hundreds of letters to respond to. Nin was happy to help; happy to serve.
Just as his children would.
And their children.
And their children.
On and on and on. The decades past, generations grew old, spawning the next. And for seventy long years, one woman remained on the station, watching and waiting. She passed the time fine-tuning systems and monitoring events.
She cried when her parents, then old friends died. When the Brahe was finally decommissioned. When the first flowers bloomed of Trimurti’s new world. Then when the first insects flew. The first fish swam. It would be a paradise.
Perhaps expectantly, she remained even when Starfleet forced her to retire, leaving command of the station to a younger captain whose joints did not hurt and who possessed a mind which was less forgetful. To the Starfleet crew, she was a retired Admiral, but somewhere along the line they started calling her the Lighthouse Keeper.
Lauren was fond of of the name.
Hatching Day arrived with much fanfare and celebration. Dignitaries, ambassadors, and the press descended on the aging statbase. But none of that mattered to Nurse Ji’tria K’mnzi who charged down the hall to the Lighthouse Keeper’s stateroom. She walked purposefully, her white and red tail swooshing with conviction that today, no matter how much the Admiral railed against her, she would get Lauren to cooperate with her physical therapy.
When Lauren did not answer the door, she overrode the lock and searched until she found what her nose had already warned her.
“She died of a intracranial aneurysm,” Ji’tria wrote in her log. “Scans suggest she passed overnight in her sleep. I know how much she looked forward to Hatching Day. I think our Lighthouse Keeper would find a twisted, ironic humor that her life would end before she saw the first Tlith emerge. I don’t see the humor—not really—but I’d like to think that somewhere, somehow, she’s laughing her ass off.”
Ji’tria logged off her terminal and walked to the promenade where the celebration would be held. She wondered what would happen to this station once the work was done; how long it would take the Tlith to re-emerge. Maybe she, with her short life, would even see a day when the Tlith walked tall among their cities and halls.
Or maybe that would be for her future children to see. She couldn’t know. Not really. So, she went on with her life, knowing that the story is never really over where children follow.