In the swirling seas of the Paulson Nebula, the runabout Prospero rode the waves of purples and blues with gentle purpose. Currents of gases and eddies of dust swirled through the achingly vast stretch of clouds, light-years across, that sheltered and hid clusters of stars, phenomena, secrets. But while the exterior of the Prospero was still and quiet, the hull humming with energy as the crew ran their scans at low impulse speeds, the calm belied the thundering inside.
‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot -’
Gaps in Lieutenant Murray’s talent were compensated for with enthusiasm as the mission leader thudded into the cockpit, singing at the top of his lungs. His colleagues exchanged glances before looking at him quizzically, and did not respond when Murray waved an encouraging hand.
‘Come on – and never brought to mind?’ The hand dropped in the silence that met him. ‘None of you are any fun.’
Lieutenant T’Saren turned back to the pilot’s controls with the faintest hint of a sarcastic Vulcan head-tilt. ‘That is correct, Lieutenant. More pertinently, I do not know the song.’
‘Don’t look at me,’ said Ensign Valverde at the science station. ‘I’m from Alpha Centauri.’
Murray gave Valverde a betrayed look. ‘Et tu?’ He was a stocky man in his late thirties, bristly dark hair in full retreat for some years now. With his relatively junior rank for his age, he knew he looked like the bus driver for routine operations that he was, and had long ago made peace with his simple way of life. ‘It’s the end of the year, people. End of the century.’
‘And we’re detecting high-energy distortion waves in the survey region,’ said Valverde.
Murray snapped his fingers. ‘Good. Sensor upgrades should tell us a lot more about this stellar nursery. That’s the kind of reading we want.’ Despite his enthusiasm, he sat down at the operations station. ‘Take us in for a closer look, T’Saren. We can park up a few million kilometres away and run our scans.’ But as the deck shuddered under him when T’Saren fired up their impulse engines, he still thumped a beat on the edge of the console and kept humming his song.
Valverde turned in her chair. ‘Nothing ruins your festive cheer, huh, Lieutenant?’
‘Kid, we got sent on a survey mission into our own front yard, when back on Bravo they’re probably having the mother of all end-of-year parties on every deck. I made my peace about seeing out the century with you two the moment I got the orders.’ Murray shrugged. ‘Way I figure, I could sulk this entire trip, or I can make this an occasion to remember.’
‘Your determination to be optimistic in the face of adversity remains admirable, Lieutenant,’ said T’Saren.
‘Is it? Or is it… illogical?’ Murray smirked at T’Saren. Beside him, Valverde got to her feet and headed for the replicator.
‘On the contrary, your logic is impeccable. You recognise what you cannot change and adapt your plans and expectations appropriately. Of course we cannot have a celebration on this runabout that is comparable to the festivities on Bravo. And so you make all reasonable adjustments.’ T’Saren hesitated a heartbeat. ‘Then you sing.’
They had known each other for ten years, pilot and runabout specialist of Starbase Bravo – new and old. By now, Murray knew when he was getting the closest thing to a Vulcan joke. ‘Just for you, T’Saren, I sing. For auld lang syne, my dear -’
‘Here.’ Valverde had returned, clutching three glass bottles of something fizzy. ‘We can’t drink on duty, so this is the next best thing. Ginger ale.’
‘And you said they don’t have fun on Alpha Centauri.’
‘I said they don’t have obscure Scottish folk songs on Alpha Centauri,’ she corrected, handing a bottle to T’Saren. ‘Five minutes left on the clock.’
Murray took a swig of ginger ale. ‘To the distortion wave?’
She looked at him. ‘To the new century.’
‘We are within short-range sensor distance now, in fact,’ said T’Saren.
‘Watch the hitherto unseen astronomical data come in. What a great light-show for the countdown.’ Murray sounded cheerful as he raised his bottle.
Valverde leaned over the back of her chair to expand the sensor feed display, casting the runabout cockpit in flickers of white and orange of the scrolling data. They were silent for long moments, watching, drinking, relaxing.
‘It’s kind of nice,’ she mused at length. ‘This light-years-wide phenomenon right on our doorstep, home to colonies and mining facilities and research centres for decades or centuries, and it still has some secrets for us.’
‘Secrets buried in decimal points of no interest to the average person,’ said Murray with a smirk. ‘But secrets.’
T’Saren turned in her chair, again tilting her head at him. ‘And yet you often request missions to the Paulson Nebula.’
‘I’m a details fella. I like the decimal points.’
Valverde smirked, then glanced at her display. ‘Three minutes.’
‘For auld lang syne, my dear…’
But over the dulcet tones of Murray’s enthusiastic singing, a chirrup came from T’Saren’s console. She turned back with that faintest of Vulcan frowns. ‘Curious.’
‘For auld lang syne – come on, T’Saren, let it wait a couple minutes.’
‘It is simply that we are detecting an unexpected level of tetryon radiation in proximity to the distortion.’ T’Saren paused. ‘I will record it for later review.’
‘There you are. See if we -’ Then came the next chirrup from Murray’s own station, the comms panel lighting up, and he turned with an aggravated sound. ‘Could the universe let it rest?’
He turned and read in silence, but when behind him Valverde said, ‘Two minutes,’ the words washed over him.
Murray cleared his throat, suddenly serious. ‘It’s a general distress call from the science station Gamma-7, point-two of a light-year out. An ion storm’s come up on them suddenly and it’s probably too strong for their shields.’
Valverde straightened. ‘Do they need evac? Can we evac?’
‘The Swale has responded; they can give more help than us. We get to sit tight,’ said Murray, and bit his lip. ‘Weird, though. Storm this strong, we should have seen it coming.’
Behind him, T’Saren brought up the long-range sensor display to encompass the surrounding region, including the science station, the Swale, and the ion storm itself. ‘Based on the storm’s trajectory and intensity, according to any logical point of formation, we should have detected it ourselves on our approach.’
Valverde slid back behind the controls at the science console. ‘Checking our sensor records; I’ll start to filter them for the usual nebula interference. Sometimes we can’t see beyond our own noses in this place. Maybe we picked it up somewhere else and it, I don’t know, changed trajectory?’
‘That would be highly irregular,’ T’Saren pointed out.
But Valverde didn’t reply. By now, Murray knew the difference between the young science officer’s silences of intense thought, and silences of speechlessness. This was the latter. ‘Kid?’
Valverde cleared her throat. ‘Here,’ she said at length. ‘It originated here.’
‘Impossible,’ said T’Saren. ‘If this was the formation point, based on its current speed it could not have achieved these levels of intensity that quickly.’
‘I know you’re going to say I’m misinterpreting the data because of the nebula’s interference, but I’m not,’ said Valverde tersely. ‘It formed here in a matter of hours, then it began to drift.’
Murray’s jaw tightened. Getting a clear sensor read in the Paulson Nebula was like studying in the dark sometimes; you had to squint and focus and grab every speck of light for anything to make sense. It made everything unreliable, in his experience – except for people. ‘Hold on,’ he said, in case everyone would calm down and start making more sense. ‘You’re saying that an ion storm formed in this region, started drifting, and reached dangerous levels of intensity before we could even detect it on our approach?’
Valverde gave a slow, solemn nod. ‘And if the Swale can’t evacuate or protect Gamma-7, it’s going to rip that station apart and kill everyone on board in the next thirty minutes.’
Another chime went off on her console, and Murray jumped at the prospect of more bad news. But it wasn’t a sensor alert. It was the countdown, midnight striking with a chirpy little alarm bell from Valverde’s timer. For long, thudding seconds, the tinny sound heralding the end of the century and the brand new year was the only noise in the suddenly-cramped cockpit.
We’ll tak a cup of kindness yet for days of auld lang syne.
Lieutenant Murray sat up and straightened his uniform as Ensign Valverde sheepishly shut the alarm off. ‘Valverde, go through our sensor records for a clean read on the entire life history of that ion storm. I want to know what its grandmother liked for breakfast. T’Saren – let’s take a look at that tetryon radiation and those distortion waves I told you to bench five seconds ago.’
They turned back to their consoles. On his comms display, the Swale confirmed they were ten minutes out from Gamma-7. They would be cutting it tight.
Murray drained the bottle of ginger ale and set it on the side. Then he got to work.
Happy new year.