Nightmares stalked the corridors.
After Muninn’s message, Asenth stayed in the Jefferies tube junction for a long time, huddled up, frozen in a clammy terror. The look on the counselor’s face reminded her too well of the one embossed upon her mother’s when the Reman soldiers came.
Hide, hide daughter, and don’t make a sound.
The attic of their home on Oumoren V was not a proper part of the house, not something included on the blueprints of the original prefab. But the building’s original design had called for a modular nature, capable of being replicated at-need for any environment. On dusty, hot, Oumoren V, the shelter had been fabricated and then dropped in as part of the town without any further fuss. But there were still parts of the building intended for connection to other modules, and one such forgotten area formed what her mother affectionately referred to as ‘the attic.’ It was where they kept boxes of holiday supplies, old data slates of her father’s, and other random tidbits acquired through the normal span of a full life. It was also hot, dusty, and filled with the trailing old webs of the planet’s native desert spider.
When her mother pulled the hatch open and lifted Asenth through, she had been almost too surprised and horrified to protest, uttering only a muffled squeak. And then, as she looked down through the hatch into her mother’s wide, terrified eyes, all other protests died on her tongue.
“Stay there,” her mother said. “Hide! Hide, daughter, and don’t make a sound.” Then, no more words, just the hatch being shoved up and into place, and the near-darkness of the tight space.
But Asenth had crawled on her belly to the one source of light, a little ornamental window set into the wall, overlooking the front of their home. The door to the back yard opened onto a series of little sheds for her father’s hydroponic garden, and the old playset from when she was a kid, the one her little brother still used. The front door opened onto one of the town’s main residential streets. The middle, a paved footpath, was bordered on either side by smaller paved lanes meant for self-propelled cycles. Emergency vehicles could easily descend into the wide area of the road wherever was needed. Today, it seemed like they were needed everywhere. Even as she watched, one touched down just outside their house, dust from its repulsors kicking up like an angry brown insect swarm.
Farther in the distance, through the grubby pane of glass, the flower of an explosion bloomed over the town. Legionaries, a dozen or more, disgorged from the emergency shuttle, spilling out in all directions.
Then, from a house across the street, a dark figure she had not seen before suddenly moved. A Reman ran out into the middle of the open, a large weapon raised in his clawed hands.
There was a flash of green light, then another. A scream of pain, cut short, strangled in the air.
The Reman’s shots had clipped one of the Romulan soldiers and caught another dead-on with a burst of viridian energy. Both Legionaries fell. Then the Reman vanished, turned to dust by returning disruptor fire. He did not scream as he died.
The soldiers spread out through the street, exchanging fire with more lanky figures who rushed in, it seemed, from all sides. Asenth watched, wide-eyed. There were so many of them!
A crash from downstairs and a loud scream startled her away from the window. Brother? The scream had sounded bery much like his voice. But her little brother should still be in school… at this time of day, her father would have still been on the way to pick him up. Tightness rose in her throat.
She scurried back around and moved until positioned just above the closed hatch. She heard a voice that sounded like her father’s, yelling something, but he must have been in the kitchen near the back door because he was too far away to make out the words. Asenth’s fingers gripped the edge of the hatch. She couldn’t stay there. Fear clung to her, but it also drove her. If her parents were down there, she needed to be with them, to get to them. She pulled, and the hatch came up an inch. Just below her was her mother, backing away. Backing away. Asenth froze.
She had seen Remans up close before, what child on a mining colony hadn’t? But never that close-up, never right in front of her. The one below, advancing on her mother, spoke of every horror she had ever known in childhood nightmares. The long, unnatural limbs. The gray, dead-looking skin, struck through with a cobweb of black veins. The breathing, guttural and wet: predator’s breath.
“No!” her mother shouted, her voice pitched high. “You’ve got to leave. Leave! Leave us!” She waved at the Reman, as if she could ward off its approach through sheer force of will. “Please!”
But the advancing figure spoke, then, the harsh syllables of its voice like metal on meat. “…No.” When it moved, it seemed to Asenth that it fairly blurred. Every muscle in her body felt as tight as frozen rubber, she could not move, could only watch, while her eyes swam with horrified tears.
The Reman grabbed her mother and threw her over his shoulder, carrying her out of sight as quickly and easily as if she were a doll. And then her mother’s screams of, “No! No, wait!” faded as a sudden explosion rocked the front of their home.
Whatever the blast had been, it sent a concussive wave through the entire structure of the building, shattering glass and bursting through Asenth’s ear. She dropped the hatch with a scream of pain as she fell to the side, clenching the sides of her aching head. Again encased in the attic’s grubby darkness, she was dimly aware of the sound of distant, high-pitched screams.
The pain eventually receded and the spinning stopped, but her hearing remained dull, with a wet feeling deep down inside her ear canals. But even after she could move again, she did not do so right away. The time that it took her to finally work up the courage to crawl to the hatch again would forever haunt her. An eternal ‘what-if’ crawling like maggots in her mind. When she did finally drop down into the debris of her home, hearing muffled, dried blood down the left side of her face from the ear closest to the explosion, she felt so dizzy and sick that she could barely stand.When she found their bodies, she vomited profusely on the kitchen floor.
Her mother’s body lay near the ruined kitchen wall, twisted in a heap of plaster and plastic spars, her neck at a horrible angle. Her father, nearby, seemed to have been struck a glancing blow by a disruptor. His glassy eyes still stared up at the ceiling, open and filmed over in death, one of his legs completely vaporized. Next to him, the much smaller body of her brother, hair matted with blood. And there was a Reman as well, dead on the floor near them, a disruptor held in its monstrous fingers.
Everything after that lived as a blur in her memories.
She had stumbled through streets filled with destruction, flames, and bodies. Legionaries and Remans were everywhere, some still fighting, and she avoided them as if she were a ghost in someone else’s dream. She wandered until she came to a makeshift landing field in what had once been the town’s largest park, where two refugee shuttles were being primed to take off. A woman saw her, grabbed her, traded her own place for Asenth’s, and the last thing that Asenth saw through the shuttle window was the blackened and tear-stained face of her nameless rescuer as she gazed upward at an escape she would likely never see.
All of this washed over Asenth as she huddled in the Jefferies tube intersection, the USS Mogrus’ emergency lighting giving the metal world around her a hellish sheen. She felt impossibly cold and damp. Her clothing, already rank from days of hiding out, now stank of sweat and fear and—she felt her shame increase—faintly of urine.
But it was, oddly enough, that wave of shame that fueled what came next. A sudden and explosive burst of rage.
For weeks, she had been living with the torture of the ‘what-if’ in her brain. What if she had refused to hide in the first place? What if she had leaped down and attacked the Reman carrying her mother, or ran to the Legionaries (only an unforgivably short distance away), or had done something, anything, but freeze with terror? And now, here it was all over again. A situation where someone needed her. And she was freezing. Peeing herself like a little girl with a bad dream.
She liked Muninn. The counselor looked at her as if she mattered, in a way that nobody since her evacuation from Oumoren had. And she was kind. And now, she was relying on Asenth for help. But Asenth was letting her down, just like she’d let down her parents and brother.
With a guttural vocalization of her pain and anger, wordless and animal, Asenth rolled over, uncoiled, and stood as high as the little chamber would allow. A fiery map of the ship seemed to blaze inside her mind. Engineering. That was where she needed to be.
In her time exploring the Jefferies tubes of the small starship, Asenth had come to know the layout well, and even begin to form an understanding of why some junctions were laid out the way they were—closer to vital systems like the nacelle controls, or the warp core. Main engineering ran like a post through the ship’s four main decks, connecting everything together. In the middle, the warp core shone like a glimmering spire, thrummed with unimaginable energy. Energy enough to bend space around the ship, to catapult them light years forward at a time.
As she made her way through one of the crawlways that would drop her onto the second deck, directly next to one of the engineering work consoles, she occupied her mind with vague ideas of what it must be like to go on adventures like this crew did.
She remembered her mother’s stories of Starfleet, but they were never like this. Muninn and the crew of the Mogrus were out here in space, doing real exploration, undertaking incredible missions. She imagined herself doing the same, and felt herself relax into the imagined reality, as she had once when playing games as a child. Now, she found that she could wrap that same belief, that same play, around herself, and use it to lock away the other thoughts that circled, like carrion feeders, in the background of her mind.
She could be here herself, one day. She could be a Starfleet officer like her mother, like Muninn… she could explore the galaxy, go on adventures… stop bad things from happening.
The tube she was in ended in a hatch, and she pressed the control, causing it to open out into the wide open shaft of engineering. Carefully, she moved forward and looked out. The lights were on, here, but all was quiet. No sounds of movement from above or below.
Slowly, she eased her way out of the shaft and hurried to the console, tapping it with nervous fingers. Her heart leaped as the screen lit up. Muninn really had given her control over the ship’s computer. It took her much longer than she would have liked to puzzle out how just to bring up a schematic of the engineering systems, and most of these she barely understood in the most cursory way. Then an idea struck her. If she had official access…
“Computer?” she said softly.
“Awaiting command,” came the disembodied woman’s voice.
Asenth grinned. “Launch distress beacon!”
“Automated systems have been disconnected due to anti-boarding procedures,” the computer said. “Manual ejection of distress beacon required.”
“How do I do that?”
The screen glowed and a more simplified map of engineering appeared. Then, as if reading her mind, the lighting strips along the walls glowed faintly green, a series of colored dots leading her along the grated deck plating toward a triangular ladder meant to allow multiple crew to climb up or down at the same time.
The lighting strips seemed to lead down a level. Ecstatic at her cleverness, Asenth hurried on.
The lights led her down onto the final deck, and then toward a control panel on one of the walls. The screen glowed to life as she approached.
“Initiate command when ready,” the computer said.
Asenth only remembered Muninn’s warning a moment after her finger touched the “fire distress beacon” button the computer had helpfully highlighted for her.
It was a shout from somewhere high above, a cry of annoyance and rage, that brought the warning back to her mind. Someone was up there after all, and they had not missed the beacon as it was manually ejected from the ship.
Only then did Asenth realize, looking around in panic for someplace to hide, that there wasn’t a Jefferies tube hatch anywhere nearby.