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Quinn Reynolds: "Termination Shock"

Quinn Reynolds

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"The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.
— William Arthur Ward





"Come on!"

Nnenna thwapped the side of the display screen and threw her hands up in the air, sinking down into her seat with an exaggerated pout. The outcome was the same as it had been for weeks, as she knew it would be, yet at the end of each shift she made the attempt. To what end, she wasn't sure. 

"I don't know why you keep trying." Bex said. "It's not as if—" 

"I'm not having this conversion again." 

Her reply was a whip crack through the quiet of her office. Nnenna looked away from her reflection, frowning back at her from the depths of the gloss black console, to see her Denobulan friend leaning against the doorframe. Where she was gangling limbs and sharp edges, Bex was all curves and softness, from her figure to the spun gold curls of her hair. 

"You always have to have the last word. Stubbornness isn't a virtue, you know."

"I thought you were a meteorologist, not a counsellor."

The Denobulan shrugged off the grumble with a smile and sip from the mug she carried, blue like the tunic of her uniform, emblazoned with Starfleet's emblem. The petrichor scent of umoya tea drifted on the recycled air, and for one blissful moment, Nnenna was back home. Standing by the river in New Oslo, bundled up like an arctic explorer, watching the aurora haunt the rain clouds.

Then it was back to reality, to the glare of technology and the stark walls of their insulated underground bunker.

"Heliophysicist. If the weather's not in space, I'm not interested." Uncurling a finger from her mug, she pointed across the room toward Nnenna. "Speaking of which, it's another night of strong winds, so we're going up top to watch the lights. You coming?"

"I'll think about it."

"Come on, it's your favourite thing. Plus Caedan's going to be there." She wiggled her flared eyebrows, and there was no attempt to disguise the impishness in her smile. "He likes you."

Nnenna rolled her eyes and shook her head. "I'm married, Bex."

"Sure, sure. Whatever you say." The blonde chuckled, her blue eyes sparkling with a joke she wasn't sharing. "I'll see you there."

*  *  *  *  *

The door closed, and the thud of the magnetic clamps rang out across the valley. A cool night drew goosebumps across Nnenna's skin, instantly calling her toward the bonfire burning nearby, where laughter played between the snap and crackle of burning wood. She took a deep breath and filled her lungs with fresh air, the scent of smoke mixing with the crisp, sweet smell of alien conifers, their fine leaves whispering secrets in the breeze. 

"Hey, you made it."

Caedan accompanied his greeting with a cheeky, boyish smile, and a gentle bump of his shoulder to hers. Trying to ignore the sudden crash of her heart against her ribs, Nnenna smiled back, and the evening chill vanished in a rush of warmth across her skin. 

"It's the one good thing about being stuck in this place." She held his gaze until it felt as though her heart would beat itself clear of her chest, and then pointed up at the sky. "The storm puts on a good show."

He looked up. Above them, the aurora folded through the sky, ribbons of ethereal light dancing between the stars. Usually, the lights were brilliant shades of ruby and emerald, but tonight they danced in amethyst and sapphire. Perhaps later she'd ask Bex why that was, and do her best to follow the physicist's animated explanations of excited elements, molecular transitions and atmospheric composition.

Right then, Nnenna was far more interested in the rosy-cheeked Rodulan, and the way the auroral flare reflected in the depths of his featureless midnight eyes.

Metallic pings and plinks echoed through the valley, and Nnenna looked toward the creaking hulk that was the Tanaka Maru, cooling after a long day in the sun. The freighter's stubby nose was buried in a mound of rich, dark soil, the roots of broken trees erupting from the dirt like witch's claws. Behind the ship, a deep furrow scored across nearly a kilometre of earth, damage that would take nature years to repair.

"Not exactly what you signed up for, is it?" she said.

Her question invited his gaze to join hers, and the colour fled from his skin, smile faltering. She could guess why; it was a wonder any of them had survived the abrupt plunge from orbit, their ship left for dead by a sudden lash of solar winds. The terror they must have felt in those few minutes was unimaginable. 

But as quickly as his expression had wobbled, it settled. Back to his amiable smile and generous cheer, as if he hadn't a care in the world and everything was as it should be. 

"Are you kidding?" He chuckled. "It was right there in the brochure. Become a Merchant Marine: see the galaxy, meet interesting people and crash land on their outposts."

"How are the repairs going?"

"It's hard to say. Half the time the tools won't power on with all the geomagnetic interference, and we don't dare try to bring any systems online in case we fry them worse than they were before." He lifted his shoulders in a shrug and grinned. "Afraid you're stuck with us for a while longer."

As if she'd heard the conversation—and Nnenna suspected the Denobulan had, the nosy little minx—Bex made a suggestive gesture from across the fire and then pointed toward them both, finishing with an obvious thumbs up and a beaming, wide-eyed smile. Caedan bit down on his lip, trying to keep a straight face and failing cheerfully.

"She's not subtle, is she?"

"It is not a word in her dictionary." 

Bex had three husbands, no expectation of exclusivity, no hesitation in pursuing anyone she wanted, and a distinct sense of confusion over why anyone would do things differently. Life was too short, said the ridiculously long-lived Denobulan, the galaxy too big to limit yourself to just one person. Why waste love when you found it?

Perhaps she was on to something. 

Her heart thrumming, Nnenna brushed the back of her hand against his. Lightning charged across her skin, arcing up her arm and into her chest, crackling through her veins. For a single moment, she was conscious of how naked her ring finger felt, of the gold band hidden at the bottom of her trinket box, and then it was forgotten when she slid her fingers through his. 

His smile blazed into brilliance, even more beautiful than the aurora dancing among the stars.

*  *  *  *  *

He'd laughed at her the first time she lit candles, asking why she didn't just ask the computer to dim the lights and shouldn't a Starfleet officer know naked flames were a fire hazard. She'd retaliated with an upholstery missile, throwing a cushion in his face, and declared romance dead. 

It had, of course, only made him laugh more.

But over the weeks and months as the star continued to rage in the sky, the candles had become a part of their ritual, lighting them together before falling into bed. That night, like so many others, they laid there in a tangle of limbs and sheets, basking in a cocoon of gentle light and soft caresses. A world away from research outposts and broken freighters, from solar storms and absent husbands.


That night, she couldn't get them out of her mind. They were a growing shadow, casting a veil across the small parcel of happiness she'd found in Caedan's arms. 

"I'm married," she said.

He froze. Leaned back. His eyes locked on hers, and she shrunk under the dark weight of his gaze, unable to look away. Goosebumps shivered on her neck where his lips had been a moment ago. She remained silent, wishing she'd said nothing at all, knowing it had been unfair to say nothing for so long.

"What does that mean?" he asked quietly.

"You don't know?"

"No." His hand dropped to her waist, a perfect fit for the slight flare of her hips, and he shook his head. "I know it's important for some, but my people don't marry. I don't really understand it."

Nnenna laughed and immediately felt cruel, but he answered it with a small smile and a tilt of his head. The advantage of sleeping with a telepath; she rarely had to explain herself. He knew when a retort came from anger and when it came from insecurity, he could tell a self-deprecating laugh from a mocking one. No one had ever understood her so intuitively before.

"For what it's worth, I don't understand it either."

"Fair enough." He nodded, his smile giving away nothing, and she felt a brief flare of frustration that the intuition didn't flow both ways. "Why are you telling me now?" 

"Bex said the storm's subsiding." She reached for him, brushing the backs of her fingers across his cheek, and he dipped his chin to press a kiss to the heel of her hand. "We'll be able to get comms again soon, and you..."

"I'll be leaving." He paused. "I don't have to."

Her heart thudded deep inside her chest, and Nnenna couldn't deny she'd hoped he would answer that way. But what they had was a fiction, a storybook that lasted only as long as the solar winds barricading them from the rest of the universe. Her mind was made up, her course set. 

"I owe it to my husband to try again."

"You don't love him."

"You don't know that."

He drew in the air to answer, then exhaled it with a resigned smile and a shake of his head. Whatever he was thinking, he kept it to himself, and instead slipped his arm under her shoulders, drawing her against his chest. Nnenna curled into him, breathing in the earthen scent of his skin, trying to chase away the small seeds of doubt his embrace sowed.

"You've got me for a little while longer," his voice was a low rumble, pouring shivers down her spine, "should you change your mind."

*  *  *  *  *






"Oh. Nnenna."

Two words. Two benign little words, but they screamed their meaning across the stars. It was there in his face. In the clench of his smooth jaw. In the bob of his Adam's apple. In the way he leaned back in his chair. 

"Hello Makani." 

She took a breath, words jostling on her tongue. I still love you, but I'm not in love with you. It's not you, it's me. I've had an affair. It's over. Nnenna swallowed them down. That wasn't what she wanted to say, it wasn't why she'd called. She forced a smile to her lips, but instead of a smile, her reflection wore a rictus grin, taut and hollow-eyed. Makani flinched upon seeing it.

"How are you?" she asked, starting with the safe and banal. 

"Yeah. I'm... Good."

"Good. That's good. Me too." 

He hadn't asked, she realised. Indeed, he barely seemed to know what to say at all, and that wasn't like him. Her next question fell from her lips on reflex, though the answer was obvious. 

"Is everything all right?"

"It's been months, Nnenna. I haven't heard from you in months."

"That's not my fault. Telstrus was at solar maximum and the storms cut us off." 

"I know." 

He shifted in his seat; a schoolboy sat in front of head teacher. She knew the look. He'd worn it the time he'd dropped and broken her grandfather's Agbogho Mmuo mask. When he'd volunteered them to look after his delinquent nephew for a year. When they'd booked a holiday on Deluvia, and at the last minute he cancelled his leave to fly the captain to a conference. 

She'd gone on her own. Instead of hating every minute, she'd never felt so free. 

"But," he continued softly, "it's been a lot of time to think. About us, about what I want, and... I'm sorry, Nnenna, I don't want this."

"What?" It was barely a croak. She cleared her throat and tried again with an unsteady voice. "Can we talk about this?"

"No. No, I don't think so. I'm..." He shook his head, looking at her with hangdog eyes. "I'm done."

Nnenna's pulse beat a tattoo in her ears. This was not how the conversation was supposed to go. It was not how she'd rehearsed it. Not the outcome she had prepared for. Heat rose under the piped collar of her uniform, eyes narrowed, muscles grew rigid and dense, and blood thundered through her veins. 

How dare he.

"Out of sight, out of mind, is that the way it is?"

A frown chased away the apologetic guilt on his face, and she noticed that he'd taken down her favourite Rewa portrait and replaced it with the Roth piece she hated. Too bright and too cartoonish, too Makani, it looked all wrong in their living room. How long had he waited before removing all signs of her from their quarters? Had he been living as a singleton all this time?

"You were the one who said you needed space. It's why you accepted the assignment on Telstrus. Don't come at me because you got what you asked for." 

"I asked for some time. I didn't ask you to decide we're over before I had a chance to—"

"Come on, Nnenna. We both know it's over. You're only sore I said it first."

"Don't be ridiculous."

"Why do you always have to be so stubborn? We hadn't been happy for a long time, that's why you left." He shook his head, and his braids swung across his shoulders. "What's the problem here? It seems like you're only mad because I figured out the same thing you did."

He stopped. Stared at her. And laughed. Much as Caedan could intuit her inner workings, she knew what was behind Makani's sudden mirth. A flush laid siege to her cheeks, heat stabbed behind her eyes, and as he continued, she clamped her jaw shut to keep her bottom lip from wobbling. 

"That's it, isn't it? You expected to clear out for a year, have your me time in the arse-end of the galaxy, and come back to your dolt of a husband who'd been so lonely he'd fall over himself to change all those things you don't like about him." He snorted. "I hate to break it to you, but you're the one who ran off. No one blew the chance to fix our marriage but you."

"You're an ass, Makani!"

"It takes one to—" 

He vanished at the slap of hand, the smack of her palm against the controls not nearly as satisfying as it would have been against his cheek. 

*  *  *  *  *

A tiny flash of light in the sky, barely more than a pinprick spark, and the Tanaka Maru disappeared into warp. Nnenna stared helplessly at the dark spot between the stars, then her gaze dropped to the scar in the earth where the freighter had sat for so many months. Grass already seeded in the disturbed earth, wildflowers sprouting in all the colours of the aurora she'd spent so many months watching.

With him.

"It's not too late. You could call him."

For once, there was no tease or mischief in Bex's voice, but the quiet concern of a loyal friend. She stopped beside Nnenna, offering a gentle squeeze of support to her arm, and peered up at her. Unable to tear her gaze away from the space where Caedan's freighter had languished for months, Nnenna shook her head.

"And say what? 'Hey, so it turns out my husband doesn't want me after all. How would you like to be my consolation prize'?"

"Well, maybe something a little more—"

"This is your fault."

With no warning or preamble, Nnenna snarled the accusation in a fierce whisper, snatching her arm away as she rounded on her friend. Bex took a step back and stared in return, jaw slack, curls bouncing with the dumbfounded shake of her head. 

"Come again?" the Denobulan finally spluttered.

"You didn't spot the gigantic solar storm that made the Tanaka Maru crash—" 

"That's not—" 

"—then you didn't warn me it as going to trap us here for months—"

"I couldn't—" 

"—then you pushed me to chase Caedan when I'm married—" 

"You were—"

"—and if you'd spent half the time doing your job properly instead of being an interfering busybody, I wouldn't be in this mess!"

A Telstrun owl hooted in the silence that fell between them, gliding otherwise silently on its nocturnal hunt. 

"It must be so hard being you. All those terrible decisions people force you to make." Bex glared, red-faced, tiny fists rigid at her side. Her voice strung as tight as piano wire, the small woman vibrated just like one. "Get over yourself, Nnenna. It's no one's mess but yours."

Her hand came up, finger stabbing with more to say, and then she thought better of it. Bex turned on her heel and stalked back toward the bunker, vanishing into its depths. Nnenna clamped a hand over her mouth, stifling a sob, and looked back up at the sky. 

There, the solar winds once again ignited the sky, arcs and rays of garnet in tsavorite and pyrope, reminding her of what she'd lost. Of what she'd thrown away.

Of how much she hated herself.

And she watched them.


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