Occultus Ora, Stardate 58358.1
The Starship Titan rolled slowly in the dark, dancing between the invisible jetsam, the ethereal flotsam, like some graceful leviathan swimming a terrestrial sea. All around it the other occupants of this region, the inspiration for the ship's lingering ballet, also pitched and spun in apparent counterpoint to the vessel's motion.
Titan's astronomers had dubbed the region Occultus Ora for some reason known only to them. The physicists called the things residing here exotic matter plasmids but, lately, those who'd been tasked with ferreting out their secrets had taken to referring to the strange objects simply as darklings.
The image came from a myth Dr. Celenthe had heard on its homeworld of Syrath, something about the Catalysts of creation hiding in the dark.
The name fit the new objects well. They were invisible to every naked eye, irrespective of species, untouchable by all but the most specifically calibrated sensors, intangible by nearly every measure, yet here they were, in the lee of the Gum Nebula, performing their tandem pirouette, bending gravity into knots in complete defiance of their supposed nonexistence.
It was sheer luck that Titan had happened upon them at all even with the fantastic array of devices it sported to facilitate its explorations.
A weird but consistent spike in one of the lower EM bands during a routine sensor sweep had drawn the attention of the senior science officer and subsequently that of his captain. Another ship would have missed even that.
"Absolutely, Mr. Jaza," Captain Riker had said, a broad grin cutting a canyon in the dark hair of his beard as he perused the younger man's data. "Let's have a closer look."
Jaza had never worked under a commander with as acute an appreciation for the beauty of the unknown as William Riker, never encountered anyone, scientist or artist, soldier or civilian, who had as pure a love for discovery. There was a free-form quality to the way Riker directed Titan's missions that kept everyone on their toes without giving them all over to chaos. There was always reason guiding Riker's rhyme, even when it wasn't readily apparent.
Over weeks and with much rewriting of code and re-tasking of systems, the darklings came into sharper and sharper relief. To everyone's delight, they also brought along more mysteries to solve. Days became weeks. A couple of re-tasked systems became a score and soon a good portion of Titan's crew was focused in one way or another on the strange cosmic formation onto which they had luckily stumbled.
They were a strain of so-called dark matter, that was obvious, but, unlike the garden variety of the stuff, the darklings' existence was apparently extremely organized. They were set in a massive ring, evenly distributed and collectively spinning in orbit around a neutron star.
How had this happened? What sustained the effect? What properties set this form of exotic matter outside the normal bestiary? These questions and hundreds more were asked by Jaza and his staff over the weeks Titan, now rigged essentially for silent running to avoid any stray homegrown rads cluttering their survey, spent sliding between the massive invisible pips.
It was a good time, the perfect expression of their collective raison d'être.
Which, of course, meant it couldn't last.
The day began badly for him: a fitful sleep full of powerful and unsettling dreams, followed by a return to consciousness that put him in mind of the time he'd escaped drowning.
Caught in a river whose current he had misjudged, he found himself both falling and being swept forward by the pull of something he could neither see nor fight. It had been terrifying then and, even though his father had pulled him out only a few seconds after he'd tumbled from the boat, his time in the water had felt like eternity.
The dream, what he could remember of it, wasn't truly terrifying in that way. There was no risk of death, obviously, and he wasn't drenched or shivering cold. Yet there was the same power in the thing, the same inexorable pull from something invisible and powerful and impossible to touch.
There had been new elements this time, he thought -- a flash of vegetation he hadn't noticed in previous bouts, the sound of a female voice screaming his name, something about a crash.
Once a strange and even mystical experience for him, especially the first few times, the dream had mostly become little more than an occasional and occasionally unpleasant puzzle, cut into billions of obscure pieces of which he only had access to portions at a time.
He would solve it one day, he knew. In fact he knew considerably more about the puzzle and its solution than he usually admitted even to himself. But one day was not today.
And, of course, the dream was also a kind of promise, one he'd tested over time and found to be true.
He'd been here before and would come again he knew, but each time he returned from the dream, whether he remembered every detail or not, he was forced to take moments to remind himself who he was, where he was and that, so far at least, he was still alive.
One day that would not be true. One day there would be no waking and no reassurances. One day the dream would not be a dream.
But that day was also not today.
It wasn't until after he'd stumbled to the wash basin and splashed cool water on his face (sonic showers would never do for something like this) that he felt almost like himself again. Almost, but not quite. The dream, even the sparse fragments of it that he could usually remember, was always unsettling in a way that he had yet to find words to describe.
Looking in the mirror he studied the details of his face and found them just very slightly alien. The eyes were the right color gray; the ridges across his nose were properly deep and defined; his skin was the same brown and the few flecks of gray that had begun to appear in the black of his hair had not multiplied, and yet there was something unrecognizable about the man staring back at him. It was as if he was looking into the face of some acquaintance, a colleague he might see occasionally in passing or a classmate from long ago. Not quite a stranger but not a face he found entirely familiar.
"You're Najem," he told himself. "You're Jaza Najem."
The computer told him that he was about an hour ahead of his duty shift; his subordinates would wonder why he had shown up so early and perhaps consider it a negative mark against their own abilities. So he decided to dress, get a snack, and take a short walk before heading up.
The galley wasn't quite empty when he arrived. Little clusters of chatting people had gathered at a few of the tables, while others had chosen quiet solitude in the hall's more secluded corners.
"Greetings, Mr. Jaza," said Chordys, the Bolian who ran the place from the closing hours of gamma shift through most of alpha. She was a cheery little thing whose round blue body seemed to be little more than life support for her smile. "You're up early. Getting a jump on the day?"
He managed a smile of his own, nowhere near as bright, mumbled something that she pretended was coherent as he pointed to the pitcher of protolact on the shelf behind her.
"Upset stomach?" she intuited. He nodded. It was close enough to how he felt though not truly accurate. Upset soul, perhaps? What was the cure for that?
"Dr. Ree usually comes along in the next half an hour or so," said Chordys, going on without him. "He's on the coldblood cycle, you know. Only up during the 'day.' You can probably catch a word with him before his shift begins."
"No," said Jaza, as she reached for the jar of blue liquid. "It's just bad sleep....