This is the winning entry for the October 2012 challenge "Your Darkest Nightmare"
The USS Majestic was a dead ship.
Lost in the darkness of some future age, all alone on the wrong side of a wormhole that bored its way through time and space very nearly to the end of everything - a hundred trillion years into a future where most stars had turned to ashes and the universe was filled with the corpses of galaxies.
Thousands of kilometres beneath the broken Majestic lay the blasted, airless surface of a world that had been dead for eons. The planet orbited a black dwarf, the shrunken, frozen remnant of a once bright and burning star whose furious death had long since stripped away any vestiges of atmosphere.
Sigrid Hellum had been the starship's officer, the sole survivor from a crew of forty men and women. Virtually everyone had perished when the Majestic had been swallowed up by the wormhole that had brought them to this place - to the end of the universe. Only one other had survived, a young engineering cadet named Simon.
Together, they had done what they could to stabilise the crippled science vessel, through the damage wrought by the Majestic's encounter with the wormhole had been so extreme that nothing of any real consequence could be done. The starship was unable to generate her own power and most of her interior was open to space.
Only one small emergency bunker, located in the centre of the spacecraft and intended as a last refuge for survivors, still held atmosphere. Artificial gravity had bled away in the twelve hours following the ship's emergence into this dark galaxy.
Both survivors had worked in silence for days to gather up the corpses of their fallen comrades, working in microgravity inside uncomfortable environmental suits that had to be worn outside of the emergency bunkers. Many of the crew displayed horrific wounds as the result of the ship's violent passage, making the gruesome task of bringing them all to the Majestic's small shuttlebay even more unpleasant.
Though she was not a woman of faith herself, Sigrid had floated in solemn silence as Simon read a number of passages from the Bible he'd brought with him from Starfleet Academy, blessing the crew's journey into the arms of whatever god they might have believed in.
For a long time Sigrid had struggled with how best to deal with the bodies of her crewmates, unsure of the most dignified course of action given that burial on a planet was clearly impossible. The difficulty of converting torpedo and probe casings to act as coffins seemed prohibitive given that she and Simon were struggling just to stay alive, and mindful to the unpleasantness of simply allowing so many corpses to float forever in the shuttlebay, Sigrid eventually found herself picking her way through the maintenance deck below the hanger to detonate the last-resort explosive bolts that would blast the bay door away into space, trailing with it what little atmosphere remained and the bodies of the Majestic's fallen crew.
Strangely, Sigrid found herself almost pining for those first few weeks of her exile to this far future. As horrific as the immediate aftermath had been, at least there had been plenty of work to take both hers and Simon's mind off their hopeless imprisonment aboard the broken, powerless starship.
They had run what was left of the Majestic's catastrophically-damaged computer for an hour a day to conserve their only source of power - the ship's emergency batteries - and used it to slowly calculate how far into the future they'd travelled. Emergency subspace messages refused to transmit, leading Sigrid to conclude that the subspace medium through which the signals propagated had somehow dispersed or become unreachable this far into the future. Though it seemed doubtful there was anyone left to hear it, disaster beacons carrying the tale of the ship's demise were launched, more than anything to make them both feel like Starfleet officers again by carrying out these familiar operating procedures of an organisation from trillions of years in the past.
But nothing could keep the inevitable depression at bay for long. Looking back, Sigrid realised that Simon had begun to lose his mind some time after the eighth week. She had done what she could for the young man, but the enormity and hopelessness of their situation was understandably too much for him to bear. While Sigrid hadn't been close to her family and had few friends, in that respect Simon had been her polar opposite.
Even as she watched him deteriorate and begun to feed him stories that she was working on a plan that would allow them to home, Sigrid had known how it would end. On a purely selfish level, she was painfully aware that without Simon she would be completely alone.
During the eleventh week the pair had been working in their environmental suits in what remained of the Majestic's engine room. The reactor itself was missing from the centre of the facility, having been automatically ejected into space where it had exploded harmlessly following their passage through the wormhole.
Ironically, allowing it to explode inside the ship and reducing the Majestic to dust would have been far more humane than the slow death the survivors would inevitably endure.
"I've come to believe," Simon had said via the communications link between their suits, "that God must have abandoned this universe long before this time period."
Sigrid had regarded him in silence, experiencing the usual sinking feeling she had when he began one of these soliloquies.
"And I can't help but wonder what," he had continued, an edge of desperation in his voice, "in the absence of God, happens to our souls when we die."
It hadn't been a conversation Sigrid had wanted at that moment, nor at any moment.
"Our souls?" she sighed.
"This far beyond our own time, the universe is dark," Simon went on, his eyes wide and fervent. "No new stars are being created. Most of the galactic clusters have retreated so far from each other that they're no longer visible to each other, and most galaxies themselves have been swallowed up by the black holes at their centre."
"I know all this, Simon," she had said.
"Yes, but if God is no longer here, what happens when you die here?" he had demanded, his voice full of anguish. "Where do you go? There's only one conclusion."
"Simon..." she had pleaded.
"Hell is, by its very nature, the absence of God, is it not?" he had persisted.
"Listen, you need to calm down a little, okay?" Sigrid had told him, turning from the flickering control console she was working at and placing her gloved hands on his shoulders.
"I'm sorry," Simon had said after a moment. "Sometimes..."
"I know," she'd replied with as much sympathy as she could muster. "But we'll be home in a few more days. I've got a plan, remember?"
"Yes," Simon had said. "A plan. Of course."
"You just need to hold it together a little while longer, okay?"
"Yes," Simon had said again, and Sigrid had sensed that the young man was a little calmer.
"Good," she'd replied, turning back to the console.
A moment later a piercing alarm had exploded through her helmet speakers and she'd spun to see Simon thrashing around, his own helmet still in his gloved hands where he'd pulled it free of his environmental suit.
Sigrid could only watch in horror as what could be the only other person who shared this future universe with her had died in her arms. She had cradled Simon's lifeless body for what felt like hours before returning to the emergency bunker.
The feeling of dread and loneliness she'd experienced in the preceding weeks had been nothing compared to what she'd felt following Simon's death.
On an intellectual level she understood that she may well be the only living being left in existence, though the very concept was so overarching that her brain struggled to comprehend the enormity of it.
The next few weeks had been Sigrid's very own personal hell, feeling like the one Simon had spoken of, all alone aboard a lifeless starship in a dead, black universe. She had remained in the bunker during that time in a near catatonic state, subsisting on a few sips of water and dry emergency rations.
It had been during her first excursion outside the bunker for nearly a month when she'd discovered the planet where the Majestic's story would end. She had been in the engine room, the only place remaining aboard the ship where some scant remnant of control remained, working at the console where Simon had chosen to end his life all those weeks before.
The ship's few short-range sensors had detected a planetary mass a few million kilometres away, through this was as much information as they could provide. With her food and water rations beginning to dwindle after nearly four months, Sigrid had seized upon the discovery, and concentrated on adjusting the Majestic's course to bring it to this world.
Using short bursts from the two emergency thruster packs that remained operational, Sigrid had been able to stop the ship's slow tumble through space and set it on a new heading towards the planet.
Another month had passed as the Majestic drew nearer its final destination, when Sigrid had exhausted what hydrazine fuel remained in the thrusters to bring the shattered spacecraft into a high orbit.
The barren, airless rock that had greeted her seemed to mock the struggle she'd endured in the previous months. The journey to this world had been four weeks of maddening loneliness and silence as the ship had crept gradually nearer.
The world was long dead.
Sigrid had known that the inevitable end had come. Even though they'd been used sparingly, nearly five months after its encounter with the wormhole the ship's emergency batteries were drained. In the coming weeks, the Majestic's orbit would decay until she finally impacted with the rocky surface below.
For days she contemplated suicide with a newfound , often feeling for the release tabs of her helmet so that she may take the same way out as Simon had.
But always she managed to pull herself back from the brink, whether it be through fear of how horrific those last moments of suffocation would be or the nagging echo of Simon's words about where her soul, if such a thing existed, would end up in this dark universe.
As the starship continued its inexorable descend toward the planet, Sigrid had decided that after almost five months of floating in microgravity, she wanted to die with solid ground beneath her feet. Collecting up what few possessions she wished to take with her and the few remaining rations from the bunker, Sigrid headed for the one remaining escape pod still capable of being ejected from the crippled vessel.
Before departing the starship, she recorded a last message.
"This is the final log entry of the Federation starship USS Majestic. It has been five months to the day since we were brought to this place, a point in time that I estimate to be over a hundred trillion years from where we belong. This is Lieutenant Sigrid Hellum, the last survivor of the Majestic, signing off."
The escape pod explosively had jettisoned itself away from the shattered hull of the small science vessel, spinning away so that the Majestic may continue on her way alone.
Sigrid had watched tearfully from the viewport as the battered starship slipped silently away into the night.
The pod's landing sensors had flickered to life as it began to descend, probing the inhospitable surface below for the a suitable landing site. As she watched sensor data begin to stream past the compact display, Sigrid had gasped as the sensors pinpointed something beneath her.
An artificial construction!
Sigrid urgently punched override commands into the panel, manually adjusting the pod's trajectory to bring it down as close as possible to the object the sensors had found and ignoring the preprogrammed warnings about deviating from the suggested landing site.
Minutes later, the pod touched down amongst the rough-hewn mountains of a desolate and airless landscape, the retro-rockets that had slowed its descent unable to fully prevent the jarring impact that knocked Sigrid unconscious.
When Sigrid awoke her entire body was in agony.
As consciousness came flooding back to her, she realised that she was experiencing gravity for the first time in nearly half a year.
She drew in a long, wheezing breath as she released the straps of restraint webbing that had held her in place during the descent from high orbit and the subsequent impact with the surface.
Groaning under the unfamiliar strain of gravity, Sigrid pushed herself out of the acceleration seat, grasping for the handholds positioned around the compact escape pod to aid her ascent.
She knew that the six months spent floating in microgravity had had a detrimental effect on her body, aware that her muscles had atrophied and she had lost a small percentage of her bone mass.
For the first few months both she and Simon had engaged in a physical regimen designed to prevent such degradation as much as possible, coupled with regular hypospray injections using supplies from the ship's sickbay, but these precautions had soon fallen by the wayside as depression had taken hold.
Sigrid's legs trembled as she attempted to stand before falling heavily against the side of the pod. After so long being weightless, standing would be a struggle wearing just a Starfleet uniform, but attired in the heavy fabric and helmet of the environmental suit it felt virtually impossible.
Minutes passed as Sigrid struggled to find her balance, but eventually she decided she was stable enough, and popped the hatch open to take her first look at her new surroundings.
As she climbed out of the pod she was confronted by the same desolate, barren landscape that she had observed from orbit. Everything appeared to be hewn from hard, gray rock. Mountains and valleys stretched away into the distance.
It was not a welcoming sight.
Sigrid slid down the surface of the pod to land on the rocky surface, her legs aching with the exertion as she surveyed the forbidding planetary surface.
The small holographic indicators projected onto the faceplate of her helmet changed from green to amber, warning of her increased heart rate and adrenalin.
A hundred metres away was the object that had brought her here.
Sigrid pulled the specialist, vacuum-hardened tricorder from her equipment belt. The enlarged device was designed to be used by the gloved hands of someone wearing an environmental suit, and she held it up as she began scanning.
The object itself was a torus, perfectly circular, fifteen feet in diameter with a thirteen foot diameter opening in the centre. The external side was three feet in height, whereas the sunken interior was four foot deep.
Sigrid narrowed her gaze at the sensor returns being displayed on the device's screen, amazed at the information that the device was providing.
According to the limited sensor suite of the tricorder, the torus was billions of years old, meaning that it had stood for longer than the entire lifespan of the universe as it had been measured in her own time.
Cautiously, Sigrid began to walk forward on unsteady legs, scanning as she went.
Whatever material the torus had been constructed from all those eons ago, it defied any attempt at analysis by the tricorder. Despite a near eternity of standing here on this world, subject to the ravages of whatever weather system had once been present and the bombardment of debris drawn into the planet's gravity well since it had formed, the exterior of the torus appeared as smooth and pristine as if its construction had just been finished.
Perhaps the full sensor suite of the Majestic could have once provided some clue as to the torus' construction, although somehow Sigrid doubted it. Absently, she likened the relationship as being akin to an amoeba attempting to understand how a starship's warp reactor had been built.
As she reached the torus, she glanced back at the escape pod sitting at an odd angle in the distance, subconsciously looking for reassurance that it was still there, before reaching out and touching the glassy surface of the object with a gloved hand.
"Who the hell built you?" she whispered, peering over the wall of the torus to look into the empty interior, all constructed of the same unknowable material that had defeated the tricorder's analysis.
Sigrid pulled herself up and into the torus, straining slightly as she lifted one leg over the edge, then the other. She traced the interior with her hands, baffled by how such an object could exist in such a flawless state from virtually the beginning of time to the end.
Faced with such a mystery, her exile at the end of the universe was momentarily forgotten.
Suddenly the tricorder began flashing a warning.
Sigrid glanced down, gasping as she saw the viscous, oil-like substance begin to gush out of tiny indentations along the bottom of the torus interior that she hadn't noticed before, flooding the space with astonishing speed.
The liquid was already covering the top of her boots as she grasped desperately for the wall of the torus.
The oil appeared to defy gravity, racing up the sides of her suit to swallow her up in a dark tide, congealing around her and pulling her down.
The environmental suit's alarms began to sound, warning Sigrid of the icy liquid that she could feet entering her boots as the tough material began to dissolve under the sudden onslaught.
The oil flowed up through her suit, covering her legs and abdomen as she fought the downward suction in a final, desperate attempt to free herself.
Sigrid screamed in the moments before the liquid reached her face, flowing into her nose and mouth.
Then she knew nothing.