There’s a sickness in me that is as constant as the black beyond my viewport. Like the black, my sickness is pocked with little diamonds of light— a moment of laughter here, a glimmer of hope there— and the brightness of those moments are especially beautiful when juxtaposed against the otherwise endless swaths of empty space in between them. I’ve come to love this night sky within my mind, reaching for it and seeking to untangle its mysteries with almost the same ferocity as I have approached the stars.
Now that there are no stars outside my viewport, I think I may have overreached.
Since entering a part of space the crew has come to call “the void,” my sickness has begun to crush me. The energy it takes to get out of bed is enough to send me right back into it. I get up, go to the head, do a poor job of making myself presentable, then collapse on the couch in exhaustion. Were it not for the fact that there is next to nothing for me to do as we traverse this space, it might be disastrous.
Unless, of course, I was the disaster to begin with— which I’m beginning to realize is a distinct possibility.
My crew, however, is a well-oiled machine. By the time Chakotay comes to give his end-of-shift reports, I always manage to have some of my armor in place— trousers, boots, a clean shirt bearing four brass pips, and my combadge perfectly in place. I run a brush through my hair just before he comes, cradle a cup of coffee in my hands that I have lost the taste for, and take my place at the viewport where I stare out at the black just so I won’t have to look at him. He tells me all of the unimportant minutia aboard Voyager while I gaze into nothing and pretend that the nothingness isn’t eating me alive. He brings me PADDs to sign and I press my thumbprint in the appropriate place. He asks me to join him for dinner and I tell him I’m not hungry.
When he finally leaves me alone, I set down my full mug of coffee and drag myself back to bed, the most exhausting part of my entire day finally done with. I unbutton my pants, leave them in a heap on the floor, and slide in between the covers with a sigh.
Then, I lie awake and contemplate how completely I have failed everyone.
The first time I felt the sickness, I was fifteen. Our dog died— a shaggy old bag of bones I had known and loved for as long as I could remember— and my grief seemed to outlast everyone else’s. After a while, it stopped being grief over the loss of my dog and became an unrelenting sadness connected to nothing at all. Mom took me to see a doctor who gave the sickness a name— Major Depressive Disorder. I was put on medication and scheduled for regular counseling. After a while, the sickness went away, so my sessions were ended and my medication tapered off.
It came at least once a year after that. Sometimes, like the first time, it was triggered by something— finishing high school and saying goodbye to childhood friends as we all went our separate ways, failing a class at the academy, being tortured in a dank Cardassian cell, losing people I loved, losing crew under my command, trapping myself and my crew seventy thousand light years from home. Other times, it seemed to come from nowhere like an unexpected and unprovoked attack.
Always, it was a dark curiosity, inviting me to contemplate why my mind had decided to turn on itself.
Although it was frustratingly debilitating at its worst, I learned to find the strengths in it. My sickness prepared me for a life in the black, and I adjusted to space more quickly than many of my fellow Earth-raised students at the academy. I learned to save my energy for the things that really mattered, so when I did speak, people listened. I was better able to read people, too, as if becoming familiar with my own sensitivity had somehow heightened my sensitivity to others. I learned to have a cautious appreciation for my sickness not so different from the way I approached space— loving its mystery and respecting its danger.
Or, perhaps I loved it most for the danger.
My worst experience with the sickness came after a shuttle crash on Tau Ceti Prime. To this day, I still can’t talk about it. It’s hard to even think about, but they deserve to be remembered.
And I deserve to remember my greatest failure— the only one worse than stranding Voyager in the Delta Quadrant.
For months after going home from the hospital, I was haunted. I imagined Daddy and Justin in their final moments, waking up inside a broken shuttle as it slipped helplessly into an icy grave. I imagined their bodies bloating and decaying, eyes wide and empty as fish pulled away pieces of their flesh for food. I imagined myself down there with them, where I should have been. I imagined Mom and Phoebe blaming me for failing to save Daddy, and I imagined Justin’s family blaming me for failing to save their son.
If I could have wished myself into nothing, I would have.
Instead, I disappeared into my blankets for as long as my family would let me. When I finally emerged from the darkness, dragged into the light by my little sister, I was never the same again. How many times had Daddy helped guide me back to hope in the midst of my sadness? And Justin, who sprung me from a Cardassian cell himself, had loved me so carefully through the trauma and depression that seemed to linger for months afterward.
But they were gone, leaving Mom to grieve in silence and Phoebe expecting me to simply stand up and make myself better.
My sickness came on with a force that was almost deadly, amplifying my grief until it became every cell in my body and obscured every source of light beyond me. My body survived, but the rest of me had been obliterated. For weeks, I just laid in bed, unaware of time’s passage around me. In a very real sense, my family lost me, too.
Eventually, Phoebe came to drag me out of bed, shaming me for behavior she never bothered to understand and expecting my sickness to follow her command. For her sake and Mom’s, I agreed to restart treatment, and the sickness began to abate. In its wake, I found enough strength to play a convincingly-recovered Kathryn Janeway. Slowly, day by day, I put something resembling a human being together again, but I knew that I would never be the same.
The truth of the matter was that the darkness had shaped me in an irrevocable way, beholding me to it more deeply than ever before. I was not Daddy’s goldenbird or Justin’s beloved anymore. That woman was buried under a polar icecap with the two people I loved most. When I emerged from the ice, I became something else. I was the black itself— the ultimate cold, the space between all things. I traded my blue uniform for a red one and became a force of nature.
I took every lesson learned in darkness and burned a path from one star to the next.
Since recovering from the shuttle accident, I’ve stayed on low regular doses of medication— enough to keep me functional, but not so much that I lose touch with the darkness entirely. Twisted as it may be, I like that sense of having some piece of the black inside of me. I can’t really explain why; I just do.
Or I did, until now.
Now I look out the viewport, waiting for my first officer to bring me the daily report, and I see my soul reflected back to me in a dizzying, crushing, endless black nothing. I hate the void that has swallowed my ship and her crew.
I hate that the void has swallowed me, too.
Still, there is a wisdom within it— a wisdom and a lie. Depression is like the serpent in the garden of Eden, spinning lie after beautiful lie around my naked mind and nudging me towards the fall. Trouble is, I fell for the lies a long time ago. After the first fall, there was no turning back, no true redemption. I am damned to an eternity of falling again and again until I’m more in love with the fall than I ever was with anyone or anything else.
The only question left now is when I’ll hit the bottom... and how many people I’ll take with me.
When Chakotay comes, he mentions detecting theta radiation a few light years away. It’s probably nothing, but the prospect of a distraction manages to brighten me up a little. I tell him to alter course. He invites me to play hoverball, and I turn him down.
Then, he confronts me about my disappearing act.
I try to make a joke, but it’s hollow even to my ears. I don’t have the energy to explain the truth, so I lie and say I don’t understand what’s happening to me. The words feel as alien as the voice coming out of my mouth, and all I can think about is how I wish he would go away. He doesn’t know about my sickness. As far as he’ll know, it’s just the void getting under my skin.
But then I keep talking, rambling about how I miss the stress and danger of life before the void. “No time to stop and think about how we got stranded in the Delta Quadrant.”
As soon as the words slip out of my mouth, I realize my mistake. I had intended to minimize the situation until he gave up and left, just like I do every night. Instead, I told him the truth. Any moment now, he’ll start to pry into things he has no business knowing.
”How did we end up here, Chakotay?” I ask, going on the offensive before he has a chance to speak. I need him to understand. “Answer me.”
He hedges, offering me an out. I don’t take it. Instead, I tell him the ugly truth he is far too kind to say out loud or acknowledge within himself— that I am the reason why we’re here. I made the call to destroy the Caretaker’s array rather than using it to go home. I am responsible for every trauma, loss, and death that has come from being trapped in the Delta Quadrant. I don’t deserve to play games on the holodeck while we’re in the middle of an endless black night that I dragged us into.
The crew is better off without me, and so is he.
Leave it to Chakotay to make me finally feel a visceral emotion after I have worked so hard to numb myself out. Leave it to him to ensure that the emotion I feel is rage.
I have to admit, it felt pretty damn good to be angry at him. A brief, bright fire burned in my veins against him, Tuvok, and the rest of them for standing in the way of my plans. They took me seriously when I said I would stay behind in the void so that they could escape, and they refused to let me do it. They mutinied to save my life.
They don’t understand. Self-sacrifice is my only redemption now.
My crew were ready with an alternative plan, and they pulled it off distinction and valor. They dragged Voyager from the void like my sister had once dragged me from bed, cheating the darkness once more out of taking me completely. Someday, my bill will come due.
But not today.
Now I watch with bated breath as a thousand bright pinpricks of light force their way through the darkness. Their tiny twinkling light stirs something else in me, something even more dangerous than all the weeks of sickness.
Something that feels rather like hope.
In a way, hope is its own kind of sickness. It’s mad for me to continue hanging all my hopes on getting this crew home. I know that, and yet... the spark burns. Maybe someday it will consume me in much the same way as the darkness did while we were in the void. Maybe it will simply keep my sickness at bay. Maybe the two forces will tear me apart.
Still, despite the sickness weighing heavy on my heart, I find my voice enough to say, “Full speed ahead.”
And we burn our way to the next star.