Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter I

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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter I

Postby Alexbright99 » Fri Jan 04, 2019 10:22 pm

New to this story? Start by reading Part II for the full experience.

Here's the latest chapter, to be uploaded in four parts, with a new chapter segment every Friday.

Trapped behind enemy lines, the USS Achilles' covert mission to reclaim the Federation's home worlds is taking its toll on her crew led by the haunted Captain Rinckes. Aided by Tony Blue, a former member of the Q Continuum, they are locked in a deadly cat-and-mouse game with the enemy. With tensions rising, the odds stacked against them, how much more will they have to sacrifice?


Behind enemy lines, USS Achilles – July 9, 2386 – Stardate 63517.8
The holographic representation of a S’Prenn ship looms over the forward bridge consoles. Black as space itself, its irregular shape is hard to discern, save for a few arachnid properties. Smaller than the average Federation or Altonoid vessel, it floats in forlorn emptiness like a spider drowned in a pool. It looks grisly and uninviting, yet it may turn out to be the most important object the Achilles has ever encountered.

Lieutenant Tony Blue, manning his tactical station, watches Captain Stephan Rinckes study the alien ship from his captain’s chair. Seeing a S’Prenn vessel up close is a rare occasion indeed, even for a Starfleet captain. Tony’s successor, First Officer Commander Erin Crow, shifts uneasily in her seat to the captain’s right. That has nothing to do with her being nervous about her new commission and everything to do with her suspecting this derelict to be a trap. To the captain’s left, Doctor Chris Kingsley also fidgets in his seat, for completely different reasons: the doctor cannot wait to perform an autopsy on an actual S’Prenn.

“The S’Prenn ship’s forward momentum is 300 kph,” Chief Helmsman Lieutenant Baxter reports. “We’ve matched speed and heading.”

“Keep her steady,” Captain Rinckes says. “Lieutenant Kels, report.”

The Andorian Lieutenant Kels shakes her head, wiggling the blue antennae towering over her snow-white hair. “It’s hard to obtain useful readings from the scanners, Captain. There’s too much interference emanating from the vessel. We need to boost power to sensors.”

The Vulcan Lieutenant Surtak stationed next to Lieutenant Baxter raises an eyebrow and demonstrates his penchant for stating the obvious. “We would have to disengage our cloaking device in order to do that, sir.”

While carrying a cloaking device is in direct violation of the treaty of Algeron, Tony realizes the Achilles wouldn’t have survived this long in hostile territory without it. Since the Altonoids are using this technology as well, thereby gaining an otherwise unfair advantage, Starfleet’s brass agreed to put the cloaking device the Klingons supplied to good use. Regulations exist for a reason, but sometimes rules have to be broken—an act of desperation rather than defiance.

A calculating stare from the captain ends his musings. “Lieutenant Blue, tactical analysis.”

Tony has had less than a day to get used to his new tactical post, but experience kicked in soon enough and he already feels in control. “There’s nobody around. We should be all right.” He inadvertently triggers a silent intruder alert on deck 6 and quickly corrects his mistake. “Weapons and shields are standing by in case anything goes wrong.” From the other side of the bridge, Lieutenant Commander Terrell and Lieutenant Gibbs are grinning at him. He guesses his accidental intruder alert didn’t go entirely unnoticed. Luckily, they’re kind enough to refrain from making a fuss.

“Drop cloak,” Captain Rinckes says. As a result, the bridge lights come on, revealing an amalgam of old and recent battle damage. Scorch marks stain the bulkheads and carpet, panels are missing, and some consoles have had to be scrapped and rerouted, but everything is generally speaking in working order. Functionality trumps cosmetics in this covert mission past its four-year mark.

“Boosting power to sensors,” Chief Engineer Lt. Cmdr. Terrell says.

Everyone waits for Lt. Kels to process her science terminal’s incoming data. Cmdr. Crow deems it necessary to ask, “Is it a setup?” which causes Dr. Kingsley to roll his eyes.

“I’m still having trouble reading the vessel’s interior,” Lt. Kels says. “There is a breathable atmosphere. No detectable life signs. And that’s all I can tell. The ship could be damaged beyond repair or simply powered down.”

“Suspicious,” Cmdr. Crow says.

“I agree,” Tony adds, which gains him the new XO’s undivided attention. “I must point out that an activated S’Prenn ship could easily destroy us.”

Captain Rinckes keeps focused on the viewscreen while no doubt weighing the available options. “Your concerns are warranted. However, we cannot let this opportunity go by.”

“I agree wholeheartedly, Captain,” Dr. Kingsley says. “And if you are to send an away team, I recommend they wear environmental suits.”

It’s as if the doctor has read the captain’s mind. “Commander Crow, assemble an away team.”

Her delayed response denotes her reluctance. “Understood, sir.”

Tony can’t squelch a smile.

“Lieutenant Blue, you’re with me,” Crow says in a thinly veiled diabolical tone.

Tony wishes his smile-squelching abilities were better.

She rises from her chair. “You too, Commander Terrell.”

The dark-skinned chief engineer stands up immediately and says with a broad grin, “A mysterious ship filled to the brim with giant sentient spiders who may or may not be alive, and the chance of it being a deadly trap? Blimey, count me in.” Joking aside, analyzing technology this advanced is an enticing prospect for any chief engineer, and he knows it.

Tony and Terrell follow Crow into the nearest turbolift. “Deck 4, transporter room,” she says to the turbolift’s interface.

A modest cough from Terrell. “Um. Belay that. Deck 5, armory.”

The two men await Crow’s reaction, but she pretends nothing has happened. She’s as willing to be armed to the teeth on this mission as they are.

* * *

The few times the mysterious S’Prenn intervened in Federation-Altonoid conflicts, they had always been on the Federation’s side. After the war erupted, the S’Prenn assisted in three separate battles and then, oddly enough, went silent. As the war raged on, they were nowhere to be found. One can imagine the surprise when they showed up all over the Alpha Quadrant a year later, integrated into Altonoid assault fleets. Since then, everyone has been wondering why the normally benign S’Prenn teamed up with a military force of aggressive xenophobes.

Less than a month ago, the crew of the Achilles located a crash-landed Altonoid starship and uploaded its database. Confronted by two investigating Altonoid warships, Captain Rinckes had to abandon Tony Blue’s wife Emily and field medic Ensign Ted Barton on the planet, effecting the young officers’ demise. The intel recovered, however, proved vital. It was discovered that the S’Prenn have been aiding the Altonoids since as far back as the brutal attack on Earth, and they are being coerced to do so by means of brainwashing. With that, the Altonoids not only neutralized the Federation’s most important ally, they enlisted them, enslaved them, despite the S’Prenn’s superior intellect and sophisticated engineering. The Altonoids are not to be underestimated.

* * *

Aboard the S’Prenn derelict, four Starfleet officers materialize in a cramped chamber. In a place this unwelcoming, they’re glad to be wearing their robust EV suits, which leaves only their faces visible.

Commander Erin Crow’s miserable expression betrays she is resisting the urge to ask the transporter chief to beam her back and let the others sort it out. Per the new XO’s request, security officer Ensign Josh Donahue has joined the away team, carrying three cylindrical pattern enhancers. Lieutenant Tony Blue examines his phaser rifle to make sure it is in perfect condition, even though he has checked it twice already before beaming over. Lastly, Lieutenant Commander Jon Terrell almost strangles himself with his weapons’ shoulder straps as he checks his three phaser rifles—each a different type—and his handphaser, adjusts his shoulder-mounted isomagnetic disintegrator, and inspects the imposing ceremonial Klingon knife he snatched from the armory’s decorative display.

The air seems putrid and thick, and Tony is grateful for his suit’s oxygen supply. The ship’s interior remains badly lit when Crow and Donahue switch on their wrist-mounted SIMs beacons and Terrell and Tony activate their phaser rifles’ flashlights. Evidently, these matte bulkheads absorb light. Acting on instinct, the away team huddles together as the three men await the first officer’s orders.

With her mixed ancestry, the jet-black-haired Erin Crow is beautiful even when wearing an EV suit—her petite figure makes her deceptively adorable—yet she appears to be on a continuous mission to counter her good looks with an assortment of scowls and frowns. The expression she’s sporting at the moment scores a solid four out of five scowling stars, as she waits for Terrell to stop fiddling with his weapon collection and concentrate on the tricorder he has detached from his suit.

Anxious as he may be, Terrell summons a friendly—if not broken—smile as he scans the surrounding area and says, “The computer room is located several decks away, I think.” He waves his tricorder around with steady precision. “From what I can gather about this area’s infrastructure, I might have an idea of where we should go.”

“Could you be more specific than that?” Crow asks.

“Not yet, though I’m starting to believe the computer room is the source of the interference.” Terrell scans the chamber wall to wall, testing the commander’s patience. “Yes, now I’m sure. If we follow the source, we’ll end up in the computer core room.”

“Is it safe?” Donahue asks, blinking more rapidly than his suit’s multi-colored status indicators. “The interference, I mean.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Terrell says.

This halfhearted reassurance does not placate Donahue’s nerves. “So we find the room, place the pattern enhancers, study their computer, and get out?”

“There’s a problem,” Terrell says in a manner that makes everyone check for spiders crawling up their legs. “S’Prenn hallways are tiny.” He shines the three phaser rifles’ flashlights on a corridor entrance, which measures two by two feet at most. “There’s no way we can crawl through there with our EV suits on.”

* * *

Lieutenant Tony Blue and Ensign Josh Donahue have ditched their EV suits. In their identical, gray excursion uniforms with a gold department color stripe running across yoke and sleeves, they could pass as brothers, seeing as they both are in their mid-twenties and have pale complexion, dark blond hair, and deep brown irises. Donahue is slightly taller and fitter and—as opposed to Tony’s default weary gaze—has an air of youthful optimism about him.

Although fully clothed, Tony feels naked compared to his superiors. Terrell, no doubt relieved he wasn’t selected to enter the crypt of multi-legged terrors, offers Donahue a phaser rifle. The ensign politely declines, deeming the handphaser he has secured to his belt more useful in cramped quarters. Tony, however, holds on to his phaser rifle for dear life.

I’ve linked our in-suit communicators with your standard-issue ones,” Terrell says. “We won’t be able to hear each other once you’ve advanced too far into the interference.” This makes Tony feel even more exposed. “Just make sure you follow the waypoint on your tricorders. It should lead you to the computer room. Place the pattern enhancers there and you will be able to contact us and the ship.”

I need not stress the importance of this mission,” Crow says from within the safety of her EV suit. “We may never get another chance. The S’Prenn have been an enigma for far too long. We must learn their side of the story. Gentlemen, this could turn the war around in our favor.”

“Or it could be a trap,” Tony says. Crow’s ensuing frown reminds him that she’s pretty when she’s angry, in a terrifying kind of way.

I know, Lieutenant.” She enjoys calling him by his lowered rank. “Trust me, I know.” She takes a stride forward, armored and imposing in her EV suit despite her smaller stature. “For the record, I did not choose you for this mission because you were laughing at me on the bridge. I chose you because of your prior dealings with the S’Prenn and your away mission experience in general. I know you can handle this.”

Tony doesn’t believe her. However, he has no choice but to respect his place in the hierarchy. “I am ready, Commander. So is Donahue, right?”

Donahue gives a confident nod while adjusting the shoulder belt keeping the pattern enhancers strapped to his back.

Having run out of excuses to dawdle, Tony and Donahue say their goodbyes and set off. Tony crouches down first and crawls into the tight corridor while clutching a tricorder and shining his phaser rifle’s flashlight into the foreboding darkness. Donahue reactivates his wrist-mounted SIMs beacon and follows. Scary as this may be, Tony is duly motivated and confident in his and the ensign’s abilities. That is, until he hears Crow say to Terrell, unaware of her involuntary eavesdroppers, “If they don’t report back in twenty minutes, we’ll send in a new team.”
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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter Ib

Postby Alexbright99 » Fri Jan 11, 2019 9:02 pm

Commanders Crow and Terrell’s comm chatter reduces to static and disappears altogether as Lieutenant Tony Blue and Ensign Josh Donahue make their way single file through alien corridors barely wide enough for one person. Tony adheres to his tricorder’s navigational instructions, which consist of a single three-dimensional arrow pointed into what Terrell assumed to be the right direction. Behind him, Donahue is monitoring his own tricorder to double-check every path Tony might take. A makeshift compass is far from an ideal means of navigating this maze; it’s only one or two steps up from wielding a dowser.

Without their EV suits, nothing shields them from the sights and smells they encounter. The air is heavy and strangely acidic, and the enveloping heat is causing Tony’s attire to stick to his skin and his hair to sag into a mess on his sweaty scalp. Their flashlights cast insufficient light into the corridors, which unfortunately have the same matte finish as the bulkheads in the first room.

After the duo has rounded several corners and negotiated a small network of intersections, the navigation arrow finally points straight ahead. Tony halts to inspect the corridor they’ve entered, using his rifle’s flashlight despite its limited effectiveness. Just as he intends to signal the coast is clear, he does a double take, thinking he has caught a glimpse of an ill-boding shape lying on the deck plating a few dozen feet ahead. A product of his imagination? Tony flicks on his rifle’s night vision and squints into its scope. It’s hard to make out from this distance, but it’s there: a lifeless S’Prenn.

The S’Prenn are highly intelligent arachnids comprising two body segments the size of clenched fists, two lengthy palps flanking a set of disproportionally big white fangs, and eight straight, scaly legs, which make the average S’Prenn over a foot wide. They perceive the world with two—not eight as you might expect—raisin-like, obsidian eyes. Because of their remarkable intellect belying their relatively small brain size, it has been surmised their brains use a biological equivalent of quantum computing. Whether there is any truth to this hypothesis is yet to be confirmed.

Tony sways his rifle about. Its light beam dances around the S’Prenn’s features, casting grotesque shadows on the nearby bulkheads.

“What’s the delay?” Donahue asks.

“We’ve run into a dead S’Prenn.”

“Oh, good,” Donahue says with no enthusiasm whatsoever.

Tony chortles at his colleague’s remark, a welcome diversion from the gloomy setting they’re in. “If we scan it, we may find out how it died.”

“Lead the way…”

Tony readies his tricorder to scan the creature. The hairs in the back of his neck stand up as he approaches the S’Prenn. The way it’s lying there motionlessly, it’s clearly dead, but what if it—

The floor disappears. Apparently, because S’Prenn are adept climbers, some of the major corridor junctures go up and down as well as left and right. With no time to react, Tony plummets headfirst into a vertical corridor shaft. Screaming and flailing, he slides down, occasionally grasping an intersecting hallway, only to have to let go moments later. With an ominous splash, his tricorder and phaser rifle land at the bottom of the pit.

No matter how hard he tries, he cannot break his fall. Sounding high-pitched and powerless, he manages to utter, “Help me!” At least the rapidly closing-in floor looks soft—a little too soft, actually. His tricorder and rifle are floating in some sort of biological muck. As he slides closer, he discerns assorted S’Prenn body parts sticking out of the slush, among them several contorted spider legs.

In one last-ditch attempt, Tony grabs two opposite entrances, pain be damned, bringing himself to an abrupt halt. His aching arms nearly succumb to this sudden weight shift. Grunting with effort, and wishing he had spent more hours at the gym of late, he slowly pushes himself up. Still upside down, Tony glances at the sludge of nightmares three feet below him. If his arms give way—and they will eventually—he will drown in a pool of liquid S’Prenn and share Emily’s fate of dying in the line of duty. His muscles and tendons burn as his tiring arms lose strength. Did one of those S’Prenn legs move just now?

Something seizes his feet! Tony shrieks in terror and almost loses his grip. Whatever is holding him, it is trying to pull him up, reducing the strength needed to keep from nose-diving into the horrors beneath. “Hang on, Lieutenant,” the nearby Donahue says, clutching Tony’s ankles. With his feet planted firmly on two opposite corridor entrances two levels higher, the ensign supports their combined body weight. It looks as awkward as it does acrobatic, but this unplanned circus act is a godsend for the lieutenant.

With Donahue taking the burden off his arms, Tony is able to clasp the left corridor entrance. “I got it from here, Ensign.” As soon as Donahue lets go of him, Tony pushes off against the side and slips into the corridor—a horizontal one at last. Gasping for air, he crawls forward three meters at most before collapsing. The floor is lined with the same creepy sludge, but Tony couldn’t care less. He is exhausted, bruised and battered; his arms hurt like hell and he is sick to his stomach, but at least he’s not neck-deep in spider soup.

After angrily spitting out the metallic taste in his mouth, he notices a purple glow at the far end of this confining hallway, indicating it might open up into a room. Without waiting for his colleague, he army-crawls toward it.

* * *

This used to be a lounge of sorts, equipped with miniature food stations now displaying rotting, unknown substances. Purple wall panels illuminate the room, which is two decks high—though that isn’t saying much on a S’Prenn ship; a humanoid cannot stand here. Encircled by balconies, this lounge must’ve been able to cater to hundreds of S’Prenn at once. Not anymore; the S’Prenn in this tomb have been liquefied to varying degrees, shrouding each surface, mingling with food, hanging from the balconies. Strangely enough for an enclosed space containing so much decay, there’s only that typical acidic odor—and silence, complete silence.

Tony sits cross-legged in a corner of the lounge, his shoulders drooped and his head hung low, when Ensign Josh Donahue enters the room. Picking up on Tony’s dour mood, he adopts a respectful tone. “Lieutenant, I retrieved your gear.”

Tony doesn’t reply, preoccupied with staring at a clot of fused S’Prenn.

Donahue sets down the grimy rifle and tricorder and maintains a reverent silence as he unbuckles his shoulder strap, gingerly places the pattern enhancers on the floor, and sits down cross-legged opposite the dejected lieutenant. They should proceed with the mission, yet Donahue chooses to join this unanticipated wake and be patient.

Quiet seconds pass by until Tony speaks up. “There is no afterlife.”

Donahue doesn’t have a reply ready for that.

“Even in our enlightened civilization,” Tony continues, “mortals have a tendency to believe in ways to cheat death, to… not lose.” He wants to meet Donahue’s gaze, but the ensign averts his eyes. “The thought of disappearing… They crave some kind of reason, a reunion with people they cannot bear to live without.”

Donahue watches the melted S’Prenn surrounding them, frozen in their death throes—some unnaturally flat, others with coiled-up legs reaching for the ceiling.

“And who can blame them?” Tony asks, his voice shrill. “Who can be blamed for desiring something better… than this? Yet there is no afterlife.”

His discouraging statement lingers for a moment.

Donahue finally returns Tony’s stare and says, “I am not saying there is more to life and death.” He musters a comforting half-smile. “But how can one be absolutely sure?”

Tony’s attempt to mimic his colleague’s smile devolves into a morose parody. “When I was a Q, I received the gift of knowing things no mortal was ever supposed to find out: answers, depressing answer, the removal of uncertainty so often misinterpreted as hope.” He grits his teeth. “When you breathe your last, you breathe your last. The universe is done with you.”

The ensign lets out a doleful sigh. “We haven’t spoken since our last mission together. Must’ve been… three weeks ago? I never got the chance to say it, but I am deeply sorry for your loss. Emily was a fine officer and she is sorely missed.”

Despite Tony’s best efforts, his lips tremble and his words falter. “I am scared, Ensign.” A stray tear or two rolls down his cheeks. “I’ve lost so much already. My friends, my father, my… my Emily. I don’t know how to go on without…” He pulls himself together enough to say, “My life is next. And then it’s all over.”

They sit together in mutual silence while time seeps away.

Against his better judgment, Donahue lets his gaze wander once more to the distressing collection of massacred S’Prenn covering the deck plating, walls, and balconies. “I had a younger brother named Virgil.”

Surprised by this sudden change of subject, Tony shelves his self-pity and listens to his colleague.

“What a character. He was the kid who would fall out of the treehouse and then climb back in right away. He always managed to pick fights with the bigger kids, and of course it was up to his older brother to come to the rescue.” Donahue chuckles softly. “His fearlessness never failed to land him in trouble, creating these impossible situations where the odds were stacked against him and he pulled through anyway. I honestly don’t know how he did it. No matter what, he never lost his fighting spirit. Even after shattering his leg in a shuttle accident, he recovered faster than anyone I ever met. He joined Starfleet like his big brother. The whole family was so proud of him. I was proud of him, too.”

Tony braces himself for the inevitable tragedy to strike in Donahue’s story.

The ensign doesn’t keep him waiting. “Virgil served on the USS Goddard, part of Earth’s defense force. He died protecting our home. Never stood a chance.” Donahue sets his jaw. “So yeah… this time his brother wasn’t around to fight off the bigger kids… I had dozens of relatives living on Earth. Nobody made it out. And when I die, so does the last member of our once happy family. It’ll be as if we never existed.” He gets to his feet and straightens up as much as the low ceiling allows. “I think we’re all scared, Lieutenant. You, me, the captain, everyone.”

Many thoughts go through Tony’s mind, many things he ought to say and share. All he can bring himself to say is, “Fair enough.” He dries his tears and inhales deeply, then locks eyes with the ensign. “Thank you for saving me.”

Donahue straps the pattern enhancers to his back and says with a congenial smile, “It’s what I do.” He hands Tony his phaser rifle and tricorder. “After you, Lieutenant.”

Tony glances at his tricorder and grumbles, “We may have some climbing to do.”
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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter Ic

Postby Alexbright99 » Fri Jan 18, 2019 6:36 pm

The lieutenant and the ensign make their way through another set of slimy corridors in their journey to the main computer room. Lieutenant Tony Blue makes a mental note that the first thing he will do once safely aboard the Achilles is ritually burn his uniform and take an eternal sonic shower. Luckily, the S’Prenn ship’s unusual and seemingly arbitrary layout has one advantage: they didn’t have to climb up more than a handful of decks to compensate for their brief detour.

Crawling through eerie passageways harboring limitless supplies of deceased S’Prenn, Tony studies his tricorder, distracting himself from the scaly legs and squishy bodies he’s moving under and over while keeping on the lookout for sudden drops. It’s impossible to gauge how far they have to go; all he has is that arrow steering him in the right direction—presumably. These corridors, offering no room for U-turns, let alone standing up, filled with spider slush, provide the perfect breeding ground for a cozy hybrid of claustrophobia and arachnophobia.

“No doubt about it, Lieutenant,” Ensign Josh Donahue says over the familiar warble of his scanning tricorder. “They died of exposure to a volatile chemical reaction. That would account for the acidic smell.”

“Dangerous to us?” Tony asks, just to be sure. If it were indeed dangerous to humans, they would’ve started melting too by now.

“I don’t think so. I’m not a science officer, so don’t ask me about the specifics—“

“I won’t,” Tony says as he removes a loose spider appendage from inside his sleeve.

“—but this reaction is very harmful to S’Prenn biology in particular, as if it were engineered for this purpose.”

“An assault with chemical weapons?”

“Likely. Then again, there are other possible explanations, such as an accident caused by malfunctioning equipment or a medical experiment gone awry. We know so little about them, and I’m neither a biologist nor an engineer. My job is to shoot at things.”

The joke is lost on Tony, who’s too busy loathing the black slush clinging to his person, intermingling with his sweat, permeating his lungs with every inhalation. It’s enough to make anyone sick. In fact, Donahue has started gagging and making other repulsive sounds in the background. He can’t blame him; the conditions they have to work in are disgusting beyond measure.

So many questions about this place are difficult to answer. However, there is no doubt that these S’Prenn got the short end of the stick. Tony recalls an earlier attempt by the Altonoids to brainwash a group of S’Prenn. The normally docile S’Prenn had gone insane and killed everyone in sight, including the Altonoid scientists, leaving it up to him to save the day—something he used to be more proficient in with his Q powers intact. He ponders whether a similar incident doomed this vessel, if this bloodbath was caused by merciless Altonoid soldiers or by unhinged S’Prenn attacking themselves in a blind rage.

Donahue’s pace quickens. Without giving it any thought, Tony quickens his pace too. With his senses returning to the real world, he grows aware that something is amiss, as if Donahue’s reassuring presence is no longer with him. He hears the ensign hitting the bulkheads every other step despite the discomfort this must cause. Somehow afraid to speak up, and unable to look over his shoulder without losing speed, he follows his instincts and presses forward.

Heartbeat rising, Tony pushes a few buttons on his tricorder, temporarily forgoing its navigational function to activate its integrated camera and display. He points the impromptu mirror over his shoulder and tries his best to stabilize the image—no easy feat when crawling through a narrow tube. When he succeeds, he wishes he hadn’t bothered.

Ensign Donahue, the man he had a good conversation with minutes earlier, has become rabid, his skin white as snow, foam dripping down exposed teeth. He thrashes his limbs as he closes in, his face growing in size on the tricorder’s display. Disfigured spider legs, four on each side, stick out from behind his neck like skeletal fingers. A surviving S’Prenn must have lowered from the ceiling and latched onto the poor ensign. Once a S’Prenn sinks its large fangs into its victim’s brain stem, it intertwines their nervous systems and assumes control—an unpleasant process in which the subject has no chance of winning.

With fully dilated pupils locked in a furious scowl, and speaking like someone unaccustomed to possessing vocal cords and a human mouth, Donahue hisses, “Stop!”

Unable to suppress a terrified scream, Tony upgrades his hasty retreat to an outright scramble for the end of this passageway, though there is no escape plan besides getting as far away from the mutated ensign as possible. His elbows and knees are sore already, and tunnel vision caused by his fight-or-flight response only serves to elongate this nightmarish corridor. It might impair his speed a little, but his hands remain glued to his tricorder and rifle, the latter’s flashlight shining erratically ahead.

No matter how fast he goes, what’s left of Donahue is right behind him, clawing at his ankles. The S’Prenned ensign is nothing short of irate. “Come back!” he commands in an otherworldly voice sending shivers down Tony’s spine.

Tony catches a face full of dead S’Prenn hanging from the ceiling and uses the back of his hand to knock its remains away from his eyes and nose. This slows him down enough for the livid ensign to grab him by the shoe and stab deformed fingernails through its fabric and into his foot. Wincing in pain, he kicks Donahue in the head and breaks free at the cost of losing his right shoe. The bloodcurdling cry this elicits from his attacker distracts him from the fact that his sock has become soggy already.

Ensign Josh Donahue is a good officer and, from what Tony could gather in the brief time he has known him, a good person as well. As much as he hates the idea of having to hurt his colleague, Tony cannot allow this chase to continue.

While trying to maintain velocity, he raises his phaser rifle and makes several attempts to point it at his chaser, but the rifle keeps getting jammed between the bulkheads. With a sinking feeling, it dawns on him that in a space this cramped, turning his rifle around is physically impossible, rendering him defenseless. The one upside is that he is free to use the rifle to light his escape path, and he spots another hazardous intersection with a long drop.

With the ensign hot on his trail, he picks a random corridor in a hopeless effort to shake off his pursuer. His stomach churns as he crosses the hundred-foot-deep chasm and enters the left hallway. Too late, he realizes he could’ve used the juncture to rotate his rifle, but it is impossible to think straight with busloads of adrenaline pumping through his veins. Moments after he has entered the corridor, he hears Donahue—uncoordinated as the ensign is with a giant spider controlling him—plummet into the gap, his limbs clattering against rock-solid bulkheads.

Out of caution, Tony rushes onward for another thirty feet before stopping. With a trembling hand, he lifts his tricorder, which is still doubling as mirror. Distant light from the SIMs beacon Donahue must have shed during his violent transformation scarcely pierces the darkness. He listens for signs of activity, but he can’t hear anything over his panting. Donahue must be at the bottom of the pit—wounded or worse. Not the fate he deserved, but at least Tony is out of danger.

As he catches his breath and terror yields to fatigue, he permits himself to drop to the deck. He considers shouting after the ensign, but it’s no use… Donahue is either dead or still S’Prenned. “I’m sorry, Josh. I really am,” he says, wiping filth off his tricorder with his filthier sleeve and ending up with a smudged screen. As he selects the navigation program, the sound of someone clawing his way up the vertical corridor threatens to reignite his hyperventilation.

Careful not to make any noise, Tony gets a move on to increase the distance between him and the junction behind him, undeterred by the navigation arrow on his tricorder indicating he’s going in the wrong direction. Slush clings to his hair, skin, and clothes, filling his nose with an acidic stink. His right sock makes a nauseating squishy sound with everything it connects with, be it deck plating or yet another unidentifiable spider body part.

The rattling of his pursuer climbing the corridor shaft ceases abruptly. Before Tony can jump to conclusions, Donahue yells from the intersection, “Get back here!” and recommences pursuit. It is difficult for Tony to rely on his hearing while panting and scuttling, but Donahue seems to be gaining on him.

A shallow pool of thick sludge conceals the floor, deepening as the fleeing lieutenant progresses. Belatedly, he notices the corridor declines at a faint angle. Despite his regained tunnel vision, he discerns rows of tiny rooms to his left and right, their open doors revealing lifeless S’Prenn. Without an angry monster going after him, these living quarters would have intrigued him. Now he just dismisses them. He is already having trouble lifting his tricorder and rifle clear of the sludge.

Entering this corridor was a mistake. The ensign is catching up with him, noisily splashing around while traversing the same slush. Tony will have to make do with the cards he has been dealt, so he presses on, even though the acidic mire has risen to his chin. The lumps in the sludge are the worst, and he has to work hard to keep from freaking out. There is no time to vomit or cry; there is only the need to survive.

His left hand slips and he almost swallows a mouthful of muck. Frantically, he spits out the spiders’ remains and wipes his mouth with his free hand, all the while sustaining his momentum. Then it hits him: his tricorder is gone! Without it, he is lost in this labyrinth of horrors. It must be close by, yet there is no opportunity whatsoever for him to retrieve it. He can already hear Donahue hissing at him, and as far as Tony can see with his flashlight occasionally submerged, the corridor continues to slope downward.

“You know what? Enough of this!” He sets his rifle on a high setting and fires away at the slush, thereby giving the corridor and the tiny residences an unnerving orange hue, as if they’ve been set ablaze. Unable to maintain a steady aim, Tony sweeps an irregular path as his rifle’s phaser beam vaporizes the liquids, leaving singed S’Prenn fragments in its wake. The laws of physics are unavoidable and fresh muck flows in from the far end of the corridor. This is by no means a permanent solution, but he keeps the trigger squeezed and sloshes onward, even though Donahue is also taking advantage of the path Tony clears. As opposed to the lieutenant, he doesn’t seem to be tiring.

Finally, Tony catches a break and detects a gap in the ceiling, a vertical corridor leading to higher decks, which is a welcome change from corridors leading to an endless fall. Grateful for a chance of escaping this passageway from hell, he clambers into the vertical shaft, making sure he rotates his phaser rifle so it points down.

It’s great to have plenty of headroom for once. Intersecting decks provide him with handhold and foothold for his rapid ascent. The pain and hopelessness he felt seconds ago have evaporated as he positions his feet on two adjacent hallways and takes aim with his rifle. The right hallway entrance stinging his shoeless foot doesn’t compromise his determination in the slightest. Roughly eight meters below him, the horizontal corridor he fled is slowly filling with slush. Donahue is audibly wallowing through it, closing in on him, while Tony’s flashlight shines at the intersection like a spotlight failing to locate the lead actor. “Come on, show yourself,” Tony says through his teeth.

Leaning back, his free hand planted on the nearby bulkhead, he tries to calm his breathing. It’s a challenging shot, and accidentally shooting himself in the leg is not going to help, so he aims his lowered rifle at the exact center of the clearing, his biceps twitching with tension.

There he is! At the first sign of movement, Tony pulls the trigger. Pure phaser energy illuminates the area as it travels down the shaft in a split second and vaporizes the sludge directly below. Donahue scampers off while fresh muck gushes in to cover buckled deck plating. Tony has missed his target, but he has made his point.

Being in charge of the situation refuels Tony’s depleted energy reserves. “You didn’t expect that, did you?” he shouts, nearly losing his footing. After a wave of vertigo, he regains his balance and commands himself to stay focused. His enraged colleague makes another loud approach, so Tony steadies his rifle in its downward aim and waits. It’s like shooting spiders in a barrel, he thinks and immediately hates himself for the terrible pun.

Donahue shows his pale face again, his white fangs reflective in the flashlight’s beam, and Tony pulls the trigger, this time striking the pattern enhancers the ensign is carrying. Leaving a trail of sparks, the growling ensign scurries off as if chased by the devil himself. Without further hesitation, Tony climbs up, forbidding himself to fret over how the odds of him getting off this ship have all but vanished now that he has inadvertently damaged the pattern enhancers. After each three-deck ascent, he fires a shot, just to be safe, but Donahue keeps out of sight. He must still be down there, preparing for another assault, infuriated by his target’s defiance.

Fatigue forces its way back into Tony’s system. That and his grimy hands, missing shoe, sodden clothes, and having to hold on to his rifle increases his chances of slipping and falling every second he prolongs his stay in this corridor shaft, so he deactivates his flashlight and dives into the nearest hallway. Crawling on all fours again, he proceeds as quietly as possible. The purple hue at the end of the tunnel is a more than adequate replacement for the false sense of security his flashlight gave him.

Tony is relieved to discover that, after following the purple glow into a left turn, the corridor opens up into an area where he can stand. He takes another left through an almost humanoid-sized doorway and enters a storage room littered with anti-grav units, packing materials, and decaying S’Prenn—a mishmash of black and purple bound by faint light. He should check if they’re really dead; escaping Donahue’s ire will be rendered moot if he winds up S’Prenned himself. He shudders at the thought but realizes checking every nook and cranny is too impractical. As soon as he is convinced his disappearing act fooled his pursuer, going back to look for his tricorder is the next logical step, yet he is already having trouble remembering how he got here. With no other options available, he sits down opposite the doorway and waits, too scared to change his lifted phaser rifle’s setting back to stun.
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