Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter III

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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter III

Postby Alexbright99 » Fri Mar 01, 2019 9:53 pm

Another month, another chapter. As always, it will be released in four bite-sized segments each Friday. Enjoy!

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USS Achilles, lightyears from the S’Prenn wreckage – July 15, 2386 – Stardate 63534.8
To save twenty-eight, eighteen crewmembers died the day before yesterday, nearly five percent of the total crew complement. Four asphyxiated when emergency force fields couldn’t immediately seal a deck-wide hull breach, six burned to death while trapped under debris, and the partial collapse of deck 12 claimed eight lives.

Lieutenant Tony Blue rummages through the XO’s office to pack up his belongings and goes over these morbid details in his mind. Every survivor on this ship knows them by heart, doubly so for the twenty-eight evacuees who owe their lives to their fallen colleagues. Similar to how Tony is collecting his possessions to place them in a cargo container, thereby saying his belated goodbyes to his life as a first officer, crew quarters of the deceased are being emptied, their possessions stored or recycled, depending on the items’ practical or intrinsic value. Soon, it will be as if those brave men and women never existed, as if they never embarked on this Quixotic mission, the same way people mention Emily less with each passing day.

He touches the healed tissue on his face. In days of old, the deep gash running from forehead to cheek would’ve left an impressive scar, but the medical staff did an exemplary job despite the avalanche of patients they have treated during the past forty-eight hours. As opposed to the death tally, statistics regarding the wounded often go ignored; the entire crew sustained injuries in this battle.

There’s no denying it, the XO’s office is a mess, its prominent desk upturned, its bulkheads and carpet stained with burn marks, the adjacent wall terminal blackened and malfunctioning.

Against a bent table leg lies a small, green object. “Oh, hello there,” Tony says. “Long time no see, pal.” It’s a plush frog, a gift from Emily celebrating his one-year anniversary as this ship’s first officer. She had come into his office while he was toiling away at whatever kept him busy back then and surprised him with this replicated toy.

After making sure nobody could possibly be watching, Tony picks up the frog, gives the fluffy amphibian a big hug, and instantly remembers why he had hidden it out of sight. This particular frog comes equipped with motorized arms and a sound synthesizer chip, and it is programmed to do two things when hugged: clench its tiny arms around its new friend in a firm grip one step below a chokehold and proclaim its eternal devotion in a high-pitched voice. “I love you, I love you, I love you! You’re the best!” And just like it did three years ago, it scares the bejesus out of him.

So there Tony stands amid the ruins of his career and family life represented by overthrown furniture and a few scattered personal effects, comforted by an over-affectionate and downright creepy relic of the past. The sheer absurdity of the situation makes him chuckle at first, then laugh out loud to such an extent that he sinks to the floor, caught in the grasp of that silly toy frog, which still carries traces of his wife’s scent. Or is it just his imagination, a desperate ploy to hold on to her memory? He honestly has no idea.

While he sits there in the rubble, holding on to the plush frog for dear life, running his fingers through its soft fabric, he forfeits his constant struggle to stay composed and permits himself to shed a handful of tears. He is grateful for having known Emily, for having been part of her life, grateful for her comforting smile, her unwavering support, her offbeat sense of humor, her continuous attempts to make him a better person, and yes, her ridiculous surprise gifts.

The door chimes and Tony makes no effort to answer it; he cannot free himself from his sad epiphany, wants to relish the moment, despite it being as transient as any other.

The door chimes again and again, eventually breaking him from his self-cast spell. With considerable reluctance, Tony releases himself from the frog and nostalgia’s clutches and sets both aside. He pushes himself off the ground, dries tears with his sleeve, and stumbles for the door. Rubble fragments crunch beneath his soles. He halts shy of the door and clears any lingering emotion from his voice with a hearty cough. “Who is it?”

The executive officer of this starship, who doesn’t appreciate being locked out of her own office.

With the press of a button, Tony opens the entrance and seals his fate.

Commander Erin Crow, scoring a disturbing five out of five scowling stars, brushes past her precursor and homes in on his cargo container. “Haven’t you finished packing yet? How long have you been in here?” She swivels to face the lieutenant, the intensity in her eyes matching the output of a Type XII phaser array. “Your departure is long overdue. Don’t stretch it out further by idling about.”

Reeling from the unannounced switch from grappling with the complexities of grief to having a hotheaded superior waltz in, Tony slips his hands into his pockets and watches as Crow angrily shoves whatever item she can find into the cargo container. She doesn’t seem to have noticed he has been crying; the damaged lighting fixtures might’ve helped in this regard, but let’s not rule out the power of indifference.

It takes her nearly breaking the frame of a family holopicture in half for Tony to intervene. “Just leave that up to me, please.” He walks over and takes the picture from her.

Crow lashes out with a West Coast accent she usually keeps under wraps. “I’m on a tight schedule, Lieutenant, and I need this office asap.”

“Uh, why? This place is a mess.”

“Because it is mine. A first officer should have her own office. My previous office is waiting for you”—she looks around and lets out a frustrated sigh—“in much better shape than this.”

“Then maybe you should return to it.”

Big mistake. She steps in so close he feels the heat of her breath. “It’s bad enough you hogged this position for so many years, and I strongly disagree with the captain’s decision to let you keep your quarters even though I have every right to—” She recoils slightly and narrows her eyes. “Wait, have you been crying?”

Tony refrains from answering.

“You have, haven’t you?” She groans. “Is that what kept you from sticking to my schedule? Geesh, we’re all a little sad sometimes, Lieutenant, and for good reason, but you cannot let personal issues interfere with your duties. You’re a senior officer, for crying out loud!”

“Crying out loud… Really?” Tony mutters.

Her unfortunate choice of words eludes her. “Why don’t you soldier on like the rest of us? Everyone considers you this symbol for loss, sacrifice, heroism. The dauntless Tony Q, trading his godlike powers and immortality for sharing his glorious presence and wisdom with us poor mortals.” Her forehead nearly touches his nose as she continues her reproach. “I am genuinely sorry for you losses, I really am, but you don’t have the market cornered on sacrifice and grief, Lieutenant. We all suffer, and none of us give in to our pain.”

“Which is laudable,” Tony replies in the brief window of opportunity his conversation partner grants him.

“At least you know what happened to your family: when they died, how they died, where they died.”

Though each mention of “they died” hurts like being zapped by a plasma conduit, he lets her vent nonetheless.

“Last I heard of my parents and brothers, they were together in Santa Monica, going about their lives. That was three days before the Altonoids ravaged the surface.” For the first time during this reprimand, she averts her gaze. “I read reports of some people making it out of LA. They could’ve survived, but… let’s be realistic.”

Tony offers her a thoughtful expression. “There’s a chance.”

“How the hell should I know?” She gestures at the family picture in his hands. “Tough as it may be, you get to have closure. You can be certain Emily is never coming back.”

Ouch. He prefers the plasma conduit over this. This conversation has run its course, but the new commander is on a roll.

“I haven’t seen my Arthur in over half a decade. One minute he’s en route with six colleagues to a training colony, the next his shuttle has vanished without a trace. No debris field anywhere near its filed flight path, no signs of spatial anomalies, no nothing. Seven officers gone up in smoke like a cheap magic trick. And believe me, Lieutenant, we searched and searched, for weeks, months even.

“Captain Harriman was not one to give up, and he led our search efforts with undeniable stalwartness, but even he had to call it quits eventually and have us move on with our missions. Because that is what we do.” She pokes his chest with an outstretched index finger. “We suck it up and perform our duties.”

Just as Tony believes—and hopes—the lecture is over, Crow snatches the family portrait from his grip and holds it up, shaking it in anger. “You’re one of the lucky ones. You can stare them in the eyes and find comfort in the finality of it all.” She tosses him the picture. “So quit your moping and get over yourself.”

For a good ten seconds, uneasy silence pervades the room as Crow treats him to a proper death glare. Tony absentmindedly fidgets with the frame’s edges and tries to ignore the stomachache this tirade has summoned. When he speaks up, his voice is calm. “I understand why you are the way you are.”

She crosses her arms and raises her brow.

“If you let grief fester, it becomes something vile: bitterness, Commander. And it will take hold of you, control you like a S’Prenn biting into your brainstem to dictate your every move. You’ll be inseparable, forever at its mercy. You hope distributing your anger to others will dilute the pain. But it never does.”

Her mouth forms a thin line, a cherry-red protest to his viewpoint.

“Tell me,” Tony says, bracing himself for her upcoming reaction. “How do I avoid becoming like you?”

Instead of retaliating with a snarky comeback, she lowers her gaze to the frayed carpet and says, “I wish I knew.” Tony sees in her the same tiredness he saw back in the S’Prenn wreckage’s computer room. She buries her face in her palms for an instant and takes a deep breath. “Listen, it’s been a hectic few days with the ship and its crew being a shambles, and it’s on me to bring order to chaos. I need you to clear out at your earliest convenience, okay?”

“I’ll get right back to it.” He crouches next to the container and adds the family picture to its contents.

“I admit I may have been a bit harsh toward you. I just… I am a little stressed out.”

“Don’t sweat it. I have something here that might soothe your nerves.”

“Oh, that would be very welcome. Thank you.”

“Happy to help,” Tony says as he reaches for the plush frog.

* * *

USS Achilles – July 16, 2386 – Stardate 63537.6

“Aren’t you a beauty?” Lieutenant Commander Jon Terrell says to the incomplete fruit of his labor: a two-foot-high, nine-foot-long wire model of a Galaxy-class Federation starship, constructed from leftover relays, cables, and conduits—stuff that usually gets recycled—given new life by the chief engineer’s favorite creative outlet.

He uses his engineering jumpsuit’s pant legs to wipe the grease from his fingers and clicks a loose phaser charge indicator into the wires representing the main impulse engine. Artworks lie strewn about in his quarters, mostly smaller depictions of familiar spacefaring vessels, some of which displayed in broken vitrines, others placed haphazardly on furniture or the floor, in sight but forgotten, overshadowed by Terrell’s pièce de résistance, his magnum opus in wireframe form: the not-so-mini miniature of the USS Enterprise-D.

It feels right to pay tribute to his early days. He was twenty-two, a naïve ensign, when he accepted his first commission as Starfleet engineer, unaware of the adventures and misadventures he would have on that illustrious flagship and her successor, the Enterprise-E.

However, choosing to sculpt a model starship may not have been his best choice of pastime. With each alteration, each addition of a junked piece of hardware, he reminds himself of the Achilles’ wounded state. Her main warp and impulse engines need a major overhaul; they cannot rely on secondary systems indefinitely. Her warp core has developed moods and an apparent dislike for its reserve batteries. Her weaponry takes more force and patience to hammer back into alignment after each skirmish, as if to rebel against her tormentors and protest against her dwindling torpedo count. Her hull integrity cannot be pushed above seventy-eight percent, no matter how much effort his teams put into restoring its weak spots. One day, the chief engineer fears, the Achilles will be as fragile as one of his sculptures.

His engineering crew is so busy patching up important systems that the ship’s once pristine interior is but a fading memory. This goes double for his quarters. Everything is functional despite appearances, from the exposed LCARS panels stripped of their interfaces to the barebones replicator doubling as a stand for what a sparrow would look like if nature only had isolinear chips at its disposal.

“Luxury is for the lazy,” he says, accustomed to having nobody around to hear his spontaneous insights. Probably for the best. Although being chief engineer demands excellent people skills, he considers solitude to be life’s sweetest blessing. Voluntary solitude, to be precise, in sharp contrast to the loneliness associated with losing a loved one.

Terrell wanders over to his couch, designed by himself during what he has dubbed his ascetic aesthetic period, and lifts the lightweight construction to grab what it conceals: a wireframe heart, twice the size of a human one, torn in two but held together by near-invisible strings. It was supposed to be a gift for Tony, and he had begun working on it the day after Emily Blue perished. He had completed it in two days flat, if only to cope with how powerless he felt on the Altonoid wreck, unable to quell the then-commander’s despair, and on the bridge, with Tony’s desperate pleas falling on deaf ears.

As Terrell holds up the seemingly broken heart and lets his quarters’ scarce lighting dance on its intricate metal pattern, he ponders how embarrassing it must’ve been had he given this pitiful attempt at handling these multifaceted emotions to the grieving young man. “So sorry for your loss,” he says to thin air. “Lost all you held dear, did ya? Here’s a symbolic piece of junk to brighten your mood!” Terrell chuckles to himself as he picks up the isolinear sparrow from the replicator pad and throws it across the room with a flick of the wrist. It doesn’t quite fly as efficiently as the real thing and it crash-lands on his sofa.

He places the broken heart on the replicator pad, or the Pedestal of the Damned, as he calls it. The procedure goes as follows: once he has gathered the courage (this could take weeks), he’ll initiate the replicator’s Kill Your Darlings protocol, which happens to have the exact same effect as saying “recycle,” namely immediate dematerialization, usually reserved for disposal of dirty dishes and table scraps. Each work of art is meant to be devoured by oblivion; this device simply speeds up the process.

Favoring practicality over sentimentality, Terrell had redirected his creativity to what became the cloaking trick, which ended up saving the away teams, the majority of which consisted of his engineers. The tradeoff, however, came at a steep cost: four of his engineers died on the Achilles during the ensuing battle.

Terrell deigns the broken heart another look. Despite its deceptively fragile appearance, it has withstood the harshest of circumstances, including lying abandoned under a couch during a devastating attack. It has maintained its shape.

That’s got to be worth something.
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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter IIIb

Postby Alexbright99 » Fri Mar 08, 2019 8:32 pm

USS Achilles – July 16, 2386 – Stardate 63537.8
Captain Stephan Rinckes stands alone, surrounded by eighteen torpedo casings, ordered in three groups of six, each one draped across with a Federation flag. In them lie the men and women who did not survive his latest command decision. The dead do not assign blame; that’s a privilege exclusive to the living, and the captain does so on their behalf while adopting their stone-cold silence as his own. The vastness of the main cargo bay should serve to mask the tragedy’s extent, but all it does is humble the captain even further as he meanders through the rows and inspects each casket in a futile display of paying respects. Paying respects… for whose sake? Who is watching other than himself?

Part of him wishes he could join their ranks, occupy a nineteenth casing. Not out of envy or some sort of death wish, but to be relieved of the burden stacking up, brick by brick, of people he let down and who paid the ultimate price for it. His actions and inactions have extensive consequences, and he is the one to carry the sum of all responsibilities and their repercussions. Had he chosen differently, he would’ve found himself in the exact same cargo bay on a ship with less damage, sans the bodies and torpedo casings, preparing to eulogize twenty-eight souls who vaporized along with their shuttles.

He steps onto to the platform overlooking the casings and the rows of seats filling the rest of the cargo bay. Soon, he will spout inspirational platitudes Starfleet and naval captains have uttered for generations, honoring those who died similar meaningless deaths. All the while, he will think back to that one particular moment, post-battle, when he turned around and saw his captain’s chair impaled.

If this, if that, it doesn’t matter. He is still here. By pure chance, he evaded bestowing Erin Crow with the cross only he was meant to bear.

* * *

Lieutenant Kels values punctuality, yet she arrives at the well-attended funeral service thirty seconds late. A security officer attempts to guide her to a front-row seat reserved for senior officers, but she politely refuses and searches for a place to sit in the back. She spots one off to the right, smackdab in the middle of the last row. The attendees pay her no attention as she mutters apologies and sidles to the empty seat; they are listening to Commander Erin Crow’s solemn opening words.

To Kels’ relief, from her vantage point, the torpedo casings beneath the elevated platform remain hidden from view. She’s here for the speech, or so she tells herself. The idea that the maimed bodies of eighteen former crewmembers, people she worked with and greeted in the hallways, lie encased in them is unsettling enough.

After a respectful introduction from his first officer, Captain Stephan Rinckes takes center stage. The size of this venue diminishes his imposing stature to a degree, but he appears strapping nonetheless. By nature, Andorians are a militaristic race, and Kels appreciates a commanding officer who has physical presence in abundance.

The captain’s voice reverberates through the cargo bay. “We have been out here for a substantial amount of time. Driven from our homes, cut off from our friends and family, we have come to depend on one another, here, on our starship Achilles. We celebrate our victories, we look out for each other, cooperate to accomplish our goals, and yes, when we are harshly reminded of the dangers, as we are today… we band together and honor those who have laid down their lives for us.”

The captain is a fine public speaker, favoring projection and artful pauses over excessive modulation, keeping the audience transfixed while listing the names of those who lie beneath the platform. It’s hardly the opportune moment for it, but Kels can’t help but admire his oratory skills.

“Countless men, women, and children, who are waiting behind the Klingon border, who share our fate of being outcasts, rely on the successful completion of our mission, a mission requiring sacrifice, a sacrifice… we know too well. Let us never forget those whose courage led them to relinquish their safety for the greater good, for a chance to make a difference, a chance to reclaim our worlds.”

Kels finds it jarring to hear her captain stringing together sentences other than the terse pairing of grumbled syllables. Judging by his stern demeanor on the bridge, where efficiency is key, she never would have guessed his still waters ran this deep.

“We live in a universe in which the Federation’s principles of peace and exploration are trodden on. When acts of violence bereave us of our loved ones, it is natural to crave vengeance. But that is not why we’re out here. If we were to exact revenge for the billions we have lost, how would we go about it? No, really, how would we accomplish such a feat? Kill every Altonoid we encounter? Poison their worlds, slaughter their inhabitants, soldier or citizen alike? Become like them?”

One could hear a pin drop.

“No! That is not who we are! That is not what these eighteen fine men and women died for. We are here to drive the Altonoids from our homes, phasers blazing if and only if we have exhausted every other avenue. And as we’ve learned recently, we must liberate the S’Prenn from their appalling mistreatment by the Altonoids, their slavery. We embrace strange new life instead of abusing them for our own gains, something the Altonoids do not understand—yet.”

Rinckes extends both arms. “It’s something our deceased friends and colleagues understood fully, something they lived and died by, something so many of our own have lived and died by throughout the Federation’s bicentennial existence. They form a long line of honorable people from all races and walks of life, who cherished and upheld a firm belief in interspecies cooperation and its benefits, how it taught us to learn from each other.”

The captain pauses for a good five seconds to allow his words to sink in. “Let us never forget these eighteen people who are ready for their final voyage among the stars. And let us never forget those whose bodies we couldn’t recover, who cannot be granted a proper space burial.” Rinckes bows his head in respect to someone in the first row. Kels’ skin tingles as she realizes that has to be Tony Blue. Muffled gasps betray others share her surprise. What a kind but potentially controversial gesture. She is unsure what to make of it.

Rinckes continues as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened. “Most of all, let us honor them by keeping them in our thoughts while we go above and beyond the call of duty each and every day, to fulfill our mission… so we will once again have a place to call home.”

An uneasy silence builds into a standing ovation, and Rinckes hurries offstage to make way for an ensign readying an electronic boatswain’s whistle. Once the applause has dwindled, the ensign bids the departed an official farewell. Commander Crow then ends the ceremony with a few closing remarks, to which Kels doesn’t listen, because she is mulling over the implications of Rinckes’ speech, especially the surprising nod to Ted and Emily’s demise. One thing is certain: hard times lie ahead for the valiant crew of the Achilles, a crew that has found itself in a long-term battle of attrition.

* * *

The funeral service alternated between crushing and lifting Lieutenant Ernest Baxter’s spirits. As he steps out of the cargo bay and into a corridor, conflicting emotions grab him by the throat. The service ended nine minutes ago, but he chose to tarry instead of making a hasty exit—perhaps in the hopes of running into Lieutenant Kels, even though having a conversation partner as beautiful as her usually entails tripping over his tongue and struggling to remember his name. She had already left.

Compelled to visit each individual torpedo casing, Baxter had read the names engraved on them and whispered his goodbyes. Sadness and confusion overspread the cargo bay, stifled the air, yet a small group of brave souls remained in order to deal with their sorrow head-on. It reminded him so much of the hopelessness on Starbase 43 while their homeworlds burned. That was where he first met Tony, helped him find his wife in the chaos—eons ago.

He enters a turbolift. “Holodeck 2.” It jostles into motion with a shudder and a brief dimming of the lights. Nothing to worry about, Terrell had assured him; damage to the turbolift system may result in a bumpy ride, but its safety features checked out okay. Compensating its lack of comfort with practicality, the lift takes him to his destination: a corridor leading to the correct holodeck. Fortunately, holodecks are embedded deep within the ship and have a separate power source, so they haven’t been affected too much by the countless battles.

A quick inspection of the LCARS panel beside the holodeck’s entrance confirms its program is already running. The doors slide open to reveal a complex interaction of photons and force fields recreating an early-21st-century Earth café rife with holographic patrons. The chief helmsman enters the holodeck and the doors close behind him and disappear into the simulation, completing the illusion of entering a different realm. Everything down to the last detail, from the smell of sweat and beer to the numerous records hanging on the walls, is painstakingly accurate. Baxter saw to it himself when he designed the program.

Here it is forever midnight. The outside darkness does the crimson and sapphire lighting justice as the period-correct Robert Cray Band jams into the night from a corner dedicated to the finest guest musicians. At the bar sits the only other flesh-and-blood person, Lieutenant Tony Blue, hunched over his synthehol approximation of a fine whiskey. Meanwhile, the Robert Cray Band breaks into an expert rendition of “What Would You Say.”

Baxter mounts the stool next to the chief tactical officer and signals the barkeeper to bring him a refreshment. “So, Tony, seems like you beat me to it.”

“Made a beeline for this bar as soon as the boatswain’s whistle sounded.” Tony takes a sip of whiskey. “For what it’s worth, asking me to meet you here after the service was one of your better ideas.”

Baxter raises the glass of liqueur the bartender has served him. “I’ll drink to that.”

Tony looks around. “I’ll admit this is a much better setting to relax in than most of our lounges nowadays. Smashed to bits, the whole lot of them. Lounge Delta even had its exterior windows broken and lost its furniture in an explosive decompression.”

“Luckily, nobody’s doing any lounging during red alert.”

This elicits a soft chuckle from Tony. In the background, Robert Cray lets loose on his sunburst Fender Stratocaster, mouthing and singing the corresponding notes as he exalts his solo to bluesy perfection.

“So, what did you make of the service?” Baxter asks, trying to sound matter-of-factly despite the heavy subject matter.

“Appropriate, I guess. I just can’t get used to him opening his trap for more than three consecutive sentences, putting his hypocrisy on display with an elaborate speech that was no doubt meant to be inspirational.”

This rapid and brutally honest response nearly causes a sip of liqueur to enter Baxter’s lungs instead of his stomach. Forced to set down his drink, he is treated to the sensation of synthehol burning the inside of his nostrils, which doesn’t prevent him from giggling and saying, “No, tell me what you really think.”

Tony fails to hold back a smirk. “Yeah, I surprised myself too there. I wish I could say these things to the captain’s face. Truth be told, I do, but it’s always an imaginary captain I scold.” He takes another modest sip of whiskey and savors its taste. “Man, the things I’ve told imaginary Captain Rinckes. I love telling him off.”

“And what will you tell faux captain about his alluding to Ted and Emily’s fate in his speech?”

Tony’s gaze drifts off and his smile fades as he considers his reply. Robert Cray is singing apt lyrics in the background, broaching the subject of ending all wars and getting along for a change—a sentiment recorded almost four centuries ago, as fitting now as it was back then. “You know what, Ernest?” Tony says at long last. “I would say, ‘What the bloody hell were you thinking?’” He sighs deeply. “And then I’d say… ‘Thank you, for acknowledging them, at least. It’s a start.’”

As Tony gently shakes his glass to jangle the ice cubes in it, Baxter finds himself speechless for a few seconds. “I, uh…”

“Go ahead. You can speak freely. We have the same rank.”

“I wonder what your speech would’ve been like had you been the captain.”

Tony grumbles. “Don’t talk like that.”

“I’ve no doubt you would’ve done the same, back at the S’Prenn wreck, put it all on the line to save the twenty-eight. You would’ve held the speech, and it would’ve been… less hollow. You’ve given so much for the success of this mission, for the Federation.”

“I’d have to live with eighteen deaths on my conscience.” Tony’s stare bores its way into Baxter’s skull. “Trust me, I don’t envy him.” He lets out another deep sigh. “I envy Lieutenant Surtak and his surefire methods for putting a lid on the strongest of emotions.”

“Tony, some of us would like nothing more than to have you lead—”

“Surtak has the ability to do his job and do it well, without being sidetracked by what life throws at him. Perhaps we should’ve sent a ship full of Vulcans on this mission.”

Lieutenant Jeremy Gibbs seats himself next to Tony and Baxter and taps a fingernail against Tony’s glass. “Hot damn! There has to be real alcohol in there for you to say that!”

Baxter had nearly forgotten he invited the security chief over too. Being a pilot, he is quick to adapt. “Welcome to Baxter’s, the finest blues bar in town.”

“Eh, more of a jazz guy,” Gibbs says as he orders a beer by lifting an index finger. “Anyway, I’m here now, so you owe me a try at my favorite martial arts training program.” While Baxter tries to come up with a polite declination, Gibbs pats Tony on the shoulder and says, “What a nice thing of the captain to do, bowing his head to you and everything. It seems we’ve led the captain on the road to redemption. I’m telling you, that icy heart of his is thawing.”

Baxter can’t resist putting in his two cents. “Maybe. He’s no Captain Harriman, that’s for sure.” Before Gibbs can mitigate his statement, Baxter adds, “Keith Harriman would never have ordered me to abandon two crewmembers.”

“I never took you for being the resentful type, Ernest,” Gibbs says as the bartender hands him a beer. “It doesn’t suit you. I’m not saying you’re wrong, though. Harriman was a class act.”

Baxter nods. “A captain who actually cared for his crew, who never lost sight of an individual’s value, who was part of a rare breed of commanding officers who can be a leader and a friend.”

Gibbs raises his half-full glass. “To Captain Harriman.”

“To Captain Harriman,” the chief helmsman echoes. Only then does he notice Tony has been quiet ever since Gibbs arrived; the young man is staring into his whiskey glass the way he tends to stare out of windows.

It’s as if Tony senses he is expected to speak up. “Rinckes is a pragmatist, erring on the side of caution.” He finishes his whiskey in one swig. “Memories of my Q days have grown vague, but I’ll never forget my visit to the Saratoga with my dear friend Captain Mathieu Duvivier, may he rest in peace, when we travelled to the year 2367, to the battle of Wolf 359.”

Baxter and Gibbs listen to him slack-jawed. He hardly ever shares stories concerning his former life as a member of the Q Continuum.

“I gave us temporary non-corporeal forms in order to preserve the timeline. I wanted to teach him about the Borg, warn him of an impending invasion. He ended up hating Rinckes’ guts for the remainder of his life. You see, Mathieu’s mother, Sandra, was the Saratoga’s chief medical officer. The Borg crippled the ship, the computer began counting down to an imminent warp core breach, and its crew and passengers fled to the escape pods.”

The band keeps playing, but even the barkeeper and nearby patrons are eavesdropping on the lieutenant.

“Sandra was the heroic type, the kind of woman who puts others’ wellbeing before her own. It’s why she became a doctor. She could’ve made it out alive if she hadn’t stopped to help an injured man. In the chaos, she got separated from her patient, so she resumed her way to the escape pods, which were filling up with scared officers and civilians. You know who else was there?”

Nobody answers.

“Lieutenant Commander Stephan Rinckes—Saratoga’s old security chief—was on a two-week visit to streamline their security division. A fool’s errand, in hindsight. Nine days in, the Saratoga was ordered to engage the Borg cube headed for Earth and suffered critical damage. Rinckes was one of the first to arrive at an escape pod. Its pilots had discovered a malfunction: the doors had to be closed manually. So he assumed command of the pod and began guiding people in from the starboard side entrance. The computer announced there were ten seconds left before warp core containment failure.”

Baxter can already guess how the story ends.

“Like I said, had Doctor Duvivier hurried to the escape pod in favor of assisting the wounded man…” He lets out a long breath. “Commander Rinckes locked eyes with her as she ran toward him from the other end of the corridor. He whispered ‘sorry’ and closed the door.”

“Tough call to make,” Gibbs says in a somber voice.

“Mathieu and I witnessed the whole ordeal. I… I shouldn’t have put him through that. I was so blinded by my powers I’d become oblivious to the pain of others.”

Baxter wants to say something comforting, but words elude him.

“Thing is,” Tony continues, “while we stood there watching Doctor Duvivier sag to her knees in defeat, the three of us waiting for the inevitable explosion that would tear the Saratoga apart, we realized it took quite a while. Six seconds, to be exact.”

“She could’ve made it,” Baxter says.

“Yeah.” Tony bites his lower lip and fondles the wedding ring he’s still wearing. “But Rinckes… errs on the side of caution.”
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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter IIIc

Postby Alexbright99 » Fri Mar 15, 2019 9:36 pm

USS Achilles – July 18, 2386 – Stardate 63541.7
Doctor Chris Kingsley waves hello as Captain Stephan Rinckes enters the observation lounge behind the bridge. The rest of the senior staff has been present here for a good minute, with the exception of Jon Terrell, who is in command of the Achilles for the duration of this meeting, having already been briefed. Kingsley was the first to arrive, unwilling to delay this assembly any further. While his colleagues trickled into the lounge, he admired the view offered by the huge windows overlooking the ship’s stern, a far more interesting spectacle than the wide computer terminal on the opposite bulkhead.

Kingsley taps his feet incessantly, a nervous habit hidden by the large table separating the attendants. Captain Rinckes takes a seat at the head of the table, to the doctor’s left. Lieutenant Tony Blue sits at the opposite head of the table, flanked by Lieutenants Jeremy Gibbs and Ernest Baxter. Across from the doctor sits Commander Erin Crow, sporting her usual grim expression. Lieutenants Kels and Surtak form their own little Neutral Zone in the middle.

“Welcome everyone,” Crow says. “The objective of this meeting is to apprise the senior staff of our investigations’ results. Thanks to our hard work, we have broadened our understanding considerably, so pay attention.”

It takes Kingsley all the willpower in the galaxy to keep from pointing out the redundancy of that last notion.

“Thank you, Commander,” Rinckes says. “Our expanding knowledge of S’Prenn biology and technology combined with cross-referencing the S’Prenn and Altonoid databases has led us to some interesting conclusions.”

Crow is poised on the edge of her seat. “This information will be made available to all personnel. You are free to discuss this with your department at your discretion.”

The captain turns toward Kingsley. Finally! “Could you fill us in on your findings regarding S’Prenn physiology?”

Like an actor rearing to go when the curtain raises, Kingsley jumps at the chance to share his insights. “The S’Prenn are indeed extradimensional visitors from another universe. I’ve confirmed that a S’Prenn’s brain functions as a quantum computer, capable of adapting mind and body to whichever universe they choose to reside in. This also enables them to attune to a limitless variety of nervous systems in order to highjack their hosts. It’s riveting stuff, really.”

“It is,” Kels says, having received a glance of approval from the captain. “They travel to other universes by cultivating biological portals. The mysterious nebula that formed next to Station A-12? One of their portals. The Altonoids misused its properties to develop a bioweapon based on their earlier experiments on the S’Prenn.”

Surtak raises an eyebrow. “The S’Prenn database mentions that creating such a portal necessitates an irreversible growth period, usually lasting over a year. Therefore, great care is required when initiating such a process.”

“True,” Kels says, “Growing a portal near A-12 was meant to improve diplomatic ties with the Federation. They intended to use A-12 as an outpost to solidify our alliance and protect us from the Altonoids.” Her antennae droop subtly. “Quite a step for them, because other portals have been carefully hidden. This was a significant gesture of trust. An irrevocable one.”

A heavy silence befalls the lounge.

Tony, from the other side of the table, speaks up for the first time in this meeting. “They couldn’t have known Station A-12 would fall.” Gibbs and Baxter nod their agreement.

Rinckes meets Tony’s gaze. “According to the logs we deciphered, the S’Prenn were planning to retake Station A-12 once the portal was fully formed.”

“They underestimated their enemy,” Tony says.

“The costliest of mistakes. They believed one vessel would do the trick, and justifiably so, but it never came back. So they sent another, then a small squadron, then a fleet. When the lost ships returned, filled with subjugated S’Prenn hellbent on spreading the bioweapon, the Altonoids had them by the throat before they realized what hit them.”

Kingsley summons a cheerless smile. “Sad as it may be, does anyone else appreciate the irony of the S’Prenn falling victim to their own specialty: mind control?”

Tony dares to answer that loaded question. “I think I speak for everyone here when I say, ‘No, not really.’ Taking over an individual is one thing, taking over an entire race to have them bow to your will and betray their allies is a whole different level of moral depravity.”

Crow scoffs. “You don’t speak for everyone, Lieutenant. Don’t trivialize an individual’s worth to get your point across. Your encounter with that dying S’Prenn may have clouded your judgment.”

Tony pulls back slightly, his mouth contorted in a grimace. Baxter comes to the rescue, saying, “That dying S’Prenn had a name: Kronn. His friends and family melted before his eyes because of the Altonoids’ bioweapon.”

Gibbs cuts in. “Let us not forget the prime reason for the S’Prenn’s suffering. They wanted to help us.”

“You said it.” Tony all but slams his fist on the table. “And what did they ever ask from us in return? What did they stand to gain? Not a heck of a lot. They helped us anyway. Why? Because they saw something in us that made them care.”

Kels rallies to his cause. “If that’s not the extension of unconditional friendship, if that doesn’t align with Federation ideals…”

“The S’Prenn are like us in many ways,” Gibbs says.

“We shouldn’t speak ill of them,” Baxter adds.

“I stand corrected,” Kingsley says to keep the meeting from derailing further, though he cannot resist putting his hands up to satisfy his theatric flair. “Now that I have the floor again, I’d like to discuss another important discovery. The mind-controlling bioweapon was used in excessive quantities to cripple the S’Prenn wreckage and melt every soul on board. It’s the same compound. In relatively small dosages, up to 1 cc, it renders its victim susceptible to brainwashing; higher dosages result in permanent brain damage. The higher the dosage, the worse the effects, as one might expect. Above dosages of 3 cc, the subject goes absolutely haywire. Above 4 cc, internal organs begin to melt; above 5 cc, its exoskeleton joins in.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask…” Tony says. “How was this information acquired?”

“S’Prenn wreck’s database. They paid with their lives to steal this information from the Altonoid medical facility they fled.”

“I’m sorry, Doctor. That doesn’t entirely answer my question.”

“Do you want me to say it out loud? Fine, we’re all adults here… The Altonoids learned this through the joys of extensive experimentation on live subjects. They have dozens of these facilities spread throughout their territory.”

“Their main facility,” Rinckes says, “appears to be Station A-12.”

Tony grunts. “Because of its convenient location.”

“Correct,” Surtak says. “Station A-12 is their primary medical research base. It has been refitted and heavily fortified. In addition to its upgraded defenses and weaponry, a fleet of Altonoid warships has been assigned to guard it.”

“Paranoid as they are,” Crow says, “a sphere of detection sentries surrounds the area, robbing us of the chance to sneak in under cloak.”

“In addition,” Surtak says, “we have found ample evidence of the cure’s existence. The cure that the dying S’Prenn…”—he bows his head in respect—“Kronn informed us about has a strong possibility of being on Station A-12, rendering such a base an alluring target. However, given the unacceptable risk involved in such an endeavor, I recommend we start by investigating smaller facilities, for which we now possess new leads.”

“I agree, Surtak,” Rinckes says. “As of now, this is our top priority.” He pushes away from the table and rises to his feet. “That will be all.”

Not quite yet. Kingsley has a final warning in store for them. “Investigating those installations won’t be for the fainthearted. Perhaps we could create a holodeck program to prepare for these missions.”

“See to it. Dismissed.”

As the lounge clears, Kingsley begins humming to himself in delight while contemplating the horrors he can invoke for the poor bastards who’ll use this training program.
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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter IIId

Postby Alexbright99 » Fri Mar 22, 2019 9:12 pm

USS Achilles – July 22, 2386 – Stardate 63552.2
Oh, he has done it now. Tony hasn’t mustered the courage yet to ask the computer what time it is, but the six o’clock alarm going off is nothing but a distant memory. Even after over a month of widowhood, he still clutches the fitted sheet next to him upon awakening, confused by how that side of the mattress is empty, only for sorrow to emerge from his drowsy subconscious and gnaw at him.

Any minute, the combadge on his nightstand will channel an angry voice asking him what the hell is keeping him. Instead of getting up, suiting up, and rushing to the nearest turbolift, he opts to stare at the ceiling. Trouble awaits on the bridge, so he might as well savor the moment and grant himself the illusion of choice when it comes to fending off the paralyzing somberness that glues him to his bed. You’d expect grief to become bearable as the passage of time dulls its fangs, but it’s worsening, not improving—an endless cresting of a summit obscured by storm clouds.

Something is amiss, though. A creeping sense of worry allows him to escape despair’s claws and sit up straight. As he looks around to find what’s wrong with this scene, a sudden realization dawns on him: his quarters are dead quiet. The perpetual background noise of activated engines and subsystems is missing. “Computer, lights. Computer?” No response. “Computer, what’s our status?”

Unease rids him of residual fatigue as he rolls out of bed and investigates his dark quarters as a pajama-clad explorer. Has the power gone offline? He attaches his combadge to his chest and presses it to no effect. Even the combadges are down. Could this be a catastrophic ship-wide energy drain? His heart flutters and his mouth goes from dry to parched as he hurries to the window, pulls aside the curtains, and sees the familiar streaks of stardust indicative of warp travel… frozen in place.

Tony shuts and opens his eyes five times in a row while staring at the impossible. He must be dreaming, but… he is wide awake, no question about it. Dizzy with surprise, he stumbles to a nearby seat and continues gawking from there.

Someone hands him an extra-large cup of coffee and says in a cheerful voice, “Here you go, Mister Blue.”

“T-t-thanks.” Tony frees his gaze from the motionless streaks defying the laws of physics. Beside him stands a middle-aged man wearing an old-fashioned barista outfit, complete with brown apron and oversized bowtie. Tony gasps. “Q?”

“Who else could it be?” Q replies, brandishing the smuggest of smiles. “I took the liberty of freezing time for you at precisely one minute past six in the morning. How kind of me.” While Tony sets down the steaming cup of coffee, Q saunters about the room, taking in every detail. “So this is your habitat? What a dreary place.” He scratches at a charred stain on the far bulkhead. “Though I must admit battle damage gives it a nice finish.”

Tony droops his shoulders and wishes he could fade into the darkness of his quarters, anything to avoid having Q see him like this. “Q, why are you here?”

“To check in on my favorite disappointment.”

“Oh.”

Q starts toying with a gilded starship model he has grabbed from a shelf. “You really need to work on that gratitude, young man. I saved you from a lecture on tardiness from Captain Joyless or Commander… What’s her name? Vulture?” He shudders as he mentions her, then wills the starship model to fly back to its cabinet. “News flash: your career is all you have left. I suggest you hold on to it.” With a snap of his fingers, he changes into a Starfleet captain’s uniform. Mimicking the brisk stride of a flag officer inspecting his subordinates, he walks over to Tony. “Stand at attention, officer.”

Averting his gaze, Tony slowly gets to his feet.

Q plucks at Tony’s pajamas. “Oh, mister, this won’t do.” He snaps his fingers again. In an instant, Tony’s hair is groomed, his stubble gone, his nightwear replaced by his standard-issue uniform. “Hmm, there’s a rank pip missing on your collar. What happened to your whole ‘Commander Tony Q, Starfleet messiah’ shtick?”

“Please… just leave me alone.”

Tony’s glum demeanor curtails Q’s feigned enthusiasm. “Aw, what’s that now? Living amongst ungrateful mortals isn’t how the brochure described? You expected them to hoist you onto a pedestal and worship your every sacrifice? You gave up all you held dear in a pointless effort to offer assistance and they… they make you wear…” He sticks out his tongue in disgust. “Yellow?”

“We call it gold.”

“I call it a crime against good taste.”

“It’s been years since I last saw you. Why do you show up when I’m at my lowest?”

A flicker of malice crosses Q’s expression. “You’re always at your lowest.” A third snap of his fingers dissolves Tony’s world in a bright flash.

* * *

Beneath a purple sky, thick waves of liquid mercury roll onto a black beach, shone upon by four blood-red suns in different stages of sunset and sunrise. Spanning the distance from ocean to upper atmosphere, cloud columns rise up from the silver sea. A planet this hostile would normally provide anyone without protective gear a swift death, but shielding a frail human from these lethal conditions is child’s play for a Q. In fact, Tony Blue’s senses interpret the inhospitable environment as a pleasant spring day at the Californian seashore, right down to the breeze carrying a typical brackish scent.

While Tony marvels at the gorgeous panorama, Q stands by his side. His former mentor doesn’t allow him to stare in awe for too long. “This used to be your backyard, remember?”

As often, regret brings even the most overwhelming sense of beauty to its knees. “I have forgotten so much about that life.”

“Let me refresh your Swiss-cheese memory.” Q spreads his arms in a grandiose but redundant gesture, and among the billowing columns, a vast screen appears to show a highlight reel of Tony’s life as a Q.

Too perplexed to object, Tony watches his life unfold in this unsolicited clip show. Though his physical appearance hasn’t changed much since those days, he barely recognizes this arrogant teenager wielding limitless power. Painful as it may be, he cannot pull himself away from the translucent video offset by the splendor of an alien world outside his feeble reach. Tony Q was the definition of freedom, an impressionable teen who had the universe as his playground, a far cry from the sad man he sees in the mirror nowadays. To pour salt into the wound, the reel displays heroics from his hybrid days, the transitional period between his being human and becoming Q: saving the Kennedy from Altonoids, insane S’Prenn, the Borg, etcetera, back when he was permitted to meddle with Starfleet affairs and his interventions weren’t met with hostility and fear by the higher-ups in the Q Continuum.

He watches himself cooperating with close friends, all of whom he had to lose. As the images in the sky linger on Tony Q sitting in the Kennedy’s XO’s chair, exchanging jokes with the bridge crew, Captain Duvivier doubling over in laughter, unaware of fate’s cruelty, his patience for Q’s parlor tricks snaps in half. “Enough! I’m past feeling sorry for myself. I made choices; they had consequences. If you feel compelled to rub that in once every few years, then I suggest you go find a more productive hobby. Yes, I am weak. Yes, I didn’t live up to my potential. No need to tap into my flimsy brain and visualize…”

His rant trails off as his first Borg encounter appears in the sky, larger than life. Thirteen-year-old Tony hides in a maintenance alcove, whimpering to himself, the corridors lit by red lasers emanating from Borg eyepieces.

The ethereal video rewinds itself to an earlier moment: Lieutenant Ralph Blue, so much younger than Tony remembers him, clenching Tony’s hand while desperately trying to protect him from the relentless Borg and sprinting through a smoke-filled corridor until a tactical drone shoots him in the chest, causing him to slump to the floor mid-run, his hand slipping from his son’s. Tony, just a child, screams for his father, believing him dead, as drones close in on both sides. Backing away from his unresponsive dad, who would soon join the ranks of cybernetic drones by way of forcible assimilation, he covers his ears to drown out the Borg’s monotonous threats and spins around, searching for an escape route. Shaking all over, he spots an open maintenance hatch and dives through it…

…only to arrive as a twenty-year-old at the rubble of a collapsed apartment complex, digging through heaps of debris, finding his dead father and being unable to hold his hand because it is too mangled.

“Please,” Tony begs as tears hit the black sand beneath his feet and evaporate with a sizzle. “No more.”

Q raises his palms. “Don’t look at me. I surrendered control over these images to you as soon as I created the screen.”

Overhead, alien weaponry reduces starships to fiery wrecks, unstoppable enemies slaughter officers and civilians, brainwashed S’Prenn scuttle through corridors in search of victims to maim or control, high-risers topple, cities burn—all of it flashes by in quick succession. It’s too much. Tony can hardly breathe as he fights the disturbing imagery.

“Come on. Can’t you handle even the tiniest sliver of power? Focus!”

Tony closes his eyes in self-protection, but now the depictions of violence are displayed on the inside of his eyelids. “Why all this destruction?” he asks, reopening his eyes. The footage changes to him firing his trusty phaser rifle at Altonoid soldiers, using Q powers to annihilate opponents, ordering weapon strikes on enemy vessels from his first officer’s chair, tearing warships apart from his tactical station. Each act of violence thickens his throat further. He wishes he could put a stop to his actions, stop being this madman, this agent of death.

Those in his gunsights, those he had to leave behind, those he couldn’t protect bring him to one particular image: him aiming a handphaser at Captain Rinckes, who is staring him down, challenging him. It’s set to stun, so why not fire? With all his heart, Tony wills his duplicate up in the clouds to fire, but the handphaser falls to the floor like it always does. This scene keeps repeating itself until its scenery undergoes a gradual transformation to a burning street in San Francisco, Foora-class fighters screeching through a green sky, and Captain Rinckes lying on his back in an Altonoid uniform, reaching for his phaser. Tony’s handphaser morphs into a phaser rifle set to kill, and he squeezes the trigger. With a nauseating thud, the phaser blast hits the captain. Rinckes lies dead on the pavement, staring at the battle-filled sky, a smoking phaser wound in his chest. All the real Tony can do is watch these abstract events unfold.

“Now why would you kill a man to save yourself,” Q says, “but not stun a man to save your wife?”

Up above, memories of Emily pass by. In this instance, his recollection prefers the mundane to the profound: sitting curled together on the couch in their bungalow, enjoying a meal in blissful silence, stargazing in Dad’s garden, slow dancing to old music in their quarters. Q’s harsh question and these memories gone bittersweet should upset him, but instead, he relishes the warm feeling he gets from this reminder of the mutual devotion she brought into his life. There may be a plethora of ways to justify his deeds and the paradoxical nature of what he has become, but they all fall short, so he says, “I wish I knew.”

“That’s it? That’s all you have to say for yourself?”

“Yeah.” Framed by a quartet of suns, Emily smiles at him, playful twinkle in her eyes, reassuring him without uttering a word. “For all I have lost, for all the mistakes I’ve made, for all the injustice I might have endured, I got to be with her for as long as it lasted. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything the Continuum ever offered me.”

Q huffs at him. “I brought you here to discuss your hypocrisy and lack of discipline, and you defend yourself with this treacly nonsense? You’ve grown soft.”

“Yes, I have.” Tony straightens his back and walks off. “Deal with it.”

It’s as if he has slapped Q in the face. “Deal with it? Where are you going?”

The screen repositions itself to hover above the faraway ridge dividing the horizon into black and purple. It doesn’t matter that it follows him wherever he casts his gaze; seeing Emily invigorates him. “All that violence,” he says. “It’s not to protect myself. It’s to protect those I care about.” Ahead begins a memory of Tony and Emily having a lively conversation with colleagues and friends in the mess hall. “And that’s not as small as protecting one person—no matter how precious to me—and not as large as defending humanity. I have to be there for those who are alive with me. I cannot save everyone. I cannot even save myself. But I’ll give it my damnedest. Every day.”

“Stop and face me!” Q demands, his booming voice quaking the ground.

Undeterred by Q’s histrionics, Tony marches on. “After all, I’m only human.” He doesn’t bother looking back to see Q no doubt fuming in anger. No, he focuses on the screen above the ridge. On it, Ralph Blue tucks in five-year-old Tony, plants a kiss on his forehead, and says, “Goodnight, son.”

* * *

As if having stepped through an invisible doorway, Tony, still in uniform, returns to his quarters in an instant—a final courtesy from Q. The gentle hum of active warp engines and ship systems confirms he is once again in temporal synch with the universe. Partly hidden by the curtains, spears of iridescent stardust zoom by, as they should. “Computer, what is the current time?”

0601 hours.”

Plenty of opportunity to prepare for his shift, but Tony has other plans. “Locate Captain Rinckes.”

Captain Rinckes is in his ready room.”

Tony storms out of his gloomy quarters and heads for the nearest turbolift to settle this once and for all.

=========================================================================================================================================================================

Chapter IV will be released on Friday, April 5th.
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