Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter IV

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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter IV

Postby Alexbright99 » Fri Apr 05, 2019 9:15 pm

Hi there, dear readers! I have a brand-new chapter for you, which will be uploaded in four segments. Let's kick off with the first segment. Where we left off, Q's attempt to teach Tony a lesson backfired considerably. With renewed vigor, Tony has decided to face his captain and settle their disputes once and for all.

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As if harboring the same determination and agitation as its occupant, the turbolift shudders and trembles while transporting Lieutenant Tony Blue to the Achilles’ bridge. Once there, Tony storms out and reaches the entrance of the captain’s ready room in no time flat, ignoring the nightshift led by Surtak, who raises an eyebrow at the lieutenant’s sudden appearance.

Tony exercises plenty of restraint to keep from repeatedly chiming the doorbell. A single chime suffices to announce his presence.

Come in.”

He enters the room so fast his shoulders clip the opening doors, then stops in his tracks, having expected the captain to be seated at his desk.

Captain Stephan Rinckes is standing by the left bulkhead, hanging up a freshly replicated, meter-wide picture of a Nova-class science vessel. Pinning the artwork encased in a solid frame against the bulkhead one-handedly, he points at his desk with his free hand. “Adhesive.”

“Sir, we need—”

“Unless we’re facing an imminent attack, it can wait.” Rinckes snaps his fingers at the adhesive dispenser on his desk.

Stumped, Tony defaults to obeying his captain and fetches him the apparatus.

“Thank you, Lieutenant.” The captain uses it to add a layer of glue to the picture frame, mounts the artwork on the bulkhead, and steps back to appreciate the result: an incongruous addition to the battle-damaged ready room.

Why the pragmatic captain would resort to interior decoration at this early hour baffles Tony, and he is about to dismiss this strange occurrence and speak his mind as intended, but then he recognizes the vessel. “The Solar Field.”

“My first command.”

Though mentioning this is probably a bad idea, Tony must bring up the ornamental elephant in the room. “Destroyed by the Borg, if I recall correctly.”

The captain’s eyes go dead for an instant. “Sacrificed in a daring move to learn their weapons’ secrets. Her destruction saved many lives at the cost of none. She was completely evacuated when the Borg blew her up.”

The captain reminiscing about a vessel claimed by fate has disturbing implications. Tony is not in the mood to mince words. “So, if you don’t mind my asking, why hang up this picture?”

“I do mind your asking,” the captain says, a remote trace of humor in his voice. “You’ve heard the cliché ‘a ship is only as good as her crew.’ It’s true. Once the crew has left, it is just a heartless shell, a collection of resources, a dead bulk.”

Tony studies the image. The Solar Field is at warp, its interior and exterior lighting is on, including an external spotlight perpetually illuminating her name and registry. “You are saying those aboard constitute her soul.”

“I’m saying materiel is expendable.”

“And your crew isn’t.”

“If only it were that simple.”

“What happens if the greater good demands you dispose of her soul piece by piece? What will be left of her in the end?” Tony faces his captain. “What will become of us?”

Rinckes returns his stare. “It’s academic. We either succeed or fail.”

“Here’s a practical question for you: How will you keep a crew together if they believe you’ll throw them to the wolves?”

A long pause. “I am aware people have been discussing my leadership. Obedience and faith in the captain is paramount.” He narrows his eyes at Tony. “Those who disagree must be kept in line.”

“And have their faith in you forced on them?”

Rinckes doesn’t take the bait. “Your shift starts in twenty-five minutes. Why are you here?”

“Please, Captain, answer my question.”

“You’re serious about this?”

“These are legitimate concerns.”

“Whose?”

“You can’t deny abandoning Ted and Emily has been a contentious decision, a divisive one for the crew. It’s left them uncertain.”

Tony half-expects Rinckes to take a step toward him, as he is wont to do when arguing, taking advantage of his greater height, but the captain remains rooted in place and says, “Forget the crew. Forget Ted. This is about Emily.”

“Of course it is,” Tony blurts out. “You never gave a damn about her. Do you think I’ve forgotten our escape from Station A-12? If I hadn’t acted quickly she would’ve died right there and then. How many safeguards did you bypass to decompress that shuttle bay? And for what? Just so you could escape faster?”

Rinckes clenches and unclenches his fists. “I should kick you out of my ready room for talking like that.”

“At least I had an excuse for fleeing the station, what with my phaser wound. But you… You only cared about yourself. You still do.”

“We both ran.” The captain’s voice has become a guttural rumble. “We abandoned countless men and women, friends and colleagues. How many, when the famous Tony Q set foot on the station, assumed you would save them like you always did? You let them down.” He composes himself, yet the muscles in his face are twitching subtly. “We let them all down.”

“Sir, I simply don’t understand why you endangered Emily during your escape.”

“I… wasn’t myself.” Before Tony can react, Rinckes emphasizes, “It wasn’t personal. It never has been.”

“Just a cold calculation for survival.”

“No. It wasn’t that. I… I cannot...” As if having flicked a switch, he becomes his unflappable self again and gives Tony a level stare. “Whatever my reasons were, they have become moot long ago. We are here now.”

“Yes, we are. Emily is not.”

Rinckes looks at the Solar Field. “Emily was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“At the receiving end of your pragmatism. Twice. The second time proved fatal.”

The captain shakes his head and a wan smile forms on his lips. “An interesting way of putting it.” His cheerless smile fades. “I regret your loss. I do not regret my decision. If I am destined to shoulder the burden that comes with it, I accept it as part of my job. And I expect my subordinates to accept the risk.”

Tony raises his chin. “Sending people on dangerous missions is one thing, but you abandoned two crewmembers.”

“To save the many. And in those circumstances, I’d do it again. I’m not the bad guy here, Tony, just the man in charge during a no-win scenario. You have ample command experience. Don’t tell me you can’t follow my reasoning.”

“I do, but… I might’ve succeeded, and part of the crew believes that too. It worries me.” He lets out a long sigh and looks at the Solar Field’s bridge module. “However, the chances you took to save the twenty-eight and your nod to Ted and Emily’s death at the funeral service, controversial as it may have been to some… It has given me hope.” He meets the captain’s gaze. “You have my loyalty, Captain, for those reasons, out of principle, because of my sense of duty, and because we are on the same side.”

The captain hesitates. “Good.”

“And I will convince others to follow my example.”

“Noted.”

Tony deepens his tone. “But never forget the price we paid for this loyalty and the price we’ll pay for your future decisions. Never forget Emily.”

Rinckes is still as a statue, offering no reply, no response whatsoever.

“Or you’ll wind up with a ship that’s full of people, yet as empty and expendable as the Solar Field post-evacuation.”

“Dismissed, Lieutenant,” Rinckes says, an order Tony obeys before it is issued.

* * *

Now Tony has left, Captain Stephan Rinckes casts a final glance at the Solar Field and returns to his desk. He powers up his desk monitor and attempts to get back to work, although his mind is drawing a blank on the next item on his to-do list. No matter how he tries to concentrate, the isolinear chip in his pocket is calling for attention. He has been carrying it with him ever since the battle near the S’Prenn wreckage. After his brush with death, impaled captain’s chair and all, the top of the pile on his desk in his quarters wasn’t reminder enough for him.

He grabs the chip, inserts it into the desk port, types an elaborate encryption code, and glares at the two files challenging him to open them. One is an official message from the Altonoids boasting about the death of two officers found in the wreckage of the Atlunte, the date marked June 15. This file is no secret; everyone aboard the Achilles has read it.

The second file, not so much. The Altonoids had included it to add salt to their wounds, its existence only known to him and Lt. Commander Terrell, who was first to receive it and was sworn to secrecy. Rinckes had ordered the file deleted, keeping one heavily encrypted copy of the shocking video for himself in case he should ever reconsider its fate.

While he has already seen the video too often, he selects it and presses play. As recorded by several bodycams and a drone, two Starfleet officers in white environmental suits are held at gunpoint by a phalanx of at least twenty Altonoid soldiers, also outfitted with EV suits, though their version is black and brown and has a tinted visor that makes its wearer appear anonymous and inhuman.

Lieutenant Emily Blue is lying on her back between the crates that broke her fall while Ensign Ted Barton blocks the Altonoids’ path to her, arms held out, his voice shaky as he pleads, “I am a medic! I beg you, do not harm my patient.”

A tall Altonoid—presumably their leader—walks up to him.

“Please let me give her the medical care she needs,” Ted says.

The faceless Altonoid pulls out a knife. “Any last words?”

Ted’s EV suit covers part of his facial expression, so his body language does most of the talking: his movements become jerky and his raised palms unite in a gesture of supplication. “Please, the Seldonis IV Convention protects our rights as prisoners of war. We surrender unconditionally.”

The Altonoid slashes at the ensign’s knee, drawing no blood but rupturing the young officer’s EV suit, which starts hissing violently as its oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere leaks out in a fast-moving plume of smoke.

Ted tries to cover the leak with his digits, enabling the leader to slice another rupture into his suit, by the shoulder. The Altonoids laugh as Ted contorts to stop both leaks. With no protection from Nedron Eight’s harsh temperatures and toxic atmosphere, he wriggles on the ground for a good fifteen seconds before going still.

The lead Altonoid steps over his corpse, towers over Emily, and lifts his knife. “Your turn.”

Emily strains to prop herself up on her elbows. “Wait.” She pulls out the tubes and other self-sealing medical equipment Ted had attached to her suit. Her bared teeth reflect the Altonoids’ flashlights through her mask as she straightens up, taking the pain for granted, and faces her executioner. “Do what you must.”

The Altonoid gives her a respectful nod. “We have a woman of courage here, soldiers.” He holsters his knife and takes out a handphaser. “Your death will be swift.”

Emily never lowers her gaze as the Altonoid sticks to his promise and vaporizes her on the spot.

Rinckes yanks the chip out of its port and tosses it against his desk, causing the chip to bounce and twirl around until it hits the side of his coffee mug. Ted died protecting his patient and Emily’s valor at death’s door impresses him to no end. These officers did not deserve to be killed in cold blood. They did not deserve his frigid decision to abandon them.

Tony has every right to see this. He’d be even more proud of Emily’s final moments than her captain. Yet, seeing a loved one die and being utterly powerless to stop it is the cruelest trick the universe can play on those who dare to love.

When Rinckes found Commander Melanie Simons back on Station A-12 all these years ago, he was too late to save her. She died in his arms, asking him to take care of the Sundance, the ship he had neglected in order to find her, the ship that had already been reduced to fire and rubble in the battle raging outside. In a terrifying state he has difficulty remembering, he fled the station, killing all who crossed his path—barehanded if necessary.

Having the one person you love most die before your eyes breaks your heart into unrecognizable pieces, transforms you into a shadow of the person you were and could have been. He cannot recall endangering Emily’s life in the shuttle bay, but he believes Tony’s account, believes his shadow deactivated the force field.

Rinckes locates and picks up the rectangular chip beside his coffee mug and, as he has done many times before, clenches his fist around the storage device. Tightening his grip, the captain stares at the Solar Field, then through it, squeezing the chip until it hurts his palm, until its plastic coating caves in.

He slams his closed fist on his desk, shattering the chip. Ignoring the stinging pain, he heads over to the replicator and opens his fist above its pad. Most shards fall down immediately, some he has to pull from his skin first, which he does without flinching, until there’s a tiny pile of alloy and plastic mixed with drops of blood, as if to form a pact.

If there were a chance to recover the data, Rinckes destroys it with one word: “Recycle.”

Two seconds of whirring is all it takes to dissolve the evidence. He gazes at his open palm and the web of blood in it, then taps his combadge with his uninjured hand. “Captain Rinckes to Doctor Kingsley. I’ve had a minor mishap. Please see me in my ready room and bring a medkit.”

Right away, Stephan.

Though he can count on the physician’s discretion, he leans back against his desk and thinks up an innocuous cover story for his injury. Something involving his coffee mug, perhaps. He settles for detaching the Solar Field’s picture frame, breaking its right lower edge, and rubbing his palm against it. It fell, he didn’t notice the damage, picked it up and sliced his hand. The doctor will believe him. They always do.
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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter IVb

Postby Alexbright99 » Fri Apr 12, 2019 8:49 pm

USS Achilles – July 31, 2386 – Stardate 63578.9
Lieutenant Tony Blue recalls visiting the ship’s theater three or four times with his wife. Although this has never been his favorite pastime, he must admit the place is impressive for this type of vessel. He’d learned a while ago that Arthur and Erin Crow assisted in developing the Achilles, and Erin’s love for theater inspired this construction, a love doomed to wither when her husband went missing.

Tony enters the auditorium through its port entrance and sorely misses having a beautiful woman by his side. Admiring the architecture of this large chamber distracts him somewhat from this sudden emptiness. A semicircle of tiered seats divided by two aisles surrounds the stage, which features a lone grand piano, rumored to have been patched up by none other than Chief Engineer Jon Terrell. Countless lamps give the pitch-black ceiling the appearance of a starry night, further enhancing the theater’s special atmosphere. Not all of them have remained functional, but who misses a few stars in a star field?

The recital will start in fifteen minutes and the venue is packed and buzzing with excitement. Extra seats have been placed and broken ones repaired to accommodate most of the sixty attendees, some of whom will be required to stand for the entire duration. Ever since Ensign Josh Donahue’s adventure on the S’Prenn wreckage, he has become a celebrity of sorts. It isn’t every day that an officer mutates into a temporary human/spider hybrid and lives to tell the tale—his and that of the brave S’Prenn rebels who met a tragic end.

From smackdab in the middle of the center seating area, Lieutenant Ernest Baxter waves at Tony and invites him to join him. Tony trudges to the middle tier to shake Baxter’s hand. Lieutenant Kels stands beside him, claiming most of the helmsman’s attention. Her blue skin glitters in the theater’s unique lighting, but Tony does feel sorry for whoever has to sit behind her, due to the antennae protruding from her white hairdo.

“Hello, Lieutenant,” she says to Tony. “Glad you could make it. I am not overly familiar with human classical music, but Ernest here is trying to bring me up to speed.”

Even in the gloom, Baxter’s cheeks redden visibly. “Uh, yes. Yes, I’m telling her about the greats in Earth’s history.”

“I thought you were more of a blues guy,” Tony says.

“Blues?” Kels asks.

The helmsman’s blushing is about to match the light intensity of an impulse engine. “I love blues. Blues music, yeah.”

Kels either doesn’t pick up on Baxter’s obvious behavior around her or chooses to ignore it. “Let’s see how I like classical music first.”

Someone’s breathing down Tony’s neck. “Is this seat taken?” a reluctant voice asks, belonging to Lieutenant Jeremy Gibbs, who looks as if enemy soldiers could rappel from the ceiling at any given moment to mock him for being here.

“You can sit with us,” Kels says with a smile, and she takes the initiative to sit down. In a synchronized movement, Baxter sits down beside her.

Noticing Gibbs’ unwillingness to pick a seat just yet, as if that would make his attending this recital official and irrevocable, Tony says, “You’d rather have Donahue give a martial arts demonstration?”

The muscular security chief grumbles. “I respect the discipline and effort needed to master an instrument and the gumption it takes to perform in front of a live audience… but yeah, I’d rather have him flaunt his combat training.”

“Maybe he’ll karate chop the piano in half.”

“Here’s hoping.”

They watch as people file into the auditorium, including the captain, his first officer, and the doctor, who seat themselves in the front row by the port entrance at the expense of three low-ranking officers, who willingly give up their seats. While these officers spread out in search of new places to sit, Gibbs flips through the playbook and says, “Not a single jazz composition.” He and Tony settle themselves in their chairs. “Only cloying, sensitive classical music. What’ll they think of our security division after this?”

“Stay awake and you’ll find out.” With Grumpy Gibbs to his left, and Blushing Baxter to his right boldly attempting to reanimate his conversation with Kels, Tony leans back and waits for the show to start.

Before long, Josh Donahue scuffles onto the stage in full dress uniform. If it hadn’t been for the brightening stage lights, he would’ve snuck up to the piano unnoticed. Anticipatory chatter dies out to be replaced with applause, of which Gibbs’ insincere but loud contribution threatens to inflict permanent hearing damage to Tony’s left ear. The security chief throws in an encouraging yell for good measure. At least he’s being supportive.

With a quiet posture, Josh opens with the instantly recognizable intro of Debussy’s Claire de Lune and transfixes the audience from the first note onward. Despite its suboptimal condition, the auditorium provides excellent acoustics. The ensign’s playing is not flawless—there are mistakes, the occasional wrong note, some pacing issues—but it is genuine and heartfelt, and it holds all present spellbound. Staring at the piano keys as if they were a long-lost lover, Josh breezes through Debussy’s most notable works and segues into Satie’s Gnossiennes and Gymnopedies, stirring the rapt crowd. Each time applause erupts, Gibbs’ contribution to it becomes slightly more genuine.

A bit of stage light bleeds into the first rows, illuminating Captain Rinckes as he listens intently with his usual indecipherable expression, Commander Erin Crow, who sits closer to the captain each passing piece, and Doctor Chris Kingsley, who hasn’t stopped smiling since the recital began. Off to the far right, near the starboard entrance, Lieutenant Surtak takes in the music, emotionless but appreciative. Tony wonders if the Vulcan’s pointy ears and better hearing allow him to pick up nuances in the compositions human ears cannot.

Josh lets loose his piano skills with the impossibly fast piece La Campanella. He didn’t need the spider arms to play this after all, and it earns him the first standing ovation of the evening, during which Lieutenant Commander Terrell pops in to stand beside Surtak and admire the rest of the performance. Even the modest Terrell couldn’t resist seeing the repaired piano in action. In fact, when Josh throws in several compositions of his own, Terrell slaps Surtak on the shoulder every time the ensign wows the audience. Surprisingly enough, Surtak is okay with it.

By the time Josh reaches his selection of Chopin’s Nocturnes, he is completely in the zone and transcends his limitations as a musician. There seems to be more to it, though. As he navigates these intricate, melancholic melodies, he plays with a maturity beyond his age, a sorrow beyond one man’s suffering, conveying the grief of someone who saw his children and friends die.

Kronn’s memories never left.

Josh performs his heartbreaking rendition of Nocturne in C Sharp Minor, and the audience revels in it with bated breath, uniting them in a collective aching that, if only for a few minutes, salves their wounds. It’s enough to bring a lump to Tony’s throat. He has lost more than he could ever have imagined, given more than he could ever recover, yet he is not alone.

Surrounded by his brothers in arms, Tony looks up at the imperfect star field, allows each and every stroke of the piano keys to reach within his soul, and relishes the moment, for it may never come again.

* * *
* * *
* * *

Altor Seta – November 26, 2387 – Stardate 64899.3
For once, their away mission takes them to a location where EV suits aren’t required. In fact, Altor Seta features a temperate climate with breathable atmosphere and twenty percent lower gravity than Earth, giving Lieutenant Tony Blue the impression he is in much better shape than he should be with his once-a-week visit to the gym. The planet’s rich flora and fauna are hidden from view, however, as he and Lieutenant Ernest Baxter prowl the corridors of a secret Altonoid lab, which isn’t secret anymore to the valiant crew of the Achilles.

Baxter halts by a heavy door, careful to avoid triggering its motion sensors, and studies his tricorder. “Target reached. I’m reading three life signs—human.”

Tony readies his phaser rifle. “We’re taking no chances. Cover me. Stay clear of the door until my signal.”

Also armed with a rifle, Baxter alternates between covering both ends of the hallway. Tony crouches and triggers the door’s sensors by touching the floor with an outstretched hand. As soon as the door opens, Tony points his rifle into the room while keeping most of his body hidden behind the door jamb.

“Halt!” Lieutenant Commander Jeremy Gibbs shouts, blinding Tony with his rifle’s flashlight. “Drop your weapon!”

“I liked you better before your promotion,” Tony teases. “Blue and Baxter reporting in, sir. Area secure.”

Gibbs sighs in relief. “We’re all accounted for.”

Tony steps into the room. In its center, Lieutenant Commander Jon Terrell is hacking into the main computer terminal. Commander Erin Crow has her back turned to them as she guards the room’s opposite entrance. This particular lab room is the size of a Federation vessel’s standard quarters, yet according to the intel they’ve puzzled out, this is where local Altonoid scientists store and access a fair portion of sensitive information, and security is relatively lax thanks to the scatterbrained nature of its eccentric director.

Baxter peeks around the corner and Gibbs waves him in. Using hand signals, he instructs Baxter to help him guard the door and Tony to help Crow.

“This is brilliant,” Terrell says, uploading the terminal’s data to his tricorder. “I even found a batch of floor plans for other research facilities!”

“Please hurry,” Crow says, her unease worsened by the wall-mounted S’Prenn corpses in various states of dissection. Away teams have visited a wide range of Altonoid research facilities, but nobody has grown accustomed to the brutal treatment the S’Prenn continue to undergo.

Tony, his weapon aimed at the exit, casts her a glance over his rifle sight. “We’re the only ones alive in this room. Focus on the door. We’ll be back aboard the Achilles before you know it.”

“Don’t talk to me like I’m a first-year cadet.”

Must. Resist. Sarcasm. Reflex. “My apologies, Commander.”

“Um, fellas,” Terrell says as the intruder alert sounds. “We should go. We have what we want.” Stern Altonoid voices express warnings over the comm system, and both exits lock their doors with a metallic thud.

Crow presses her combadge. “Away team to Achilles. Five to beam up.”

No response.

“This facility’s in lockdown,” Terrell says, rushing past her. “Transporters and communications dampened”—he rips out the panel of the door Tony and Crow are guarding and starts tinkering with its exposed wires—“for a one-mile radius.”

“How do we return to our ship?” Baxter asks.

Terrell flashes him a smile. “No worries, Baxxie. Come here. You too, Tony.” He reaches into the toolkit strapped around his waist and gives them one emergency transport unit each, saving one for himself. For such a powerful device, it is deceptively tiny: a round object barely an inch in diameter. It was first used in 2379 by Lieutenant Commander Data in order to save Captain Picard’s life before sacrificing his own by preventing an outlawed thalaron generator from destroying the Enterprise. “Set your tricorder to indicate you’re outside the dampening field. Once clear, activate the transport unit. It’s preconfigured to beam you to the Achilles.”

“Where’s mine and Gibbs’?” Crow asks.

“You’ll have to share.”

Crow upgrades her stare to three out of five scowling stars.

“Good news is I’ve modified it.” Terrell strains to adjust an unseen panel or wire and the door slides open. “Enhanced its energy storage. It now has two uses: two for one person, or one for two simultaneous beamups.” He gestures at the open doorway. “Let’s shake a leg, people.”

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Author's note: I'll be out of town next week, so Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter IVc will be released two weeks from now, on April 26.
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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter IVc

Postby Alexbright99 » Fri Apr 26, 2019 7:53 pm

According to their predictions, twelve Altonoid soldiers patrol this research outpost. All of them are chasing the away team through Altor Seta’s exotic vegetation and fire phasers at random in hopes of killing the five sprinting officers. Thick foliage renders it difficult to keep track of one’s colleagues. However, it also provides cover.

Tony has difficulty maintaining the pace. Of course his phaser scar chooses this particular moment to act up again. His old injury hampers his ability to navigate this obstacle course filled with amazing variations of trees, shrubbery, twisting roots, meat-eating flowers, and dog-sized crawling and flying bugs. Especially the bumblebee-like creatures snapping at his extremities annoy him to no end, although clubbing these carnivores out of the way with his rifle is a welcome distraction from the occasional Altonoid phaser beam whizzing by.

A hand in the small of his back pushes him along. “How much farther?” Tony asks the hand’s owner.

“No idea,” Gibbs answers. “Keep running. I got you.”

Just as Tony begins to gain a new appreciation for the value of teamwork, a stray phaser beam shears a sizeable branch off an overhead tree and sends it sailing down at him. Gibbs takes aim and causes the branch to erupt in cinders, saving Tony from a nasty headwound.

Right then, a sharp-fanged and overly determined bumblebee the size of a soccer ball latches on to the lieutenant’s left elbow. Tony yelps in pain and starts flapping his arm about like a deranged man trying to get airborne. Still running, he repeatedly punches the hovering ball of yellow fur, which refuses to budge in the slightest. Its faceted eyes stare at him in confusion, as if it is second-guessing its lunch choice. Even though this clingy insect’s bite hurts, freeing his arm will have to wait, because they encounter Baxter lying flat on his face and Terrell trying to help him up.

Baxter is uttering mild profanities while Gibbs grabs him by the torso and lifts him to his feet. “I stumbled like an idiot. I’m all right.”

Terrell’s eyes go wide when he sees Tony. “Blimey, there’s something on your arm.”

“Yeah, no kidding.”

Crow appears from out of the shrubbery. “Come on, guys. We—” A salvo of phaser bursts interrupts her and lights up the area. Tony dives for cover and tackles Crow to the ground as mud and flames surround them. At least this motivates the bumblebee to finally let go. But now Tony hears someone cry out in agony.

It’s Gibbs. He drops to his knees and yells in pain, fighting back tears, a smoldering phaser wound between his shoulder blades. Bristling leaves betray the Altonoid soldiers’ approach. As if telepathically linked, Baxter and Terrell choose a side each and drag Gibbs off as quickly as they can, no doubt grateful for this planet’s lower gravitational pull.

Crow clutches Tony by the jacket and yanks him up. “You have a transport unit, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She fires a couple of shots at their hidden pursuers to buy time, seizes Tony’s wrist with the ferocity of an indigenous bumblebee, and guides him in another direction than Gibbs and company’s escape route. Splitting up is wise, given the circumstances, as long as they make straight for the shield perimeter.

A memory surfaces in Tony’s mind of skipping through a field, holding hands with a classmate, though despite his dark and troubled past, there weren’t soldiers shooting at him back then. Since Crow’s wrist-grabbing precludes the use of his right arm, he grabs the muzzle of his phaser rifle with his left and uses the weapon to bat at nosy insects, even though his wounded elbow stings something fierce.

A humongous centipede uncurls to block their path. The twenty-foot-long invertebrate has decided the two officers could be an interesting meal, and it opens its monstrous beak in a high-pitched screech. Footsteps and shouting Altonoids remind them they cannot afford this delay. Still clenching Tony’s wrist, Crow fires at the creature, which only infuriates it. One-handedly, Tony flips his rifle around, adjusts its setting to a higher intensity, and fires a shot that slices off a slab of the bug’s exoskeleton. The centipede writhes closer to them despite Tony and Crow firing off burst after burst, and soon their firing is joined by stray Altonoid phaser beams.

Tony shakes his wrist loose to better aim at the creature. “Cover me! Back-to-back!”

Crow spins around and fires at the disturbingly nearby Altonoids, who remain concealed by the vegetation. Her warm hair presses against the nape of Tony’s neck as she provides steady covering fire to slow the Altonoids’ advance and his phaser bursts chip at the relentless centipede’s beak. The furious arthropod raises its ugly head like a cobra mimicking its snake charmer’s motions, and Tony takes a step forward to draw a bead on its eyes.

A signal chimes, originating from his tricorder.

“We’re outside the dampening grid!” Crow says.

Tony fires two more bursts and affixes the small, circular transport unit to his collar bone. The centipede recoils, shakes off a blackened venom claw, and prepares for another lunge.

An Altonoid shouts, clear as day, “Lower your weapon, human female!”

Crow tenses up and complies, which convinces Tony there must be multiple Altonoids emerging from the bushes. Without hesitation, he turns around, wraps an arm around her to reel her in, and flicks a thumb against the transport unit. One second later, their world becomes a blue particle mist in which the centipede lashes right through their dematerializing bodies. Over the characteristic whine of active transport, Altonoid soldiers scream in terror as the oversized insect tears into them.

The screaming dies out as soon as Tony and Crow rematerialize on a transporter pad, safely aboard the Achilles, holding each other tightly.

Crow sighs in relief. “Thanks for the lift, Lieutenant.”

“Happy to help,” Tony replies, catching his breath.

A subtle cough from the transporter chief prompts them to break off their lifesaving hug.

Crow pats off her uniform as if nothing has happened and walks up to the chief. “Did the others make it?”

“They’re beaming to transporter room 3 as we speak.”

She resumes her all-business expression. “Alert sickbay. Wounded incoming.”

* * *

USS Achilles – December 6, 2387 – Stardate 64926.2
Lieutenant Tony Blue rubs his elbow. Although a medic healed it shortly after the completion of the Altor Seta mission, it continues to itch every once in a while, or maybe it is just a resilient memory of that enthusiastic bumblebee with attachment issues. “Computer, what is the time?”

0605 hours.”

Earlier than needed to make it to his shift. In fact, the past few months he has woken up feeling rested, despite the stress and danger that has become part of everyday life. Jumbled nightmares about Altonoids, Borg, and S’Prenn remain a regular occurrence, but his nightly panic attacks have subsided.

Tony puts on his uniform jacket to complete his attire and inspects himself in the mirror. If only he felt as young as the twenty-five-year-old staring back at him. He has allowed a stubbly circle beard to grow, which has garnered two effects: he has a more mature look, and Lieutenant Baxter frequently asks him when he will return to the Mirror Universe and send the original Tony back.

In the living area of his tidy yet battle-damaged quarters, he collects a handphaser and tricorder from a drawer to secure them to his belt. Both items have become mandatory for on-duty personnel. A sensible precaution, given the hostile territory they’re always in.

His gaze rests on the corner dedicated to his loved ones. Prominently on display beside the holopictures of Tony, his dad, and Emily, is a wireframe heart, torn asunder yet held together by near-invisible wires, a thoughtful and surprising gift from Jon Terrell. And to think the unassuming chief engineer had almost trashed it. Tony is glad Terrell summoned the courage to share this custom-made work of art with him. Speaking of which, he should pay the man a visit. But first, Tony is going to have an early-morning walkabout and swing by sickbay to go see poor Jeremy Gibbs.

* * *

Wherever Tony’s stroll leads, he finds damage and disrepair. Flickering light fixtures dangling from ceilings have become a staple of the typical Achilles corridor, as are loose panels, exposed circuitry, char stains, barricaded sections, and harried crewmembers carrying handphasers. These troopers are at work despite mild injuries, wear frayed or torn uniforms, and look like they haven’t showered in days. Ship systems declining or failing is taking its toll on all of them—a process so gradual one almost gets used to it, save for these moments of reflection. It is easy to forget this vessel has been out here on its own for five consecutive years.

After being forced into another detour to avoid a collapsed deck section, Tony arrives at stellar cartography and steps inside. This voluminous chamber has a holographically projected star map shrouding every surface. By the lone computer terminal at the far end of the room, Lieutenants Ernest Baxter and Kels chitchat, unaware of Tony’s presence.

“I don’t think so,” Baxter says. “I mean, playing guitar for a holographic audience is entirely different from an actual living and breathing one.”

“If that is true, what’s the point of practicing so often?” Kels teases.

“What’s the point? You’re asking me?” He laughs. “What’s the point of you stuffing your quarters with culturally diverse tableware and outdated equipment? I bet you haven’t seen the floor in months!”

Kels punches his arm playfully. “Hey, you don’t get to judge me, not until you’ve played a concert in our theater.”

“I’m not Donahue. I’ve no desire to hog the spotlight like he does.”

“No, you’re not. You’re better! You should challenge him to a stage duel.”

Tony slowly backs into the holographic stars and re-enters the corridor, seemingly disappearing in outer space as the doors close. These two and their incessant tentative flirting… If they don’t confess their feelings for each other soon, someone is going to snap and scream “Just kiss already!” How can they take their time when each day could be their last? The Achilles has evaded destruction so far during this ceaseless cloak-and-dagger mission, but luck tends to run out unannounced.

Not all intel they have found is equally reliable. Fortunately, examining S’Prenn and Altonoid databases has yielded slow but steady progress in their search for a cure to counteract the Altonoids’ brainwashing chemical weapon. They keep dredging up new targets for intel raids, which, generally speaking, have become increasingly better protected. It’s as if they’re always one tiny step ahead of the Altonoids, like a clever mouse in a wolf den. One slipup, one mistake, and it’s over.

He is still brooding on this as he arrives in the hydroponics lab, i.e. their attempt to assuage those sick of replicator rations and their sometimes questionable results, and the one spot on the ship where war seems distant. This chamber consists of an indoor park with eight gardens intersected by grass paths. The drab ceiling never fails to ruin the immersion, however.

Tony inspects a portion of the fruits and vegetables growing here. Who could’ve foretold one day the sight of cauliflowers, broccoli plants, and carrot leaves would stimulate his appetite? He is about to sink his teeth into a tomato so ripe it required but the gentlest tug to pluck it from its vine when he notices a figure meditating six feet ahead of him.

“No loitering on the grass,” Tony quips in a reflex, late to realize joking with a Vulcan is… let’s say ambitious.

Lieutenant Surtak looks up. He is on his knees, his hands steepled. “No stealing tomatoes either, Lieutenant.”

“Got me there.” He gives the ripe tomato a tender goodbye squeeze and places it on the soil. “Sorry to disturb you. The thought of running into meditating colleagues in our greenhouse didn’t occur to me.”

“No apologies are necessary. If today’s meditation demanded absolute solitude, I would not have chosen this publicly accessible location.”

“Fair enough.” Tony should leave, so he doesn’t. “Don’t you prefer desert areas? This is the polar opposite of your home world.”

“Having witnessed so much death, I prefer to surround myself with life.”

That unexpected nugget of wisdom pulls at Tony’s heartstrings and he struggles to scrounge together a reply. “Okay, wow. I’ll… uh, leave you to it then.”

Surtak lifts an eyebrow. “Did my statement elicit an emotional reaction? I did not intend to remind you of the tragedies we share.”

“It’s fine. Humans wear their emotions on their sleeves.”

“They do indeed.”

“I’ll get over it.”

Surtak gestures at the space next to him. “Sit with me, Lieutenant. Perhaps a moment of tranquility will offer solace.”

“Perhaps.” Tony accepts his invitation, because why not? He kneels beside the Vulcan and copies his body language, steepled fingers and all. “Like this?”

“Crude but sufficient.”

“Story of my life.”

“No more redundant comments, please. Be silent and let your thoughts be. Quiet your inner ocean by focusing on the present.”

Tony represses the urge to add banalities such as “be one with the grass” or “imagine your desires to be a forbidden tomato” and heeds his advice.

Truth be told, Vulcan meditation techniques do have their merits. The grass is soft to the touch, the air is fresh and rich with oxygen, and the plants dampen the constant hum of the ship’s engines and systems. Already, tension is dissipating from Tony’s muscles, especially in his neck and shoulders. His “inner ocean” is doing whatever the hell it wants, yet he could envision his troubles and pains floating off into the distance if he tried, leaving him to enjoy the present. And so, for a handful of minutes spent in wordless companionship, Tony and Surtak experience a small measure of peace.
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Alexbright99
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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter IVd

Postby Alexbright99 » Fri May 03, 2019 9:10 pm

Lieutenant Tony Blue pushes the two rubber curtains forming an entrance to sickbay aside and enters the lowly lit hallway, which stretches beyond the next corner. Expanded to 300% its original size, sickbay these days consists of a network of corridors and rooms, a research facility disturbingly similar to the Altonoid laboratories they scour for intel. One cannot roam four feet without bumping into a container and its horrific contents: S’Prenn specimens, most of them dead. Some are alive, insane, and attacking their transparent aluminum cages, which cannot be broken by S’Prenn fangs and claws, though he gives them a wide berth nonetheless. Instinctively, he hovers a hand over his phaser holster.

Tony suspects the S’Prenn carcasses and live subjects outnumber the ship’s current complement of 386 souls. A quick calculation confirms the Achilles’ journey into their former territory has claimed the lives of thirty-four crewmembers so far—a humbling statistic.

He steps over thick cables and medical equipment, which are difficult to spot in the dark. A combination of traveling under cloak and S’Prenn skin photosensitivity renders these innards of the Achilles spookier than they already are with the lights on.

The corridor opens up into an equally dark chamber that used to be the entire sickbay instead of its locus. Wires and tubes crisscross the floor, and an acidic odor summons harrowing memories of the S’Prenn wreckage. Off to the right lies Lieutenant Commander Jeremy Gibbs partly covered in blankets on the only biobed not occupied by containers of decaying or convulsing arachnids. Staring at the ceiling, Gibbs grinds his teeth. His eyes and cheeks are sunken. What do you say to someone in this bad a shape? Tony approaches his debilitated colleague and settles for, “How are you holding up, Commander?”

With his mottled skin and thinning blond hair, his weakened condition, and in this unfavorable lighting, Gibbs seems sixty-eight instead of forty-eight years old. “I still can’t move.”

Tony takes a knee beside the biobed. “I’m sorry to hear that.” For a man this bent on exercise and martial arts training, being cursed with a quadriplegic state has to be gut-wrenching.

“I hate this place.”

“It gives me the heebie-jeebies too, but we have to find the cure. Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself whenever I’m down here.”

“I hate this ceiling.”

“Doctor Kingsley insists your paralysis is temporary.”

“I’m done waiting.” He is blinking rapidly, one of the few means at his disposal to vent his frustration. “My team needs me.”

“Yes, they do, but Josh is doing well leading security until you’re back in the saddle.”

“He’s a good officer.”

Tony musters a smile and pats Gibbs on the shoulder. “Learned from the best.”

From the dark recesses of this sickbay of horrors, Doctor Chris Kingsley emerges. His ragged appearance matches his working environment; black S’Prenn blood splatters stain his uniform. He places a tray of used medical devices atop an adjacent container. “Speaking of the best, here I am.” He sounds tired. “I’m sorry neither of you like the scenery. I admit it is not for the fainthearted. It’s… an acquired taste.”

Neither Gibbs nor Tony have anything to add to the doctor’s observations.

“I have news regarding your condition.”

“I was just leaving,” Tony says out of politeness.

“No,” Gibbs says, nearly begs. “Please stay.”

“Suit yourself,” Kingsley says. “Judging from your spinal cord’s current state and your treatment response, I expect you to walk again in two or three months. A full recovery is the most probable outcome.”

Gibbs lets out a mighty groan, a mixture of relief over regaining his mobility and dread over having to extend his stay.

The doctor stares at the floor and shuffles his feet. “I have… an alternative, a way of expediting your recovery.”

“Let’s hear it,” Gibbs says.

“I propose attaching a limb- and headless S’Prenn to your neck. It won’t try to assert dominance, because its higher brain functions have ceased, but its adaptive biology would seek to control and repair your nervous system. You would be able to walk and use your arms within an hour, maybe faster. I speculate the repairs will become permanent after a month. Then it might be possible to surgically remove the S’Prenn.”

A beat of silence. “Are you out of your mind?” Gibbs replies. “Get away from me!”

Kingsley ignores the outburst and stares coldly at his patient.

“I’m sick of this place! I’m sick of all this!” Spittle builds up in the corners of Gibbs’ mouth. “I’m sick of you!” Hyperventilation and saliva threaten to choke him.

Kingsley collects a hypospray from a utility cart and presses its rounded tip against the security chief’s corded neck.

As the sedation takes rapid effect, and before losing consciousness, Gibbs looks Tony straight in the eye and asks, “What have we become?”

The patient goes quiet, bringing the pumping and whirring of medical equipment and the thrashing of captured S’Prenn to the foreground.

“I think he wants a second opinion,” Tony says, having no idea what else to say. “I’m guessing the disfigured S’Prenn treatment is off the table.”

Kingsley shrugs. “It’s up to him.” He picks up his tray and disappears halfway into the darkness.

“He’s not wrong,” Tony says after him. “What have we become?”

Kingsley’s silhouette lowers its head. “Purveyors of necessary evil.” Reluctantly, he turns around. “We lost Nurse Durand this morning. She’d stumbled across a chemical alteration that made the bioweapon transmittable to humans. Before she realized what she’d done…” He pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs. “It’s safe now. We’ve disinfected her corpse and the wing she was working in, and I suppose we could consider it somewhat of a breakthrough, but damn… If we don’t find that cure soon, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

Another death, which increases the death tally to thirty-five. “You will go on,” Tony says, “like the rest of us. We must. Everything depends on us.”

The doctor dips his chin and walks off.

Alone with Gibbs, Tony runs a hand over the injured man’s scalp. “Stay strong, Jeremy. We need you.”

* * *

Lieutenant Commander Jon Terrell is in his comfort zone, tucked away in an alcove in main engineering, tinkering with the secondary impulse manifold’s settings to improve its capabilities. A smart idea, given how the incremental damage the primary manifolds sustained could endanger them during battle. And there will be a next battle. So here he is, ensconced up-side-down underneath the impulse control terminal on engineering’s upper level.

Someone blocks his light and says, “There you are.”

Terrell clambers out to be met by Lieutenant Tony Blue, who extends a hand to help him to his feet. Terrell graciously accepts. The chief engineer has pulled an all-nighter once again and his muscles are upgrading their silent protest to nagging pain.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Tony says. “You must have the busiest job on the ship.”

“I’m never bored.” He maintains an optimistic tone despite engineering’s shoddy state. “Whenever we fix something, there are plenty of Altonoids willing to field-test it without delay. They’re nice like that.”

“Don’t make me feel guilty about stealing their data.”

Terrell chuckles. “Those floor plans we nicked are marvelous. We’re studying them now. The files even include a complete set of floor plans for Station A-12! If you think our sickbay is scary, you should have a peek at those. The Altonoids have turned it into a horrorfest.”

“I’m good. I have a different reason for—”

“Wait. You have green on you.” Terrell removes a blade of grass from Tony’s jacket.

“I went meditating with Surtak. Don’t ask.”

“I won’t. You’re here for your own slice of Terrell tech. Follow me.”

They ride an elevator to the lower level, where Terrell opens an inconspicuous drawer and retrieves a seemingly standard-issue tricorder. He flips the tricorder to show its padding has a small recess in its center, housing an emergency transport unit.

“Exactly as I asked. Thanks, man.” Tony switches his regular tricorder for the prototype. “These transport units saved our hides back at Altor Seta.”

Terrell grins. “I wish I could take all the credit, but I simply boosted their energy storage so they can be used twice. Oh, I also made them configurable by tricorder. It’s best to keep the unit paired with your custom-built one.”

Tony taps a finger against the new tricorder in his holster. “I’m pushing the captain to make these mandatory for away teams.”

“As if I’m not busy enough as it is,” Terrell jokes and then adds in a conspiring tone, “That next away mission may happen sooner than you think. The Altor Seta intel did not only include floor plans…”

Senior officers,” Captain Rinckes announces over the comm, “report to the observation lounge at once.”

“Spoiler alert,” Terrell says. “It’s bound to be good news.”

“Really?”

“Let’s go and find out.”

* * *

Resembling two excited kids preparing for show-and-tell, Lieutenants Ernest Baxter and Kels are standing on either side of the observation lounge’s monitor. Projected on it is a far-off region of space with a highlighted anomaly in the top-left corner.

“Our extensive analyses confirm it beyond the shadow of a doubt,” Kels says. “Cross-referencing S’Prenn, Altonoid, and Loïdian databases has provided us with conclusive proof of a S’Prenn navigational portal’s existence in the Aragos Sector.”

“Stellar cartography corroborates our suspicions,” Baxter says.

There is an unspoken consensus among the senior staff, communicated solely through an electric mix of fear and excitement. A discovery this remarkable cannot be dismissed. From his usual spot at the head of the table, Captain Stephan Rinckes contemplates these findings. Commander Erin Crow and Lieutenant Commander Jon Terrell flank him. Terrell is seated in the chair usually reserved for Doctor Kingsley, but the doctor has excused himself from this conference for understandable reasons.

“This portal,” Kels says, “is virtually identical to the one near Station A-12, making it a potential goldmine of information regarding the cure.”

Lieutenant Tony Blue, seated next to Terrell, clears his throat. “Do we know where the portal leads?”

“We don’t,” Baxter says.

“Are the Altonoids aware of this portal?” Crow asks, frowning.

“Unknown, Commander,” Kels says. “The portal is either as yet undiscovered by the Altonoids, or…” Her antennae droop slightly. “We cannot discard the possibility of it being a trap to catch stray S’Prenn vessels… or perhaps even us.”

“The Altonoids have been increasing their efforts to catch us,” Crow remarks.

Seated opposite Tony, Lieutenant Surtak leans forward. “I advise caution. There are too many variables.”

Rinckes folds his hands on the tabletop. “Agreed. Terrell, is this ship ready for battle?”

“Ready as she’ll ever be, Captain.”

“Blue, I want you to schedule and perform frequent tactical drills until we reach the Aragos Sector.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Donahue, the same goes for security drills.”

“Consider it done, Captain.” Lieutenant Junior Grade Josh Donahue sits farthest away from him—out of modesty, the captain hopes, not timidity. The acting security chief encounters far more intimidating creatures than his fellow senior officers in his line of work.

Rinckes allows himself a moment to look at his people. “What we have accomplished out here on our own is beyond exemplary. Each and every one of you can be proud of the tenacity and bravery we invested in achieving our goals. We are not out of the woods yet, but I can think of no ship and crew I would trust more to continue our mission than the Achilles and her beating heart of heroic men and women.” He rises from his chair. “To your stations, everyone. Baxter, lay in a course for the anomaly, warp 8.”

His subordinates clear the room, leaving the captain to study the windows, which boast an excellent view of the Achilles’ sleek stern. She is invisible from any vantage point outside her cloaking field. It hides them, keeps them safe, and prevents the enemy from seeing her weakened ablative armor, the numerous flickering internal and external lights, and the crevasses of deep phaser scars tracing her battered hull.

Yet, somehow, her engines flash and she goes to high warp to carry them across the stars and toward their destiny.

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

Fallen Heroes Part III Ch V will premiere Friday, June 7 on the ditl forum. Stay tuned ;)
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Alexbright99
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