Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter VIII

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Alexbright99
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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter VIII

Post by Alexbright99 »

The wait is over. Here's the latest chapter of the Star Trek: Fallen Heroes saga. Two more chapters to go after this one and the whole story will be finished. But first, lets get some of the publishing details out of the way: This chapter will be released in three larger parts than usual as opposed to four, because this story's narrative flows a little better that way. As always, new chapter segments will be published each Friday.

If you are new to this story, please start with the thread Fallen Heroes Part II Prologue on this forum and work your way up from there.

For those who are ready to continue reading, here's a brief recap:
When we left off, Captain Rinckes and the former Q Tony had travelled back to the Station A-12 Debacle of 2380 in a desperate attempt to alter the devastating war that would follow. However, when Tony and Rinckes are faced with a downright impossible dilemma, they have wildly different viewpoints on how to handle their years-long mission's conclusion.

Part II Chapter VIII, segment A:

Lieutenant Tony Blue fires at the man he once trusted with his life. His hesitance decreases with each bolt of phaser energy exiting his rifle; his combat instincts are taking over. Captain Stephan Rinckes seeks cover behind the elongated room’s standing interface console and fires blindly from his hiding place. Avoiding these lethal phaser bursts, Tony drops to the floor and tries to ascertain if the interface console fails to conceal his captain entirely. He hopes against his better judgment that a shot to the leg might snap the captain out of his violent state. Another salvo of phaser blasts flies over Tony’s scalp, just as he determines he cannot hit the captain from here.

It pains him to have to apply his tactical abilities and training in this confrontation with his captain, no matter their personal history or the reasons for this death match. Admittedly, Tony’s intention of destroying Station A-12 with everyone on it is unsettling to the core, and he questions whether he has the nerve to go through with such an extreme course of action. The argument is rendered moot by Rinckes’ stance on the subject. The captain may realize sacrificing Station A-12 is vital, but his desire to save Melanie Simons has annihilated his rationality. If only Tony can be granted the opportunity to access the interface console and overload the shield generator coils on the other side of the transparent partition. The resulting power surges would rip this station apart and safeguard a future where billions will be spared a brutal death.

Rinckes emerges and shoots at Tony, who presses himself against the partition to minimize his chances of getting hit and returns fire. The captain seeks cover and bellows, “Throw me your weapon! This doesn’t have to end in bloodshed!”

Tony knows Rinckes well enough to discern between sincere and insincere remarks. Also, the captain’s icy stare as he shot at Tony betrays his dangerous frame of mind. For a moment, Tony entertains the idea of firing at the interface console, because it would ruin Rinckes’ cover. It would also complicate overloading the coils, so it’s worth careful consideration.

That is, until Rinckes decides for him. By his doing, the interface console reddens as if blushing and explodes in a fountain of debris. Tony dodges the rubble and flees the carnage, making sure to stay close to the floor, heading for the exit at the far end despite knowing it’s locked.

“Give up, Tony!” Rinckes shouts. “You can’t be the hero today.”

Crawling forward, Tony glances over his shoulder and sees Rinckes breaking through the particle fog whirling to the carpet, his rifle’s flashlight shining at full force. With the interface console blown to smithereens, Tony will first have to reroute its functions to this room’s wall panels. Then he’ll have to figure out what Rinckes did to effect the power surges and duplicate it. It will cost time, but it can be done. It must be done.

The captain fires another series of phaser blasts, and Tony rolls onto his back and sits up halfway to return fire as precisely as he can. Aching burn marks on his neck and shoulders inflicted by the time machine’s molten wiring upset his aim, and his shots disappear into the mist without causing the sickening thud of hitting flesh and bone. He got the message across, though, and Rinckes retreats to seek cover, allowing Tony to resume crawling for the exit.

Fifteen meters ahead, locked doors seal off his escape route, so Tony aims his weapon. If a rifle can blow up a solid interface console, it’ll cut through a set of double sliding doors too. He raises the rifle’s intensity settings, changing its indicator from yellow to red.

Maybe Rinckes is right. Shouldn’t he just storm those doors and head straight for Emily to find comfort in her embrace, guide her to the shuttle bay, and fly away from the station, away from the Altonoids, and away from whatever cruelties fate has in store for them? She’d have to fall in love with him again, but he has always felt that no obstacle, whether tangible or abstract, could restrain their affection. All he has to do is pulverize the doors and run for his life and hers.

Instead, he swivels ninety degrees to the right, toward the transparent partition and the coils behind it, and makes his choice. The station has to go. He and Emily will die so others may live.

He blasts a ragged hole in the partition and leaps into the coil room. Turquoise light and electric air surround him as he navigates through the nine man-high coils and takes position in the back, temporarily hidden from his opponent. Aiming his rifle at the nearest coil, he ponders the consequences of firing into its mesmerizing patterns. Could it overload the system and destroy Station A-12? He should pull the trigger to find out, but hesitation paralyzes him. He knows what he must do, but his injured body is weak, his mind tired—tired of deflecting endless waves of sorrow and constant reminders of his inadequacy. Still, to be obliterated in a flash of exploding equipment is not the end he had pictured for himself, for a being who once had the whole universe as his playground.

Something moves at the edge of his vision. It’s Rinckes, looking like a madman with his messy hair, bruised jaw, bloodied right arm, and phaser-burnt shoulder. “Don’t!” he shouts. “You don’t know what’ll happen.” He has his rifle trained on Tony but cannot bring himself to shoot, no doubt harboring the same reservations when it comes to discharging energy weapons in an environment this volatile.

“I was promised immortality,” Tony says, raising his voice above the coils’ buzzing. “I could’ve seen civilizations fall and rise, let the Federation be overwritten by libraries of history books, remain a higher entity, the mortal who transcended to godhood. Yet here we are.”

Rinckes inches toward him. “Yes, here you are, having chosen mortality”—his eyes are cold and distant—“only for you to die a coward’s death.”

Tony stares into the coil’s bright, turquoise shapes. “Our lives for billions. The math is simple. How can we shirk our duty? We vowed to protect the Federation with our lives.”

Rinckes is almost within striking distance. “So you’ve found a cross to die on? To bring your savior complex to its logical conclusion? Listen to yourself!”

Tony cannot scrounge together a reply.

“You think you’re the hero?” Rinckes scoffs. “Let me tell you about heroes. My parents were heroes. Did you know that?”

“I… I didn’t.”

“I’m not surprised. Everyone forgot, everyone but me. They burned alive for their colony, for their people. Their deaths were heroic… and ultimately meaningless. Raiders plundered the colony months later, took everything of value and killed every inhabitant.”

“I’m sorry you lost your parents, but today’s stakes are higher than a colony.” The minute he says it, Tony realizes how awful this must sound, regardless of how true it is. He discovers he has lowered his aim somewhat, so he raises his weapon and returns to convincing himself to pull the trigger.

“The universe forgot them so quickly. It doesn’t care about heroes. Doesn’t need them.”

Tony glances at his captain, who keeps spouting these words of wisdom despite resembling a stalking predator.

“Our loved ones don’t want heroes, never asked us to be,” Rinckes says. “They just want us by their side.” For the first time since their conflict began, the captain lowers his rifle, a welcome gesture of goodwill. “Real heroism is being there for those who need us. Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?”

This resonates with Tony, aligns with the conclusion he drew when Q scolded him on the alien planet, and he briefly looks away to formulate a response.

Without warning, Rinckes leaps at him, rifle stock thrust forward. Even in reflex, Tony can’t fire at the coil, so he moves out of the way as best he can. Despite this, the rifle stock connects with his shoulder blades, expels the air from his lungs, and causes him to lose his footing. Grunting in pain, he attempts to carry his wounded shell to the other side of the room, berating himself for letting his reluctance to kill distract him from one undeniable fact: The captain considers him a danger to Melanie’s existence.

He doesn’t get far; a painful blow to his calves sends him sprawling. He scrapes his palms on the cold metal floor but hangs on to his phaser rifle and tries to roll onto his back to take aim. Rinckes is ferocious, however, and stomps at his spine, keeping the lieutenant pinned in place, then follows up with strike after strike of his rifle butt, threatening to bludgeon Tony to death.

Tony’s entire body is agony, but he’s not down for the count yet. Done with weighing the possible ramifications, he presses his phaser rifle flat on the floor, points it at the nearest coil, inhales in between the beating he’s receiving, and pulls the trigger with all his might.

“No!” Rinckes shouts, staggering backward.

In a split second, the orange phaser burst travels to the crackling energy patterns surrounding the coil, its trajectory bent toward the coil’s center by invisible forces. A loud clap resounds as the coil absorbs the burst and brightens from turquoise to dazzling white.

Hurt as it might, Tony gets up on one knee and fires into the coil again, and again, ignoring the blinding flashes and deafening noise each hit summons. How much more punishment can these coils withstand? He squints into the glare as it branches into small lightning bolts and distributes its energy to nearby coils, where it dissipates. As soon as Tony realizes this means weapons can be fired in this chamber, he rolls to the left—just in time to evade Rinckes’ first shot.

Tony limps off and the captain shouts after him, “If you want to blow this station up, you’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way!”

Struggling to stay upright, the lieutenant scurries on, planning to make a right at the last coil, follow the partition, and return to the control room. As soon as he reaches the coil, the shriek of a phaser rifle in action sounds behind him, and he fears his escape was too slow. Milliseconds later, the phaser blast strikes the coil, and three forks of lightning erupt with such violence that it throws Tony off balance and slams him against the partition. Scrambling for his rifle, he spins around to face his captain, who fires five shots in a row from across the room.

Tony can’t help but brace himself as he fires back. The anticipated phaser impacts don’t happen, though, nor do any of Tony’s phaser blasts strike Rinckes. The coils beside him and the captain influence the blasts’ trajectories and pull them in before they can reach the other side. As a result, hazardous branches of electricity discharge from the coils, further dissuading the two from firing. This could be compensated by firing from closer range, but neither of them are inclined to step forward and risk being hit by phaser fire or a miniature lightning bolt.

“You’re wasting time,” Rinckes says. “Why not hurry to Emily?” Arcing electricity surrounding them discolors the whites of his eyes, lending him an otherworldly appearance. “Isn’t this a dream come true? You’ll be with her again! Why this constant desire to be the hero? Sacrificing yourself for the greater good I’d understand, but how could you sacrifice her so willingly?”

“Argue all you want,” Tony says, “but let’s call it what it is: You’re trying to justify running off with Melanie Simons, damning the Alpha and Beta Quadrant to a horrible future. Billions will be systematically slaughtered by Altonoids and brainwashed S’Prenn and you’re okay with it?”

“I’m not sure you—”

“One thing we agree on, Captain. You’re not a hero.” He fires at Rinckes and strikes the coil next to the captain, creating the diversion Tony needs to move out of sight.

Having confused Rinckes for however long it will last, he circles a group of coils, hoping to get a bead on his opponent, who is on the move too, judging from the footsteps barely audible over the humming coils. A closer proximity to his captain should negate the coils’ appetite for phaser—

A violent eruption of lightning lashes out at him, singes his left ear, and knocks him to the floor. Ignoring the pain and the smell of burnt flesh, he stands up immediately and tries to reacquire his target for a frantic moment, before running into a random direction to evade the second outburst.

In the chaos, his ever-diligent inner tactician presents him with a useful addition to his strategy: He’s near the blasthole in the partition, so if he were to sneak through it into the control room and take position by the gap, he’d have a significant advantage over Rinckes, who’d have to either go through the gap too or create a new blasthole himself, giving away his position before entering. Despite the ringing in his ear, Tony ascertains the captain’s whereabouts by listening to his footfalls and heavy breathing. Ideally, he should lead Rinckes to the back of the room while progressing to the entrance himself. Nice plan, almost sufficient distraction from his racing heart and the thudding pain in his sore body.

“You can’t hide forever,” Rinckes says.

Taunts like these help Tony determine the captain’s location. He maneuvers himself to where in his line of sight the captain is barely visible between a set of coils. Before Rinckes can become aware he is being watched, Tony fires. As expected, the coils attract the blast; it misses its mark but hits the last coil, which causes Rinckes to lift a hand to shield himself from its lightning branches.

Quickly, Tony puts the next line of coils between himself and the captain.

“Whatever you’re planning, you won’t succeed,” he hears Rinckes say. “Cowardice always leads to failure.”

These attempts at discouragement remind Tony of Captain Sharpe’s posturing over the comm, back in 2387. It didn’t work then and it doesn’t now, so he repeats his trick of firing at specific coils until he reaches the ragged hole in the partition and slinks up to it.

Just as he puts a hand on the frayed transparent aluminum and prepares to crawl through, Rinckes speaks up from somewhere in the chamber. “Emily would’ve been ashamed of you. At least she died with dignity.”

It stops Tony dead in his tracks.

“I saw it, saw how she died, surrounded by Altonoid soldiers. Ted had already been killed. They’d sliced his EV suit and left him to suffocate. Emily was next. She undid the medical appliances he had fastened to her suit and stood up to face her executioner.”

Tony is frozen in place, his body temperature flaring, the partition cold to the touch.

“She looked him straight in the eye, gritted her teeth. ‘Do what you must,’ she told him. Impressed by her valor, he sheathed his knife, grabbed a handphaser to grant her a swift death, and vaporized her.” Rinckes’ voice is closing in. “Now that is how a Starfleet officer handles imminent defeat.”

It takes everything to keep from replying and revealing his position. The captain couldn’t possibly know all this, yet he speaks with such confidence and in such detail there is no question he’s telling the truth.

“She doesn’t deserve to be collateral damage of your obsession with making a difference. She deserves to live, Tony. She deserves someone who places her well-being above his personal goals. Vaporize the station, vaporize her. You’d be no better than the Altonoid bastard who shot her.”

Brimming with anger, Tony abruptly turns around and sees Rinckes stepping out from between two coils and opening fire. Tony stumbles backward through the partition as the nearest coil bends the blasts away from his torso and into his phaser rifle, reducing it to shattered fragments of hot metal. He trips into the control room, lets what remains of his only means of defense clatter to the floor, and wobbles toward the same exit that tempted him to go find Emily. As soon as he arrives at the double sliding doors, he rips open its LCARS panel and begins regrouping wires and isolinear chips to override the lock.

Bits of phaser rifle crunch under Rinckes’ shoes, alerting Tony of the captain’s presence and motivating him to speed up his attempts to open the doors.

“End of the line, Tony.”

He needs five seconds at most to complete the override, and there’s no point in surrendering to a man possessed. Once he has removed the chip in the bottom left corner, the next—

Rinckes fires.

Multiple phaser blasts strike Tony in his right leg from thigh to ankle, and he collapses onto the carpet. It’s as if his leg is on fire, every nerve ending sending up indescribable anguish. Screaming, he twists onto his side and reaches for his blackened leg, its broken skin and cauterized veins rough under his fingertips. Near the blasthole in the partition stands Captain Rinckes, breathing heavily, his bloodshot eyes peering through strands of tussled hair.

Clasping his maimed leg, Tony pushes himself up with his free arm and steers himself toward the bulkhead. Rinckes keeps staring at him from six meters away, unmoving and unmoved. “You’re wrong,” Tony spits out as he props himself up against the bulkhead. “If Emily died bravely, like you said, she’d give her life… to save billions. She’d understand.”

“I can’t let you live.”

Years of accumulated fatigue take hold of Tony. “I didn’t know Melanie Simons well.” Head listing, he sizes up the man whose actions will determine the course of history. “But if she’s worth damning billions to an early grave, if she’s as valuable as you claim…”

A subtle trembling of Rinckes’ facial muscles. “She is.”

“…she’d give her life too.”

Rinckes lets his gaze drifts past the lieutenant, to the exit, then levels his rifle at him. “I’ll make sure she never has to make that sacrifice.”

Tony locks eyes with his captain and sees deep into the broken man’s soul. Duty, morality, allegiance, the greater good—nothing will ever come between him and the one person in the universe who can heal his festering grief. Tony has to accept his fate and make peace with the end of his failed life. Without breaking off his stare, he pulls himself together enough to decide on his final words and speaks them to his executioner. “Do what you must.”

This simple phrase stings his captain, chips away at the cracks in his mask. Rinckes’ eyes water, yet he pulls the trigger.

The phaser blast strikes Tony in the gut with the force of a shuttle crash. Lying supine and with the back of his head still in contact with the bulkhead, he wants to howl in pain and terror but lacks the strength to do so. Feeling both hot and dry, as if his insides have been cooked, everything below the waist is alternating between numbness and sheer agony as the nauseating scent of charred flesh intensifies.

From the borders of Tony’s narrowing tunnel vision, Rinckes enters view, wiping at tears with the heel of his palm. “I-I’m so sorry… I... I didn’t…” He alternates between walking off and returning to his victim, goes around in circles, slaps the partition in helpless rage.

Each breath requires an unholy amount of effort. Speaking is out of the question. Not that Tony knows what to say; the impact trauma alone has stupefied him, dulled his senses to a merciful degree. His legs refuse to obey him, having become useless collections of meat and bone. So, without any choice, he watches the captain pace back and forth, one fist clutching his hair, the other his rifle.

Rinckes’ shoulders quake with repressed sobs. “I have to get going.” He gives the fading lieutenant a final look with eyes begging for forgiveness. “You were a good man. A good man… Better than I ever was.” He staggers away, his contrite stare lingering on the Achilles’ last crewmember until he bumps into the opened LCARS panel and resumes the lock override. “You got pretty far,” he says in a feeble attempt to compliment the dying.

It matters little to Tony, who is struggling to retain clarity of thought, as even the suggestion of trying to get up is too much to parse. He is vaguely aware of the doors opening for the captain and footsteps disappearing in the hallway. These are his final moments as a living being, one who was destined for infinity but will cease to exist like any mortal, like any of his friends. He’d expected to think of his loved ones, the people he cherishes, and he strains to focus on them and choose his dying thoughts.

But he’s a tactician at heart. Bit by bit, from the fog in his mind, his extremely limited options coalesce into a plan, his last shot at fulfilling his mission.

Though his flesh and muscles feel like lead, he slides his arm toward the tricorder secured to his belt. Slowly, he removes the slim handheld device from its holster and lifts it. Char stains prove it has sustained damage, but it still powers up. Its screen flickers and its image tears, but it responds to commands. A small recess in the tricorder’s back houses an emergency transport unit, ready for use. With shaking fingers, he detaches the small, round unit from the tricorder and pins it on his chest.

A fleeting hint of panic reminds him the Altonoids have set up a transporter scrambler in this area. He surmises, or rather hopes, that such a scrambler designed to prevent people from beaming in would be ineffectual against a functioning transport unit attached to someone inside its field.

He exerts every ounce of willpower to manually configure the transport unit via its paired tricorder, stopping briefly to thank Jon Terrell for his invention. The passage of time becomes increasingly subjective as his grip on life weakens, but soon enough the tricorder displays the one message he longed to see:

READY TO INPUT DESTINATION
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Alexbright99
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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter VIII Segment B

Post by Alexbright99 »

The handful of seconds it takes to beam to another location lasts an eternity for a mortally wounded person. Beaming anywhere in such fragile condition is ill-advised, but Lieutenant Tony Blue accepted the risk of using the emergency transport unit he carried with him to whisk him from the control room where he was shot. And not a minute too soon; a fresh batch of Altonoid soldiers entered the room the instant he initialized transport to deck 56 of Station A-12.

Feeling not quite put together, he materializes in a familiar, rectangular storage bay, one he hasn’t visited in over seven years from his skewed perspective. Stacks of equipment fill the two-deck-high chamber, which is surprisingly dim by Federation standards. Four dead officers—one of whom he recognizes as Lieutenant Clayton, who gazes at the ceiling, cramped fingers clutching a non-existent rifle—and an indeterminate number of Altonoid corpses surround him. Soon, Tony realizes, he will become part of this macabre scenery.

But not yet.

Dealing with flashes of excruciating pain befitting his scrambled gut and leg, he lolls his head to the side and instantly knows he has arrived in the right place at the right time. In fact, the beam-in point is accurate to the meter, because next to him, sitting against a blackened crate and nursing a vile phaser wound above the right hip, eighteen-year-old Commander Tony Q gawks at his older self. “What the bloody hell?”

Tony Blue hasn’t been able to draw a single breath since he beamed over, his tunnel vision is blurring, and the muscles in his arms and fingers exhibit sluggish reactions, as if they’re waterlogged.

Horrified, Tony Q looks on. “You’re… I’m… You’re dying.”

With a limp hand, Tony Blue plucks the transport unit off his tattered uniform. He hoists his arm over to Tony Q’s chest and affixes the unit to his younger self.

“I don’t understand.”

You will soon. Tony Blue presses the transport unit, and its blinking red light signals it’s ready to perform its preprogrammed function. This simple gesture depletes his last morsel of strength; he cannot even retract his wrist and lets it rest on Tony Q’s torso, who is too dumbfounded to move or avert his gaze as the unit dematerializes him in a swirl of blue light.

Tony’s hand falls through the dissipating chest and hits the floor. He has done all he can. Sending his younger version to the Kennedy might influence the space battle enough for them to hold the station just that much longer. It might not. His final deed as a human could have been a fool’s errand, but he won’t be around to observe the results.

Everything has gone silent. He chuckles to himself, or at least he thinks he does; he didn’t make a sound. The Kennedy’s shields are in abysmal condition yet still activated, but he remembered its harmonics and access codes. How could he forget? Having served there was a formative experience in his career and personal development. The Kennedy’s crew may not even have noticed him beaming his younger version straight through their weakened shields. He had one shot at this, because the modified transport unit permits two uses in total, but he made it work. He succeeded.

The sum of all pain, both mental and physical, is diminishing, as if it has been loaded onto a freighter and waved off. Remotely, he is aware someone is suffocating. From the peripheries of his existence, darkness encroaches and carries him away from the discomfort of his horrific injuries.

To him, the idea of a hereafter is absurd, but his entire life has been a chain of absurdities. Would it be too much to ask to have Emily waiting on the other side, the Emily he had to leave behind at Nedron Eight? As his mind loses the ability to retain consciousness, he thinks of Emily. Her winning smile has always conquered the darkness.

This is no exception.

So he thinks of her, for as long as his synapses allow, and expires.

* * *

Lieutenant Tony Blue opens his eyes. He is lying in an unnatural, bunched-up position near the blackened crate in the storage bay, staring at the exact location from which he beamed his younger self to the Kennedy. Only this time, his eyesight is 20/20 instead of blurring to nothingness. The pain is gone, so is his tiredness. Feeling like the vigorous twenty-five-year-old he should be, he sits up and looks at his wounds.

With a shudder, he realizes he has two bodies: one in healthy condition and responding to his brain’s input, and one lying on the floor in the same contorted pose he woke up in. He jumps to his feet and steps back, hypnotized by the troubling sight of his corpse: dried S’Prenn blood covering pallid skin, outstretched arm resting on the carpet, red and black burns marking his bruised neck and shoulders, his left ear scorched, lifeless eyes staring at nothing, his stomach and right leg charred and smoldering.

“So you’ve finally joined the choir invisible,” Q says, startling him.

Tony swivels around. His former mentor stands a few meters away, arms spread wide, dressed in a robe of blinding white fabric.

“You’re dead!” Q resumes cheerfully. “Took you long enough. I’m kind of amazed you survived for almost a decade in an environment this lethal. So many ways to die for a fragile humanoid, especially one who insists on becoming the deciding factor in a complex interstellar war.”

Hostility would be an apt response to Q’s showing up to gloat once more, but Tony’s relief over feeling well again far outweighs his annoyance. “Why are you here?”

“Ooh, seems like Captain Joyless’ pragmatism has rubbed off on you.” Q makes a dismissive gesture toward Tony’s remains. “Interesting fellow, tu capitan. His methods of rewarding loyalty are, shall we say, unique. You support him through thick and thin and he rearranges your anatomy with a phaser rifle.”

Tony refuses to look back at his corpse; it’s too disturbing. “Rinckes is a deeply wounded man.”

“Whose favorite hobby is deeply wounding others.”

“I wish it were different. What he did was terrible, but I pity him. He’s too broken to fulfill the mission we set out to achieve. I genuinely hope he finds and rescues Melanie. At least let him… do that one good thing.”

Q scoffs. “I bet you do.” He shakes his head. “You’ve changed over the years. Your ability to empathize with others, to see past their actions and gauge their inner motivations, and to collaborate with them accordingly is both unsettling and impressive.”

“Um, okay.”

“Without those qualities, you would’ve been killed ten times over.” From thin air, he summons an old-fashioned blackboard with a floating piece of chalk to jot down the points he’s making. “Take your little adventure aboard the S’Prenn wreckage, for example. An individual lacking your empathy wouldn’t have been moved by Kronn’s ravings and talked to him in a voice hoarse with emotion, a display of sympathy identifying you as an ally. This humble, instinctive reaction kept him from tearing you to shreds.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“But wait, there’s more!” Q’s piece of chalk draws dozens of cartoon renditions of the USS Achilles. “Your actions kept the crew together during a protracted, impossibly dangerous mission behind enemy lines. Do you have any idea how often the Achilles evaded certain destruction?” The cartoon starships blow up one after another in clouds of chalk dust. “All because her crew operated as a unit and trusted you and the captain.”

“Why are you so positive about me all of a sudden? Are you… eulogizing me?”

“You’re not listening, Tony. If you hadn’t forgiven Rinckes for abandoning Emily at Nedron Eight, the Achilles would’ve been lost long before it ever got near the Aragos Sector. A divided or outright mutinous crew would have perished early in the final battle, denying you the chance to travel through the portal.” As the last fake Achilles blows up in a puff of chalk, crudely sketched stick figures representing Tony and his captain appear on the blackboard. “Without Captain Rinckes’ assistance, you wouldn’t have made it to the shuttle bay to procure the Altonoid shuttle, let alone reach Station A-12. Without him, you wouldn’t have been able to activate the time machine before the Altonoids stormed the room. Should I go on?”

“I think I get the gist of it.”

“Side note: I laughed my handsome head off when you were forced to time travel in that rusty Loïdian tanning booth, but I digress.” Q points at the stick figures acting out Tony and Rinckes’ journey through the station. “All events have led you to becoming the man you are today, and that in turn has enabled you to send your younger version to the Kennedy.”

“Not all events,” Tony interjects, causing the stick figures to stop their performance and impatiently tap their feet. “You personally airlifted me out of San Francisco as Earth lay burning. If it had been up to me… I’m convinced I couldn’t have made it out after I saw my father die. You saved me.”

The stick figures mock him in high-pitched voices and disappear along with their blackboard. “Well,” Q says. “As much as I’d love to take credit for such gallantry, it was the transport shuttle pilot who decided to land close to you. Poor sap was dying of some grievous phaser wound suffered before he fled into his shuttle. You barbaric bipedal hominids truly love to maim each other with energy weapons, don’t you? Regardless, he wanted to drag you aboard. How nice of him. I never gave him the chance, though. I took his place the moment he stepped outside.” A dangerous glint in his eye reveals he has had no qualms about expediting the pilot’s imminent death.

Tony isn’t fooled. Regardless of the conversation they’re having, it’s clear he is nothing but a spectator to Q’s plans. He tries not to dwell on it, considers himself lucky to be alive for now.

“Apart from that one instance, you have always been able to pull yourself out of the dirt, pat off blood and dust, and use adversity to strengthen your resolve.” Q squelches a devious smile. “I might have displayed anger when you walked away from me the last time we met, but deep down inside I was proud. You’re your own man, Tony. The Q Continuum is wrong about you. Over and over, you’ve exhibited the same qualities they selected you for in the first place, and if they won’t recognize that… it’s their loss and your friends’ gain.”

Uncertain fate or not, it remains perplexing to hear a stream of positive remarks pouring from an entity who has devoted his existence to being snide and sarcastic toward those he deems inferior—i.e., basically everyone. “So what happens now?” Tony asks. Although he is interested in the answer, his gaze is drawn to a chunk of debris. Is that where—?

“After what you’ve been through, I figured a reward would be in order.” Q raises an index finger in preemptive beratement. “Now I won’t do anything as rash as reviving your corpse and healing your extensive… I’m sorry, am I boring you?”

Whatever this “reward” is, it will have to wait, because Tony homes in on the debris and identifies it as the remnants of a crate and its contents. He kneels to grab it by the edges and lift it, but his fingers ghost straight through it.

“Ah, you should’ve told me you were planning to redecorate,” Q says, ambling over to him. “I’d have given your illusory appearance the ability to interact with the environment, apart from just the floor, of course.” He halts by the other side of the debris. “Call me picky, but I hate it when my conversation partner sinks through the floor in mid-conversation.”

“Emily is caught underneath. This is where we met, properly met, I mean. Sure, I flirted with her as soon as I saw her in our security squad, but this is where we had our first conversation. I freed her from the rubble; she helped me escape.”

“How weird this must be to your monkey brain.”

“I must see her.”

“Tony, look at me,” Q says, sounding uncharacteristically serious. “Here’s what I am willing to do for you, even if it will land me in trouble with the Continuum. Oh, don’t worry about me. I’ve extricated myself from tighter spots with them. I do need you to listen carefully.”

Though it puts the entirety of his inner strength to the test, Tony shelves his desire to be reunited with Emily, straightens up, and gives Q his complete attention.

“I froze time the second you involuntarily relocated younger you. My timing was no coincidence. Callow teen Tony is currently stuck in the transport buffer, the waiting room, if you will, ready to take shape on the good ole Kennedy’s bridge.”

Tony hasn’t a clue where Q is going with this.

Q must’ve read his expression, because he simpers before reassuming a serious demeanor. “I am willing to ‘accidentally’ merge your knowledge, memories, and consciousness with the younger Tony in the transport buffer.”

“Wait, what?”

“You said it yourself, the Federation’s future agencies possess technology to merge two persons who have no business occupying the same time. What I propose is similar but more refined.” Q studies his nails in feigned modesty. “And quite straightforward for a higher being of my magnitude.”

Tony is at a momentary loss for words, then says, “I’m not saying I’m not grateful…”

“Is a terrible way of thanking me.”

“…but I’m not entirely… Uh, I didn’t expect…” He scratches his nose. “I don’t know.”

“What else is new? Let me fill in the blanks: By merging the person you are now with who you were, I’m giving you a fighting chance to protect the collection of humanoids so precious to you. And, as a bonus, you will get to prolong your miserable, short stint as a human somewhat. By seconds, hours, decades? It’s up to you.”

The more Tony contemplates this strange gift, the more enthusiasm he feels. Sending his young self on a mission was the one plan at his disposal. If anything, Q’s gift will improve this desperate tactic’s probability of success.

“It’s your call. I mean, should you—”

“I’ll take it.”

“No doubts? No internal struggle? My schedule’s pretty open. We could sit here and chat for eons.”

“No doubts. I choose life.”

“You’ve got yourself a deal.” A Machiavellian grin forms on Q’s smug visage. “You really have no idea, do you?”

This sets off a belated slew of alarm bells in Tony’s mind. “No?”

“Aren’t you forgetting something? Something you, my dear Tony, set in motion with your last mortal deed?” Q starts sauntering about the room. “Your team took down quite a few Altonoids despite being ambushed. Look at these Altonoid casualties.” He halts by one. “Dead.” He walks over to the next. “Also dead.” He halts by a third one and says in an ominous tone, “Very much alive.”

A memory surfaces, too hazy to define.

“Knocked unconscious by Ensign Lucas, the rookie in your team. He should’ve gone for the kill instead of a one-punch KO. This angry fellow is waking up from his nap.”

The memory clicks in place. “Yes, and then tried to shoot me. He nearly succeeded, but I resisted and got him first. That convinced me to quit moping and get going. That’s when I…” Found Emily, he wants to say. “Oh no. Don’t tell me…”

“With you out of the picture, who is there to stop him? Upon waking, this chap, teeming with aggression and bitterness over losing his buddies, will wander the chamber until he hears movement from underneath a chunk of debris, lifts it, and finds a Starfleet ensign.”

“No, tell me you’re making this up.” He may be tethered to the floor, but it’s as if he’s sinking through it regardless. “This won’t happen. This is one of your stories, your tricks.”

“Oh, I’m afraid not, Tony. This is what you get from interfering with the past. You sent young Tony to the Kennedy, and by doing so triggered Emily’s untimely demise. Or perhaps the correct term would be untimelier.”

“I… I didn’t know. I should have… I…”

Q chuckles. “You mean you didn’t think things through as you lay dying? Chin up, Tony. Don’t blame yourself. After all, you’re only human.”

Tony stares at the chunk of debris he cannot lift, separating him from the woman he misses so keenly. “I tried to do everything right. I’m so sorry, Emi—”

“Yeah, let me stop you right there. Having observed you throughout space and time, it’s beyond obvious you’d be happier with Emily in your life. However, I’m doubtful the Continuum will permit me to outright save her for you. Merging you with your younger self is already testing a volatile combination of my luck and their patience.”

“You don’t have to explain to me what they’re like… I do appreciate your consideration, at least.”

“There may be an alternative, a slight adjustment with grave consequences. Here’s what I have in mind, but the decision is yours and yours alone.”

“I’m listening.”

Q lowers his gaze and sets his jaw before saying, “Beaming through the Kennedy’s shields with a portable transport unit configured with a damaged tricorder? So many variables to make your daring stunt fail. I’d say the biggest risk is having the transport pattern bounce off the shields, returning your merged, alive version to this very room.”

The implications confound Tony, and he is once again speechless.

“You’d shoot the awakening Altonoid, lift the debris, and escape the station with Emily, like you did before. This time, acknowledging the war is unwinnable and doesn’t benefit from your participation, you two will travel to Klingon space as soon as you’ve wooed her, and live out a long and happy life together out of harm’s way.”

Merely imagining this disarms Tony’s grief, locks it in a truce both blissful and untenable.

“Of course, if you’re not on the Kennedy’s bridge when time resumes, you forfeit your only chance to save the Federation, dependent on holding Station A-12 until the backup fleet arrives, the odds of which aren’t favorable.”

Tony falls to his hands and knees, as if supplicating to the higher being in front of him. In truth, he cannot stay upright; his heart is torn. “Why are you doing this to me?”

“This isn’t punishment. I’m offering you a chance to determine your fate, which is more than most mortals get.”

Clawing at the floor, Tony wheezes, “I made my choice when Rinckes confronted me.”

“Yes, you did. But it’s not so theoretical anymore, is it, with Emily close enough to touch? Don’t overthink it, though. You’ve done plenty of ruminating the past years.”

Tony gathers the strength to look up at Q, whose white robe shines brighter each passing second, as if a timer is running out. “It’s too much. It’s always been too much.”

“No, it isn’t. It’s a simple binary choice, the simplest choice I can offer a sentient primate. You either potentially save the Federation or you definitely save Emily.”

Tony bites his bottom lip and gazes at the debris. All the determination he had accrued to fulfill his duty, to make a difference, to fight his captain in the coil room, has evaporated. How could he condemn her to this fate? All he has to do is agree to Q’s proposition. “I…”

“Yes?”

“I love her.” Tony’s voice is but a whisper. “I still do. I always will.”

“So you’ve made your choice.”

“I’d give everything to hold her once more.” He forces himself to face his tempter. “How would that play out? I save her, live out my life with her, settle down far away.”

“Sounds good.”

“We talked about… having children someday.” A wavering smile causes his lips to quiver. “That could happen then. That would be possible.”

For once, Q has no witty reply.

“And every time I’d look into her eyes, look into our children’s eyes…” Resolve floods back into his speech. “I’d see death.”

Q remains quiet as his expression turns stony.

“I’d see the death toll I inflicted on the galaxy, just because my personal contentment outweighed untold suffering.” Strengthened by his conclusion, Tony rises to his feet. “If she ever were to find out what I’d done—and she would, because she always saw right through me—she would never forgive me. No, I know what she’d—” Brave as his attempts to keep from crying have been so far, grief and bittersweet respect thicken his throat. “I know what she’d want me to do. God, I miss her so much.” A brief sob breaks free as he fights to retain a modicum of composure. “Q, I must go to the Kennedy.”

“Is that final?”

“Whether I want to or not, it’s where I belong.”

“As you wish,” Q says in a flat tone.

Tony takes off his wedding ring and clutches it in his fist, holding it near as if it were the only radiant object in a frigid world. “Goodbye, Emily,” he says and gently places the ring on the debris, although it’s as illusory as his current form and should fall right through.

Q humors him by preventing the ring from doing so and watches it rest on the debris. “It will vanish as soon as I merge you with younger you.”

Tony gives him a resigned nod.

“Are you ready?”

“Almost.” He wipes his tears and lets out a deep sigh, then sidesteps the debris, walks over to Q—his retina-burning white robe be damned—and extends a hand. “It may not mean anything to you coming from an obstinate mortal, but… Thank you.”

Hesitant at first, Q accepts the handshake. His mouth contorts into a twisted smirk—part scorn, part admiration. “Good luck.” He raises his free hand in the air and snaps his fingers, dissolving Tony’s surroundings in a white flash.
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Alexbright99
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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter VIII Segment C

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Two minds occupy one place, one moment, share a footprint in space and time. Is he Commander Tony Q or Lieutenant Tony Blue? Is he an eighteen-year-old, an adult in name only, who has recently lost his omnipotent Q powers, or a twenty-five-year-old who has lived through loss and disappointment as he strove to protect his ideals and loved ones? The correct answer surfaces from the depths of his psyches: He is both.

He remembers the events leading up to assisting humanity at the cost of forgoing his powers and invulnerability at Station A-12, where he fought alongside a security squad from the Kennedy until he was ambushed and injured. He remembers an overwhelming droning sound that would’ve torn the station apart hadn’t it suddenly ceased. He remembers lying there in the storage bay, ready to curse his feebleness, when his older version beamed in and put a small transporter device on him.

But he also remembers how the droning sound and encountering his older self never occurred. He recalls finding Emily among the rubble and escaping Station A-12, building a life with her on Earth, reuniting with his father, the onset of the Federation-Altonoid war, the S’Prenn’s inexplicable withdrawal, witnessing the pillaging of Earth, his father’s death, fleeing to Klingon space, being assigned as the Achilles’ first officer, befriending her crew, losing Emily, losing his friends, losing his ship, traveling back in time with his captain, who’d betray him. He remembers dying. He remembers the impossible dilemma Q presented him.

He is Commander Tony Q, filled with youthful arrogance, naivety, and bravado.

He is Lieutenant Tony Blue, weathered, centered, and compassionate.

He is one individual, one entity, caught in a transport buffer until he will rematerialize. The universe will know him as Commander Tony Q, but he’s more than that. So much more.

* * *

USS Kennedy – June 26, 2380 – Stardate 57485.8
As the transport unit attached to Tony’s chest expends its last energy to reassemble him, a familiar, nostalgic sight engulfs him. This is the vessel he served on in his days as a Q/human hybrid: the Sovereign-class USS Kennedy, which, as history records, will be lost today defending Station A-12. The image of her sliced-open stardrive section drifting and spewing debris has always haunted him. And now, he is standing on her bridge, behind the captain’s chair, watching her bruised and battered crew in the throes of combat, two prototype Massal-class Altonoid warships on the viewscreen.

He’d never seen the damage the bridge had sustained, how this once orderly command center had been upended by the chaos of ship-to-ship combat. It reminds him of the Achilles’ final moments at Aragos.

A sharp pain above his right hip stirs plenty of memories as well. In terms of suffering, it’s a breeze compared to the fatal injuries Rinckes gifted him, but a phaser wound is a phaser wound. He does his best to ignore the nagging pain and takes in his new surroundings. Red alert automatically dims the lights, and the Altonoids’ incessant attacks have darkened the bridge further. Many of the wall- and station-mounted LCARS panels are malfunctioning, varying from flickering screens to downright inoperable consoles, and rubble lies everywhere. The starboard side has taken the brunt of it; two red alert pillars and the wall display between them have sheared off—revealing networks of exposed conduits and circuitry—and crushed the science and first officer’s chairs and stations.

Tony counts six other people on the bridge: The ops and helm stations in front of the bridge are manned, two engineers are desperately performing field repairs, an ensign types into his tactical console while goggling at Tony, and a Vulcan is sitting in the captain’s chair as if it were any ordinary day, even though the bridge shudders like a defective hover coaster.

“S-sir,” the ensign says.

The Vulcan lieutenant pivots his chair to face their surprise guest.

Tony immediately recognizes him as Lieutenant Sivar, the Kennedy’s science officer, left in command of the vessel when Captain Duvivier and Commander Jansen boarded Station A-12.

Sivar arches an eyebrow. “Commander?”

Tony is aware he and Sivar never got along swimmingly, not in the least because of the Continuum’s dismissive attitude toward Vulcans. In the here and now, however, seeing Sivar alive and well is enough for him to develop an instant lump in his throat. “I have missed you, Sivar.”

Somehow, Sivar manages to arch his eyebrow even higher as Tony stumbles toward him. After two steps, the phaser wound asserts itself with nauseating pain, so Tony reaches for it and touches the clammy, semi-healed skin underneath the phaser-beam-sized hole in his uniform. As it is, he can barely stand.

“Are you all right, Tony?” the blonde helmsman, Lieutenant Junior Grade Malin, asks.

Lieutenant Sven Muntenaar, the ops officer seated next to her, frowns at him. “What happened to you?”

“Am I correct to assume your immortality has been rescinded?” Sivar asks.

Though he is elated to be with his former colleagues again, Tony realizes his arrival has disrupted their focus. “If time permitted, I’d give you all a hug,” he says, staggering to the tactical station, “but we have a job to do. Please return to your duties.”

Puzzled, the crew obeys.

“Do you want us to call a medic to the bridge?” Sivar asks.

“That’s okay, Sivvy. They’re busy enough. I’m not in the best of shapes, but I have some fight left in me.” Tony gets to the tactical station behind the empty second officer’s chair and clings to it. He looks up at the tall, boyish ensign currently in charge of tactical. “Ensign Parkin, right?”

“Correct, sir.”

“I’ll take it from here, Mr. Parkin.”

A direct hit to the ship’s saucer rumbles the bridge and Tony nearly loses his footing. Parkin clutches Tony’s arm to steady him and shoulders a portion of his weight, enabling the commander to concentrate on operating the console.

“Thanks, Ensign.” A Sovereign-class starship’s tactical console shares many similarities with that of the Achilles, and he has worked at this post before, so Tony adapts to its layout quickly. The evasive maneuvers laid in by Parkin in coordination with the helm are crude but acceptable, and he expands them into more complex and effective maneuvers. “Sivar, I hereby take command of the Kennedy and appoint you as acting first officer. It is within your rights to dispute this.”

Sivar purses his lips in thought. “Your health concerns me, Commander.”

“Rightly so, but I have Parkin to aid me.”

“In addition, you have not commanded a Federation starship since becoming a full member of the Continuum.”

“Believe me when I say I’m not out of practice. Your skepticism is perfectly logical, Sivar, but I am asking you to trust me.”

The Vulcan scrutinizes him with the intensity of a remote mind meld, then concludes, “I have no objections. You have the conn.”

“Thank you, Sivar. Please continue coordinating the battle so I can focus on tactical. Helm and ops, status report.”

Malin—the Trill helmsman in her mid-twenties—looks simultaneously older than him and younger than he remembers. “Impulse engines and thrusters damaged but functional. Warp drive unavailable; warp core has been ejected. Auxiliary power is declining.”

“Deflectors, shields, and sensors heavily damaged,” Muntenaar adds. “Structural integrity dropping to critical levels. Shuttle bays are smashed and inaccessible. Segments of the ship are cut off from communication.” At thirty years old, the black-haired ops officer also seems younger and older at once. It’s uncanny to serve with these lost friends, as if Tony never had to process their passing and move on with his life somehow. From their perspective, they saw Tony mere hours ago, when he argued with Q on the bridge over helping humanity. From his, they have been raised from the dead.

An enemy phaser strike ricochets off the Kennedy’s hull, courtesy of a brilliantly executed maneuver that lets the vessel roll with the punches by adjusting roll and yaw to incoming fire without sacrificing offense. “Keep these evasive maneuvers coming, sir,” Malin says. “We need them.” She’s as good a pilot as he recalls.

These wild maneuvers allow Tony to glimpse at the Akira-class USS Wolf letting loose with her torpedo launchers and phaser arrays. She is damaged but in better shape than the Kennedy and tries to draw attention from the enemy warships. The Sundance’s saucer is still around too, but its counterattacks are clumsy in comparison.

“A word of warning,” Muntenaar says. “Some of these maneuvers carry a high risk of worsening our already problematic hull integrity.”

Sivar glances at the commander.

“Noted,” Tony says. “It’s a risk worth taking.” He targets the closest Massal, whose shields are weakening, and inspects the Kennedy’s weaponry. Her torpedo complement is fine, but her quantum torpedo launcher and a third of her phaser arrays have been rendered unusable. The arrays that do work form a massive drain on the overtaxed reserve battery. He doesn’t say it, a commanding officer shouldn’t, but the Kennedy will perish in this battle. The one uncertainty is how soon.

As Sivar issues supplementary orders to the bridge crew, Tony thinks up and executes every viable offensive and defensive tactical maneuver at his disposal while clinging to the console and Parkin, who helps him input commands. Though these interfaces have been optimized for a single user, Tony welcomes an extra pair of hands in a scenario this complex. It also frees up a portion of his brainpower for a question that’s been eating at him ever since the coil room’s main interface showed these Massal prototypes: If the experimental phaser system was so powerful in this battle, why has he never encountered any other Altonoid vessel with similar technology? Why did they discontinue it? On the viewscreen, he sees the massive phaser array that is snaking the Altonoid warship firing four simultaneous phaser beams at the Sundance’s saucer. There has to be a reason.

“You sure about this?” Parkin asks discreetly after Tony has prepared a new series of evasive maneuvers that served him well during his tenure as the Achilles’ chief tactical officer.

“It’ll deflect two out of the four beams for six seconds and allow us to return fire at the lead Massal once we hit coordinates 224 mark 045.”

“Readying photon torpedoes.”

“You’ve read my mind.”

Malin scoffs as she initiates the mix of evasive and attack patterns. “I don’t know how you guys are concocting these bold strategies, but I like them.”

Muntenaar refrains from commenting; he simply holds on tighter to his ops station.

The Kennedy creaks and torques as she rolls to starboard and readjusts its bearing repeatedly, playing with momentum in a seemingly random pattern until she ends up aligning her forward torpedo launchers with the Massal. Two Altonoid phaser beams graze the hull and jolt the bridge.

“Now, Ensign!” Tony yells.

In bursts of three, a total of nine photon torpedoes dart from the Kennedy’s launchers to converge on the Massal’s bow. The Altonoid vessel’s automated defenses manage to shoot two of them without causing detonations, another engineering feat never to be implemented in later vessels, but seven torpedoes do hit their mark and pound its shields and rectangular hull.

Malin pumps her fist. “Ooh, they felt that!”

“So did our ship,” Muntenaar says. “I hate to rain on our parade…”

“Speak freely, Lieutenant,” Tony says.

“Our structural integrity has dropped to fourteen percent.”

“I hear you. Keep us informed.”

Sivar throws him another skeptical glance. “Commander, I recommend we request the Wolf to order our fleet’s immediate withdrawal.”

“What? No.”

“Logic dictates that if there is no possible way to win a battle, we should not risk the lives of our crews in a desperate attempt to achieve the unachievable.”

“Sivar, we—” A thunderous explosion from amidships shakes the bridge and launches half its crew into the air. Somehow, Parkin holds on to Tony, who hooks an arm around the tactical console to prevent them from flying across the bridge. As a result, something painful snaps inside his phaser wound, but he and Parkin continue their tactical duties undeterred once up is up and down is down again.

“Additional hull breaches, decks seven through thirteen,” Muntenaar shouts.

The stabbing pain is mellowing slightly, enough for Tony to conclude—or rather assume—this acrobatic performance won’t prove lethal to him. “We can’t give up. Station A-12 must not fall.”

“I do not intend to dispirit us, Commander,” Sivar says. “However, one might say the station has already fallen. Retreat is, at this point, a valid option, or perhaps the only option, if we are to save our vessels and thereby minimize casualties.”

History agrees with Sivar, but there is more at stake than the hundreds of souls spread across three starships. Tony considers informing the bridge crew of his being from the future and the billions of lives hanging in the balance, wishes he didn’t have to bear such a heavy responsibility alone. He’d better not; this is hardly the time for a Q&A session on his bizarre journey. He sticks to his knowledge of the present. “This is supposed to be classified,” he begins, “yet here it is, the unmitigated truth: We don’t have to win this battle.”

This gives everyone pause.

“A backup fleet is inbound,” Tony says. “Eleven fully armed Federation starships.”

Muntenaar sighs in relief. “Good news.”

“Running a bit late, aren’t they?” Malin remarks.

“The cavalry will arrive in several hours. We must hold the station until then.” He makes sure to look each of them in the eyes as he addresses the bridge crew—a leadership technique he has learned from Rinckes. “So we don’t have to win, we have to survive. Many lives depend on us.” Quite an understatement. “I admit the Kennedy has seen better days, so have the Wolf and Sundance. The Altonoids stop at nothing to abuse our peaceful intentions, to slaughter innocents, to crush us.” He curls his upper lip into a sneer. “It ends today. We’re still here, resisting their tyranny. We don’t lie down. And when we fall, we rise.” The bridge’s rumbling and shuddering intensifies, and Tony raises his voice as much as his injuries permit. “Our hulls may groan, we persevere. Our hearts may grow heavy with the increasing death toll, despair may rob us from our fortitude, but what the Altonoids steal from us, we replace with courage. What they draw from our veins, we refill with resilience.” He’s not sure if he’s making sense. His former captain was the man for the speeches. “The fear they wish to instill, we convert it to fuel, which we, uh, burn into strength, and… Ah, dammit, I don’t know.”

“It started okay,” Malin says, flashing him a quick smile.

Tony stifles a grin. “I’ll tell you what I do know: You guys are the best. If anyone can hold the station against the odds, it’s you. And, hell, on this battlefield, I’m proud to fight beside you.”

“Much better,” Muntenaar says. “I’m slightly less terrified.”

“I’m telling you,” Malin says, “he’s improving.”

Parkin gives Tony an encouraging nudge. “We’re with you, sir.”

“Indeed we are,” Sivar says. “If I may quote a famous human author, I believe ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends’ to be an appropriate sentiment.”

“It is, Sivar,” Tony replies. “It is.” One last shot at salvation with his old friends by his side is more than he could’ve hoped for as he lay dying. Another enemy strike rocks the bridge, sending hot sparks at his face and digits, but he doesn’t flinch. The pain passes along with the moment, and he refocuses entirely on his tactical station. Garbled sensors indicate the lead Massal’s shields are down to approximately 25 percent.

Who better to slay a giant than a fallen demigod and his brothers in arms?
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