Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter IX

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Alexbright99
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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter IX

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And we’re back! Many thanks to Ian for giving the Fallen Heroes story a forum subheader of its own.

Starting today, each Friday in June will feature a brand-new chapter segment of Fallen Heroes. 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.

A quick little recap of the previous chapters:
Where we left off, Tony and Rinckes’ simmering conflict had developed into a big phaser fight after they’d travelled back to 2380 in a desperate last-ditch attempt to secure a better future for mankind and her allies. Now, the harrowed Captain Rinckes is roaming the corridors of Station A-12, obsessed with saving the love of his life. Tony, in the meanwhile, having been mortally wounded in said fight, had one final trick up his sleeve as he lay dying: He beamed his eighteen-year-old self to the USS Kennedy, hoping the young Commander Tony Q can make a difference.
Intrigued by Tony’s mettle, his former mentor Q offered to merge the young and old Tony’s minds into one, keeping his knowledge of future events intact, and giving Tony one last fighting chance to fulfill his mission and save those he cares about.
Part II Chapter IX, segment A:

Side by side, two enormous Massal-class Altonoid warships flaunt the experimental phaser arrays wrapped around their hulls like anacondas strangling their victims. They each spew out four simultaneous phaser beams at Station A-12’s three-ship defense fleet. On the Kennedy’s bridge, the wounded Commander Tony Q, who’s manning tactical together with Ensign Parkin, assesses both warships’ condition with the suboptimal sensors of the doomed Sovereign-class vessel he’s on. One of the ships is in frustratingly good shape, having retreated to conduct repairs before rejoining the battle, but the other is starting to weaken at last. “Shields of the Massal we’re targeting are at 20%.”

Parkin shifts more of Tony’s weight onto his shoulder to support the commander and asks, “Should we keep focusing on that vessel, sir?”

“Absolutely. If we blow them up first, it’s one set of deadly phasers out of the mix.”

Lieutenant Sivar, the Vulcan seated in the captain’s chair and appointed acting first officer by Tony, throws him a look.

“Do you concur, Sivar?”

“I do, Commander.”

After a year spent as lieutenant, Tony hasn’t quite grown accustomed to being called a commander again.

Sivar continues, “I recommend we request the flagship to match our strategy and expedite the first Massal’s destruction.”

Tony nods. Judging from the mess of a bridge they’re on, the Massal’s destruction can’t be “expedited” soon enough. “Mr. Muntenaar, open a secure channel and hail the Wolf.”

“Aye sir,” Lieutenant Sven Muntenaar says from his ops station. Another successful enemy strike causes his console to spark. He recoils, quickly runs a hand through his black hair to remove any smoldering fragments caught in it, and continues his duty undeterred. “Captain Suzan Reynolds responding. Putting her on screen.”

Isn’t she the captain of the Satellite, destroyed early in this battle? Now, the tall brunette sits in the captain’s chair on the darkened and demolished Wolf’s bridge as if she has been in charge of the Akira-class vessel all her life, even though she must’ve assumed command after being evacuated from the Satellite’s wreckage. “Lieutenant Sivar,” she says, “please keep it brief.”

Tony leans forward and resists the urge to wave. “I’m the one who hailed you, ma’am. Commander Tony Blue, uh, Q, currently the Kennedy’s acting captain.”

A weapon impact almost liberates Reynolds from her chair, but she is unimpressed. “Did Sivar agree to this?”

“I did, Captain.”

“Fine. Keep it brief.”

“We intend to destroy the weakened Massal first,” Tony says. “We’re asking you and the Sundance to join us. The sooner we’re rid of it, the better.”

The captain decides in milliseconds. “All right, follow our lead. Reynolds out.” Her visage disappears from the viewscreen to be replaced by the Wolf accelerating toward the weaker of the two warships.

Lieutenant Malin, the blonde chief helmsman, clamps her lips together to hide her amusement, then blurts out, “She doesn’t waste time, does she?”

“Neither should we,” Sivar says.

To supplement the Kennedy’s ongoing attack, the weapon pod atop the Wolf’s catamaran-like hull fires salvoes of photon torpedoes, some of which foiled by the warships’ automated defense systems. According to Tony’s calculations, the Altonoids’ experimental phasers can disarm a quarter of all inbound torpedoes by firing directly at them, which is a remarkable but not impenetrable feat of defensive technology.

The Sundance’s saucer aids the bombardment by letting loose with her unforgiving Type XII phaser arrays. The middle and lower sections of the Prometheus-class starship may have been lost, but her orphaned saucer is still participating, though it’s apparent to Tony’s trained eye that its contribution is lacking, probably due to its missing captain and first officer. Nevertheless, their presence remains welcome.

Tony wishes the Kennedy’s quantum torpedo launcher still worked, wishes the phaser wound above his right hip wasn’t hurting so much, wishes he could stop thinking about the unfair dilemma that condemned Emily to a heartless death. Of course, wishes won’t save anyone. It’s a miracle he’s alive. It was a rare act of kindness from Q to merge him with his younger self at death’s door and give him a second—albeit slim—chance of making a difference. So he follows up the combined onslaught of photon torpedoes and phaser fire with several good shots from the starboard ventral phaser arrays, which slice through a segment of enemy phaser wiring. “So much for their shields,” he says. “Muntenaar, if possible, reroute power from the quantum launcher to the sen—”

A direct hit from the vengeful Altonoids instigates a panoply of rupturing plasma conduits and exploding equipment from bulkheads and ceiling alike, lighting the darkened bridge and revealing how, in conjunction with its red alert panels, it has started to resemble a gateway to Hades. This is where he and the other damned souls get to dwell until history corrects itself and kills them a second and final time.

Offsetting this disturbing image and proving fate may still be thwarted, the Kennedy continues her assault on the Massal, channeling and distributing forces beyond imagination through her state-of-the-art weaponry in a bid to defend Station A-12. It’s not over till it’s over, and Parkin’s tactical input and Malin’s perfect execution of the maneuvers they come up with are a testament to their resilience in the face of danger.

That last phaser hit took our shields offline,” they hear over the comm. Tony doesn’t have to peruse the channels to confirm it’s from main engineering; he instantly recognizes the chief engineer’s voice, which half of him hasn’t heard in seven years. “Our hull integrity is nearing single digits,” Lieutenant Commander André Soeteman continues. “We are slowly losing power throughout the ship. Emergency force fields are going down one by one.” Yes, this is terrible news, but Tony has to suppress a smile. He has missed his old friends.

“Evacuate the affected sections,” Sivar says.

That’s the problem. We can’t reach those sections. Comm system is down in the more damaged areas. Oh, one more thing: Aft torpedo launchers have gone a bit awry. I recommend not using them.”

The nostalgia the engineer’s voice stirred is already evaporating; a disturbing silence has fallen over the bridge as the crew stares at the viewscreen, at the Massal, which has stopped firing altogether. Tony is confused. Shouldn’t this be a sign of success? Instead, they’re watching the inert warship with bated breath.

Sir?

Nobody responds, for reasons unknown to Tony, so he clears his throat and says, “Prioritize getting the shields back online.”

Aye, sir. Is that you, Tony, I mean, Commander?

“The one and the same.”

It’s good to have you back. Engineering out.

The feeling is mutual yet short-lived because the reason for the crew’s shocked silence manifests itself: The Massal’s entire phaser system begins flashing on and off, a captivating but ill-boding sight, and streaks of light are racing through its thick wires as if it’s charging for a no-holds-barred attack.

Sivar opens a shipwide comm channel via his armrest and says without a hint of emotion, “All hands, brace for another Altonoid phaser strike.”

Tony guesses this “phaser strike” will be worse than anything before and spurs to action. “Parkin, we’ll target the same spot where we sliced off a segment of phaser wiring and fire all we have. Despite Commander Soeteman’s advice, don’t spare the aft torpedo launchers. In our current situation, risk aversion no longer applies.”

Parkin hesitates briefly, then complies with a resolute look on his young face.

Their strategy hasn’t changed, so the Wolf and Sundance also let loose with their weapons, anything to prevent the Massal from completing its devastating parlor trick. The second Massal seizes this opportunity to rain destruction on the three brave Federation vessels.

Though the tactical station quakes as if made of rubber, it displays the Wolf’s onslaught of torpedoes trickling to a halt, upon which she veers to port to line up her dual starboard launchers.

“Are her forward launchers running out of torpedoes?” Parkin asks Tony.

“I hope not! Muntenaar, can you figure out the status of the Wolf’s launchers?”

“Their forward weapon pod’s complement is dwindling and their bow launchers appear to have been damaged.”

The chaos of battle censors Tony’s cursing, and he readies a similar firing pattern for the Kennedy to maintain optimal use of their depleting and recharging phaser arrays—the operational ones, that is. Meanwhile, the Massal’s phaser wires keep flashing brighter and the Wolf continues veering to port, seemingly planning to unleash a massive assault with her weapon pod’s aft torpedo launchers. Simply put, it would make the most sense. So why not copy her tactic, especially now the Kennedy’s front-facing launchers are reloading?

“Sir,” Muntenaar says with a troubled expression, “though our sensors still aren’t very accurate, I can confirm the Massal is targeting us!”

“Needless to say we won’t survive that,” Malin says.

Tony clenches his jaw. “Let’s not give them the chance. Execute the maneuvers we’re inputting and align aft torpedo launchers.”

“Are you certain of this, Commander?” Sivar asks.

“You bet I am. Parkin, prepare to fire aft launchers, full spread. Add nacelle pylon phaser arrays to the mix if you can.” As the Kennedy goes into a steep turn, he hangs on to the ensign and the console while continuing to type in commands.

The tired vessel’s hull groans and creaks as if it were duct-taped together. Fortunately, Malin is a skillful enough pilot to tread the tightrope between agility and mechanical sympathy. “Aft phasers and launchers lined up.”

“Mr. Parkin,” Tony says, baring his teeth. “Give ’em hell!”

“Gladly, sir.”

The phaser arrays on the warp nacelle pylons shoot mile-long, scarlet beams of pulverizing energy toward the Massal, and the deck shudders as the aft launchers strain to fire a full salvo of photon torpedoes—a total of sixteen according to the tactical readouts. The chief engineer had ample reason for his warning, because the shuddering intensifies into a violent rattle that throws everyone from their chairs and stations and culminates in a double explosion that’s distant but not quite distant enough.

Muntenaar crawls back to his ops station. “Twin aft launchers have destroyed themselves. Significant hull breaches, deck 3. We’re venting atmosphere. Sealing emergency bulkheads… They’re not responding!”

Tony daren’t ask for a casualty report, realizes this damage is his responsibility, and buries the accompanying guilt for later evaluation, if he is permitted to live through this. As their photon torpedoes travel through open space at breakneck speed, he looks pleadingly to the viewscreen, hoping and praying this sacrifice was worth it. One by one, the torpedoes strike the hull. The Massal’s phaser array was already untangling at its weakest point, courtesy of the incoming phaser beams it had to contend with, and its entire system starts flickering in a different pattern implying extensive damage and impending failure.

The Wolf has lined up her aft launchers as well and is firing what she’s got from her most powerful asset: her weapon pod. A dozen of her torpedoes slam into the Massal’s damaged hull, carve straight through, and explode from inside the enormous Altonoid vessel. The Massal’s structural integrity fails completely, deforming the rectangular warship as the detonating torpedoes compound further explosions from within, which spread across its decks with unstoppable force and tear off large sections of outer hull. The generated heat unravels the phaser wires; towering flames fueled by the Massal’s escaping atmosphere consume them whole. Within seconds, the Massal disappears in the sum of all cascading explosions and blows up in a final, grand display of interstellar pyrotechnics. Once the vacuum of space has extinguished the inferno, there is nothing left of the mighty Altonoid prototype but debris in various sizes and dark stains on Station A-12 and the surrounding ships’ exteriors.

“Yes!” Malin cheers. “That’s one menace down!”

Their celebration is cut short by another explosion rocking the deck, so nearby it resembles the disorienting effect of a concussion grenade.

“Hull breach on deck 2,” Tony hears Muntenaar shout over the ringing in his ears. “We shouldn’t have fired those launchers.”

“There’s a cloud of Altonoid rubble suggesting otherwise, Lieutenant,” Tony says. “Are the emergency bulkheads responding?”

“Barely. Without them, we’ll—”

Engineering to bridge.”

“Proceed,” Sivar says.

When I say ‘don’t fire the aft launchers,’ I mean ‘don’t fire the aft launchers!’” A deep sigh from the chief engineer. “We have to stop the hull breaches near the twin aft launchers from spreading. I’ll conduct the repairs in person. In the meantime, I strongly advise you to keep us out of battle. We’re going to lose many more crewmembers if our emergency force fields keep failing. Our warp core’s absence is draining our main battery.”

Temporarily withdrawing from the battle is the last thing on Tony’s mind. However, what other choice do they have?

“Agreed,” Sivar says. “Please instruct your staff to continue their efforts to contact crewmembers who are stuck in hazardous areas. Find a way to boost or preserve the main battery and allocate additional resources to our combat and defense systems. It would be wise to utilize this period by cooling our weapons.” He looks at Tony, who nods his reluctant approval. Unwilling to dawdle, Sivar stands up to help one of the tireless bridge engineers lift a heavy piece of debris.

Tony analyzes the one remaining Massal warship, which is faring considerably better than the three Starfleet vessels combined, and wonders: Has his assuming command of the Kennedy had a positive influence or has he made a bad situation worse? He cannot be sure, even with the first Massal blown to smithereens. He recalls he and Emily had been stuck on the station for most of the Station A-12 Debacle. Once they’d managed to escape via shuttlecraft, they narrowly avoided the devastated, rudderless Wolf crashing into the station.

As they fled the macabre sight of the Wolf’s wreckage clutching the space station and the Kennedy’s eviscerated stardrive section slowly rotating to nowhere, it was clear all participants in this battle had been lost, except for one: a victorious Massal-class prototype.

The one attacking them now.
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Alexbright99
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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter IX Segment B

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Three phaser blasts fired from Captain Stephan Rinckes’ rifle terminate an Altonoid soldier’s life. Before the limp body has slumped to the floor, Rinckes aims and incapacitates the last member of a squad of five soldiers who made a vain attempt at besting the furious captain. They didn’t stand a chance. This is Rinckes’ home ground: the corridors of Station A-12, the place he was destined to haunt forever in search of a woman he cannot save. And yet, a fatalistic kind of resolve lures him to the observation lounge where Commander Melanie Simons will die at the hands of these monsters.

Without hesitation, he fires at everything that moves, not registering the extra deaths clinging to his conscience as he progresses through the hallways and slays the faceless obstacles with phaser fire—or a well-aimed thrust of his rifle stock if they foolishly insist on close-quarters combat.

He cannot quite remember navigating intersections or rounding corners, and he has lost count of his opponents. Where do they come from? Is he the hunter or the hunted? He has no idea how he arrived here. He has always been here and always will be. These Altonoids are ghosts; one does not question their emergence, one deals with the danger they present.

Melanie will be waiting for him. She’ll be dying of a gruesome phaser wound, as always, and he will lie to her, as always, but he will find her. The right cuff of his uniform jacket is drenched in blood, his aching knuckles and jaw are bruised, a throbbing phaser burn has maimed his shoulder. Pain this vivid never occurs in his nightmares. So maybe, just maybe, this isn’t a dream. Maybe this is real, and he has an actual chance of rescuing the woman he loves.

Another gathering of Altonoid specters assembles in his crosshairs. They won’t even slow him down as he exorcizes them to their nightmare realm.

* * *

“Emergency bulkheads on decks 2 and 3 have been sealed,” Lieutenant Commander André Soeteman says, standing opposite Commander Tony Q and Ensign Parkin’s tactical station. Having spent the majority of the battle coordinating repairs, the bald chief engineer has a jaded demeanor and appearance. “The remaining aft launchers are now okay to use, but keep monitoring their temperatures and be careful.” He hasn’t let Tony out of his sight ever since stomping onto the bridge, toolkit in hand. “If it were up to me I’d fire up the impulse engines and remove ourselves from the scene.”

“We can’t, André,” Tony says. “We must hold our ground until the backup fleet arrives.”

“Backup fleet?”

“Eleven ships, led by Captain Harriman.”

Not one for making a fuss, the chief engineer dips his chin. “Good to know we won’t be on our own for long. I just hope they get here in time.”

Tony doesn’t have the heart to tell him the fleet is likely still hours away. He finds it interesting how a pack of three starships constitutes being alone to his old friends, in light of the Achilles’ loneliest five-year mission he took part in.

A deep shudder rises up from the Kennedy that would’ve thrown him off balance if it weren’t for Parkin’s firm grip. Despite Tony’s efforts to limit the Kennedy’s involvement and allow her weapons to cool down, the Massal keeps discovering opportunities to hit her weakened hull. Thank heavens the shields have come back online, albeit feebly. He points at the viewscreen and asks Soeteman, “What do you make of their phaser system?”

“I wish we had them. Very difficult to defend against.”

Lieutenant Sivar, having returned to the captain’s chair, has been eavesdropping with his sensitive Vulcan ears and says, “We have made progress damaging their phaser wire system by repeatedly targeting the same section.”

“That’s our main strategy for now,” Parkin says, “though admittedly it’s slow going.”

“True,” Tony says. “But let’s not forget it’s a prototype, so it’s bound to possess weaknesses. Commander, I want you to find out what those are.”

“I’ll get right on it.” Soeteman hastens to seat himself at his engineering station, located between tactical and helm.

“The Sundance isn’t doing well. Her engines are venting plasma,” Ops Officer Lieutenant Sven Muntenaar says.

“I don’t want to sound crass…” Lieutenant Malin says from her helm station. “I know the people on the Sundance are doing their best, but their tactical decisions leave room for improvement. Their acting captain may be too inexperienced.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Muntenaar says.

Sivar thinks aloud, “Perhaps we should endeavor to reestablish contact with our troops on Station A-12 and ascertain their progress on freeing the hostages.”

Tony contemplates Sivar’s suggestion. Freeing them was the plan, and it failed. With the Kennedy and Wolf’s captains and first officers trapped in the station’s conference room and Rinckes and Simons roaming the station’s corridors, far removed from the Sundance, the Altonoids have a double advantage: They prevent these high-ranking officers from partaking in the battle, and even if the backup fleet arrives in time to defeat the Massal, the hostages will be used as leverage.

“Sir?” Parkin asks. Apparently, the ensign has brewed up a selection of attack patterns requiring the commander’s approval, which he gives swiftly.

The bridge chatter fades into the background as Tony tries to solve the puzzle of how to release the hostages. “Sven, is there any way to remotely lower or overload the conference room’s shield?”

The ops officer looks at him as if he has been asked to perform an improvised magic show. “No, sir. It acts more as a transporter scrambler than a regular shield. I have no idea how to affect it.”

Tony grinds his teeth in frustration, feeling as powerless as during his fight with Rinckes, when he had desperately fired into the coils, which shrugged off his phaser blasts and converted them to small lightning bolts. That shield is the most stubborn piece of hardware he has ever encountered; it flat-out refuses to be circumvented.

Unless…

He’d have to be downright certifiable to carry out the scheme forming in his mind. In truth, he’s not mad. He’s simply fresh out of options and patience. Could this be the youthful bravado he picked up from being merged with his younger self? He starts typing into his console and prepares a set of maneuvers. It’s a rather complex but feasible strategy—insane but achievable. He has long since dispensed with second-guessing, ditched his ability to self-criticize somewhere in the Aragos Sector in a future he hopes to avoid.

Parkin gasps as he sees the plans the commander is inputting. “Are you crazy?” Startled by his spontaneous but disrespectful reaction, he adds a hurried, “Sir.”

“Yes, Ensign. Have been for years.”

* * *

Scattered debris from the destroyed Massal prototype is still thudding against the exterior of Station A-12’s conference room. Facing the windows and forced to sit on the floor by their Altonoid captors, Captain Mathieu Duvivier and his three fellow officers have ringside seats to the space battle. It’s horrifying to watch this disaster unfold from a helpless position, staring down the barrels of phaser rifles, when his place is on the Kennedy’s bridge. Next to him sits his first officer, Commander Grad Jansen, who no doubt feels the same.

This began as a diplomatic meeting, and the many chairs, tables, and buffet carts are proof of its original, peaceful intent. The Altonoids betrayed this trust soon after the Starfleet delegation had settled in. Frequent reports from the soldiers surrounding him indicate the death toll on this Federation space station is becoming increasingly tragic.

The orchestrator of this takeover, Letor Fune, adorned with rings and piercings, prances around with an inflated ego. Duvivier accidentally makes eye contact, prompting the leader of this taskforce to simper and launch into another long-winded speech. “By now you should’ve realized what I’ve been telling you from the start: You cannot win this.” He squats beside Admiral Coen Van Aken. “Have you done the math, Admiral? One superior, fully armed prototype versus three limping—” he makes a mocking gesture toward the Sundance’s saucer—“and incomplete Federation vessels?”

Van Aken’s silence denies Fune the pleasure of having his rhetorical questions answered. The admiral’s first officer, Commander Dennis Levine, does take the bait and says in his unmistakable Texan accent, “Does the math include how the first prototype is currently a series of scorch marks on our ships and station?” Levine’s medium-length blond hair is a mess, courtesy of Fune shoving him over after an earlier comment on the Massal’s destruction. At least this time Levine was wise enough to stay seated while disparaging the Altonoid in charge.

Fune straightens up and spreads his arms in dramatic fashion. “Your stubbornness continues to amaze me. Objectively speaking, retreat or unconditional surrender would be the sensible, dare I say, honorable thing to do, and yet… you refuse to consider it. And all the while, your losses keep stacking up.”

As Fune segues into the umptieth rant about how wonderful he is, Duvivier’s attention is drawn to movement behind the boisterous Altonoid. It’s the Kennedy, staying close behind the Wolf, mimicking her course without firing at the Massal.

Despite the damage, the Kennedy remains a magnificent vessel, her streamlined design lending her an air of dominance, and the brass was right to designate her class Sovereign. He is proud to be her captain and even prouder of his crew, who have been shining examples of courage and tenacity throughout this conflict. Although the Altonoid prototype is much larger in every dimension, the Kennedy is—at almost 700 meters in length—a sleek behemoth and a mighty sight, and she is turning to face the conference room, raising her bow slightly to show off her saucer’s ventral phaser arrays. The forward arrays may have been fried, but the arrays behind those are in full view. They’re lighting up red.

“What?” Duvivier mutters. “How—? Everybody get down!” He grasps Commander Jansen by the collar and dives under the nearby conference table.

Fune bristles at the interruption. “This is typical of—”

The anticipated phaser beam smashes into the station. Bright red mayhem spots Duvivier’s vision. His ears pop, unable to process a sound that could otherwise only be experienced by being inside an active thundercloud. He catches but a glimpse of the windows vaporizing and their sills tearing loose along with thick chunks of exterior hull. A mighty storm develops instantly; all air rushes toward the gaping hole, which has become an inhaling maw spanning the entire width of the conference room. Together with most of his underlings, Letor Fune disappears into the void, limbs flailing, his mouth contorted in an inaudible scream.

Duvivier has grabbed hold of a table leg, which fortunately enough happens to be bolted to the floor, but he cannot prevent Jansen, Van Aken, and Levine from being dragged into space among soldiers, buffet carts, furniture, and the window frames’ rubble. It’s taxing to hang on, impossible to draw breath, and the soles of his shoes slide off the carpet to point at the all-devouring maelstrom. The Federation and Altonoid banners that were hung on the far bulkhead flutter by, intertwined. It’s as if the room has been flipped sideways above a bottomless chasm.

A loud snap precedes the tabletop flying off like a lost sail and the table leg twisting and bending. Duvivier’s stomach churns as he loses his grip and falls away from the table leg, away from the few Altonoid soldiers hanging on for dear life, and away from the conference room he had been trapped in for hours. Tumbling end over end, he fruitlessly tries to steady himself. There is nothing to hold on to, no air to breathe, and it is frightfully cold. Sometimes a distant starship or the shrinking station flashes into view, but mostly it is dark around him, save for the stars. Soon he will lose consciousness. Panic grows within him as his extremities tingle and the moisture on his tongue begins to bubble, until the familiar sensation of dissolving in a transport pattern sets in. In seconds, he is deposited onto a soft carpet in a place with atmosphere and gravity.

Breathing heavily, he recognizes the activated red alert pillars lighting the Kennedy’s bridge, which is in horrible shape. Jansen, Van Aken, and Levine are lying near him, gasping for air, looking at each other wild-eyed. Without requiring telepathic skills, he knows what they’re thinking. It’s the same as what he’s thinking: (1) It’s great to be back, and (2) what colossal buffoon is responsible for this crazy rescue operation?
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Alexbright99
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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter IX Segment C

Post by Alexbright99 »

“I can’t believe that worked, sir,” Ensign Parkin says, trembling.

Commander Tony Q watches the four high-ranking officers getting to their feet and patting down their uniforms. Granted, his strategy to use the Wolf as a buffer and implement a carefully finetuned phaser strike to breach the conference room without killing its occupants was… daring, but its results are undeniable: The four hostages so many people died trying to free are here, alive and well, among them his good friend Captain Mathieu Duvivier.

“You did this?” Duvivier shouts, his curly brown hair with a few gray streaks a jumble. “What the bloody hell were you thinking?!” He staggers toward the young commander. “I haven’t seen you in months, and now you show up and put my ship, crew, and colleagues through the wringer for a… for a bizarre stunt like this?”

“Yes,” Tony says, fighting to keep a smile from developing into a grin. As with the other friends and colleagues Tony has been reunited with, the captain, who’s in his late thirties, looks simultaneously older and younger than he remembers, a byproduct of his own aging and de-aging through the miracles of time travel and Q’s intervention. Having people he’d considered lost standing before him is an exceptional privilege indeed.

Duvivier furrows his brow. “You’re injured. How did—?” His expression changes from angry to sympathetic. “You couldn’t resist helping us, could you?”

Tony wants to say something witty, but words elude him as his smile turns bittersweet.

“And they made you pay the price.”

“They did.”

“Are we in that much trouble?”

“You’ve no idea.”

“Tactical!” Tony hears someone shout. It’s Admiral Coen Van Aken, glaring at him from the captain’s chair, which Sivar has once again vacated to assist the engineers repairing the bridge. “It’s nice to see you, Commander, but I propose you reschedule your chitchat to after our victory. Status update.”

As Tony attempts to redirect his focus from catching up with old friends to operating tactical, his crutch and fellow tactician Ensign Parkin provides a full report. Tony can’t quite follow it, because Commander Grad Jansen claims the nearby second officer’s chair, having discovered his usual seat, the XO’s chair, has been crushed by a pillar. It takes a significant effort to refrain from striking up a conversation with Jansen, who he has also missed dearly.

At the engineering station, Lieutenant Commander Soeteman shifts uneasily in his seat. “We might still be able to beam aboard the Altonoids we jettisoned into space.”

“It would be the right thing to do, wouldn’t it?” Lieutenant Malin admits.

The admiral leans back in his chair. “It would, but I’m deciding against it. Judging from the state of this vessel, we’re unable to contain prisoners at this point. Our failing force fields and precarious situation simply don’t allow it.”

“Inevitably, we’d be attacked from within too,” Jansen says.

“I understand,” Soeteman concedes.

With Van Aken and Jansen seated, Duvivier and Commander Levine have no choice but to loiter in the center of the bridge. Although unleashing the Kennedy’s impressive armament at the steadfast Massal demands Tony’s full attention, he notices Van Aken’s gaze wandering between the viewscreen and the standing officers. While doing this, the admiral keeps tapping a finger on the edge of his left armrest.

The tapping stops. “Mathieu, I suppose you want your ship back.” Without waiting for an answer, Van Aken addresses Ops Officer Muntenaar. “Lieutenant, send a message to the Wolf. Have them find an appropriate moment to lower our and their shields and welcome me and Levine aboard. And signal our troops the hostages have been freed.”

“Aye, sir.” The Massal’s four phaser beams hammer the Kennedy’s deflector dish with such force that the red alert panels cease blinking, dimming the bridge and its flickering workstations further. “Shields and sensors are dangling by a thread,” Muntenaar shouts, a silhouette against the faltering viewscreen.

“Hard to starboard. Boost power to port shields.”

As the red alert panels resume flashing, Muntenaar says, “Reynolds has sent a reply, and I quote: “Welcome back, Admiral. We will both lower shields in a coordinated maneuver using Station A-12 as cover.”

“Reynolds? What’s she doing on my ship? Doesn’t matter. Helm, tactical, make the necessary arrangements.”

This reminds Tony of the S’Prenn wreckage battle, when a warship loaded with fighters confronted the Achilles just as she was retrieving her vulnerable shuttles. The Achilles ordered the shuttles to circle the plundered wreck and stalled the Altonoids. If only they could expand on this strategy by playing hide and seek with the Massal until the cavalry arrives. Unfortunately, the space station is too small for such a tactic. Also, even if this small fleet evades destruction, their achievement would be rendered trivial if A-12 falls into enemy hands. “Admiral,” he says, not quite knowing how to follow up.

“What is it?”

“Uh…” Everyone is looking at him. “So… with Letor Fune out of the picture, it’s safe to assume the Altonoid troops are demoralized and disorganized, at least temporarily. What if we capitalize on that?”

“Tell Captain Reynolds to stand by. Go on, Commander.”

“I propose we beam extra personnel to Station A-12, leave a skeleton crew here, and attack the Altonoids from both sides.”

Van Aken stares through him. “Quite the risktaker today, aren’t you?”

“I sure am,” Tony replies in a subtly quavering voice. “Failure is not an option.”

Duvivier subtly tilts his head and keeps his gaze fixed on Tony while saying to the admiral, “His strategy sounds viable if we are to retake the station.”

“We cannot let the Altonoids win,” Tony continues. “If the backup fleet arrives—”

The admiral’s eyes grow wide.

“Yes, because of the predicament we’re in, I’ve divulged this bit of classified information. If the fleet arrives and finds an ongoing battle, they will assist us and the station will not fall.”

Van Aken is far from amused. “Your help has always been appreciated, but you’re overstepping boundaries, Commander. There’s a good chance we and the fleet will decide to abandon the station. I don’t want to have to evacuate even more people before we clear out, so I’m not sending additional troops. Ops, tell Reynolds to prepare for our arrival.”

Tony bites his bottom lip. Should he tell the admiral outright that he has lived through a bleak future stemming from today’s events? That the Wolf, Sundance, and Kennedy are doomed either way? He struggles for words, feeling exhausted. He’d be on the verge of collapse if Parkin weren’t supporting him.

Duvivier dodges a tumbling ceiling rod and speaks up on Tony’s behalf. “Should we really hand them Station A-12 on a platter? It is ours. What about our people? What use is defending this position if we intend to abandon it?”

“We will only abandon it if we have to,” Van Aken says. “Most of our security personnel is already aboard the station, Captain. Do you want to arm our science officers and engineers and send them down there too?”

“We have to,” Tony manages to say. “So many have died. So many are dying. It cannot be for nothing. This is where we end the fight once and for all.”

“I’m not disagreeing with you, but we have to weigh our options.”

By now, the Kennedy’s first officer has also caught on to the concerned looks Duvivier is casting at Tony. “Admiral, if I may,” Jansen says. “I’m fine with returning to the station with as many men and women I can gather. I’ve spent hours in captivity; I’m done sitting idle.”

“He’s right,” Duvivier says. “Admiral, respectfully, we can throw caution to the wind when we’ve got our own personal Cassandra leaning on our tactical console. I enjoyed our suitless spacewalk no more than you did, but I urge you to heed Tony’s advice.”

Van Aken grimaces at the on-screen Massal neutralizing several inbound torpedoes and rubs his forehead. “Tony, I’d hate sending more men to their deaths.” He locks eyes with the young commander. “Are you absolutely sure about this? You’ll have to do better than a hunch wrapped up in good intentions.”

“I realize I’ve taken great risks and exhibited behavior unbefitting a Starfleet officer.” The phaser beams and torpedoes Parkin fires, as depicted on the viewscreen, embolden him. “I’m well aware my rank and reputation are a product of my connections with the Q Continuum and how I used their powers to help the Federation, to help you, my friends. As you can see, I am no longer sponsored by the Continuum, and I, like you, have real blood coursing through my veins.” Instinctively, he reaches for the phaser wound above his hip. “So I say this as a brother to you all: Please trust me. Please don’t give up on Station A-12.”

After a beat of silence, Van Aken tugs at his jacket and says, “Damn, son… Fine, we’ll have it your way. Once aboard the Wolf I will send down who I can spare and ask the Sundance to do the same.” Watching the Massal’s phaser beams drifting from target to target, the admiral presses the comm button on his armrest. “All hands, this is Admiral Van Aken. We’ve dealt the Altonoids a hell of a blow by killing their leader and destroying one of two mighty prototypes. We need your help to take the fight to the station and drive them out. Listen carefully. All non-essential personnel is hereby ordered to arm themselves and report to the nearest transporter room to await further instructions.” He swivels his chair toward the Kennedy’s first officer. “Jansen, assemble an away team and lead this exodus. Make sure I’m not just sending bodies into the field; remind them of their basic training and take good care of them.”

“Aye aye, sir. Muntenaar and Sivar, you’re with me.” Jansen rises to his feet and signals both lieutenants to follow him to the turbolift.

Duvivier gives Tony an encouraging nod, to which Tony mouths, “Thank you.”

Soeteman chimes in, “Remember, some sections have been cut off from communication.”

Before Jansen and his team step into the turbolift, Van Aken says, “Make sure those in difficult-to-reach areas are also informed of our plan. Enlist messengers if you have to.”

“We will, sir,” Jansen says, adding a heartfelt, “Best of luck, everyone.”

With that, three men Tony had never thought he’d see again embark on an equally dangerous mission. It’s amazing to have been in their presence once more. If it weren’t for his phaser wound smarting like hellfire, he could convince himself he is either dreaming or stuck in an elaborate holodeck simulation.

“You okay, Tony?” Duvivier asks, now standing next to him on the ever-trembling deck.

He works up a weak smile. “I’ve felt better.”

A soft pat on the shoulder makes all the difference. “I’m sorry you lost your powers. I know it meant a lot to you. We’ll talk after this is over, okay? Hang in there, Commander.”

“Thanks, sir.” Strengthened by this simple interaction, he refocuses on tactical so it’s less of Parkin’s responsibility.

“Admiral,” Malin says, “we’ve figured out a maneuver for lowering shields together.”

On screen, four Altonoid phaser beams converging on the Wolf’s weapon pod break through its armor, its decks, and come out the other side in diffuse, green prongs of energy, causing shocked gasps among the bridge crew. Van Aken swallows visibly and says, “Execute as soon as we’re able.”

The Sundance’s saucer whizzes by and propels a series of photon torpedoes at the Massal in retaliation. Scorch marks dozens of meters in length stain the Sundance, and the hazy viewscreen cannot mask her rampant hull breaches. Tony keeps expecting the other two segments of the Prometheus-class vessel to join in, but they had already been reduced to dust before he beamed to the Kennedy. He wonders how the Sundance’s involvement and condition would have changed had their captain and first officer been present.

Apparently, the admiral is pursuing a similar line of thought. “I take it nobody knows where Rinckes and Simons are? Has anyone tried contacting them?”

“They can’t be reached, sir,” Tony explains, a euphemistic way of saying that Simons is in trouble and there are two versions of Rinckes rushing over to her, of which the youngest version is slated to be too late.

“Admiral,” Commander Dennis Levine says, the first time he has spoken since the transporter delivered him to the bridge. “Requesting permission to assume command of the Sundance.”

“She’s in bad shape, Commander.”

“You and Captain Reynolds will do fine commanding the Wolf, and there’s no denying the Sundance could use a hand. If we’re fixing to exchange officers and troops between the fleet and station, let me do my part, sir.”

Van Aken thinks it through, then gives his XO his reluctant blessing. “All right. Helm, arrange for the Sundance to join our maneuver.”

Minutes pass by with everyone immersed in the complexities of ship-to-ship combat. Tony finds himself getting back in the groove of his tactical duties by letting the Kennedy go ballistic on specific points of the Massal’s phaser wires while parrying incoming fire.

Sundance and Wolf are ready, sir,” Malin reports.

“Transporter rooms standing by,” Soeteman says. “One hundred and forty-seven additional men and women ready to beam to the station. Site-to-site transport locked in for you and Commander Levine, directly to the Wolf’s and Sundance’s bridge respectively.”

Van Aken sucks in a deep breath. “Begin maneuvers.”

The Kennedy’s impulse engines activate at full blast and push the groaning vessel forward. Like shelves in a crooked old cabinet that’s being moved, her bridge deck and ceiling shudder independently of each other. As per Malin’s directions, the marred Kennedy leaps out of formation, at which precise moment Parkin carries out the phaser and torpedo firing patterns Tony has prepared.

Before the Massal can divert phaser beams to the Kennedy, Malin initiates a ridiculously steep turn to port, which presses Tony’s stomach against his tactical console and makes it seem as if two-thirds of the vessel insists on the previous heading. Unsettling growls rise up from the ship’s insides struggling to retain structural integrity. Loose rubble forms small tidal waves sloshing to the sides, and the crew hangs on to whatever or whoever is within grasp. Parkin grabs Tony by the nape of the neck to prevent him from toppling over the console—uncomfortable but preferable to landing face-first on a floor littered with metal fragments.

On screen, Station A-12 appears in its hundred-deck-high glory, ready to provide temporary refuge, even though fitting three starships behind it in a coordinated maneuver is akin to playing hide and seek in a vast meadow with a single tree at its center. Exiting the turn restores gravity, and Tony regains his balance and his view on the tactical console, which displays the Wolf firing at the Massal and entering an even steeper turn. The Sundance will follow soon, being the most nimble and as such the last to dash for the space station.

Station A-12 grows ominously large on the viewscreen. “Our timing has to be perfect,” Soeteman says.

“Understood. All hands, this is the admiral. Working with you has been an honor, albeit brief. Transporter rooms, get ready. I hereby transfer command to your rightful captain, Mathieu Duvivier. Van Aken out.” He stands up from the captain’s chair and steadies himself to stay upright as the Kennedy swerves to avoid the station and goes into a dizzying corkscrew that should result in a simultaneous orbit with her two fellow starships. He trudges up to Levine to give him a firm handshake. “Good luck on the Sundance.”

“And you on the Wolf, sir.”

“We will all see each other soon, when this crisis has been dealt with. And Tony, I’m sending you on a mandatory course in proper hostage extraction etiquette.” His serious demeanor yields to a smile. “So that you know.”

Before Tony can think of a clever riposte, the Kennedy exits the corkscrew and pulls up hard to optimize the time spent behind the station.

“Energizing transporters!” Soeteman announces, upon which Admiral Van Aken and Commander Levine disappear in two cobalt pillars of deconstructing matter. Ten harrowing seconds later, the Kennedy enters the final turn in this complex maneuver. “Our troops have arrived on the station. Van Aken and Levine are on the Wolf and Sundance.”

Duvivier strides over to his captain’s chair despite the severe banking the Kennedy is undergoing, sits down in it, clutches the armrests, and says, “Return us to the Massal, phasers firing.”

It’s been forever since Tony has seen Duvivier in command, and it almost chokes him up—partly because of nostalgia, partly because of how impossible today’s odds are. He’s had his fair share of loss; the mere thought of having to lose these friends again is unbearable. However, sentimentality should be relegated to peacetime, so he banishes these unhelpful thoughts from his mind as the Kennedy rolls out of her sharp turn to confront the irate Massal head-on. He and Parkin order the phasers to channel their fury forward while Malin adjusts pitch to alternate between the ventral and dorsal arrays.

Without delay, the Altonoids’ phaser beams reacquire target and lock on to the Kennedy’s bow. An explosion muffled by 50 to 100 meters of decks and armor travels through the vessel in an organ-shuffling judder. “Hull breaches, decks 10 through 14!” Soeteman shouts.

“Steady as she goes!” Duvivier replies.

Alert messages warn Tony of their phasers’ worsening state; the saucer arrays are right in the enemy beams’ path of destruction. “She can’t take much more of this!”

From the right, phasers blazing, the Wolf glides into view, offering a glimpse of the Akira-class starship and her damaged weapon pod. From the left, the Sundance joins formation and lets loose with her bow torpedo launcher. United, the three starships face their destiny and jump back into the fray to send the Altonoids a clear message:

Starfleet won’t surrender.
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Alexbright99
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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter IX Segment D

Post by Alexbright99 »

Captain Mathieu Duvivier is perched on the edge of his captain’s chair, as he has been for fifteen minutes or so, issuing commands and finding ways to defeat the giant Massal-class warship looming over them. This is where he belongs, back in the saddle—a simple, perhaps cliched, notion that should compensate for the sorry condition the Kennedy is in. His bridge is a shambles, especially the starboard side, which is empty—disused like a broken arm. On the left, Lieutenant Junior Grade Malin is demonstrating her piloting skills at the helm, Commander Tony Q and Ensign Parkin man the tactical station, and Lieutenant Commander André Soeteman sits at his engineering station. This makes the captain the rightmost person in the command center apart from several diligent engineers carrying out critical repairs. “Status of Massal.”

“Oof,” Tony says. “Sensor readings are problematic at best. Hold on a sec.” Not exactly how one should address their commanding officer, though Duvivier will allow it. Tony has changed considerably since he has last seen him, and not just in the physical sense, what with the young man’s injuries. He has matured beyond his years, exuding a weariness you’d normally associate with soldiers in prolonged armed conflicts. Whatever burden he’s lugging along, it must weigh a couple of metric tons at least. “Okay, I got something. I suspect their shields to be at half strength, structural integrity at about 75 percent.”

Duvivier slides back into his chair and studies the screen. The Massal is factory fresh compared to the three Starfleet vessels. Led by Admiral Van Aken and Captain Reynolds, the Wolf attempts to distract the massive warship, which has decided to pick on the weakening saucer of the Sundance, the incomplete Prometheus-class vessel. Her new acting captain, Commander Dennis Levine, has probably saved the saucer from certain destruction with his noble request to beam over and assume command. As promised, Van Aken and Levine have been sending extra troops to the station.

Despite their best efforts, the fight remains unfair, but Tony’s unwavering determination is inspiring to Duvivier and his crew. An incoming message on the captain’s armrest panel catches his attention. It’s from his first officer, Jansen, who reports the additional troops from the three vessels have been divided into squadrons and have begun advancing from the station’s lower levels. As expected, they’ve met with heavy resistance. Luckily, Letor Fune’s death has certainly affected the Altonoids’ morale, while the Starfleet troops have been strengthened in numbers and spirit. Duvivier texts him an encouraging response, and refocuses on the viewscreen.

“Ventral saucer phasers still inoperable,” Tony says.

“My teams are on it,” Soeteman replies. “Seems like most of it will require drydock to fix, but we’ll do our best.”

“Parkin, to counteract this, I’ve adjusted—”

Noise and mayhem erupts as the Massal’s four phaser beams swoop across the Kennedy’s bow, filling the viewscreen with green light. In a disorienting instant of utter chaos, it’s as if the entire bridge is upended and gravity annulled as the beams wreak havoc on the vessel, jolting personnel from their seats and machinery from their mounts before everything becomes right-side up again. The ops station explodes in a spray of rubble, which the nearby Malin can barely evade.

“Forward shields offline!” Soeteman shouts.

Thrown from his chair, Duvivier has landed on a cracked bridge tier. “Hard to port, Malin!” He plucks a sweltering piece of LCARS panel from his elbow. Thank heavens ops was unmanned, although he doubts whether Ops Officer Muntenaar is much safer aboard Station A-12.

“Lining up starboard arrays,” Tony says.

While Duvivier returns to his chair, the Sundance careens by on the viewscreen, drawing away fire. The Massal rewards her valiant efforts by breaching another segment of her hull, scooping off a cluster of ablative armor.

Soeteman shouts, “Multiple failures in emergency force fields, decks 7 through 18!”

“Evacuate sections at risk of decompression,” Duvivier says. The fact that all non-essential personnel has “fled” to the space station is cold comfort of sorts.

The Kennedy manages to get a few shots in but can’t prevent another four-beam direct hit striking the Sundance’s underside, knocking her off course for a handful of seconds. Her engines recover, and she lines up her bow launcher to hurl four torpedoes at her tormentor in a futile attempt to postpone the inevitable.

Soeteman pivots his seat toward the tactical station. “Tony, Parkin, I’ve been analyzing the prototype phaser system.” He doesn’t elaborate right away, busy as he is arranging evacuations and repairs. “The flanks and underside of the phaser ‘wires’ should be structurally weaker than the rest.”

“Those are tricky to reach,” Tony says.

“Yes, but well worth the effort. Continue targeting the most damaged areas and see if you can hit the weaknesses I mentioned. This might gradually unravel the array by peeling off its anchor points. It’ll require accuracy and patience, but I have strong reason to believe it will also decrease their system’s power output.”

“Excellent work,” Duvivier says, keeping an eye on the struggling Sundance. More and more impacts make it through her regenerative shielding, betraying it’s on the verge of petering out. “A challenge nonetheless, but I’m sure our tactical duo is up for the task.”

“Yes, sir,” Parkin says with a smirk.

A bright blast depicted on the viewscreen quashes their optimism. Four Altonoid phaser beams have seared through the Sundance’s bow torpedo launcher and blown the integral device to pieces, shredding the surrounding armor and creating a substantial hole. She rolls out of the line of fire in self-preservation, exposing her ventral section to the phasers’ wrath. The phaser beams slice through her lowest decks, partially obscured by her arch-shaped hull configuration, and her lower warp nacelle explodes in a ball of flame.

Duvivier’s chest tightens. “She’s dying. Stand by to detect escape pods.” None have exited the vessel so far. They may not even get the chance to launch. “Come on, Levine. What’s your last play?” The Sundance is crippled, her movements have become weak and erratic, and she has little resistance left to offer. It doesn’t stop the Massal from attacking her, robbing her crew of the opportunity to abandon ship. “Line up torpedoes. Let’s incentivize the Altonoids to leave well enough alone.”

As a trail of photon torpedoes bursts from the Kennedy to slam into the Massal’s shields, the Sundance sputters forward. Spontaneous hull breaches are spreading across her surface, flames surging from her windows wherever the internal explosions travel. The lone saucer of what once was an intact and imposing Prometheus-class escort has gone adrift. At last, the Massal ceases firing at her to ward off the remaining two ships’ vehement counterattacks.

Like a sinking ocean liner, the Sundance’s lighting flickers and fails. Shedding entire hull sections, she lists to the side and reveals the trellis of smoldering tritanium her lower decks have become. Her bow is lit from within, next in line for a tsunami of collapsing decks. Then, her impulse engines flare up and push her bow toward the Massal.

“What the—?” Duvivier says, surprised by the vessel’s sudden motion.

Her bow continues to light up until her hull plating can no longer contain the devastation, which builds and builds until it rips the Sundance apart as if torn asunder by the gods. The detonations keep growing in size and number, overwhelm the glowing Massal’s shields, and nip at the armor and external devices on the warship’s upper-left corner. The fireworks culminate in one last explosion larger than any before and bites a whole chunk out of the Massal! Stunned, the warship hangs motionlessly in space, its top-left edge flattened as if clumsily milled.

The wreck of the Sundance and the Altonoid hull segment she took with her disperse in a cloud of jetsam. “Scanning for escape pods,” Soeteman says. “I’m sorry, sir. Nothing has escaped the blast radius.”

The Massal resumes firing at the two remaining Starfleet vessels. “Refocus on the battle,” Duvivier says, squaring his shoulders for appearance’s sake. The Sundance went down in an impressive display of heroism at the behest of the brave Commander Levine. The nature of her demise suggests her ill-fated crew armed as many torpedoes as possible and primed them to detonate in quick succession upon nearing the Massal, giving her a final chance to claw at her opponent. It worked, gave her death meaning, but the truth remains: Dozens of people have died.

He casts a look at Tony, who’s paler than ever and gazes at the viewscreen as if having seen a ghost. The young commander wipes at his brow and directs his thousand-yard-stare at his captain, thereby, without saying a word, conveying with absolute clarity that the Sundance’s obliteration is another milestone in the road to a grim future.

* * *

Although he detests shooting people in the back, Captain Stephan Rinckes fires his phaser rifle at the two Altonoid soldiers running toward this deck’s observation lounge, where a cruel fate awaits Melanie unless he intervenes. Blood taints his dented rifle, but the energy weapon is still functioning and its trigger obedient to his lethal demands. Stringy clusters of hair stick to his forehead, his knuckles have gone numb from fighting hand-to-hand, and even the constant circulation of adrenaline refuses to dull the pain in his torso and jaw. Has he ever been anywhere else but here, progressing through Station A-12’s hallways as if on rails, guided by red alert panels?

Unaware of Rinckes, an Altonoid sprints into the corridor, answering the call for reinforcements made by the soldier who first spotted Melanie. The captain bashes his rifle stock against the Altonoid’s neck and hurries past as the soldier slumps to the carpet.

There it is, the main entrance to the observation lounge. As before and as always, it draws him in, beckons him to the surreal scene of her death. Its doors slide open as if welcoming him to the tragedy, and he rushes headlong into the room the size of a modest mess hall.

The view out the windows stops him dead in his tracks. The Sundance is missing from the raging battle, which is awful, but the real eye-catcher is the one detail every nightmare omitted: a complete starfield, stretching from corner to corner, proving he is wide awake. Despite a brush of movement, he cannot tear himself away from the stars that used to soothe him after transitioning from nightmare to reality. Spellbound, he—

Someone grabs his arm and drags him to the floor the exact moment a green phaser beam screeches by with inches to spare. His savior, a Starfleet officer, maintains a firm grip, so he follows her to behind a tipped-over, thick metal table. Immediately, the next beam strikes the table with a loud clang, and Commander Melanie Simons returns fire with her phaser rifle, silencing the other party with a sickening crunch. “One less to worry about,” she says, sneaking a peek over the table’s edge. “More on the way.” She looks at Rinckes with blue eyes he never thought he’d see again. “Glad you could join me, Captain, but I’m afraid we’re sort of pinned down.”

To hear her voice, to be near her, to feel the warmth radiating from her skin—it’s enough for him to want to embrace her, to never let go, to tell her how much he has missed her. He can’t, not until she’s safe. He buries these emotions and desires under a deep layer of pragmatism, coughs to keep his voice from breaking, and says while soldiers’ footsteps are approaching, “You take the ones on the left. Short bursts, hold fire when possible to prevent overheating your rifle, and stay close.” Having defaulted to his leadership skills under the pressure of imminent combat, it’s almost as if he’s talking to a mere subordinate instead of Melanie. “If I’m killed, just leg it and don’t look back. Head for the shuttlebay and get as far from this deathtrap as you can.”

She wrinkles her brow and says in a worried tone, “Captain, what’s happened to you? You seem—”

“In here!” an Altonoid shouts.

Rinckes latches onto the sound, clips his rifle over the table’s edge, and fires. A scream confirms the blast has struck its target. He glances over the tabletop. A group of four Altonoids are running toward them from the side entrance. Upturned tables and chairs lie strewn across the area, some ragged and tarnished with the same phaser marks that smear the bulkheads and windows. He also spots an indeterminate number of Altonoid corpses.

As he and Melanie prepare to defend themselves, the doors he came through swish open, revealing three more Altonoids storming the room. “They’re mine,” the captain says, shooting the first. The second dives for cover in the rubble, and the third races toward them. Rinckes aims at the third Altonoid’s shins and squeezes the trigger an instant before his adversary does. Crying out in pain, the soldier fires into the ceiling and stumbles to the floor. The captain shoots him twice to eliminate the threat and ducks to avoid the remaining Altonoids’ phaser fire.

Meanwhile, Melanie is staging her own defense against the soldiers that have rushed in through the side entrance. Adeptly, she’s darting up and down to fire at the enemy in controlled bursts. “There’s so many of them,” she says, leaning her back against the table to catch her breath and cool her rifle. A hurricane of impacting phaser beams pummels the table, creating wide indentations that will shatter into metal splinters soon. She pushes aside a lock of blonde hair. “We never should have split up.”

Rinckes honestly doesn’t know what to say. These simple words, said by her, demolish the dam he set up to ward off years of regret and sorrow. Somehow, perhaps out of reflex, he retains his composure.

“We return fire together,” Melanie decides, “firing blind, forcing them to seek cover. Spray and pray, on three.”

Her ability to think straight in crisis situations has never ceased to impress him. It’s easy to forget when the predominant memory of her is her dying in his arms, but she has always been a strongminded individual and an exemplary first officer.

“One, two, three!” They prop their rifles up over the edge and fire—all out at first. Then, without the need to communicate this, they fire in sequence to dole out suppressing fire. As predicted, this forces the Altonoids to hide, and it incapacitates one of them as an added bonus.

Rinckes gauges whether there are extra soldiers inbound from both entrances. There aren’t, so he and Melanie rise from cover and spray the room with phaser blasts. Just as he deems it safe to make an exit with her, another pair of Altonoids step in through the main entrance, angry scowls on their ridged faces, prompting Rinckes to drop to his elbows and open fire from below. He picks off the newcomers at the cost of drawing attention to himself, which is problematic because only his legs are currently behind cover. Several phaser beams whoosh past him from different angles, sending fragments of rubble and ribbons of carpet his way as he struggles to aim his rifle to the left from his prone position. He cannot deny his wounds are increasingly hampering his mobility.

Melanie shoots the least concealed Altonoid, buying Rinckes time to crawl behind the buckling table. As soon as she crouches, Rinckes gets up, takes aim over the table, and pulls the trigger. Nothing happens. He tries again. The rifle doesn’t respond. Glancing through its crosshairs, he sees an Altonoid hesitantly emerging from his hiding spot, having noticed Rinckes’ faulty rifle.

After a hasty inspection, he finds the defect: A smoldering strip of metal has lodged itself between barrel and firing mechanism. Pressing his back against the table, he wraps his fingers around the sharp object and pulls it out, ignoring the pain. It didn’t help; the rifle sputters and dies.

“They’re trying to circle us!” Melanie shouts.

Rinckes tosses the useless rifle and reaches for the phaser holster on his belt. He detaches his handphaser and lifts it. He could list a hundred reasons for it be damaged or otherwise malfunctioning, but the phaser’s colorful indicators signal it’s ready for action, and he permits himself a sigh of relief.

A bout of stray enemy phaser fire precedes a loud crash, startling him. A glass mist spreads toward them as shards clatter to the floor, and he raises an arm and closes his eyes in self-protection until the racket stops.

“Are you okay, sir?” Melanie asks.

Apart from his already existing injuries, he feels fine. “Yes. Are you?”

“I am. Shame about those models,” she says with a faint smile before refocusing on the attacking Altonoids.

Rinckes stares at the broken transparent display on the opposite bulkhead, housing but a few gilded starship models. The rest lie scattered over the floor. A stone-cold sensation branches out from his heart and creeps toward his throat as it sinks in that he found Melanie dying among these very same shards of glass and broken models.

In the original timeline, he witnessed the Sundance’s explosive demise, a fate she appears to have repeated. In here, the scene has been set for Melanie to die, its lighting rigged, its props in place, her killers present.

For all the effort it took to get here, for all the blood clinging to his hands in hopes of mending the future…

How much has really changed?
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