Let's kick off with the first segment, shall we? But first, a little recap of the previous chapters:
Captain Stephan Rinckes’ heartbeat is throbbing in his temples. According to the schematics he studied, Station A-12 boasts at least fourteen observation lounges identical to the one he’s in, but this particular one has featured in many of his nightmares. Besieged by Altonoid soldiers trying to circle him, his back pressed against a buckling metal table, he looks to his right, to Commander Melanie Simons, the woman who is supposed to die here surrounded by glass shards and gilded starship models from the shattered display on the opposite bulkhead. She’s fending off the enemy with her phaser rifle, like she did before. He never got to witness her final stand, however, having arrived too late to save her.
Now he’s here, ready to exchange his life for hers.
“To your left,” Melanie shouts, firing over the vertical tabletop.
Rinckes chides himself for zoning out under such dangerous circumstances, raises his handphaser at the Altonoid sidling into his peripheral vision, and pushes the fire button. It’s the first time he has used it since ditching his damaged rifle, yet it’s already stained with blood trickling down his right cuff.
He misses, and the Altonoid scrambles off to await the next opportunity. Erupting phaser fire from Melanie’s position draws Rinckes’ attention; a soldier has sneaked into her line of sight and started shooting at her. She deals with him via a succession of well-aimed phaser bursts and flashes her captain a charming half-smile. Gawking at her isn’t going to help, so he tears himself away from her mesmerizing presence and refocuses on spotting the Altonoid he failed to hit, just as the soldier in question moves into view and opens fire.
Rinckes ducks in reflex. The phaser beam sizzles past and etches black smudges into the nearest window, blotching a segment of starfield, threatening to erase his link to reality. In response, he brings up his handphaser and fires at the beam’s origin. The Altonoid dodges the hasty shot and charges at the captain, prompting him to get to his sore feet and fire another shot, which grazes the Altonoid’s arm. The instant the soldier enters striking distance, Rinckes leans out of the way, shoves aside the man’s rifle barrel, and follows up with a quick punch to the throat. The grunting Altonoid struggles to retain balance, allowing Rinckes to smack the rifle upward and out of the soldier’s grasp.
“No!” the Altonoid yells, milliseconds before being shot with his own rifle.
“Watch out, Captain!” Melanie shouts, firing at a new group of soldiers pouring in from the side entrance.
Wielding a rifle and handphaser proves difficult when still reeling from the last close-quarters combat demonstration, and the bulkiest Altonoid of the bunch ploughs into Rinckes at full speed. His weapons clatter to the floor as the crown of his head bangs into a blend of carpet and glass shards. The Altonoid pins him down, holding up a knife, preparing to strike. An orange phaser burst from Melanie’s direction blasts the heavy soldier off him, revealing two Altonoids approaching fast. Acting on instinct, Rinckes seizes the knife from the Altonoid’s limp hand and throws it straight into the left soldier’s chest.
“You’ll pay for that,” his friend growls, leveling his rifle at the captain.
Its chrome gleaming in the shards’ reflections, Rinckes’ handphaser lies within reach, and he rolls his sore body toward it, evading incoming fire in the process. Just as his fingertips touch the phaser’s grip, a black boot appears from seemingly out of nowhere in this chaotic brawl and stomps on his wrist, accompanied by the crack of breaking bones. Shouting in pain, he slaps his handphaser over to his left hand, grabs it, and fires upward. The boot pivots away from his wrist as the attached soldier keels over, no longer blocking the view of Melanie being wrestled to the ground by two Altonoids.
Rinckes shoots one of them. What happens next eludes him, because he has problems of his own in the form of the vengeful Altonoid leaping at him, rifle stock swinging. He can’t rotate his handphaser quickly enough, and a dull thud above his right ear distorts his vision and crashes his world to the floor.
“A swift death will be too good for you,” he hears faintly, glass and carpet scraping his cheek as he fights to stay conscious, lying facedown. A broken phaser rifle lands close by—evidence of how hard he has been struck. He hears a knife unsheathing and realizes he has lost his handphaser. Ahead, Melanie is attempting to pick up her phaser rifle after defeating the soldier she was grappling with, but she has to dive away to avoid enemy fire and hides behind a slab of metal belonging to an unidentifiable piece of furniture.
A serrated blade pierces Rinckes below his phaser-burnt shoulder and pushes its way in. Writhing in agony and scratching his fingernails across the floor, he curls up threads of carpet until his left hand comes across a sharp object: a large triangular shard of glass. As he closes his fist around its razor-sharp edges, he meets Melanie’s gaze for a brief yet eternal moment.
And he sees the fear in her eyes.
Rage supplants his discomfort. If the universe is hellbent on taking her from him, he refuses to submit. He takes as deep a breath as the blade allows and strains each muscle in his injured body. Using every ounce of strength and then some, he rotates his torso and swings the shard at his assailant, striking fabric. Knife sticking out of his back, he gets up on his knees to face the soldier, who’s staring at him dumbfounded, holding the gash in his uniform, checking for wounds to his stomach.
Rinckes slices at the Altonoid’s thigh.
The soldier’s agonized howl attracts his colleagues’ attention. They cease firing at Melanie and try to look past the screaming soldier, at Rinckes standing up as if rising from the grave. The captain wraps his right arm, broken wrist and all, around the Altonoid and presses the shard against his throat, using him as a humanoid shield to prevent the agitated soldiers across the room from firing. His captive is gnashing his teeth in frustration.
Though walking has become arduous in his worrisome state, Rinckes and his hostage shuffle toward the other soldiers—three of them, all aiming their rifles. He hasn’t a clue what his next move will be once they resolve this brief stalemate.
“Drop the shard!” one of the soldiers commands. They’ll risk opening fire soon. Already, their befuddlement is yielding to resolve. “You won’t get far. Just calm—” A phaser burst slams into his ribs and smacks him backward into the rubble. Startled, Rinckes glimpses to the left and sees Melanie standing there with her reclaimed phaser rifle, its muzzle smoking. As the two remaining armed Altonoids return fire, she dives for cover behind the buckling table.
In the chaos, Rinckes’ hostage elbows him in the gut. Despite this nauseating surprise, he manages to stay upright, but the shard slips from his maimed hand. Survival instinct in high gear, he shifts his weight and pushes the soldier forward, coercing him to run along lest he topple over, turning him into a battering ram against one of the Altonoids firing at Melanie.
The ensuing collision sends the three of them tumbling in a flurry of limbs and bad language. The captain rolls to a halt against a flipped chair and cries out in pain; his right wrist is bent at an unnatural angle and the knife in his back has had a field day with the skin and muscles near its blade. He’d be about to faint if it weren’t for the sight of a chunk of metal breaking off the table Melanie is hiding behind.
Giving up is unthinkable, so he forces his aching shell to stand up like the two Altonoids he bowled over and readies himself for round two of this unfair tussle. He tucks his chin, bends his knees slightly, and puts up his fists—one bloody, one askew and barely responsive. The Altonoid firing at Melanie is almost within grasp as well and swivels his torso to train his rifle on the wobbly captain. Facing down three opponents—two of which armed, one of which bearing one hell of a grudge—Rinckes hesitates, unsure who to defend against first.
“Over here!” Melanie taunts from her hiding place, and she simplifies her captain’s choice by shooting the guy who was swiveling toward him, just as the former hostage steps aside to let the third soldier open fire. Although Rinckes may be looking worse for wear, his reflexes remain serviceable, and he hits the deck to evade the phaser beam, going prone instead of rolling out of the way. A wise decision, considering the knife in his back.
As Melanie draws fire from the armed Altonoid, and the former hostage stomps closer, Rinckes sweeps his left arm across the rubble-strewn floor and encounters a cold metal frame. Clueless as to what it is, he grabs it and summons his declining strength to get up once more and lash out at his attacker. The object is much heavier than expected. Like a hammer thrower, he instills momentum into what turns out to be a sturdy chair and drives it into the Altonoid’s jaw with full force, knocking the soldier over.
The rifle-carrying Altonoid catches on to the captain’s resurgence and takes aim. Rinckes advances, lifting the chair like a shield, which disintegrates into smoldering cloth and metal upon first impact. No matter, he has closed the distance. Having held on to a ragged chair leg, he smacks it against the soldier’s fingers, pushes the rifle barrel away, and follows up with a proper headbutt. As the Altonoid loses his balance, Rinckes yanks the rifle from his opponent’s grip and twirls it in his non-dominant hand like a gunslinger until its business end points forward. His first shot misses the Altonoid, who’s stumbling backward, nose bleeding. The next strikes him dead center.
From the right, the soldier who took a chair to the face lunges at him. Shaking from exertion, the captain rests the rifle barrel on his bent wrist to steady his aim and fires.
The Altonoid sags to the floor, smoke drifting up from his midriff phaser wound.
Rinckes stands there for a confused moment, observing his surroundings, dizzy and uncertain what is keeping him on his feet. It is awfully quiet in the lounge. Holding on to his Altonoid phaser rifle, he staggers toward the metal table. “Melanie?” His parched throat almost renders him mute. “Melanie? Are you okay?” These attempts at speaking result in a coughing fit that feels like being stabbed repeatedly.
“Sir,” he hears. Done coughing, he watches the center of his universe rising from cover. Apart from tousled blonde hair and several cuts and bruises, Melanie is all right. No phaser burns, no gaping hole in her chest, her blue eyes filled with life. Exhausted, he smiles at her. Darkness is calling, luring him in with the promise of blissful unconsciousness.
“Sir! Are you… Oh God!” She dashes over to him. Before she can reach him, he collapses into a heap. It’s a peaceful affair; he deserves some respite from the struggle, can hardly believe what has happened the past few minutes, hours even—it’s all a blur, and that blur is expanding.
Being sat up postpones his slumber. Melanie is with him, holding him, saying words he cannot understand. It’s okay, listening to her voice keeps him from blacking out. She sounds worried, so he tries to maintain his smile for her. Tears wet his cheek; he doesn’t know if they’re his or hers.
She inspects his injuries, finds the knife and leaves it be. Smart girl. Removing it would surely kill him. Time is running out nonetheless. Each fiber of his being compels him to tell her what he never could, but what difference would it make? She has to live. Everything else is trivial. “Go,” he whispers. “To the shuttle bay. Go.”
“…don’t think you can be moved.”
A soft chuckle. “Not me. You. Get out. Is an order.”
She lowers him to the floor carefully to ensure the knife isn’t pushed in deeper.
He hears fabric ripping.
“I said leave.”
Melanie swaddles her torn-off sleeve around the cut by his broken wrist and knots it. She then sits him up straighter and applies pressure to the knife wound with both hands to minimize bleeding. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“More soldiers could be on the way.”
“Then I suggest we watch both exits.”
“Don’t you worry about me.” He sneaks a peek at her gorgeous face. She’s so warm and near. He could spend eternity like this, but her survival takes precedence over sentimentality. “You have to get out. Please.”
“Bad idea. Abandoning my captain would harm my career prospects.” There’s that half-smile again.
“Please. Go to the shuttle bay. Forget about me. Forget about the war. You get to live, Melanie. You get to live.”
She purses her lips in concern. “What happened to you? I mean, it’s obvious the Altonoids did quite a number on you, but you seem… different.” She blows a wisp of hair from the captain’s forehead. “I never noticed you were graying, or those lines in your face. And what’s this talk about the war? Sure, it’s probable, but let the diplomats—”
“I love you.”
“—sort it out first and… Sorry, what?”
“I love you, Melanie.”
He can practically feel her blushing, but with the floodgates finally open, he won’t hold back now. “All these years, I’ve been reliving how I found you in this room. I could never save you. Not here, not in my dreams. Every time I closed my eyes, every night I slept, I saw you dying and… I failed you.”
“What? I’m not… Y-you’re the one who’s—”
“I failed you, every time. Those Altonoid bastards got to you. Always did. I held you as I saw the life drain from your eyes, and… even then I couldn’t say how I felt.”
“Maybe you’re going into shock.” She applies a tiny bit more pressure to his wound. “You’re speaking gibberish, aren’t you? Because I don’t understand what you’re…” She scrutinizes his wrinkles and graying hair again. “You’re not the man I spoke with hours ago.”
“Seven-and-a-half years.” He lets go of the rifle and gestures feebly at himself. “From my point of view.”
Her mouth falls open. “Seven-and-a…?”
Rinckes caresses her chin, smearing it with blood. She’s too nonplussed to mind. “Couldn’t tell you how I felt when I had the chance, and now I just blurted it out like a nervous teenager.”
“I don’t know what to say.” Her voice has gone shaky. “I mean, I never really… I mean…”
“Saying this at last, I’d hoped it would lift a burden off my shoulders.” He looks past Melanie, at the starship battle framed by the comforting stars in the windows, and back to her eyes, which are glossy with emotion. “My affection for you is utterly inconsequential in the grand scheme, pales in comparison to seeing you alive.”
“I was supposed to die here?”
“You were. So I came back.”
She’s silent for a good five seconds before muttering, “You traveled back in time? For me? I… I didn’t know you’d miss me so much. I had no idea.”
“To be honest, I never quite figured out what you thought of me and I don’t need to know. Whatever your feelings are toward me, I’m okay with it. I love you, Melanie. More than anything. I just… want you to make it through today. I cannot lose you again, so I’m begging you to leave. Go to the shuttle bay and flee to Starbase 9. This station will soon be under enemy control.”
She turns to the raging space battle. “What of the Sundance?” Outside, the Kennedy and Wolf circle the Altonoid prototype, which keeps firing its four convergent phaser beams at the beleaguered vessels. Melanie lowers her gaze. “Where is our ship?”
“Already lost. I’m sorry. There was nothing I could’ve done.”
Her mouth forms a thin line. “Was there?”
Rinckes wants to justify his actions, explain how it all went down, how he tried in vain to prioritize his loyalties to the Sundance and the Federation. His excuses come out as incoherent nonsense.
“Did you even try?”
He bites his lower lip to stop his bruised jaw from quivering. “There was nothing I could’ve done.”
“Captain, what did you do?”
“No, I’m not leaving you.” She withdraws from his hand caressing her chin. “Answer my question. Did you even try?”
“I tried. I tried every day, for years. But I lose ships. It’s what I do. The Solar Field, the Sundance, the Achilles.”
“Wait. Harriman’s ship?”
“My next command. They gave her to me, but I lost her too, all hands. I did everything, did everything right, even when we were trapped behind enemy lines. We survived, alone, for so long, but fate caught up with me. It always does. I’m cursed, Melanie. That’s why you must leave.”
She lets out a deep sigh bordering on exasperation. “You’re not cursed.” She rests her head on his non-injured shoulder in lieu of embracing him. “You’ve been through hell. I’d be lying if I said I understood half of it, but we’ll discuss the situation later. In the here and now, regardless of the Sundance’s fate, you’re my captain and I’m not leaving your side.”
Her nearness and compassion despite her astute observations dismantle the barriers he set up eons ago and permit him to let his tears flow uninhibited. “Thank you.”
“Well, I couldn’t leave if I wanted to. I have to apply pressure until the blood in your knife wound has clotted, so that buys you another ten minutes.”
Enfolded in her presence, he smiles at her, grateful to have beaten the odds. Blood has been spilled of enemy and friend alike, and his obsession with righting this one sin of his past has numbed his conscience, though his dubious actions and trodden-on principles continue to gnaw at him from afar. His body and soul have gone through a meat grinder, but it’s okay. He is where he yearned to be: right beside Melanie Simons.
He grabs the stolen Altonoid rifle and points it at the main entrance, then presses his cheek against Melanie’s and stares out the window, at the doomed Wolf and Kennedy, and at the stars confirming he is wide awake. His nightmare is over.