I’ve been uploading a steady trickle of new work here over the past three years now, and I’m thrilled to share the story’s conclusion with you.
Sticking to tradition, I’ll upload it in four parts over the following weeks, with a new chapter segment each Friday. Today we kick off with the first segment. Enjoy!
Part III Chapter XIII, segment A:
Earth, State of Washington – June 2, 2386 – Stardate 63416.4
Dappling sunlight bounces off the waters of Lake Crescent and onto the silver hull of Stephan Rinckes’ motorboat, its cylindrical power pack gurgling at the waterline to offset the current. He has packed up his fishing gear, stored his captured trout in a portable cooling unit, and installed himself on the aft bench seat to gaze at the verdant mountain range and the occasional fellow pleasure craft.
This, or rather the nearby lake house he acquired upon resigning his commission, is home. For six years in a row, the lake’s tranquility has been attempting to erase a life among the stars. His primary motivation for staying on Earth, he suspects, is witnessing firsthand that the loss of the Federation home world will never happen, that his harrowing mission aboard the Achilles was a success. The town’s inhabitants leave him alone for the most part, unaware of his questionable role in the conception of this vastly improved timeline.
Whenever the weather permits, he goes out boating to catch himself a meal or simply enjoy the soft babble of water replacing the omnipresent hum of starship systems, yet his mind often wanders to the events leading up to this solitary life. These mental sojourns into the past have remained a daily occurrence and perhaps they always will. So be it. Speaking with counselors mitigated his intense mixture of conflicting emotions to an extent, divided complexity into governable segments. The biggest takeaway from these sessions was realizing that the circumstances under which he had to command a Starfleet vessel were extreme. Guilt and grief are formidable enough on their own; no need to amplify them with shame over experiencing feelings anyone in his position would’ve had to face.
He dips his fingertips into the clear water—cold to the touch but comforting in its motion—and glances at his wooden house and the sand, grass, and boulders forming a multitiered entrance to its porch.
Something is off.
He jumps to his feet and peers into the distance. Despite his self-chosen quiet life and the irrefutable fact he is perfectly safe, he is yet to shake the nagging fear of everything falling apart without warning, the skies blackening with enemy fighters, warships eclipsing the sun, his house collapsing, the lake evaporating, of being dragged kicking and screaming into the literal and figurative nightmares he escaped.
Though hard to distinguish from afar, Rinckes spots an outdated hover car parked beside his residence, its cockpit dome betraying its age. “I’ll be damned.” He hops into the helm chair and spurs his boat to action. In a swift maneuver, he points the bow at his house, spraying a wave of mist in the opposite direction. At full throttle, it doesn’t take long before Rinckes discerns a Starfleet officer sitting in his yard. Could it be? He makes out a command division red shoulder area, brown hair, a somewhat impatient bearing. The man has noticed Rinckes’ approach and rises from his chair, revealing himself to be of average height at best.
“Tony…” Rinckes mumbles, considering to reverse course, as if fleeing would deter the young man from this unscheduled reunion. He’d probably jump into his hover car and give chase. No turning back now. The guy is actually waving at him, prompting Rinckes to reduce throttle, avoid eye contact, and vow to moor his boat as slowly as humanly possible.
Once he has done so and exhausted every other stalling tactic, Rinckes fixes his look on his sandals and strolls the pier to the yard.
Standing at attention, Tony has been waiting for him at the end of the pier. It’s remarkable how the commander has matured into the man who was his XO on the Achilles. “Good to see you, Captain,” he says as soon as Rinckes steps into the sand.
“Just Stephan these days.” Compared to the uniformed officer, Rinckes feels underdressed in his boardshorts and button-up shirt. “Do I have to say ‘at ease’?”
“How have you been, sir?”
Rinckes brushes past him. “No sir, no captain, no nothing. It’s Stephan.” He opens an outdoor mini fridge, grabs two beer bottles, uncaps them, sets one on the nearby wooden table, and flops into a garden chair.
“I won’t drink on the job.”
“It’s synthehol. Have at it.”
Tony picks up his beverage and settles himself in a chair across the table. “Lovely place you have, Captain. I mean, Stephan.”
Rinckes downs a swig of chilled beer and stares off at the forested mountains. “It’s been ages since anyone’s addressed me by my old rank.”
“You’d better get used to it, because your being my captain is ingrained into my memory.”
Rinckes glares at his former XO. “Are you here to judge me? I recall you being quite proficient at it.”
“I’m here to admire your home and drink your beer.” He takes a sip and smirks. “Judging you is a bonus.”
“I won’t chase you off my premises, but I prefer my own company.”
“Melanie told me as much.”
Rinckes’ chest tightens.
“Hence my surprise visit. If you’re not ready to reconnect with her, I’m pretty sure I’m not high on your guestlist either.”
“You got that right! What is it with you and your blatant disregard for personal boundaries? You think because you’re this fallen Q, this ‘hero of the people,’ you can say whatever you damn please?”
Tony remains silent for ten seconds, then breaks into a smile. “I missed this.” He dares to chuckle. “Honest to God, I missed this. I never thought I would. Fighting side by side in pursuit of a common goal just encouraged us to be at each other’s throats from every other conceivable angle.”
Rinckes has no idea how to respond besides taking a passive-aggressive gulp of beer.
Tony’s not done yet. “I bet if we were to go on a fishing trip on that flashy boat of yours, we’d end up arguing over the moral implications of fishing, manage to sink our boat and three others, and somehow alter the timeline before dusk.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Rinckes grumbles.
“If we’d told ourselves at the onset of the Achilles’ mission that our conflicts and tragedies would amount to us sitting here bickering like an elderly couple, re-enacting On bloody Golden Pond on a liberated Earth surrounded by the billions we saved, we’d be elated.” He raises his bottle to the sky. “So I’m drinking to the glorious fools we are. You’re free to join in, Captain.”
“I’m not your captain, Tony. I believe I relinquished that title when I shot you.”
“Twice! You made sure!”
“I did, blinded by obsession.”
“If you hadn’t, I would’ve blown up the station to secure all this”—he nods at the lake and the people on it—“causing more deaths than ultimately proved necessary. Talk about obsession, single-mindedness.”
“I appreciate your attempt to diffuse blame and share credit, but let’s not pretend you didn’t pay a higher price. I got to see Melanie live, and although my life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows in the proverbial sense, I’ve found peace knowing she’s out there being her wonderful self.” He sags his shoulders. “You lost Emily twice: first through my command decision and then through a horrible choice forced on you. And before you ascribe more undeserved heroism to me, not only did I lose the Achilles, I abandoned the Sundance’s crew. And they’re not coming back, Tony. I blew my one chance.” He slips off his sandals and rests his feet in the sand. “Sad thing is, if I’d wanted to remain captain, I could’ve made it happen.”
“I’ve always had a knack for wriggling myself out of trouble. It became pathological, a reflex. Technically, by attacking you on the station, I was protecting Federation assets. As your superior…” He notices Tony’s countenance darkening, so he stresses, “I’m not justifying anything; I’m merely recounting how some higher-ups opted to view my actions.”
“As your superior, it was within my purview to refuse destroying the station. At face value, I did nothing wrong. In addition, psych evaluations after the fact established I had been pushed well beyond my limits for years with little recourse except plowing on.”
“No argument there.”
“Multiple admirals confirmed their intentions to reinstate me once I’d been given ample recovery time. What do you think of that?”
Tony runs a finger along the table’s edge. “I would’ve abided by such an outcome.”
“As would everyone, apparently.”
“Everyone but you.”
“Handed in my resignation first chance I got. I was done fooling myself.” Abruptly, he gets up and paces toward the shoreline. “At least out here, I can’t harm a soul. No more sending good people to their graves, no more letting down those who entrusted me with their lives. The world is better off without my interference.”
Tony gets up too. “Take it from me—and I’m the undisputed expert on this—you’re being too hard on yourself.” He halts next to him, sand clinging to his polished shoes. “You talk as if you’re valueless, doing the universe a great service by closing yourself off to others. That’s harsh. Whose deaths are truly on your conscience? Think about it.”
“Here we go. I’d rather not.”
“You speak of the Sundance, and yes, you weren’t there for them the first time around. But were you in any position to help them when we boarded Station A-12 the second time?”
Unwilling to answer, Rinckes snatches up a pebble and skips it across the water.
“And I don’t mean physically, but mentally. Were you of sound mind when we were in the shield generator room, readjusting our desperate plan on the fly?”
“Shouldn’t you be leaving, Tony?”
“No, hear me out. How did the psych evaluation describe your state of mind from that point on until your reintegration by the Temporal Integrity Commission?”
“They said I’d exhibited multiple signs of a psychotic episode.”
“Losing your crew is an absolute tragedy, and it makes perfect sense for you to feel dismal about the whole ordeal. It’s not all on you, however, not within this context. It just can’t be. So this brings us to the Achilles. You lost the vessel, but her entire crew except for Emily—which was my decision, my fault—is currently alive and breathing thanks to our traveling back in time.”
“No!” Rinckes wags a finger at Tony. “Emily’s death is on me. I always chose Melanie over everything else, dooming whoever stood between me and her. You understood the concept of sacrifice. You chose the many over the one. Hell, we both know, had Melanie been trapped in the crashed Altonoid vessel, I would’ve stayed and fought no matter the consequences. Instead, I bereaved you of your loving wife.”
Tony’s expression has become unreadable.
“Emily was a fine officer. As her captain, I bear total responsibility for her ultimate fate. You can talk all you want about ifs and should haves when it comes to the blood on my conscience, but it falls apart once you speak of the woman who should be with you. Emily is definite proof of my hypocrisy, of the danger I pose, and the necessity of my self-imposed exile.”
“I’ve been preparing for a mission,” Tony says, completely out of left field. “It took over a month to plan and—”
“What? Have you even been listening?”
“I’ve persuaded Admiral Van Aken to spare the Achilles for my mission, and I want you there with me.”
“Why would you want that?”
“In the shield generator room, you mentioned you saw Emily die.”
Rinckes heaves a remorseful sigh. “I shouldn’t have used it against you.”
“You said the Altonoids who killed her sent us a video of her final moments. You knew each detail.”
“I still do. She was braver than both of us combined.”
A determined spark ignites in Tony’s eyes. “In the original timeline, she died two weeks from now. We may have found a way to save her. It’s a gamble, and I need your help.”
“I haven’t set foot on a starship in years. I don’t belong up there anymore.” He looks at the sky, an azure shroud veiling an infinity of stars. “But if my old XO asks me to rescue the Achilles’ last crewmember, who am I to refuse?” He meets Tony’s hopeful smile with an intent scowl. “Tell me what I can do.”