Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter II

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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter II

Post by Alexbright99 »

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Despite his bruised ribs, Lieutenant Tony Blue does an admirable job matching Ensign Josh Donahue’s overture of terrified screams. The ensign, still pinning Tony down, grabs at his neck to make sure the dying S’Prenn is really gone. It is. However, his screaming intensifies as his fingers reach his deformed face with its protruding fangs and bulging eyes, and develops into outright shrieking when he touches the four spiderlike arms that have burst from his sides.

Tony rivals his colleague’s horrific shrieks for a good ten seconds. Then, as if on cue, they both go silent and stare at each other with no idea what to do or say next. The ensign lying in his arms appears to be on the verge of tears and the situation’s awkwardness is at maximum anyway, so Tony gives him a big hug and says, “Welcome back, Josh.”

This has the desired soothing effect, and Josh gently pushes himself away from the lieutenant. With a great amount of effort, he summons his mutated body to straighten up, and he raises his arms to the ceiling. To his disgust and fascination, his new spider arms move in tandem with their human counterparts. However, when one of the arms starts twitching, he goes down on all eights and empties his stomach on the grimy floor.

As is becoming a theme of late, Tony’s empathy wins out over revulsion. “I’ve had my share of dealings with the S’Prenn.” His encyclopedic tone is meant to reassure them both. “Being taken over by one is called being S’Prenned.”

Josh gives him a sidelong glance, his charcoal eyes sorrowful, seemingly begging him for good news.

“If a S’Prenn releases its host of its own volition, the host will make a complete recovery.”

“And if it doesn’t?” Josh asks in a croaky voice, the first intelligible words he has spoken since regaining control over his vocal cords.

“If the S’Prenn is forcefully detached or killed?” He hesitates. “Instant death.”

“Yes. I remember. The S’Prenn released his hold on me before he died so I would live. Physically, I will revert to normal in a few days.”

Tony sits up slowly. “Possibly sooner once we get you to sickbay.” Then it hits him. “Wait, how would you know that?”

Josh, using his arachnid arms without thinking, crawls over to the dead S’Prenn lying next to Tony and kneels beside it. The half-melted spider lies supine in the muck, gruesome yet peaceful, its disfigured legs flexed. “His name was Kronn. He was an engineer who lived with his family on this ship. When the Altonoids attacked and everyone started dying, he tried to protect his and his friends’ children. He thought he could keep them safe. He couldn’t—” His breath hitches. “They died in front of—“

“I know,” Tony says to quell the lump forming in his throat.

“They look so different from us.” Moisture in Josh’s enlarged pupils reflect the scarce light around them. “Yet their concepts of love and family are so similar to ours.”

“He gave you his memories, didn’t he?”

“All that was left.”

“No S’Prenn has ever done that, as far as I recall.”

“Lucky, lucky me,” Josh says, followed by a sad chuckle.

“Lucky, lucky you.” Tony inhales deeply, only to be reminded of his injuries. He may not share the ensign’s temporary deformities, but he feels a total mess anyhow.

Josh takes another look at Kronn’s corpse. “He put me through hell… but I can’t blame him. The poor bastard was at the end of his rope.”

“Ensign, I need to know,” Tony says, waiting until he has Josh’s undivided attention. “Kronn spoke of a cure. Do you remember?”

Josh stands up, strength returning to his limbs, and extends an arm—a human arm, fortunately—to help the battered chief tactical officer to his feet. “I remember, as vividly as the death of Kronn’s children. The cure is real.”

Relief and newfound determination cast aside Tony’s discomfort and fill him with confidence, yet all he can bring himself to say is, “Good,” and in a flat tone at that.

Josh unbuckles his shoulder strap and three singed pattern enhancers drop to the floor. They became scrap metal the instant Tony phasered them. The ensign accesses a computer interface near the doorway. “I can resolve the interference from here. We, or rather Kronn and his fellow engineers, created it as a last defense to keep Altonoids from beaming into vital areas after the shields failed.” He pauses and lowers his gaze. “Clever.”

Tony is too lost in thought to reply. With an actual cure on the horizon, the Federation might overthrow the Altonoids at long last. This gives them a clear purpose, but it also increases the pressure they’re under. If only the Achilles weren’t alone in her crucial mission.

“Interference resolved,” Josh says while using his arachnid arms to operate the computer. “We should contact Commanders Crow and Terrell.”

“I think they already heard our screaming.” Tony presses his combadge. “Lieutenant Blue to Commander Crow.”

Finally.” Cranky and impatient rather than relieved. Figures.

“You must’ve been worried sick,” Tony says in a wry tone and immediately regrets it. His sarcasm may be a reflex, but why does he keep forgetting the new XO doesn’t have a detectable sense of humor?

A faint grumble confirms this. “What happened down there? What’s your status?

Frankly, neither Tony nor Josh know where to begin.

* * *

Lieutenant Tony Blue and Ensign Josh Donahue have arrived in the computer core control room at last. With the interference taken care of, the Achilles simply beamed them there, an anticlimactic but welcome conclusion to their journey. Crow and Terrell stayed put to confer with the captain via their combadges. The S’Prenn wreckage is theirs now, and Josh is working the many computer interfaces like he has done so all his life. In a way, he has.

Tony is grateful this multideck chamber permits humanoids to stand upright. He has propped himself against a support strut, phaser rifle held across his chest in a firm grip, and looks on as the ensign zigzags across the room, using six arms to bow the ship’s computer to his will. Its interfaces are as black as the bulkheads they’re on and light up in purple when touched. It is a mesmerizing sight, or it would be, if Tony hadn’t suddenly felt a wave of homesickness. Not to the Achilles, mind you. No, to his dad’s cottage overlooking San Francisco. Seven months he had spent there, from the onset of summer to the end of winter, reconnecting with his father and falling in love over and over with Emily. Memory colludes with nostalgia and therefore cannot be trusted, and that period saw the rise of war as gradual as the loss of hope, but he would barter his soul to plant his bare feet in that backyard’s grass and listen to the laugh of his then-fiancée once more.

“Are you all right, Lieutenant?”

He must be in a pretty sorry state to be asked this by Ensign Spidey. “Carry on, Mr. Donahue.”

“You’re worried about that cure, aren’t you? That we won’t find any more info on it?”

“Uh… Sure.”

“No need. Though the database is damaged and incomplete,”—Josh casually scales the bulkheads and ceiling to access another interface terminal—“it remains a goldmine of information.”

“Bloody hell,” Tony says to the upside-down ensign with the ghoulish face. “Could you at least warn me before you go all Fred Astaire on me?”

Before Josh can no doubt ask to whom Tony is referring, two swirls of blue light transport Commanders Crow and Terrell into the room. They’re in their white EV suits, immaculate and untarnished—quite a contrast to the two colleagues they sent ahead. Crow and Terrell gawk at the pale mutant clinging to the ceiling and drop Tony and Josh’s EV suits in order to reach for their weapons: a handphaser for Crow and an isomagnetic disintegrator for Terrell. If fired, the disintegrator would take out the ensign and half the room with it.

“Don’t!” Tony shouts as he fumbles for his rifle and sets it to stun. “That’s Donahue!”

It takes a while for Crow and Terrell to recognize the ensign. Tony keeps his rifle at the ready just in case fear gets the better of them.

Then, Erin Crow reattaches her phaser to her suit but keeps staring wide-eyed at their mutated colleague. “Stand down, Commander,” she says to Terrell.

Jon Terrell puts down his shoulder-mounted weapon and gapes at the many decaying S’Prenn blanketing the floor and bulkheads. For the first time since Tony has known him, the chief engineer has nothing witty to say. He just spins around slowly, taking in the grisly environment.

Crow composes herself and nods at the EV suits they dropped. “We brought your suits.”

Tony leans back against the pillar. “Keep it. I could use a clean uniform, though.”

“You sure do.” She purses her lips in a grimace that almost conveys pity. Tony is on the verge of growing accustomed to traipsing around with a bleeding, shoeless foot and being soaked head to toe in spider muck of varying solidity, but he and the ensign must be quite a pitiful spectacle. “Ensign, I have your EV suit here if you want it.”

“It wouldn’t fit anymore,” Donahue says as he lets go of the ceiling and lands next to Terrell, who then needs a moment to jumpstart his respiratory system. “I need your help, Commander Terrell. The ship’s in worse condition than we feared.” He points his left arms at the main server. “I have accessed the ship’s database. We’ll need to find a way to merge it with our own.”

A soft “blimey” is all the response he gets from the chief engineer.

“We were scared too, Jon,” Tony says, “until we underwent extensive exposure therapy… I can only speak for myself, but you get used to it. Kind of.”

“A nightmare is what this is.”

“Oh, I won’t deny that. But being the first Starfleet engineer to set foot in a S’Prenn computer room has to be a dream come true.”

This elicits a nervous chuckle. “You’re right, Tony. I just need a minute.” Terrell’s breathing normalizes soon after, and he straightens his back and follows Donahue to a set of interfaces.

As the odd couple walks off, Crow removes her helmet and places it atop the pile of rejected EV suits. She steps closer to Tony and gives him a quick visual inspection. “Where’s your tricorder?”

“Somewhere near my right shoe.” He points at his right sock and wiggles his toes for the strict commander, who expresses her disapproval with a deep sigh. She refrains from responding for a long while, and Tony doesn’t have to be clairvoyant to sense an incoming admonishment.

“You did well,” she says instead. “We needed this mission to succeed. We needed this… small victory.” They take a moment to look at Terrell and Donahue collaborating. “This could’ve gone so much worse.” There’s tiredness in her eyes and voice. She becomes aware of this as soon she meets Tony’s gaze and seems startled by her letting down her guard. Her countenance galvanizes to that of the coldhearted officer she aspires to be. “You need medical attention, Lieutenant. Your work here is done. I suggest you contact the Achilles and have them beam you to sickbay.”

“No, ma’am.” Tony tightens his grip on his phaser rifle. “I’m not going anywhere until the database upload is complete and the entire away team ready for beam-out.”

His defiance is met with a three-star scowl at first, which then morphs into a prolonged thoughtful expression and ultimately a weak smile. “I understand. You do that, Tony.” She puts a hand on his shoulder and gives it an encouraging squeeze before heading over to Terrell and Donahue.

Tony’s visit to this S’Prenn wreck has been rife with twists and surprises, but that smile and shoulder squeeze top his personal list of today’s unexpected events.
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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter IIb

Post by Alexbright99 »

USS Achilles – July 13, 2386 – Stardate 63527.1
Of course he should be asleep at this hour, but Captain Stephan Rinckes is still in uniform and monitoring the crew’s studying every corner of the S’Prenn wreckage. His quarters’ windows offer a perfect view of the shuttles and other spacecraft the Achilles could spare surrounding the crippled bulk like flies swarming a dead body. Brave men and women in EV suits are stripping its outer hull with plasma torches while tethered to their vehicles. All this activity gives the S’Prenn ship the aspect of a decomposing spider the size of a hill, a silenced behemoth undergoing its final rites by the desperate.

At least it wasn’t a trap.

Transfixed, the captain stands at the window, hands clasped behind his back, staring at the S’Prenn ship, the first of its kind to be analyzed by the Federation after nearly a decade of mystery. Any scientist or engineer would donate a non-essential body part for the chance of picking apart one of these. It is doubtful if its technology is readily compatible with theirs, but the gained insights alone could prove vital, not to mention the importance of the precious contents of its database.

This lucky break sparks in him a fleeting scientific curiosity he had considered extinct. After surviving the infamous Battle of Wolf 359, during which the Borg massacred 39 Federation vessels, Rinckes—a lieutenant commander back then—had lost his appetite for the security division. He had requested a transfer to a science vessel, and the admiralty made him first officer of the Cochrane. He spent his six-year tenure as XO on that small Oberth-class ship overseeing uneventful transport missions, scientific exploration, and interstellar charting. His colleagues and especially his captain were eagerly curious about the workings of the universe and their enthusiasm was infectious.

It was the closest he had ever come to being at peace with himself.

In those years, conflicts were brooding, culminating in another Borg invasion and the onset of the Dominion War, which occurred one month after Rinckes took command of a science vessel of his own, the brand-new Solar Field. Peacetime was over, though the fledgling captain took on every available science mission in a bid to hold on to his new persona.

His venture into the art of science was bookended by a Borg cube vaporizing the completely evacuated Solar Field in 2379, right before Tony Q interfered and rescued the Federation once more with his near-infinite powers.

When given the Sundance, Rinckes held the reins of a powerful combat cruiser that found itself on the frontline, dealing with the Altonoids, who in turn made sure his battle skills were put to the test continuously. The transition from a peaceful man to a warrior was—to his regret—as easy as switching uniform jackets.

Fatigue engulfs him; belatedly so, considering midnight crept by and vanished into this sleepless night hours ago. Mesmerized by the orderly chaos on display, he pulls up a chair and eases his tired body into it. Watching his talented crew’s efforts fills him with a sense of pride that warms what should pass for his heart. They’re good people, the whole lot of them. One misstep on his part, one wrong snap decision, one slight tactical error, and all those souls will be extinguished by a cold universe indifferent to their plight.

When he lost the Solar Field, he lost his ship. When he lost the Sundance, he lost his crew. He neglected them, abandoned them in favor of searching for Melanie, her one life outweighing all others on scales imbalanced by infatuation.

He had charmed his way out of it, fooled the admirals and the Federation council. The Altonoids had unwittingly destroyed all evidence and killed all witnesses of the poor excuse for a captain he was that day. He had gotten away with it, had believed his failure to protect those under his command to be justified—a delusion given credence by his assignment to the formidable Achilles.

Stirred by these musings, Rinckes rises from his seat, walks over to his desk, and picks up an isolinear chip lying atop an assortment of PADDs. On it is information exclusive to this chip; the Achilles’ database has been purged of it, the captain saw to that. He clenches his fist around it, its edges burrowing into his skin. He ought to keep it secured in one of his desk’s encrypted drawers, but it always manages to find its way to the top of the pile. Unable to sweep this under the rug as casually as his lamentable behavior during the Station A-12 Debacle, this physical manifestation of his guilt is here to stay—for now.

Rinckes places the chip back on the pile and returns to his ringside seat. Outside, two shuttles tear loose a section of S’Prenn hull plating, exposing its underlying decks.

I cannot be held accountable for actions kept secret. I can only keep history from repeating itself.

* * *

“Computer! Lights!”

Obedient as ever, the computer raises the light level in Lieutenant Tony Blue’s quarters, thereby scaring off yet another imaginary parade of Altonoids, Borg, and S’Prenn. Tony kicks aside the stifling bed sheets, allowing the climate-controlled air to cool his sweat-drenched pajamas while he waits for the rush of adrenaline to wear off. It wasn’t a nightmare that made him feel like parrying a strangler’s hold; his nightly anxiety attacks don’t permit him the luxury of REM sleep before bombarding him with images of ruined cities, unbeatable enemies, and dead relatives.

Ever since his return from the S’Prenn vessel, after making absolutely sure his away team was in safe hands, falling asleep has been a problem. While he does fall asleep eventually, he has to suffer through a series of panic attacks whenever he dares to enter the realm one travels prior to losing consciousness, until he is too exhausted to care and surrenders to the horrors that await him.

He has somehow escaped the clutches of his bed and pajamas and made his way into the sonic shower, which rids his body of its sweaty film and emits a gentle hum as it cleans him with sound waves. He takes a deep breath, his healed ribs free of pain. In these instances, reality is preferable to dreaming.

Once he has stepped out of the shower, he contemplates fetching himself a fresh set of pajamas and taking another spin on the wheel of night terrors. No matter how alluring and comfortable that bed may seem, it has become a trap. Besides, what’s the point of stepping into bed when there’s always one person missing?

Tony selects a uniform with the right department color in one go and puts it on. He relishes in its neatness—such a far cry from the soggy mess he wore on the S’Prenn ship—and heads out, planning to check in on Josh, whose S’Prenn features have visibly diminished each passing day. The valiant ensign had spent every waking moment assisting the away teams with his unique knowledge until the doctor ordered him to report to sickbay, not so much to rest as to sate the doctor’s boundless curiosity about S’Prenn physiology.

At this hour, the corridors are always quiet, but with half the crew analyzing and dismantling the S’Prenn wreckage, the Achilles seems deserted, and Tony arrives at sickbay’s entrance in no time. Its twin doors swish open in front of him, and a fully human Ensign Josh Donahue comes marching out. To prevent collision, they grab each other by the upper arms as if they’re about to initiate an impromptu dance act.

“I just sent him out,” an unseen Doctor Kingsley says from within sickbay. “Could you try not injuring him again?”

“Sorry, Doc.” Tony directs the ensign to the opposite corridor bulkhead where they can talk without the doctor riffing their every sentence. “How are you doing, Josh?”

Nothing about his appearance suggests Josh has endured the last three days as a human/spider hybrid. All deformities have vanished, leaving no scars, his skin tone has reclaimed its healthy shade, and his eyes are friendly and hazel instead of dilated and coal-black. “You were right. I’m good as new.”

Despite Tony’s bleariness, he simpers while saying, “Be honest, do you miss your ability to climb walls?”

The ensign chuckles. “I do, yes, but the worst thing is I’ve no excuse left to cancel this month’s piano recital.”

“Don’t be so modest. I’ve heard through the grapevine you’re a natural entertainer.”

“I guess, but those spider arms sure would’ve come in handy during La Campanella.”

As their joviality fades, the seriousness of the past couple of days pushes to the forefront like an unwanted guest. No escaping it now; they might as well acknowledge it. “What you went through was quite an ordeal, Ensign. If this doesn’t earn you an official commendation, then—”

“Then that would be all right. I’m glad to be of service.” A trace of sadness crosses his features for the briefest of moments, a sadness Tony recognizes all too well—the kind that is meant to be hidden but emerges nonetheless.

“Kronn’s memories never left, did they?”

Josh sighs. “A blessing and a curse. The captain asked me to record every iota of valuable intelligence, especially regarding the cure. Soon, we’ll leave this area for good.”

“But that won’t be the end of it.”

“Not for me.”

“If only psychological trauma healed as quickly as its physical counterpart.” Tony offers him a drowsy but earnest smile. “Hang in there, Ensign.” He pats him on the shoulder and starts toward sickbay’s entrance, but Josh isn’t done with him yet.

“Lieutenant, before you go. I… it wasn’t my fault, but I keep reliving how I chased you down the corridors and hurt you, almost… killed you.”

“It’s not like you had a say in the matter.”

“I was present, conscious, from beginning to end. Maybe if I’d tried harder to fight off Kronn’s mind control—”

“No, no, let me be clear about this. You are not to blame. I’ve dealt with S’Prenned people before. They all fought back, and none succeeded. It’s a biological impossibility to regain control without the S’Prenn’s permission.”

The ensign needs a few seconds to let that sink in. “I’m still sorry, Lieutenant.” The way Josh stands there, arms hanging by his side, his posture crumpled, Tony can’t help but feel bad for him.

Of course, this automatically deploys Tony’s sarcasm. “Yeah, well, without you I would’ve drowned in a pool of S’Prenn limbs in that vertical corridor, so there’s that. Also, most people would’ve freaked out or gone catatonic after having been puppeteered by an insane S’Prenn. Not you; how you’ve handled it so far is nothing short of impressive. Give yourself a little credit, man.”

“I’ll try, sir,” Josh says, the shine returning to his eyes.

“I spoke to Gibbs about you, and he’s impressed as well.” Tony makes for the sickbay doors, which open for him promptly. “If he doesn’t recommend you for promotion this year, I’ll have him committed.”

Without missing a beat, the as-yet-unseen Doctor Kingsley adds, “Oh great! More loons to take up my precious time.”

Tony and Josh share a laugh over this. “Take care, Josh.” And with that, Tony enters sickbay in search of their chief medical heckler.

The positivity he got a taste of vanishes without a trace once he has stepped through the doorway. A chill races up and down Tony’s spine as he is confronted by the collection of S’Prenn cadavers and body parts on exhibit all throughout sickbay. Each of the four biobeds on the right-hand side, which are usually reserved for convalescing humanoids, support multiple transparent containers showcasing arachnid remains in varying degrees of decomposition.

As Tony approaches the surgical biobed at the far end of the room, he notices the half-melted S’Prenn on it, its sternum cut open, revealing a grey mass of equally melted innards. He leans in closer to see if he can identify any separate organs in the goop. Out of nowhere, a hand grasps him by the shoulder and yanks him backward. He staggers and lets out a mighty yelp, which is cut short by the sight of Doctor Kingsley grinning widely.

As if nothing happened, the doctor upgrades his shoulder-grabbing to putting an arm around Tony in collegial fashion as he begins waxing lyrical about the wonders of S’Prenn anatomy. It takes a while before Tony’s flush of adrenaline subsides and allows him to listen to the overzealous physician.

“—incision in the cephalothorax revealed a brain so large and complex it has engulfed the stomach, and that’s not just because this fellow’s organs have melted and fused.” As he’s talking, he pokes and prods the carcass with a gory delight that makes Tony squeamish. “We’re barely scratching the surface as to the intricacies of their brains, but we’ve discovered that proper stimulation by compatible forms of energy causes their neuropeptide levels to go off the charts. Here’s the kicker: When electrically charged, their insides become magnetic as all hell.” He finally lets Tony go, if only to spread his arms in a gesture as abundant as his smile. “I’ve no idea why, but here’s hoping it has to do with the proposed quantum mechanical nature of their brains.”

Tony steps back and shakes out his hands to stop them from tingling. “That’s—“

“This corpse right here could revolutionize our understanding of exobiology… or at the very least make one heck of a novelty fridge magnet.”

“Uh, what are—” Tony is interrupted by the doctor grabbing him by the collar and dragging him over to another biobed.

Kingsley taps the glass of a random transparent container, as if to provoke the abominations within. “I’d bet anyone a month’s worth of holodeck privileges these suckers aren’t from our galaxy.”

Tony frees himself from the doctor’s grasp and straightens his jacket. “Doctor, these ‘suckers’ were sentient beings who became victims of a horrible bioweapon. A little more respect should be in order.”

Kingsley keeps tapping the glass. “What’s done is done.” He maintains his upbeat tone, though there is a bittersweet edge to it. “Dwelling on tragedy won’t bring them back. In death, they are of immense value.” He stops tapping the transparent casing and presses his hand against it. “In death, they can provide us the means to avenge them.”

Tony sighs ruefully. “That we agree on. Any progress in that department?”

“Nothing viable,” Kingsley says. “Not yet,” he hastens to add. He heads over to his office and signals Tony to follow. Once there, the doctor slumps into his chair and waves both hands at the towers of PADDs that cover the entire desk and are precariously close to teetering over. “I won’t be getting any sleep anytime soon, that’s for sure.”

Despite the subliminal invitation in the form of an empty chair, Tony refrains from taking a seat, mostly because the stacks of PADDs would obstruct his view of his conversation partner.

“Not that I’m against burning the midnight oil, mind you,” Kingsley says, leaning over to the replicator embedded in the nearest bulkhead. “Coffee, black as my heart.” Impervious to the doctor’s wry humor, the replicator whirls a cup of coffee into existence. “I grew up on Faros 5. Ever heard of it? A moon on which it is always night, lit solely by countless stars, grouped together in constellations that change color like diamonds in the sun. Something to do with the atmosphere. Great for working at night, terrible for working on your tan. Made me a nyctophile for life.”

Quiet seconds float by, a rarity when interacting with the good doctor.

A mischievous twinkle appears in Kingsley’s eyes. “So that’s my excuse for being up and about at three in the morning. What’s yours?”

This catches Tony off-guard. “I, uh, came by to check in on Ensign Donahue.”

The doctor takes a sip of coffee. “Not much of an answer. Visiting hours aren’t limited to the middle of the night. Trouble sleeping?”

Tony hesitates. If there’s one person who can help him combat his recent bout of flashbacks and insomnia, it’s the doctor, but he can’t yet bring himself to discuss these subjects, especially the resurfaced memories regarding the Borg. They’re so unwelcome, he fears speaking of them will grant them undeserved validity.

“You should be in bed,” Kingsley says. “I believe your next shift starts in a few hours.” He finishes the rest of his beverage in one gulp and gets up to escort the young man out of sickbay. “These past weeks have placed a tremendous physical and mental strain on you.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Tony admits as he lets the chief medical officer guide him to the exit.

“Get some rest, Tony, hypocritical as it may sound coming from this over-caffeinated night owl.”

“Will do, sir.” With that, the lieutenant enters the corridor and begins his stroll to the nearest turbolift. Panic attacks be damned, he needs his sleep. His role on this ship is too important—or so he’d like to believe—to hand over his life’s reins to anxiety.
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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter IIc

Post by Alexbright99 »

USS Achilles – July 13, 2386 – Stardate 63527.6
The viewscreen’s three-dimensional representation of the S’Prenn wreckage and its circling flock of shuttles and work bees forms an image so hyper-realistic it makes the actual view from Captain Stephan Rinckes’ quarters pale in comparison. Rinckes keeps a close eye on the proceedings from his captain’s chair. They are in the process of wrapping up activities, despite the Achilles having no clear next destination.

Commander Erin Crow, seated to his right, breaks his trance. “Kingsley’s reports are promising, Captain. He’s unearthing more data on S’Prenn physiology with each passing hour.”

“Very good. What’s Commander Terrell’s latest report?” Jon Terrell has scarcely left the wreckage since he set foot on it days ago. Rinckes can’t help but admire his bravery, in light of the chief engineer’s blossoming arachnophobia.

“Optimistic,” Crow replies. “Though most S’Prenn technology is incompatible with ours, his analyses have been insightful.”

Rinckes’ gaze drifts over to the security station behind his first officer, inadvertently permitting the security chief, Lieutenant Jeremy Gibbs, to chime in with a barely contained smirk. “I bet the first thing Terrell does upon his return is lock himself in the holodeck and surround himself with fluffy bunnies, puppies, and kittens.”

Most members of the bridge crew laugh, including Lieutenant Tony Blue, who adds, “I can think of a few people who’d be happy to join him there.” Another peal of laughter. Great, an extra class clown on his bridge. Given how the young lieutenant showed up five minutes late for his shift today, for which he was properly admonished, the captain had expected him to keep a lower profile.

“Okay, that’s enough,” Crow says, channeling Rinckes’ impatience.

Of course, instead of abiding by her attempt to restore order, Tony zeroes in on her. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten the look on Terrell’s face when he saw Ensign Donahue clinging to the ceiling.”

Despite her best efforts to stay composed, a subtle smile appears as she says, “I haven’t.”

Before anyone can react to this, Lieutenant Surtak speaks up in his usual dry monotone, either oblivious to or annoyed by the incessant banter. “Work bees Alpha through Gamma have docked with our ship.”

This non-sequitur silences the bridge until Gibbs deadpans, “I’ll have holodecks 1 and 2 prepped for their arrival.”

Once again, the majority of the bridge crew cannot keep from laughing. There’s a time and place for lightheartedness, and Lord knows they’ve all deserved their shot at levity, but bridge duty is arguably the most important task on the ship. Rinckes is about to issue a stern reminder, when Lieutenant Kels does it for him with superior effectiveness.

“We’ve got company,” the Andorian woman says gravely. “Explorer-class Altonoid ship, cloaked and on a direct intercept course.”

To his credit, Tony immediately switches from wannabe comedian to astute chief tactical officer. “Confirmed. One Explorer-class vessel, weapons armed. They’ll be within weapons range in four minutes.”

This gets the captain’s blood pumping, all right. The prospect of taking this battered vessel into armed conflict yet again becomes more horrifying with each ill-advised yet unavoidable skirmish, but he cannot deny the appeal of distraction from his worries, violent as it may be. There’s a faint echo of guilt in the recesses of his mind for this, which he easily suppresses. “Red alert! All hands to battle stations.” The bridge lighting dims, red alert panels blink into action, and the red alert claxon blares its intermittent warning. “Lieutenant Surtak, send word to all work bees, shuttles, and personnel. Have them return to us at once. Lieutenant Blue, keep our shields down until everyone is accounted for. Warn me fifteen seconds before the Altonoids enter range.”

While the crew prepares for battle, Rinckes reflects on the engineering staff’s recent improvements to the sensor arrays, enabling them to detect cloaked Altonoid vessels much sooner—a modification arisen from their tragic encounter at Nedron Eight. Granted, a four-minute warning is far from sufficient, but it is a significant step in the ongoing high-stakes arms race.

“I am coordinating with our transporter chiefs to beam all personnel off the wreckage,” Surtak says. Shown on the viewscreen, several shuttlecraft and work bees return to the Achilles like chicks fleeing to mother hen. “I will request them to prioritize beaming shuttlecraft directly to cargo or shuttle bays. Even then, by my estimation we will be short twenty-eight officers, divided over one work bee and seven shuttlecraft, once the Altonoid vessel enters range. That is taking into account their leaving behind non-essential equipment and space vehicles.”

“Noted,” Rinckes says. Without having to look sideways, he’s aware of Tony staring at him, ready to judge his every decision. Are you willing to stay and fight for twenty-eight people as opposed to a mere two? he must be about to say. Thank heavens Tony is no longer his first officer. However, the captain realizes the same question is on everyone’s lips, given the abrupt silence that befell the bridge the instant he issued his single-word reply.

The tireless red alert claxon along with beeps of confirmation from their workstations prevent the bridge from going too quiet. On screen, the occasional work bee or shuttle dissipates in a bright-blue dance of transporting molecules. Others disappear from view as they begin final approach to one of the Achilles’ aft hangar decks.

Perhaps it was a matter of time before the Altonoids discovered their location. After all, the S’Prenn wreckage sticks out like a sore thumb in this region of space. The notion of ever finding a safe haven was discarded as soon as the Achilles stumbled upon the heavily guarded border and had no choice but to double back.

“Captain,” Tony says in that cautious, moralizing tone of his. It was inevitable. The young man would never let an opportunity slip by to plead from the comfort of his high horse.

“We stay and fight,” Rinckes says. “Once the Explorer’s in range, we raise shields and order the remaining shuttles to withdraw. Once we’ve defeated or disabled the enemy, we continue packing up shop.” There, he said it. “We can take on an Explorer.”

“I agree,” Tony says. “That’s not… I’m reading multiple power signatures on the Altonoid vessel, consistent with those of Foora-class fighters.”

“How many power signatures?” Rinckes asks, having mastered the art of keeping a level voice while asking questions that merit anything but calmness.

“Ten and rising, sir. They must be powering up. Yes, they’re arming weapons too.”

They can take on an Explorer, sure, but not one filled to the brim with fighters. It would be a bloodbath. While he calculates all probable outcomes of different strategies for handling this scenario, one simple truth dawns on him: they cannot win this.
It seems Crow has done some calculating of her own, and her conclusion stuns her to such a degree that it ends up sounding like a question. “When Lieutenant Blue issues his fifteen-second warning, we must leave at high warp.” This causes murmuring among the bridge crew, and anger gets the better of her. “What other choice do we have? Those shuttles are sitting ducks. The fighters will pick them off one by one while we’re busy dealing with the Explorer. And with our shields up we can’t beam anything or anyone aboard.”

“Can’t we open an EM window in our shields,” Baxter asks, “like we did before?”

Crow doesn’t answer that question, so Kels kindly explains, “Beaming five people through an EM window was already bordering on unfeasible, and they were in a confined, fixed space surrounded by pattern enhancers.”

No-one offers a counterargument. Surtak is yet again the one to speak up, regardless of the prevailing mood, although there is nothing humorous about it this time. “We have one minute and thirty seconds to consider our options.”

“Tactical analysis,” the captain says, adhering to procedure.

Tony grabs the sides of his tactical station and lets out a pained sigh. “We don’t stand a prayer.” Not quite the professional reaction Rinckes wanted to hear, but nobody here will fault the lieutenant for his honesty. “We’re dealing with a total of sixteen Foora-class fighters in addition to the Explorer-class starship.” He bites his bottom lip and hangs his head. “The odds are impossible.”

“I concur,” Rinckes says. “Lieutenant Baxter, lay in an escape course, maximum warp. The millisecond the Altonoids enter weapons range… punch it.”

A noticeable beat of hesitation precedes a sullen “aye, sir” from the helmsman.

“Once we hit high warp, engage cloak,” Rinckes continues. Besides its tactical advantages, cloaking the ship might hide a portion of his shame for signing twenty-eight unlucky crewmembers’ death warrants. Though he does his damnedest to keep his voice emotionless—and succeeds as always—his next words are a supplication straight from the heart. “I am open to suggestions.”

None seem forthcoming and not for lack of trying. Even as he awaits a response, he devises and rejects several plans in the back of his mind, any idea, no matter how farfetched in his refusal to bow to fate’s callous decrees. If he is willing to favor life over materiel, he’ll open a doorway to new alternatives. Before he can see one clearly, however, his chief tactical officer interrupts him.

“We cloak the ship right before the enemy enters range.”

Crow huffs at Tony’s suggestion—an act of frustration, not indignation. “How are our shuttles supposed to dock with a cloaked ship? Barring that, our cloak is useless at such close range. I need not remind you of our last battle at Nedron—”

“That’s right,” Gibbs says loud enough to shut her up. Standing right behind her at his security station lends credence to his intimidating aspect as well. “You need not remind him.” He breathes in sharply and nods to Tony. “Under cloak our shields remain offline. Shuttles won’t have to dock. We’ll keep beaming them aboard. As for its close-range detectability—”

“I might have a trick up my sleeve,” Lt. Commander Jon Terrell says, fresh from the S’Prenn wreckage, surprising everyone as he steps out of the turbolift. Grime covers him and the toolkit he carries. “A pet project I’ve been laboring on since the last run-in with our bristly haired friends.”

Rinckes pivots his captain’s chair to face Chief Engineer Terrell, who rushes over to his station. “Terrell, we have an inbound Explorer carrying sixteen fighters and we’re not all accounted for. We—”

“This is our fifteen-second warning,” Tony says solemnly.

Rinckes wags a finger at Baxter. “Belay my previous order. Hold position.” He refocuses on the chief engineer. If he were within arm’s reach, he’d grab him by the collar and rattle him about. “What can you give me, Commander?”

“Using the deflector to bend our energy output away from us in a controlled manner, including thrusters, transporter activity, and the like, giving them false readings on our whereabouts.”

“Chance of success?”

Terrell breaks eye contact, a bad omen. “The simulations were promising.”

“Altonoids have entered range!” Tony says. “Decloaked, prepped for combat.”

Rinckes’ blood runs cold and he swivels back toward the viewscreen. “Abort transport. Raise shields. Baxter, position us between the enemy and the shuttles. Align dorsal torpedo launchers. Blue, fire at will!”
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Fallen Heroes Part III Chapter IId

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====================================scene continued from chapter IIc=============================================
A squadron of fighters escorting a beam-shaped Explorer behemoth disperses and opens fire, pelting the Achilles’ shields with emerald destruction. Due to the realistic nature of the viewscreen, it seems as if miniatures of enemy vessels have penetrated the bridge’s defenses in person to rain fire and death onto the bridge officers.

“Can we cloak?” Rinckes shouts at Terrell as the Achilles shudders and shakes her tired hull. She retaliates in the form of short bursts of scarlet phaser fire that dissolve in the fighters’ shields.

“Soon, Captain!” Terrell says, working the controls like a concert pianist gone mad.

The lights flicker and an overhead EPS conduit severs with a violent hiss, prompting Rinckes to share a worried look with his first officer. If the squadron circumvents the Achilles, the shuttles will be defenseless; without cloaking the ship, lowering shields to recommence evacuation is out of the question.

Dozens of quantum microtorpedoes, each one irreplaceable, brighten the bridge as they begin their final voyage from the launch bays on the spine of the ship. Most of these torpedoes strike their highly maneuverable targets, inflicting damage and instigating a reaction in the squadron akin to flaming arrows shot at a pack of wolves. However, like their lupine equivalents, hunger for blood impels them to reassume formation as soon as the volley is over. Worse yet, the Explorer’s captain must have taken offense, because the large enemy warship exacts revenge with a full spread of cubion torpedoes.

“Boost power to dorsal shields!” Crow shouts.

Rinckes braces himself. “Evasive maneuvers. Make sure we don’t expose the shuttles. Blue, another volley of microtorpedoes, now!”

Despite Baxter’s top-notch efforts, at least three cubions slam into the Achilles’ top shields to combine with several fighters’ incessant phaser fire. The starship’s massive size notwithstanding, the Achilles rocks about like a trawler struggling to stay afloat in a hurricane. At least the shields held.

“Deflector’s almost ready,” Terrell says.

As a swarm of microtorpedoes pummels and distracts the enemy fleet once more, Rinckes rises from his seat and puts into action a plan his subconscious has been concocting in the background. “Surtak, contact the shuttles and work bee on a secure emergency channel. Order them to beam their total crew complements to the two largest shuttles and signal us once they’re done.”

“As you wish, Captain,” Surtak says.

Another spread of cubions quakes the bridge, which would’ve knocked the captain off his feet had he not planted them on the floor with his usual fortitude. “Have them dash for the S’Prenn vessel so it can shield them.” Rinckes has no idea how long the partially stripped wreckage is able to endure enemy fire, but it’s better than having those shuttles out in the open. “Baxter, line up our bow with the squadron. Blue, fire phaser cannons and quantum torpedoes at your discretion. Boost power to forward shields.”

“Aye, sir,” Tony says. “We could set the empty shuttles on autopilot and have them fight alongside us.”

“You heard him, Surtak. Make it happen,” Rinckes says as the onslaught of phaser fire and cubions begin to pellet the bow of the ship instead of its dorsal section, as if the Achilles is facing a biblical hailstorm head-on.

“Deflector charged and ready,” Terrell says, wiping the sweat from his smudged brow.

“Excellent. Let’s create an opportunity to use it. Ahead full! Target all fighters and blast them to hell!”

Bright pulses of raw energy conspire with fusillades of quantum torpedoes to wreak havoc upon the enemy fighters. This ship excels at full frontal assaults, devastating those subjected to its unbridled fury. Sure, even during an alpha strike like this, the ship cannot belie her wear and tear; sometimes a phaser pulse fizzles in a cannon misfire, and the front-facing starboard torpedo bay sets off a distinctive wobble felt throughout the bridge each fifth launch, but who cares in the midst of an invigorating battle?

Rinckes’ heightened senses alter the laws of physics, slow the battle to a crawl, demote the rumbling and shuddering of undergoing continuous bombardment to the breaking of tidal waves. He deserves each and every explosion chipping away at his shields, lambasting his hull, ripping his flesh, shattering his bones—he deserves all of it. The ferocity of battle tranquilizes his pain and soothes his inner turmoil. He is meant to suffer. It grants him immortality. Rooted firmly in the center of his bridge, he is unstoppable.

Two fighters cannot perform evasive maneuvers fast enough; their shields succumb to the relentless barrage and cobalt-blue quantum torpedoes tear them to shreds. A third fighter loses its left wing and careens out of control, resembling a struck WWII plane with an incongruous starry backdrop.

One fighter threatens to escape the Achilles’ direct line of fire. Rinckes is not in a merciful mood. “Top left!” In an impressive display of tactical prowess, Tony adds an old-fashioned phaser array into the mix to wear out its shielding, complemented by an on-the-fly adjustment of the port quantum torpedo launcher and phaser cannon, while the starboard weapons provide covering fire, keeping the rest of the squadron in check. Bright-orange phaser pulses slice through the wayward fighter’s weakened hull and reduce it to blackened jetsam, lifeless as the surrounding vacuum.

Three vacant shuttles have already joined the attack. Though their comparatively puny phaser arrays and torpedoes inflict little damage, they inflict damage nonetheless and provide a much-needed diversion. It is not effective enough to restrain the enemy’s wrath, however; the thunderous clattering of the Achilles’ structure is reaching worrisome levels—she cannot suffer this abuse indefinitely.

“Shuttlecraft Carson and Pauling report all twenty-eight crewmembers aboard,” Surtak says. “They have sought refuge behind the S’Prenn vessel.”

A rupturing plasma conduit showers Terrell in sparks as he clings to his engineering station. “Forward shields are down! Should we cloak, sir?”

“Negative!” Rinckes bellows. Dropping shields and powering down weapons mid-battle demands meticulous timing. “Baxter, pull up! One hundred eighty degrees! Then—” Like an ocean liner striking a reef, the ship suddenly lists to the left. The lighting and workstations go dark, only to come back online an agonizing three seconds later, flickering in anger. “Pull up! Evasive pattern Epsilon!”

Irregular outlines of developing flames reflect off the bulkheads, their source unseen and irrelevant to the chief helmsman. “Maneuvering thrusters and impulse engines damaged, switching to secondary systems.” The ship rises in shocks and shudders as Baxter wrestles its faltering engines.

“Major hull breaches reported on decks four through twelve,” Surtak says. “Casualty reports are flooding in, sir.”

“Alert sickbay,” Rinckes says, suppressing the urge to swear. On the viewscreen, veiled by jumbled streams of static, the Explorer hangs in space, immovable, unleashing its full complement of cubions in patient doses, providing indispensable support for the remaining fighters, ensuring the Achilles’ ventral shields will fail soon. “Baxter, we need your wildest evasive maneuvers, as erratic as possible.” He turns to his chief engineer and places their lives in his capable hands. “Terrell, cloak the ship.”

No “aye, sir,” no nod, no acknowledgment other than a clenching of the jaw as Terrell engages cloak. Consequently, the downpour of enemy fire reduces to sporadic thunderclaps. The captain doesn’t require any verbal confirmation of the shields lowering, because even Baxter’s piloting métier cannot prevent stray phaser fire and torpedoes from impacting the Achilles’ naked hull, sending unsettling tremors up and down her skeleton. Worse yet, these chance hits betray her position, further complicating Baxter’s job. Rinckes must concede, however, that without Terrell’s adjustments, the Achilles and her crew would have been dust in an expanding debris field by now.

Without the extra boost of fear, Surtak’s casualty and hull breach reports can hardly compete with the cacophony of warfare. Rinckes doesn’t have that handicap. “Beam aboard the shuttles!”

Sparks rain from the ceiling and blast through the flickering viewscreen, leaving crimson burn marks on Baxter and Surtak’s skin. Neither of them react to these pinpricks, fully engrossed as they are in their duties. “Pauling is aboard, shuttle bay three,” Surtak says. “Preparing to beam aboard Ca—”

A massive explosion, amidships, darkens the bridge and launches its crew into the air. Rinckes lands on the carpet face-first, sending a tooth through his lip, a pain immediately dulled by adrenaline. Regardless of where the bridge crew ended up or in what shape, they return to their stations—by clambering and crawling if necessary—while the emergency lights come on again, as resilient as the people they illuminate.

Terrell has somehow held on to his workstation and rattles off a series of damage reports the captain can’t hear over the ringing in his ears. Rinckes spits out a glob of blood and saliva and staggers to his feet. “It doesn’t matter, Commander. Is the cloak still up?”

“It is, sir. But did you hear me? Shuttle and cargo bay transporters are offline.”

Rinckes needs but a moment to regain clarity of thought. “Baxter, fly us to the Carson. Surtak, ready tractor beam.”

Crow subdues a coughing fit courtesy of the smoke-filled bridge and says, “Sir, tractoring the Carson will reveal our position.”

Rinckes ignores her doubts the way he ignores the occasional weapon strike. “Status of warp engines?”

“Shaken but functional,” Baxter replies. “Maximum warp available.”

“Tactical report.”

Lit by his wavering tactical station, Tony bares his teeth. Whether that is caused by sheer determination or the painful gash running from his forehead to his right cheek is impossible to gauge. “Explorer is in tiptop condition. Twelve fighters left, six of which heavily damaged.” The lieutenant straightens his jacket with an angry tug. “I recommend we set the empty shuttles’ warp cores to overload and crash them into the fighters once we’re outside the potential blast radius.”

The captain has never agreed more with the ardent young man. If the last remaining work bee had a warp core he’d send it into the fray as well. “Surtak, execute his plan.”

On screen, four fighters and the S’Prenn wreckage they circle grow in size as the Achilles swoops in. Intermittent enemy fire striking the Achilles’ aft section serves as a firm reminder that the lone Federation flagship cannot afford to overstay its welcome, even while cloaked. Three shuttles—one of them the Carson—buzz around the S’Prenn vessel, locked in their hopeless battle with the fighters. The fighter pilots attempt to zero in on the Carson and forego battling the empty shuttles, whose autopilots manage to get a few good shots in with their limited weaponry. The Carson, a type 11 shuttle filled to the brim with people, is already venting warp plasma and floundering like a bird with a clipped wing.

“Engage tractor beam. Ahead full impulse!” Rinckes says. A blue graviton beam ensnares the besieged shuttle and snatches it away from the ongoing battle at the Achilles’ current velocity. It must be quite a scene for the fighter pilots, having a disembodied tractor beam appear from nowhere and run off with their quarry. “Surtak, order the Carson to lower shields and have our transporter rooms beam the twenty-eight aboard. Then release tractor beam and send it back into battle with an overloading warp core.” He clears his throat, which feels parched in spite of having to swallow blood every so often. “If we can’t have it, we might as well blow it up in their faces.” This sentiment earns him an appreciative nod from Tony.

The quartet of fighters take potshots at the beam’s origin, further buckling the Achilles’ ablative armor as it carries the shuttle like a quarterback outrunning his opponents. Other fighters have caught up with them and join in on the harassment. One of them even makes a direct run for the Carson, but Baxter’s clever maneuvering keeps it out of reach.

Surtak’s console sparks like an arc welder gone awry, yet the Vulcan remains unperturbed. “Shuttle occupants are safely aboard. I am uploading combat instructions to its computer and releasing tractor beam.”

As soon as the tractor beam disappears, the invisible Achilles rolls to starboard, confusing the fighters, who focus their ire on her presumed trajectory and miss each shot as a result. The Carson’s engines glow as they power up, plasma leaks be damned, and the empty shuttle turns to confront its assailants in a final act of defiance.

Rinckes’ pulse is throbbing in his temples. “Get us out of here, maximum warp, erratic flight path.” He has barely finished his sentence before Baxter pushes the sputtering engines to the limit and propels the Achilles to unimaginable speeds. “Aft viewer on.”

On screen, the tiny Carson storms the battlefield, phasers blazing—a lone barbarian against a Roman army, the last avenger of this S’Prenn massacre. Ahead of it, five shuttles explode in a shockwave of conflicting matter/anti-matter, detonating near the Explorer and its accomplices, destroying three fighters and disabling two more. After a moment of perplexity, the remaining seven fighters target the Carson and forego pursuing the Achilles, which is making subtle course changes with significant results while travelling at roughly 8,000 times the speed of light. The last visual before the garbled viewscreen can no longer provide an accurate representation of the battle they abandoned is the bright flare of a warp core breach.

“No vessels on intercept course,” Kels says on an otherwise eerily silent bridge, save for the hissing of fire extinguishers and that ubiquitous red alert claxon. “We’ve escaped,” she adds with more than a touch of incredulity.

Rinckes expresses his relief with but a quiet exhale. “Cancel red alert.” At long last, the red alert panels and claxon cease their warnings. With the cloak engaged, the regular lighting is left switched off, leaving the bridge shrouded in darkness. As the violent encounter’s coda seeps into his memory like one of his nightmares, pain fills the void. Yet, to his surprise, the knowledge of having saved his men and women in a daring move abates his sorrows for an instant. But at what cost? How wounded is the Achilles and how high are the casualties in exchange for those twenty-eight lives?

Having no further need to stand in the center of his bridge, Rinckes turns around to seek the comfort of his captain’s chair and is shocked to discover that a ceiling joist, a foot thick and made from solid metal, has pierced it. Rinckes cannot keep his eyes off the macabre sight, cannot escape its implications.

The Grim Reaper had swung his scythe and missed.
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