by Alex Lampe
PART III – PROLOGUE
Colony New Hoorn – August 5, 2356 – Stardate 33593.4
Hidden deep within the Beta Quadrant, on the fringe of Federation space, Colony New Hoorn is nothing but a speck of dust on the interstellar map. Finding passage to this backwater colony is challenging, but being a Starfleet officer gives you certain advantages when it comes to arranging transport, no matter your destination. The SS Macon, a cargo ship that can only be described as ancient, has somehow made it to New Hoorn.
Apart from two crewmembers and a cargo hold full of construction material, the Macon carries only one passenger: a twenty-two-year-old ensign wearing a one-piece black-and-gold uniform signifying he's either an engineer or a security officer—his stern aspect, slicked-back hair, and muscular physique suggest the latter. Ensign Stephan Rinckes' aquiline face is reflected in one of the cargo ship's rare portholes as he studies the lush M-Class planet New Hoorn. It has less than 400 inhabitants, and their impact on the planet's stunning appearance is negligible; the colonists' settlement itself can't even be seen from orbit. The sole reason for its low population density is its remote location. By all means, it seems like an even better place to spend one's well-deserved R&R than Risa.
Ensign Rinckes isn't here for vacation or to enjoy the unspoiled nature of the paradisiacal New Hoorn. His reasons for visiting this faraway planet are far more serious.
Lost in thought, Rinckes is late to discover he is not alone. "We're ready to beam you down," the Macon's captain, whose name has eluded the young ensign, declares gruffly before hobbling off. They won't be sending each other greeting cards after this trip; they hardly spoke a word throughout the entire three-week journey. Also, the term captain can be loosely applied to this man. Yes, he's in charge of the ship, but if you said he was a stowaway who'd recently woken up from an alcohol-assisted slumber behind a crate, nobody would suspect you to be lying.
Annoyed by the captain's lackluster pace, Rinckes follows him to the Macon's main cargo area. Once they've entered a random cargo bay, the captain summons him to position himself between a dozen crates that are stacked on a circular transporter pad.
"We're leaving tomorrow," Captain "Stowaway" says. "Make sure you're at the rendezvous point at noon. We won't wait for you."
Rinckes mumbles an acknowledgment. Half a minute later, he and the crates around him dissolve in a transporter beam.
Experienced from its surface, New Hoorn's majesty is even more tantalizing. Ensign Rinckes evades the surprised looks he garners when emerging from the stack of crates and starts toward the heart of the colony, ignoring the breathtaking scenery. While impressive, the planet's exotic wildlife, tropical climate, and rich emerald flora do not interest him.
The colony resembles a 19th-century Western town made of modern yet sterile materials instead of wood. Its long central street consists of a moss-green brick road, which seamlessly blends in with the environment. The colonists, who were happily going about their daily lives, stop and stare at the Starfleet officer hurrying toward the colony's town square.
Once Rinckes has reached the colony's center, marked by a golden fountain sitting in a patch of grass, commemorating the first starship to arrive here, he makes a beeline for one of the abutting houses. Even though the house Rinckes has set his sights on is identical to all others—simple, yet built to withstand any type of weather—he zeroes in on it with steadfast determination. It's his journey's end, the reason he has been travelling for weeks.
He chimes the doorbell. People are gawking at him, which doesn't keep him from ringing the doorbell again, and again. Before long, he starts knocking on the door—softly at first, but soon enough he's banging on the door with his fists. His patience threadbare, he peeks in through the front window. The house's modestly furnished living room appears dusty and deserted. "Anybody in there?" he shouts while tapping the window. "Mom? Dad?" They're not in. This is what he had feared. If they're not home… there's only one other place they could be.
Rinckes approaches a bystander, a young woman, who lowers her gaze and tries to walk off. He grabs her by the arm and says, "I need you to tell me where the hospital is."
As it turns out, New Hoorn's hospital is located on the outer edge of the colony and offers a spectacular vista of the valley below. Because of its similar construction, one could easily mistake it for another house if it weren't for its transparent sliding doors featuring Starfleet Medical's emblem.
Ensign Rinckes rushes in and storms toward the reception desk. The receptionist, a corpulent nurse in her fifties wearing civilian clothing, is startled by the unannounced arrival of a Starfleet security officer and tosses aside a PADD she was reading. Before she can ask anything, Rinckes cuts to the chase. "Alan and Holly Rinckes. Where are they? What's happened to them?"
She is too perplexed to do anything but stammer unintelligibly.
Rinckes slams his hands onto the desk and leans in on the stuttering nurse. "I have to know if they're okay. Where can I find them?"
"I'm not… I can't let you…"
"Please! I'm their son, Stephan."
Mortified, the nurse shakes her head, all the while shooting nervous glances to her right.
Rinckes looks at where she's looking. "Will that corridor lead me to them?" The nurse refuses to answer, but he knows he caught her out. "Thanks." He pushes himself away from the desk and sprints into the corridor.
Ensign Rinckes kicks open the first door he encounters and enters a small office. Except for a desk, a cabinet, and an ugly painting, it is empty, so he turns back and kicks in the adjacent door, only to find another vacant office. One by one, Rinckes forcefully opens every door in sight while advancing through the corridor, uncovering small offices and storage spaces—all unoccupied.
Having explored the area, revealing nothing to suggest his parents' presence, he slaps a nearby wall in frustration and stops to get his bearings. Over his heavy panting, he hears muffled sounds of running and shouting coming from a far corner of the building and closing in on his position. Whoever they are, they're after him.
He swivels around and spots a pair of sliding doors, tucked away at the end of the corridor and mostly obscured from view because their drab color is identical to the surrounding wall. The ensign dashes toward the mysterious entrance. It doesn't open for him, so he rubs his fingertips against its cold alloy to search for a way in. Without knowing or caring how he did it, the doors open, unveiling a spacious elevator. Not exactly what he expected, but there's no time to think; rapid footfalls of his pursuers prompt him to jump into the elevator and press a balled fist on the only button there. The doors close and the elevator starts its slow descent.
Save for the gentle hum of a moving elevator, it is remarkably quiet now, and Rinckes cannot hear his chasers anymore. Unable to hold still with so much adrenaline coursing through his veins, he paces back and forth like a caged tiger. Drawing in deep breaths, he suddenly becomes aware of the pervasive chemical odor of antiseptic cleaning products. Before he can ask himself why that is, the elevator comes to a stop and opens its doors, allowing its lighting to shine into a dim chamber. Rinckes shivers, though he's unsure if that's because of this place's low temperature or its ominous aspect—possibly both.
He takes a hesitant step into the chamber, triggering the lights to activate and cast desaturated light into a room barely larger than the offices he rummaged through. There's a metal table in the back, a freestanding console on the right, and eight metal drawers embedded in the left wall. The elevator doors close behind him as he inches toward the drawers. Six of them have red indicators, presumably to signal their emptiness; two of them are marked by green indicators instead.
It's as though someone has punched him in the stomach. He has clearly entered the hospital's morgue, and there are two corpses stored here. "No, please don't let this be true," he whispers, and he hurries over to the console. The young ensign is so upset that he hardly notices the morgue's elevator leaving the floor to bring him his pursuers. Due to his unfamiliarity with the console's exact functions, it takes him a few seconds to figure out what to do; surfacing tears aren't helping either. He bites his lower lip and forces himself to stay focused.
After accessing the correct subsystem and typing in the proper commands, the two green-lit drawers slide open, their macabre contents hidden by water vapor hissing out. As the steam dissipates and cold mingles with the smell of death, the cadavers' outlines sharpen. Rinckes hastens toward the metal slabs and realizes with a shudder that the two corpses are each covered by a greasy Federation flag.
Only two Starfleet officers are stationed at this civilian-operated colony: Alan and Holly Rinckes. As if to protect him from the emotional blow, his mind immediately conjures up alternative explanations. For instance, it might be a local custom to replicate Federation banners for each deceased individual, as a nod to the very organization that enabled this colony's existence. Perhaps they simply had two Federation flags lying around and saw it fitting to use them here. For the briefest of moments, he almost believes the implausible, if only to nurture false hope just a little longer.
He has to know. With bated breath, he peels away the Federation flag covering the left corpse and reveals a middle-aged man's scorched face. Burned skin may render identification troublesome, but for Ensign Rinckes there is no doubt about it: these are the remains of Commander Alan Rinckes.
Though this confirms what he had feared ever since his parents dropped off the radar, the consequences of this discovery don't register with him yet. Dizzy and nauseous, the ensign turns to the other corpse. There's no escaping the truth; these must be the remains of his mother. He has to make certain, so he reaches to lift the flag… and cannot bring himself to go through with it. As a security officer, he has witnessed tragedy and violent ends to innocent life; he should be used to this, be able to keep functioning under the harshest of circumstances, but he feels as helpless as a frightened child.
Rinckes stands frozen between his parents' charred remains until his legs buckle and he collapses onto the tile floor. Struggling to find the right words to bid his parents farewell, he cannot say anything coherent. Despite his best intentions and his desire to be strong, he lets the tears flow and cries bitterly.
That's when the elevator doors open and two men come rushing into the morgue. In reflex, Rinckes springs to his feet and assumes a defensive stance: chin tucked, knees bent, fists raised. The two men stop dead in their tracks, but the confrontation is far from over.
"We're too late. What do we do about him?" one of the men—a thirty-something, short but thickset nurse—says while cracking his knuckles.
The other man is dark-skinned, an imposing six-and-half-feet tall, presumably in his late fifties, and wearing doctor's robes. In a commanding voice containing hints of a Central-African accent, he says, "You are not supposed to be here, Ensign."
Rinckes quickly wipes his tears and sizes up his opponents. The nurse could easily double as a nightclub bouncer, and the doctor is muscular enough to barely fit into his robes. They have him cornered, but Rinckes is not giving up without a fight. In spite of the more primal parts of his brain running the show, he manages to ask, "What have you done to my parents?" Without waiting for an answer, he lunges for the doctor.
The nurse tries to intervene, but Rinckes uses the nurse's weight and momentum against him by grabbing his arm and giving his shins a swift kick, causing the nurse to lose his footing and crash headfirst into one of the closed metal drawers.
Before Rinckes can follow up, the rounded tip of a hypospray injects something into his neck. Within seconds, everything goes blurry and fades to black as his limp body sags to the floor.
Paralyzed from the neck down. When Ensign Rinckes regains consciousness, all he can do is open his eyes. Straining to lift his numb extremities yields no results other than accelerating the heartbeat thrashing in his ears. With great effort, Rinckes turns his head to the right and sees he's trapped in a room taking up the hospital's entire top floor, which is bathing in daylight because of its plentiful windows.
Gradually, his vision rids itself of its haziness, and he counts over a dozen biobeds, all empty except two: the one he is in and another one occupied by a motionless senior. Before Rinckes can begin to comprehend the situation or panic about his quadriplegic state, someone speaks up from his left. "He's awake."
"Thank you, Michael," a familiar voice with a slight African accent says.
Rinckes carefully tilts his head toward Michael and recognizes him as the nurse he fought in the morgue. Now, he is pressing an ice pack against his swollen nose while glaring at his attacker. Rinckes rotates his head to the right, braves the ensuing discomfort, and notices the doctor has pulled up a chair to watch his captive. In a fruitless bid to get up and escape, the ensign reattempts to control his arms and legs, but he can't even wag a finger.
"I had to sedate you," the doctor says.
Rinckes' vocal cords are cracked leather. "I can't move."
"A side-effect of hastily administered sedation. It will wear off on its own." He grabs a medkit and digs through its contents. "I can speed up the process, but we'll need your full cooperation." He glances past Rinckes, and then smirks at him. "And we don't want you to attack us again, please."
When Rinckes offers no response, the doctor clears his throat and says, "My name is Doctor Jim Onyiego. I knew your parents well, considered them friends. They have lived here for three years and they mean a lot to our community. They are…" He sighs ruefully. "They were good people."
Though Rinckes is relieved the doctor and his assistant appear to be benevolent, this is the first time someone verbally acknowledges his parents' death. Wanting to hear the doctor out motivates him to practice emotional restraint, yet he cannot prevent his eyes from going moist.
Apparently, Dr. Onyiego picks up on this, because he rests a hand on Rinckes' shoulder and says with disarming sincerity, "I am deeply sorry for your loss. I have to ask, though. How did you know your parents were in trouble?"
While this might be a subtle interrogation attempt, this information is by no means classified, so Rinckes explains as eloquently as his sedation permits, "They used to send me a video message every first Wednesday of the month. Nothing spectacular, really, just their method of staying in touch. I always replied with a message of my own. Without fail, this went on for years—until last month. I immediately knew something was wrong." He meets the doctor's gaze. "They didn't respond to any of my subspace messages. I tried reaching them for days."
"So you used your Starfleet connections to travel all the way over here."
Rinckes nods. "Please tell me what happened."
Instead of granting the ensign's request, Dr. Onyiego grabs a hypospray from his medkit and presses it against Rinckes' neck.
"W-what are you doing?"
"Don't worry. It's a mild stimulant. It will get you back on your feet in a few minutes at most."
Rinckes sighs in relief.
The doctor puts the hypospray away, folds his hands, and leans forward. "The technical details elude me, but the colony's geothermal power plant had destabilized, which, if left unchecked, would've destroyed the colony in a catastrophic earthquake."
Rinckes can guess where this is going. Alan and Holly Rinckes worked at the geothermal plant. It was their project, their dream to adjust existing geothermal technology to subdue New Hoorn's volatile tectonic conditions. Where many had failed, they had succeeded, together, in making an entire planet suitable for colonization.
"When the automatic evacuation order was given, Alan and Holly remained at their post while all other personnel fled to the evac shuttles. Your parents refused to abandon us and managed to stabilize the plant—an impressive feat, given the buildup of heat and radiation." Dr. Onyiego's voice breaks and he needs a moment to compose himself. "I was called to the scene. I had to wait for the intense heat and contaminated air to vent from the control room. When the computer allowed me to enter…" The doctor shakes his head. "There was nothing I could do. They had already expired." On the verge of tears, the doctor gives Rinckes a plaintive look. "I'm sorry, Ensign. I'm deeply sorry."
Despite the urge to cry and kick and scream, and much to his own surprise, Rinckes stays calm and says, "It's okay, Doctor. You did all you could." A handful of seconds pass, steeped in mournful silence, as the horrible situation sinks in and leads him to ask, "Why wasn't I allowed to know?"
Dr. Onyiego lets out a deep breath. "We were going to tell you, but you beat us to it." He leans in on Rinckes again and says in a confidential tone, "Nobody outside the colony was supposed to know about the incident yet."
Rinckes lifts an eyebrow. "Why is that?"
"This is a remote colony, funded and operated by civilians. Horrible as it may sound, we cannot afford bad publicity tarnishing our reputation."
This hits a nerve, and Rinckes gathers enough strength to sit up carefully. "Wait a minute. That's the reason?"
"Yes. We were uncertain how to solve this conundrum. Of course we were going to inform you as soon as possible. We just… panicked. I'm really sorry you had to find out like this."
Rinckes wants nothing more than to scold the doctor, and justifiably so, but he decides to hold off—for now.
"Think of it this way," Dr. Onyiego says, and he rises from his chair. "Yes, we're going to have to cover up what happened here." He starts walking back and forth, making deliberate gestures to get his point across. "And that is unfair, I agree. But if this gets out, there's a good chance this colony is finished—done for. It will be stripped of its assets and everyone will be forced to leave." He stops pacing and faces Rinckes. "I don't have to tell you how much New Hoorn meant to your parents. We don't want their life's work to have been in vain."
Before Rinckes has a chance to speak his mind, the doctor grins and says, "Come here." He helps the unsteady ensign to his feet and guides him to a set of windows providing an idyllic view of leafy trees and strips of houses under a clear blue sky. "We're already screening exceptionally gifted engineers to continue Alan and Holly's dream. The colony shall live on, and we're counting on substantial growth. One day, thousands of people will enjoy living on this beautiful planet—all thanks to your parents' sacrifice."
At a loss for words, Rinckes stares ahead.
Dr. Onyiego smiles and puts his arm around Rinckes' shoulder. "Your parents have saved three hundred and seventy-eight lives, including mine! They were heroes, Ensign. Don't ever forget that."
The doctor's rousing speech notwithstanding, Rinckes' conflicting emotions cause his stomach to ache. Part of him is undeniably proud of his parents; they died protecting what they believed in, and there is a certain nobility to that. But one simple fact remains: He just wants his mom and dad back. There will be no more monthly video messages, no more well-intentioned but ill-advised dating suggestions, no more friendly debates on which equipment to use on fishing trips, no more proverbial safe haven to return to when life's struggles threaten to overpower him. The people in the streets—among them a group of farmers having an animated discussion, a family of five strolling down the road, and a young girl playing by the fountain—all owe their lives to Alan and Holly Rinckes. They were heroes.
USS Saratoga – December 18, 2356 – Stardate 33961.9
It has been a strenuous day. Ensign Stephan Rinckes is returning to his quarters aboard the Saratoga, traversing corridors of the Miranda-class vessel that are as good as empty, which is fine because Rinckes isn't in a talkative mood. Pulling double shifts to fill in for a sick crewmate has tired him. At least his superiors are happy with his accomplishments. If he can maintain his excellent track record, he'll be a lieutenant by the end of next year. Rinckes has always been a striver, fully devoted to his responsibilities, but ever since his parents died he has acquired a singular focus on his tasks as a Starfleet officer. It helps dispel a gradually subsiding pain, and his revitalized work ethic is doing wonders for his career. Yet, he often catches himself reliving his tragic visit to New Hoorn.
After finding out about his parents' fate and talking with Dr. Onyiego, he had wandered around in a daze, taking in the marvels of the planet while trying to avoid the colonists, who looked away whenever he would accidentally lock eyes with them. He didn't want anything to do with them, to be honest. They were alive because his parents weren't, and that was that. Rinckes hadn't even gone through the trouble of searching for a place to spend the night; he had simply fallen asleep in a meadow on the outskirts of town. Upon waking, he had ambled over to the rendezvous point in a stunned state to remain there until the Macon was due for departure. He had silently observed the colonists preparing new stacks of crates for off-world transport. As agreed, the Macon had beamed him up at noon. Its crew hadn't asked him about his one-day visit and he hadn't bothered telling them. In fact, he didn't tell anyone about what happened and simply got back to his duties, which he performed so well that he was awarded the position of junior security officer aboard the Saratoga—his first starship assignment. Life went on, and as the days progressed, he began to feel more and more at home on this old but sturdy ship.
Ensign Rinckes has arrived at his quarters. Since he is a low-ranking officer and the Saratoga is modestly sized compared to modern vessels, his quarters are cramped, containing only a bunk bed, a chair, and a wall-mounted terminal. Still, he is fortunate to have quarters of his own; most of his colleagues have to share. He seats himself and accesses his terminal to skim through a batch of security reports, groaning softly when he sees tomorrow's duty roster has paired him with Ensign Wixor. The Bolian has a knack for talking non-stop and the stamina to do so for hours on end. Well, at least Wixor is kindhearted, and Rinckes has learned to tolerate his presence.
Once he has finished studying the reports, he selects the news feed out of habit and scrolls down a list of headlines. Something in the bottom right corner draws his attention, a news item that will be overlooked by many: New Hoorn Colony Annihilated By Raiders. He spends five seconds blinking at the screen. Then he extends a trembling finger to select the item and begins reading.
"Five days ago, an overwhelming pirate force raided Colony New Hoorn. Within a few hours, they laid waste to every building, stole everything of value, and killed all colonists. Not even the hospital was spared in this brutal assault. There were 435 people living in New Hoorn. No survivors have been reported. An investigation is underway to track and identify the pirates culpable for this massacre, but this will prove difficult, considering the lack of Federation presence and interest in this isolated area. With the colony's inhabitants dead and its resources taken, it is unlikely New Hoorn will be recolonized in the near future."
He closes the news item and turns his back to the terminal. Though he fixes his glassy stare on his bunk bed, the room keeps spinning while dozens of thoughts race through his head. As he sits there in his cramped quarters, motionlessly, for what seems like hours, and the initial shock yields to contemplation, he comes to realize there is but one possible conclusion: His parents gave their lives to save hundreds, but all they did was delay the inevitable. To make matters worse, since the colony's population had grown in the intervening months, their noble sacrifice indirectly caused more deaths. And now there is nothing left of New Hoorn, nothing left of their legacy. A few hours was all it took to erase it from the universe, to be forgotten indefinitely.
Rinckes waits for the tears to come, but they don't. There's no point in crying. Tomorrow he will report for duty and put up with Ensign Wixor's happy banter, and the universe will go on like it always has—cold and indifferent.