by Alex Lampe
PART III – CHAPTER XIII
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."
USS Achilles, Nedron System – June 15, 2386 – Stardate 63452.8
Hurrying through the corridors, Commander Tony Blue wrings his hands to stop them from tingling and wishes he'd accepted the mild calming agent Doctor Kingsley prescribed him earlier today.
Stephan Rinckes tries to keep up, wearing his dusted-off captain's attire without rank insignia, making him the only person aboard this vessel to wear the defunct black-and-gray variant of the Starfleet uniform. "Fifteen minutes to go. No need to rush."
"Tell it to the butterflies attacking my insides with plasma torches."
"Everything has been readied and set in motion, and I trust you haven't forgotten these people are among the best in the fleet."
Tony slows down a little. "You're right. They are pretty awesome."
"If it's any consolation, I'm nervous too. Not being captain anymore allows me to admit that."
"I hear you."
Rinckes scoffs at the intact wall panels and lighting fixtures. "These corridors have never been this pristine. Silly as it sounds, somehow this makes the fruit of our labors more tangible. We really did make a difference, didn't we? I should've done this sooner."
"Being back here, it's as if we never left."
"We got to stay; the war had to go."
"Did you bring a few of those beers? I'll drink to such wisdom."
Rinckes points to the turbolift entrance at the end of the hallway. "Our ride to the bridge."
As they approach the entrance, Tony realizes how this brief journey is a strange reversal of their desperate run for the shuttle bay when the Achilles was about to auto-destruct. Then the doors open to reveal Ensign Josh Donahue, looking considerably healthier without a S'Prenn controlling him from the neck.
"Josh!" Tony says, suppressing the urge to hug the ensign.
Donahue's mouth falls open. "Captain Rinckes, Commander Blue! You… you recognize me?"
The ensign grabs the sides of his head. "Amazing! Do you have any idea how famous you both are? We even named our main lounges after you. You saved the Federation on this very same vessel, and you're telling me we knew each other personally?"
Despite the starstruck ensign's reaction, Tony maintains a solemn tone. "Josh, we went through hell and back together and became friends."
"My colleagues are going to be so jealous."
Rinckes has already stepped into the turbolift.
"How's your piano playing going?" Tony asks.
Donahue's eyes widen. "You did know me! This is too much!"
"We should go," Rinckes says.
Tony decides to postpone regaling the ensign with tales of his valor and support and enters the turbolift. "You heard the man. I promise I'll be in touch. All the best, Josh."
"Thank you, sir. I'm honored." As the doors slide shut, the ensign salutes them.
"Bridge," Rinckes says.
A lengthy awkward silence in the ascending lift ensues until Tony coughs and says, "At least he's doing better in this timeline."
An annoyed grunt is Rinckes' sole reply.
The turbolift doors part in front of Commander Tony Blue and Stephan Rinckes, treating them to the Garcon Nebula's blue-and-lilac glow lighting the Achilles' bridge via the viewscreen. Though Tony has visited this bridge thrice in the past week, a wave of nostalgia washes over him, and he has to dismiss the impulse to step up to a tactical station that's no longer his.
Captain Keith Harriman swivels in his captain's chair as soon as they've stepped on deck. "Welcome, gentlemen. The nebula remains a beauty, doesn't it?"
"Stunning as ever, despite the battles and losses it hosted," Tony says.
Harriman grants him a pensive nod. "Both on galactic and personal scales."
Rinckes gazes at the colossal nebula. "Incredible how this whole region of space belongs to the Federation, how nothing is left of the forty-two vessels lost here."
Indeed, the graveyard of ships has been dismantled and removed, all bodies recovered for the grieving families, leaving the true monument to their sacrifice to be found in Scotland.
"It's easy travelling when you don't have to sneak around," Tony says to Rinckes, adding in sotto voce, "Should I ask them to engage cloak just to see their perplexed faces and have them lecture us on the Treaty of Algeron?"
Conversation alleviates some of the rising stress clawing at him. Friendly looks from Commander Erin Crow help too. Rinckes and Tony's absence in this particular grand scheme of things meant Captain Harriman was able to decline a promotion to admiral and let Erin become first officer in 2383. She's standing next to her husband, Arthur Crow, a sympathetic Korean lieutenant commander in his late thirties, whose knowledge of the Achilles is encyclopedic, and who's more than happy to share his insights on an impressive number of ship-related subjects. Great strategist too, which suits his function as chief tactical officer.
Seated in the second officer's chair, Doctor Chris Kingsley deigns the visitors a condescending frown. "If you manage to pull this off, I'm going to rank today as our craziest." Before any of them can retort, he pivots back to face the viewscreen.
"Don't mind him," the Andorian Lieutenant Kels says from her science station. "His bedside manner is diametrically opposed to his skills as a physician."
Tony shrugs. "It's okay. We got used to it eventually."
"That's a relief," Harriman says. "We haven't quite reached that stage yet."
Restrained laughter fills the bridge. Kingsley can't resist commenting, "And you never will with such an attitude."
Tony snickers nervously at the repartee and whispers to Rinckes, "What do you think of seeing these folks at work, alive and kicking, on our bridge?"
He contemplates his answer, then curves his mouth into a half-smile. "Feels good."
While Harriman continues prepping his crew, Arthur Crow beckons Tony nearer. "Commander Blue, you can monitor our progress from my station."
Trying not to shake like a cold puppy, Tony heads over to the left half of the tactical station and refamiliarizes himself with the interface. In the top-left corner, a timer counts down to their frighteningly short operating window. Ten minutes to go.
Hovering by the tactical console, Erin Crow has mustered the courage to say in a hushed tone, "Turns out the shuttle allocated to taking Arthur and his six colleagues to the training colony had developed a catastrophic dilithium intermix chamber malfunction."
"Routine maintenance checks missed the issue," Arthur says, "but we certainly remembered your warning and insisted on performing a level 1 diagnostic." He leans in closer as if spilling a secret. "It confirmed the shuttle would've blown up in mid-transit."
"You risked disciplinary action telling us," Erin says, "and saved my husband's life. I don't want to imagine having to live without him."
"Words cannot begin to express our gratitude."
Tony attempts to formulate a response, but all he can do is attach these overwhelming emotions to the tangle of jittery apprehension his brain has become.
Arthur pats him on the shoulder. "Now it's your turn to reclaim a loved one. We're with you every step of the way."
Erin gives them a warm smile, then raises her voice to address her colleagues. "What we're about to do has never been done before. If there are questions, this is your last chance to ask."
Surrounded by the murmur of the crew's final preparations and deliberations, Tony tries to control his breathing. "So much can go wrong," he mutters, loud enough to be overheard by the chief tactical officer.
"It won't," Arthur reassures him. "We're fairly decent at our jobs."
Minutes pass by with Tony watching the timer as if it will vanish the instant he blinks. Meanwhile, Rinckes, seated at a wall-mounted terminal to follow the mission from there, throws him the occasional glance conveying a healthy mix of concern and encouragement.
And just like that, the timer hits five minutes. Tony coughs the dryness from his throat and wheezes, "Five minutes—mark."
Captain Harriman springs up from his chair. "Let's get this show on the road." The bridge starts buzzing with activity as it shifts from anticipatory banter to laser-focused efficiency.
"Stations, report," Erin says.
Chief Engineer Jon Terrell goes first. "Upgrades and modifications to deflector and sensor arrays are functioning as simulations predicted. Applying sensor power boost to compensate for the nebula's interference and Nedron Eight's volatile atmosphere."
Lieutenant Ernest Baxter is next. "Achieving low orbit around Nedron Eight, on schedule to coincide with optimum Z-axis coordinate above target."
Dr. Kingsley, two of his nurses, and Security Chief Lieutenant Jeremy Gibbs take up position in the center of the bridge. "Medical team standing by," Kingsley says, "plus a beefy guy who insists on joining us."
The security chief harrumphs and says, "Standard precaution when beaming someone from hostile territory."
"I'd appreciate it if you could refrain from shooting my—"
"Science, report," Erin interjects.
"Sensor upgrades effective and primed to latch onto chronitons," Kels says. "Parallel timeline Attack-class Altonoid wreckage not found. Approximating location based on available data."
"Transporters ready," the Vulcan Ops Officer Lieutenant Surtak says, "configured for activation within projected time window."
Erin turns to the captain. "All stations ready, sir."
Radiating calmness, Harriman clasps his hands behind his back. "Now we wait."
The most excruciating part. The timer keeps counting down, but it's not an exact science from here on out. Tony sure hopes Q holds up his end of the bargain. Even the self-proclaimed deity wouldn't be so cruel as to joke about this. His farewell gift, the PADD he described as "valuable intel," contained the instruction to be at the Nedron system at the exact date and time Emily had originally been shot by the leader of the Altonoid group investigating the wreck.
By altering events at Station A-12, Tony had created a new timeline in which he and all the people around him have been living for the past six years. According to Q, the original timeline persists as a parallel universe, which will last at least until December 22, 2387, the day Tony and Rinckes used the decrepit time machine they'd uncovered, if only to keep the multiverse from imploding or exploding or whichever it fancies upon reaching an irreconcilable paradox. Their alterations have not only prevented war, they've also prevented desperate versions of themselves from traveling back to 2380 in the wake of the Achilles' destruction—the perfect recipe for a hefty paradox.
This defense mechanism demands that in one branch of the timestream, their adventures in an Alpha and Beta Quadrant dictated by the unholy Altonoid-S'Prenn alliance are happening concurrently, including Emily's death, which is destined to take place minutes from now.
All other aspects of this multiverse-spanning rescue operation are for Tony to figure out and arrange, except for the most vital one: Q will briefly open a miniscule portal between both universes, just big enough for squeezing through a compressed transporter matter stream. If Tony and his friends nail the timing, and the adjustments to the Achilles' sensors and transporters have been successful, and everyone has done their homework, and nothing goes wrong, they could beam her out of the cargo bay she's in milliseconds before her killer vaporizes her.
That's a big if, not to mention the ethical can of worms this opens regarding Ensign Ted Barton's death in the same cargo bay moments earlier. The brevity of the window Q opens doesn't allow for his rescue. Of course, the ensign is perfectly fine in this timeline; he is in fact on duty in sickbay. It doesn't quite sit well with Tony, but his former mentor made it clear "alternate universe Ted" isn't coming back.
This elaborate favor isn't without personal risk to Q, who had already explained the Q Continuum won't sanction outright saving Emily, and this convoluted plan is his official workaround for their merciless stance. As a joke, he tacked a special provision onto his intel: Should this gift result in his expulsion from the Continuum, he is entitled to crash on Tony's couch for as long as needed. Dwelling on this bit of selfless humor serves as a welcome distraction from the mounting tension, although Tony realizes it's up to him to benefit from this gift and do right by Emily.
He notices Harriman has sidled over to Rinckes to ask, "How confident are you of your feedback?"
"Very. Timestamp of her death has been integrated into the operation's parameters."
"So your work is done?"
Rinckes hesitates. "In a sense, yes."
"And you are fully briefed in the proceedings of this mission?"
Harriman motions at the vacant captain's chair. "Would you do the honors?"
Rinckes needs a handful of seconds to grasp this request. With stilted movements, he gets up and follows the Achilles' true captain to the chair he hasn't sat in for years. In passing, he makes eye contact with Tony to share the significance of this moment. When they rode a shuttle to Spacedock prior to boarding the Achilles, Rinckes had confessed how he, ridden with guilt, had viewed the video of Emily's demise often before destroying the only copy. The video had made an indelible impression on him. He bore responsibility for his crew, for her death. Her bravery as she stood to confront her executioner forever stayed in his thoughts. So did the timestamp.
Tony is grateful his ex-captain has volunteered this information. It's helped their preparation a great deal, and by beaming Emily out of her EV suit at the instant of her being fired at, the video itself does not change in the parallel timeline, preventing the potential rise of another paradox. In a strange twist of irony, Rinckes would've merely seen her empty suit vaporize. That is, if they succeed.
Rinckes lowers himself into the chair and grabs the armrests. In his old uniform, he's an oddly fitting anachronism, as if he has always been here, as if he never had to activate this vessel's auto-destruct sequence, as if the intervening years never occurred. His wariness subsides, yielding to confidence. With a straightened posture and renewed resolve, he once again seeks eye contact with Tony and says in his authoritative baritone, "We got this, Commander," stirring memories of days past.
For the first time since reading Q's instructions, Tony allows himself to believe. It sends out a jolt through his nervous system, covering anxiety with a layer of excitement wherever it travels, and he wants to say something inspiring, but Kels beats him to the punch.
"Massive chroniton surge in targeted location."
His heart starts drumming a wild rhythm.
Rinckes leans forward. "Kels, scan for life signs within the designated area. Surtak, acquire transporter lock."
"One life sign found—human!"
"Transporter locked on."
"When's our T-minus zero?" Rinckes asks.
Tony finds himself utterly tongue-tied, so Arthur answers, "Seven seconds."
Rinckes steeples his fingers and says in a voice thick with emotion, "Lieutenant Surtak, bring her home."
"T-minus zero—mark," Arthur says.
An alarm starts beeping on the tactical station, threatening to invert Tony's stomach, and a warning message pops into view: Phaser fire detected by transporter. The whirr of an active transporter heralds a cobalt pillar of bright particles appearing in the center of the bridge, materializing Lieutenant Emily Blue into being. Her excursion uniform is torn and sooty, minor lacerations and bruises cover her skin, and Kingsley and Gibbs have to catch her to keep her upright, but it's really her!
Invigorated by this impossible sight, Tony leaps over the tactical console, rushes over to his wife, and hugs her so tightly the doctor and security chief can let go of her. To hold her close again, her soft hair pressed against his cheek, to smell the comforting scent that faded from her clothes and pillow much too soon—it obliterates the intricate webs that sadness and yearning have spun in a soul besieged by grief.
"Um, ouch," she says, prompting Tony to downgrade his professional wrestling move to a firm embrace. Through tears of happiness, he kisses her with the force of a hurricane. Aware of her spectators, she resists this whopping kiss at first, but when the bridge crew breaks out in applause, she shrugs and counters Tony's sudden outburst of affection with full zeal.
An eternity later, they relinquish their kiss. Emily smiles her incomparable smile at him, her brown eyes gleaming with reciprocal tears. "You came back for me."
"I missed you so much."
"Don't be silly. We spoke two hours ago."
A sad chuckle from Tony. "I had to take the long way round."
She wrinkles her brow. "What do you—?" Still leaning against him, she withdraws slightly to study his redesigned uniform. "What are you wearing?" She looks around, her expression growing increasingly puzzled. She spots Captain Harriman and lets out a shocked gasp. "You're supposed to be dead. Tony, what's going on? Am I dreaming?"
"This must be so confusing. Let me assure you, this is very real." He holds her nearer. "I have so much to tell you. Harriman's alive because Rinckes and I changed the past. We went back to where it all began, the Station A-12 Debacle, and fought off the Altonoids." A heaviness in his chest urges him to admit, "I failed to protect you… twice. Had to live without you for years. You're safe now."
She blinks at him, absorbing this synopsis of the extraordinary, then sniffs and says in a voice gone a tad hoarse, "You took no half measures, did you?"
"Not my style." He gestures at the Achilles' delighted staff. "They were of tremendous help. I couldn't have done it alone."
"Happy to assist," Kingsley says, examining her with his medical tricorder. "It's not often we get to reclaim a lost crewmember we didn't even know existed."
Incredulous and relieved at once, Emily starts laughing in spite of her aches and bruises.
Kingsley tosses his tricorder to a nurse. "Minor spinal injury detected. Let's wrap up the waterworks and transfer you to sickbay."
While the medics ready an anti-grav stretcher, she cradles Tony's face in her hands. "Earth?"
"Your… your father?"
"Waiting for us in San Francisco."
She sags against Tony, shaking her head. "The war?"
"Is over. We won, Emily."
Trembling, she kisses him again. She looks over to Rinckes and taps a loose fist against her heart. "Thank you, Captain."
Eyes going moist, Rinckes signals his appreciation with a nod and says, "You're quite welcome, Lieutenant." He rises to his feet and gives the captain's chair a final glance before stepping aside. "Captain Harriman, I entrust this vessel and her future entirely to you." The captains of the Achilles shake hands.
Kingsley and Gibbs gingerly place Emily on the stretcher. Tony stays with her, unable to tear his gaze from the woman he thought forever lost, while the bridge crew gathers to form a corridor to the aft turbolift. Overflowing with gratitude, he holds his wife's hand and passes these amazing individuals. There's Arthur and Erin Crow, clasping on to each other, unsuccessfully restraining tears. There's Terrell, sticking up his thumb in admiration, and Surtak, bowing his head in polite collegiality. There's Kels, her blue antennae curved to communicate love and kindness. Standing near her, Baxter punches the air in triumph and says, "Good for you, sir."
Last but not least is Captain Harriman, who has walked up to the turbolift entrance. "Welcome back aboard the Achilles, Lieutenant Emily Blue. I wish you two a fantastic life together."
Speechless, Tony follows the joyful procession into the turbolift, which is a tight fit for the stretcher, the doctor and his nurses, the security chief, and himself. The closing turbolift doors allow him to catch one last glimpse of the Achilles' bridge, and he concludes one thing is for absolute certain: He'll miss these wonderful people more than they'll ever know.
As the turbolift hums into action, he looks at Emily, who eradicates his oldest pain with her dazzling smile and says, "It's time to go home."
Earth, State of Washington – June 21, 2386 – Stardate 63469.7
Stephan Rinckes exits the shuttle taxi that brought him to his house, which lies glistening in the early evening sun, inviting him to retreat to this place of relaxation and solitude between lake and forest.
"We'll be right back," Commander Tony Blue tells the shuttle pilot while disembarking the shuttle with Emily. Despite Rinckes' lackluster protests, they'd insisted on accompanying him here. Truth be told, he doesn't mind their presence.
Although this familiar area has remained the same, Rinckes can't deny arriving home feels different today, and it's not simply because of his tag-alongs. The difference could be best described as a sense of accomplishment—a rarity in the existence he chose. He opens the gate leading to his house and faces the reunited couple.
In her freshly replicated security division uniform and with her wounds healed, Emily Blue gawks at her surroundings. "I never imagined I'd set foot on Earth again."
"I think Tony and I can relate," Rinckes says. "I won't soon forget my return to Earth either… after all we'd been through."
Tony wraps his arm around his wife in a tender side-hug. "The fresh air and vibrant trees I missed the most. Oh, and proper ground beneath my feet." He performs an impromptu tap dance, which becomes awkward real fast. "I damn near broke out crying when I first stood in the rain. Raindrops are fantastic."
"Can't wait," Emily says, amused by her husband's antics.
After a short silence, Rinckes asks, "What's next for you both?"
"As I recall," Tony says, "Starfleet approved shore leave built up in the original timeline, an offer I haven't taken them up on yet." He plants a kiss on Emily's cheek. "Starfleet HQ's going to have to do without me for a few months."
"And I'm officially jobless," Emily says, "so I plan on asking for a new assignment on Earth soon."
Sounding shakier than expected or intended, Rinckes says, "Shouldn't be a problem." Seeing these two together with their whole lives ahead of them moves him to the core. He lost many under his command; this one he got to save. His desire to articulate these feelings concerning her rescue comes out as a stammered apology. "I'm sorry I abandoned you at first. You didn't deserve—"
"You didn't abandon me, Captain," Emily says. "From what I've heard, you had to make a tough command decision, but I was always in your thoughts and you played an instrumental role in recovering me." Standing at attention, nudging Tony to do the same, she says, "Commander Tony Blue and Lieutenant Emily Blue hereby request to be relieved from our duties aboard the USS Achilles, knowing we have completed our objective and that each and every member of our crew is safe."
Rinckes pulls himself together enough to say, "Commander and Lieutenant Blue, you are dismissed. May you hold on to the happiness you've fought so hard for."
"Words to live by," Tony says. He and Emily give their captain firm handshakes. "It's been an honor serving with you."
"Tony, Emily, the honor has been mine."
"I could tell you goodbye," Tony says, "but I have a hunch our paths will cross again."
"So do I," Rinckes says. "If you're ever in the mood for synthehol beers and pensive staring over the waterline, consider yourselves invited. Do call ahead, though."
Tony chuckles. "As you used to say: Noted. See you around, Stephan."
"Bye, Stephan," Emily says.
They stroll off, arms interlocked, not a care in the world. Before reaching the shuttle, Tony squeezes Emily closer and turns his head to give Rinckes a final look, summarizing years of cooperation and begrudging respect with a smile.
Rinckes acknowledges their unique bond with a slow nod and watches as they enter the shuttle taxi, as it raises its ramp and takes off, as it disappears over the firs and pines. He stands there for God knows how long, beset on all sides by conflicting emotions he doesn't bother stifling. Why should he? He has finished the task he signed up for, fulfilled his purpose; he has earned the right to parse his feelings at his own pace.
He saunters into his empty home—its classic interior bathing in the setting sun's glow, lengthening the shadows. His mind goes over the past couple of weeks; it'd been quite a while since he'd been part of a mission, part of a starship crew, and got to issue orders from the captain's chair. Oblivious to the passage of time, he takes off his black shoes, doffs his uniform jacket, then swaps his pants, socks, red shirt, and undershirt for his Lake Crescent outfit: boardshorts, sandals, and a button-up shirt.
He drapes his old garb onto a hanger, stores it in his closet, and pauses in bittersweet pride before stepping back to let the closet doors swish shut. Perhaps he did all he could over the decades as a Starfleet officer. Throughout his career, the odds were always against him in his quest for peace and exploration. Death, destruction, and the weight of the fallen came with the job—a job he carried out to the best of his abilities.
Pondering these topics, he finds himself idling by the window overlooking the lake, his moored boat luring him to the water. He turns away from the vista. True, he has found peace here, yet he knows in his heart of hearts that his house, his boat, the lake, these mountains—they're a hiding place, a gorgeous shell, a luxurious prison.
And his sentence is up.
So he seats himself by the main computer terminal in his living room. With the press of a button, he summons a meter-wide holographic monitor displaying a colorful screen with the Federation banner on top. Drumming his knuckles on the desk, rising tension restricting his ribs, he builds up the necessary courage to select communications and hails the USS Hendrikse with a request to speak to the first officer.
Four excruciating minutes later, each of which spent second-guessing himself, a surprised Commander Melanie Simons appears on his monitor. "Stephan?"
"Hi, Melanie. Ah, you must be busy. I hope I'm not disturbing you."
"Not at all. I'm glad you called." She's as beautiful as when he last saw her, her smile as radiant as he remembers. "How have you been?"
Answering this simple yet loaded question requires longer than anticipated. Luckily, she's the patient type. "Melanie, I'm aware I've been avoiding you and I apologize. You of all people know I had my reasons, but something has happened recently that's made me suspect those reasons may have been flawed. I was wondering, maybe we could meet up soon? If it's… okay with you."
"That'd be great! We'll be in the Sol system next month. How about we meet up in Port Angeles for coffee?"
His fears of a cool reply torn down by the sparkle in her eyes, his affection for her fanned by her mere virtual proximity, every fiber of his being compelling him to reconnect with her, Rinckes once and for all casts aside his guilt, shame, and hesitance and returns her sincere smile with his own. "I'd like that."
Earth, San Francisco – June 21, 2386 – Stardate 63469.8
"You mean the whole ship was swarming with S'Prenn?" Emily asks in disbelief.
"From the bridge's ceiling to the bottom deck's crawlspaces," Tony says, walking hand in hand with her across the foot of the hill leading up to Ralph's cottage. Ever since they reunited, he has hardly left her side. She finds it endearing but tricky to get used to, considering she spent a grand total of two hours without him, while he racked up seven years of widowerhood. In light of this, his clinginess is understandable.
"I swear you're making half this stuff up. Am I supposed to believe you kept your cool and didn't scream like a little girl throughout the whole invasion? You and spiders—not the best combination."
"Believe it or not, I got used to our arachnid frenemies. I had to. Our search for a cure led from one horrific Altonoid science lab to the next. Being chased by a S'Prenned Ensign Donahue through a wreckage filled with melted S'Prenn was topnotch exposure therapy as well."
"Sounds like I missed out on a lot of fun."
"Ah yes, the days flew by…"
Heartened by the trail's soil beneath her feet, she still has difficulty comprehending how Earth has been spared a surface-scorching attack and how it's become a freely accessible location instead of a distant cache of painful memories. Won't take long to adapt to her new life; everything on Earth from its citizens to its environment assures her of the reality of her good fortune.
Meanwhile, Tony reverts to storytelling mode. "So, betrayed by the Indefatigable and her fleet, our ship crippled and soon bristling with brainwashed S'Prenn preying on our minds and bodies, Rinckes had to initiate auto-destruct. The S'Prenned outnumbered us in a minute at most. Only the captain, Kingsley, Crow, and I made it to the bridge turbolift. If Terrell hadn't rescued my scrawny butt with a last-minute tackle straight out of a rugby match, I would've had a spider buddy puppeteering me from the neck too. That dude… mainly keeps to himself, but when you need him, he delivers."
Emily adores how fondly Tony speaks of their former shipmates.
Shreds of abating sunlight peek through the leaves and imbue her husband's skin with a golden tint as he continues, "Rinckes and I got separated from Kingsley and Crow, had to fight a S'Prenned Kels and Baxter… Man, that was rough. I'll reserve that for another day. Let's just say I'm relieved they're doing well in this timeline. It helps handle the trauma of…" He winces. "Oh Emily, watching the Achilles dissolve in a bubble of expanding antimatter, knowing we'd lost everyone…"
"I'm so sorry you had to go through this."
"It's okay now. Really. Better than okay." He kicks a lone twig into the bushes and clears his throat. "So Rinckes and I flew our confiscated shuttle into the S'Prenn portal and ended up on Station A-12's doorstep, the main hub of Altonoid-S'Prenn horrors."
Tony has already told her of his escapades aboard the station in great detail, yet she doesn't blame him for reiterating the events that reshaped their lives.
"I doubt he's ever forgiven me for pulling a phaser on him when your life was at stake. We were doomed to cooperate nonetheless, and I believe we made the most of it under the circumstances."
She waves at the vivid scenery. "Yeah, duh."
This snaps him out of the self-pitying state he was veering dangerously close to and even elicits a soft chuckle.
"For what it's worth," she says, "I'm impressed you stood up for me on the bridge and when you confronted him in his ready room weeks later."
"Surefire way of earning a demotion."
"I bet you looked cute in gold."
"You'd pull off a polka-dotted miniskirt uniform."
"Strangest compliment I've received in a while, but I'll accept it."
She touches the single rank pip on her collar. "Nothing beats my demotion. I work my hiney off to make lieutenant, get milliseconds from being vaporized in the line of duty, and guess who gets to wear an ensign's insignia because Starfleet's database says so? Me, sir!"
"I'm convinced it'll be swiftly rectified once a bunch of admirals have evoked a fresh bout of headaches over our temporal meddling." He stops to face her, removes one of the three rank pips from his collar, and gently attaches it to hers. "Here, a trick I learned from you."
She laughs out loud. "Lieutenants Blue, what a team!"
Tony puts an arm around her, and they resume their walk.
Once they've arrived at the cherry blossom tree at the edge of the garden, Emily draws her fingers across the tree's lowest branch. "Never thought I'd see these petals again." She tries and fails to restrain a mischievous grin.
"I was thinking of how you freed the hostages. Hordes of Starfleet troops spend hours figuring out how to disable the shield generator, and you simply blow up the conference room's windows and blast them out into space."
"You're lucky you still have a career."
"In my defense, five years of desperation behind enemy lines with the Federation in tatters rubbed off on me, and not just me. Dr. Kingsley at one point wanted to heal Gibbs' immobilizing combat injuries by fusing a head- and limbless S'Prenn to his spine."
"I swear it's true."
"Oh my God, that's so weird."
"You think that's weird? We can visit our graves!"
Emily lets the notion sink in. "Disturbing."
Tony's lighthearted demeanor fades. "We're both buried in Lille. I had my 2387 body buried as close to yours as your family allowed, which wasn't close. Still in the same cemetery, though."
How is she supposed to reply to such an absurdly sad revelation?
"I held on to the wedding ring; it's in a box on my nightstand. Court martial happened soon after, which went better than expected, even if attaining captaincy is going to be complicated with the official reprimand tainting my record. It's fine; I built up a decent life here, living with Dad, serving at Starfleet HQ, contributing to the Federation and those around me. All the while, not a day went by I didn't miss you."
Although, soon after her release from sickbay, Tony came clean about the dilemma causing her younger self's death aboard Station A-12, it evidently troubles him a great deal, so she takes his hand and looks deep into his eyes. "Q forcing you to weigh saving your spouse against a chance of saving the Federation… It's a brutal choice."
He lowers his gaze. "It worked out in the end, but what kind of husband would—?"
"When we agreed to our mission, the risk of having to sacrifice our lives was implicit. Through no fault of your own, you were coerced into deciding my fate. There's nobody in the universe I'd trust more to make such a hefty decision."
"Could you ever forgive me?"
"Listen to me. You made the right call." She embraces him. "Tony, I can't imagine having to live with such a burdened conscience. Who else would've found the strength to do what was needed? Who else but you? So, yes, I forgive you. Please, let's focus on the future you've secured for us." She gestures at the world around them. "For us all."
A careful smile replaces his contrite expression. "You always did know what to say."
"If you mean I always try and put the last word in, then yes. Anyhow, I've forgiven you, and I'd appreciate it if you could forgive yourself somewhere in the next few weeks."
His careful smile becomes cheeky. "I was hoping I could mope for a bit longer."
"Not a chance, mister."
A minute later, they crest the hill in blissful silence. The idyllic cottage with its flowery garden unearths a torrent of nostalgia, and the mere fact that the lights are on is comforting beyond belief. Tears welling up, a shiver of excitement coursing through her, she turns to her husband, a silhouette framed by the darkening sky. "After all these years, Tony, we're home."
He kisses her, then hollers with all his might, "Dad, guess who's back!"
The front door opens, casting a broad strip of light onto the stone path. In uniform, so no doubt just back from Astrophysics, Commander Ralph Blue stands frozen in the doorway. "Incredible." Arms held out, he hurries over to them.
For Emily, it's been years since Tony wordlessly conveyed his father had perished during the devastating attack on Earth. Now, it's as if Ralph has risen from the dead, appearing slightly older than she remembered.
He locks them in a family hug. "You saved her! I knew you would." Looking at her, he lets out a big sigh of contentment. "I look forward to finally getting to know my daughter-in-law."
She suppresses a pang of sadness over how Ralph has just met her, whereas she grieved for him and cherishes her one-sided memories. Well, Tony had warned her that awkward reunions are par for the course now. None of the Achilles' crew remembered her either, apart from the stories her husband had shared with them in the weeks preceding her rescue. "It's great to see you again," she says, "bizarre as it may be to hear from someone you've never met."
"In a way, I have. My son has told me so much about you." They direct their attention to Tony, who hasn't spoken yet; he's rather busy sobbing quietly, prompting them to intensify their hug.
"Aw, it's okay," Emily says.
Fighting back tears and struggling to subdue his erratic breathing, he clearly wishes to speak up.
"What is it, son?"
After a brief eruption of incoherent stammering, Tony manages to say in the thinnest voice, "Can we keep her?"
Emily and Ralph burst out laughing. "Yes," she says. "I'm not going anywhere."
Night has fallen over the Pacific Coast. Seated in the hideous lawn chairs Tony has learned to tolerate, he, his father, and Emily marvel at the magnificent panorama of San Francisco and its colorful dance between city lights and air traffic. They've sat here often before destiny tore them apart, but enjoying each other's company without the constant threat of war lurking behind the stars is an experience both novel and pleasant.
"I have to ask," Emily says. "Are you still into ancient hover cars?"
Tony smirks and interlaces his fingers across his abdomen in a smug pose. "If you're asking me if I bought a certain 22nd-century Mercedes and kept it: hell yeah!"
She groans. "Oh, come on. And you polish and wax that primordial clump of metal every five hours?"
"Yup, and take it out for a spin whenever I can."
"The one good thing in the whole abandoned timeline was not having to share my husband with his obsession for archaic vehicles."
To throw a wrench in Emily's vocal hover car animosity, Dad has a brilliant non-sequitur lined up for them: "I wonder if you two are still married."
Tony tilts his head. "No, he has a point. Our marriage never happened in this timeline."
"This is your chance to run," Dad whispers to Emily, loud enough for the joke to land with Tony.
"Well, technically," he responds, "we are and aren't married."
"Interesting," Emily says.
"You'd better do something about that, son."
As if stung, Tony bounds out of his chair, startling the others. He goes down on one knee and asks, "Emily, will you kind of marry me for the first, second, and last time?"
Recovering quickly, she says with an acute sense for melodrama, "With all my heart, I kind of will!"
Tony rubs his chin. "It's actually not a bad idea. Why not have another ceremony to celebrate our love?"
He straightens up. "Yeah, why not? Let's make it official."
"I'm in. We'll invite our friends, family, colleagues, and ex-colleagues, book the Deer Park Villa again, and have an even grander party than before."
"How does a late August wedding sound to you?"
"Perfect, provided you can remember two wedding anniversaries. I'll accept zero excuses for forgetting either of them."
"I'll remind him," Dad says.
Brimming with warmth and enthusiasm, Tony looks at the most important people in his life. "A late August wedding it is." He leans forward to give Emily a passionate kiss and seats himself in his lawn chair to continue staring at her from there.
"I understand you've missed me," she says, a smile building on her pretty face, "but the incessant ogling is getting a bit much."
"Don't be. Never stop looking at me the way you do." She winks. "Just not all the time, okay?"
With that settled, the three of them resume gazing at the stars dotting the night sky, at the steady flow of city hoppers and shuttles crisscrossing overhead, at the distant skyscrapers creating a star field of their own with the tiny pins of light shining from their windows.
As Dad talks to Emily about the challenges of planning a wedding on such short notice and tries to persuade her to visit the awe-inspiring memorial in Scotland soon, Tony inhales deeply, filling his human lungs with cool night air. Immortality had been within reach, but his moral compass has guided him to being as mortal as every inhabitant of this beautiful planet. As gradual as acclimatizing to a new home, he has made his peace with the idea of growing old.
And growing old with Emily is an exciting prospect indeed.
This work of fiction is dedicated to you, dear person reading this. If you've taken some of the precious time we've been given to dive into my story and follow its characters as they conquer impossible odds in the name of love and the search for meaning, I have no words for how indebted I am to you. I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed creating these adventures. At the time I'm writing this—June 18, 2021—these characters have been in the forefront of my mind for almost two decades, and to have concluded their storylines is an amazing feeling. Perhaps a little sad, because I will miss writing them, but I've done my utmost to do their personalities, hopes and dreams, flaws and motivations, justice.
A huge shoutout to the people who have supported me since the release of this story's first chapter through an email list way back in 2003, and to those who still do. You know full well who you are. It's been a rocky road completing this massive writing project in the intervening eighteen years, but I can honestly say for myself: It has been worth it!
Thank you for having taken this journey with me, and who knows, maybe our paths will cross again.