McCoy was getting very tired of the Melkotians idea of what Earth ought to look like. If they were going to create an artificial landscape with atmosphere, gravity, and temperature all carefully constructed to support their survival--at least until they were done playing with them--they could at least put a little effort into set dressing.
Spock was in fine form, getting into full on professor mode while they waited around for the Melkotians to supply their executioners. “A fact, Captain. Physical laws simply cannot be ignored. Existence cannot be without them.”
McCoy asked, “What do you mean, Spock?” Does it really matter what physical laws are in play here?
“I mean, Doctor, that we are faced with a staggering contradiction. The tranquilliser you created should have been effective.”
“It would've been effective anywhere else,” Kirk agreed. It was nice to know they hadn’t simply decided that he had made it incorrectly.
“Exactly. Doctor, in your opinion, what killed Mister Chekov?”
Standing out on that windswept landscape that seemed to be trying for spaghetti Western, but not very hard, he found himself sparring, as usual, with Spock. “A piece of lead in his body.”
“Wrong. His mind killed him.”
“Come on, Spock. If you've got the answer, tell us.” Quit being so goddam cagey.
“Physical reality is consistent with universal laws. Where the laws do not operate, there is no reality. All of this is unreal.”
Well, of course the set dressings were constructs. They weren’t really in the Old West. How stupid did Spock think he was? But they themselves were real, and evidently capable of coming to harm. “What do you mean unreal? I examined Chekov. He's dead.”
“But you made your examination under conditions which we cannot trust. We judge reality by the response of our senses. Once we are convinced of the reality of a given situation, we abide by its rules. We judged the bullets to be solid, the guns to be real, therefore they can kill.”
“Chekov is dead because he believed the bullets would kill him,” Kirk supplied.
Spock continued. “He may indeed be dead. We do not know.” Something tickled at the edge of McCoy’s memory. Something about some old philosopher and an evil genius. Or a demon. He couldn’t quite pull it together yet.
“But we do know that the Melkotians created the situation. If we do not allow ourselves to believe that the bullets are real, they cannot kill us,” Kirk said. Wait, so what they were getting at was that none of what they were seeing was real? That this was some sort of manipulative shared dream? McCoy started to feel queasy at the implications.
To the extent that he could detect any emotion in the Vulcan’s face, he looked smug. “Exactly. I know the bullets are unreal, therefore they cannot harm me.”
“We must all be as certain as you are, Mister Spock, to save our lives.” Jim’s figured something out. Oh, come on guys, now you’re both being cagey.
“But that's not possible. There'd always be some doubt.” Descartes. He had been thinking about Descartes and his relation to the simulation hypothesis. A perfect simulation could not be distinguished from reality. McCoy had taken a philosophy class once. Someone had asked, in class, when they would ever use this stuff. This was not a use he would have expected.
“The smallest doubt would be enough to kill you.”
McCoy was losing patience. “We're just human beings, Spock. We don't have that clockwork ticker in our head like you do. We can't turn it on and off.” He wondered if they were just going to go round and round with this existential bullshit until Wyatt Earp and his band of imaginary executioners showed up to finish the deal.
“We must.” The Captain turned to Spock, realization dawning. “Spock, a Vulcan mind meld.”
Shit. That pointy eared bastard had been five steps ahead of all of them and was leading Kirk right to the inevitable conclusion. A completely unacceptable conclusion, in McCoy’s case. He started trying to come up with a counterargument, an alternative, maybe just something so offensive to yell at the pointy eared freak that they’d all just leave him the hell out of it. He couldn’t bring himself to speak.
“Very well, sir. Engineer?”
McCoy froze to the spot, eyes fixed on Spock and Scott. Killed by doubt, you say? Well, that’s at least a unique way to die. Dying sounds just fine. Dying sounds great, no offense. As long as you stay the hell over there.
The fact that Scotty came through apparently unscathed had done absolutely nothing to improve his state of mind. He was aware of his own breathing, too fast, of his growing nausea, of the feeling that throwing up in front of Jim and Scotty and Spock would be mortifying. But it might distract them for a moment, and Jim might go ahead and take his turn first, then it might be too late and he could just let the bullets rip him apart, anything to not experience that terrifying dissolution, the loss of will and self--and even though the rational corner of his mind reminded him that this was just PTSD of a sort talking, not even of a sort , he was no Vulcan, there was no way he was just going to wrestle it down and believe whatever was expedient.
Except that was what this exercise was about, wasn’t it?
And then it was too late to say anything. Spock stepped in front of him. The fact that he, unlike that other version of himself, was beardless, didn’t help in the slightest. “Doctor,” he said, by way of acknowledgement, a shorthand request for consent, and McCoy could still say nothing. Trapped between death and dissolution as that hand reached for his face and hesitated, for a fraction of a second, but hesitated before resting there.
Doctor, I will not continue if you are unwilling.
This would be both the most logical and the least convenient time ever to have a flashback, now wouldn’t it? And yet, the memory his own mind had pushed forward, that horrifying helplessness, pain, and frank violation stood in stark contrast to the mind lightly resting at the edge of his own, so that in spite of himself, instead of negation, he found himself thinking only, Help me .
Be still. The flashback ceased, abruptly, replaced by a not unpleasant vertigo. He found his attention focused only on the words spoken both aloud and into his mind, “The bullets are unreal. Without body. They are illusions only. Shadows without substance. They will not pass through your body, for they do not exist.”
“They do not exist,” he found himself repeating back, and after a beat, in which he felt himself being steadied, he was alone in his own head again.
But the flashbacks had only been pushed aside, not cured, and they came back with a frequency and lurid detail they had not had since the first few weeks after they had returned from that funhouse mirror of a universe, almost two years ago now. He avoided Spock at much as possible without making an issue of it...hell, he probably did make an issue of it, but it wasn’t his fault, not really. And things did settle down in a few weeks, enough that Spock could walk into the room without McCoy snapping at him or seeking an excuse to leave, and enough that he’d even been able to favor him with a few good natured insults, just to try to get things back to normal.
Then the pointy eared bastard had to go and ruin everything. He stopped by for some routine medical thing that was clearly an excuse, sat down at McCoy’s work table, and started, as he frequently did, without preamble. “I wished to discuss some matters which came to my attention during the away mission to the Melkotian homeworld.”
“I’m fine,” McCoy lied, then thought better of it. “Or at least, I will be. Sorry I’ve been such a bastard lately.”
“There is no need for you to apologize.”
“Well, you don’t have anything to apologize for either.”
“Nonetheless, I deeply regret that I so closely resemble someone who did something so...damaging to you. If I had known, we could have dealt with the matter differently. And long ago. Why did you leave such a salient piece of information out of the incident report?”
McCoy flipped his hands up, an I don’t know gesture a bit less noncommittal than a shrug. “I didn’t want Starfleet to hold it against you. I didn’t want Jim to know. And I sure as hell didn’t want Starfleet Intelligence to get the idea that that sort of thing was even a possibility.” He smiled, a tight, unhappy stretching of the lips. “I didn’t want to deal with it.” Why didn’t you tell someone? He swore he would never ask a patient that question again.
“Is that all you came here to say?”
“Well, out with it then.” He wondered if he might need a drink.
Spock pressed on. “I noticed something during our meld that I felt I needed to confirm. I assume you are aware that you are unusually psi sensitive?”
McCoy paced, unwilling to meet the Vulcan’s eyes, at least not consistently. “I score out at a 192, that’s high borderline, so yeah. I am quite aware that if I’d been there, our old friend Gary’s fate could have been mine.”
Spock considered him for a moment. “I don’t believe so.”
“What do you mean?”
Spock actually had to take an audible breath before answering. “Because that’s not the kind of man you are. Given that, your psionic field is high enough that, with some education, you might be able to make some use of it.” Yep, he definitely needed a drink.
“Your point?” McCoy crossed his arms defensively across his chest.
“My point is, if at some point you should wish to pursue such education, I would be willing to assist.”
Sometimes, smart as Spock was, he could be a complete idiot. “And why did you think now was in any way an appropriate time to mention this?” He could about guarantee the flashbacks would be back again tonight.
Spock flinched. It was subtle, just a twitch of the cheek, below the eyebrow. “There are defensive techniques you might find helpful.”
“What, like brain judo?”
“Actually, given that an attacker is likely to be intrinsically stronger than you, and judo is a martial art designed to use the attacker’s strength against them, your analogy is unusually apt.”
McCoy took the seat across the table from the man who so earnestly and awkwardly tried to be his friend even though McCoy was pretty much an asshole to him on a daily basis. “I appreciate the offer. I really do. But I’m not a young man anymore. I’m not sure I could take on a project that would change who I am. How I practice medicine. I’m set in my ways.” He was scared out of his wits, more like it. Besides, he might not have enough of a future for it to matter anyway.
He muttered, half to himself, “I’m not going to sleep tonight as it is.” Spock flinched again. Not enough that anyone who didn’t know him well would see it, but he did. McCoy shouldn’t have said that.
“Look. I promise to think about it. Just the defense part. None of that other mumbo jumbo.” And there he went again. Nice cultural sensitivity there, Bones. Dammit, he was just trying to be a decent human being. Vulcan being. Whatever. “I’ll let you know.”
“I will not bring the matter up again.” He stood, straightened his uniform.
“I know you won’t. But, thanks. For the offer.”
Spock acknowledged his statement with a curt nod and left. McCoy looked at his chrono. Two more hours until he was off duty. Perhaps this would be a good night to go catch up with Scotty and some of his stash of contraband alien inebriants. Knock himself thoroughly unconscious.
For once, McCoy didn’t mind the fizzy, light infused beam of the transporter. Rather like dissolving into a glass of sparkling wine, he thought as their molecules were rearranged and reconstituted far away from Platonius. They were home. Safe. Their bodies surely and permanently their own again. The Platonians would be left to stagnate in isolation. No further ships would visit them, the effects of kironide would disappear into the deepest levels of classification, and Alexander, as soon as he was able to be dropped off, would no doubt enjoy, or suffer, extensive debriefing at Starfleet Command before he would be allowed to start a new life somewhere else in the Federation.
Noting the way Kirk was subtly guarding his left arm, he marched both of his superior officers to sickbay before even letting them change out of their ridiculous outfits. Neither Kirk nor Spock had escaped injury. In addition to being terrorized and humiliated, the mere movement of their bodies against their will, as if they had been no more than dolls, had strained muscles and joints. Spock’s injuries were minor, mostly strains and sprains in joints the Platonians had damaged in their ignorance of slight differences between Vulcan and human biomechanics.
Kirk, on the other hand sported a broken collar bone and torn shoulder ligaments from some especially enthusiastic twisting. He perched on the biobed with the stiff restlessness McCoy had come to associate with him burying things he’d rather not think about, his eyes alternating from fixing for too long on Spock’s face to avoiding looking at him entirely. Spock, for his part, had brushed up against the captain “accidentally on purpose” at least five times since they’d returned to the Enterprise. It didn’t take an idiot to know the two of them needed some time to process what had happened to them.
“Spock,” McCoy said as soon as he was done adjusting the Captain’s sling, “Take the Captain back to his quarters and see that he stays there. He needs to rest, not,” and here he turned to Kirk directly, “spend all night mooning about on the bridge.”
Spock nodded understanding and followed the Captain out of sickbay.
McCoy’s next couple of hours were occupied with giving Alexander a thorough physical and settling him into his own quarters, then writing up a report for Starfleet about him and the rest of the Platonians unusual physiology. He had to revise it several times until he was satisfied that he had made it clear that while the Platonians should be avoided at all costs, Alexander was, despite his effective immortality, no threat to anyone. He had left the dwarf in the care of Scotty, who was apparently introducing him to “the best bits” of Doctor Who.
He almost ran into Spock on his way out of sickbay. The Vulcan looked as impeccably tidy as always, but McCoy spotted the faint worry lines around his eyes. “The Captain is asleep in his quarters. As you should be.”
McCoy gestured Spock back toward his office. “I wanted to write my report while everything was still fresh.” He busied himself unnecessarily rearranging a few pieces of equipment on a shelf. “What about you? Are you all right?” It was a stupid question, really, but it needed asking anyway.
Spock tapped his chin with steepled hands. “No,” he said. He considered a moment further before continuing. “Though I do not believe I am unfit for duty. Losing control of my self, my actions...they could have made me kill Jim, or you, and I could not have stopped them. Such an assault is not easily forgotten.”
“Tell me about it,” McCoy murmured dryly, half to himself. “I was the lucky one this time.” He glanced down at the floor, pressing his lips together into a frown. His decision had been made hours ago, while he watched his friends suffering at the hands of the Platonians, helpless to protect them. Spock took his moment of silence for dismissal and turned toward the door.
“Spock, hold up a minute,” McCoy said. “Say, ah...I was thinking. I’m not feeling as set in my ways as I was a few weeks ago. I mean, if the offer still stands.”
Per usual, Spock’s eyebrow marked his surprise even as he schooled the rest of his face to stillness. He crossed the room to a chair, sat, and gestured McCoy to a seat across the table. McCoy rummaged in a cabinet and pulled out a decanter of bourbon and two shot glasses, set all on the table, and sat. “Alcohol does not affect me,” Spock reminded him.
“I’m your doctor, you think I don’t know that?” He opened the decanter and filled each glass, leaving them on the table between them. “Maybe they’re both for me.”
Spock rested his clasped hands on the table, wearing his best neutral expression.
He continued, “So. I know that mental self defense is useless against telekinesis, but the three of us do seem to be targets for manipulation of more than one kind. And now that I’m not dying anymore…”
Spock nodded understanding. “When we last discussed this issue, did you already know about the xenopolycythemia?”
“I suspected. I knew something was seriously wrong, but I was waiting on test results.”
Spock was silent for a little longer than the normal conversational pause. McCoy had just begun to try to think of something to say when he finally spoke. “There is something I wanted to tell you when you were ill, back on Yonada, but as we had agreed that certain subjects were to be avoided, I felt it inappropriate. Do you remember when Dr. Van Gelder requested that I meld my mind with his?”
“Not a day I’d likely forget.” McCoy took a swig of bourbon.
“My explanation for my reluctance on that day, while technically truthful, was incomplete. Vulcan culture does hold close its rituals and secrets, this much is true, but I had more pressing reasons to hesitate.”
He looked away to a spot just over McCoy’s left shoulder, then continued. “When I was a child, I wished to study to become a healer. Vulcan children select their chosen discipline quite young, and at the completion of my basic training in the control of my emotions I expressed this desire to my instructor. She discouraged my interest, she said because my kar-selan waves, the base pattern and rhythm on which higher thought is superimposed, were several milliseconds off Vulcan normal. She informed me that patients would find my touch distasteful. I now realize my instructor’s objections were racially motivated, but at the time, I was deeply ashamed. I held my mind aloof from then on, never sharing my thoughts even with my own parents.”
McCoy sipped at the second bourbon, hoping his surprise was not too evident on his face. Spock admitting to an emotion. Granted, he was talking about a long time ago.
The expression on Spock’s face could almost be interpreted as wry. “As it happens, I had, at the time of Van Gelder’s request, participated in a full meld only once, and that with a chaperone, when I was bonded to T’Pring.”
McCoy put his glass down a little harder than he intended. It made an audible thunk on the table. “Wait, weren’t you about seven?”
“Precisely. I was seven point two three years old.”
McCoy was well aware that he was, among Kirk, Spock, and himself, the adult in the room, but this revelation took him by surprise. “So you were winging it?”
McCoy finished his second bourbon. “That sounds like the kind of reckless stunt Kirk would pull.”
Spock rested his gaze pointedly on the empty glasses. “If you wish to act upon your prior request in the near future, kindly refrain from consuming any additional alcohol.”
McCoy contemplated his shot glass, then carefully and deliberately collected both glasses in one hand, the decanter in the other, and set them on a shelf out of sight. His hands almost didn’t shake as he did so.
Spock continued his story. “My point, though, is something you said to me later, when we returned Dr. Van Gelder to Tantalus along with the new rehab colony staff. I remarked that Van Gelder was still not well. You said, and I quote, ‘No, but he is better, and sometimes that’s all we get to do, patch them up and pass them on.’ I was never quite sure you meant to say, ‘we’, but I valued the connotation that I, in my own fashion, had served as a fellow healer in your eyes.”
McCoy shook his head slightly. “My memory’s not as sharp as yours. I’m afraid I don’t remember that conversation. But for what it’s worth, I’ve watched you, and you’re a damn good healer when the situation calls for it. Even if you are making it up as you go.”
After a short, but awkward silence, Spock shifted forward in his seat slightly. “Shall we begin?”
“Are you sure you’re up to this right now?” McCoy wasn’t sure he was, even with two shots of liquid courage sloshing around inside him.
“I am not inclined to seek solitude at the moment.”
“So, brain judo it is.”
“Indeed. The first technique we will practice is producing a mental shield. This will not only slow any attacker, but will also be useful to you when you treat patients with telepathic ability, especially if they are too injured or ill to maintain their own…”
So, apparently this is what happened next, and when. Well, we knew he had to get his head out of his rear sometime before TWOK or it just messes the continuity up terribly...
Also. All three of them think they're the adult in the room. Sometimes they're right.