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Upon My House

Chapter Text

Nyota got summoned by the Admiralty at half-past four. Too damn early to keep conscious, say, three years ago, but not anymore: they all, senior cadets ripe for deployment, were ready for any duty roster that may befall them. She dived into standard uniform, forgoing formals, wrestled her hair down, and was fully awake and halfway across campus in under fifteen minutes. Outside proved nasty. Wet pavement and dew-covered grass made her slip several times; maybe skipping coffee wasn’t the best idea.

Dormitories and study halls all slept, so did the library; even medical center in the distance showed mostly dark windows. Only street lamps illuminated campus grounds, their beams filled with orange pinpricks of drizzle. Nyota tsk-ed, looking up, and hastened her step.

Soon, a male figure in a similar rush somewhat ahead caught her attention. He was clad in full dress getup as gray as everything else around. Determined clicking of parade hills rung loud in pre-morning quiet, the very particular pattern easily identifiable. She sped up as the man in turn slowed pace, waiting for her at the bottom of a hill.

“Kirk,” Nyota greeted the fellow cadet, a blond young human with blue eyes on a pale sleep-puffy face. “You just had to doll up, hadn’t you? I’ll look like a total slob by contrast, good job.”

Raindrops audibly splashed the top of Kirk’s peak cap as he smiled, a touch less enthusiastic than usual.

“First of all, Uhura: rude. Good morning. Second, it was actually the only clean thing I got left, so. Lucky coincidence.”

“Good morning,” Nyota agreed, resigned, and they proceeded to climb the hill together in silence.

The Admiralty building lay on its other side, clearly visible from the top, alight to the roof with activity and surrounded by a swarm of hovercars and shuttles. Kirk winced at the excessive brightness.

“Fuck. And I really hoped this would be about Xeno Lingo.”

Nyota had similar hopes. Now, fear mostly eclipsed her excitement. Nyota Uhura and James T. Kirk had exactly two things in common: Xenolinguistics and their assignment to the Enterprise. This could still be about some urgent translation for one of the senior officers, but with Admiralty practically drowning in distress like that? Doubtful. Surely, they could kiss their placement aboard Earth’s most beloved flagship goodbye, for whatever reason.

Nyota’s hair was slowly surrendering its hard-won neatness to the rain. They couldn’t just stand and stare any longer, no point in delaying the inevitable. She squared her shoulders and gestured at the descending stairs. Kirk clenched his teeth, but complied.

“You’re the Xeno Lingo kids, right?” Admiral Barakat asked as soon as they got granted access beyond the busy vestibule. Her Starfleet-issued hijab sat slightly askew, making the woman look tired.

“Well, what do you know,” Kirk joked under his breath, relieved, while Nyota agreed enthusiastically.

“Very well. And how is your Vulcan?”

Just like everyone else’s, - shitty at best.

Solar Federation equated everything of Vulcan origin to terrorism. Learning Golic in any form was prohibited en mass; they did offer a course here at Starfleet, but it had a quota of four people maximum. Four cadets with thoroughly checked backgrounds and slightly elevated clearance taught only bare minimum, just enough to potentially stumble through menacing Vulcan transmissions aboard those vessels that dared skirt Empire’s borders. The course instructor, Commander Sadangi, had no great grip on Golic to begin with, but was rumored to have worked alongside legendary Doctor Grayson before she went MIA.

Kirk and Uhura got stuck planetside in preparation for the Enterprise’s take-off; Commander had resolved to taking their third, Gary Mitchell, on a mission to Beta quadrant where all communication died, and the course currently lacked a fourth student. They really were here for a translation.

“We’ll manage, ma’am,” Nyota assured the Admiral with ungrounded confidence.

“I hope you brought your tablet, ‘cause I forgot mine and those notes are like air to me, I suddenly remember nothing,” Kirk whispered as they sped along a very official-looking corridor towards lifts. “Especially about the calligraphy.”

“Good thing I wasn’t the one to go with Sadangi, you and Gary would’ve been so screwed,” Nyota huffed. She, naturally, had her tablet at hand, but she also didn’t need it. Any gaps in her Golic were due to insufficient material being taught, not inaptitude or luck of interest.

They ended up in a huge jam-packed conference room. Air conditioning was blasting full force, deodorizing everything with an “Andorian Glassier” travesty. Rear Admiral and Vice Admiral both held court over whole senior staffs of Xenocultural and Communications departments. Everyone was talking, everything was beeping, and everywhere there was the same holo: playing, paused, enhanced, dissected otherwise. The video depicted a colossal cavernous hall swarmed with people, — that’s all Nyota could discern at first glimpse.

Barakat gestured to where shimmering rectangles of holo screens were most densely packed. “Go and start assisting immediately to the best of your abilities, cadets,” she ordered and strolled away with purpose.

Nyota took off in the indicated direction with Kirk following closely behind. She shook the remaining droplets from her uniform and hair; he lost the cap. People hushed down around the table when Rear Admiral noticed their approach first and accepted subsequent salutes with a faint smile. “Ah, our Vulcan specialists, here at last.”

“Xeno Lingo cadets, you mean,” Vice Admiral corrected irritably. “Sit down, kids.”

A harassed-looking Yeoman shooed some people away and inserted both Nyota and Kirk into vacant chairs. Admirals quirked their heads at a weirdly identical angle and threw them a reassuring and a critical look respectively. Nyota glanced at Kirk to see what Admirals saw: his high-collared tunic was chocking him and had dark damp patches on the shoulders; he started to sweat and looked wetter and less put together than usual as a result. She could only hypothesize what sum her less than immaculate dress and under-eye bags presented.

“Border patrols are necessarily doubled, so actual grown-up acting officers are unavailable to assist us,” Vice Admiral finally stated with obvious disapproval. “Your clearance is temporarily upgraded. You will be briefed on the conditions later. Right now what I want you to do-” she tapped her touch screen, and the paused holovid everyone was obsessing over popped up in front of them. “This has been broadcasting through all channels within Vulcan space for an hour now. Tell me what Pointy here is saying.”

Vice Admiral pressed play.

The hall depicted was swarmed not with humans, Nyota realized, startled, but Vulcans. The most Vulcans she had ever seen in one place. The pompous space of heavy geometrical architecture in red stone was adorned by giant statues, massive golden embellishments, jewel-toned fabrics flowing from the ceiling... a battleground; obvious destruction touched everything. Here and there in the crowd the fighting was still ongoing, but those were clearly just aftershocks. Sandy-red uniforms won; decorative black ones lost. A column of prisoners was forming near an elevated platform. The enormous banner hung above it had been ripped in half with something deadly sharp, embroidered calligraphy erased. And on the podium rested what could only be described as a beautiful monumental throne, its seat occupied by decidedly not Emperor Talok. A much older Vulcan male sat there instead, clad in same sandy reds as other winners, no insignia in sight. His wrinkly face was tranquil; he exuded power. His – now his – throne was heavily surrounded, most protectors in snug hoods and masks covering their features, but some went without, and Nyota was even more shocked to identify Orions, Tellaries, and… a Klingon?.. among them.

At the edge, towering above the crowd, a younger Vulcan stood tall. His shorn hair and pointed ears were not covered, but the face was, up to his dark, feverishly burning eyes. A spray of green covered him evenly, and he had Emperor Talok kneeling before the assembly by a fistful of hair. In his free hand a lirpa reflected light dangerously. Emperor’s face was close to its blade, a frozen fearful grimace that looked somehow resigned.

Camera zoomed in on the pair as “Pointy” begun talking behind his mask.

Phonetically, Golic was mesmerizing in mouths of native speakers. Human vocal cords were ill-adjusted to recreate the sounds: they all came out garbled and clumsy. This marked the first time Nyota heard Golic so clearly, extensively spoken, and it washed over her like a ceremonial melody. The tone was aggressive but controlled, and the Vulcan’s inflections were so nuanced that the message didn’t even register with her at first.

Kirk took her out of it with his signature annoying mumbling. “‘Hear, you of Ah’rak’… ‘afsakau’… afsakau? It’s from ‘afsakaya’, right? Uhura, give up your tablet, like, seriously.”

She suppressed the urge to shush. “‘Afsakaya’ is ‘declaration’. ‘Hear, you of Ah’rak, as I thusly proclaim’. Just shut it; let’s watch the whole thing first.” But she did dig out the tablet from her satchel, eyes firmly on the holo. Kirk tended to concentrate better with electronics occupying his hands: he started typing immediately, the device spewing a quiet clack-clack sound effect back at him.

The Vulcan continued speaking. He was a natural orator; audience froze reverently to catch each word. Everybody on screen and pretty soon everyone in the conference room fell silent, abandoning their tasks, attention pulled to his nearly hypnotic gaze.

Obeying a mysterious cue between sentences, one petite person separated from others at the throne. They were heavily cloaked, to the point of unidentifiable as anything further than bipedal humanoid. They crossed the podium to where Emperor knelt and, with some cooperation from his captor, removed a heavy neckpiece off him. It was a long, ancient-looking chain of uneven palm-sized squares, gold engraved with archaic pictograms. Most were impossible to make out, too worn and not of finest work. Those Nyota could discern appeared alien; she caught some solar symbols, but that was it.

A path immediately cleared for the person to walk around the throne and take position at its back, arms with necklace in them raised high over the elder Vulcan’s head.

They did not put them down, visibly waiting for something.

As the ongoing speech reached its tonal peak, tension vibrated in suddenly morbid silence. Nyota had a pretty clear picture of what was about to happen, and she was proven right when the Emperor got dragged in front of his own former seat. Its new master took a lirpa out of where it rested blade down in a sand pool fringing the throne, and proceeded to severe the Emperor’s head from his body in one smooth curving motion. He remained seated through it. Rich green blood hit him across the chest; some splashes looked neon, but mostly it came off as black. The speaker, who held and offered Emperor for the slaughter like a sacrificial pig, kept the head and dropped the twitching and bleeding rest.

Not one soul in the conference room reacted in any way, but the crowd erupted in the holo. They were ecstatic, cheering and saluting with weapons in the air. The speaker faced them to demonstrate his trophy better and declared one final sentence, heavy with made history. The necklace barer took over after, and they sounded like a she – she screamed, clearly, loudly, until the crowd answered her every exclamation in synchronized roar: phrases at first, but only a name by the end, chanted over and over like a prayer. Sa-rek. Sa-rek. Sa-rek. The speaker, meanwhile, tore his mask off, revealing harsh features distorted with emotion. The severed head oozed blood down his arm and chest as he shook it rhythmically and chanted along.

Necklace of burden and gold was placed down and over Emperor Sarek’s neck.

“Holy moly, this is a cozy little Vulcan coup d’état, isn’t it,” Kirk concluded after the holo cut off.

Rear Admiral and Vice Admiral looked matching side by side, similar to a set of bookends: he a thin short black man, and she a wide tall white woman, both equally exasperated as if Kirk was their highschooler caught drinking. “Watch it, cadet,” Rear Admiral warned, like not naming things what they were would make everything disappear. “Less thinking, more translating. What is he saying?”

Expecting eyes turned to Kirk and Nyota; with all her Communications instructors present, she, the pronounced golden child, had to try and do her best. “Give me your notes,” she asked Kirk. “Let’s see what we’ve got.” He scooted over in a rolling chair, angling the tablet for better access; they worked at it for several minutes.

“It’s the usual coup d’état talk,” Uhura answered and continued before they could reprimand her, too. “‘Hear, you of Ah’rak as I thusly proclaim. We are being consumed by chaos. Some forgot our warriors are not tools of destruction, but protectors. Tonight, we remind them in their own language, the only one they understand.’” Kirk mouthed along, reading from what they typed out; the Admirals drunk up each word and got pale and sweaty with it. “Let the blood spilled be satisfactory. Let this violence be the last inside these sacred walls. House of Talok is no longer. Brave clan is no longer. Thus start–”

“We didn’t get the rest,” Kirk hastily interrupted, “because we lack the vocabulary. It might be a weird wordplay.”

Nyota did get the rest, but not entirely; there was this complete jumble of sounds that made no sense. She shrugged. “Can we get a replay? From the head part?” Kirk made a popping noise with his lips for illustration.

More visual details reached Nyota’s mind the second time. Like the tranquility in Emperor Sarek’s eyes as he killed his predecessor. Or the way he plunged his lirpa back into the sand, all business-like. Or a tiny stretch of stubborn skin at the side of Talok’s neck that wouldn’t give, holding doomed pieces together, and had to be ripped apart by the speaker’s pull. The jumble, though, didn’t clear up. They rewatched said fragment three more times before it hit home for Nyota. “If it’s a proper noun, not an adjective, right here,” she pointed at the tablet screen, “then this is the same. Maybe something archaic or regional or the like.”

“Share with the class,” Vice Admiral prompted.

“I believe it’s ‘Kyi’i clan is no longer. Thus start the days of S’chn T’gai and the House of Sarek.’ The S’chn T’gai part is a clan name, as well,” Nyota shared obediently. The situation was serious and possibly dire; still, she couldn’t help but get excited. This was exactly why she had joined Communications track: enjoying the languages, solving their mysteries, the moment of exhilaration when all parts clicked together seamlessly.

Kirk pointed towards the holo with his chin, slightly sheepish. “And the lady is screaming, ‘His hand is guided by Reah, his mind is guided by Surak’. A well-guided Vulcan all around. The audience seems to enjoy that.”

Vice Admiral almost rolled her eyes, but held back. “Now that we’ve all became guests at the charming inauguration of this Sarek individual, tell me, Pike, what does the S-s-s…”

“S’chn T’gai,” Kirk provided.

“That. What does that mean for us?”

Amongst the cluster of Xenocultural department a man Nyota didn’t recognize raised his head from frantically scrolling through a tablet. He was in his fifties, lean and handsome, but white as a sheet – an unfortunate side-effect of space dwelling.

“Well, Admiral. From what I caught there,” he made a circular motion with his finger indicating Nyota and Kirk, and then pointed at the tablet, “and have here, Surak was a progressive philosopher. His ideas at the time were labeled too radical for Vulcan warrior caste and clan system society. His whole family got banished to ShiKahr province, - which is evidently uncomfortable because it verges the Great Forge, - where they stayed for centuries. His teachings, however, grew and are widely accepted in various forms nowadays.”

He read it like a paragraph from a schoolbook, and Nyota wondered where a schoolbook like that might have come from. “If I deduce correctly, this ‘Sarek individual’ and his cohort are Surak’s direct descendants… yes, here it is– cadets, would you spell that clan name like so?”

A line of Golic calligraphy with hand-written transcription in Standard beside it appeared on screen. The calligraphy was as mesmerizing to Nyota as usual: it looked like musical notation, warping, intertwining. She nodded her agreement.

“Then it’s definitely them. In fact, there are two branches, House of Sarek and House of T’Pau. T’Pau marked as xenophobic extremists, constantly oppressed under the previous government, and Sarek are reformists who led Talok’s opposition. And they are pretty popular.” He paused, reading in silence with a furrowed brow. People around did their best not to peek at his reading, just in case. “Oh, this is interesting. Talok had no heirs, Sarek has two. Talok exploited the warrior caste while not being one himself and persecuted adepts of Surak’s teachings; Sarek has sons in both fields and is a veteran. They must really love him there; he wouldn’t have been able to accomplish an overthrow otherwise. Get yourselves familiar with these faces, folks; they’re going to be around for a long time.”

Folks warily side-eyed the bared teeth and grimaces galore in the iced-up holo.

Rare Admiral tore his eyes away with visible difficulty. “Ri-i-ight,” he sighed. “Anything else? Xenocultural analysis?”

Xenocultural staff jumped in mismatched choreography. They got split in half by the mysterious Pike guy and his secret potentially dangerous Vulcan schoolbook; the right half obviously hoped the left would come up with something by now — and vice versa. Because no course, even highly regulated one, on Vulcan culture existed, silence established. After a while, the brave young instructor Nyota and Kirk had for Intro Xenology coughed to attract attention. His voice sounded shaky, but colleagues still looked at him with pride; if not for professional analysis, then for the courage alone.

“Well, the bling is obviously a power symbol, a crown equivalent, if you will… The screaming guy is the warrior son, I suspect. Ah, the female might be the future Empress, might be not. Probably not, she stood in the back and to the right, it’s more commonly a bodyguard position. The bulky guy to the left might be the other son… they sort of look alike and he is clearly a monk of some kind…”

Vice Admiral cut him off. “In other words, we know jack shit.”

“Well, if they are, indeed, reformists, as Mister X here informed us,” Kirk barged in, returning Pike’s circular hand gesture, “then it’s, like, tons better for us than Talok… I mean, right?” Nyota always knew Kirk to be a highly intelligent individual with an extensive vocabulary. Unfortunately, he also had extensive reserves of obnoxious, and once those started pouring out there was no stopping him.

“Command Track – yes… Wow, really. O-kay. Xenolinguistics – yes. Data analysis – no, doesn’t seem to be the case,” Admiral Barakat’s voice concluded grimly from behind Kirk and Nyota. They both mimicked the previously witnessed choreography and owled their necks to look at her. “In case you haven’t guessed, Kirk, this is me, reading from your file that states your only authority over the just revealed data is to shut up about it. I’m hinting that you should scoot to catch your briefing, cadets, and by hinting, I, of course, mean a direct order.”

“Your assistance is noted, kids,” Vice Admiral added kindly (in comparison). “Dismissed.”

“Also, let me remind you that Command track requires minimum two Analysis credits to graduate, one of them full Tactical,” Barakat added, seizing Kirk up meaningfully.

Nyota had to juggle her tablet, bag, and, somehow, Kirk’s stupid peak cap as the same stressed-out Yeoman from before towed them away to get briefed. Kirk bitched non-stop under his breath about having gotten needed credits just the night before and the results simply not reaching databases yet.

“Well, go tell that to Barakat, don’t just whine at me,” Nyota hissed.

“Please don’t,” the Yeoman begged lifelessly and disappeared through a random door to announce them or something.

Kirk took his cap back and peered over the shoulder at where Pointy’s snarl was still paused midair. Angry eyebrows, crazed eyes, and honest-to-god sharp teeth flickered blue at intervals due to a faulty projector.

“What a freaky looking guy,” he mused, smiling with no humor as Nyota hummed in return.

Kirk’s eyes lingered.

Chapter Text

Frank installed a strong LED light to illuminate the yard after dark. Its buzzing white-blue carved out the first row of stalks from the black cornfield sea, made them look flat. Jim wanted some warm solar globes to scatter around, but they were too expensive. That new projector, it eclipsed the stars.

When grounded, Jim crawled out onto the back porch awning just to look at them. He lay with the tablet above his face and watched it scan the sky, mark constellations, planets, satellites. Here, the Summer Triangle, Deneb like a bright sewing pin struck through black velvet. There, the Kepler colony – invisible, but irrevocably existent. The app tracked starships in real-time, little shimmering dots with names attached. Jim followed the latter half of USS Tereshkova’s journey, sent away and welcomed back both USS Savitskaya and USS Jemison. But the cursed glow of Frank’s monstrosity invaded even his little heaven, spilled a harsh halo over the roof.

When not grounded, Jim left the tablet beside his pillow and dove into the cornfield.

It lived, breathed, whispered in the night. Leaves grabbed at his clothes, soft soil sunk his battered snickers – but he always pressed forward, an embodiment of every alien movie cliché. There was no particular hide-out or special place. Jim just stopped walking when no light pollution could mar his map of the universe. And stood there. Stood there until his neck ached and the chill crept up his dew-soaked jeans, no screen between him and his future.

***

Human race sucked at the trendiest thing all cool Laniakea Supercluster kids were into - colonization.

Andorians did it to an occasional suitable moon, Tellarites and Ferengi preferred M-class planets, Betazoids systematically expanded their sandbox of a native system outwards, and Orions generally weren’t picky. Sometimes here and there either Klingons or Vulcans stamped over and took several toys for their respective broad collections.

Humans tended to just stare longingly at all the fun from afar and fuck up each post-Lunar attempt like champs. Jim didn’t count Luna a colony, precisely, – too close to mama’s skirt, it was more a Tōkaidō overspill. In his opinion, one should count from Mars, and boy oh boy! An intrasolar docking station still orbited the planet, making leftover ruins and memorial installations observable from aboard: they served as a morbid greeting for arriving ships and a rather grim warning for those leaving.

There had also been Kepler Prime, which no one liked to mention, and Tarsus IV, which Jim in particular didn’t like to mention. Presently, humanity was mid-attempt number not again, Kepler Novus: The New Hope. Two years ago Enterprise had escorted a small fleet of pioneers to their new foreboding world. Jim, at the time a First Officer under Captain Nyambayaryn, remembered them sounding disgustingly chipper via inter-ship comms. Lately, though? Not so much.

Humankind’s continuous existence was only made possible by a) a sheer stroke of sporadic genius that graced an occasional representative, and b) the fact that conquering it, evidently, proved more trouble than its worth. Kiara Dugar’s Life Shield was the perfect embodiment of the two. No one needed a backwater ball of exhausted resources surrounded by matching brethren when the only desirable thing about it also made it impenetrable. The Shield was impossible to crack, as of yet. Jim wasn’t so sure Mrs. Dugar herself could have done it: she invented the thing high on sugar while refining, bizarrely, ergonomic chairs. Everyone stopped trying after a while, abandoning bothersome humans to their own, only very rarely unique, devices.

So what ailed the latest Terran camp? Not invaders or antagonistic native organisms, but good old-fashioned virus colonists brought along and helped mutate with their vaccinated-to-the-gills immune systems.

“Most fortunate, then, that we come fully equipped to handle your situation,” Jim smiled. He tried to radiate calm reassurance, because the Governor of Kepler Novus, a thin face pinched in quiet misery, looked like she really needed it.

“Blessed be, Enterprise,” she nodded shortly, her bold head gleaming with it. “Your estimate is a week?”

“Eight days maximum, ma’am.”

“We will be ready to receive you at once.”

“And we will be ready to act at once.”

“Godspeed, Captain.”

“Thank you, governor. Rest assured: help is on its way.”

The screen bleeped out, and the obsidian slab of spacescape came back, shocking against Jim’s cozy white bridge.

To celebrate the still kicking colonists, people immediately started high-fiving; high-fiving was almost as popular in space as colonization. Uhura relaxed against the right side of captain’s chair and made a noncommittal noise. “Good thing we are not heartless here on Enterprise, otherwise I would have won the bet. Totally called it. We were due some disease-ridden pioneers, everything else has already happened.”

“Except siege by aliens,” Jim joked.

“Pish! Please, who needs us?”

He jumped up, startling Uhura away, used the space to maneuver his chair to face her. “Have the conn, would you please, Commander. Redirect the Kepler data to sickbay. I better go instruct the masses.” They had to exit warp to communicate, and the drive would take at least another hour of recovery: a perfect detour window.

“Aye-aye, Captain,” his First Officer agreed. “Say hi to Christine and Geoffrey for me.”

Before turbolift came, Jim lovingly soaked in his favorite picture: the bridge, ever festive with an array of colorful blinking lights all over; the happy crew, alive… and Uhura’s attempts at folding her unreal legs into his posh egg of a chair. Beautiful. It became Jim’s quiet harbor this mission; typically fussiest place on board after Engineering, now it seemed positively tranquil compared to the rest of the ship. Almost a hundred passengers atop four hundred crewmembers would do that to any transport.

Admiralty needed a win like air, and they committed to turn Kepler Novus into one. Distress call came mangled by Tellarite mining transport harvesting asteroids right in-between Earth and the colony – their tech was known to disrupt frequencies. With cause of crisis unknown, Starfleet didn’t want to waste days required for clarification to pass through and followed the “better safe than sorry” policy. They stuffed Enterprise with everything and everyone possible, based on experience of previous failures, and kicked the ship into warp in record time.

Jim’s cargo bay held enough to establish an entirely new settlement with attuned husbandry and agriculture. Lunar terraforming technology wasn’t galaxy’s finest, but they still donated two latest units along with maintenance personnel to install them if needed. That’s who constituted Enterprise’s passengers: volunteer specialists, scientists, and, of course, doctors. Bored collectively out of their brilliant minds by this point in the journey – and irritating the crew with it. Hopefully, the latest news would result in work and diffuse some tension.

No one noticed Jim’s arrival.

Medical personnel huddled in a tense ring around stacked boxes of some serum, recycled presently for poker purposes. Doctor Geoffery M’Benga, the CMO, stood frozen in deep thought over blue and pink q-tips – poker chips – scattered across the plastic. To his right, Nurse Chapel was mid-death glare towards Jim’s new favorite person, Doctor Leonard McCoy, to his left. Bones, as Jim called him, was rocking his head to some unheard tune, lips pursed and gaze wandering in a futile attempt to channel innocence.

“What’s up?” Jim whispered at a random orderly in the crowd he crept up to. The kid answered in like, without a glance his way: “Chapel says McCoy printed the additional q-tips. It’s cheating. M’Benga’s trying to figure out if she’s right.”

“But aren’t they all printed?”

“Well, yes, but–”

M’Benga sighed heavily and turned his dark eyes to McCoy. “I thought we’ve established a rapport, Leonard. I believed you could be trusted.”

Chapel folded her card fan into a stack and started tapping it menacingly against the improvised table.

“Aw, come now, Geoffrey,” McCoy protested in his typical loud voice, “I wouldn’t have to resort to that if you fleeties didn’t cheat at every turn.”

Gasps filled sickbay’s cool, lemony-scented air. The ring cracked, becoming two equal crescents: aforementioned “fleeties” in white scrubs and volunteers in periwinkle overalls, standard for outsourced experts.

“And we drank cocktails together,” M’Benga concluded with disbelief. McCoy’s answering stare was stubborn and silent. The cocktail in question, a mix of hundred proof alcohol, distilled water, glucose, and glycerol, knocked the deck from under your feet in a strangely subtle way, leaving little to no hangover behind. In Medical, they considered sharing it a sacred bonding ritual.

Fratricide prevention in mind, Jim, lone warrior smack in the middle of a clique war, cleared his throat. Loudly.

“As you were, people.”

“Captain on the… bridge?!” Nurse Chapel yelped, a late attempt to raise alarm: trio at the table aside, folks here feared Jim unreasonably. They startled like gazelles from pouncing lion and saluted while already on the run. The orderly Jim talked to almost swallowed his tricoder in surprise and smacked into a gurney.

“Were you in on this?” M’Benga demanded, rather accusatory.

Jim flashed a smile, but schooled his features. The jokes were over. “Doctor, Doctor, Chief Nurse,” he said, “I need to share some urgent news with you, privately.”

All three of them, of course, “totally called it” just like Nyota did. They efficiently dissected the data from Kepler in under five minutes and begun morphing M’Benga’s office into a war room of tablets and holos. Jim observed, amused but proud: the way Chapel blew on her blond bangs, lost in analysis; M’Benga’s nervous tick of pressing his short black curls down with one palm again and again while deep in thought; Bones’s severe eyebrows, creased but not in hopelessness. The colony landed in good hands.

Bones acted as the general of this operation. M’Benga was Enterprise’s CMO, but he looked to McCoy for guidance in such a massive case, thousands rather than hundreds of patients. Bones was definitely the man for such job. Older than most crew, he accumulated unique and vast expertise. Though his primary focus lay in OB/GYN, he became a pro at treating viral diseases; even authored several works on pandemic response. It made him the perfect colonial doctor. “Small town hospital,” he liked to explain with thumbs pointed at his own chest, even though it explained nothing. His personality did. There were compassion and deep-rooted empathy, resolve, decisiveness. Jim adored it; he and McCoy just clicked.

“We pretty much braced for something like this. A plan for preparations is already laid out,” he informed Jim through a blue holo timetable between their faces. “I don’t believe it’s possible to whip up a perfect cure without an actual virus sample, but, eh, worth a try. And not like we have nothing to do besides that. Just to coach your prancing rascals about PPE again will take half the week.”

“I beg to differ,” M’Benga objected, stylus in the air, over Jim’s indignant squawk.

“You tell him, Geoffrey! You keep us well instructed, all up-to-date!”

“Exactly, Captain. That’s how I know half the week won’t cut it. We’ll have to chip some of mine and yours off, Leonard, and throw them to the dogs.”

Bones sighed, cheeks puffing out. “I was fixin’ up to find some lunch after poker, but I guess it’ll have to wait.”

“I suggest we finish with planning and team forming, instruct the staff, then have lunch together before starting work,” Chapel concluded. “I volunteer Melnichenko and Alvarez; they are the most patient people–”

“Uhura to sickbay,” the intercom spit.

“Uhura said hi!” Jim yelped, the promise resurfacing in his memory. “Kirk here, Uhura.”

“Orion vessel on scanners, Captain, straight ahead.”

His face went slack as Bones cursed softly behind him.

***

“What do you mean, they warped away?! Why?”

Uhura shrugged, unperturbed at first glance but shaking with tension – the vibrations traveled through the armrest of Jim’s chair.

“My guess? They mistook us for a Vulcan Remora. Their scanners must be really shitty.”

“I prefer to think we’re just that impressive, Commander, thank you very much.” Enterprise, as the Terran flagship, reached a Vulcan Remora-class vessel in size and, if you squint and from afar, possessed half the firepower. Even one of the three smallest models on Vulcan roster was impressive enough to take travelers to the proverbial hills.

“Scan the area, people. Scan the living hell out of it,” Jim ordered into the terse silence after sharing a prolonged look with his First.

Orion homeworld was a place of rich ancient culture and resourceful strong people. Unfortunately, for cultures less rich and ancient, encountering Orions often meant slavery in some form.

“Scanning, Captain!” Chekhov’s young voice cracked, but kept the professional note. “Sensors show an Orion freighter, twice our size, multiple life forms aboard!”

“Well, where is i-?”

Petal-shaped and eerily pale, the gargantuan ship drifted into view: a specter, an omen of ill will. It was visibly banged up, not a new construction. So deceptively tiny against the star-peppered background…

“Definitely slavers.”

“Their life support is failing!” Science station informed. “It lacks AI, their systems are controlled fully from mothership.”

“How many people, do you think, can be stuffed into that thing?” Uhura made an unconscious step forward, past where Jim was sitting, her attention focused on the viewport. Brought to space against their will and now abandoned to die a horrible death of cold and slow suffocation – what a twist of fate. Just floating aimlessly in eternal void amongst the debris and trash. Jim’s fist folded on its own volition, squeezed until nails bit into the palm.

“Can we substitute?”

“On it!”

Uhura’s braids swung through the air with the force of her turn. Fury and resolve in her brown eyes were familiar, so was the set of her jaw. Pride elongated that elegant neck, lifted the sharp chin above it. “I’m coming with you, Captain. You’ll need my Orion Prime skills.”

Jim smiled, absolutely in love with how she didn’t even consider zooming by an option.

“Has anyone tested this thing before?” Lieutenant Hendorff, head of security, was a man of wide gestures. Anxiety always marked his skin with ruddy spots, but the phaser he held never trembled. It encompassed the entire transporter room: glass separator, dusty control panel, the pads themselves – shiny with disuse. He nodded at the other two officers: “Because I don’t want my cupcakes to disintegrate. Just finished baking them, fresh out of the oven.”

“I’ve been through the contraption several times,” Jim reassured in his best Captain Father voice, fiddling with his transponder. So what if it wasn’t several and only a couple? His atoms remained intact. “The discomfort is minimal. A bit disorienting at first, but the spins pass quickly.” For good measure, he threw in a wink. The man, woman, and person in red all withstood it with identical neutral expressions.

“I can assure you, it’s perfectly safe,” Doctor Marcus echoed. She took one of the pads already, standing atop the thing in her science blues with the same pristine grace she used to lord over her department. No phaser there: it got holstered in favor of a tricoder. Various add-on gadgets noticeably weighted it down. Uhura was beside her, helping M’Benga dig through his emergency kit by holding it up.

Once the security team assumed their posts, Jim could jump on the remaining spot. Behind the glass Chekhov – disheveled curls, wide eyes, freckles – and Chief Engineer Scott – under-eye bags and ginger beard – were ready for the Captain’s signal, trigger-happy hands frozen over buttons and knobs.

“Commander Scott, you have the conn,” Jim nodded. He widened his stance, bracing for the shit science was about to drag him through. “Ready! Steady! Energize!”

Uhura inhaled sharply to his right, and a fuzzy feeling of static sucked Jim somewhere up and back. His vision faded to grey, his breath left as if punched out. An instance of merciless spinning… and, heartbeat wild between his ears, Jim was once again whole enough to gulp for air in another, unknown place.

“Shitballs!”

The first noticeable thing was the temperature drop: in dim emergency lights exhales manifested as white puffs. Life support was back online, but the interior didn’t have sufficient time to warm up yet. The second was quiet. Unstill, voluminous, and metallic, it was outright eerie. Chaos ensued while the party found footing, unfurled investigation.

They had an Orion ship on the Academy grounds, kept the thing to educate senior cadets. Salvaged from a drifting crash site near Tellarite border, it was an abandoned aftermath of negligence. Bullet holes in the hull served as a gentle reminder: no firearms in space. Jim got lucky enough to walk through the skeleton once, touch the jagged seams where it ripped apart. Even long dead, it remained impressive. That, however, was a pleasure yacht. This…

Vessels like these were meant to transport cargo, not living beings.

A single utilitarian shaft pierced the drop-shaped ship from its sharp tip where Jim’s party materialized all the way to the wider bottom. Peering into it was akin to looking down a skyscraper from its rooftop. Rain of melted condensation filled the abyss. Three quarters down drops disappeared from view: darkness and distance refused searching eyes further travel. Jim could count at least fifty decks. At least.

Jaw clenched, he palmed his phaser and spun to Marcus’s ready report. “As we suspected, completely abandoned. The bridge is that way, no life forms detected.” She let Hendorff do the precautious thing at the helm of their procession, guiding his way with quiet instructions.

“I hear no screams, no speech, no voices of any kind,” Uhura said anxiously. “Where are the life forms?”

Jim would like to know, too.

There was a transporter pad right on the bridge, so that explained the missing crew. Living quarters connected right to it, as well. The overall setup allowed for very limited personnel, under two dozen. How could such a small team keep upwards of fifty decks of passengers alive and serviced? Answer: they couldn’t.

Key to the mystery lay in the ship’s computer. As Marcus and Uhura put their heads together over the bulky thing, Jim snooped around the abandoned ashtrays, holochips and various booze receptacles, half-eaten food items and other miscellaneous mundane things. He tried to imagine space as these Orions saw it. Something mundane. Not a place of terror and unquenched curiosity. Spaceships not fruits of romantic union between scientific achievement and thirst for exploration, but just tools. Every new soul encountered not a well of potential, but… merchandise.

His own ancestors were not of that different a mind, not even that long ago, relatively. Still, to Jim, this was what he perceived as alien to himself. Such worldview, he couldn’t share it.

“Doctor.” M’Benga hurried to bow over the screen at Marcus’s summon, their tense shoulders touching. Uhura’s murmured translations filled the room while Jim and Hendorff exchanged glances, on high alert. This place wasn’t exactly cozy. It reeked of disuse and rust.

Finally, the CMO straightened up, plump lips ashen and forehead a turbulent sea of wrinkles. He looked at Jim and said only: “Fuck.”

***

Very often with intense workload brain translated constant stress into “boring”, routine. As had been previously established, boring for brilliant minds spelled disaster. That’s why, from tabletop tennis to macramé, there were tournaments of every kind hosted on Enterprise. That’s why all nine of her mathematicians knit their tongue-twisting planes in neon yarn for better visualization, that’s why people who wouldn’t be caught dead in a kitchen suddenly started baking croquembouche in chemical labs. That’s why there were epic regulations-violating “pooping journals” for public notes exchange in the ninth deck fresher. People also talked while doing all that. Just, wagged their tongues non-stop. And most of it was pure mind-blowing shit.

Chekhov jerked away from a vent grid when the reverse cycle began, and Jim felt a scowl coming. “Okay, who blabbed about the killer vent monkey to a seventeen-year-old ensign?”

It was like watching a bullet ricochet: Chekhov’s wide-eyed surprise landed on Nguyen, who turned to Marcus, who hid behind a tablet with a nod to M’Benga. The doctor elbowed his colleague, and McCoy could scowl anyone under the table. “Heavens to Betsy, kid, that was just an angry turn of a phrase, it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans! There’s no killer monkey in the vents!” His hands made chopping motions to support the words.

“Beans?” Chekhov sounded small. Great. Uhura and Hendorff were outright laughing now.

“Oh, I see. Not only have you been perpetuating this crap, you actually started it?”

Marcus’s tablet came up with a rebuttal: “Doctor just made a humorous exclamation, and we extrapolated. It was an intellectual exercise in hypotheses, Captain.”

The white of Jim’s ready room provided a perfect background for the neatly color-coded senior staff. Marcus and Chekhov, the only two in dresses today, broke the row of black slacks symmetrically equidistant from periwinkle McCoy in the center. It spoke to Jim’s inner aesthete.

“Why don’t we have green uniforms, people?” He sighed. “Are we prejudiced against secondary colors?” Palm over face, dry eyes, exhaustion. God, was it Wednesday again? His skin still smelled like Orion rust. “Commander M’Benga. Share your report, please.”

The man exhaled heavily. His shoulders fell. “There are three and a half thousand enslaved people on the freighter.” Ignoring McCoy’s profane exclamation, he continued: “All in stasis. Pods are on top of each other, three units high.”

“I knew people needed my help up here. Didn't know it doesn't end with people. Or that there were so many.”

“Seems too heavy for an everyday operation. It’s like they’re relocating their stash,” Uhura added, disgusted. But why, was left unsaid.

Marcus gave a thoughtful nod. “It’s genius, really. Abandon incriminating cargo when smoke is on the air. There’s no need for life support with the pods. Leaves a chance to return and find what’s been left behind intact.”

In the short following pause determination grew on the faces around Jim’s table. He let it fester before announcing: “Precisely. We cannot turn away. Three and a half thousand people need our help.” The very nice, meaningful moment didn’t last, because Scotty tsk-ed.

“If we tow it-”

Kepler Novus desperately needed Enterprise’s assistance. Which, to put it lightly… a time-sensitive issue, hello! Though towing a gigantic freighter was doable, it would also hinder the journey. Best case scenario, they could count on sub-warp, maybe, probably. Waking the captured was out of the question: Enterprise wasn’t lacking in any resources at present, except space, ironically. Thus a dilemma was born. The mental puzzle of the wolf, goat, and cabbage crossing the river. Not undoable, by any means. But they had to think. And, what a lucky coincidence, Jim had Earth’s finest gathered in one room.

Oh, and the whole thing was, just, so far out of anything Command-sanctioned.

“With all due respect, Captain, fuck Command. They’re unreachable here, anyway. No one has to know.” Scotty waved the concern aside, his Scottish accent worsened by excitement. “Rose – yeah, I’m naming her, I’m going to walk her and everything – used to fly on her own. Who says we can’t revive her? All metal bits are mostly there. No warp drive, yes, but we can do impulse engines, at least! Enough not to stay in the same spot like Christmas geese!”

“Pasha, Nyota, and I will be able to assist with the programming,” Marcus agreed.

“Theoretically, how long would that take?”

“Two and a half days.”

“One day,” Uhura and Scott immediately replied in stereo with identical assuredness.

And Chekhov muttered: “It’s Pavel, I’m not seven. I don’t call you Lyalya.”

In conclusion, the plan was to tow the freighter for a couple of days until modifications got finished, leave a skeleton crew to mind it, go drop the doctors off at the colony. Return, pickup, tow some more. Forget about this hellish ordeal in, like, two weeks.

“And what, Orions are just going to roommate the Terran colony?” Uhura was making her “James!” face.

“We can always drop them off on the other side of the planet,” Jim shrugged. “But I think there’s strength in numbers.” Also political and economic disaster, potentially violent conflicts. Who knew how traumatized the survivors of both disasters were. But needs must. Escaping death first, consequences later.

Air cycle changed again as the crew was spilling out into the passageway. “It’s out there,” Bones said, and Jim pinched him.

***

Enterprise had a voice, one Jim understood better than his own needs. His feet immediately caught a change in the hum running through her deck. “We’re out of warp?” He asked, alarmed, and at the same time inertia lurched them all – snow globe prisoners in childish hands. The impact subsided to Chekhov’s dutiful report: “Warp field lost!”

Uhura was instantly by Jim’s side. “You think the core misaligned again?” That happened sometimes. Not a surprise with the additional strain Rose provided. But reboots usually took a couple of hours, and they couldn’t afford any more delays. Come on, baby, Jim prayed.

“No… weird.” Marcus was all over the science station. Weird? Weird in space meant Not Good.

Viewport begun losing polarization to reveal black. Jim trampled his chair and collapsed into its communication panel. “Scotty, status report! Is it the core? Nacelles?”

“What are you crazy kids doing up there?!” The Chief Engineer barked over him. Not at all what Jim hoped to hear. “My core is perfect, thank you very much! My nacelles are beautiful! The reaction is stable!”

“It’s just like- someone is interfering with our field, Captain.” Marcus’s words were unsure, she dragged the vowels. “Prevents it from forming.”

“What kind of bullcra-”

Light blinked out.

As if filled suddenly by water, the bridge was plunged into zero gravity. Jim couldn’t get visual confirmation while darkness overwhelmed his eyes, but he could feel it fine: his face puffing and body swelling, losing solidity; his heart a hunk of expanding cotton, helpless against rising panic. All the drills kicked in and he braced, stopped sudden movement. Backup lights would come on soon, and-

Except his vision had time to adjust, the starlit surroundings stepped out of the shadows in faint lilac and gray, and nothing. Fucking nothing. The rows of manual brackets that popped up during gravitational failures stayed hidden underneath the paneling. Scariest of all was the absolute silence. It pressed against Jim’s eardrums, deafening as any roar. Not a whir out of his girl, not even a meager vent hiss! He was already missing the rhythmic bird-like coos of her beacon, much preferred to people panting in joint shock.

One unresponsive touchpad later, Jim declared his chair a loss. Anchoring himself to the armrests, he gingerly turned to appraise their situation. Nguyen’s lower half had swum up from the navigational console, and Uhura was swaying mid-air, clutching the star chart projector for dear life, but otherwise… back to Marcus. “Emergency power? Is anything online?”

Her eyes glimmered in the dark. “No, Captain.”

“Nothing here, sir,” Nguyen agreed.

“And it’s not all,” Marcus caught something mid-drift. Her tricoder. Her very dead tricoder. “Check your watch. Electronics with independent power sources are also dead.”

Which meant: no light. No communication. Jim read the rest in her grave voice. It wasn’t a problem with the ship. It was an area effect.

The world capsized.

Shouts of alarm filled the air as weight re-entered reality. Up became down. This part of the ship had overheads three and a half meters high. The chair spat Jim out, and he could barely pillow his head with both arms. Landing hurt. Even more so with the crashing gravity. Bright red flash burst in his right shoulder. Air left him. Around, a choir of thuds as the crew landed was followed by pained grunts and cursing. With every minutia of life in space under constant scrutiny, the weight limit on personal belongings was tight. Not many knickknacks or loose equipment lay around the working zones, but what little was there, came raining down on the fallen. Marcus’s tricoder dented a corner against the grid of lifeless glow panels right beside Jim’s nose. Styli, tablets, and communicators drummed like hail. Then, finally, nothing.

He sat up gasping, propped on the good arm, to Uhura’s helping hand. As they struggled to their feet together, one thing became obvious. “It’s too strong,” Uhura confirmed. “The gravity.” Her naturally voluminous hairstyle lay much flatter; blood practically ran down from her busted knee.

Loaded marches during physical training in the Academy felt very similar. The packs would pull Jim’s shoulders down and compress his entire spine, causing immediate neck pain. That’s how babies felt, no doubt, unable to support their heads. His knees creaked almost audibly, and the shoulder injury felt too prominent with the additional strain. Right above, the Captain’s chair hung like a bizarre chandelier. Being Alice felt unsettling.

“EM weapons. Outside gravitational source stronger than Terran. I caught no Golic on the frequencies, but-” Uhura listed flatly, and Jim shook his head: “No. No way. There’s no way we’re that unlucky.”

Deep inside the ship, more felt than heard, resonated a metallic clang. Not “shuttle accident” proportions. “We’ve docked” proportions.

Like a pack of prey animals, Enterprise’s bridge crew froze, listening in. Nguyen swiped her hair out of her face and demanded: “What do you mean, unlucky?” But Jim hushed Marcus before she could explain. “Don’t say it.” Calm was washing over him, half artificial frost of shock and nerves, half training. “It sounded like it came from the rear top, correct?”

“If we exit the bridge via Jeffries tubes, move deeper starboard side and descend- ascend. Ascend one deck near the botanic bay, there’s an observation deck that’s not right at the rear, but the angle will allow us to appraise our situation. And-”

“It’ll take us past security and the brig, you’re absolutely right, Doctor. Brilliant.” Jim clapped, and it echoed weirdly from the slight curve of ceiling-turned-floor. All eyes – glimmers in the dark – turned to him. “Listen up! Ship Security Protocol is now in effect. I’m going to need both Doctor Marcus and Commander Uhura to follow me.”

Absolute dark reigned away from viewport, the kind where you could be blind and not notice. Fortunately, every Jeffries had an emergency kit attached to its lid, one with chemlights inside. Jim cracked the seal and gave it a good shake. Released liquids collided and mixed, animating the reaction, and neon-green glow bit into his pupils. Not waiting for its imprint to vanish from his vision, Jim put the provided loop around his neck and leaned inside to look up the claustrophobic tube. He felt every drop of sweat on his skin in that moment.

“Let’s do this. Lieutenant Nguyen, you have the conn.”

The clangs of their boots against ladder steps were comically loud in the tight crawlspace. So was their breath, quickly shortened. Hoisting your bodyweight up in additional gravity? Not fun. Jim, feeling beaten and broiled, was almost regurgitated out on the deck, but several alarmed people ran up to him and brought some strength back. The Captain had to keep crew morale high.

They were able to pass the Protocol activation down the vine by word of mouth and remind everyone encountered about the chemlights. Suspicious external sounds were reported in return, originating from every strategic entrance point. Uhura kept sending Jim meaningful glances. He pressed forward, ignoring everything, until Hendorff finally stumbled across them. Useless phaser nowhere in sight, he clutched a rubber baton instead.

“We got word about the Protocol, sir. Implementing.”

“Great. One team, with me. And bring someone to send away with further orders.”

The observation deck was in chaos, depotted plants and soil hurled every which way. Beneath Jim’s feet, trios of unbreakable spherical lampshades lay limply around their hardpoints, long cords limp like seaweed during low tide. Stepping over the mess, Jim crept to the viewport. A reflection in transparent aluminum met him: his own wide eyes on a gaunt face, an acid-green stamp on serene spacescape. His team’s ghosts surrounded him. Then he was able to discern what lay beyond, and his stomach dropped.

It looked like a hunk of red stone. Geometrical, almost a tetragonal crystal, stretched somewhere far below their feet. The farthest ridged tail was so massive, it obscured half the stars. But for all its organic appearance, the careful sentient thought put in the design was clear.

Jim squeezed his eyes shut until they hurt, now desperate for the image on their retinas to disappear. “It’s an Orca-class warship.”

“A Vulcan border patroller,” Uhura’s voice explained. “Heavy-duty, but not enough to cripple speed.”

“What are they doing here? Why would they intercept a Terran vessel?” That’s Marcus.

“How do we get unstuck from the damn thing?! Or prevent them from boarding us, at least?” Hendorff.

“We don’t.” Jim opened his eyes. “They’re already here.”

***

They were ghosts, advancing much like fog down a hill: soundless and inescapable. Every placement of a foot deliberate, every movement graceful. Not one piece of detritus got disturbed. Their chemical lanterns where much stronger than the Terran analogs, orange glow preceding the unit of seven down the gangway. The head-to-toe sandy-red uniforms, the masks, the lirpas. It was all familiar, all remembering a bad dream.

Jim knew to trust his intuition and calculations. Estimated breach points were hangar bay, cargo bay, and gate knots A through G. Vulcans hailed from a harsh word that gifted its occupants with superior strength, and a society where one could devote an entire lifetime to combat. No Academy training could possibly compare. But Jim’s people had home-field advantage. Abiding the Protocol, all non-designated crew should have already sealed the manual hermetic locks of their bunks. Deployed security teams would enjoy better chances in tight spaces of gate knots they knew and intruders didn’t, as well as the clattered cargo bay. Jim? Jim was good at sabotage. For which the hangar provided a cornucopia of opportunities.

A small contraption mid-bulkhead behind the bolted down topsy-turvy shuttles marked the point where Vulcans invaded Enterprise; the thing clearly speared through the hull, but prevented decompression at the same time. Its creators were pressing towards the main turbolift intersection – most apparent pass to the bridge.

Noiseless, Jim slid behind the cistern that shielded him, back pressed against the metal. He endured the cold as it seeped through his uniform, itched between his shoulder blades. His heart was hammering with such force, it was strange the enemy hadn’t caught on yet.

Seven to seven. Even odds. The humans were eight, technically, but Marcus lacked even rudimentary combat training. She was tasked with creating a distraction, after which it would become crucial for Jim and Hendorff to chip off two of the Vulcans. The sole cryogrenade prototype was constructed to affect five humanoids at a time, and additional heat signatures could mess up the results. The only non-electronic piece of equipment they were able to dig up on such short notice, and of course – of course – it had to be a prototype.

But Jim could work with that.

He crawled to the other side of his shelter, the chemlight barely smoldering from underneath two layers of shirt fabric, and peeked. Was that Hendorff’s face across the aisle? Impossible to tell, but Jim preferred to think it was. He squeezed the anti-slip handle of the baton, changed position carefully for better momentum-

Vulcans stopped as one of the shuttles tore from the landing pad and crashed on its roof, undercarriage vibrating in the air with the force of it. The impact reverberated, too loud after the preceding oppressive stillness, and created a perfect cover for Jim’s attacking steps.

Hendorff chose an opponent on the opposite end of the unit. He entered the dim circle of light right behind a bulkier Vulcan, baton raised for a temple strike. Jim’s chosen victim was shorter and leaner, and he was betting on a chokehold-drag back combo. He saw a so-faint-it’s-almost-an-illusion spot of green fluorescence high above where Uhura had the grenade ready. But, of course, nothing in Jim’s life could ever be easy.

Hendorff’s target turned and noticed Jim. Time slowed. Jim saw the Vulcan’s unnerving milky eyes without pupil or iris, filled only by orange lantern highlights; watched them widen while the baton glided closer, left to right. Their face mask moved with an obscured mouth opening under it, but the impact came first. Later, Jim would swear that Bulky didn’t manage to get even a squeak out. And Jim’s mark was looking away from them both, away and down. They could not know. There wasn’t a way for them to know.

Yet, they dropped and twisted, one leg thrown out to swipe both of Jim’s from under him. Jim’s mind took a second to process the reality of his new horizontal position. It was a great vantage point to witness the heat-confused grenade jump off the floor on a curve and harmlessly fly away into some glum corner.

Jim’s Vulcan started a shrill battle cry, alerting the others, and Jim yelled: “Security!”

It was over in less than a minute.

Shoes squeaked and blows landed with dull meaty thuds. Vulcans were stronger. The latest scientific consensus claimed they were similar to humans much like lemons and tennis balls were technically both yellow spheres. The filling varied significantly. Jim’s escaped mark was less than him in volume, but the mass? Judging from the punches, it was much, much greater. Though they weren’t really punches. More… chops and slaps inflicted with terrifying precision and economical movements. And inhuman strength. The baton was snatched from him first thing and hurled somewhere. Jim tried blocking the attacks, but it almost shattered his ulna; he tried reciprocating, but punching a brick wall would have been less painful and more effective. His already injured shoulder screamed when the Vulcan put him in distorting armlock, slammed them both into the deck and dag a sharp knee into Jim’s spine.

Floor grates were cold against the side of his face. Hendorff lay prostrate on his back nearby, either dead or unconscious. Uhura was made to kneel beside him, arms bound with a synthetic strip and attentive composed eyes on Jim. The rest of the security team was well on their way to join her, and Marcus’s muffled yelps could be heard from between the shuttles.

Jim had a sudden vivid memory springing to the forefront: the sound of Enterprise’s busy mess hall during Alpha shift dinner, cussing and laughter and clanking cutlery overlaid by electronic sounds of replicators. Nausea followed it, iron-tinted with blood in his mouth and panic underneath. He couldn’t imagine any human escaping unscathed from such an opponent as Vulcans made, not with their world wrong way up and gravity going haywire. But opportune situations happened all the time. He had to believe in the rest of their security teams and stay alert. Also, they haven’t touched the lirpas.

One of the infiltrating unit walked past Jim’s eyes: a pair of heavy combat boots, weirdly normal-looking. Every step sent trembles through the grates and into Jim’s belly. The soles bent when their owner crouched. And…

There was speech. The first calmly spoken, full sentence in a while.

“Take us to your leader,” Boots asked in deep masculine voice and pure, unaccented Earth Standard.

Which. What.

Astonishment smoothed Uhura’s features completely, leaving her blank. Jim felt like a husk of adrenaline-fueled fire pressed between the metal surface and the weight on his back.

“I am,” he answered likewise in Standard, loud if not clear, “James Tiberius Kirk, the Captain of USS Enterprise. My vessel is a part of Starfleet and the peaceful Solar Federation. Our mission is humanitarian. Why are you boarding my ship? Name yourself!”

The reaction to his words was… well. All Vulcans chanted as a single individual; perfect harmony, no delay. “They will ask!” Jim’s mind translated. “And you will answer!” It was so loud and unexpected that he flinched, then flinched again when Boots thumped both hands against the deck right by his head. The Vulcan lowered himself on all fours, hovering over Jim as a predator would, and got in his face. He clawed the mask off as his milky eyes blinked open somehow, even though they were open already, in a motion, to Jim, completely other. The white had been hiding irises of black fire so intense, it hurt to receive.

“I am Reah,” the Vulcan exhaled, “herself.”

Until this very moment, it didn’t really hit Jim that he just encountered an alien, an alive being from another planet entirely, for the first time in his life. The Vulcan’s pointed ears were right there; he smelled heavy and sweet. Jim would compare the scent to incense, but it would only be his brain, cataloging the particles of a different world incorrectly.

Perhaps even more astonishing was the fact that Jim knew this alien.

He knew this Vulcan’s face. The stark and clean angles and planes of it. The steady gaze. The upswept eyebrows, the teeth. Studied them in a fluttering holo years ago and for years. And oh my, how the reality overshadowed that specter; almost too material, almost enough to distort the fabric of existence.

In one smooth motion the Vulcan was standing again, and they were all on the move.

***

“Slavery is outlawed in the Vulcan Empire. And we were of the impression Solar System shared this sentiment.”

What a measured, inappropriately soothing voice.

The conference room was drowning in deep orange-red. One would almost expect a fire, except the shadows stood still. Outside, Vulcan patrols kept bringing over neutralized security. Thirty-something opponents and counting. All similarly affected by whatever EM influence was at play here, limited to mechanical tools and simpler weapons.

Jim squared his shoulders. Respectful, a dash of bootlicking – usually such tactic worked. “We didn’t know this sector passed to Vulcan Empire. We’re not on top of recent news back home. If we knew, we’d never dare-”

“Violating borders is not your most grievous crime here, Captain.”

They were gathering senior officers in the opposite half of the secured space. Hendorff, fireman-carried inside by the tiny Vulcan woman, turned out to be not only alive, but free of concussion. Uhura, Marcus, Nguyen, Chekhov, Scotty were all present and in one piece. Hell, half of them weren’t even banged up! It lit a tiny spark of hope inside Jim. He’d give an arm for a good old misunderstanding right about now. The Vulcans weren’t being antagonistic, per se. In fact, the one that was – T’Ana, Jim’s elusive mark – got sent to check on mish-shal, whatever that was, because she kept glaring at Hendorff after tossing him to the floor.

“The people confined to the freighter are not our slaves,” Jim said honestly, trying to radiate sincerity. “We’re just keeping them alive. Their captors absconded. We think they mistook us for one of your smaller ships, which makes sense, with the new sector ownership.”

The Vulcan he was answering to, the “Reah herself” (the Emperor’s son – this one Jim dared only whisper, even inside his own head), didn’t look much like a goddess of death. He was maybe a fraction taller than Jim, of similar build and age, hair as short as the day his father took the Vulcan throne. Judging by Uhura’s stunned gaze, she recognized the guy, too. It wasn’t a weird hallucination standing there at parade rest.

“Why haven’t you responded to our hails?” The Vulcan prompted, head on a tilt. His eyes remained a searing black. It was hard not to feel dissected by them.

“We were in warp,” Jim explained. Didn’t they snatch Enterprise right out of it? Why the ques- When the Vulcan’s expectant expression didn’t change, it clicked. “You- you can communicate real-time while in warp.”

“Why? Do you stop every time?”

“Yeah.”

This statement earned Jim a squint.

“S’haile.” It was Bulky, who marched over. A viridian bruise began developing on his temple and forehead, right where Hendorff conked him. “T’Ana concluded her inspection.” And how did he know, exactly? Vulcans had no working communicators as far as Jim could tell, crippling themselves alongside their opponents. “They aren't capable of a warp factor past two.”

Wait, what? The question tore out involuntarily: “Higher warp speeds are sustainable?!”

Both Vulcans stared. Too late, the realization of his mistake came.

“You understand our language,” the superior said, faint interest painting his soft words. He sent Bulky away and pointed at Jim’s crew with his chin: “I was led to believe that’s a rarity, among your people. Is there anyone else here who speaks Golic?”

Fuck. Jim would never put Uhura under fire, but what if it could save her life? He decided to stall, probe some. “The same could be said about you.”

“Unhand me, you hobgoblin!” Came from around the door, and soon the whole McCoy followed, M’Benga hot on his heels, both escorted by masked Vulcan patrol. Bones was spasming in attempts to shake their grip off – in vain. His scowl landed on Jim. “Well, hello there, Captain, bless your pea picking little heart! What in tarnation is going on here?”

Jim glared back and flapped his hands in those “come down” motions, but Bones already noticed Hendorff’s lolling head and went running, oblivious to everything and everyone else.

“Why are you here, Captain?” Right, back on track.

“Humanitarian mission. Aid for the Terran colony on Kepler Novus. They are in trouble, and we have all the best doctors on board,” Jim half-turned to indicate McCoy’s fussy concern.

The energy changed between him and his captor. Almost unnoticeable, but it was so. He believed them, Jim could tell. Whether it was their sub-par space technologies, or Jim’s sub-par Golic, or McCoy’s sub-par bedside manner – anyone’s guess. But it worked.

“Your little colony has been taken care of, Captain. Worry not. They had an outbreak of-” their eyes caught, and it was obvious the Vulcan struggled for translation. He blinked, and Jim’s heart went into overdrive. The colony was invaded, too? What were Vulcans even doing near Kepler? “N~o'tu-has. We have remedies for that. The Governor let us bring a shuttle down. There’s no danger for your people anymore.” Probably pretending not to notice Jim’s silent freak out, he continued: “Law abides me to corroborate your story. Your people, they can stay on this Kepler along with the Orions. You and all senior staff will have to follow me for an investigation. We will take charge of your vessel for the duration.”

Yeah, figures. It wasn’t a request, too.

The Vulcan put his back to Jim, and Jim’s gaze fell from his pale nape to the lock of hands atop his lower back. The knuckles were tinged green.

“Say, Captain. You mentioned you have all the best doctors here with you. Are there gynecologists among them, by any chance?”

Jim could feel his eyebrows climbing up. “Yes. Why?”

“I would speak with them. Tell me who to send for.”

“No need,” Jim assured tentatively and called out to Bones. Talk about unusual requests.

Not that things were normal before, not by any means. Jim was still walking on ceiling, literally. But things got really fucking weird very quickly.

The Vulcan stepped closer and Jim tensed, fighting the urge to push Bones back. Bones, who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his failed Captain. Who seemed annoyed, but not afraid. Who was undoubtedly more concerned about being away from Hendorff than for his own safety.

The Vulcan unfolded his hands and reached to cradle one of McCoy’s between his own in a weird patronizing gesture. Bones huffed, but let it happen. Jim’s attention was glued to the point of contact. Those hands were very similar to his own. Five fingers, three phalanges dusted by hair, cuticles hugging the bottoms of neatly trimmed nails. Where Jim was pink at the nail beds, the Vulcan hand looked dark in the orange light. Absent-mindedly, he wondered if the skin would be warm.

“Doctor,” the Vulcan said, animalistic concentration aimed at McCoy, sharp stare boring into his very soul. His voice was itself like a touch; tingles cascaded down Jim’s neck and beneath his collar. The sweet scent came back, bloomed to reveal another, drier note of either leather… or was it smoke? “What if I told you there is a patient who went without proper care for more than thirty years? Who needs you? Would you heed? Would you follow your oath?”

Again, McCoy just huffed. He took the scrutiny admirably, skepticism personified. “Is there? A patient like that?”

“Indeed, Doctor,” the Vulcan said. “There is.”

“Then I would tell you, show me the way.”