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Touching the Impossible

Chapter Text

Title: Touching the Impossible
Characters: Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, various
Word Count: 44K+ total

Warnings/Spoilers: Spoilers for all AOS movies and various TOS episodes, footnoted where necessary. No knowledge of TOS necessary to understand chapters, though kudos to you if you catch the references tossed in here and there.

This chapter, spoilers for Beyond, as it picks up almost right after the movie ends.

Summary: Five times Jim touched something he shouldn't have, and one time he literally couldn't touch anything at all.


VI.

The news, when it breaks, is not a surprise.

To him, at least. He's been waiting for that other steel-toed boot to drop, and honestly it's a little bit of a relief to know that it has, quite effectively. He had a couple hours of warning before it hit the holo-nets, thanks to Commodore Paris's not unsympathetic assistance, and that plus a third of the bottle containing whatever amber-hued liquid courage Bones had gifted him at the close of his birthday party has kept him relatively calm about the entire thing.

Probably a licensed therapist would just call that numbness depression or apathy or some kind of survivor's syndrome; but then again he's not sure he would even know the difference now so here's to not feeling anything for a while, hopefully. He can keep it together for a few more days; the last thing his crew (what's left of them) needs is for him to fall apart right when all of them must be the strongest.

Uhura's the first one to call, showing up on his vid-comm screen in a fluffy gray robe and slippers and gesticulating furiously with the hand not holding a coffee mug, hair flying all around her face. She probably has zero idea that halfway through the tirade she slips into speaking Tellarite, likely because no one swears like a Tellarite and sometimes there just is no Standard equivalent. He coughs awkwardly at the end and tries not to laugh when she flops back in the chair with a huff, scowling at the viewscreen as she fixes her hair into a sloppy bun.

"You do know I didn't understand a word of that, right."

"Not the point!"

He gives her a tired smile. "You need to chill, Lieutenant."

"How can you be so calm about it!"

"Because I'm basically out of anger and grief and everything else right now, Nyota. Gods. I can't even think anymore, I'm so tired." He pinches his forehead, and then jerks his head up as his door chimes. Scowling, he turns back to the screen, eyes narrowed. "Did you –"

"That better be him, I kicked him out twenty minutes ago and it doesn't take that long to walk across a damn courtyard."

"Great, that means he probably stopped and got Bones." He sighs and slaps the button on the wall to deactivate the studio's alarm system. "Come! You didn't send anyone else over here, I hope?"

"No, of course not. But it is all over the holonets, Jim." He groans, and lets his head hit the desk atop his arms as the door opens behind him. "I wouldn't count on going out for a while, if I were you. There's only so much we can do to minimize the press, much as I'd like to hack into the 'Fleet databanks. Spock had to turn our public comm-link off, it was ringing off the hook when the news hit."

"I'm sorry. And look, you do anything to get yourselves on the hot seat for this too and I will ground all of you, understood?" He tilts his head to glare at the monitor. "I'll have no martyrs among this crew, what's left of us."

She rolls her eyes, totally unfazed. "Spock, tell him that applies to him too."

"For all the good it'll do, she's right, Jim." Yeah, Bones is here, somewhere behind him. A rustling of bags indicates why they were delayed in coming up to his apartment. "Now hang up and come eat your dinner."

He swats in annoyance at the hand on his shoulder, and belatedly realizes that's Spock, not Bones, when Uhura laughs and his First edges primly out of reach to his right.

"Sorry," he says, grinning up from his still-slumped desk position.

Spock's eyebrow is far more patient than the Board had been today, and it's that which reassures him more than anything else. At least it was not his First Officer's report which was responsible for this mess. Not this time around. He'd seen Spock's reports before they went to the Board, and they were the one thing that calmed him down earlier.

"Night, Captain," Uhura says quietly, and turns off the monitor with one last look at his First. Jim still can't tell if they're back together, just friends, friends with benefits, or some weird thing in-between, but as long as they're happy it doesn't matter. He's happy for them, and happy for his command chain to not be disrupted any further.

If it still is his command chain, 48 hours from today. If it isn't, then Spock could be captain and she could be first officer, who knows.

"Jim, come on. I know you haven't eaten anything today."

"God, you are worse planetside than you are aboard ship." He hauls himself to his feet and slouches the three meters to the table, flopping into a chair with the same lack of energy. "Haven't really felt like eating much, Bones."

"Oh, come on. You know this is just a formality, Jim. They'd be idiots to take her away from you permanently."

"I hope so."

"We did discuss this eventuality, Captain," Spock interjects quietly from his left, seating himself in front of the vegetarian sushi. "I remained hopeful it would not arise."

"Unfortunately, Starfleet Command did not share that very human emotion with you, Mr. Spock." He pokes absently at a spicy tuna roll, picks a piece of rice out of it with a chopstick. "But you're right, I'm not surprised. Frankly, I'd be more surprised if they didn't court martial me."

"It's a goddamn circus is what it is," McCoy retorts hotly. "You did everything you could, Jim. Nobody could've done anything else. Even Spock's simulations proved every time the ship would've been lost with most hands."

"I wish I was that convinced, Bones." Nauseated, he shoves the plate to the side, takes a drink of water instead. "Regardless, it was still a wholesale loss of ship and two-thirds of the crew. They'd court-martial a rear admiral for that. I'm nobody special."

"I believe the one hundred seventeen crewmen rescued from Altamid under nearly impossible circumstances would strongly disagree, Captain."

He smiles down into his glass, and shoots Spock a grateful look over the rim.

"All I can say is, they'd be damn fools to do anything but pin a medal on you, Jim. Court martial, my ass."

"I didn't do anything worth a medal, Bones. I've already written commendations for those who did."

"I read 'em. We read 'em," Bones corrects, as Spock tilts his head in agreement. "And while I'm not disagreeing on most of them, 'cept all I did was fly that stupid pile of alien scrap metal, we'd still all be dead if it weren't for you, Jim. Everybody needs to remember you almost died saving Yorktown at the last second."

"Yeah, well." He rests his chin on his laced fingers, staring out at the starlit night beyond the bay windows, now forever a graveyard for so many faces, so many people he was responsible for. "Things might've been easier for most of them if I had."

The loud snap of a breaking chopstick makes him blink, and he drifts back to see Spock staring at him, and the guy's as white as the takeout container at his elbow. Before he can even think about what he said, Bones is scooting closer to him, cautiously, and leaning in with a hand on his shoulder.

"Now, look, Jim. Are you…I need you to tell me what you're thinking, okay?"

Oh. Right, that had probably not come out like he meant.

"Uh. Yeah, I didn't mean I was…no, Bones, I'm not thinking like that." He says it with as much earnest sincerity as he can muster, and sees the panic recede slightly, lurking just below the surface. "I just meant…there's never really supposed to have to be a court martial like this. Because a captain's supposed to go up with his ship, you know?"

"While poetic, that scenario is rarely necessary and certainly never preferable," Spock says severely.

"I know. I just…never mind. I'm not very good company tonight, guys. Sorry."

"We didn't come for your sparkling conversation, dumbass." Bones shoves his plate back in front of him, looking slightly less worried. "Finish that, or I'm pouring all the booze in this apartment down your sink. Spock said you meet with your lawyer at noon tomorrow and you are not gonna be hungover for that."

"I need a lawyer?"

"It would be wise, Captain. One well versed in this type of tragedy and the possible consequences for a verdict of negligence, including the possibility of higher appeal and alternative posting."

"Well aren't you a pointy-eared bundle of sunshine." McCoy smacks his First with the plasticene sushi tray lid as he passes behind them toward the kitchenette. Jim hides a laugh in his glass at the annoyed look fired at the physician's retreating back; the blunt explanation hadn't offended him in the slightest. "Don't listen to him, Jim!"

"He any good?" he asks, finally shoving the sushi roll whole into his mouth. He tries not to gag on the taste; seafood is not the best thing on an upset stomach.

Spock's eyebrow inclines an inch. "He is Vulcan," he replies primly.

A snort drifts from the kitchenette's small disposal unit.

"You guys have lawyers?"

"Obviously." Spock appropriates McCoy's chopsticks in lieu of the broken pair, seeing the man is starting on his own dish with a fork on his way back to the table. "He is a member of the ambassadorial contingent who originally traveled to meet the Enterprise here at Yorktown, to carry out the last legal matters for Ambassador Spock's estate settlement."

Jim sends up another silent prayer for the old Vulcan to find peace somewhere in the universe; no one deserved it more, surely. It makes him unaccountably sad to think of his Spock, dying alone someday. Surely the universe has some kind of karmic justice to prevent such a thing from happening twice.

"And he's willing to defend a human in a ridiculous petty Starfleet drama?" he asks aloud, incredulous. "Did you blackmail him or something, Spock?"

Spock regards him patiently over mid-air chopsticks. "Captain, he is a logical being. And, as I do, he believes that remaining alive aboard this space station to be quite reason enough to offer his services to a worthy starship captain. Even were that man not the one who less than five years ago defeated the Romulan fanatic Nero and was instrumental last year in orchestrating the protected trade routes between New Vulcan, Babel and Organia," he adds, pointedly.

Huh. He might have more friends in the galaxy than he thought. Who knew.

He tries to steal a piece of Bones's New California roll and gets stabbed with a spork for his pains.

"Ow!"

"I don't care if you've not had a reaction since Khan, you're not chancin' anaphylactic shock over a piece of sushi. Yours is the tray without avocado, I gave 'em a whole allergy rundown."

"But if I end up in Medical, they can't court martial me, can they?"

"Technically, they can," Spock replies, pushing aside a limp piece of cucumber. "Your verbal testimony is of course primary evidence but the rest of the trial would proceed on schedule until your release since none of the following deposition would involve your direct response."

"Not. Helping."

"Look, all they gotta do is get you up there on the stand, toss up Spock's simulations and the official logs, and it'll be pretty clear that there's no evidence anywhere of gross negligence or being unfit to command on your part, Jim."

He would love to be so confident. But if his personal logs get pulled in as evidence that he was mentally unfit to command…if they had some kind of data leak that left them vulnerable to attack…if he missed even one inspection or series of tests that would have caught said programming leak…if he was ten seconds late calling a decision on the Bridge that might have resulted in their being able to leave the area before the nacelles were severed…

Spock's eyes narrow. "Captain, we have discussed at length the causes and effects which transpired as a result of multiple decisions. In no way was any one of them to blame for the eventual loss of life and ship."

He swallows the chunk of tuna stuck in his throat and forces what he hopes is a reassuring smile. "So we did, Commander. And you made excellent arguments to that effect."

He just hopes that Vulcan lawyer friend of his is just as good.


The news spreads like radiation, of course, and he doesn't bother to even attempt leaving the apartment for the next two days; he can see news crews camped out on the street fifteen stories below and he has to call security on a drone that buzzes the studio window at breakfast the morning of the trial.

He gets it; Yorktown is probably boring as hell 99% of the time, and this recent fiasco is the most excitement it's seen since its construction – and, frankly, he'd rather his face be flashing all over the holo-nets than those of his dead crew, which is what was happening until this news broke. And, once the verdict is in, give it twelve hours and something else will grab the rabid public's attention and he'll be forgotten once again; it's the due process of lurid news.

He might just be okay with fading away, forgotten. Would it really be such a terrible thing, to be demoted and grounded, anyway?

Can he even be trusted behind the helm of a starship again? Should he be?

That's not something he can afford to think about, or even hint at, not if he wants to get past this thing today, and while he's pretty sure this Vulcan lawyer suspects something of the kind the dude is actually pretty decent about the whole thing, and coaches him like he's a human, not a very poor imitation of a Vulcan.

It's a little shocking, actually, until Spock wearily informs him that Stonn is, or was, one of Ambassador Spock's young protégés, who studied closely under him for the last few years and as a result is regarded as something of a radical by his peers for his unusual outlook upon the Vulcan Way.

Bless him, the old Vulcan is still looking out for him, even from beyond the grave.

Spock does not appear to particularly like Stonn – there's obviously some kind of not-quite-bad blood there, though they're civil enough – but he is at least genuine when he thanks the guy for taking on the case, just before they are separated at the door of the courtroom. Thankfully, like all Starfleet tribunals, it is closed to the public, and only his primary command crew and those needed to testify are present. No news crews, and only a few of his people.

He still feels very, very alone.

The tribunal is comprised of Commodore Paris, a Starfleet representative he's never met before and barely pays attention to, and two captains, one a seasoned veteran who looks kind enough and one a young man barely older than himself – he remembers seeing something about the guy waiting on a ship being built here on Yorktown, preparing to take her when she's finished in a year.

None of that really matters, because the tribunals are supposed to be impartial, and Paris at least has always been known for her fair judgment. Stonn looks exceptionally bored with the proceedings until Jim is called to the stand to begin his testimony, and then it's only because he knows Vulcans so well that he can see the guy is very much aware of his entire surroundings.

The computer verifies his bio-signature; chirps his name, rank, serial number, and then begins to drone out a list of his commendations and citations for bravery, blah blah blah, he hates this part of every formal briefing or introduction and usually such formality is waived because who needs to hear all that.

Commodore Paris looks their direction expectantly, and he stifles a laugh as Stonn just raises a bored eyebrow at her and lets it spin out the entire stupid list as the tribunal squirms uneasily.

He can hear that Bones has no such qualms about snickering and gets an elbow to the ribs from Uhura before the list is finished. Paris tells Stonn to go ahead in a tone dryer than Saharan sand.

Well, at least if he goes down for this, he'll be remembered.


He should have had more faith in Vulcan intermediary abilities.

"Thanks are illogical, Captain Kirk," Stonn says patiently, closing down his data-padd and glancing toward the courtroom doors as they slide open.

"Yeah, well, something tells me Ambassador Spock still said it at times so let me carry on the tradition. Lesek, Stonn. I am in your debt."

"The honor is to serve, Captain. I am gratified my presence here was of benefit to you and your crew. May I remind you of the political and local consequences for violating the privacy of a Federation representative of an endangered species," Stonn continues loudly without skipping a beat, sending the most pissed-off glare Jim's ever seen on a Vulcan at the approaching journalist who is clearly hellbent on grilling him.

He snickers as the Andorian turns the palest shade of blue and skitters away nervously into the throng, soon disappearing as his crew starts to surround them in a protective wall against any other overly adventurous onlookers.

"Though I would suggest, in future, you take better care with the communications made aboard and from the next Enterprise. Privacy is an illusion, Captain, and the most secure of facilities can be exposed by exploiting the smallest of weaknesses."

"Point taken." He runs a hand through his hair, exhaling slowly.

Those logs had been the tipping point; for a few minutes he'd really thought they might be the one thing that could destroy it all, so disapproving had the seasoned captain and 'Fleet rep been of them. It had been the official logs which had allowed Krall the information he needed to lure the Enterprise in, and Jim's personal ones which allowed the man to play on Jim's sympathies and predict his movements, know he wouldn't back out of the trap until it was too late. It was a personal violation more than anything else, though, and it makes his skin crawl thinking about it; he's not likely to make the mistake again of saying anything in a personal log he would mind having someone overhear. Does that defeat their purpose? Yes. But he’s never going to trust himself again, not after this.

No, it wasn't his fault that they'd been leaked, and personal logs could not be admissible in court as official evidence since they were just that – meant to be personal. But they did show a man doubting his own command abilities and contemplating stepping down from that position, and having that broadcast to the whole courtroom was not something he was looking forward to addressing with his command staff later.

Thankfully, as Stonn had easily pointed out, humanity is prone to talking through personal issues aloud and a contemplation of career change is in no way indicative of incapability or incompetence, merely discontent with circumstance. And, he had noted with dry humor, there are far easier ways to initiate a career change than getting one's self court-martialed, unless his knowledge of Starfleet protocol was woefully outdated.

Paris had shot Jim a pointed look at that, but of course did not bring up his application for the vice-admiral position since that was irrelevant to the case at hand. That's another photon torpedo he hasn't had time yet to launch at his unsuspecting crew, and he still has no idea what he really wants to do about it.

He probably should feel a lot happier than he does, about this verdict.

Maybe someday, when he no longer sees the fireball of his saucer section streaking across the sky every time he closes his eyes, he will.

Maybe someday, the thought of eight hundred lives depending again on his command decisions, well knowing what has happened to officers before them, won't turn his stomach and tighten his lungs.

Maybe someday, he'll be able to think of the modifications already being done on a constitution-class starship in the Yorktown shipyard, and not wonder if it will ever really feel like home.

Maybe someday, he will be able to watch his command crew, clustered together almost too closely as they laugh and make dinner plans, and not have waking nightmares of what might have been.

But until then, well.

We will do what we have always done, Jim. We will find hope in the impossible.

Why break the habit now?

Chapter Text

V.

"I'm telling you, this is a bad idea, Jim."

"Noted and on the record, Doctor. For the third time." He mirrors Giotto's amused nod over Bones's head as they strap on anti-grav belts. No telling what the atmospheric conditions are over there and he has no intention of being caught off-guard again like the last rescue mission they performed on a shipwreck. "You are in charge of Medical, you know, you could always delegate missions like this."

"Last time I did that, I had three people on the away team come back with a reaction to some unknown component in the water that I would've caught in the secondary aeroponics scan. And with your bio-makeup bein' such a wild card now, there's no way I'm trusting some young –"

The inter-comm whistles, cutting off the tirade. "Bridge to transporter room."

Scotty punches the comm-button for him as Jim leans over the console, grinning at the wide-eyed transporter tech who's obviously training at the console today. "Transporter room to Bridge. We ready to go, Mr. Spock?"

"The Enterprise has locked in a parallel course with the projected drift of the alien vessel and will compensate for any variance while you are aboard, Captain. However, the condition of the ship's engineering section is still uncertain at best; radiation from the aft portion of the ship still leaves our scans inconclusive as to its condition."

"Understood. Mr. Chekov, keep an eye on that and if there's any fluctuation in those readings indicating a possible core breach in progress you get us out of there immediately."

"Aye, Keptin."

"Are we still picking up what could be life signs in what we think is their Medbay?"

"Yes, Captain. Two unknown signatures of some kind, in addition to the single life-sign on the command Bridge. Likely a crewman left there to keep the emergency distress beacon functioning. We have yet to raise anyone on Communications, however."

"Right. Okay, let's do this quickly, people. In and out. I don't like not knowing what's happening in Engineering over there or what we're walking into. The nearest star system is a good twelve hours away at full warp power, and this thing doesn't look like she goes past warp two, so we have no idea what her backstory is."

"Roger that, sir." Scott pipes up from behind the transporter screen. "Y'see those indicators, lassie, they need to stay in the green at all times, got that? We've got a lock on your frequencies, Captain, an' no mistake. Beamin' y'back at the first sign of trouble."

"Good." He glances around the transporter pad at the two security and two medical officers, who all nod their readiness, though Bones fidgets nervously and edges a little closer to the exact middle of his stabilizing pad.

He rolls his eyes fondly; nine months into this new deep space mission, and some things still haven't changed. "Energize, Ensign Tormolen."


The transport is smooth enough, indicating the radiation has not yet reached the transporter room, and there's no telltale tang of ozone in the air yet, which is a good sign. He still has to push back a flare of panic at the idea of facing down a radiation leak of that kind, even all these years later; he knows better than anyone how painful the effects can be.

"Commander Giotto, take Marple and check on Engineering, without exposing yourselves. Report your findings back to the Enterprise and then meet me on the Bridge. Bones, you know what to do."

"If I can find the Medbay in this mess," he hears the grumble as the two start off down a cross-corridor, edging around a pile of debris blocking the pathway. The young nurse scans the pile briefly and then scurries after his superior, both disappearing around the corner a moment later. This ship is quite long but only two levels tall, an ungainly design for space travel, and the lower level had appeared to be simply cargo holds when scanned, so at least they don't have to worry about malfunctioning turbolifts.

The fact that the Enterprise-A's extensive and highly sophisticated new computer systems could not identify the life-force signatures in the Medbay is a little concerning, but they had seemed fairly dormant, almost quiescent; and so McCoy had hypothesized if they were indeed life-forms they likely were in a hibernation state to preserve life-function. Spock had tentatively concurred and so against his better judgment had agreed there was little danger in exploring the wreckage of the alien ship with a minimal task force.

Granted, he'd gotten a little pissy when he found out Jim was making him stay behind to command the Bridge, so that could have just been a ploy all along. The crew is all still adjusting to this more cautious James Kirk, who is a lot more careful now about blithely blundering into situations with his entire command team at his back. Much as he likes the camaraderie and the reassurance of their presence on an away mission, he is not so foolish anymore to leave his ship without someone capable of protecting her if something happens to him.

This Enterprise warps into no more ambushes, and her command crew will never again survive on luck instead of a combination of that and strategy.

This doesn't mean he is going to miss out on the fun, however, which is why he is here now and Spock is fuming back home.

Grinning to himself, he moves to a wall-comp and dials up the ship's logs, which appear to be badly corrupted. What is not corrupted is illegible at the moment, given that he has no clearance to read them and they are in an entirely foreign language that cannot be translated with the Universal Translator until verbally spoken or fed through the ship's databanks for several minutes.

Fantastic.

He taps his wrist-comm. "Kirk to Enterprise."

A crackle of interference which finally clears after a moment, indicating at least some type of radiation is present. He frowns and starts heading toward the Bridge; they need to not spend more time here than necessary.

"Enterprise here." Uhura's voice, calm and clear. "Go ahead, Captain."

"The ship appears to be deserted so far," he reports, glancing down corridors as he moves. "Bones and Nurse Khrthza are headed to the Medical area to check on those life signs and I'm nearly to the Bridge, but so far I've not even seen any bodies, which is strange for a ship this size. Based on the ceiling height and wall computer layout, the occupants were likely approximately humanoid in size, but that's yet to be confirmed. Have Giotto and Marple reported in yet?"

"Not yet, Captain."

"They're checking on the readings from Engineering, shouldn't be too much longer. I tried to access the ship's logs, Lieutenant, but they're badly corrupted and in a language I can't read anyway. I'm going to send what's left of them back to you once I get to the Bridge, see if you can make sense of them."

"Yes, sir."

The doors to the ship's small Bridge open with a pneumatic groan, obviously damaged, and he cautiously peers inside before moving through them.

"Well, I found the command team at least," he sighs. "And yeah, they were humanoid, my guess is colonists from some non-Federation outpost. No uniform I recognize. Looks like a three-person team. I guess that's not an unreasonable amount for a ship this size, it's probably an exploratory science vessel or a scout ship of some kind for the colony we passed."

"Based on this tiny Medbay, you're probably right. Any indication what killed them, Jim?" Bones's voice crackles through the comm-link.

"Not yet." He moves toward the two central chairs, careful not to touch the bodies which are all clustered together, slumped against one of the consoles. The arrangement is extremely cramped compared to his own beautiful Bridge, obviously made for efficiency rather than comfort.

"Don't touch them! You got no idea what kind of pathogens they could still be carrying!"

"I wasn't going to! Geez, I'm not a total idiot!"

A delicate cough from the Enterprise's still-open channel, followed by distant snickering.

"I heard that, Sulu!"

Uhura's voice returns, and she's obviously grinning. "Captain, Lieutenant-Commander Giotto just reported in, and the situation in Engineering is under control. However, there is radiation leaking from the core and he recommends evacuation in the next sixty minutes."

"Got it." He examines the console the bodies are slumped on. "Mr. Spock, this is really weird," he muses aloud.

"Captain?"

"It almost looks like this was a mutiny or something."

Two of the three are locked in a struggle with who is likely the higher-ranking commander, based on the additional emblems on the unfamiliar uniform. It kind of gives him the creeps, the way they're frozen in rigor mortis just like that, in the act of overpowering their commanding officer against one of the consoles in the tiny space. One moment of time, suspended like everything had just…stopped, around them. Something killed them where they stood, and while his communicator's basic scanner has already told him the air is safe and there is no hull breach, he is uneasy, because what else kills a man like that, so quickly, mid-action and with no warning?

"I don't like it." He glances around, skin crawling. "And where the hell is that life-signature coming from, if these three are dead?"

There's an eerie silence over the line.

Not good.

"Okay, now you're really freaking me out, Commander."

"Captain, we are running a full diagnostic on our sensor arrays."

"That is not an answer to my question."

"I…do not have one. Sir."

"Oooookay, and I've seen this holovid before. That's my cue to leave," he mutters, hair standing on end. It's probably nothing, but in this business they've found that it so very rarely is, nothing. He's not taking any chances. They’ll come back with better equipment and a more prepared team. "Bones, have you found anything in their Sickbay?"

"Not a sign, Jim. It's the weirdest thing, there's literally nothing here. Still getting some kind of strange life-form readings, though, they're showing up on the tricorders but we can't pinpoint 'em. I can't explain it. If it's some kind of new life-form, that could be a fascinating discovery, but we need more sophisticated equipment –"

"Get out of there, now."

"What? Jim, what's wrong?"

"That's an order, Bones. Get out of there." He stumbles down the step toward the central console. Pulls up the ship's logs, what is left of them, and jettisons them to the Enterprise with cold fingers. "Scotty, lock onto the away team and beam us out. Now!"

Okay, the lights did not just flicker in here. Seriously?

"Right away, sir." A static hum that just as quickly dies, and he really hopes that was just the transporter trying to lock on to him. "Sir, I got Marple and Lieutenant Giotto right enough, but I canna lock onto you or the other two, there's something interferin' with the transporter lock. Y'must get to a place with direct line o'sight to the hull or one with less interference, like the beam-in point."

He swears silently but taps the communicator again as he accesses the ship's internal video and audio footage for the last seven days and jettisons that as well; there's no way he's letting anyone come back to this ship. "You get that, Bones?"

"Already on our way up there, Captain. Direct line of sight in just a second."

"Scotty, you keep trying until you get them, understand?"

"Aye, sir. Looks like another twenty meters and they should be home free."

"Captain, Enterprise confirms receipt of two transmission packets from the derelict vessel." Uhura's voice is calm as she smoothly interrupts him. "Now get out of there."

"Right, on my way to you now."

Spock's voice breaks over the comm, and probably only Jim can tell how tight it is with tension. "Captain, our diagnostics show no signs of a malfunction in the sensor arrays. We are still showing a life signature aboard the command Bridge in addition to your own. We are unable to pinpoint its precise location in relation to yours."

"Time and place, Spock. Time and – uh. Well." He clears his throat, forces himself to inhale slowly, calmly.

"Sir?" Scott's voice, high-pitched with nerves.

"Captain. Captain, what is it?"

"The doors won't open anymore."

He hears what is very definitely a Vulcan swear word over the link from Uhura, and a furious burst of chatter over the open comm-line as a series of orders is relayed across the Enterprise Bridge.

He glances up, around the frame, back again to the unmoving expanse of durasteel which had creaked open at his approach ten minutes previously. "Okay then. Scotty. Did you get McCoy and Khrthza off this haunted house ride?"

"Aye, sir, just finished the beam-out now. The good doctor is buzzing like a hornets' nest that I havena got you yet, though."

He snorts, edging closer to the doors as behind him, something electrical pops in one of the consoles. At least he hopes that's the explanation for it, not something more otherworldly.

"Good. Tell him to hold tight. Uhura, have you got me a schematic of this rust bucket yet? We got any other way off this Bridge that doesn't involve me being blown through the viewscreen without an EV suit? I've got an antigrav belt, is there a hatch in the ceiling?"

"Working on it, Captain. Two minutes, sir, please."

He knows better than to hound his people when they know how to do their jobs, and he also is not a damsel in distress, thanks very much. There is obviously no hidden exit to this Bridge like there is to his own, no Jefferies tube system or anything similar, and until they have schematics so he knows where the key supports are in the walls he can't just go blasting through them with his pocket phaser or he risks a hull rupture.

Plan B, then.

He crouches in front of the central console and yanks the cover off, peers at the mess of wires and cables and wonders where in the name of all that's sensible these colonists trained their engineers because there's literally no rhyme or reason to this arrangement. He's a level five computer hacker and has a decent understanding of engineering but there's no possible way he can just guess with this.

"Hey Scotty, I'm looking at a systemic double-sided circuit board, I'm guessing circa 2215 or so? Manufactured by the Daystrom Corporation. Seven flux capacitators and twenty-one resistors and nothing is color-coded. Give me an idea of what I'm supposed to be hotwiring here to get these doors open."

"2215, sir? I'm surprised that thing is even still in use, those are considered antiquities now! It's no wonder the blasted ship is just driftin' through space if she's been operating on that jetsam."

"Love your professional opinions, Mr. Scott, but I need to know what to disconnect on this thing to get these doors open without electrocuting myself or shutting down vital systems."

"Ah. Right, sir. A moment, I've never heard of this model before, let us get the specs pulled up. Lassie, access the Engineering section of the library databanks for me."

He sighs, and rests his chin on his cupped hand for a moment, eyes closed. Too bad he's such crap at meditating, that might come in handy right now to bring his blood pressure back down. Something is watching him, he'd bet his Starfleet pension, and it doesn't feel like benign curiosity that is making his skin crawl.

"Okay, sir, I've got the specs. Section Five is the section controlling Bridge-specific systems. Shutting off transistors eight and nine should cut power to the doors, and y'should then be able to just force them open manually with the polarity lever if they don't reset. The circuits are shielded and have safety parameters so no danger of electrocution unless you touch an exposed circuit. Or if something has decayed."

"Great. Thanks, Scotty." If he'd guessed wrong on those, he could have shut off life support or gravity on the Bridge, or hermetically sealed himself in here for life. "Stand by."

Sitting back on his heels, he counts down the sections and transistors until he reaches the correct ones, and then flips the switches.

It's only as he's slamming into the sharp edge of the command dais behind him that it occurs to him, this is probably why engineering techs on the Bridge always wear gloves. Just in case.


When he wakes up, it's because his arm is talking to him. Which is pretty weird, but actually not the weirdest thing that's ever happened to them out here in the cold void of space, with its beautiful spinning stars.

It's the arm that isn't numb, which is even weirder; one numb arm and one that talks. And they're both cold. Like space.

Finally it occurs to him that the spinny stars up above him are slowing down and right, it's actually the ceiling lights and it's not really spinning and he's cold because the floor is freaking freezing, duh.

And that's not his arm, it's his wrist-comm, and Spock sounds like he's about ten seconds from a Vulcan meltdown.

He manages to roll over, groans something out that he hopes is enough of an indication that he's still alive to shut the poor guy up for a minute while he makes sure his stomach is going to stay where it's supposed to be.

"Captain, are you all right?"

Okay, everything still attached and going to stay that way, that's a good start.

"Mmyeah."

"Jim, I need you to talk to me!" Ugh, Bones. God love him, but he's probably driving everyone in the transporter room up the walls and down the flood drain. "Come on, Jim. Spock's not letting anybody beam over there until you tell us what's going on!"

Wait, that's right – there's a reason for that. "Nobody beam over here," he mumbles, pinching the bridge of his nose with his non-numb hand.

"Then tell me what the hell happened!"

"Shhhocked," he flubs succinctly through a partially numb mouth, working his jaw gingerly. Okay, probably cracked his head on the dais when he fell. No serious harm done, though, because he still has all his teeth and he doesn't taste blood.

"What?"

"I tried to hotwire the doors. Zapped myself," he sighs, stifling a grunt as he flexes the arm that seems to have gotten the worst of it. The numbness is starting to fade now, giving way to a tingling sensation like he just fell asleep on it. Miraculously enough, his hand and fingers don't show even a slight sign of electrical burns. "Your directions suck, Scotty."

"But sir, I swear that's what it said, and there was no indication there should've been a lack of insulation on the transistor shielding –"

"It's fine, Scotty." He smiles briefly, painfully. "'M fine."

"Captain, you were unconscious for six-point-two-five minutes." Spock sounds way too pissed about that, given that it wasn't him who cracked his head on a dead guy's chair in a haunted room. "That does not constitute the dubiously non-descriptive condition of 'fine'."

"Tomato, Tomahto." He stands up, grabs the nearest chair when the room tilts crazily. "Gnh."

"Jim?"

"I said I'm fine, Bones." A stumbling step takes him closer to the doors, which still don't freaking open. "You've got to be kidding me. Scotty, the doors still aren't opening."

"Ahhhhh, I dunno why, sir."

"Come on!" He resists the urge to whimper, rests his head against them for a moment. "Guys, I really want to get out of here."

"We are attempting to modify a transporter beam which could transport a pattern booster over to you through the interference, Captain."

"That might work."

"Wait a minute!" Scott's voice interrupts with a burst of frenetic excitement. "Captain, the interference is gone now, sir!"

"It what."

"Well, not quite gone, sir, but at a diminished level at least. I can beam y'out now, sir. It'll be a rough one, no question, but it's safe enough."

"Well stop talking and do it!"

"Aye, Captain!"

And a middle finger to whatever weird invisible life form may or may not be lurking around laughing at him, he thinks with a shiver as the beam envelops him in a comforting glow of Home.


He follows his gut and gives the order to proceed with all speed away from the derelict ship as soon as he steps off the transporter pad, and within minutes they are well out of sight, back on course toward the nearest starbase as they had been prior to their detour to investigate the wrecked ship. He does drop a beacon before leaving the area, warning of the imminent radiation leak, and once they investigate the logs he will make a report to Command and they'll decide where to go from there. Technically they’ve done their duty in investigating, and the ship has been deemed unsafe; it would be a dangerous waste of resources to go back to it without direction from Command, unsubstantiated life-form readings or not.

Bones checks him over, and pronounces his head just slightly cracked, tells him to take it easy for a few days, and sends him off with a hypo of pain reliever and a meal card with extra electrolytes. He meets with his senior staff to go over the incident, they come up with exactly nothing to explain why the ship was drifting in this sector or what happened to her tiny crew, and decide to reconvene after they try to decipher the ship's corrupted logs.

The next day, he is with Spock and Scotty below decks, performing their weekly inspections, no closer to an explanation but very much closer to a migraine of absolutely planetary proportions.

Scott is yammering Spock's ear off about something in Auxiliary Control, some new modification which is supposed to increase their fuel output efficiency by 0.4 percent, which is actually significant on a ship this size and he really should care more about it than he does at the moment. But between the heat of the engines this close and the fact that he literally can hear his pulse in his ears, he's finding it very hard to pay attention. Hopefully Scotty will forgive him, and he will catch up later with the written version; he always does, carefully reading reports late at night. It is the one reason he is usually forgiven for his mind wandering during the rare times it does with his senior officers.

He ambles over to the secondary controls which can redirect commands from the Bridge and absently watches what's happening above with navigation and piloting, comms and environmental controls. The life-blood of his ship, all flowing through one beautiful, bustling, busy place.

God, his head hurts.

Across the room, Spock leans over Scotty's shoulder to point at a line of coding on their screens, and Scott frowns, typing furiously. Jim smiles, running an absent hand along the sleek counter and row of control boards. He's a lucky man, his people all could basically run this ship entirely without him, no problem.

Pain, piercing and white-hot, stabs through his skull for a moment, and he really really should have taken Bones up on that offer for a painkiller at breakfast; no sense in being a martyr with these stupid headaches. He hasn't had a migraine this bad in years. His vision actually goes gray-hazy for a few seconds, and he staggers more than leans forward to steady himself on the console with both forearms, dizzy with a wave of nausea that follows the throbbing in his head.

A deep breath drives blessed oxygen through the mist, and he blinks everything clear, thankfully before anyone notices anything is wrong. That would be all he needs, yet another crewman mother-henning him today. The iron band around his skull tightens even more though, as he tries to straighten, and he knows he probably doesn't have enough in him to really finish the inspections with the attention they need. He's going to have to call it or hand it off to his XO, and that's going to be both embarrassing and counter-productive for them both.

The comm whistles, pulling him from his internal debate, and he leans forward to click the switch. The opportunity lets him put his weight on his arms, leaning on the console, and hide the fact that he can't see very well through the red haze of pain pulsating around him in time with the pounding of his heartbeat. "Auxiliary Control, Kirk here."

"Captain?" Uhura sounds surprised to hear him, but quickly recovers, tone brisk with official business. "Sir, Bridge just confirming internal course correction, bearing Sigma one-one-seven-four by seventy-nine degrees, warp factor six."

"Course confirmed."

Wait, what?

Slight hesitation, but she's too much an officer to question him. "Aye, sir, course confirmed."

He blinks, trying to hear over the ringing that has taken up in his ears. That isn't right, and he knows it, why did he say that? And who ordered a course correction internally anyway?

Beneath them, his stomach roils as he feels the engines shift, powering up to nearly full warp speed, well past safe cruising limits. Warp six is not safe travelling speed for a ship this size, not for extended periods, and who the hell ordered that course correction?

Behind him, he hears Scott's exclaimed "What the devil?" and the rapid retreat of running footsteps, shouted orders that just hum distantly above the ringing that keeps getting louder. He needs to stop that course correction, whoever ordered it obviously is endangering the ship, but for some reason he can't get his legs to want to move, and if they do he's pretty sure that it's going to be in a downward direction.

Something shakes him, half-spins him. And yeah, there he goes, dropping like a rock. His hands manage to close on blue fabric as he falls, but thankfully Spock's controlling that fall, and if he can stop Jim's head from slamming into the floor then surely he can get the ship stopped?

And yeah, the fact that the words are getting lost somewhere between his brain and his mouth is just a little terrifying.

Okay, a lot terrifying.

From the look of it, he's not the only one scared that something in his brain isn't working right, because when he can't answer Spock's questions, his First's grip about breaks Jim's fingers before he's on back his feet, gesticulating with both hands toward the nearest group of redshirts.

Whatever Spock's yelling it must be loud, because now there's a blue alarm flashing on the wall and people are scurrying everywhere like ants, so at least somebody can figure out what is going on before they drive straight into a supernova or something. Good thing, too, because he's probably not going to be much help.

The pain in his head suddenly ratchets up about twenty degrees, and his brain finally says nope, bye.

Thank goodness.


Waking up in Sickbay always sucks.

Whatever idiot ever thought that putting bright sterile white all over a recovery cubicle was a grand idea needs his head examined, because it just about blinds him when he firsts opens his eyes. He promptly screws them up again with a yowl, turning his head away.

"And the Sleeping Beauty awakens." He can see on the backs of his eyelids as the light slowly dims. "That any better?"

He cracks one eye, and then opens them both in relief. "Yeah." Wow, he's dry. And it feels like he's been asleep for about a year. "Bones. What…how long was I out?"

A carefully nonchalant inspection of the panel over his head. "Eight days."

He nearly bolts upright. "Eight days?!"

A hand shoves him back down with absolutely no effort. "We really were startin' to call you Sleeping Beauty, not kidding." The dark circles under McCoy's eyes attest to the painful truth of the time frame. "You were almost comatose at one point, Jim."

"I don't even know what happened." It had to have been bad. "I remember getting one whopping migraine…did I have a stroke?"

Bones snorts, almost smiling. "You should be so lucky."

Oooookay. That's comforting.

His friend sighs, and pulls up a wheeled stool, straddling it wearily. "Basically, Jim, you came back from that wrecked ship with…not a parasite, exactly, but some kind of energy signature attached to you. Best we could describe it would be a life-form made entirely of energy, not matter, that can thrive inside another life-form or inside an inorganic object, so long as either object runs on electric impulses it can siphon. That could mean a computer, or that could mean a human body and the brain."

"A non-matter parasite?" Bones makes a so-so motion with one hand. "Okay, we've seen weirder things, but why did the transporter not pick up on that when I got back and immediately initiate decontamination procedures?"

"Spock thinks that's because it was an entirely unknown life-form; the transporter isn't as sophisticated a system as our main computer banks because it's still left over from the original Enterprise salvage. It didn't recognize the…entity, as a life-form, so there was no biocontaminant alert when you beamed back."

"Okay, that's definitely going in my report, because that can't happen again. I don't care if I have to pay for it out of pocket, they're going to refit us at Starbase Eighteen. But anyway." He pinches his forehead. "This thing is what was giving off the life-form readings on the Bridge of the other ship, I assume. And it, what…was hiding in something over there before transferring to me?"

"That's the gist of it, yes. Probably within the computer banks, transferred by electrical shock in your case to you, since you didn't touch any of the bodies. You tried to hotwire the doors, and boom. Hitchiker."

He is not overly thrilled with the idea of something living inside him for a whole day without him knowing about it, but that's beside the point.

"Okay, makes sense. But how did you even figure all this out?"

The door to his recovery cubicle slides open, and a familiar figure pokes his head in hesitantly.

"Did I say he could have visitors yet? How'd you even know he was awake, anyway? Never mind, I don't want to know. Y'all are going to turn me gray before this mission's half over, you know that?"

"Hey, Spock. Come on in." He smacks Bones's knee with what little strength he has. "Sorry for jacking up everything around here the last week."

Spock's eyebrow slides upward. "I believe the events could not be prevented by you, Captain. Apologies are therefore illogical."

"Yeah, so what events exactly, are we talking about?"

Both his XOs exchange a look that makes him a little nervous.

"Guys?"

"You apparently were suffering what you mistakenly believed to be the effects of a migraine, Captain, for several hours the day that matters came to a head. However, these physical manifestations of pain were in actuality the result of the entity itself attempting to override your subconscious will, in order to effect a course change in the Enterprise's navigation system."

Wait a minute. He closes his eyes and thinks back to that very hazy day, then opens them again, frowning. "You're saying made that course correction, Spock?"

Bones snorts. "You not only made the correction, you confirmed it with the Bridge and then locked all other commands out of the computer before you passed out on us for a week. Nicely done."

Chagrined, he looks at his First for verification, and Spock's eyebrow shrug is confirmation enough.

"I don't remember anything other than thinking I might be dying, my head hurt that much," he sighs.

"That was likely you unconsciously trying to fight the type of mind control the being was inflicting upon you, Captain." Spock looks almost nauseated at the thought, which is interesting; he may need to revisit this later. "An admirable but ultimately futile attempt."

"Obviously. So…are we talking brain damage here?"

Bones swats his shoulder lightly. "Minor damage to the frontal cortex, and all healed now, thanks to yours truly."

"You're awesome, Bones."

"Uh-huh. But that thing came pretty close to causing some nasty neural damage too, Jim. Next time you think something might be wrong, come to me. Even if it's just a headache!"

"Understood. So, what did this thing want, anyway?"

"Your navigation team and the Commander here figured out pretty quickly that the course correction's trajectory was takin' us right back to where we left the ship, once we compensated for drift," McCoy replies.

"It was Doctor McCoy who then hypothesized that perhaps the life-form was forcing us to return in order to retrieve the other two life-forms we never found, still remaining in the Medbay aboard that vessel."

"Makes sense. Good job, guys." He smiles; this is why he has the best crew in the 'Fleet and there's a wait list fifty parsecs long for it. "So, were you right?"

"You should probably be a little more pissed off that one of 'em hijacked your brain and nearly killed you, than you are, Jim."

"Yeah, okay, but debrief now, therapy later. Did we end up with a peaceful first contact, or did they end up being hostile?"

"You're impossible," Bones growls, flinging the data-padd on the desk and stalking out of the cubicle.

Spock glances after him guardedly. "It has been a trying week, Captain," he ventures, after an awkward moment.

"Sorry." Jim fidgets with the blanket. "I'll talk to him."

"That would be advisable. But to answer your inquiry, the life-forms did unfortunately prove to be ultimately hostile, and we were forced to part ways with them without attempting a peaceful resolution."

Spock looks uncomfortable at this, but Jim remembers the creeping sensation from the Bridge of the abandoned vessel, and the feeling of malevolence that permeated it – and somehow he knows it was the right decision.

"The communications division finally managed to salvage and decipher the majority of the logs from the alien vessel prior to our arrival at its position, and we discovered that your conjecture of a mutiny was not far from the truth, Captain. This entity had apparently taken control of the ship's commander and was commandeering the vessel through him, with the intent of destroying a rival colony to that of the ship's origin. We have no way of knowing if that attack was provoked or not."

"That doesn't necessarily mean they have innate malevolent intent. They could simply be at war, and this could be a step in their evolutionary process."

"Understood, and as a command team we discussed that possibility. According to the ship's visual and automatic records, when it became evident that the two crewmen were going to execute their commanding officer in order to destroy the entity, it simply transferred its essence to the computer system and then cut off life support to the Bridge, creating an almost immediate vacuum of oxygen until all three were deceased. I would presume that its fellows then went into a hibernation state in the Medbay, while it remained there to lure in a passing starship, with the intent of continuing its mission."

Huh. Interesting.

"So…how'd you get it to jump ship from me?" he asked, repressing a shiver. "'Cause, y'know, being choked almost to death once in a lifetime is totally enough and I appreciate finding an alternative."

Spock's ears turn a dark olive, and he hears a muffled laugh from outside the cubicle; Bones is eavesdropping.

"We decided to present it with a more tempting target than a comatose starship captain."

His eyes narrow. "You did not."

Bones comes back into the room, carrying a tray with a glass of orange juice and three hyposprays. "You lost the right to have an opinion when you fainted in Auxiliary Control eight days ago. Drink that."

Spock looks unaccountably smug. "Upon making mental contact with the entity, it immediately saw the more attractive prospect of my own mind and decided to, as you put it, Captain, jump ship from yours."

"I am going to bust you down to Yeoman, Spock, I swear. Of all the stupid, idiotic –"

"Doctor McCoy then prepared a controlled dose of dylamadon, adjusted for my Vulcan physiology, to simulate death, and injected it just prior to our beaming over to the alien vessel for the second time."

He pauses in the act of slurping orange up through the stupid pink bendy straw Bones apparently thought would be hilarious to give him, and stares at his First. "That is incredibly dangerous!"

"I was monitoring him!" Bones says indignantly. "But yeah, that's what Uhura and me both said. Idiot wouldn't listen to us."

Spock honest-to-gods rolls his eyes. "Engineer Scott and his team had, by this time, managed to modify the transporter's capabilities so as to be able to distinguish the life-signature of the entity once separated from the physical body."

He pauses thoughtfully. "So, you timed it so that you collapsed right before the transport began, and because it's an energy-only being it can't tell the difference between a transport state and a matter state. So all it knew was, its host was dead, and it needed to exit the host?"

Spock gets that weird little pleased look he always has when someone follows his train of weird logic. "Precisely, Captain. And upon that exit into the transport beam, separating from the matter signature of myself –"

"Scotty beamed it out into open space, I hope?"

Spock looks at him pointedly.

"Or at least back onto its ship," he grumbles, taking another sip of juice.

"We did indeed re-trap it on the ship, and set up a stasis field via satellite around the ship to prevent further drift, along with warning beacons to any other ships which might pass this way. Once Starfleet Command reads the reports they can make the decision as to whether or not to pursue a first contact."

"Scotty then finally beamed us back, and if I ever have to be held in a pattern buffer that long again I swear to God, Jim. You owe me a week's worth of drinks on our next shore leave." Bones does look a little green just thinking about it, though that could also be because he's trying to talk and read from a padd and type a hundred words a minute at the same time.

"I think I owe both of you." He sets the cup down, not entirely steadily. "You took one hell of a risk, Spock. And you probably saved my brain from being totally scrambled."

Spock stands, fastidiously tugging his tunic back into place. "I will admit full responsibility for the former, sir, but I would plead a pre-existing condition for the latter. Rest well, Captain."

Jim stares at the closing door for a second as his not-friend-anymore laughs hysterically from behind his computer monitor.

"You suck, Bones."

"I know."

"Ugh, I hate you."

"I know you do. Drink your juice.”

Chapter Text

IV.

There are days, though thankfully much fewer and far between now, that he does miss his first love, that original U.S.S. EnterpriseYou never forget your first, so said every starship captain he ever encountered even before enrolling in Starfleet; and while he had thought it to be so much starry-eyed 'Fleet propaganda at the time, he understands it now. Even dying by radiation poisoning, agonizing as that had been, was nothing compared to the heart-wrenching pain of watching his beautiful ship plunge into the broken ground of Altamid on that career-shifting day not so long ago. He is forever a changed man, carrying with him until he dies the lost hearts of hundreds of young lives sacrificed to that final frontier.

No captain ever wants to lose a ship, but even fewer get a second chance at redemption afterwards. He is not so foolish as to waste that chance.

So he will not allow this new, breathtakingly beautiful ship to be haunted by the ghosts of the past; she is a testament to new beginnings, new hope – and a monument to the determination of humanity and every other species which comprises the Federation and its true mission. The Enterprise-A has afforded them the chance for an upgrade in technology thanks to the Yorktown shipyards, which they would not have received on Terra for another decade. That has in turn set them above their competition in exploratory vessels their size. Yet again, they are the ship to be envied in the 'Fleet, despite their losses and high mortality rate, and he can continue to demand only the best and brightest for his crew.

After twelve months of preliminary test runs, they have completed a final refit and upgrade and now have set off for the last leg of their five-year mission, which will land them on the very edge of scanned space; from that final outpost, they will be entirely on their own for the next mission. Five years in the heart of completely new territory, uncharted and untouched by Federation hands. At any given time, they will be at least two weeks at top warp speeds from any Federation assistance, their own entity all to themselves in the void.

It's both thrilling and terrifying, and there is a tangible aura of excitement throughout the crew which he suspects will last through the next six months, until they hit that last space station and it suddenly strikes everyone that they truly have reached that point of no return.

But this new Enterprise-A is a solid ship for such a voyage; she possesses improvements never before implemented on starships, ones that the Enterprise is first to test for the Federation in such conditions. He knows Scotty is itching to test the warp drive and see if the emergency speed of warp seven-point-one is actually possible, or if that was just braggadocio on the part of the Yorktown engineers; and he saw (and very much approved) for himself the fact that the saucer separation can now be activated on the Bridge instead of in Engineering. In fact, that initialization and several other overrides can now be activated directly from his chair on the Bridge, and that just gives him more peace of mind, even if he hopes they never have to be used. He personally insisted upon twice as many escape pods on each deck during the reconstruction, and upon doubling the shuttlecraft bays; in a mass evacuation, there is a greater chance of escape with more points of exit. Gods willing, that will never happen again, but if it does, he will be more prepared next time.

They have much more sophisticated replication units to compensate for not being able to stop over for refueling and restocking in uncharted space, and their botany and hydroponics labs have been doubled in size to accommodate for more experiments in growing their own food sources for the twenty-four species which make up the Enterprise crew. Spock has been geeking out practically non-stop for months over the size of his Science labs on Deck Fourteen, and they have several additional observation lounges and rec halls, two additional gymnasiums, and even a bowling alley. (He had no idea people even still bowled, but apparently there's a serious rivalry going on between Waste Recycling and the gamma shift Botany crew. Who knew.)

Their main pride and joy, however, is the Federation's newest and most sophisticated technology, installed on the Enterprise as the first ship in the 'Fleet to carry it on a long-distance mission. Decades in development, it has only just been recently tested and finalized on Yorktown, and now is being used in training facilities in Starfleet Academy. They are the first starship, however, to be using it for recreational purposes.

Personally, Jim just doesn't really see the appeal in it or why it has to take up the entirety of Deck Forty-five, but apparently the crew is lining up in droves to sign up for a time slot, even a month since its installment right before they left Yorktown for the last time. The waiting list is a week long, and the time slots are only two hours each.

"You're a wet blanket, that's what you are, Jim." Bones points a spoon at him over breakfast one morning, after they've both patiently listened to Chekov's exuberant recap of his adventures the evening before. Skiing, of all things. The kid's going to break his neck, and Jim's going to be out a navigator for three weeks, and why isn't Bones more freaked out about this, seriously?

He rolls his eyes and shoves the rest of his bagel between his teeth for a second, leaving his hands free to take the data-padd a hesitant yeoman is trying to get his attention with. "Like I have time for two hours of make-believe, Bones," he says from around the blueberry goodness as he scrawls his initials and signature across the report, then hands it back to the yeoman with a sheepish grin, removing the bagel. "Good morning, Mr. Garcia."

"Morning, Captain." The young man grins and shoves another padd his direction. "Mr. Scott also asked if you would look over these before your inspection in Engineering."

"Yeah, yeah, just drop it in the pile." He indicates the five padds already sitting beside his breakfast tray.

Garcia's eyes widen. "Sir, can I get any of those out of your way?"

"Uh…no, unfortunately." He sighs, and waves the bagel in the man's direction. "But thanks for asking."

"Would coffee help?" Bless him, this kid is a godsend. Granted, not as efficient or, though he’d never say so aloud, as easy on the eyes as Jim's last yeoman, but that's probably best for all concerned. After one too many social stops by his cabin past 2100 hours of ship's evening despite his repeated requests to keep their contact purely business, he'd finally bit the bullet and transferred them to a parallel position aboard the Reliant when the ship returned to Yorktown. That’s the second time something like that has happened, and he really hopes the third time is not the charm.

But now, he's been gifted this adorable kid straight out of the Yorktown branch of Starfleet Academy, who has more energy than a Katarran on candy-fluff and absolutely no intention of pursuing his captain romantically, thank goodness. Jim doubts if the man even sits still long enough to settle down and think about who or what he's interested in, so boundless is his energy. It's exhausting just to watch.

Or maybe he's just getting old.

"Actually, that would be fantastic. But only if you have time, Mr. Garcia." It still rubs him the wrong way a little, despite knowing it's actually in their written job description, to send any crewman on a stupid errand like that, and he rarely does it unless the action is offered first.

"Be right back, sir."

Jim facepalms as the kid nearly bowls over two of Spock's Microbiology lieutenants on his way to the replicators, and turns back to Bones, who is shaking his head. "That caffeine is gonna kill you, one of these days," his CMO says disapprovingly.

"Ughhhh, will you stop." He rubs both eyes briefly and sits back with a sigh, barely noticing that Chekov has quietly left the table for his shift on the Bridge. "Why are you acting like this, Bones?"

"Like what?" Bones glances up with a genuine frown, spoon paused in what looks like a particularly disgusting bowl of healthy but soggy cereal. "Jim, you're running yourself into the ground here. And it's not like it used to be, where we get shore leave every six months or so. You have to take better care of yourself."

"I'm not doing this with you this morning, Bones. I'm fine." He shoves his tray to one side, ignoring the disapproving look at the fact that it's only half-eaten, and begins furiously working on the first set of reports from Stellar Cartography.

"Are you seriously trying to lie to the person who gets a readout from your cabin's bio-monitor every morning?"

"That is so freaking creepy, you know that?"

"Relax, I get one for everyone on this ship; it's an automated report. But yours, I actually read. And anyway, it doesn't take a report to tell me you're not sleeping. Not eating. And basically working yourself to death."

"How would you know, I haven't even seen you for like three days." He scrawls a signature across another page and clicks to the next, then glances up at the silence. What he just said registers a moment later, and he sighs. "Okay, point taken."

"You even snapped at Spock the other day, right there on the Bridge. In front of everybody, Jim."

"He was correcting me in front of the whole alpha crew right before a briefing with the Admiralty!"

"Because he caught an enormous mistake in your quarterly report – and thank goodness he caught it before that briefing started – my guess, because you've been staying up all hours of ship's night to finish them!"

"Well when exactly was I supposed to get them done? In the shower? Because that's about the only time I'm not doing something these days, Bones!"

"Uh…coffee, Captain." Garcia's voice, at his elbow, and a cup is hastily shoved in front of him. "I'll just…take that for you. Sir." He scampers away with the discarded breakfast tray, and Jim slumps in his chair, exhaling heavily.

"Do you even hear yourself, Jim?"

He pinches his forehead with one hand, elbow on the table. Waving aimlessly between them, he finally sighs. "What exactly is your point, Doctor?"

"My point, Jim, is that things have changed. And you've got to figure out a way to change with them, or you're going to kill yourself or get yourself killed before we even make it to the second mission. Don't make me pull rank on you and restrict you to twelve-hour shifts. I'll get Spock's help if I have to."

"You wouldn't dare."

"Try me." Bones glares at him, unmoving. "It isn't funny, Jim. We have this brand spankin' new recreation and relaxation technology for a reason. I don't care if you just go into that holodeck, magic yourself up a hammock and sleep in zero-G, but something's gotta give."

He snorts, grinning despite himself. "Seriously. They have two hundred available adventure and thrill programs and you want me to use it for a cheap spa session."

"As captain you have seven hours a week allotted in that thing, three and a half times more than the typical crewman. That's official Starfleet Medical recommendation, not my personal recommendation, by the way. And in the four weeks it's been up and running, you've logged zero."

"Bones, I'd rather read a book than…go skiing, or horseback riding, or whatever the hell else they do in there. Play croquet, I don't even know."

"Jim, it's a holodeck, it can basically create whatever you want to do, wherever you want to go, and whoever you want to do it with."

"Oh?"

"Uh-uh, not goin' there with you." Bones makes a disgusted face and kicks him under the table as he smirks. "So take your stupid book in and read it on Rigel IX or something."

"I guess. I just don't really see its value, Bones, I'm sorry. I know you think it's a great thing for the crew but I honestly would rather they just focus on their lives here."

"So you've said, several times within hearing of the poor kids who just want to go in and let loose for a few hours. I know you don't mean anything by it, but you're being a real pain in the ass for no reason other than your own issues." Bones just matches his glare, and adds an eyeroll for good measure. "That stopped workin' on me in the Academy."

"I just don't get the appeal of playing make-believe for two hours over the here and now."

"You always have been more of a realist, and you handle trauma like no one I've ever seen. That's probably the only reason you're still sane after everything you've been through, Jim. But that's not how everyone copes, and anyway it's a proven medical fact that every sentient life form needs recreation sometimes. If that recreation is brief escapism, then that's fine in moderation."

Well, he's not CMO for nothing, and if there's one thing Bones is good at, it's diagnosing and psychology. The man is single-handedly the reason the Enterprise doesn't have a Ship's Counselor; he has at all times a better finger on the pulse of the ship even than Jim does, and it's a rare gift.

"You're the boss in that area, Bones. And I'm all for anything that keeps the crew happy and healthy. But I just…it's not for me. I've yet to see any real value in it, honestly, and it's getting to be a little annoying, people trying to sell me on the idea."

"I can understand that, but I'mma have to disagree with you on the value."

"I'm listening."

"Well. You know, I get a weekly report on what programs are the most popular and have logged the most hours, so I can red-flag anybody who's overusing the thing or running a really violent program more than once a week."

"Oh?" He closes out the reports for Engineering and puts them aside. "Which one is the most popular, then, the Argellian pleasure planet?"

"Surprisingly, no. The thing's only been running a month, so most of the crew have only been in once if at all. That's not a lot of time to create their own programs or for repeat algorithms in the pre-existing ones to develop yet." McCoy finishes his breakfast and leans back, ticking off points absently on his non-dominant hand. "Senior officers get more time, so most of the command staff have been in half a dozen times or so to try out a variety of things, no rhyme or reason to them. There's a generic beach and ocean simulation that seems to be popular so far, if we're talking widespread average among the crew. Sulu's programmed himself some weird fencing tournament, that's run a few times."

"So the beach scene's run the most often."

"No, the one that's run the most often has run twelve times in the four weeks since installation. Basically every time except for one that the officer has logged in, that's the program that has been chosen."

Has to be one of the command crew, to be privileged enough for that much time. "Ok, I'll bite. What's so special about this program, Bones?"

His CMO's eyes soften as he leans back, arms folded. "One of the pre-loaded programs is a recreation of what Vulcan looked like, Jim."

Oh.

Well, crap.

That would probably be why Spock's been shutting down every time Jim has loudly complained about people wasting time in there instead of working, ever since it's been installed.

Okay, he is an idiot.

"I didn't even think about – it's been so long, Bones, it never occurred to me. Gods, I'm a moron." He tosses the stylus down on the table and scrubs both hands wearily down his face. "Isn't that…unhealthy?"

"Mm, I don't think so, the program never runs more than an hour, and he gets a two-hour block of time if he wants it, so it's not like there's an addiction of some kind growing. I'm keeping an eye on it. Frankly, he's been pretty damn mellow lately, except when he's been having it out with you." Jim winces. "But all I'm saying is, it's doing him some good, so quit saying you're not seeing any benefits from it. And don't make me prescribe you a program, Jim. Stop making people cry when you leave a briefing room."

"I have not!"

"Well we wanted to, last department head meeting. Scotty's just too nice to tell you and Nyota's too busy trying to keep you and Spock from killing each other right now."

He drains the coffee cup and sets it down with a sigh, stacks the data-padds up. "It's that bad, hm?"

"Yeah." Bones looks at him seriously. "But it's for your sake too, Jim. Remember, you're the heart of this ship. You owe it to the rest of us, to take care of yourself."

That's something he's still trying to get used to. He can only promise to try.


Jim has his faults, that's never been in question; but one thing that no one can deny, is that once shown his actions are harming his crew, he has no problem with immediately changing those actions: from the most life-altering decisions like pleading for their lives to despots like Marcus and Khan, all the way down to making a public apology for being an asshole to his command staff, right in front of half-a-dozen trainees on the Bridge who have absolutely no idea what he's talking about.

Five pairs of eyes (and one trio from the Corollian on duty) blink owlishly at each other over various computer consoles, while his alpha shift crew just kind of stare at him like he's grown a second head.

"What, do I have to be more specific? Ya sozhaleyu o svoyem kharaktere. Ni'droi'ik nar-tor kup coi'a nash-veh."

To his right, Uhura chokes on her coffee, and he turns, gesturing grandly.

"I dunno how to say sorry I was a dickhead in hyōjungo, so you're up, Lieutenant."

"Mama wa Mungu, your accent is beyond awful."

"And you don't know how to say what you did in those languages either, sir, with all due respect."

"Da, Keptin."

"Everybody's a critic." He leans on Spock's chair for a minute, grinning around the room. Spock continues to type and totally ignores him, his vaguely horrified look at the bastardization of his native tongue gone in the face of personal space invasion. "We good, people?"

"Aye, sir. Please stop." Sulu's smile is the first to light up the surrounding area, and it's soon mirroring across the Bridge with the rest of the lower crewmen as a wave of laughter sweeps the room.

"Lieutenant, are we good?" He asks quietly, and Uhura swivels her chair to look at him.

Her eyes are glinting with amusement, but her look is serious enough as she nods toward her not-quite-fiance, and tilts her head. That depends is clear, unspoken between them, and the veiled threat is quite apparent.

"Understood." A nod and flash of a smile, and she returns to her work, fielding the increasing number of comms that go through their main board every day aboard this busy ship.

Spock continues to pull up windows which obviously have nothing to do with anything Jim is going to be asking for from Sciences in the next hour, and so he sighs, finally perches on the edge of the Science console and just waits. This is an old dance by now, though he's screwed it up pretty spectacularly lately and it's lost quite a bit of its charm.

Finally Spock runs out of things to type on and side-eyes him, and it really bothers him how almost wary the gesture is. Have things really gotten that bad? He doesn't remember doing anything outright other than their occasional squabbles to cause such a rift between them; but then again, he doesn't remember doing anything lately, with any of his crew, now that he thinks about it.

Relationships take work, Jim, Chris Pike had told him once, back when he first got the Enterprise. Back in those early, early days, when he'd been nothing more than a cocky, foolishly brave young man full of dreams and ambition and over-confidence and such stupidity.

"I, um." He looks down at his hands, clasped in front of him, for a moment. "If you don't have plans this evening, Commander, I've…I'd like you to join me in the holodeck. I have the slot from 1800 through 2000 hours."

Spock swivels his chair to look at him now, obviously curious. "Captain, I regret that I already have a previous engagement with –"

"No he doesn't."

Both of them glance warily at Uhura. "Lieutenant, you had extended an invitation –"

"Well, it's been unextended."

A positively glacial glare shuts Spock up faster than Jim's ever seen, and he has to stifle a laugh. The young trainee at Uhura's secondary station is not quite so good at hiding his amusement, and receives a stern dressing-down for his lack of attention to his comms board. Poor kid, eventually he'll learn to disregard anything on this Bridge that doesn't directly have to do with his job. It's a practiced art that his two young idiots at the helm have fine-tuned by now; they haven't even bothered to turn around, although there's a suspicious muffled noise coming from the navigation station that sounds an awful lot like a snort.

"Okay then." He clears his throat awkwardly. "1800 hours?"

"Apparently, sir."

"Excellent. So, about these long-range scans from Stellar Cartography…"


It ends up being more like 1815 hours, because these days it seems like he just can never get ahead of the workload he's drowning in, and maybe Bones is right; he has to figure out how to get a grip on this or he is going to spread himself too thin. Everywhere he goes, there's another fire to put out, another report to sign, another crewman who stops him with a problem, another call to take…and there's a point that he looks at his communicator and realizes he legitimately left his quarters for the holodeck thirty minutes ago and still hasn't reached it yet.

He immediately forwards all calls and takes the nearest turbolift straight there, cursing himself the whole way. Hopefully Spock is still waiting for him and isn't too annoyed, though he'd have good reason to be.

This ship is bigger, the manpower is bigger, the tasks are bigger, and good Lord the paperwork…it's a whole different animal, and he's almost back where he was all those years ago, when he relied on his officers to keep him afloat for the first few months while he figured out this captaining thing. It's not working for him right now, and if he isn't careful then one of these precariously balanced support beams of his life is going to give way and bring the whole thing crashing down on his head.

He sends off a final signature on the latest reports from Engineering as he stumbles out of the turbolift on Deck Forty-Five, and then tosses the padd at the engineer who is apparently keeping Spock company while waiting for him. Good, still there, and he doesn't look too irritated.

"Thanks, Mr. Leslie. And tell Scotty to just send the rest of those to my terminal tonight, yeah?"

"Aye, sir." Leslie bobs his head cheerfully, tucking the padd under one arm and typing an access code into the wall-panel, which brings up a large menu screen. "This is where you choose a pre-programmed generic simulation, sir, and if you want to load a special program it must be placed in the data banks prior to entry, as we discussed earlier this afternoon. You can then access it by vocal commands like you would execute any other ship's function or by manually selecting here on the menu."

He nods and watches carefully, though Spock probably knows all this already.

"Once inside the holodeck, if you want to customize the program, add additional equipment or scenery components or anything like that, just activate the computer with voice commands like you would a replicator. If possible, the computer will reproduce it; if not possible, nothing will happen."

"And if for some reason we need to exit the program before its scheduled end?"

"If you want to leave the program running, for example if just one of you wants to exit, then returning to the entry point of the simulation should automatically generate the outline of the exit doors, which should then open motion-activated as normal. In case of an emergency and needing to end the program completely before attempting to exit, vocal execution should end it just like it would end any other computerized program. Your voice recognition should give you override clearance to anything in these data-banks, Captain."

"Got it. Thank you, Mr. Leslie. If I have any other questions, I'm sure between us we'll be able to figure it out." He glances at Spock, who simply raises an eyebrow as if to say, I should hope so.

"Once inside, the doors magnetically seal from within to prevent intrusion on your privacy and the holodeck shows as occupied, so you shouldn't be bothered except in a Red Alert; the red alert sirens and lights still sound and show through the holo-tech to notify you of a shipwide emergency."

"Excellent."

"I'll leave you to it then, gents. Have a good evening." Leslie snaps off a vague approximation of a salute and then hightails it down the short corridor to the turbolift, the only other item on this deck and no doubt his ticket to freedom for the rest of his evening. The two of them are left standing by the doors.

"I'm sorry, Spock," Jim says first thing, and quite sincerely. "I left my quarters thirty minutes ago but I totally lost track of time."

Instead of his usual protest against how illogical apologies are, Spock looks at him strangely. "You departed your quarters half an hour ago, with the intention of arriving here?"

"Uh, yeah. I figured that gave me a good enough time buffer. Obviously not, and I'm sorry." He sighs, and types in his access code to pull up the program he'd loaded earlier.

"May I ask, Captain, what prevented that from happening?"

"Hm?" He glances over his shoulder, but Spock looks genuinely curious rather than irritated, so he shrugs, turning back to the keypad. "Well, I got stopped in the corridor outside my cabin by Lieutenant O'Brien, he's still having issues with those two new techs on the delta shift crew during phaser drills, and then there were the reports from the Hydroponics labs to sign off on, and the Bridge comm-ed me before I could get in the turbolift saying there was an explosion in one of the shuttle bays, the one where they're testing out those new gravity clamps, you know? And on my way there Lieutenant Carstairs grabbed me to look at the specs for the gravimetric converter, it's apparently been acting up when our warp bubble crosses any comet trails.

Scotty asked me to check his computations on the flux capacitator adjustment he made because it supposedly 'didn't sound right' to him, and I stopped after inspecting the shuttle bay damage to say hi to Ensign San while I was down there, you know it's his first day back from medical leave. And then I tried to get the paperwork for the stupid explosion out of the way as I was coming up here so I didn't have to do it later, as you saw, but Garcia wasn't answering his comm., so. Multi-tasking in the turbolift!" He punches in the final sequence and turns back around with a grin, only to find himself looking at a very pissed-off Vulcan.

"Uh…is this about the gravity clamps? Because they're not coming out of the Science budget, they come out of Medical if there were injuries sustained in the explosion –"

Program loaded. Please enter when ready, the computer chirps politely behind him.

The doors open automatically, and he gestures for Spock to go ahead of him, hoping that will stall whatever storm is brewing now. This is the last thing he needs, another argument with his First when he's actually legit trying to patch things up.

Spock looks like he's about to say something but apparently thinks better of it, and finally exhales slowly before stalking through the doors like a man on a mission. A very unpleasant, angry mission.

Maybe this wasn't such a great idea.

Sighing, he follows, curious despite himself at what the experience is going to be like, and the doors immediately slide shut behind him – and then totally disappear into the brimming twilight, melting away like they aren't there at all. It's a little weird, a little scary, and he steps back just to check and make sure they're still there. A wave of his hand and the door's frame and blinking lights reappear. He exhales in relief and then shrugs, turning back around.

Spock is watching him with an expression of amusement.

"I don't like feeling trapped," he mutters, blushing.

"I am aware. Computer, lock visual exit in place."

Acknowledged.

The exit reappears, and stays this time. It makes him breathe a little easier, and he flicks his First a grateful look.

Spock acknowledges it with a nod, and then glances around them with genuine interest. The holodeck has chosen to deposit them on a stretch of fairly deserted walkway along the waterfront, as if they'd just beamed down into an open space from the ship, but he can see no end in sight to the scenery, a seamless vista of people and brightly-lit buildings and a beautiful skyline up above, silhouetted against the setting sun.

What's truly impressive is the sensory technology of this thing; it's reproduced the sounds, the smells, perfectly, of being along the waterfront. He can even feel the tang of salt and damp in the air.

"This is…actually really amazing," he says, turning in a slow circle, hands in his pockets.

"Indeed. I have found the experience to be an impressive feat of sensory technology."

"I would agree with that assessment. If I didn't know better, I would totally think we were actually here."

"I confess I am unfamiliar with this city; a Terran coastal hub, I presume?"

He'd suspected as much. "Yeah, it is. The Western hemisphere. You didn't travel much around Earth while at the Academy, I'm assuming?"

The lights of a pier sign reflect in his First's eyes as he looks around at the setting. "I never had occasion to leave Starfleet Headquarters save for the occasional mandatory social outing into New San Francisco. As a very small child I believe my parents once brought me along on a diplomatic mission where they beamed down to New York, but I remember little of that venture. And I do not believe this is that city."

"Nope." He smiles, and points at the distinguished silhouette against the skyline. The Needle has changed shape over the centuries, even been destroyed and rebuilt once, but it's still always been the recognizable constant he loves to find in the skyline. "This is Seattle. A ways up the North American coast from San Francisco."

Spock turns back toward him, question sparkling in his eyes. "My mother was born in Seattle."

Smiling, he starts strolling along the planks of the walkway toward the city lights. "I know."

He can fairly hear the brain-now-rebooting-please-hold static coming from beside him, and tries not to laugh.

"I figured, it's going to be a long time before we see Earth again. And if I had any pleasant memories of my hometown I'd love to show you around, Spock, but honestly I'd be perfectly happy never setting foot there again. My family's here now, on the Enterprise." He glances sideways, and sees Spock looking at him, vague understanding beginning in his eyes. "That's why I just don't really care that much about this stuff. I'm exactly where I want to be, I have no reason to escape somewhere else."

"That is…actually quite logical, Captain."

"Yeah, well, Bones doesn't seem to agree with you, and he's probably right about running from your past not being any healthier than becoming addicted to a dreamworld." He sighs, side-steps a woman with a stroller and only then realizes that was just a hologram – damn, this is good technology. "But anyway. I just…thought you might want to see it. Seattle, I mean, not Riverside. And there's lots to do here too, if you're into that, it's a pretty awesome city for tourists. Anyway, I wrote a whole program for it over lunch today. So. If you want to use it, ever. It's in the databanks now, under the Travel section. Feel free."

Spock thankfully cuts off his rambling with a gentle hand, and they pause beside a wooden railing overlooking the pier, Pacific Ocean spreading beyond. A salty breeze flickers gently by. He pokes the railing, then leans on it cautiously with his forearms, and it feels just like any normal railing would.

Spock's lips twitch. "The technology used in the simulation actually is a form of matter replication, Jim. The objects are quite solid."

"Well, if there's a glitch and I go flying into the ocean, just remember to kill the program before I drown."

"Aye, sir."

He smiles, looking out over the moonlight now reflected on the water for a moment before letting his forehead drop slightly to rest on his steepled fingers. It is peaceful, actually, despite the bustle of the city around them; and maybe Bones is right. Even if it's just a half hour a day, he could probably use a break like this regularly.

He is so tired.

"Jim."

"Yeah?"

He doesn't look up, because maybe it's the exhaustion or maybe it's the sudden unexpected lurch of homesickness or maybe it's just the freaking wind but he's blinking back tears all of a sudden and there's no way he's going to admit that to Spock of all people, thanks very much.

"May I ask a personal question?"

Oh, God. "Uh. I'm not guaranteeing I'll answer it, but…yeah, sure. Shoot."

"Do you actually, truly, trust the commanding officers of the Enterprise?"

His head jerks up so fast his neck cracks, angry now instead of whatever he was feeling a moment ago. "What kind of question is that? I trust you with my life, Spock – in fact I've trusted you guys with my death, too. Why the hell would you ask me that?"

Spock doesn't even blink in the face of his anger, only faces him in a mirroring position leaning on the railing, almost deceptively casual. "I ask, Captain, because you are in danger of destroying your own health and well-being due to either an inability or an unwillingness to allow those officers to help shoulder some of the burden of command."

"A…that's not it." He shakes his head. "You're wrong."

"Then give me an equally valid reason for your refusal to delegate petty tasks or redirect crew inquiries to the proper channels. For some reason this crew has apparently come to think it is acceptable to burden their captain with every minor grievance and complaint, and for some reason said captain has come to think it is acceptable to permit that."

Is that really what he's been doing? He blinks, processing this. And by now Spock can tell when he's not just being an ass, he's actually thinking; so he modulates his tone accordingly when he continues.

"Whether intentionally or not, Jim, you are projecting your fear of another such incident as the Battle of Yorktown to affect your command. By now insisting upon personally overseeing, or simply permitting yourself to be pulled into, every detail of the ship's operations, you are asking the impossible of both yourself and your crew, and all are suffering for it."

Well. Okay, he has a point.

"I just…don't want anyone else doing my job for me, Spock, not anymore. I'm not the stupid kid I used to be. None of us are. I mean, you used to do half my paperwork for me, for pity's sake. I was just using you, and that wasn't fair."

"Two-thirds of your paperwork," Spock corrects him, without missing a beat, and Jim makes a half-amused, half-despairing gesture of acquiescence. "But that is precisely my point, Captain. My purpose aboard this ship, is the same as every officer's purpose; namely, to perform our daily functions as best benefits the ship and assists the captain."

"But –"

"We are aboard ship to be used; otherwise there would be little point in our continued presence. Taking that purpose away from your command crew deprives them of their own command functions. At least 80% of the items you listed to me prior to our entering this room were things which should have been redirected to other officers, and you did not do so. You must let us help, Jim."

He sighs, leans against the railing with his arms wrapped around himself. The wind has started to whip up from the ocean, salt-damp but thankfully not too chilly just yet. His First probably is starting to get cold now, but right now he's probably too focused on pointing out Jim's idiocy to notice. "I hadn't even realized what I was doing, Spock. I just thought…it seems like I've been drowning and can't do my job like I used to. That's not exactly something you just come out and tell people during a staff meeting, you know?"

"And the devolvement of recent 'staff meetings' has been preferable?"

"Wow, and I thought Vulcan sarcasm was subtle."

"I have found that subtle methods are not always the most effective ways of communication where you are concerned, sir."

He snorts, but he has to laugh, because, well. "Point taken. But I still don't entirely agree with you that it's all of your jobs to bail me out of my responsibilities."

"Point also taken, though vastly simplified. But the principle is still the same, and should be considered. The parameters of our jobs have changed, Captain. They will always do so. We must change with them, and not allow our past to color our future."

"Huh." He half-smiles, and leans back with his elbows on the railing. "That's pretty poetic, for a Vulcan."

Spock's eyes close briefly in exasperation. "I believe science itself has proven human nature tends toward decay, sir. That such a fate should befall your non-human species is an unfortunate but inevitable effect of being outnumbered aboard this ship."

He laughs out loud at that, the sound ringing clear in the ocean-swept night.

"Well, far be it from me to argue with the most brilliant scientist in the 'Fleet, Mr. Spock.” His words are formal, but he knows Spock will hear the fondness in it, after all this time. “Consider me duly admonished.”

“I shall hold you to that. Jim.”

“Now what do you say we explore this place a little before we go back and I let you scare the pants off the next ensign who tries to stop me in the corridors?"

"If you believe that to be the best use of my functions aboard this ship."

"Well it certainly is one thing you do quite well."

"I do try, sir."

Chapter Text

III.

Starfleet has some clearly documented directives which are never to be broken. The Prime Directive, or General Order One, being the most notable (if the most arguably open to subjectivity). And there are some unspoken directives which tend to be generally accepted as law aboard ship, some sensible and some, in Jim's not uninformed opinion, ridiculous and subject to his, shall we say, situational interpretation. Never apologize to your subordinates; it shows weakness as a leader. Command officers do not negotiate with terrorists or dictators. Every crewman becomes a security officer when the safety of the captain is threatened.

The one which he has been called into question over the most, oddly enough, is not his bending of the Prime Directive, but rather his refusal to bend on what he regards as the key principle which unites this ship and prevents her from becoming more of a fatality risk than she already is. The Enterprise is known for adherence to never leaving a man behind, crewman or civilian, and while that principle has cost life and even ship before, it is one he steadfastly refuses to waver upon despite counsel to the contrary.

This, being one of those annoying instances when he is being advised to the contrary.

"Scotty, I need good news from you." He grabs the armrests of his chair as the ship lurches again under the force of the gravimetric disturbances which are slamming into it from all sides as they drift dangerously close to the edge of the field.

"Ahhhhh then y'might want to check back in a minute or so, not now sir!"

They have three men stranded below, struggling to transport up through the irregularities the disturbances are causing. Their teams had transported down easily enough when the moon was farther from its orbital planet's heavy gravity, but due to its approach twelve hours later, they are now finding it almost impossible to get a lock onto the men below. Temperatures on the moon will drop below human tolerance very soon, so they have to get them off the surface in the next hour, or he will have to call it and abandon them to die in the elements.

Scott has already given him an earful about how he's blown out two of the transporter stabilizing pads trying to hotwire a bypass circuit to compensate for the heavy disturbances, and while he wants to kill his First Officer Jim has to admit Spock is just doing his job, telling him that the ship will inevitably suffer serious structural damage in the next twenty minutes.

A particularly bad fluctuation slams into them with only a second's worth of proximity alarms, and he nearly falls out of his chair as the ship rocks crazily under the shockwave. An ominous creaking sound comes from over their heads, and he doesn't look up, afraid of what he'll see.

"Scotty," he warns.

"I think I may have it in another minute, sir. Hold please!"

"Lieutenant, if you want to head down there you can," he says, half-turning so he can talk to Uhura. It's three of her communications people which are stranded down there; the other half of the away team had made it back just fine a few hours previously. These three had been tasked with satellite repair and it had taken longer than anticipated. She's working on developing her command skills; he'd like to see her attain the rank of Lieutenant-Commander for their second mission, and to do that she's trying to take a more active role in away missions when she can be spared from the Bridge.

She flicks him a grateful look and heads to the turbolift without another word, proof of how on edge she's been over her people. A red-shirted lieutenant from Comms slides into her chair and flicks a switch to transfer station command, and Jim turns back around, shifting nervously.

Another disturbance hits them, not as strong that time, but an alarm starts sounding at the Science station.

"Do I want to know what that is?" he asks dryly.

"Structural damage to the deflector dish, sir. We have been remarkably fortunate thus far that the hull has not suffered further than it has." Spock's brows are furrowed as he pulls up reports from damage control. "However, I estimate only twelve point four minutes more before we suffer a serious hull breach in Decks Seven through Twelve and possibly the port nacelle."

"Understood."

"Captain, I must again remind you of the regulations surrounding the safety of all hands in the event of an uncontrollable natural occurrence such as this gravimetric disturbance field. Should the nacelle rupture in this area of the quadrant, the repairs will take nearly six months and ground us at the edge of charted space for that period.”

"Duly noted, Commander. But we're not leaving until we have those men aboard."

He can see the looks being exchanged among the less experienced Bridge crewmen, and taps the comm again. "Scotty, status report."

"I've rerouted all subsystems away from the transporter to give us every spare bit of power direct from the computer banks; that should allow the best chance to compensate mid-transport for any surges due to the disturbances."

"Good. Have we got any kind of reading on the fluctuation pattern?"

"Aye, sir, I've got Mr. Chekov's reports right enough. They're approximately ninety seconds apart, sir. Soon as the next one hits I'll be initiating transport sequence. If we're lucky, I'll be able to lock onto all three of –" His words are cut off by another shuddering jolt as they bump against a disturbance pocket. "Right, initiating now, sir."

"Hold her steady as you can, Mr. Sulu."

"Aye, Captain."

The ship shakes slightly, then levels out with an alarming groan somewhere below them.

"Structural integrity compromised in Shuttle Bay Twelve. Sealing off hangar bay until compressurization field stabilizes," Spock intones calmly.

"Mr. Chekov, begin plotting us a course out of here, most direct path you can around these disturbances."

"Aye, Keptin."

"Scotty. Report." There is no reply through the comm., and he exhales slowly, then presses the switch again. "Bridge to Transporter Room Two. Do you copy."

"Transporter Room to Bridge." It's Uhura's voice, calm and collected. "Mr. Scott is under the transport console, rewiring something, Captain."

"That's a no, then, we don't have them?"

"We have them, sir, he's pretty sure; we just don't want to bring them in through this disturbance without additional stabilization fields. He's adding a pattern enhancer to each pad just to be safe, because the fields are growing worse by the minute. Please hold, Bridge."

“Bridge to Sickbay. Doctor McCoy, report to Transporter Room Two with a medical crew to receive the away team, prepare for minor pattern degradation sickness and elemental exposure.”

"I am sooo glad we beamed up when we did," Sulu mutters from the helm.

"You're not kidding, Mr. Sulu. This is the last time I let a team stay down that long knowing the issues they might run into upon beam-up, and knowing we can't get a shuttle through those conditions."

"Not your fault, sir. And you've done more than most captains probably would, to try and get them back."

Jim shrugs, because that's something he doesn't want to contemplate; that there might be out there, captains of starships who would have just warped away after the proper time and not got their people out. Sure, he's going to blow his entire quarterly budget on repairs to the ship after this, and Command is going to have a cow about both the budget and the protocol breach, but you do what you have to. He’s just praying he doesn’t blow that nacelle, because there won’t be any coming back from that, probably.

"Transporter Room to Bridge. Captain, we have three technicians aboard, alive and well." Uhura's smiling, he can tell in her voice. "They are being escorted to Medical for a check-up now, sir."

"Thank you, Lieutenant. And good work, Mr. Scott. Okay, people, let's blow this place before we break something valuable."


"I still can't believe they're making you do this."

Jim rolls his eyes, tugging the hem of the dress tunic into position. He gives himself a once-over and then turns away from the mirror with a sigh, following his CMO out the door. "Obviously, someone is throwing their weight around, and I've pissed somebody off recently, Bones."

A snort. "Situation normal, in other words? But this takes all, though. Since when does a Starfleet captain become nothing more than a glorified taxi driver for some Starfleet propaganda machine?"

"Since he broke three regulations pulling his people off of Iota IV and cost the 'Fleet two starships’ worth of latinum in repairs to the hull structure and dilithium chamber," he replies dryly.

"That's blackmail, Jim."

They exit the turbolift onto the primary Shuttle Deck, and he just laughs ruefully. "That's politics, Bones. It could be a lot worse, they could be making the Enterprise ferry the Commissioner and not just me. Nothing's worse than having to entertain civilians aboard ship."

"That's true, but it still isn't fair you have to spend four days on this stupid little detour because somebody's got a chip on their shoulder about the fact you wouldn't just sign three crewmen's death warrants!"

"Let it go, Bones. Ah, Mr. Scott. Is she ship-shape and star-worthy?"

"Aye, sir, fueled and ready. You have five days' worth of supplies and a spare dilithium crystal."

"Well, let's hope I'm not going to need that, especially considering how much it just cost us," he says mildly. "These new shuttles do have impulse engines too, right? Because no matter how good a pilot I am, I can't just drop out of warp right on top of the Enterprise or Colony Alpha Thirty-one."

"Oh, aye, sir! 'Tis just a precaution. You have a full impulse engine, and the short-range warp engine has a maximum speed of warp two only. She'll handle well enough for you, sir. But I can send one of the lads with you, if –"

"No, that's not necessary. I'm sure it can't be that much different from the previous model, can it?"

"Negative, sir. Controls are all the same, only the outer design, engine capabilities, and amenities are different in this model. Y'should be just fine."

"Okay then." He taps the wall-comm. "Shuttle Bay One to Bridge. Galileo requesting permission to depart."

"Bridge to Shuttle Bay One." Spock is the voice of calm in what has been a very irritating day, and he relaxes slightly under its familiar tone of calm, clear reason. "Captain, you are cleared for departure."

"Don't break my ship, Spock."

"I have neither the intent nor the courage to do so, sir."

He laughs. "See you in four days, guys."

"Safe travels, Captain."

"Be careful, Jim." Bones follows as he walks toward the shuttle ramp. "You know they haven't even bothered to name A-31 because it's so inhospitable. All kinds of electrical storms going on in the upper atmosphere this time of the solar cycles and you're gonna be flying right into that mess."

"Bones, seriously, there's an auto-pilot for a reason. And it's a freaking starbase, they have bots to help with landing if for some reason I have a problem. You need to, I dunno, go have a drink or something. Relax."

"I just don't like it."

He smiles, and pats his CMO on the shoulder briefly. "You worry too much, Doctor. Now, go bug Spock and I'll see you in four days. You guys better be on time to pick me up, too, we all want that shore leave in the Siivaran system." He bounds up the steps into the shuttle and hears the hiss of a magnetic lock as the door shuts behind him. Honestly, Bones is going to worry himself into an early grave if he doesn't stop that, and they haven't even finished their first mission yet.

It really doesn't do anything to help Jim's nerves, either, because it's not like this is going to be a pleasure trip for him. Picking up a Starfleet negotiator and ferrying them to a backwater colony halfway across the quadrant is not his idea of a joyride, but he has poked the Starfleet bear and now has to run from it. It simply can't be helped.

Scotty was correct, the shuttle controls are all the same, easing him into flight like an old friend. He lifts off with zero problems from the shuttle bay's floor, watching as the doors to the main hangar close and seal. The lights indicating decompressurization start to flicker and then the outer doors slowly open, allowing him to exit in a controlled arc that loops over the saucer section and out in front of the Enterprise to hover for just a moment.

She's so beautiful, sometimes he still can't believe she's his.

He smiles, and engages the short-range warp drive, leaving her in a multi-hued wake of light refraction.


Bones's bad feeling was apparently partly correct, but more because Commissioner Feris is a royal pain in the ass than anything actually dangerous.

He sees now why the Admiralty deemed this a fitting punishment for his alleged crimes. The man is pompous and arrogant, cold and sour as a lemon slurpie, and at all times looks a bit like he's swallowed a pine-cone and is trying to pass it. An altogether horrible little man, and he literally never. Shuts. Up.

Jim can't decide if his ears actually are bleeding, or if he just wants to claw them until they are.

It is at times like this, that he realizes just how valuable his crew truly are. They have been in situations like this before, of course; such is the life of a Starfleet officer. But usually he has one or more of his own officers around to mitigate the concentrated horror of such a nightmare as this one. They run interference, divert conversation, and generally keep him sane, sometimes just from their presence; he wonders if they even know how valuable they are.

He should probably tell them that, when he gets back.

Finally, after what seems like hours, he is able to extricate himself by pointing out his duty to rendezvous on time with his crew. He manages to make his escape before any of the clearly lonely colonists are able to come up with excuses to delay him further, and makes his report of mission complete to Starfleet Command. Logs the Commissioner safely inside the protective dome of Colony A-31, and is able to finally, finally take a breather.

Just a short one, but it's liberating enough that he is actually grinning with relief as he begins the pre-flight sequence, laying in the auto-charted course to rendezvous with the Enterprise. Less than an hour's journey until their rendezvous point just outside this star system, and he will be home.

Despite the storm-strewn, multi-layered scope of A-31's upper atmosphere, the lower atmosphere is fairly calm, and the surface of the planet somewhat sustainable for life. The planet possesses an extremely varied topography because it moves so very slowly one would not believe it actually rotates. This leaves one half of the planet lush and green from sunlight and the other, the half which almost never fully sees the star which it orbits, ranging from barren and rocky to wind-swept and dark. Starbase A-31 itself sits on the northern pole of the planet, where the climate is most moderately balanced between the two extremes and the windstorms are least heavy.

It is an interesting sight from the skies, the wild duality, a study in chaotic dichotomy. Jim glances over the planet with curiosity as the shuttle circles the equator, gathering momentum for its vault through the cloud cover into the edges of the atmosphere.

Finally, the indicators chirp cheerfully to let him know ideal momentum has been reached, and he settles in for the ride. Flipping the switch for the fuel injectors, he begins to climb at half-impulse along the computer's projected path, careful to watch for storm clouds and interference. He gradually increases speed following that path, until the cloud cover grows dense and gray, wind buffeting the small shuttle in occasional huge gusts. The computer and his steady hand keep the helm true, however, and it should only be another sixty seconds before they break through the worst of it.

The planet below finally disappears completely from sight, and the computer beeps a warning to let him know the engine's intake system is taking on ice and dust particulates. That's to be expected, with a heavy atmosphere like this, but it's concerning, so he reaches over to the co-pilot's seat and turns on the engine filtration system to clear them out for a minute or two.

And the engines just – die.

Completely.

There's a heart-dropping, breath-stealing, silent instant where his brain refuses to believe what just happened, and then his crisis training kicks in. He hastily performs a manual reboot on the console in front of him.

Nothing.

He has power to the console; lights are on, but nothing is happening to the engines, not so much as a rumble beneath his feet. Flipping the filtration switch back to its starting position does nothing. Vocally initiating a complete restart of essential systems does nothing. Diverting all non-essential power to engines does nothing.

Kicking the console in frustration does nothing.

The shuttle hasn't begun to drop yet, because he had almost cleared the atmosphere before the engines died; the gravity is very thin here. He'd gotten enough momentum going to keep their trajectory for the moment, but that's not going to last forever.

He drops to the ground and rips the front cover off of the console, trying to see if there's a way to hotwire the engines, anything – and apparently, these new models have all kinds of protective casings that he's never going to be able to take apart without tools.

Which there might be in the back, knowing Scotty, but there's a couple things he has to do first.

"Computer, full analysis of orbital trajectory," he yells, as he digs through the shuttle's emergency kit.

"Analyzing."

He pulls the string on the first flotation device and tosses it up front.

"Analysis complete."

"How screwed am I?"

"Invalid inquiry."

He yanks the string of the second device, swearing under his breath. "Computer, detail analysis."

"Orbital trajectory indicates decaying orbit. Course correction recommended: increase altitude by sixty-three degrees."

"You think?" He tosses the remaining two flotation devices toward the front of the shuttle. "End result if failure to correct course, computer."

"Failure to correct course will result in planetary impact in six-point-four minutes."

He swallows a cold, slithery knot of fear.

Okay. That's…not enough time to hotwire anything, even if he knew what he was doing. He stashes the emergency kit within reach of the pilot's chair, because if he does manage to survive a crash he probably won't be in condition to move and get it. Takes a deep breath, and re-seats himself in the chair, because there is already not enough time to get this done. The trajectory computer shows his orbit already degrading; he's running out of time before he even begins.

"Computer, begin recording."

He flicks a button and changes the course of the shuttle by five degrees, eyes scanning the surface of the planet visually and by topography map as he speaks. Maybe there’s a lake he can put her down in, rather than a cliffside.

"Shuttlecraft NCC-1701-A/14, Captain James T. Kirk recording. Enterprise, if you receive this, it means I was able to finish and launch the emergency beacon in time to clear the planet's atmosphere. Let the record show that this should be regarded as my last personal and Captain’s log, and as such any official information and personal wishes therein supersede all previous ones as legal and binding."

He exhales slowly, controlled. "I am experiencing complete impulse engine failure at 300km altitude over planet A-31's surface. Reason unknown, possibly caused by something in the planetary upper atmosphere. I am," he pauses for a second as the computer flashes a warning at him, then continues, "I am unable to maintain orbit or break free of the planet's gravitational pull, and obviously I cannot engage the warp drive at this altitude without nuking the planet below. Planetary collision is inevitable within the next…five minutes."

An alarm starts beeping on the console in front of him; he's beginning to drop now, significantly.

"Under no circumstances is another shuttle to risk its engines coming through this atmosphere until investigation proves the cause of the Galileo's engine failure. I intend…" He scrambles to hold the shuttle steady as she rocks crazily in the increasing wind of the upper atmosphere. "I intend to divert all remaining power immediately prior to landing to the thrusters, maybe I can bring this thing down in just four or five pieces instead of a hundred." There's a horrible screeching sound outside, and he's pretty sure something just tore away on the starboard side. "Yeeeeah, I might not even have those five minutes, so..."

He probably doesn't, actually, based on these readings. If he doesn't get this beacon out before he drops any further it won't make it up past the storm. He's downloaded the ship's logs by now, signed off on all of them, final procedures done.

"Listen, Spock…" He swallows hard. "Don't let them give her to anybody else, yeah? You can be an amazing leader, I’ve seen you do it. Keep the crew together and be the damn captain I know you can be. And –" A siren starts wailing in warning; his descent has suddenly nosedived. "I've got to try to land this thing. Look, tell Bones I…"

A huge gust of wind slams into the shuttle, sending it weaving off-course. He just manages to punch the launch button for the beacon before it's the fight of his life to get strapped into his safety harness and try to hold the poor thing steady as she screams on a downward trajectory, straight at the dark side of the planet.

Of course, Murphy's Law. He should never have even contemplated crashing on the nice side of the planet.

However, he is still a decent pilot, and Starfleet training is good for one thing at least – not losing your nerve in a crisis. Careful adjustments as they careen downward at least aim him toward a less Ice Age-looking region, though it's more mountainous and rocky from the look of it. But he doesn't have time to think about the climate, or really time to even blink; he just has time to cut all power, divert it to the thrusters as the shuttle reaches 800 meters. The heavy vehicle lurches sickeningly a few meters into the air, there's a moment of utter weightlessness, and he thinks for a second that he might just have pulled it off, saved himself from the worst crash-landing of his life.

Then everything starts veering to one side, he remembers that awful tearing noise earlier, and it would be just his luck that now he's side-heavy and yawing right toward what looks like a steep rocky hillside.

Luckily, he's not conscious long enough to feel when the shuttle finally stops rolling.


Weirdly enough, when he opens his eyes again he's not dead.

And he knows this, because he kind of wishes he were.

He'd intended the emergency flotation devices as a sort of improvised air-cushion system, and the thought had been a good one; but he hadn't had time to utilize them when it all came down to it, and that's pretty damn obvious because surely if he had, he wouldn't be in this much pain.

Apparently, he had managed to get himself well strapped into his safety harness, however, because he's still half in it, or maybe mostly in it; either way, he's not going anywhere, because that arm that's stuck behind him he's pretty sure is not supposed to bend that way. That immobilizing harness is probably the only thing keeping him from bawling his eyes out right now.

It would be a lot easier to breathe if it wasn't choking him, though. How one of the straps ended up twisted so tight around his neck is something he needs to revisit with the safety committee when he gets back, because that's a serious issue. If he moves the wrong way, it feels like it's going to hang him right here and now. He can feel his throat tightening up at the very thought, and he coughs a little out of pure reflex.

Now that, was a huge mistake. He really, really hopes he just bit his tongue in the crash, because if he's coughing blood then he has major problems. Judging from the stabbing pain radiating from the region of his left side, he's guessing the half of him that isn't dislocated got broken or something, which isn't really surprising considering he can see the haze of cloud cover and twilight of the perpetual sunset from where he's lying. And because it’s always in half-darkness, it’s impossible to know how long he’s been out. This whole half of the shuttle has been ripped to shreds and tossed somewhere and he really can't tell if he's upside down or right side up at the moment, the stupid planet won't stop spinning around.

It's also very possible he has a head injury.

But hey, he actually crashed that thing and survived.

"I am awesome," he declares to the solitary insect that has decided to stare at him from a nearby scraggly bush.

It clicks scaly wings at him and flies away, unimpressed.

"Don’t blame you," he murmurs, because if he can't get out of here in the next few hours he probably is going to bleed out or die of shock and exposure; this part of the planet may not be entirely dark but it is frigid and wind-blown. The emergency kit at least has a thermal pad and blanket in it, and it should have been here in the cockpit.

Except…this isn't really a cockpit anymore. The two inches he's able to turn his head without strangling himself reveals not the shattered front window, as he would expect, but only the mangled remains of the pilot's seat; the rest of the shuttle's front end appears to be strewn across the rocky hillside behind them.

That's right, he does vaguely remember hitting the ground on an angle and then rolling; these shuttles are notoriously ungainly things. He missed the plateau he'd been aiming for and hit the edge instead.

Well, that's awesome.

That also explains why he's well and truly stuck, because he was obviously thrown from the pilot's seat, probably when the roof was torn away. The harness must have snapped off and the momentum wrapped it around him like a dangerously tough spider's web in the chaos. He's half-trapped under a pile of debris behind what's left of the pilot's seat, braced against the shattered wall.

Shifting experimentally does nothing but make the pain in his head and arm flare into a vivid white-hot agony, and he gives that up without a second try, content to lie there for the moment and try to pull himself back together. A bracing gust of wind whips around the wreckage, whistling almost musically through the jagged debris, and he shivers, coughing as the motion tightens the harness strap. The hand that isn't dislocated behind him is trapped in another coil of the same stupid harness, and he is pretty sure the thing is totally not living up to its name as there is nothing safe about this. Struggling against it seems to be futile, though, because he can't really see well enough in the half-dark to work his way free, and besides, it's too cold to really work that much. He's done enough for one day, for pity's sake.

The never-ending twilight softens the horror of the wreck around him, lulling him for a few minutes into a serene and quiet calm.


He jolts awake however long later, and at this point doesn't really care about his self-image enough to be ashamed of the sad little whimper of pain that apparently came from him, but who the hell is lighting up this wreck with a freaking searchlight or something, because that is not cool, seriously, and yeah, that has to be a head injury because he will legit hurl his spleen if that doesn't go away like right now.

Two sweeps and the light finally stops trying to burn out his eyeballs, the loud humming noise accompanying it dies away. When it finally disappears he blinks, finally able to think again past the throbbing in his head. Hello, brain, thank you for coming back online. The biting wind seems to help with that, and some part of him knows that shivering is actually a good thing, even if his body is saying nope, no thank you, no bueno, I'd like a refund on this life please.

Wait, searchlight?

He is still trying feebly to process that incongruity when the twilight is disrupted again, several meters away up the hill from him. He can only stare in disbelief as the columns of light slowly form into the familiar figures of two transport beams and then die away, leaving only shadows against the glint of the wreckage.

They disobeyed his orders. They sent a freaking shuttle down with a searchlight to look for the wreck and then beamed down a rescue team.

God, he loves this crew.

He totally blames the wind and dislocated shoulder for the tears, and no one can prove otherwise.

The shadowy figures on the hill look around at the wind-swept scene and pause for a second, his guess is horrified at the thoroughness with which he destroyed their best shuttlecraft.

He feels a little sick knowing what they had to have thought, finding his emergency beacon just above the planet's atmosphere.

"Oh my God, Leonard." The words are whipped his direction by the wind, but the shock in them is audible just the same. "They said a half-kilometer wreckage trail, but…"

A light clicks on. "You got any idea how bad I wish I'd gone with him, right now?"

"We've been over this, you have to stop. Come on, give me the scanner."

"No, I can do it, Lieutenant. I just…"

"I know." Her sigh is blown away by a smoke-charred gust. "Look, Spock said he would come down, you don't need to do this."

"I'm the Chief Medical Officer of this ship, I'm going to do my damn job, Nyota. I just wish it didn't mean...what the..."

"What? What is it?"

"Hold on, the interference is screwin' with the tricorder readings. For a second I thought…no, it's really there, I'm getting a life-sign reading!"

"What?!"

Jim almost pees himself laughing, because she can drink Scotty under the table and face down a Klingon without flinching but Nyota still has the high-pitched shriek of a sixteen-year-old girl.

"I'm not makin' it up, look for yourself! Not very strong indicators, though, so we need to move quick. How the hell he survived in this, I have no idea."

"Holy mother of…Leonard, I don't see how he could have. Look at the debris field."

"I don't either, but comm Medical and get a triage team ready."

"On it."

"But listen, don't call the Bridge yet. It's possible that's a false reading and I am not gonna get anybody's hopes up."

"Understood. Well, go find him already!"

Jim rolls his eyes, because that’s all he can do in his frustration; it's like a bad telenovela, but he has no voice to yell, and if he tries he might actually choke himself to death. Somewhere in his impromptu nap he came closer to strangling himself on this stupid harness. And if Bones is worth his title, his tricorder should be able to triangulate the signal well enough. All he can do is wait, they’re only a few meters away.

He watches the little light bob closer, almost lulled into a hypnotic state of fascination, until before he realizes it it's almost right on top of him and Bones is still calling his name, obviously seeing this is where most of the cockpit ended up.

He clears his throat, winces at the burn of the strap, and tries to call back, but only manages a weird hacking noise that sounds vaguely like a laryngitic velociraptor. Frustrated, he kicks at whatever object is closest (he can't see in the twilight), and apparently it was a pretty substantial piece of durasteel because it goes crashing over with a satisfying whangggg.

It about scares his CMO out of his uniform, but accomplishes the goal. Three seconds later, the pocket lantern is being hastily thrown on the nearest stable piece of wreckage, and gravel is spraying everywhere as McCoy scrambles down the last few meters of incline toward him, face white as a sheet.

"Jim!" Skidding to a stop, Bones has a hand on his pulse under the choking strap and another on his forehead, and just the kind contact makes him feel so much warmer, his eyes close automatically. "My God, Jim, look at you."

"Hey," he rasps, unable to get more out just at the moment.

"Keep your eyes on me, Jim, let me know you're with me. Hang on a second, let me get this off. You're cyanotic and freezing." A quick noise and smell of burning, and the strap comes away from his neck, bringing blessed oxygen with it. Laser scalpels, amazing things. "Can you give me an idea what I'm looking at, Jim? What happened?"

He's getting a tricorder readout, Jim knows; this is to keep him awake and talking more than anything else. The rush of oxygen and relief is doing that just fine, though.

"I crashed," he says succinctly, grinning.

"Kind of figured that, kid. And you never do things by half, do you." Bones's eyes are on the tricorder screen, but they're growing slightly less worried now that he's talking and relatively aware of his surroundings. And yeah, wow, he hasn’t been called kid in like a decade, he must have scared them all pretty bad today.

Footsteps scramble in the twilight behind them, and a moment later he sees Uhura's maroon uniform melt out of the darkness into the lantern-light. She takes one look and drops to her knees beside him, eyes wide.

"Captain, how are you?"

"Awesome." Well, at least his voice sounds mostly normal now. He gives her a thumbs-up from the trapped hand, and she reaches over to appropriate the laser scalpel, slicing through the strap in one smooth motion and then untangling it with unusual gentleness. "Thanks."

"Medical is standing by to beam down a triage team if you require it, Doctor."

"Good. Oh, and you can probably tell the rest of 'em now," Bones says, running a scanner over Jim's torso region. "I'm not about to let him die at this point, it'd be a waste of resources."

"Love you too, Bones."

Uhura grins and flips open her communicator. "Uhura to Enterprise. Come in, Enterprise."

"Enterprise, Lieutenant Riley here. Go ahe-"

"Report, Lieutenant."

Jim stares at the instrument in fascination, then looks up at Uhura. He's never heard Spock interrupt anyone before, much less a subordinate and in such a public setting.

"It's not been a good day, sir," she says quietly.

He nods in understanding.

"Report, Lieutenant." Geez, Spock's tone could peel tritanium alloy.

He plucks the communicator from his Comms Chief's hands and presses the button. "Don't get too comfortable in that chair, Commander. I'm going to want it back when I'm done in Sickbay."

There's dead silence from Spock but he hears a chorus of distant cheers that warms him more than the thermal blanket Bones has tossed over him as he works to extricate him from the debris.

"I think I broke him," he murmurs, handing back the communicator.

"Just about," she replies, seriously. "Don't ever do this again, Jim."

"Believe me, I have no plans to step foot in a shuttle the rest of my career if at all possible. And speaking of careers." He looks pointedly between the two of them. "I distinctly recall giving direct orders to not run another shuttle through that atmosphere."

"No, you said don't run a shuttle through it until it's been verified what caused your engine failure," Bones corrects, gently straightening out his uninjured leg.

"And…?"

Uhura sits back on her heels, sighing. "We figured it out pretty quickly, actually. Total impulse engine failure is nearly impossible, which is why Scotty solved the issue almost immediately."

"Oh? How's that?"

"He told you there was no difference in controls between the original Galileo shuttle model and the new generation."

He has a bad feeling about this. "Yeah. And?"

She looks equal parts pissed and just…sad. "The new shuttles have a kill switch for the impulse engines, because of the warp drive installation; running both will of course overload the shuttle and the thing will explode, so a kill switch was installed as a safety measure. It takes five minutes to recharge after killing the impulse engines."

He stares at her in consternation. "And the kill switch is, let me guess, where the filtration switch was in the old Galileo model."

"Apparently. He didn't even know until he went through piece by piece, control by control, with the new specs. It's a serious design flaw that none of us old-schoolers would really know unless we memorized the specs for every update."

"That's not an excuse," Bones snaps, with uncharacteristic venom.

"No, but it is a valid reason," he sighs. "I'd certainly never guess that, and I don't expect him or anyone else to memorize every update, given how many we get a week. That's the stupidest place to put something that important, anyway, it’s a serious engineering flaw."

"He's beside himself with blame, Captain." Uhura's eyes are obviously still trying to hold back tears. "When we found out…it's just not been a good day, sir."

"Understatement of the century." Bones hefts the last piece of debris off his torso and inspects the harness which is still twisted somehow around his body and dislocated arm. "Now, Jim, I'm gonna have to do surgery on this shoulder anyway, and it'll be a lot less painful if I just remove this once I get you in the OR. But if it's botherin' you right now, that trapped feeling, I can get it off before we beam you out."

"I'm okay," he says, forcing a smile. "I just want to go home, Bones."

"Ok, then I'mma take you out now. Transport's not going to be fun, Jim, it's gonna hurt like hell."

"Pretty sure it'll be better than crashing into a mountain."

"Point."

Uhura laughs a little wetly and helps brace him against the wall of the shuttle in a sitting position, the better to lock safely onto one transporter pad while McCoy comms the transporter room with medical instructions. "Ready, sir?"

"So ready. I'll talk to Scotty, by the way; it's not entirely his fault."

"Thank you, Captain. There was a slight…altercation, about the whole thing, so you might want to do it during your next briefing. He, ah, let's just say it'd be best not to schedule him and Spock on the same shift for a while."

He tries not to laugh, because it really, really isn't funny. Much. Poor Scotty.

"I'll do that. You, tell Spock to chill or I swear, I will totally embarrass him at your wedding."

"Like you're not going to, anyway."

"See, you had your chance to leave me here and you didn't take it, Lieutenant. Not much of a strategist, I have to say."

"We've been taught by the best, sir. Never leave a man behind, even if he's stupid enough to hit an engine kill switch and crash his shuttle into a mountain."

"You are never going to let this one drop, are you?"

"Not a chance, sir."

Chapter Text

II.

They are trawling through middle space at a moderate speed, for once having completed a leg of their mission with zero casualties or incidents, and are about an hour out from Starbase Sigma Twelve, intent upon docking there for some much-deserved shore leave. This will be their last stop along the outskirts of civilization before they head out into deep space again, for the final leg of their mission; the only ships and colonies this far out in space are exploratory science ventures, and he has every intention of making sure his crew enjoys their week-long vacation at this final destination while it lasts.

Just now, however, he's a little irritated that no one on the starbase can be bothered to answer their hails, as Uhura has been trying to comm them for over an hour to confirm their docking coordinates. Sigma Twelve is not a central space hub due to its close proximity to the Mutara Nebula, but it is a fairly busy starbase due to its lucrative business of nebula-gazing cruises, and if they do not have a place in orbital dry-dock by their arrival it will delay beamdown considerably for his people. A successful shore leave depends on successful rotation of personnel without delay, and he wants to make sure his crew get that, after their last few months of intense duty.

His comms chief is rapidly losing patience with the station, he can tell, though she remains professional as ever, and he refrains from continually asking for updates since he knows she will let him know when there is one. Meanwhile, he casually pauses beside the Science station for a second, tamping down firmly on a feeling of lurking unease.

Spock's eyes flick sideways in question, head tilting slightly.

"Are you picking up ionic interference or anything that would explain a lack of communication from the 'base headquarters?" he asks in an undertone.

A silent shake of the head is answer enough; Spock's already two steps ahead of him. They both know by now that when they suspect something is wrong, it usually is, at least wherever this ship tends to go.

"Unregistered vessels in this sector?"

"Negative. In fact, there is an alarming lack of residual plasma and ion trails in this sector, indicating far less stellar traffic than should be passing through at this time of the galactic shipping cycles. Granted, we have access to very little recent information from the Mutara Nebula, radiation from which could easily be causing a communications blackout. Our sensors are not equipped to scan for any nebulaic interference at this distance from the region, though I could launch a probe if you wish, Captain."

Still. "That's a little premature, probably, and our resources are depleted as it is. Just the same, let me know if you figure out what's going on without resorting to that," he says, sotto voce, and Spock nods, turning back to the instruments. Two steps takes him back to his chair, and he settles into it without betraying his unease. "Mr. Sulu, take us down to impulse power, if you please."

Sulu half-turns, looking at him questioningly, but is too good an officer to audibly question the order. "Aye, sir. Dropping from warp in three…two. And one, sir. Full impulse power."

Chekov's fingers dance briefly over the controls, course correcting for the collapsing warp bubble. "An additional forty-five minutes will be added onto our approach, Keptin, making it just over one hour until we reach the station at this speed."

"Thank you, gentlemen." He glances back at the comms station, and Uhura shakes her head, dark eyes flicking uneasily to Spock and back again. "Until we find out why we're unable to raise the station I believe a cautious approach would be preferable to just dropping in. Steady as she goes."

Another twenty, thirty, forty minutes pass in slightly uneasy silence on the Bridge, as he signs a few reports and keeps one eye on the scanner inputs being forwarded to his chair from the Science station. Then they pass the sensor beacon which should indicate their approach to the Starbase, and which will also put them within detailed short-range scans of the station as well. They should be being scanned for foreign contaminants and contraband as a matter of protocol at this point, so as to not delay them upon arrival – but they're receiving no indications of any such scans being initiated by the station.

"Captain." He turns, and at Spock's look moves up the steps to the science station.

"What is it, Mr. Spock."

"A concerning lack of activity surrounding the space station, Captain." Spock indicates the diagram, leaning to one side slightly so Jim can lean over his shoulder and see. "At this time of the galactic cycle, Sigma Twelve should have at least forty-seven ships of varying sizes in orbital dock around the station, each with its own unique warp signature and each containing a significant number of life-forms, many of them cruise ships in constant circuitation of the nebula."

"And…am I reading that right, there's only three ships in orbit around the station? That can't be correct, Spock. Sensor malfunction?"

"I have checked, re-checked, and run a full diagnostic of our scanning systems to ascertain the possibility of such a malfunction. The scans are accurate." Spock's eyes flicker to the viewscreen automatically, though the station is not yet in view. "Given the fact that we have yet to make contact, nor have the typical Starfleet protocol scans been initiated at our approach, I believe we may hypothesize that all is not as it should be aboard the station."

"Go to Red Alert, Commander." He doesn't raise his voice, but he can feel the tension ratchet up ten notches on the instant around him; rarely does he jump the gun into red without the cautionary yellow first, but hell if he will be caught off-guard again like he has been before with so many lives at stake.

This ship flies into no more ambushes.

"Cut off that klaxon," he says in annoyance as he passes Uhura's chair, and she slaps the button to shut it off, leaving only the flashing lights to indicate their alert status. "Lieutenant, in your efforts to raise the station, have you tried all private short-range frequencies known to Starfleet personnel of all statuses?"

"That's last on the checklist due to proximity, Captain, and I am initiating contact now. No response on the emergency channels or any long-range frequency. I even tried the old emergency channels we discarded five years ago, no response."

"Fifteen minutes until docking procedures should commence, sir, and we have had no confirmation from the station," Sulu informs him from the helm.

"Hold course, Mr. Sulu. Uhura, I need contact if there's someone down there."

"I can't give that to you, Captain." She tosses the earpiece on the counter, looking thoroughly pissed off. "I'm receiving nothing but white noise on any channel. It's as if someone left every broadcast channel on the station wide open, but they either aren't receiving or transmitting, or both. There's an occasional variation in pattern as if something is fluctuating in the wavelengths but that could just be power surges; I can't hone in on anything more specific. The equipment is receiving, or at least is down there and functional; but I don’t know more than that."

Well, that's encouraging. If Nyota can't make sense of the garbled transmission, then there isn't sense to be made.

He says as much, and she relaxes just slightly, though she still looks thoroughly disgruntled to be so stymied by what is likely damaged transmitters or a lack of people to run the equipment.

"Eight minutes until docking procedures commence, Captain."

"Slow to one-half impulse, Mr. Sulu." He rubs a hand over his chin, mind racing. There's been no obvious hostility, and at this range they should have lit up every proximity sensor the station has, so they're probably safe to dock, but just the same… "Mr. Spock, put together an armed landing party and have them meet me in Transporter Room Four in fifteen minutes. Full EV and anti-grav belts until we ascertain that the environmental conditions on the station are situation normal – I'm taking no chances with whatever we're dealing with."

"Captain, may I suggest that I should be the more preferable choice to lead a mission which may require scientific knowledge in its commanding officer."

"You may, Mr. Spock, and your recommendation is noted. It is also dismissed." He blithely ignores the glare of death which is fired at him through the transparisteel doors of the turbolift as they close.

Just another day at the office.


For someone who supposedly doesn't feel emotions, Spock can be so passive-aggressive when he's pissed off.

Honestly, his First knows Jim hates being on landing parties with Giotto; their Security Chief takes his job waaaaay too seriously, and there's nothing more annoying than being physically restrained from going into a building by two belligerent redshirts while two other (very much amused) Security officers enter first.

Damn regulations.

And damn Spock too, because Spock knows Giotto is the only one Jim can't bully into disregarding them. Adding the most boring of his Xenosocietal lieutenants and McCoy onto the landing party is just catty.

The fact that this space station should be crawling with various Starfleet personnel and a scattering of civilians running the cruise lines and they've yet to encounter a single person and it is giving him the fricking creeps because it's way too reminiscent of mass-genocides-which-will-not-be-named and he would really like Spock's level head and dry humor right about now to stave off the lurking panic, is entirely irrelevant.

They're entering the third deserted building's outer courtyard (thankfully without finding any bodies, though that certainly doesn't mean people didn't die there) when there's a sudden distant rumbling, low and menacing.

"Uh…I thought the weather was regulated in 'Fleet starbases?" MacMillen, one of the Security detail, asks in genuine confusion.

He looks around at the simulated sunshine and hopes the chill running down his spine is just imaginary. "It is, Ensign."

The noise grows louder, ominously vibrating in the air around them. Three years of living in New San Francisco doesn't mean he recognizes the signs early enough, because it's Giotto that suddenly turns and shouts for them to take cover under something. Without questioning his Security Chief, he makes a dive for the nearest awning and braces himself against the solid simul-stone archway. Close at his heels, two of his Security detail duck under low benches, and he sees the rest of the landing party scatter off to his right like so many blue and red-shirted ants as even he can feel the ground vibrating now beneath their feet.

A chunk of stone slams into the walkway nearby, and he looks up, slightly reassured to see his hiding place isn't moving at all. From somewhere down the starbase's main street a huge screeching crash indicates another building is not so lucky as theirs, but there is no sound of human scream or cry of distress above the clamor. Clouds of dust arise in the distance, and the shaking increases for what feels like ages but is probably just a few seconds, dropping debris all over the courtyard.

Then, just as suddenly as it had started, everything stops, goes silent again. Not a voice can be heard, where there should be thousands.

He carefully picks his way back into the courtyard, hopping over chunks of what had been a beautifully crafted replica of an ancient Earth church.

Giotto salutes him from across the courtyard and turns back to the two redshirts he'd all but thrown under an awning, and Jim turns back to the rest of the group. "Everyone all right?"

"A-okay, Captain." MacMillen, covered in a fine white dust but unharmed, helps McCoy up from behind a low overhang. "Doc? You all right?"

"I told you, all of you, this was a bad idea," is the sour response, and Jim hides a smile, flipping open his communicator. "But what does my opinion matter? I'm only the Chief Medical Officer of the godforsaken flagship, after all! And –"

"Kirk to Enterprise," he says, over the increasingly familiar rant. He can see MacMillen trying not to laugh, solemnly handing over a battered tricorder and scurrying out of harm's reach as fast as politeness can permit. "Kirk to Enterprise. Come in, Enterprise."

There's an alarming delay before a very scratchy "-terprise to –tain Kirk. Sir, can you -st that signal at all, we –ly read you."

Not good. That means communications satellites are in a degrading orbit, most likely. At this range, they should be able to communicate with the ship in orbit, with a direct line of sight, provided the satellites are still in proper position. Even in low power mode, they would still triangulate the signal properly.

This might also mean they will have a lot of problems beaming back to the ship.

"Enterprise, our communications are being blocked or scambled by sources unknown. See if you can ascertain the orbital status of the station's comms satellites, Lieutenant Uhura. Do you copy."

A crackled "Aye, sir." fizzles through the connection.

"Spock, if you're reading me, I need you down here. Bring a geological team with you and make sure Scotty knows he's probably going to need to use pattern boosters to get us back. Bring extras with you for the rest of us."

A bad connection cannot hide the obvious surprise in his First's voice at his complete change of mind. If the situation wasn't so disturbing, it would be amusing. "Sir, we -you, repeat orders to confirm."

"Get your ass down here with a geo team, we just had a freaking earthquake and I want to know why!"

A muffled snicker from behind him reminds him this is not his Bridge, and these are not his much more casual alpha crew; he reins in his frustration, and his familiarity. "Orders confirmed, Commander. I am well aware of the break in regulation in having us both on an away mission. However, I require the best scientific mind aboard down here and I don't think Scotty is going to be able to get us back up there without pattern boosters. Which I am counting on you to bring with you and possibly fine-tune through this interference with him on the other end."

"Acknowledged. ETA -y minutes."

Whatever, Jim knows he'll be here as fast as he can. "Beam down to these coordinates, and begin a total geological and topographical scan of the entire planet, not just the station sitting on it. I want to know what's happening down here."

"Aye, sir. -terprise out."

"Right then." He glances around at his crew, settling on Lieutenant Oc'thrae, the young scientist from Spock's Xenosocietal department. "Lieutenant, speculate on what could have happened here, based upon the information we've gathered so far."

The Andorian's eyes widen at being so put on the spot. "Well, sir…to be honest, it's a puzzle. And I would prefer not to speculate without seeing the scans of the entire planet, Captain. The addition of this new element, the earthquake where there should be zero gravimetric or geological disturbance whatsoever on this planet, adds a totally irrational element to the equation."

He sighs; all of Spock's protégés sound more like him every day. "In other words, you haven't got a clue, have you."

Oc-thrae turns a delicate shade of cerulean. "No, sir."

"He has a point about the earthquake, Captain." Giotto's face is drawn with controlled tension. "Sigma Twelve occupies the tiniest portion of this planet, but it's nowhere near a fault line. Even should Mutara Prime suddenly develop tectonic activity, we should not feel it. Not this far inland."

"I'm aware, Chief," he returns in a low tone. "There's something else, too, that only just now occurred to me. I'm an idiot for not noticing before."

"What's that, sir?"

"Mutara has next to no atmosphere, Chief, that's why Sigma Twelve is built inside this huge bio-dome."

Giotto raises his eyebrows expectantly.

Jim looks uneasily upward, though they of course can only see a simulated sky against the top of the protective dome. "So why, when we approached the planet, did I see pretty thick cloud cover over most of it on our viewscreen?"


Six hours later, they are no closer to an answer, and a lot closer to dying, on a couple very scary occasions, than they were before. A building collapsed almost on top of Spock's geo team, and had Scotty not been able to perform the fastest beam-out of his life they might be mourning the unnecessary loss of four valued crewmen over nothing more important than tricorder readings.

Jim had called it at that point, demanding a beam-out of all personnel despite his brave geo team’s vocal protests, and after a quick sonic shower and change of uniform now is meeting his senior staff for a regroup in Briefing Room One to try to figure out what the heck is going on, or at least what had gone on prior to their arrival in the Mutara system.

"Okay, so let's speculate. What could we be looking at, best and worst case? Not some kind of attack, there are no indications of violence down there."

"Correct," Spock agrees, scrolling through the data collected on their landing. "There are no organic traces to be found on the surface which would indicate widescale life-form death. Neither did we find residual energy readings indicating a mass discharge of weaponry. Such a discharge might eliminate all traces of organic matter, but there are no indications of such energy readings; meaning the station's occupants did not die on the station by any means of which we are currently aware in science."

"So they left voluntarily."

"Or were taken," Sulu interjected.

"All three thousand-plus of them, not including the orbiting starship crews?"

"It's not likely, sir, but it's a possibility. Especially since all but three of the ships are gone?"

"Not a very high possibility, however, Lieutenant," Spock replies thoughtfully. "We would still read signs of recent violence, at the least, had there been an altercation in or around the station. Or signs of mass transports, should there have been an uncontrolled evacuation in a short period of time, as the overrides required of the transport system into cargo mode discharge a significant amount of energy. Non-warp vessels and cargo pods would have been launched as well in the event of an emergency evacuation, and most of those remain docked in residential areas of the station. There is no indication that anyone was attempting to flee the planet."

"We should also have at least some kind of recorded distress signal; there are too many methods of leaving one for them not to have at least one working at the time of whatever happened," Uhura points out. "All their comms equipment in the main hub of the Sigma Twelve branch of 'Fleet HQ was still working down there, according to my techs. But nothing has been sent out indicating they were in distress at any point in the last two weeks. Routine transmissions just stop, two weeks ago, mid-day, and there's simply nothing after that."

"So…we're left with voluntary evacuation at some undetermined point, then, is what I'm hearing. With no reason left on the record." He glances around the table, and receives a half-shrug of uncertainty from Sulu, who looks at Spock and Uhura for confirmation.

"At present, that is the only theory which fits the facts as we know them, Captain. A controlled evacuation over the correctly projected period of time would explain the lack of chaos below, the absence of orbiting ships around the station, and the lack of residual mass transport signatures in the upper atmosphere."

"Then why wasn't Starfleet Command notified? Where did they evacuate to? And why?"

"The first two, I cannot answer at this time."

"But the last?"

"I believe we may presume the evacuation has something to do with the fact that Mutara Prime appears to be…disintegrating, would be the most descriptive term." Spock flicks a finger across the data padd to throw a diagram up on the table's central tri-D screen, then rotates the hologram so that the side holding the domed station is toward them. "This is a thermal scan overlaid on a topographical representation of the planet."

"But Mutara doesn't have a molten core, it's made of ice. Like a stationary comet, is how I remember one cruise line pamphlet phrasing it." He leans forward to look, frowning, at the pulsating glow which fluctuates at the center of the hologram.

Spock's eyebrow inclines a fraction. "It did not have a heated core, Captain."

Well that's not good.

"Are you saying…"

"All I can say accurately at this time, Captain, is that scans prove Mutara no longer has a core composed of a frozen water and silicon mixture. Rather, by circumstances unknown and hitherto unheard-of in the scientific community, that core has been superheated. As a result, the planet's climate has drastically changed across the oceans, producing massive hurricanes and storm supercells; but more importantly, producing tectonic shifts of truly devastating proportions across the land masses."

"In essence…Sigma Twelve is sitting on a fault line over a live volcano, made of boiling water and molten silicone instead of lava."

"A highly simplified analogy, but not an entirely incorrect one. Only in this case, the volcano is the width of the planet's primary continent, and when it erupts, it will break the planet in half, quite literally. Mutara's shell was never designed for such pressure and will not withstand the force of such a climactic change. I have already run simulations in the Geology lab, and the computer itself could not produce a single scenario which could avert the catastrophe with any methods currently known to science."

He exhales slowly, staring at the pulsating red glow for a minute. "How long does it have?"

"Hours, possibly less. The danger is not immediate, but it is present."

"Uhura, status of those three ships still docked at the station."

"Two of them, the Faraday and the Gallant, are confirmed to be deserted. We sent over an Engineering team to each to verify."

"Their warp cores had been shut down, taken offline completely, sir," Scott adds, flicking through the report on his padd. "Matter/antimatter chambers deconstructed and sealed, so when the planet blows we'll have no fallout from their engines. Whoever left them, knew what they were doing, sir. I did confiscate the dilithium crystals and a few odds an' ends which were left behind, since they won't be needing them, whoever they were. An' we were supposed to refuel here anyway, sir."

He chuckles. "Just make sure you log everything as confiscated from a deserted friendly, Scotty."

"Aye, sir."

"What about the third ship?"

"It's highly shielded, Captain," Sulu says, shoving a padd across the table toward him. "We can't get any readings on it, one way or another. It's a small vessel, Kelvin type, called the Genesis. It also appears to have Starfleet markings on the stern. Thing is, sir, there's no such vessel on record with Starfleet Command."

"So they're either pirates masquerading as 'Fleet, or we have another rogue Section on our hands, is what you're telling me?"

"Uh…"

"Well surely someone who's hellbent on a major plot against the Federation wouldn't be stupid enough to just hang around an exploding planet, shielded ship or no shielded ship. And there are probably more off-the-books ops out there than either you or I want to think about, Mr. Sulu."

"Aye, sir."

"And remember, Starfleet Command supposedly has no record of evacuating this freaking starbase either, so that ship may very well hold our answers. I'm guessing they didn't answer your hails, Lieutenant?"

"They did not, Captain."

"Let's see if they'll listen to me, then. I'm usually pretty good at annoying people until I get what I want. That was rhetorical, guys. Dismissed."


"Keep an eye on those readouts, I don't want another wave like that to hit us broadside," he says over one shoulder as the alarms start to die back down, and Spock nods, already pulling up diagrams.

The two non-shielded vessels, directly in the path of the shockwave from the planet's surface, have already been destroyed, as has the space station below, imploding upon itself as that side of the planet starts to shift in massive quakes. A collapsing photon power generator inside Sigma Twelve's dome had caused the shockwave just now, so there should be no more of that magnitude; but just in case, he doesn't want to be around when that thing blows for good.

"Still no response, Lieutenant?" he asks, leaning over Uhura's shoulder to peer at the comms board.

She indicates the blinking light, which shows the transmission is being received but ignored. "Negative, Captain."

"And their shields held against that shockwave? That's almost unbelievable technology on a Kelvin-type vessel, isn't it?"

"It is, Captain," Spock answers, eyes never leaving the screens. "Certainly, such shielding is not Starfleet production standard for that type."

"Try hailing them again, Lieutenant." He leaves the comms station, moving back down to his chair, and pulls up Spock's reports on the condition of the imploding planet. They've probably got two hours, maximum, before the thing goes completely. And while the Enterprise-A can certainly withstand the resulting explosion without fatal harm, it would cause weeks' worth of damage they can ill afford to spare now.

"No response, Captain."

"I do not have time for this." He paces back and forth for a moment, tapping a finger against his lips, then spins on his heel. "Let's see if I can piss them off a little. Put two tractor beams on that ship, Mr. Spock."

Spock's lips quirk slightly as he pulls down the correct window, fingers flying. "Tractor beams engaged, Captain."

"Reverse power, Mr. Sulu. Begin backing us away from Mutara Prime."

"Aye, sir. Reversing power." The engines power up beneath them with a dull hum, and the storm-covered planet begins to ever so slowly retreat in their viewscreen.

"Captain. We are being hailed, sir," Uhura says suddenly, from behind him.

He snorts. "I thought we might be. On screen."

He turns back to the viewscreen as it fritzes for a second, finally settles into clarity – and then he stares in surprise at the face looking back at him. He hears a puzzled murmur ripple through the Bridge as he takes a step closer.

"Doctor Marcus," and by now he's practiced enough no one can hear even a hint that at one point they might've been more than just colleagues, "I hope certain aspects of our ship's shared history aren't about to repeat themselves?"

To his relief (because you never know anymore), her annoyed look morphs into what appears to be genuine laughter. "Really, Captain Kirk, if I'd any intention of following in my father's egomanic footsteps I could have destroyed your ship at any point in the last twelve hours, especially given that your shields were down completely for at least forty-five minutes while you beamed landing parties back and forth between Enterprise and the planet." He glances at Spock, who is frowning at their readouts, because that kind of incoming probe scan should have registered on their own instruments; and because it did not, that's a problem. "Now. Would you kindly release my vessel, Captain."

"Mm, let's talk about that, shall we, Doctor."

She wears her fair hair longer now, tied back in a sensible braid with some shorter pieces around her face, but now she pushes them behind her ears, eyes narrowing as he speaks. "It's Commander now, actually."

"Okay, my bad. Commander. Let's discuss why this ship of yours isn't registered with Starfleet Command. Is shielded so heavily we can't scan it. Is geosynchronously orbiting a space station on a dying planet which was evacuated inexplicably at some undetermined time, with Starfleet knowing absolutely nothing about it. And you’ll forgive me if I don’t entirely believe that you wouldn’t lie to my face again about Starfleet business if it was necessary to your mission. Something tells me your presence here isn’t a coincidence, Doctor Marcus."

She sighs, and sits back in what must be the command chair on the opposite Bridge. 

"Obviously, else I would not still be here, Captain Kirk. The Genesis is registered with Starfleet Command, by the way, but not under publicly accessible files. Command is also aware of the mass evacuation, but again, were not made so through any communications channel you would have access to. This ship is shielded by technology not available in standard use yet."

He stares at her in consternation.

"Does that answer enough of your questions?"

"No." She looks surprised, and he folds his arms, glaring back at her. "I have no idea what you're doing here, or if what you're saying is even true. For all I know, you've revived Section 31 and are screwing around with things you don't understand – or, you could just be another psychopath I have to deal with and seriously, we deserve a break.”

A faint snort from the helm reminds him he doesn’t need the rest of the crew catching on to his familiarity with her, and he reins himself back to professionalism.

"My mission to this Starbase was clear, and until I know there's no threat to my ship or this sector, you're not going anywhere."

"Galaxies, I hope you are not this rubbish at all your negotiations. But fine, then, feel free to beam over, if you simply must have all the details. But only you have that kind of security clearance, Jim." She flicks a look over his shoulder, and he has the feeling Spock is glaring at her. "Those are Starfleet standing orders, Commander, not mine; this is Level One, Priority One information. I promise I have no designs upon his person or his precious ship; he is quite safe with me."

"Be that as it may, should Mutara implode prematurely, the Enterprise will be by far the more secure location in which to weather the effects. I would suggest you meet the Captain here, aboard the Enterprise."

"I actually agree, Doctor," he concurs, turning from Spock back to the viewscreen. "That blast a few minutes ago was just a warning shot; if that entire planet blows I want to be out of here before the shockwave hits."

"I assure you, the Genesis possesses shields more than capable of withstanding any type of radiation or debris bombardment which will arise. In fact, she is far safer than your Enterprise, despite her size."

"Good for you, but I don't have quite the same faith in your off-books improvements. You come over, have a chat, and if I believe you then I release your ship and we all go home happy."

Carol groans, shakes her head with a helpless gesture. "Very well, Captain, if I have no choice. I have nothing to hide, I simply cannot tell you all you want to know over this channel. Send my pilot your transporter coordinates."

"Lieutenant Uhura, please forward our transporter coordinates to the Genesis."

"Yes, Captain."

"I will beam over in ten minutes; I don't think we should linger much longer here."

"Agreed. In case of emergency, how many are with you on board?"

"Three. Our pilot, my research assistant, and my son. But your transporter will not penetrate our shielding in case of emergency, and as I said, our shields will be more than sufficient. Do not concern yourself with my crew."

He doesn't really hear the last sentence because his brain has kind of screeched to a halt on the fact that she has a kid now, which means she found somebody new, but then it snaps back like a rubber band to smack him in the stupid face because obviously she did, that was almost five years ago and she's a smart and beautiful woman. Duh. How much of an asshole is he to think she'd still be hung up on him?

"Just as you like, Commander. If you change your mind, feel free to give a shielding override to my command staff and they will keep a lock on your crew in case the planet implodes prematurely."

She gives them a curt nod and cuts the transmission.

"Well, at least we should have answers shortly." He blows out a frustrated breath and glances at Uhura, who had known Carol better than the rest of them during the short time they were grounded on Earth. She raises a knowing eyebrow but thankfully says nothing. "Commander Spock, you have the Bridge. If at any time you believe the ship to be in danger from the planet imploding prematurely, remove her from the blast zone immediately, before summoning me if you deem it necessary."

"Yes, Captain."

"Uhura, keep an eye on that ship and make sure if they do end up sending us a shield override, it gets down to Scotty ASAP."

"Of course, sir."

The lift doors close behind him, taking him toward the primary transporter deck.

He's totally sure it's just the uncertainty of the planet's fate far below, and probably a little well-buried PTSD from the whole Warp Core Incident, as they've all come to call it, that's causing the nerves.


Twenty minutes later, he is seriously considering revoking the regulation which prohibits officers from consuming alcoholic substances while on duty.

He’s used to surprises by now, but this is a bombshell he could have stayed in ignorance of. Apparently for the last five years, Starfleet has quietly but systematically been going through the contents of Section 31's various projects one by one and either dismantling or continuing them. As if that were not bad enough, there's this new monster, the whole let's-experiment-by-trying-to-terraform-a-planet-with-a-space-station-already-freaking-on-it bit. That explains the climate going haywire and then the planet's core melting down, and the fact that said planet is about to blow itself to bits because of aforementioned meltdown. Section 31 needs to stick to creating weapons and starships, not scientific miracles, because this one? Serious problem.

That explains why the Genesis is still in orbit. Damage control for Section 31 is apparently what Carol's been doing for the last four years, ever since she bailed pretty abruptly on them just before the deep space portion of their five-year mission began; and he has to admit no one can do it better, probably, all things considered. She's here to observe and record the effects of the failed terraforming experiment and determine whether or not it's viable to continue developing it on a different, less populated this time, planet or moon with similar environmental conditions.

All of this is totally nuts, but he gets it; it's the kind of crazy that karma just likes to drop in their lives like a particularly psycho visiting relative. He thinks the Enterprise alone has probably created its own special sub-category of Murphy's Law in the last five years, so this actually is a crazy that makes sense.

The fact that she drags her kid along with her, is a totally different type of insanity, and it's kind of…awesome.

"We both know what it's like to have parents who either physically or emotionally abandoned us for Starfleet, Jim," she says in answer to that sentiment, giving an easy shrug. One leg swings aimlessly over the other as she half-sprawls across a chair in his private briefing room, far more casual than she had been on the Bridge of her own vessel and yet somehow, far less approachable. "And I am extremely careful to never take him into dangerous situations. That is why you may rest assured, the shields on the Genesis will hold. I would never leave him there if they didn't."

"No, I think…I think that's awesome, Carol. I would love to see all starships allow families on board, someday. Sure, it would be a risk factor, but with the new improvements to the evacuation procedures it might become acceptable. Certainly, the improvement on the crew's mental health would be something huge."

"I agree." Her expression softens, looks more like she did when last they met. The night he told her the only woman in his life going forward would be his ship, and she had just smiled and said the Enterprise was a lucky girl. "You haven't asked me about his father."

"Didn't want it to be awkward." He returns to his seat, consciously keeping the corner of the table between them. From her smile, she knows exactly what he's doing. They've both grown up a lot, in five years. "So, who's the lucky Mr. Doctor Marcus?"

She snorts, tugging her braid back over one shoulder. "There is no Mr. Doctor Marcus, thank you. I have my hands full with one child, I cannot be nannying two."

She actually sounds happy, and he is happy for her. "Well, you're a strong enough influence, it's not like he needs another. You have my vote, Commander."

"That is what I thought," she replies quietly. "I want to raise him myself, without outside interference. God knows enough people interfered with my childhood, I will not allow that to happen to him."

"I hear you there."

"At first, I was not happy, I admit. He certainly wasn't planned, I apparently am one of those exceptions to the standard birth control shots, and we thought his father couldn't…anyway, that's beside the point. But I am a scientist, Jim; and I believe all life is precious. So…I kept him, and he is. So, so precious."

"I'm happy for you, Carol," he says sincerely. "How old is the little man?"

She smiles and presses a button on her wrist-comm, pulling up a hologram of the kid. "Almost five."

Wait.

He vaguely wonders if this is what the start of a hull breach feels like, when the beginnings of the vacuum start sucking the atmosphere out into open space with an inexorable, horribly painful pressure that only grows with passing seconds until something ruptures, and the world turns on its head.


This is the kind of thing that ruins Starfleet careers. One foolish mistake is all it takes for a tabloid to pounce and run and then poof, your entire life can go up like a fireball, no matter how stellar your career has been prior to that mistake; and gods know his career has been…checkered, to say the least. Right before review time, right before he's trying to get approval for a second mission – the timing could not be worse for this to come to light.

And forget the professional consequences, the personal ones! How the hell did this even happen? Starfleet Medical said the irradiation from the warp core had completely destroyed any chance he had at ever having children, she had been on the contraceptive shots that nearly all biologically female Starfleet officers take…but apparently neither assumption had been foolproof and they'd both been stupid enough in the heat of the moment one idiotic night to forego precaution. That one last night, before the Enterprise launched on her five-year mission, knowing once she launched that whatever not-exactly-relationship they'd been indulging in would end, no questions and no arguments and no reconsiderations. Carol would transfer as soon as they reached the next starbase, and they'd likely never see each other again except in case of a galaxy-wide crisis or coincidence. Hello, coincidence.

Also, what. The. Hell.

And it seems pretty straightforward to her, as if she hasn't just blindsided him with news that would take him to his knees if he wasn't in the middle of a Priority Two scientific emergency mission. She wants no interference, no contact, and as long as he's not an asshole and totally disregards her wishes she won't do anything to bring a hint of the child's paternity back to him. Thinks it's a fair trade, and it is, and it's really the smart thing at this point in both their careers, but he can't help but feel like he's shirking duty somehow, even if this is basically what they both need. Want? He doesn't even really know. And what about what the kid wants, when he's older? She says there will come a day when the kid can decide for himself, but that won't be for a decade at least, and that's so far in the future it seems insane to even contemplate.

He should have known someday one of his stupid decisions would come back to bite him in the ass, and here one has, with spectacular flair. Just when he thought he was starting to have everything together, something like this rears its head and brings it all crashing back down. But he will not blame anyone but himself for his own stupidity, even if it was mostly done through ignorance; and if those consequences are hard to take right now then that's the price he pays for poor decisions.

She wants no interference, and that's what she gets. He should be grateful she's not asking for him to make an impossible choice between the ship and a different sort of duty.

Somehow, that knowledge doesn't make the fact he probably will never see the kid hurt any less. The trip back to the Bridge is spent mostly in pulling himself back together, because this is a photon torpedo he has zero intention on ever launching at any of his command staff, thank you very much.

He has such a migraine right now, and this freaking planet hasn't even exploded yet.

Making matters worse, Bones has for some reason decided it's Hang Out on the Bridge Day instead of staying put where he belongs until the thing blows, so when Jim walks a little dazedly out of the lift he gets to walk right into that.

Awesome.

"Status of Mutara Prime, Mr. Spock," he mutters, as he scoots around his CMO and moves into the captain's seat.

Spock gives him a weird look, but answers readily enough. "The window of safety is narrowing, Captain; I would estimate implosion at less than one hour now. Tectonic activity is increasing in rapidity and planetary aftershocks are radiating in increasing distance from what we believe will be the shatterpoint of the core's eruption, for lack of a more scientific term."

"Thanks." He blinks at the viewscreen for a moment, trying to get his brain back into the here and now.

"Captain, I have the Genesis on visual."

"Put them on, Lieutenant. Commander Marcus."

"Captain. I appreciate your releasing the tractor beams on my ship." Carol is seated again in her chair, and now Jim can see a humanoid male to her right at the helm and a young female Oduran busily working at what is probably the science station. And in the chair next to her this time, busily scribbling on a drawing padd, is a small blond figure which has to be the child in question, her son. He can't quite put another pronoun there yet.

David, she said his name was.

He hears someone on the Bridge aww just at the novelty of seeing a child in deep space, and again absently notes for future discussion with Medical that splitting up families is likely harming more than helping. He hopes times will change someday, on exploratory starships in deep space; maybe he'll be around to see it.

"Thank you for your information and your candor, Doctor Marcus." Carol smiles at him, a little sadly, and glances down at the child. "Is there anything else we can do for you and your crew before we leave the area?"

"Negative, Enterprise. Thank you for your offer. Rest assured that the inhabitants of the space station did evacuate safely and there were no casualties; I will have the records of their destinations sent to you if possible to prove that."

"That would be appreciated so that I am able to close my mission logs. If there's nothing else, then we will be moving on to our next assignment."

"Safe travels, Enterprise." Carol nudges the boy with one elbow, and a small face pops into view for just a second, blinking wide-eyed at the viewscreen before bashfully hiding again behind the drawing padd.

Behind him, someone drops a stylus and goes scrambling after it, thankfully breaking the mood. Carol looks back up, shrugs without repentance as she meets his eyes.

"Goodbye, Captain," she says quietly, and Jim nods, unable to voice the sentiment back.

The screen goes blank, only the storm-torn planet hanging in their view. He looks at it for a moment, blinking, and then clears his throat, resettling in his chair with a definitive creak.

"Mr. Chekov, Mr. Sulu, plot us a course to the nearest starbase; we still haven't gotten you all that shore leave we promised. Implement and engage when ready."

"Aye, sir."

"Mr. Spock, please log all data from this little adventure and attach it to your report so that I can review it this evening, if you don't mind."

"Already being done, Captain."

He swivels his chair slightly, and gives his First a brief smile. "Thank you. I don't see any need for us to hang around until this thing explodes, then. Mr. Sulu, do you have a course set?"

"Aye, sir. Course laid in to Starbase Delta Five, sir. ETA forty-six hours, sixteen minutes at Warp Four."

"Not too bad and only a few hours out of our way. Engage, gentlemen. Lieutenant, please notify the Starbase we will be dropping in and would like the best reception possible at such short notice."

"Yes, Captain."

Okay, that should be everything. He exhales slowly, and slides down just a fraction in the chair, lets his eyes drift close as the ship powers up around them, finally going to warp with just a barely-there lurch of incredible power.

A gentle nudge jolts him back, eyes flying open. Spock raises an eyebrow, hands him a data-padd. "Starbase Delta Five requires your signature on a shore leave request for all hands, sir."

Right. He knows that. Two scribbles and an initial later, he hands the padd back, and only then sees Bones right behind.

Oh, hell no. No ambushing on the Bridge, that is an unspoken rule and they both know it.

"Right, then." He stands with carefully affected casualness, brushing his uniform off as he steps down. "As I have now been on duty for twelve straight hours and I’m sure you are all tired of this face, I take it no one has any objections to my leaving the Bridge in someone else's capable hands?"

It's almost hilarious how Sulu doesn't even bother asking if he should take the chair, just motions for the lieutenant at the Stellar Cartography station to replace him at the helm, assumes Jim is going to be followed off the Bridge.

Rolling his eyes, he gives vent to a silent sigh as the turbolift closes on himself and his two blue-shirted shadows. His eyes meet Uhura's just before the doors close, and he would swear she is laughing at him. He can probably count on a rescue comm if they take more than twenty minutes grilling him, at least; she's awesome like that.

"Computer, Deck Five. Okay, spit it out, Bones," he says without preamble.

"I dunno what you're talkin' about, Jim."

"Whatever. Look, I am not in the mood today, so either say what's on your mind, or let me go take my nap in peace, but I'm not going to play mind games with you today." He looks to his other side warningly. "You either, Spock."

"I have no intention nor desire to, as you say, play mind games with you, Captain."

"So this is what, just you walking me to my quarters for a social experiment?" Bones elbows him reprovingly, and he sighs. "Sorry, that was uncalled-for."

"Apologies are –"

"Illogical and unnecessary, I know. But allow the poor human his idiosyncrasies, anyway, God knows I need the practice." A tilt of the head, and he knows he is forgiven. "If this is about seeing Carol again, or being reminded of Khan and Admiral Marcus, I'm fine, gentlemen. But your concern is appreciated."

"Actually, I dunno about you, Commander, but mine's just plain curiosity," Bones drawls, leaning against the lift wall.

Spock says nothing, only inclines an eyebrow. Jim sighs, glances at the computer panel. Three more decks to go. "Yeah, and what's that?"

"I was just wonderin' if he knew."

"Who, Admiral Marcus? Knew what?"

Bones shakes his head, hand waving impatiently. "Not Marcus. The kid."

Two decks. Why will this thing not go faster. "What about him?"

"I was just wonderin' if he knew who his father was, or if you two decided not to tell him."

His hand slams the emergency stop button hard enough to almost break the plasticene cover. They screech to a halt with a sickening lurch that steadies a moment later, and he stands for a moment with one hand still on the button, leaning heavily on the wall. Bones just blinks at him, a picture of calm innocence.

He turns to look at Spock, who shifts his weight just slightly from one foot to the other. It's a tell, for a Vulcan.

"How the…oh, God." He feels sick. "Who else knows? Has it made it off the ship?"

Bones's face suddenly changes to that of concern, and a firm hand closes on his wrist, guiding it gently down until he pulls away, folds his arms across his body before reaching up to pinch his forehead with one hand.

"Pity's sake, Jim, you're as white as these walls. Nobody knows, even I didn't until you just confirmed it. Calm down and breathe a minute."

He glances back and forth between them, and then leans his back against the wall of the lift, closing his eyes.

"She just spring that on you?" Bones's voice is quiet, but matter-of-fact and calm.

"You think if I'd known before now I would've just ignored that little piece of information?"

"No, I don't, that's why I figured it was a total shock. We both know despite your daddy issues you'd be one of the best parents a kid could have, even twenty star systems away."

He huffs what would have been a laugh if this weren't such a mess and if he didn't want to cry at that stupid blind faith this crew continues to have in him at the weirdest times. "How'd you…you were sure," he says instead, looking at his First.

"I was…nearly certain. But had no scientific data to prove that hypothesis."

"You got one look at the kid. Other than his age, what factors would make you think that?"

"A working hypothesis which was strengthened by the fact that you were visibly…distracted, upon returning to the Bridge. As Commander Marcus was being permitted to depart with no public discussion of the events on the planet, nothing official occurred in your private discussion to produce such a reaction; therefore, the events were of a personal nature. Given what we knew of your and the Commander's personal status changes the conclusion was not a difficult one to reach, merely to prove, until actually seeing the child in question."

He stares at his First in bewilderment. "And…?"

Bones elbows him gently. "He has your eyes, Jim. Nobody can mistake that blue."

"Seriously?"

"Seriously."

"You're kidding me. Does Uhura know you spend so much time looking at my eyes, Spock?"

Bones swats him upside the head. Hard. "Leave him alone, you moron. But yeah, I'm pretty sure only people who know you well and already suspected would have made that leap; your secret's probably safe with the rest of the crew. I bet Nyota knows, though."

"I believe she does; she dropped her stylus when the child looked up, and she is the most dexterous human of my acquaintance."

"Is she now." He waggles his eyebrows meaningfully, and receives the most scathing glare possible from a supposedly non-emotional species as Spock punches the button to restart the turbolift with waaaay more force than it needs.

"How have you gone five years and not tried to kill him again?"

"Believe me, Doctor, it is a feat worth public recognition at our mission's concluding ceremonies."

"I'd be happy to nominate you for the medal of valor, Mr. Spock."

"Thank you, Doctor."

He's not exactly sure if he's laughing or crying, but it probably doesn't matter; their intentions, and the result, are the same.

Tomorrow is another, better day, and they’ll face it together. Whatever it brings.

Chapter Text

  This chapter only: Warning for brief but fairly graphic description of torture, something I usually stay away from.


 

I.

Bones takes one look at his face and knows it's not good news.

"You look like your world's about to end, Jim. How bad can it really be?"

He can't even look up right now, because he's never yet cried like a child in front of his senior staff and he has no intention of starting now. Even if technically, according to this, they aren't his senior staff anymore, and even if, according to this, his world might as well end.

A hand gently pulls the padd from his lap and turns it around, scanning the document left open on the screen. He hears a sharp intake of breath, and then dead silence, broken only by the harsh beeping of the machine that is still keeping his left lung inflated and monitoring the rest of his medical stats.

"Look, Jim…"

"Just don't."

"They can't just do this, you know the crew will have a fit. Spock will have a fit. There's no way they'll actually go through with it."

Funny. At least Jim can tell the words are genuine. His CMO has been so busy here at Medical HQ he's probably backlogged in all areas of correspondence. He wasn't just hiding this, he really had no idea.

"That memo's a week old, Bones. It's already been done."

The Powers That Be had sent that while he was still only a half-step above comatose, last week. She'll already be in orbital dry-dock now, the crew scattered across the planet and half the galaxy on leave during the refit, and he never even got to say goodbye.

Bones stays silent, because after all this time he knows when and when not to use those empty words of clinical comfort, and finally gets up to fuss with something on the instrument panel overhead. Jim closes his eyes. "I guess it just never occurred to me they'd think this was enough to call it, Bones," he says quietly. "I know they've benched captains after missions like that last one, but I thought…I thought this was different, I thought I was different. I'm an idiot."

"You're not, Jim. Is it going to take you a while to recover, yeah. But six months, max, is what I said, before you should be completely done with physical therapy, and unless something drastically goes wrong there's no reason you shouldn't regain at least 85% mobility, which meets the standard for a command officer having an accommodation for partial disability."

He nods toward the shapeless masses encased in protective stasis fields which are Jim's hands for a minute, and kindly ignores his reaction to the d word. Bones has been the voice of calm ever since Jim woke up three days ago, and it's been appreciated, but he's so tired already of being treated like he's made of handblown glass.

Broken glass.

"And that's worst case scenario, not best case or the most likely case. Your psych scores are higher than anyone else's in the 'Fleet for a reason; they could send you back out once you're recovered and I'd have no problems certifying you fit to do the job. And believe me, I wouldn't be saying that if I didn't believe it. If you were gonna break you'd have done it by now. This, is overreaction, and we both know promoting you isn't anything but them covering their asses for almost getting you killed on that last mission."

He shivers, despite the fact that the room is plenty warm, and a twinge rolls like fire through his hands and arms. "I guess they think an Admiral doesn't need his hands as much as a captain in the long run," he says bitterly. "They'll probably give me an aide to dictate to, and if I'm lucky maybe they'll let me teach a few classes instead of sitting behind my desk all day, every day."

The two words after his posting heading in the memo are a death sentence to a command career, and his personal worst nightmare. Grounded, indefinitely. He might as well have been court martialed. It's a lurking, roiling pit of nausea in his stomach right now, as he refuses to think about the absolute hell of sheer, unending hopelessness that will be his life from now on. Refuses to think about it, because if he tries to comprehend the magnitude of its scope he is legit going to lose it right here, right now, and he can't afford to lose what shreds of dignity he may have left.

Gods, he's not even thirty-five years old yet.

Bones's eyes are just too sad, too knowing, and he can't stand them any more.

"Can you give me something so I can actually sleep in here for once?" he asks abruptly.

A sigh. "Most of what we'd recommend in a case like yours reacts badly with the regeneration drugs you're on, Jim. Neural regen can't be rushed, and it's a tricky mix combining the regen drugs with the bone marrow reproduction enhancer without adding something else onto that. I can give you something light, but it's only going to keep you out for a couple of hours and it's habit forming. This is the last time I can give it to you."

"I just want to sleep for a little while." Forever, actually, but he'll take what he can get right now and deal with the world later, whenever he wakes up.

At the moment, he really couldn't care less if he even does.


When he'd briefed everyone and told them this was to be their last mission of the five-year deep space assignment, he hadn't really meant that literally. As in last mission, ever.

Unfortunately, in true form to his peculiar monopoly on some unwritten bylaw under Murphy's Law, it's looking like it very well could and probably will be that, at least for him. By now the Enterprise will have been in contact with Starfleet Command bearing news of what's happened and asking for emergency instructions, and surely the brass will get their heads in the game knowing what's at stake and send out a rescue op before their so-charming hosts start on Spock and Uhura.

That's the main (read: only) reason he's hanging on right now; soon as he's dead, they'll move the interrogation on to Spock as his second in command, and his and Nyota's marriage was televidded across the galaxy as a publicity favor to the 'Fleet and interspecial ambassadorial relations just a few months ago. He's not about to put them in a position of having to choose between betraying Starfleet or saving each other. That thought is enough to give him one last thread of determination to stay alive when it would be a lot easier to just…stop.

This is the fourth day, and it's probably going to be his last. If he's lucky, Starfleet will intervene in the same way they negotiate with all terrorist cells: which is, not at all. He just has to get his people out before that starts.

At this point, the only negotiation this particular cell will understand is the business end of a photon torpedo, because they so far have only communicated in torture techniques that he thought went out of style a century ago; waterboarding, standard beating, even a diverting hour of shock tactics, fantastically unimaginative and all things they condition you for on the command track in hopes you never have to draw on that training to survive.

All, except the very creative session today, of strapping him to a table by his wrists and breaking every bone in his hands one by one, starting with fingers and working their way up.

He's probably never going to be able to look at a hammer again without wanting to throw up or pass out on the spot, but that's not likely to happen anyway since he's probably not going to get out of here, so. Silver linings.

When that hadn't gotten them the codes they need to override the Enterprise's transporter lockdown and then access everything in the 'Fleet database under his Priority One clearance -including the undeveloped plans for a Federation cloaking device and an experimental Type Seven phaser bank capable of wiping out half a planet in one full spread - they'd stopped being creative and just went back to traditional interrogation for the last hour. He has the boot prints on his ribcage as reassuring proof that they failed to extract any information from him, so there's that at least.

They apparently lost patience with him completely for the day at that point. Six hours has to be a new record. He tends to have that effect on people.

He must have really pissed one of them off, because they've wrenched his arms behind his back with his broken hands in stasis cuffs to prevent any escape attempt, and hello, overkill much. They also fire a couple of warning shots into the floor of the cell as it's being unlocked now to make sure neither Spock nor Uhura try anything, so something on one of their faces obviously scared somebody.

The plasma flash is blinding, and it startles him enough that he loses his balance, stumbling against the guard unlocking the door. He receives a hard elbow to the face for his pains and lands on his broken knee before he can shift his balance. Darkness immediately bursts in his vision, slowing into a murky, pain-hazed tunnel. He's vaguely aware of being hauled upright and then shoved a few feet forward into the hell-hole he'd been dragged out of just that morning, whereupon he decides he's had enough of standing on his remaining good limb and yeah, ground looks good.

The door slams shut then somewhere overhead, leaving only four-inch iron bars and hopelessness between them and escape. Over the ringing in his ears he hears Uhura yelling something after his new friends in a language he literally can't understand a word of, and he kind of wishes he could because it sounds really filthy and he'd like to remember it for his session tomorrow.

That crack he heard during the last hour's interrogation was almost definitely another rib breaking, which explains why it's so hard to breathe, and drawing his good knee up on his side trying to curl into a ball doesn't really help the pain; it's still sparking white-hot behind his eyes and radiating outward from his hands and wrists, which are both partly numb and feeling like there's a thousand knives slicing deep into the bone at the same time. His pulse is pounding so loud in his ears he can barely hear over the sound of his own stuttering breaths, but patches of sound filter through to tell him he's still alive at least. Good to know.

"My God, Spock, look at his hands. This is…inhuman."

"I believe they lack all empathic characteristics which characterize the species as a whole."

"Careful, careful! I don't think he's really with it yet."

Something cold on his forehead jolts him back to harsh reality, and he rears back in confusion at first, then breaks out in a clammy sweat as his stomach turns. His arms are still half-trapped underneath him and it's a claustrophobic, helpless feeling that makes him want to panic just a little.

"Easy, Captain." Uhura's voice is calm, matter-of-fact, as she sits back on her heels in front of him.

His eyes flicker around the cell briefly, a quick but thorough reconnaissance. He's lying mostly on his back with his bad leg carefully straightened in front of him and what looks like Spock's blue tunic in two pieces wrapped tightly around it for a decent support, and his hands aren't getting totally crushed for the moment underneath him because his head's resting on something several inches off the floor.

He shifts slightly to see, then can't entirely mask the pain that erupts deep inside; some of those kicks had hit in really unfortunate places, he's been in enough fights to know. A horrible barking cough suddenly pinches his midsection like a vise, and he curls up and proceeds to hack out a lung, tries not to die right there because, awkward.

And yeah, coughing blood is not a good sign. Neither is the fact that he's really not getting any oxygen here, despite someone holding his head still and saying something probably along the lines of breathing is good, we like breathing above the rapid pounding that's escalating in his head.

And there was something he needed to tell Spock, too, like ASAP, and he isn't going to get to do that if he can't. freaking. breathe...


Snatches of conversation come in like sparkly, hazy patches of comms transmissions, filtering in and out of foggy dreamland.

"-told you not to let him see his messages, Doctor! That was why!"

"You try entertainin' him when he can't so much as scratch his own nose, Lieutenant!"

Because they're warm and familiar and safe his brain seems to know he doesn't need to bother waking up fully, and just lingers somewhere in that happily drugged state between dozing and sleeping.

"—do you mean you weren't able to talk to them? That's your job, Spock, you're First Officer for a reason! He was tortured for their goddamn security codes and they can't even be bothered to take his ship from him in person? Do you understand if we'd been twelve hours later they'd be awardin' that rank posthumously?"

Something screeches with a hideous sound that would have woken the dead, and Jim's not anywhere near that, thank you, and so he jolts awake with a startled noise that causes the pulse indicator over his head to shriek its displeasure to the entire room.

Frozen, three pairs of eyes turn his direction, and then Spock delicately puts a chair back in an upright position.

Bones snorts, but it looks like he's trying not to laugh instead of being irritated as he comes over to shut off the medical alarm. "Sorry, Jim. But you were about to wake up anyway, I have to decompressurize those fields and look at your hands."

"Goody," he rasps, wishing he could rub his eyes. It's the little things he misses the most, right now. He conjures up a smile for Uhura, who waves at him and then pops out into the hall for a second. Spock just gives him a tolerant half-shrug, as if to say don't ask me, I just work with you nutjobs.

He's glad for the distraction, though, as Bones lowers his hands from their stasis fields at his sides and begins the arduous task of removing the soft casts to inspect the surgical incisions and making sure the pins are still in place, checking the neural regeneration progress, etc. He doesn't even want to know everything they did, because the fact that they spent ten hours in operating on just his hands scares him and the fact that even in this advanced medical age it's going to take that long to repair the damage really freaking scares him.

Nyota comes back into the room, and he stares at her in horrified awe as she dumps what has to be the largest plush unicorn he's ever seen on the foot of his bed. It's at least three feet in length and a terrifying shade of electric blue, with a sparkly rainbow horn adding another foot onto its height. Its hot pink mane is already shedding fuzz everywhere.

"Dear God."

"Get that thing off of him while I've got a sterile field on."

"C'mon, Leonard, where's your sense of magic."

"Oh. My. God."

"I said get it off, it's distorting my scans. Not to mention blinding me, good Lord."

"Okay, okay. Here, Spock, hold him."

"I will not."

His comms chief – not his anymore, but he can pretend for a while, can't he? – rolls her eyes and dumps the monstrosity in an empty chair which she then wheels over right beside his head. He stares in fascination at the oversized plasticene eyes that look unblinkingly into his soul.

"I saw it in the Medical gift shop on our way up here, and thought it could keep you company," she says, patting the creature's pink mane. A small pouf of magenta fuzz flies up and sticks to her leather jacket, and he can't help but laugh.

To think there had ever been a time when this woman wanted to kick his ass for his inappropriateness, and when he deserved everything he got from her…that seems like a lifetime ago. They've all grown up so much in the last almost-decade, and he would be completely lost without them.

Will be lost without them.

Even if sometimes they're super annoying.

"Uh…thanks?"

She smiles, and he isn't sure whether to keep laughing or start crying a little when she pats his head briefly instead of the stupid unicorn. But overall it's done the trick; his hands are back in their casings and stasis fields and he didn't really even notice the examination.

"All done, Jim." A hand briefly clasps his ankle in encouragement. "You let me know when you need something though, okay? Not gonna be movin' those on their own for a while yet so you get the royal princess treatment."

"Nyota, flip Bones off for me, will you?"

She snorts, but obligingly does (with both hands, bless her), earning them both an eyeroll before his self-appointed physician moves across the room to talk to Spock out of their hearing.

"Seriously, though." She perches on the edge of the bed, and looks at him pointedly. "How are you really doing?"

He grins, shrugging as much as his stationary arms will let him. "I'm good."

"All these years, and you still think you can pull that with me? One of the languages I read is body language, you moron. Try again."

Glancing over at the two figures on the opposite side of the room, who are still conversing intently, he sighs, and finally looks back up at her. "Fine. Sometimes I think I just exchanged one kind of torture for another. Is that what you wanted to hear?"

Her hand tightens briefly on his shoulder, the only part of his arm that isn't encased in a stasis field close by his side, and she shakes her head, lips tight. "No, of course not," she says softly. "But just remember, we'd rather hear that, than not hear you at all."

He swallows hard, hearing what she isn't saying. "Understood."

"Spock has a meeting with the Admiralty this afternoon so we have to get going, but we'll be back, I promise. Talk to your therapy animal. Hug it out. Well, as best you can." She moves backward across the room, waving at him with both hands and smirking.

"I don't want your weird therapy unicorn!"

"Too bad," she calls over one shoulder, sing-song, as she tugs Spock toward the door.

He glares at the cheerful smile and dewy eyes of the plush monstrosity as the two of them leave, and ignores Bones's snort of laughter from across the room.

"Die in a fire," he tells the unicorn, and weirdly enough it actually makes him feel a little better.


He's starting to float into that slightly woozy land of Not Enough Oxygen when his chest loosens just a fraction, enough that he manages one hoarse, whistling breath, then another, but by then he's too out of it to do much more than let his eyes close and his head fall forward.

"That's a big negative. You just scared us half to death, you stay awake." Only Uhura would be so bitchy, and shake him when he's hurting. He is so not promoting her to Lieutenant-Commander if by some miracle he survives this. "Mm-hm, you can put me on report when we get back if you want. Come on, Jim. Quit mumbling, open your eyes."

His eyelids flutter unsteadily for a second before slitting open, and it's a little surprising to find that he's sitting up now, propped half against the wall and half against his First Officer, who is at least three shades paler than normal. And that's obviously saying a lot.

"There we go." Nyota's smile doesn't reach her eyes, but it's reassuring just the same, and given he probably won't see it again after today, he'll take it. And it's great that she's starting to take more of an active command role on missions; she's been working on her command training and it shows. "Look, we need a rundown of what we're looking at with you, Captain."

"'S not important," he says, and though his speech is slower than normal (hooray for head injuries) he's thinking clearer now that he actually has air. Funny how that helps.

"Uh, yeah, it is."

"No no no, listen. Spock." His First has that pinched look around the eyes that says he's freaking out like woah on the inside, but as always is the consummate Vulcan Starfleet officer and just nods for him to continue. "Six-one-four," he stops to breathe, and hopefully not start coughing again, "six-seven-one-four-six-two-four."

Spock blinks at him, mystified.

He nudges the guy lightly with a shoulder since he can't move his elbows. "That's the code for the door. Think you can-" he stops to take a breath, sways a little as the room wavers around him like a bad hologram, "-input it from this side, without seeing the keypad?"

Nyota stares at him with the best WTF expression he's seen since his toast to them on their wedding night three months ago.

"I didn't have the last four numbers, 'til today," he murmurs, leaning back against the wall. "Finally got our nasty friend t'knock me down, while he was inputting them."

Spock's arm slowly slides out from behind his back, and his XO looks as if he's staring at some weird new experiment that may or may not be a creepy new life-form ready to destroy the galaxy.

"'S a Delta Four security system, those were discarded two years back by the 'Fleet 'cause they're notoriously easy to hack. And they have stupid easy bypasses. Hit 9-9-9, then hold down the 1 for ten seconds. That'll let you bypass the retinal scan, after the unlocking sequence." He clenches his eyes shut for a minute, as his hands scream in pain when he moves. "They…the interrogation squad, usually take a couple hours, to clean up after a session…with me. So you two should be able to get down there, take them out before they know what hits them. Get some weapons at least." He re-opens his eyes and tries to smile. "I did my part, you got to come up with the rest. Sorry."

Nyota stares at him, and shakes her head. "You're insane. Sir."

"Been called worse. By you, actually, heh. But…look, Spock." He half-turns toward his First, then aborts that move as fire lances through his arms, slicing right up his spine into his skull. Stars spark in his vision, and he can almost feel his eyes starting to roll back in his head. He can't really tell at this point which of the two of them is holding him upright. "When you…get back to Enterprise. There's a safe, in my cabin. With a data-disk in it."

The hands on his shoulder and neck tighten suddenly to the point of being painful, so that explains which of them is keeping his head upright.

"It has –"

"I am aware of what it contains, Captain."

"I need you…t'make sure you listen to it."

"That will not be necessary."

"It is necessary. You two, and Bones, listen to it. Then destroy my security codes and clearance, wipe everything. I dunno if I've given them any information…but if they start with whatever this 'neural neutralizer' is they say they have, no amount of 'Fleet conditioning's going to stop me from spilling everything I know. And –"

"All right, that’s enough. Spock, get the damn door open so we can burn this place to the ground. Yes, I've got him, now go."

He can't tell if he's lost time due to unconsciousness, or if his vision is just clearing from the pain wave. Something shifts underneath him, careful not to jostle his abused hands as he half-leans back against the wall. "Wait…why're you still here?" he asks, frowning. That wasn't enough time to get down the hall and back. Or did they not leave yet?

"We’re not just leaving you, moron," She says fondly, rubbing his shoulder with a gentleness she rarely shows, and will probably totally deny if anyone calls her on it. "I do need you front and center a little more than you are, though, if we’re going to make it out of here." He blinks for a second, and then the words register; they're a stark reminder of just how very far he's fallen; and even worse, how much he really doesn't care at the moment that he's not interested in taking charge of this failed mission or really in even coming back from it.

"Nyota. I have a shattered kneecap and at least two broken ribs, you have nothing to get these stasis cuffs off with. And even if you could, I wouldn't be able to hold a phaser or anything else; I might not be able to ever again, for that matter. I certainly can't walk, and while you are by far the most kickass woman I've ever met you can't carry me. I need Spock to get the hell out of here and signal the Enterprise, not be dragging dead weight." He closes his eyes again. "Don't make me have to order you to do the sensible thing, Lieutenant."

"You are relieved pending medical examination, sir, so at the moment I outrank you. Feel free to order me to do whatever you like if it makes you feel any better." Her eyes flash dark fire at him in the half-darkness. "But in five minutes you're going to suck it up and leave here with the rest of us, because you are so not going to stick Spock with this terrorist mess on our last mission two weeks out from Earth. Don't be a tool, Jim."

He blinks at her for a minute in silence, and then laughs. It comes out more as a drunken snort-cough, but it wakes him up enough to realize he doesn't want to abandon ship just yet. He loves this crew too much for that.

Unfortunately, his body may have other plans in the long run. His hands are almost completely numb now from the wrist down, and he knows enough about medicine to know that means serious damage.

"So sit back and think happy thoughts for a few minutes while we…uh." She breaks off abruptly, and Jim looks up to see the reason for her silence.

The door's wide open and Spock's gone.

Ooookay…

Thirty seconds later, from down the corridor there's a sudden blinding flash and a sonic boom that shakes the entire foundation of the cell, sending a trickle of dust down the corners of the room.

"Jesus, what the –"

"I'm guessing he just overloaded one of their plasma rifles. Improvised grenade. That's what I would've done."

"Niiiiice. Little overkill, but nice."

"He's very thorough."

He smirks. "Is he now."

"I will hit you, so help me, I don't care if you're handcuffed."

He doesn't even have time to laugh because ten seconds later, Spock reappears in the doorway, hair just barely askew, and aims a sonic deconstructor at the stasis cuffs. The fact that Jim can't feel them fall off is not a good sign, and judging from the look exchanged between his two XOs, they know that as well as he does.

Spock then tosses one of two remaining weapons to Uhura, who catches it midair. "I require you to clear a path out of this establishment," he says shortly.

"I do love it when you talk dirty, ashal-veh," she replies, grinning, and cocks the rifle. "Now pick up his royal highness and let's make this place a crater."

"I may throw up on you," he warns as his numb arm is pulled around his First's neck and the floor turns upside down. Probably neither of those a good thing.

"I would prefer you did not."

"Picky, picky," he mutters, clenching his teeth on a scream as his shattered kneecap protests quite vehemently against gravity taking effect again.

He doesn't remember a whole lot after that, and from what Bones says about what the rescue party found when they landed barely in time…it's probably better that way.

Better for him, anyway. Not better for the compound his scarily competent XOs apparently wiped off the map before Starfleet arrived.


He'd spent an hour amusing himself telling the stupid unicorn about why he's sick of sleeping in Medical because he never has slept well on his back and the nightmares have just been insane, like come on, he should be over this by now, and then ended up taking an impromptu nap that was, for the first time in over a week, free of any vision more terrifying than Bones accidentally waking him up during a vitals check. He'd promptly tried to roll over and go back to sleep, swore at the unicorn in Klingon (it didn't mind) upon remembering the hard way that he's sleeping on his back for the foreseeable future, and dropped back off without further incident.

Go figure.

Now, several hours later, he's situated fairly comfortably upright in the bed, listening to a book being read from his padd and wishing it was someone a little more interesting than le idiot stupide. But this is just easier than verbally telling the padd to turn the page every time, so Most-Boring-Voice-on-the-Planet it is.

He's debating trying to comm one of the crew and see if he can wheedle ship's news out of them despite their orders to keep him in the dark, when an incoming transmission from Starfleet Headquarters pops up on the padd. Startled, he takes a minute to squirrel into a position with his legs drawn up so that he can rest the instrument against them, and clears his throat, hoping he doesn't look as rough as he feels.

"Accept transmission, voice recognition Kirk, James T., currently on medical leave."

The screen fritzes for a second and then fades into the weathered features of Admiral Decker, one of the youngest on the Board (meaning late middle-aged instead of in his seventies and half-deaf) and one that Jim actually hasn't (to his knowledge) personally pissed off over the last few years.

"Admiral, to what do I owe the pleasure?" he asks politely.

Decker squints at him. "Kirk, you look like hell."

He snorts. "Sir, you'll pardon my frankness but I've been through it. That's old news and I doubt the reason for your call."

The man raises an eyebrow. "Well, I see where your crew gets the attitude from. Do you have any idea the chaos you've caused in Command Central the last eight hours, Captain?"

The heck is he talking about. "Uh…you're going to have to give me more than that, Admiral."

"Don't play dumb with me, Kirk."

"I'm not playing, sir. I've been asleep most of the last six hours, as Doctor McCoy can attest, and here in bed reading the other two. Not like I can do much else," he adds dryly, swinging one of his useless hands into view of the screen. "What, exactly, have I done now?"

Decker's eyes narrow, as if trying to ascertain the truth of his words. "You seriously have no idea?"

"Do I have to take a truth test or what?" He is beyond caring about his tone now. "I have absolutely no clue what you're talking about, Admiral. Beyond the single memo I saw in my inbox this morning, dated a week ago and telling me I was losing my ship and being 'promoted' to a ground posting for the foreseeable future, I've heard absolutely nothing from Command after being emergency-shuttled back to Terra after the last mission went straight to hell because we were given bad information in our mission briefing. Sir."

Decker leans back in his chair, fingers tapping on the desk. Oddly enough, he seems to look amused rather than irritated. "Your attitude could use some work, Captain."

"So I've been told." He exhales slowly, closes his eyes for a moment to pull himself back together. He is still a Starfleet officer, even if he wishes he were not right now, and he will behave like one and not like a spoiled child. Finally he opens them again, and continues calmly. "What is it that I've supposedly done now, sir."

"Well, apparently you legitimately had no idea, which was the purpose of my call, ascertaining if you knew anything about it or put them up to it." Decker laughs, shaking his head. "I should have known."

He is not on enough drugs to deal with this.

"Should have known about what, Admiral?"

"More about that in a minute, Kirk. First order of business first: stop feeling sorry for yourself, because your promotion's been rescinded, effective upon your reinstatement from medical leave of absence."

The heart monitor over his head stutters alarmingly as he stares at the screen, brain refusing to process that for a second.

Decker smiles. "We made a very hasty decision, Kirk, based upon what we thought would be best for the 'Fleet as a whole and the fact that this is not the first time you've been personally targeted for classified information by terrorist groups or other enemies of the Federation. But since then, other…factors, have come to light which have changed our minds on the matter."

The hell they have. "Sir, I find that hard to believe," he says, still not quite believing his ears. He doesn't have this kind of luck; he has exactly the opposite. "What factors, exactly, if I may ask?"

Decker folds his arms and leans back in his chair. "Your entire command staff walked into Starfleet Headquarters and resigned their commissions this afternoon, Kirk," he says dryly. "For the first time in seventy-five years, they created a mass exodus of over forty senior officers from a constitution-class starship. And when it’s the Federation's flagship? You and I both know even the Board will sit up and take notice."

What.

"What," he says feebly.

"And let's see, how did that First Officer of yours put it…" Decker clicks through a couple pages on his padd. "Ah. When told by the Board if he reconsidered, that he would be given captaincy of the Enterprise with no questions asked, said, and I quote: 'were I human, Admirals, I believe my response would be, Go to Hell. If I were human.'"

He totally blames the drugs for giggling like an idiot, unable to even hide it since he can't really move his hands.

"Command has been scrambling to do damage control all afternoon and finally decided to get their heads out of their asses and do the right thing," Decker continues, with what looks like a genuine smile. "But get your people under control, Kirk, do you understand?"

"Aye, sir."

"The refit of the Enterprise-A will take approximately five months, and at that time you will be medically evaluated for captaincy."

"That's fair enough, Admiral."

"Good. Now for pity's sake, track down your people and get them to re-sign so we don't have to deal with that, will you?"

"I think I can handle that. Or delegate it to Commander Spock, since he seems to feel so strongly about it."

Decker rolls his eyes, but seems to bear him no real ill-will. "You do that. We will be in touch, Kirk. Decker out."

The transmission window closes, and his eyes drift aimlessly from the blank screen as his brain slowly gets up to speed with what just happened.

Barely has he time to realize how much his life has changed in just the space of a few hours when suddenly the door of his room slides open and an almost frightening horde of people swarm in from the hallway with a barrage of noisy chatter. He smells food too, real food, not those nasty hospital ration cubes and nutrition drinks. Bones was able to take him off all the machines earlier this afternoon and clear him to eat solids so he's starving. They know him too well.

"Hey, Captain!" Sulu gives him a friendly tug on the ankle before plopping down into one of the chairs by the foot of the bed and putting his own feet up on the edge. "We brought dinner."

"If you weren't a married man, Mr. Sulu…"

"You'd be at the top of the list, sir."

"I'm flattered." He grins as Chekov bounces up to the head of the bed and waves at him like a particularly enthusiastic puppy having learned a new trick. "Did you bring something good to drink too, Mr. Chekov?"

"Not for you, Princess," Bones smacks his leg as he walks by, taking off his lab coat and tossing it in the sanitizing chute. "Not if you want drugs later."

"Keptin, what is this?"

"Therapy unicorn," he replies solemnly. "You can hug him if you want, Pavel, I share."

Uhura snorts, hip-checking their young navigator out of the way to push a bedside tray up to the bed. "Scoot, Chekov. Take the unicorn with you so Spock has somewhere to sit."

"Aye, sir. Ma'am. I mean…da, I go." Jim laughs as the animal disappears somewhere on the floor at the foot of the bed.

"So, figured the milkshake wouldn't be an issue, McCoy said no soda," she says matter-of-factly, and produces a crazy bendy straw that looks like three feet long from somewhere. He laughs, because she's awesome, and there is no way he's letting anyone feed him, thank you.

"But we thought y'might be a bit too stubborn for someone to jus' feed ye a sandwich or two, sir," Scott drawls from the foot of the bed, where he's already gnawing on a submarine of his own.

"Yeah, I'm not real big on the whole airplane noises thing."

"So, McCoy's grabbing one of the robotic arms from the surgical practice labs, they basically aren't good for anything but just sitting there holding spare surgical instruments."

He cocks his head, puzzled.

"Chicken kebabs," Uhura says succinctly, shaking the thin container. "Had to make a special stop just for you, your majesty."

"Or you could just catch," Sulu calls, and tosses a moderately-sized French fry up in a high arc at his head. "I said we should just get something small like 'tater tots and feed you like a dolphin, but the Commander had to be a party pooper and veto that."

Snorting a laugh, he catches the fry flawlessly in his mouth just as Bones returns to the room.

"What are you, a bunch of twelve-year-olds?! You know how easy it is to choke on something, playin' games like that?"

"Not if you do it right," he mumbles, between bites. He winks at Sulu, and as soon as Bones turns around to pick up the robotic arm another one flies through the air. This one unfortunately hits him in the eye, and he has to just blink through salt-hazed tears as Bones glares at him amid a chorus of muffled laughter.

"So, I got a really interesting call a few minutes ago from Starfleet Command," he mentions casually, as the robotic arm is set up in front of his face.

"Hmmm?" Bones's tone is carefully neutral as he adjusts the angle, and Uhura is very busy selecting the right size of kebab for the first experiment.

"Yeah, something about you telling a Board of Admirals what they can do with themselves, Spock?"

Chekov chokes on a French fry with a high-pitched wheeze.

Spock's doing like a full-body blush, it's hilarious. "That is not what was said," he replies primly.

"Please, do clarify for me, because Admiral Decker was woefully sparse of details."

Uhura clamps the robotic clip around the wooden skewer and shoves it vaguely in the direction of his mouth. "Leave him alone and eat your food."

"Here now, lassie, I'd like ta hear this too. We got a verra watered-down version from your husband, it seems."

"Seriously, though, did you all actually resign your commissions? Like, the whole command chain, even your people?" he asks, as he cautiously attempts the improvised food system like an awkward, oversized bird. But the chicken slides right off the skewer, and it's at least not someone helping him. Ten points to Communications and Robotics.

"It was a calculated bluff, Captain." Uhura sits down beside Spock in the last chair, munching on a French fry. "There hasn't been a strike like that in decades, and they were bound to take notice if the entire upper command chain of a starship all went at once. And we never mandated it with our departments; they were more than willing to take the risk once we explained what had happened. Your people love you, for some weird reason. Don't ask me why."

"What would you have done if they hadn't caved and let you back, though!"

"Oh, they are letting us back, then?"

“Oh yeah, about that – so you have like forty calls to make tomorrow, Spock. I’m guessing that’s only fair.”

A ripple of laughter flows around his bed as his XO’s eyebrows barely twitch.

“I really would love to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation. But seriously, that was a freaking huge gamble, guys.”

Spock puts down his pita and gives him a long-suffering look as if to say, don’t flatter yourself. "The New Vulcan Science Academy has an ongoing need for personnel aboard its exploratory vessels, as most Vulcans still wish to remain planetside for the continued rebuilding of the colony. I have no doubt we would have found stations there if desiring to serve in that capacity."

"Personally, I was just planning on you going rogue and us signing on as pirates, Captain."

"Da, Hikaru is correct, my money was on that. I am just a leetle disappointed, myself."

"Y'all are headcases, is my opinion, but that's never mattered before. James Tiberius, you chew your food or so help me God I will put you back on a feeding tube!"

He rolls his eyes, and makes a production of chewing his food and then showing it dramatically to everyone, receiving a chorus of disgusted exclamations that result in dispelling the tension a bit.

"Seriously though, Doc, have you slept at all, in the last couple days?" Sulu eyes their CMO warily over top of his sandwich after a few minutes of silent chewing.

"You want to get banned from this room, Lieutenant?"

"Guys, chill," he interjects, frowning. "He's right, Bones. Every time I've woken up at night – which is a lot, not gonna lie – you've been here, awake, with me. That's not okay."

"I'm not havin' this argument with you, you're on medical leave and I outrank you right now, captain or not." Bones smirks, and waves a hypospray at him threateningly before returning to his own sandwich.

He rolls his eyes and turns his head. "Take him home with you, yeah?"

Spock lifts a long-suffering eyebrow. "If we must. Sir."

Uhura snorts, covering the sound and a grin with her hand.

"Be careful, though, he's kind of like one of those molds that just won't go away once it's inside. Do not hit me with that, I don't need it right now!" He moves as far away from the threatening hypo as he can.

Nyota smiles. "You'd be more than welcome, Leonard. We haven't been sleeping that much ourselves," she says quietly.

Though he's well aware they are likely having the same nightmares he is, he grins evilly from around a piece of chicken. "Ooh, c'mon, I want details. I never did see honeymoon pictures because of that stupid peace conference on Organia."

"Leonard. Give me that hypo."

"I was joking!"

"With pleasure, Lieutenant. Get him right in the jugular, he can't stop you without hands. Y’all are lucky I let you in here tonight anyway, he’s not really supposed to have visitors for another week."

He is basically falling asleep on his food, but everybody’s been kind enough to not say anything the whole time and he appreciates that.

"Spock, help me out here, buddy."

"If you think I am going to give you said 'details,' Captain, you are sadly mistaken."

"I meant with the drugs, not your kinky Vulcan it-is-a-matter-of-biology, even I'm not that – ow!"

"Is he always this whiny, Leonard?"

"Every. Damn. Time."

"You guys suck," he mutters, vaguely aware of Chekov and Sulu helping Scotty pick up the remains of the meal and scurrying away with promises to return tomorrow for a status update about the ship. He is way more excited about that than he's able to show, thanks to the drugs, but they don't seem to mind.

"You good, Jim?" Somewhere in this hazy last few minutes, Bones has removed everything from around his bed and reset the monitors so they won't wake him up tonight.

"Gimme my unicorn," he mumbles.

He hears Uhura's laugh somewhere near the door.

"Ugh. What in the name of all that's sensible are you gonna do with this thing all night?" A whumph, and it lands in the chair next to the bed, where it stares at him mournfully.

"Don't judge me."

A soft laugh over his head, and the lights dim. "Look, I got my comm on me, so if anything happens I can be back here in ten minutes, Jim. Okay?"

"Go, Bones. Get some sleep." He makes a sad little shoo motion with one foot toward the door. Bones frowns, and fusses with the blanket. Finally nods, pats his ankle once and then moves away to sign out of his computer terminals.

Jim blinks in the dim light, and yeah, that is Spock lurking in the shadows like a weirdo. He turns his head on the pillow.

"Hey. You okay?" he asks quietly.

"That is the inquiry we should be making of you, Captain."

"And that's not an answer to my question. I'm drugged, not stupid, Spock. You want to sit down?"

Across the room, he sees Nyota propel Bones out into the hall with a firm push and then disappear behind him.

"I do not believe that would be wise. You are in need of rest and so are Nyota and Doctor McCoy."

"Fair enough, but I'm worried about you too, y'know. And your wife just bailed on you, so I'm pretty sure she wants you to deal with your issues. Boot the unicorn and have a seat, Commander."

Spock eyes the animal with an almost hilarious disdain, before removing it to the floor and gingerly taking its chair.

"Great. Now, much as it totally made my day, actually it made my year, to hear that story, it's not like you to lose it in front of a bunch of humans. Even asshole humans."

"Circumstances were…extenuating." He tries not to smile, because that sounded almost…pouty, is the only word he can think of to describe it.

"I'm not debating that. I just…we never did talk about what happened, and you haven't really stuck around much while I've been here in Medical..."

Spock's voice is almost inaudible, and he isn't meeting Jim's eyes anymore. "My apologies."

"Dude, I wasn't saying that to make you feel bad, I'm not a child who needs a babysitter. Shut up, I am not. Anyway, that last mission got really, really ugly, and then I got evac-ed right off the planet and we never debriefed afterwards since I never went back to the Enterprise. And the last thing we need, as a team, is to not be on the same page. That's all I'm saying."

"I have nothing to discuss regarding the mission."

Ughhhhh, it's like trying to get a pearl out of an Aldebaran shellmouth. "All right then. But…look, if you need something you have to tell me, I'm not in a position right now to read you very well. Okay?"

He really, really wishes he had his hands right now, because Spock just looks sort of like a miserable wet cat all huddled up under a bush hiding because it doesn't understand why it's pouring rain, and it's not a good look on him. If Jim knows him very well, and he does, he's been the firm and strong commander he needed to be the last two weeks while the crisis was unfolding aboard ship and ashore, and that was all after Jim had nearly died right in front of both him and Nyota before they finally made it off that cursed planet.

Now that the last part of the drama is over, he's probably coming down hard from that adrenaline, and Jim knows what that feels like, the burden of command crashing down and burying you under the rubble. And that's without the additional nightmare of seeing someone you care about being repeatedly tortured for days before Starfleet manages to get themselves in gear and put out a rescue op.

"You know I'm only still here because of you and Nyota, right?" he says quietly.

"That is highly debatable."

"Well, I'm not here to debate it, but is that what's bothering you? Or is it the violence you had to do – or I guess didn't have to do, chose to do – in order to get me out? Or are you just freaking out because, gods forbid, you actually might have let your human side show a little in front of the crew and Starfleet these last couple of weeks?"

"I…" Dark eyes look up at him, pained and uncertain. "I do not know."

That's probably a circle letter D for all of the above.

"Well." He squirms into a slightly more comfortable position, wincing as the stasis fields prevent his arms from moving. Spock stops him with a gentle gesture, and reaches for the bed controls, elevating his head a fraction. "Thanks. I was just going to say, if you want you can spend the night here. If you think it'll help."

"Why would it 'help', when I do not know in what I require assistance."

Testy, testy. "It'd help me," he admits, without a trace of shame. After all this time, there's no reason for it. "You're not the only one waking up at night seeing that cell, you know."

"I…you may have a point."

"I usually do."

"But Nyota –"

"Has probably already gone home. Didn't you see my padd light up a minute ago? Check it for me, yeah?"

Spock takes the instrument from the bedside table and glances at it, raises an eyebrow and then turns it for him to read.

Leonard and I are going to break out a bottle of wine and braid my hair or something, IDK. Make him talk to you, please? N.

"We all have such a weird relationship, you know that?"

"Indeed." Spock shakes his head, lips twitching suspiciously. "As it would appear I am now without transportation, I will accept your offer."

He smiles, but he's actually exhausted and a yawn soon chases the amusement away. "There's a fold-out bed in Bones's office if you're tired, Spock, I'm not trying to force you to do anything."

"I am not in need of sleep at the moment. But you are, Jim."

"Yeah, honestly, I am. I'll be glad when this regen is done and I can get off those drugs, they're killer." He blinks sleepily up at the ceiling. "You can use that to get some work done if you want, just log me out of the database so Bones doesn't think I'm on there and have a fit in the morning."

Spock raises an eyebrow, fingers flying over the screen. "You have been working while on leave."

"Not really, it's not like I can do much other than have the stupid thing read my messages to me and take down my responses." He yawns again, eyes slipping closed. "And just FYI, all the audio books in the Medical resident library? Super boring dude reading them. It should be a crime, what he's done to their classical poetry."

"That is unfortunate." And that is the I am humoring you, please shut up now tone, so at least they’re moving back into familiar territory.

He grins to himself, closes his eyes and shifts uncomfortably back to a resting position. He will be so glad when he can move his arms again; he's never liked sleeping on his back or feeling helpless.

A soft sound a few moments later rouses him from a drugged half-doze, and he mumbles what he hopes resembles a noise of what combined with this better be good.

"My apologies. I was merely inquiring after the content of your literary selection."

"Mmmyeah. Used to read those when I was a kid. I was a weird kid, Spock."

"That, I do not doubt. However, I suspect it had little to do with your literary proclivities."

"Screw you." He smiles without opening his eyes. "Well, go ahead and pick something, read to me."

Awkward shifting. "I am not –"

"Doing anything of paramount importance right now, no. C'mon, Spock. It'll put me to sleep and then I'll be out of your hair; and it might help you chill out a little bit."

"Vulcanian poetry is nothing like Terran poetry; the constructs are usually without precise structure, the content completely illogical, and the –"

"Oh my God, shut up. It's poetry, it's not supposed to be logical. It's supposed to make you feel something. Supposed to speak to you. Find something that could speak to both of us and look at it as a…xenosociological experiment or something. Whatever."

He hears a tolerant sigh, and he's well aware that if he were not less than a week out from death's door he would never be able to get away with this. But after a moment of clicking through the selections, Spock settles back in the chair and begins to read, and he finds himself drifting off almost immediately, a smile on his face.

The future's full of possibilities, and despite everything that's happened recently…his life couldn't be much closer to perfect.


The Light of Stars, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The night is come, but not too soon;
And sinking silently,
All silently, the little moon
Drops down behind the sky.

There is no light in earth or heaven
But the cold light of stars;
And the first watch of night is given
To the red planet Mars.

Is it the tender star of love?
The star of love and dreams?
O no! from that blue tent above,
A hero's armor gleams.

And earnest thoughts within me rise,
When I behold afar,
Suspended in the evening skies,
The shield of that red star.

O star of strength! I see thee stand
And smile upon my pain;
Thou beckonest with thy mailed hand,
And I am strong again.

Within my breast there is no light
But the cold light of stars;
I give the first watch of the night
To the red planet Mars.

The star of the unconquered will,
He rises in my breast,
Serene, and resolute, and still,
And calm, and self-possessed.

And thou, too, whosoe'er thou art,
That readest this brief psalm,
As one by one thy hopes depart,
Be resolute and calm.

O fear not in a world like this,
And thou shalt know erelong,
Know how sublime a thing it is
To suffer and be strong.