Actions

Work Header

A-Haunting We Will (Boldly) Go

Chapter Text

II.

While it isn't the most auspicious sign in the world, it also isn't necessarily cause for Red Alert levels of panic either; there are multiple reasons why a ship can lose contact with Starfleet Command. The Enterprise herself has done this on more than one occasion, though that's usually for no more than 24 hours due to an away mission gone wrong or something of the kind. But any number of communications issues can arise on a constitution-class vessel, any number of spatial anomalies can cause disruptions of the subspace signals, there are many reason why a ship can go off the radar for a while; and it's not necessarily cause for immediate alarm unless it was in highly dangerous territory at the time, such as close to the Neutral Zone.

So when they're diverted off their present mission to see if they can locate the Defiant, as she's gone dark for more than 48 hours without explanation, it's a little concerning but not the horrific event it turns out to be when they do end up locating her – in a manner of speaking – some twelve hours later.

In a manner of speaking, meaning that they can see the ship on their viewscreen, but the sensors are not showing it to actually be there.

That’s new.

He's already had Chekov run diagnostics on the scanner and then had Spock check them, just to be sure, and they're functioning perfectly; it's scanning and showing that section of space as empty, even though they can see the ship sitting there, plain as anything.

He may not have been on the Science track, but he knows enough about it to know that's Not Normal.

However, when the Security and Science team beam over, cautiously, they report that the ship appears to be in normal condition, other than the fact that life support systems are offline along with several other major ship systems. Waiting impatiently in the transporter room for this news, he finally shoots his longsuffering Security Chief a triumphant look and promptly gives the order to beam over himself, because what in the name of scientific sense is going on and he wants to see.

Spock doesn't look too happy to see him materialize, but wisely refrains from pointing out that they probably shouldn't both be on the Ship of Weirdness; he won the battle over Jim staying behind until Security checked everything out, and knows better than to attempt winning that particular war right now.

"So everything is offline, basically?"

"Affirmative." Spock gestures at the diagnostic he's pulled up on the Bridge library console screen, hands bulky in the EV suit's gloves. His voice is weirdly muffled, echoing in a strange surround-sound in both the helmet comms and in person. "It looks as though most vital ship's systems were manually taken offline in Engineering itself."

"That's a little weird."

"It is certainly irregular." Spock gestures to the body count scattered around the Bridge. "As is the undeniable fact that it appears a mutiny of some kind has taken place on this vessel."

"I don't recall that ever happening on a Federation ship before, do you?"

"Not as such, no, Captain. There have been isolated instances of mutiny but they have not been wholescale, nor as violent as this seems to have been."

He casts a look at the center console, where a figure in command yellow is slumped backward with what looks like his first officer's hands around his throat, and swallows reflexively. When he taps the comm on the side of his helmet, it's with a little too much force.

"Mr. Chekov, what've you got in Engineering?"

"Sir, nothing that is of help to us, I am afraid. As Meester Spock said, all vital systems have been shut off. The life support systems, they have been also sabotaged. I cannot put them back online, not without much repairwork."

"That's not what we're here for. See if you can download the Engineering diagnostics and then get back up here." His skin is starting to crawl, which is never a good sign.

"Aye, sir."

"I don't like this, Spock."

"Nor I, Captain."

"No, I mean like, it's more than just a horrible 'Fleet tragedy, I mean –"

"I am aware of your meaning." The interruption is as novel as the fact that his First is actually agreeing with his weird feeling – that's Red Flag number two. "I feel it as well. Something is not right aboard this ship."

He pushes the other comm-button. "Bones, what's Sickbay looking like?"

"More of the same," is the curt reply. "But every bed in here's full, Jim – something was going on, that's for sure. Every patient is strapped down, and I mean tight. It's not normal."

"Yeah, we're leaving, I'm not chancing another Psi-2000 epidemic. Get back up here now, and for gods' sake don't touch anything."

"You think!"

"I do, sometimes," he says dryly. Footsteps behind them, and a minute later Chekov reappears on the Bridge, waving a tricorder in one heavily-padded hand. "Mr. Chekov?"

"I have the recordings, sir. But they are heavily corrupted, I do not know how useful they will be."

"At least we have them. Between them and the ship's logs maybe we can figure out what went on here. And –" The ship suddenly shudders, a long and juddering whine of taxed machinery rippling through her like an earthquake. Chekov yelps and wobbles, though Spock keeps his balance, catlike as always.

He's stumbled against the command chair briefly, and now freezes, staring. "What the…" His voice trails off, and he clears his throat. "Spock?"

"Yes, Captain."

"Can you look at this for me?"

His First immediately drops what he's doing at the Library console at the tone, moving back toward the command dais. Jim gestures with his free hand as he approaches, and sees slanted eyebrows rise even through the face-shield.

"I'm not imagining that, right?"

"You are not. Have you attempted to move?"

"No, not yet." His whole hand's literally gone right through the surface of the command chair, like an arm's length into the seat cushions – as if it were just a hologram, not even there at all. He slowly pulls, but his hand retreats just as easily as it had entered the area. Puzzled, he moves his fingers, then tries again despite Spock's aborted protests, and his hand just does the same thing.

Weirdly enough, the arms of the chair are perfectly solid as he experimentally whacks them with his knuckles. It's the seat that's just…not.

"Okay, this is freaking weird."

"I concur. It is a most alarming development."

"Enterprise to Captain Kirk."

He presses the button on his helmet. "Kirk here."

"Sir, we're getting really strange energy readings from the Defiant. Even though we still aren't getting readings that, well, the Defiant is actually there in the first place. But there's an energy signature that's pulsing from that general vicinity, something our sensors can't identify. The nav computer's directing us to move away from it, that's how intense the pulse is."

"Mr. Sulu, does the Defiant still look the same to you?"

"…Look the same, sir? Yes, Captain, still the same."

"Good. Let me know immediately if like, part of it starts dissolving or something, yeah?"

"Keptin?"

"Jim, what the hell are you talkin' about?"

"Not now, Bones. Get up here, we're leaving. Scotty, get that transporter ready and go ahead and get Mr. Chekov and Mr. Spock out of here if you can lock onto them."

"Captain –"

"Sir, right now there's too much interference, I canna lock onto any of ye. Give me half a mo' to recalibrate."

"Roger that." He glances up, ignoring Spock's interrupted protest and subsequent look of annoyance. "Gentlemen, activate your emergency transponders so he has a stronger signal."

"Aye, sir."

"Enterprise to Captain Kirk!"

"I don't like that tone, Mr. Sulu."

"Sir, the – the Defiant has, well…"

"Started dissolving?" he asks, massaging the back of his neck as best he can through the ungainly suit.

"Not exactly, but, well, it's like – sort of flickering."

"It's what."

"On visual, it's like…flickering in and out. Like it's a bad hologram or something, you know?"

He hears Bones swearing both in his comm and the short corridor leading from the Bridge's Jefferies tube entrance, so at least he's almost back up top.

"Mr. Sulu, can you put any kind of stabilization field around the ship, or the area of space the ship isn't reading to be? Even a modified tractor beam might stabilize the field enough to dampen that energy pulse enough to get us out of here."

"One moment, sir, let me check with Engineering."

"Captain, that is not going to be sufficient –"

"I'm well aware, Spock. This is called busy work. It's how humans avoid panic. I shouldn't have left him in command over there." He presses the comm. "Scotty, get that damn transporter working now, and that's an order."

"Aye, sir! I have half of it workin', sir, but I havena recalibrated the other three pads yet!"

"That will do. Get Mr. Spock, Doctor McCoy, and Mr. Chekov off this ship immediately."

"Now look here, Jim –"

"Captain, I protest –"

"I said now, Scotty!"

"Aye, sir." He can hear the pained resignation in his CE's voice, but before his crew can even finish their protests they've already started to shimmer in what looks like a really rough transport beam.

"And if you'd tell them to get a move on so you can lock onto me that'd be appreciated," he mutters, and hears a forced laugh on the other end of the comm.

"Sir, is your transponder on?"

"It's been on, Scotty."

"But…" There's a flurry of muffled sound. "Sir, I dinna have a read on y'anymore, are ye standin' close to something that could be interferin' with the beam?"

"No…I haven't moved." He glances around, and only then realizes –

He's no longer standing on solid durasteel flooring.

He's standing three inches inside it.

"Uh…guys…this thing's, like, literally melting out from under me. I need you to get me out of here."

"Sir I dinna have a read on your transponder at all!"

"Spock, use that eidetic memory and give him coordinates, then, I haven't moved an inch from where I was standing!"

"I was already inputting them, Captain. Stand by."

Of course he was. Surely between the two best minds on the ship they'll be able to snag him out of whatever this is. He exhales slowly, trying to stay calm.

He sinks another two inches, like ankle-deep in what isn't really a floor anymore; he can totally see the decks below now. And he can tell, something's going wonky with the gravity, it already feels like he's sort of floaty, which would explain why he's sinking through the floor. He half-turns, and yeah – that's the Enterprise he can see, starting to become visible through the flickering outline of what's very likely a ship literally disappearing under his feet. The question, is whether or not it’s going to take him with it when it goes.

He can't move from these coordinates, though, or they won't get him locked into the transport beam. It's extremely dangerous locking in without a transponder code as it is; the downward movement is already compromising him more than is really safe.

"Captain, the ship is really flickering now, it's going in and out, like a transmission we're about to lose." Sulu sounds majorly freaked, and it's not. Helping.

"Spock. You're not getting a lock, are you. Scotty?" He keeps his voice calm, despite the fact that he can now clearly see the outline of the nacelles where before there was only blurred indistinctness. He exhales, a shaky breath that momentarily fogs his face-shield in a patch of blurriness.

"…Just hang on, Jim. They're both tryin' to hotwire this thing or something, I dunno. Just stay still another second."

The moment of hesitation, and fact that he recognizes Bones's voice as his super-gentle but totally fake everything's going to be fine even though we both know you're about to die voice, is not at all reassuring. The fact that the transmission is scratchy, sounding as if it’s coming from a long-distance comm, is even less so.

If he's already part of whatever this is? The ship disappearing from their own universe? Then the transporter won't be able to lock onto him, period; coordinates or no coordinates, there's no matter to really lock onto, nothing organic. The transporter requires at least a molecular structure to latch onto before it can even begin the process of separation. Whatever is wrong with this area of space has obviously pulled him in with it, at this point.

At least the rest of them had made it back before it got this bad. He can die knowing his people are safe, that no one else is in danger, at least – and that's more than he's had before.

"Look, I know you tried, okay? Don't beat yourself up over this, that's an order." He hopes he's still transmitting, but given the almost eerie silence that's fallen over his ear-comms, he's not even sure of that.

There's a snap, crackle of static in his ear, and a lurch as the walls of the Defiant's Bridge start to slowly phase out of existence, and along with them his view of the Enterprise – she appears to be fading as well, just more slowly. He hopes that means she’s just fading back into the real world, or whatever, not out of existence entirely.

"And get the Enterprise away from this area of space, understood? Spock, promise me. Step up, take that chair and make sure this doesn't happen to her."

"You have my word." God, he sounds wrecked, even through the barely-audible connection. He'll pull it together this time, though, for the sake of the crew.

There's one last wrenching shudder, he takes one last look at his beautiful ship he's never going to see again, and suddenly –

It's all just…gone.


So.

Being all alone on a ship full of dead people? Just as nightmarish as it sounds.

Though the Defiant had faded away just as the Enterprise did, she reappeared only moments later, fading back into existence around him but in an ethereal, ghostly replica of what she had been; obviously, no longer a physical ship, as he can see straight through her from aft to stern.

Ok, freaky. But he can’t see through himself, at least, so he isn’t dead, right, because wouldn't he (of all people) know? And he's never been a believer in the afterlife but if he was going to, this definitely wouldn't be it. Surely no deity or Fate or whatever you want to call it would opt for shoving a human soul into a universe completely on its own for eternity. What's the point in that?

But this definitely isn't normal life as they know it, being able to float through freaking walls and so on. So, he may still be alive, but obviously in this universe, the laws of life and physics no longer intersect the way they do in his.

There’s also the added joy of knowing that in just under forty-eight hours his EV suit is going to run out of oxygen (less if he doesn't get this panic under control). And since he's still breathing, apparently in this or any other universe, he's going to need that air.

He can only guess that there was some kind of temporal rift that swallowed the Defiant, that's the only explanation for why he's not dead, but isn't exactly alive either; he's trapped in some kind of in-between phase shift along with the doomed ship. Able to see the world around him – there's a universe out there, he can see the stars through the hull – but unable to interact with anything on board in a solid form. It's all just sort of…ghostly, a holographic nightmareland of weirdness that he's never going to escape from. Some anomaly in that area of space had taken out the Defiant, and they had just been foolish enough to stumble in before it had collapsed on itself.

He's never told anyone that his worst nightmares are inexplicably of being lost in space, alone. Without his ship, without his crew – without anyone. And now, that's become a living nightmare, and one that he's having a really hard time keeping at bay as he sort of floats aimlessly around the Defiant, then just as aimlessly floats right through the hull without intending to and finds himself in empty space.

At first he freaks, but then figures why the hell not, it's not like it's any more lonely out here than in a ship full of dead people, and he might as well die among the stars he loves. The thought crosses his mind that maybe in this strange world the rules of oxygen don't apply, and he could just go on living in suspended form like this forever – and he promptly discards that with a shudder, hoping it's not true, because that's an even worse nightmare. If he's breathing, then that means at some point he'll stop.

That's actually a good thing.

He almost turns his visor screen off, because he doesn't need the oxygen countdown or the reminder of how long it's been since his ship disappeared and everything he knows and loves with it – but some sick part of his brain wants to know, wants to retain its humanity by marking the passage of time in a universe that may not even be governed by its laws.

But the numbers ticking down in the lower left corner of the viewer blink ominously at him, cheerfully marking the hours he has left until the suit's oxygen supply runs out completely.

Oxygen levels: FULL
Time Remaining: 46:25:05


He tries meditating (or just sleeping, he never could stay awake very long in those unsuccessful sessions), and must be at least partly successful because there's been a nearly four-hour drop in the timer when he comes back to himself, instincts flaring in a subconscious signal.

The Defiant's drifted, or maybe he has, somewhere off in the distance, not that he was planning on floating his way back toward her somehow. But in the area he's currently drifting in, surrounded by a blanket of stars and nothing else but the frightening vastness of space, there's a weird sort of lurching in his stomach, his hair's standing on end inside his helmet. It reminds him of the ship's gravity malfunction they had their second year in space, half the crew were puking for hours before the inertial dampeners finally got fixed.

Then, his heart just about stops, because out of thin air, so close he could touch the numbers on her stern, the Enterprise appears literally right in front of him.

But his consternation at Spock's blatant disregard for his last orders abruptly turns into horror as his hand passes right through the hull, just as it had the Defiant.

Surely not…

Just as he's about to panic even more at the idea that his beautiful ship's about to become so much lost space jetsam like the Defiant, it disappears again, silent as a ghost.

"What the hell?" he sputters, voice echoing inside his helmet, too-loud in the quiet. "Spock, I swear to God, if you didn't get her away from this weird-ass space I will bust you down to cadet if I ever get back on board!" The fact that he's yelling at a non-existent crewman isn't exactly a sane thing to do, but it's helping him not freak out, so hey, it's totally logical, to coin a phrase. "She better not have drifted into this mess," he mutters, shivering. "Why would she only appear for a few seconds, anyway? The shifting wasn't confined to space, it was obviously confined to a non-spatial and non-linear dimension."

Obviously, there's no answer to his conjecturing.

"Maybe a pocket universe or something," he postulates, humming thoughtfully. The idea is a fascinating one, and one he wishes he could share with someone who'd appreciate it, not this dead, cold universe that's going to become his graveyard. "You'd appreciate that, wouldn't you Spock. Get your geek on over the eleventh dimension." He snorts. "It sucks, just so you know."

He shivers again. "Jesus, why aren't these stupid suits heated. Insulation's not cutting it, I can tell you that." There's a thin film of ice crystallizing on the edges of his viewer. "God, I wish I'd listened to you and stayed on board for this one." His laugh is half a sob now, as he exhales shakily, closing his eyes to shut out the vision of total star-spotted blackness stretching endlessly in each direction. "Serves me right, doesn't it? You'd think after all these years, I'd learn to listen to my officers."

What the hell, no one's ever going to know, no one's ever going to see. Except…

"Well that's just awesome. Mental note, do not cry if your face is covered by an EV visor. This itches like hell." He wrinkles his nose, annoyance driving away the panic now. "It's the little things, you know?" Why he's still talking to dead space – emphasis on dead – he has no idea, but it's helping, so who cares. "Like…okay, seriously now, can you not?"

The space around him is flickering wildly, gray and silver and white shimmering like a bad transporter beam.

"Maybe I'm hallucinating." He twists in the air to look around as the images solidify. Well, sort of. He floats through a wall or two without intending to, straight through a smallish set of steaming pipes, and finally figures out how to stop himself in time to find himself in Engineering. "Huh. They don't look like they're phasing out of existence," he muses. "Maybe it's just like, some kind of weird spatial echo leaking into this universe?"

That might make sense, except for the fact that one of his redshirts suddenly looks up from his repair work and promptly drops his protolaser, open-mouthed and spluttering worse than the junction plating he just accidentally sliced in half.

"Wait, can you see me, Matthews?"

The young engineer is frantically trying to interrupt what looks like Montgomery Scott going off on a total rampage – no doubt fueled by the events of earlier – gesturing wildly in his general vicinity.

"That doesn't make any sense. How – oh, come on!" The walls are starting to disappear around him, silver and gray and gleaming transparisteel vanishing almost in an instant.

He's left in the darkness again, alone.

Oxygen levels: STABLE
Time Remaining: 43:03:00


He manages to scare the crap out of seven or eight more random crewmen in unplanned appearances over the next thirty-six-ish hours; obviously, there's something weird going on here. His money's on Spock refusing to leave the area, somehow knowing there's a possibility that Jim's not actually dead yet. How the hell he thinks he's going to effect any kind of rescue is anyone's guess, but never let it be said his crew was anything but quick learners – and he's the king of slim chances. They learned from the best.

But he has no idea why the ship keeps appearing and disappearing, at what looks to be slightly over five-hour intervals.

"Okay, guys, seriously, this is getting old," he mutters wearily, after the fifth time the Enterprise vanishes from view, leaving him again in the cold. "Like, either figure it out or just call it and leave the area. I can't afford to keep hoping, here."

He has a little under six hours of oxygen left, and this isn't looking promising. And that's assuming they're actually trying to figure out how to get him back; he's seen nothing to indicate that on his ghostly visits. Visits which he hasn't been able to control very well, ending up in the most random places aboard and running into the most random of crewmen. He'd hoped he could land on the Bridge, or at least run into someone like Uhura who might just be able to communicate with him even through whatever barriers are separating their worlds right now – but he'd had no such luck. Even trying his best to make it through walls of the ship, he's never made it to the Bridge or Officers' Quarters before the ship disappears again each time.

He doesn't even know if the crewmen who saw him each time have been believed by the rest of the officers, though it would be weird for them to stick around this zone of space if not for that reason.

It's now been over twenty hours since he slept last; he'd napped between visits the first few times, but now he's afraid of falling asleep and missing the ship's last appearance, and his nerves are way too keyed up to even doze, not that that's easy to do in the first place when you're floating in zero-G. His oxygen flow is becoming thinner, making him sluggish and sleepy, and he'd kill for a good non-reconstituted steak or something right now.

"I really miss my coffee," he grumbles, apropos of nothing. "Dying man's supposed to get a last meal, y'know. This bites." He glances at the timer, and shivers. "I really, really wish I knew how to like, grab onto you the next time you appear, guys. Ride the wave back into our universe, or something."

He sighs, glances at his visor screen.

Oxygen levels: LOW
Time Remaining: 05:48:30

"Shut up."


Oxygen levels: LOW
Time Remaining: 03:12:10

He wonders if there's anything actually tangible in this strange, flat universe, if somewhere out there actually exist pocket-dimensional versions of Earth, and every other planet they've visited. Or if this is all there is, this star-studded expanse of nothing, just darkness and nothing as far as the eye can see.

The Defiant's disappeared completely now, and he doesn't know if that's because one or both of them have drifted too far apart or if it's just sort of…melted away, like everything else in this universe.

When he's dead, will he just phase out and disappear, too?

Seems a little lame, all things considered.


Oxygen levels: LOW
Time Remaining: 01:00:00
WARNING: Recommend return to parent vessel for resupply.

"Really wish I'd given this mission a hard pass."

He inhales shakily, exhales even more unsteadily, heavy air rasping in the stillness of his helmet. "You'd think after all this time I wouldn't be this freaking scared, y'know?" Oh, but he is scared. This nightmare's about over, but what comes after?

He's terrified.


Oxygen levels: CRITICAL
Time Remaining: 00:07:30

He's kind of glad he didn't have the ability to eat or drink anything while on this little joyride, because he's not sure he could keep it down now, thanks to the knot of nauseating fear sitting just under his throat and another deep in his stomach. All efforts to distract himself have fallen flat, after forty-eight hours of every method he knows – he's out of options, along with time.

His lungs are straining now, trying to pull in air that's very thin, and he can already feel his head spinning just a little when he sees the glaring white and silver of what looks like the Enterprise's command Bridge starting to phase into existence around him.

Of course. They have to wait until he's about dead to get it right.

It's weirdly quiet; he can't hear anything. But he can see just fine, see that – no surprise – Spock is going at it with Bones over something by the turbolift, amid much eyebrow-frowning and arm-waving, respectively. He wants to laugh, but he can't really, because he's afraid it could turn into something a little more hysterical than his command image can really take.

"Really, guys? Can you not catfight on the Bridge?" he mutters, more to ground himself and stay alert than anything else.

He blinks when he sees Uhura's head whip around suddenly, one hand on her earpiece, and almost immediately zone in on his location, floating somewhere to the right of the viewscreen and like eight feet off the ground.

Okay, that's really weird, but at least she can see him?

She doesn't waste time trying to mediate, just puts two fingers to her mouth and a second later, everyone in the near vicinity cringes away with expressions of pain, so obviously she must have one hell of a whistle he never knew about.

Spock and Bones both halt mid-sentence, and look back to see her pointing straight at him.

"Uh…yeah, if you can see me does that mean you can get me out of here? Because I have…less than 4 minutes of oxygen left," he says, trying to look hopeful and reassuring rather than pathetic and scared.

Spock glances at Uhura, who nods and turns back to the console, pointing back over her shoulder in his direction. Then he jumps a little when it looks like everyone on the Bridge explodes into motion all at once, comms being sent and people running everywhere like a flurry of multi-hued ants.

Okay, it's not really an overreaction, honestly, but unless they know how to pull him out of a weird pocket universe, freaking out is not really going to help, him or anyone else.


WARNING. Oxygen levels: CRITICAL
Time Remaining: 00:00:60
WARNING: Oxygen levels below human tolerance.

Crap crap crap. He tries not to let his breathing increase, but it's a little hard to do when that's staring you in the face, and especially when you can actually see Home but can't get at it.

Suddenly every hair on his body starts to tingle strangely: clear indication of…a transporter lock? But the connection snaps suddenly, with a flare of energy that's an almost electrical shock, flashing through him and wrapping around him in an instant wave that feels as wrong as it is painful.

"Ow! The hell, guys?"

Spock's leaning over the command chair, saying something into the arm-comm, while Uhura's reading out something from her station, pointing at the Engineering console. After another second, he sees the walls around them start to flicker, and he can feel panic start creeping up his throat like a living, squirming thing.

She's dissolving again, and this will be the last time he sees her.

White and silver are more gray now, and he can see stars starting to sparkle through the walls.


WARNING. Oxygen levels: CRITICAL
Time Remaining: 00:00:12

Well, he knows they tried. He shuts his eyes, not wanting to watch as his beautiful ship disappears one final time. There's a final lurch, almost physical in its finality, and his suit begins blaring an alarm in one ear.


WARNING. Oxygen levels: ZERO
Time Remaining: 00:00:00
WARNING. Recommend immediate tri-ox treatment. WARNING.

Gee, you think?

He tries to inhale and gets only a strained, choking feeling that sets off a chain reaction of panic that he'd be more ashamed of if he had any room for that after the despair of knowing he was so close, knowing his people are going to feel guilty about this forever now.

That same tingling feeling sweeps over him, almost numbing from head to toe – the lack of oxygen is taking him out quicker than he'd hoped, but at least less painfully than he'd anticipated. He blinks, but the gray haze slowly settles in like a muffling blanket, subduing everything, sight and sound and feeling, until he barely registers the pain of straining lungs over the discomfort of landing hard on his knees, then his side.

Something stabs him in the neck right through his suit, and he coughs out a pathetic little gasping whimper that's just a bit embarrassing.

"… off of him, he's already been out of air for more than ninety seconds and there's only so much tri-ox is gonna do!" Another pinching pain at his neck. "Then break it open, or is your Engineering degree just honorary!"

He coughs again, trying to laugh, because only he would hallucinate something while dying that sounds that much like Bones on a full-out medical rampage.

Then a sudden flood of clarity swamps his whole brain, chasing away the fog like a spring breeze; and before he can even register what's happening there's a horrific shattering noise and sudden bright white light streaming in along with actual air, now unhampered by that awful suit helmet that's held him prisoner for two whole days.

Wait, what?

Something cold and medical-smelling slips into place over his mouth and nose, and for a second he panics again, gloved hands fumbling to push it away. A strong hand holds it in place despite his struggle, another catching his flailing fingers in a firm but gentle grip.

"It's just oxygen, Jim. Calm down." He squints against the lights, and sure enough, down his nose he can see the rubbery hose connecting the facepiece to a nearby canister. Wow, he must really have been in bad shape to break out those old things instead of just the tri-ox in the bloodstream. His eyes flick upward for a second, see Scotty peering worriedly over top of the transporter screen, then flit around the room and back to the figure bending over him on the pad. Slowly he drops his hands back to his chest, relief sweeping over him as reality finally sinks in.

"You're on board the Enterprise," Bones answers his unspoken question, hand gentle on his face for a moment, grounding and reassuring. "Don't ask me how Spock pulled that off."

He coughs lightly, and the mask is removed for a moment to let him expel the air. "Ship?"

"We were never in any danger, Jim. Spock moved her to observing distance like he promised. I dunno how the rest happened, I'm sure he has some logical scientific explanation."

He draws a deep breath, still trying to assimilate the fact that he isn't dying today, after two days of thinking otherwise. He might just throw up on a transporter pad for the first time in his life, and wouldn't that be a switch for Bones. Heh.

"Sir, I am so sorry I couldna lock onto you on the Defiant! I –"

"Scotty, it – it wasn't your fault," he rasps, trying to sit up. He's so shaky it takes both of them to even get him upright, and he wonders if he should warn them about the potential for collateral damage if his stomach loses its battle for control, despite not having eaten in two days. "I don't want to hear any more about it."

"Aye, Captain." Scotty, bless him, looks a little relieved, pats his arm as he moves back to the transporter controls. If he notices that Jim's still clinging to their CMO in a death grip, he doesn't say anything about it. "Just the same, sir, 'tis a lucky thing Mr. Spock was able –" He's cut off by the Transporter Room doors sliding open. "Speak o'the devil."

Spock's hair is a little floofy, like he's run the whole way from the turbolift at the other end of the corridor, and that's a little adorable, so much so it immediately eases his nerves just a bit. To further add credence to that hypothesis, the door opens again another three seconds later, and his Chief Comms Officer skids inside, slightly out of breath and glaring murderously at her not-quite-fiancé, who obviously was of no mind to wait for her.

"'Sup, guys." He manages to unlatch one hand from McCoy's arm, then the other, trying not to look as embarrassed as he feels that he's only just now starting to legit calm down and realize he's safe.

The pinch of another hypospray at his neck startles him sharply into that very harsh reality, and he glares sideways at his CMO, who waves it in his face. "Emergency nutrient booster, and there's a lot more coming, so don't start whining about it now."

"You're a menace."

"Mmhm. Turn around, let's see if we can get this suit off."

"Captain, are you all right?" Uhura's given up trying to incinerate her boyfriend with her eyes, fanning herself with one hand and breathing hard. "We cut that awfully close."

"Too damn close!"

"Bones. I'm fine." He swallows as his stomach rolls again in a residual au contraire to that statement. "Or I will be. Thanks to you guys." He glances up at his First. "You didn't leave the area, why?"

"We knew you were not deceased, Captain. While that was the case, we were duty-bound to make every effort to retrieve you."

Scotty makes an awkward coughing noise that sounds suspiciously like duty bound indeed, y'Vulcan hypocrite, and promptly disappears behind the transporter shield when Spock turns a narrowed look in his direction.

"Uh…that's like, really weird, though. Are you saying you could sense that I was still alive in some bizarre side universe?"

Universal cosmic BFFs or soul-mates or whatever the old man had said they might be, considered – buckets of awkward, all things like fiancées, considered – he's not exactly 100% comfortable with the idea that he's able to like, be tracked across worlds without the aid of radioactive girlfriend jewelry, thanks very much.

"Not precisely." Spock looks a little uneasy, which means he's either about to lie, or about to tell the truth and knows Jim is going to freak the hell out over it. Neither of which is a good sign.

He turns his look of suspicion on Uhura, because she at least won't give him a run-around, and forces every bit of command he can scrounge up into his voice, calm and demanding. "What are you not telling me?"

She sighs, and comes to sit on the transporter pad beside him and McCoy. When he doesn't shy away, she reaches out and motions for one of his hands. "You want this suit off or not?"

"I want answers."

"You're getting them! But you're not fooling anyone, Captain Claustrophobia. Give me your damn hand."

Behind him, working on the jammed, half-frozen mechanism holding the suit together at his neck, he hears Bones's snort of laughter.

"Shut up." He reluctantly holds out his hands, and she deftly starts unfastening the EV gloves with a rapidity born of years of comms work. "Now. Answers. How did you know I was still alive, and why do I have the feeling I'm not going to like it."

"Because you're not."

"Awesome. Yeow, Bones, what are you doing back there!"

"Sorry. Thing's jammed. Scotty broke the sealing mechanisms when we couldn't get the helmet off, now the whole thing won't open. Unless you want me to cut you out of it in Sickbay?"

"Anyway." Uhura tosses one glove on the transporter and goes to work on the other. "When you disappeared, Captain, apparently, the…you could call it a doorway to that universe, or whatever it was. It didn't close completely."

"Meaning…?"

"Meaning though physical matter and light waves apparently couldn't travel back through the phase corridor…apparently sound waves could."

He blinks, oxygen deprivation for a moment slowing his brain enough that he's not making the connection he obviously is expected to.

"Your comm was still online, and we could hear everything you said," she clarifies quietly.

Oh, that sucks.

His heart stops for just a second, as he tries to recall what all he said inside that helmet, thinking no one would ever hear him talking to himself in an effort to stay sane, trapped all alone just waiting for death for two days. Gods, he had actually been basically crying at one point, for pity's sake. How humiliating.

"The whole time?!"

"I heard everything. Leonard only heard some." Her eyes aren't pitying in any way, thank goodness, only understanding as she drops the second glove on the transporter pad. "Someone had to monitor it. And we couldn't afford to have him emotionally compromised, so no, he didn't hear anything other than the initial proof you were still alive out there somewhere." She nods toward Spock, who looks a little crestfallen. "I'm sorry, Captain. I know it's a breach of privacy, but if you said something that could help us figure out how to get you back, we had to be listening."

"I know." He sighs, scrubs helplessly at his hair with his now free hand, glares at it in consternation as it won't stop shaking. Bones mutters something behind him and there's a sudden snapping sound, then blessed air flow down his neck – the suit's finally coming apart, and it's enough to stave off his freakout a little longer. "I mean, it's a good thing you were monitoring me, because you heard me when I reappeared on the Bridge a few minutes ago, right?"

"I did. Over the two of you yelling at each other," she says, glaring at their CMO over Jim's shoulder.

"He started it!"

"Guys, seriously, I cannot deal." He puts up a hand. "How did you get me back, anyway?"

"It was what you said about wishing you could 'ride our wave' back through the doorway that did it," she replies. "We just hadn't been able to come up with anything feasible until then, but that gave us the idea to try and lock you into the transporter with a phase-blocking shield at the next appearance and then slingshot you out of the shift if we could, using the inertia from an aborted warp jump."

"We surmised, Captain, that as you had apparently been seen as somewhat…"

"Ghostly lookin'?" Scott supplies brightly.

"…in a not precisely corporeal state by various crewmen, and at extremely regular intervals, that the phase shift was a modulating occurrence of our space and time intersecting with the edges of another reality's, rather than a completely linear spatial or inter-dimensional anomaly."

"Phase shift. That's what we're calling it?"

"So t'speak, sir. 'Tis the most accurate way of describing what we were looking at."

"Okay…and so this phase shift, it's what took out the Defiant?"

"According to the data we retrieved from her Engineering records and the ship's logs, it would appear so." Spock nods. "This shift between dimensions also appears to have a detrimental effect on the human brain and nervous system when exposed for certain periods."

"Meaning?" he asks suspiciously.

"Meaning Chekov took a swing at Spock on the Bridge, and these two idiots have been at each others' throats the entire time you've been gone," Uhura drawls, stabbing a manicured finger at two blue shirts in succession. "We started taking bets on whether or not one of them would be in the brig when we did finally get you back on board."

"Meaning there have been breakouts of what appear to be extremely abnormal brain readings among the crew, Jim." Bones interrupts, scowling. "Nothing serious, and it's all been reversed now that I've found the antidote, but it explains why the Defiant's crew apparently went off the rails pretty much all at once."

He swallows as a dizzy spell makes the room do a lazy loop-da-loop around him, lights whirling like a pinwheel show. "But everyone's okay now?"

"Of course that's what you got out of that. Yes, Jim. Everyone's fine."

"Mr. Chekov is back at his post, Captain; and though he and Doctor McCoy appear to have received the most concentrated dosage of the energy's effects due to their presence on the Defiant prior to her disappearance, both have performed admirably in your absence."

"Huh." He squints up at the tall figure, and wishes he hadn't when the room tilts a little more. "Now I know I'm hallucinating, because I think he just complimented you, Bones."

"Yeah, well. Are you even with us right now? Because the rest of it can wait until you look less like you're about to keel over on me."

"That might be good," he manages weakly.

"You think you can walk?"

"I'm good here, seriously. Jus' need to lie down for a minute."

"Oh, no you don't. Jim! Little help here, Lieutenant?"

"Why're you always yelling," he mutters, trying to keep his eyes open.

"Scotty, get one of my people down here with an anti-grav gurney. Mask back on, Jim. Come here, if you gotta lie down at least do it where I can make sure you're still breathing."

"Aw, come on, Bones, I just – ow!"

Uhura snaps the oxygen mask back on his face without preamble, cutting off his spluttered protests. "This? These stunts of yours? One reason among many we don't have children." She says, tapping the hard plastic covering with one firm finger.

Spock's duly horrified look is obviously the far more important reason they don't, and he laughs so hard he has to roll onto his side to cough up a lung until he's just snickering half-drunkenly into Bones's leg, eyes slitted half-open over top of the breathing mask and belatedly realizing he just got stabbed with another hypospray, this one obviously having something in it that's making him feel pretty damn good. And not just because he's home.

Safe.

He's never going to take that for granted again.

A hand on his head, and a long sigh. "No more of this, Jim. Please."

He lifts one hand in a wholehearted, if somewhat sloppy, thumbs-up.

"I shall remind you of this conversation on the next occasion in which you become…vocal about being requested to obey regulation and remain behind on a hazardous away mission, Captain."

He changes the thumb to another finger before letting his hand fall back to the pad, already half-asleep and safely in the land of the highly drugged.

Scotty's voice, much amused. "Back to normal, then, are we?"

"So much for all that talk about being willing to stay back from now on," Bones sounds more resigned than pissed, but it still makes him a little sad, and he resolves to make it up to him. Sometime when he can like, see straight. "Listen to us, my ass."

"We weren't meant to hear that in the first place, Leonard."

"I know that, but – how do you forget that so quickly!"

He cracks an eyelid, scowling, because that's uncalled-for. "'M not gonna forget."

"Shut up and breathe."

"I doubt he has or will forget, Doctor. But would you really have him change so vital a part of who he is as a commander, out of either your fear or his?"

"Our fear or his."

"I stand corrected, but the question remains."

"Dude, I'm like, right here."

"No…no, of course not. Anyway, I don't think anybody even said thank you yet, did we Spock?"

"It is illogical to express gratitude when the end result was equally wished for by all parties involved, Doctor."

"If you say so."

"I believe I just did."

"Ugh, you're impossible!"

"Reasons number two and three," Uhura's mutter comes from somewhere overhead. "No children. Ever."