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A-Haunting We Will (Boldly) Go

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Title: A-Haunting We Will (Boldly) Go
Characters/Pairings: Spock, Kirk, Uhura, McCoy, various (background only Spock/Uhura)
Genre: Gen, H/C, Humor
Rating
: T for themes and movie-level language

Warnings/Spoilers: Various vague spoilers for all AOS movies. Any major TOS spoilers footnoted at the end of specific chapters, but no knowledge of TOS needed to understand anything here. Originally started as a Halloween-themed story but there’s very little actual supernatural happenings here. This chapter, spoilers for STID, and specifically for my personal headcanon regarding the psychology I see playing out in Beyond, which I firmly believe was the best movie of the three. Fight me.

Summary: Five times something haunted the U.S.S. Enterprise, and one time it got kicked off the ship only just in time.

A/N: I've rebooted several TOS episodes throughout this fic and likely unconsciously thrown in a hodgepodge of other TOS elements, so anything you recognize probably does not belong to me.


VI.

Funny thing, chemistry.

It had ever-so-briefly fascinated him as a child, before thrill seeking and a reluctant love for the stars that had pursued him all his life had taken over: that science of mixing and mingling, combining and reacting, a study predictable yet variable, intriguing and volatile.

Mix sodium and chlorine, and you always get some form of salt. Combine hydrogen peroxide and yeast, and you get a pretty cool but weird foam eruption. Set fire to powdered ammonium dichromate, and you get something that looks like a creature climbing out of the very pit of hell. Try to combine elements as simple as potassium and water, and you likely won't be around to see the result you get.

But it wasn't until he found himself suddenly responsible for several hundred human lives, that he really realized human chemistry operates on basically the same principle. Combine the right people, and you have magic in a bottle – and try to mix the wrong ones, and you have a disaster in the making. Usually the stronger the personality, the stronger the reaction, both positive and negative.

Case in point.

The Enterprise crew, for all they've been through both recently and not, are a remarkably hardy bunch, no one can deny that. Only cadets who score in the seventy-fifth percentile or higher on their master psych evals at graduation are even considered for a posting aboard this particular vessel, and there's talk of raising that percentage now, given recent events. The fact that he still has the same senior command crew he does, after said events, proves they are either exceptional officers (which he already knew) or that they are slightly psychotic and therefore able to fool the best Starfleet evaluations (which is actually a strong possibility).

Anyway. Chemistry.

His alpha Bridge crew, honed and tried by fire and chaos into a tightly-knit unit of elite (if slightly dysfunctional) officers, are prime examples of said chemistry.

Fortunately, most of them in recent months have found healthy ways to blow off steam, and now that they're preparing to relaunch at last, there's an air of tangible excitement aboard that permeates the atmosphere with an almost holiday feel, equal parts nervous energy and happiness. The senior officers have been back aboard for two weeks, reacclimating to the refurbished ship, and the rest of the officers will arrive tomorrow to begin inspections to their departments as the final construction projects begin. Four weeks from now, the crew will begin arriving from all over the sector, and six weeks from tomorrow evening, they will launch. A five-year mission, in deep space, and just the thought of it both freaks him out and excites him beyond anything he has ever dreamed.

Not that his dreams are anything to write home about, these days.

Though granted, if they have many more afternoons like this one, they might not even make it to launch night without killing each other, or at the least one of the poor underpaid 'Fleet engineers who gets caught in the crossfire.


Only the alpha Bridge crew, and sometimes only Jim, knows when Spock and Uhura are fighting.

And the funny thing is, it's not like either of them speaks a word about it; there's no annoyed glares behind each other's backs, no snide remarks or interruptions, no eye rolling or huffing, nothing anyone could ever dream of calling fraternization affecting their duties – they're much better officers than that. If anything, they get more efficient, more brilliant, more razor-sharp in decision making, so good at their Bridge performances that it's just flat creepy, and Jim has wondered if the control boards at Science and Comms could freeze over because that's how icy the atmosphere can be.

But give it about twelve hours, and then one of them apparently caves to those puppy eyes they both have when they want (or else Vulcan makeup sex has to be something amazing) because alpha shift usually rolls around the next day and the sun's back out, everything's situation normal, good morning Captain, how are you today, etc., etc. Whatever flash-freeze occurs between them, usually melts just as fast, and while it's a little weird he's the absolute last person to capably judge what a healthy relationship looks like, so go them; he'll just be grateful for it. Being the Neutral Zone for his own crew is exhausting.

But while his First Officer and Communications Chief may be able to wage war silently behind him all day on the Bridge without batting an eye or letting on to anyone lower on the command chain, when it comes to the rare times he has a disagreement with said First Officer? The results can be categorized as nothing less than...volatile. If Spock and Uhura are a cold-fusion bomb, then Spock and Jim are a matter/antimatter collision.

And the fallout is explosive.

Normally they do have the sense to wait until behind closed doors to really have it out, because Jim's still the captain, and he's not a total idiot; but recent events have now left them both a little more on edge, a little less reserved. A little more prone to disagreement, a little less tolerant of past disagreements.

A little more traumatized, a lot more aware of the fact that the Starfleet oath actually could mean not coming back from a mission.

Spock returned to full duty six months ago, after the board of inquiry had finished the investigations and all talk of his captaining his own ship had finally been dropped, though Jim only just made the switch from light to full duty a month ago, and that only because Bones couldn't delay the 'Fleet brass any longer. They want to put a big show on for the galaxy after Khan’s rampage, probably the main reason why no one, even the admirals who hate him, has argued against reinstating him.

His CMO, on the other hand, has said for weeks now that he isn't comfortable returning Jim to full duty when Bones knows full well he's capable of fooling a psych eval; but with no actual grounds to keep the reinstated captain of the Enterprise off duty and with Starfleet breathing down their necks to launch ASAP, back Jim went. And deities of the galaxy only know if Spock was ready, he's been weird ever since Nibiru. Jim doesn't even know anymore.

And it shows, as that little fiasco demonstrated. Thankfully only two technicians and Chekov were present at the time, and the latter wisely decided to leave soon after the pyrotechnics began, hastily dragging the two civilians with him into the nearest turbolift.

The other of which just closed behind his First Officer, who just verbally eviscerated him about half a dozen things that haven't been done in Ops he was supposed to oversee last night and totally forgot about.

That might have been a forgivable offense.

Telling Spock to put it in a report and send it to the Admiralty behind his back if he wanted the captain’s chair that badly, is not so forgivable.

Pike would freaking kill him, rest his soul.

He leans forward in the unfamiliar, squeaky-new chair, and puts his head wearily in his hands. His crew isn't even all aboard yet, and he's already proven half the tabloids correct. He's not ready to be back here, not by a long shot.

A hand comes out of nowhere and slaps the back of his head. Hard.

"What the hell is wrong with you?!"

He dodges away from the practically-short but still dangerous nails, wincing.

"Look, Lieutenant –"

"Don't even." Her eyes flash brimstone and fire, and he swallows hard, pinches the bridge of his nose. "On the Bridge? What if we'd had the whole crew back here?"

"I know. I know, okay." He shakes his head, hand dropping to his side in a helpless gesture. "I just…reacted. He hit a nerve."

"That's kind of what you two do."

"It is now, at least," he mumbles, suddenly very, very tired. "That's not an excuse, and it won't happen again. I'll…if I have to, I'll turn command over to him for the next couple of weeks, until we launch. Funny, he probably would make a better captain right now." He sees shock flicker over her face, and shrugs. "He's right, Lieutenant. I may not be ready."

"He was being a dick, Jim. You're both a hot mess, but there's no need to broadcast that to every idiot that's wiring a console up here. Get it together, for the love of God."

He laughs, because it's better than crying, and they've all done plenty of that over the last few weeks – few months – too.

"Would you like to be my new First Officer, Lieutenant?"

"Oh hell no. I would kill you before we reached the Jupiter outpost." She snorts, moving back to the comms board. "Now, if you want this board cleared and recalibrated to the new specs before the technicians arrive tomorrow, I need some quiet."

He huffs, and slides out of the chair. "Uh, can you tell me –"

"Medical, the new wing that's still under construction. My guess is he's trying to get them done early so he can avoid you the rest of the day."

“Right.”

“And Jim, seriously? You’re scheduled for inspections there in fifteen minutes. We love you, but you need to get your head in the game.”

"Nobody likes a smartass, Lieutenant."

"You'd know. Sir."

But he doesn’t pay these people to brown-nose him, and she’s dead right. He flips her a sloppy salute as the lift doors close, knowing the message will be received.

Let’s hope the apology will, too.


The presence of half a dozen engineers and medical techs installing equipment and running magnetic drills in the corridor outside ensures an icy truce rather than any continuation of earlier's hostilities, but it also forestalls any attempt at apologies for the blowup. The chill is wearing down his already thin patience by the time the technician they're talking to fumbles through a report so badly that Spock just takes the padd from the poor kid and looks at it himself in not-very-concealed exasperation.

Jim tries admirably hard not to look like he wants to knock both their heads together, just presses his thumb between his eyes to ward off the migraine approaching at warp speed. This ship still has so much that needs done, and the fact that he gets exhausted after only an eight-hour shift when he previously could go twelve or fourteen at a stretch with no difficulty is driving him insane.

Months, long, long months of physical therapy, learning to retrain muscles and internal organs and how to freaking walk again, and he still can't do what he wants for as long as he wants. Bones no doubt would say that's part of why he's struggling not to take his self-frustration out on his subordinates. Jim has all the spiels totally memorized by now, after the weeks of 'Fleet-mandated counseling.

For all the good it's done, obviously.

Spock is eyebrow-frowning at the padd. "Engineer, this report states that reserve power cells begin generating emergency power to Sickbay when ship's reserves drop to sixty-seven percent."

"Y-yes, Commander?"

Jim pauses, hand still at his face, and frowns, then takes the padd to look at it. "That sounds really low to me. Mr. Spock?"

Spock glances at him for the moment without animosity, and that's actually a tiny nod of approval. "It is entirely unacceptable. I expect this number to reach at minimum, eighty-four percent prior to our launch date, Lieutenant."

The poor tech looks wide-eyed between them, as if he cannot believe what he's just heard and if he did hear it, can he please have a transfer to the Gallant post-haste because his superiors are total nut jobs.

Jim grins; he does love watching his First terrify junior officers, it's hysterical. "Problem, Lieutenant?"

"N-n-no, sir. Captain. No problem. Sir."

"Carry on, then." He hands the padd back with a blithe smile and strolls away down the corridor to the next room, which is visible through a duranium skeleton slowly being covered with durasteel sheets. Footsteps behind him make him pause, smiling.

"Is it even possible to have those things kick in at eighty-four percent with the engines still running?"

"Technically, yes. Plausibly, no."

He laughs then, the sound oddly out of place in the harsh environment, and sees a few of the medical techs turn their heads to smile fondly at him before looking back at their monitors. "God, I've missed you," he says without thinking, as he runs his hands absently over a new bio-bed, all brushed duochroma and maroon padding. It's a nice, soothing change from the sterile white of Starfleet's Medical facility, which he's seen far too much of the last year.

The uncomfortable silence alerts him to the fact he just word-vomited on the galaxy's least emotional species, score one for him. He winces, moves across the room to the medical readout wall to avoid having to see the look of disgust he's sure is headed his direction.

"Look, Spock –"

"Captain, I –"

They start speaking simultaneously, and he snaps his mouth closed because he's done quite enough talking today, thank you, then gestures over his shoulder for his First to proceed. There's the silence of hesitation, and then the comm whistles for attention, saving either of them from continuing. It's Scotty, who's down on Earth finishing up a last-minute drill class with their newest Engineering trainees. He has a series of questions about the readouts he's been remotely monitoring, and as that's something Spock's better qualified to answer and that will bore Jim to tears, he wanders off down the hall to the new installations in the Sickbay sub-wings instead.

Bones is going to have a field day with his new Sickbay; there's all kinds of stuff they didn't have before which got installed in this refurbishing, the one good thing that came out of Khan's rampage. Three more science labs, more recreational rooms for the long voyage, Jim himself insisted upon ten more shuttle bays in case of a needed shipwide evacuation, and all this new tech for their primary purpose now in deep space – scientific advancement and exploration, rather than just putzing around the galaxy on whatever milk run the Federation decides their poster child needs to do for them.

He wants to laugh when he sees they have a full-scale cryo-unit that could hold ten crewmen at a time if necessary, except it feels a little like someone walked over his grave. He shakes off the feeling and flips open the communicator he's taken to wearing on his belt, since the comms system aboard is still under construction and has been patchy as a result.

Bones sounds like he's just been woken up from a nap, or else is just plain grumpy. Their CMO is splitting his time between the ship and Starfleet Academy, volunteering in Medical there since he doesn't have as many shipboard duties as the rest of them just yet, not until his staff arrive and the Medical wing is finished with construction. Judging from the sparks flying in the corridors and the amount of banging and torching going on, that last won't be much longer.

"Bones. Dude, you are going to love your new toys. They just finished the installations last night."

"You woke me up to tell me that? For God's sake, Jim, I'm coming aboard in twelve hours. Why."

"It's pretty amazing stuff, Bones! You even have your own disease control team now."

"You don't get off this comm, I'll have myself a volunteer for patient zero. Don't you have a ship to run?"

"I am, I'm just waiting on Spock to finish talking to Scotty about the flux capacitator readings. Oh hey, look, they finished your oxygen room thing."

"It's called a hyperbaric chamber, moron. And they better have finished the zero-G one too, I have test subjects beamin' back with me tomorrow for decompression therapy."

He heaves the heavy hydraulic door outward and then moves inside the small chamber, noting the gleaming walls, shiny new tech panel, the top of the line computer inside which is supposed to control both rooms, set next to each other to conserve space in the therapy wing. "Looks like it. Pretty cool."

"Peachy. Bye, Jim."

He laughs, and shuts the comm, reclips it to his belt. Takes a last look around at his beautiful new ship. Maybe he can do this, after all.

Then his beautiful new ship suddenly jolts under his feet and there's a colossal crash in the corridor, accompanied by a background of what sounds like panicked shouting. The screen he's standing in front of abruptly fritzes at him in an angry shower of orange sparks before it starts to flicker in and out, some random alarm blinking silently in the top left corner.

"What's going on out there, Spock!"

No response.

He makes a dash for the door of the chamber, adrenaline fueling his rush with a flare of urgency.

The door slams shut inches from his face, a pneumatic hiss of escaping air telling him the hermetic seal is working just fine, unlike the locking hinges which should have kept it from edging shut on him. And ever since being trapped inside an engineering decontamination chamber almost twelve months ago?

He really, really hasn't been a fan of enclosed spaces.

Like, at all.

Panic is going to have to take a number until he knows what happened to his ship, however. This is a medical therapy chamber, it has to be openable from the inside for patient safety. Except there's no latch on the inside, only…a weirdly shaped hole where the handle probably hasn't been installed yet, because half this freaking ship is still under construction.

Not good. Without Bones around to perform inspections and Spock stretched way too thin to cover for Jim's own inability to perform to his usual way-beyond-normal-human-endurance standard, it looks like Medical's been getting sloppy.

Hoo boy, are heads going to roll over this one, because Bones is going to be triple pissed. Ever since the Warp Core Incident, as they've all so delicately taken to calling it, McCoy has been hovering as if he's a vulture and Jim's a nearly-dead 'possum on an Iowa highway, and it's getting a little old.

Because, come on, he's at least a convalescent 'possum.

He throws his body weight against the door like the not-quite-panicking moron he is, and it doesn't even rock under the impact; then reason forces its way through the haze. Apparently, that part of the construction has been completed to specs, unlike the internal door release.

Sighing, he paces back over to the screen which shows a readout of the room, indicators of the state of the chamber, the door seal, the connected zero-G chamber next door. The screen is fritzing in and out, obviously having been zapped by whatever that power surge was, and he isn't naïve enough to touch it right now; but he can read it well enough between the flashes on and off. He scans the numbers and diagrams carefully.

Pauses.

Makes sure he's read them correctly.

Goes back to panicking.

Takes a breath and lets it out slowly, because he is the goddamn captain of this ship, and he will act like it, even if it kills him.

(Again.)

Okay, even he hears the hysteria in that laugh, so that stops now.

He pulls out that faithful little communicator which is now his only tie to the world beyond, and raises it. "This is the Captain. Commander Spock, do you read me."

There's a crackle of static, then a very faint, garbled response that sounds more annoyed than reassuring. It does temper out about halfway through the response, so he suspects Uhura's working comms magic on the interference up on the Bridge, monitoring the transmissions as she always does everything aboard.

"-sir, we are attempting to -tain the source of the power surge. There have been a - of malfunctions which - through the Medical and Science wings as the result of some undetermined factor we believe originated in Engineering, possibly related to the unusual readings Mr. Scott detected from his remote monitoring on the planet."

"We shouldn't be having any kind of power surge if we're not running Engineering programs other than the automated systems, so that's really alarming. Get him up here and on that, will you? And then you think you can come let me out of this thing?"

There's just a beat of silence, and then Spock's voice again. "What is your location, Captain?"

"Sickbay, the therapy wing. I was inspecting the new hyperbaric chamber for Bones and the door shut on me. Apparently the engineers didn't see fit to install the internal release yet, so." He breaks off when he sees Science blue cover the eight-inch transparent aluminium viewhole which sits at eye level.

He bangs on the door for good measure, mostly to distract himself (and a little just to be annoying, because Spock is taking his sweet time about it, seriously).

"A moment, Captain." The exasperated words are muffled through six inches of duranium, but unmistakable, and he exhales slowly, controlling the panic with an effort. Ten seconds, and his First will have the stupid door open.

Except he doesn't.

And it isn't.

"Today would be great, Commander!"

Silence is not a good sign.

"Spock?"

He moves back to the viewer and looks out, only to see his First Officer now halfway across the room, bending over a computer console with three blue-shirted techs, discussing something in animated tones. A young Andorian in Engineering reds comes skidding around the corner from the main wing and drops down below the computer, starts taking the cover off the unit. One of the Medical techs hands her a pair of wire cutters as she gestures to something inside the console, antennae bobbing worriedly.

Okay, not good.

He bangs on the door again. "Guys, I'd really like to get out of here!" He really hopes the high pitch of desperation in his voice can be put down to distortion from the door, because that was just embarrassing.

A few seconds later, Spock's dark eyes and haircut are in his line of vision. "The malfunctions from the power surge have fused the relays which control this door's sealing mechanisms, Captain," he enunciates calmly through the window, and Jim does appreciate the comfort of assurance that someone, at least, knows what is going on.

Except they don't, not really.

"How long before you can get it open?"

"Unknown." Spock knows he sometimes freaks in closed spaces now, has known that since the first night after his complete release from Medical three months back, when he came by that awful 'Fleet-issue apartment one morning and found Jim on the studio balcony, half-frozen but sleeping for the first time in days. "At present, there is no known way to bypass these particular circuits, as they are part of an automated system controlled by the main warp core reactor and therefore unable to be altered due to stability issues with crucial ship's systems. However, repairs on the circuits are being effected as we speak, Captain."

He swallows. "Estimated time of completion?"

"Two hours, sixteen minutes."

He closes his eyes for a moment, and then re-opens them. "I need you to cut it down to one hour, Commander," he says, deadly serious, and Spock's eyebrows inch toward each other in what is obviously thinning patience. Fine, let him think Jim's being a wuss, he's not fit for command because he can't handle being trapped in a small space, he's just throwing his weight around and being a diva, whatever. He can be pissed later.

"Captain, I do not see the necessity –"

"Do I have to make everything an order with you, Spock? God. Maybe I'm not the only one incapable of doing my job right now."

He knows anger will shove the panic out of his voice, and it does.

The tactic works, at least. His First steps back from the window, stiff as ice and just as cold. "I will see to the repairs. Sir," he replies coolly, and snaps into an about-face so sharp it's a wonder Jim can't hear the sound through the door too.

Once the window's clear, he turns his back to the door for a second and then slowly sinks down to the floor, knees drawn up and doing his best to recall a breathing exercise from a recent therapy session that is totally not helping right now, and that was a total waste of 'Fleet time and resources, obviously. Then he pulls out the communicator one more time, and prays the comms are still working on the Bridge after the surge.

It takes a moment, but Uhura finally answers him. "Bridge, Uhura here. Go ahead, Captain."

"Lieutenant, listen carefully. We have a situation developing down in Medical."

"I'm aware, I've been monitoring the messages from there and Engineering." She sounds puzzled. "Was someone hurt in the power surge?"

"Not to my knowledge. But I was inspecting the new decompression chamber in Sickbay when the surge went through. Fried the circuits controlling the door seal."

"You're trapped in there?"

"Yeah."

"Well that sucks." Her sympathy is genuine at least, though she's obviously amused. "Is Spock working on getting you out and he's not going fast enough? Or are you just calling me because you're bored. Because I –"

"Listen to me, Nyota. Comm Bones, and get him up here with a team, preferably one who already knows my medical history from the old Enterprise. Do it now."

He may not be in Communications but he can tell when she's snapped into full Officer Mode, even without visual. She'll make one scary captain someday if she ever wants a chair. "Jim, what's going on."

He glances up at the flickering control panel, and closes his eyes again. "The repairs might not get done in time."

"In time for what. Look, I'm comm-ing Spock, okay?"

"Don't you dare, Lieutenant! That is a direct order, and one I am willing to place you on report for disobeying, is that clear?" It's the first time he's ever used that tone with one of his XOs, and he can tell it's completely shocked her speechless. Great, another one of his people he's alienated today; he's two for two.

"Nyota."

"What." She's seriously pissed, or scared; he can't tell.

"I'm sorry. But the power surge must have knocked out the pressure controls. The chamber's starting to decompressurize, it's already down to 92%. Based on the square footage and my weight, which isn't even what it used to be…"

"You have less than an hour before that room empties of oxygen, and thirty minutes before you risk a ruptured lung - and you're an unknown risk for cardiopulmonary issues as it is right now, aren't you. Jesus, Jim. You have to tell him!"

"Look, if it does end up being too late, I don't want him looking through another window at this, do you?"

He understands enough colloquial Vulcan to know what that word means, and it makes him grin just a little, because he's pretty sure every dignified Vulcan elder would be duly horrified to hear it used in that context.

"Hold on, I'm comm-ing McCoy. Stay on this line and if that sensor drops into the red zone before you hear back from me, comm me again." Her tone tells him she'll have Bones on a transporter pad so fast he might not even have pants on, but based on how hard he's finding it to breathe (though that could be panic, not oxygen saturation), it might very well not be fast enough.

He had no idea he'd be this scared, the second time around. Funny, how that works.

Maybe this is just karma, because he isn't supposed to be here after all; he just got a little extra time, something most people don't. He should be grateful for that, grateful for the few months he got to spend living a second life. He should just be glad, just be thankful for the extra time.

Instead, he's just terrified.

He sets the communicator down, because the last thing he wants is to drag anyone else into this nightmare, and just tries to focus on slow and steady breathing, though that really isn't going to buy him any significant time.

Okay, options.

The occasional spark shoots out of the fritzing display screen, but it still shows a steadily decompressurizing chamber so that means the controls deep inside are either functional or just conducting live power straight from wherever the surge came from. When he gets up to try to salvage something from them, he gets a hefty dose of voltage, high enough to fling him back across the room and into the wall, leaving a burning streak of numbness across his arm and ringing in his ears.

Live conduction it is.

So, that's out.

This chamber is right next to the zero-G chamber, but it doesn't look like they're connected by so much as a ventilation shaft, which makes sense since both chambers are supposed to be airtight. He has no tools to work with, and while there are a few components in his communicator he's used before in hacking situations, none of them in any combination will override a hermetic seal.

He tries activating the computer with his voice recognition, and only gets a series of gibberish that is clear indication something's not right inside; the programming is totally fried.

He doesn't like to give up, but this does look like a fairly unwinnable scenario.

He's getting a little dizzy now. Obviously the oxygen's running thin, but he takes a few seconds to watch out of the door's viewing window as the techs outside scurry around like so many blue-shirted ants, trying to facilitate his escape. Spock is seated at the primary computer, brows drawn and typing with the speed of an absolute machine, so at least the fact that he's pissed isn't slowing him down any.

It's oddly reassuring, and he exhales a sigh of relief as he slides back down to a sitting position on one side of the door.

It doesn't look like they're going to make it anywhere close to an hour, though, because nearly half of that has already passed. Another ten minutes crawls by, broken and unsteady, and he's drowsing his way through another murky dream which would be utterly terrifying if he had the energy to actually think about why nothing seems quite real when there's a sudden commotion in the outer room that jolts him back to wakefulness, even muffled as the sound is.

He further snaps back when an abrupt pounding on the door rattles his teeth, almost drowning out the shouting match going on outside.

But that sounds like…

"Jim! Get your ass up and over here or so help me God I will make you sorry!"

Bones. Wait, that means –

Ah. Uhura disobeyed his orders and called in the cavalry, notifying everyone of the problem in the process. He is so demoting her if he gets out of here. Which actually isn't likely, but it's the thought that counts. Sighing, he hauls himself to unsteady feet, catches the wall as it tilts to try and neatly deposit him back on the floor again, then once everything settles moves into view of the window on the door.

Bones has that weird half-constipated look on his face that means he's about ten seconds from freaking the hell out, and he's still banging on the door like that's going to do anything except exacerbate the headache and seriously, dude. Enough.

"Jim, how long have you been in there? What does the screen say the current oxygen saturation is?"

"H'lo to you too."

"Focus!"

"He has been inside for forty-one minutes, seventeen seconds, Doctor. We have been unable since the surge to ascertain any environmental readings of the room remotely, which is why I was unaware of its current state until a moment ago." Yeah, Spock is seriously pissed off now, not just the usual I want to strangle these humans sometimes especially this one. "Given his current body weight and the typical rate of decompression –"

"I know! Shut up, you're not helping!"

"How close are you to getting that bypass coded?" Uhura interjects, and Jim squints behind her to the…holy crap, eleven techs, Spock must have just drafted a couple people from Comms to code for him now too.

A brief shake of the head tells him what he needs to know, and he closes his eyes, forehead against the cold door.

"Jim, you stay up here, and open your eyes!"

He raises one finger to the glass, and hears a giggle from behind his First that sounds suspiciously like a sob, though he knows Uhura will deny it forever and ever.

"Did you try to remotely access the mainframe and stop the decomp at least?"

"I tried that from the Bridge and had Charlene try from Engineering before even coming down here," Uhura says curtly. "The whole board is shorted out, Engineering was fried something serious in that power surge. We're getting indicators of a steady decrease; Charlene says it looks like the surge locked the controls into one of the presets for a decompression treatment and then blew out the safety protocols."

"Okay…That’s a little better than we thought, but not much. Standard medical decompression treatment rate means we have about ten minutes left before he's in serious danger of a ruptured lung. If I can get him out in the next eight minutes, I can compensate for the decompression sickness without serious damage to his health, although he's gonna have a whopping case of the bends regardless," Bones finally says, looking up from the medical padd screen, eyes pinched. "But after that, it's only a matter of time, and I'm not playin' roulette with his physiology. I need options, people, and I need 'em now. Spock?"

Spock looks totally and 100% freaked, and this is why Jim didn't want him watching, because it sucks.

"I do not have one, Doctor."

Bones looks about five seconds from imploding, so Jim bangs on the door to get their attention, because that's not really fair. "Guys, seriously, it's nobody's fault," he calls, though he's not sure the words are understandable because of the slurring.

"Is there a ventilation shaft? I or one of the techs on board might be small enough to fit."

"Negative, Lieutenant. This room and the one beyond are purposely constructed to be airtight and ventilation is done via computer controls and a size C-4 ceiling ventilation system, standardized at seven-point-two-five centimeters in diameter."

"Okay, enough talking. I'm gettin' a torch."

"Doctor, the door and walls of that chamber are made from six inches of reinforced duranium to withstand the pressures of being so close to the apex of the saucer section; it would take well over ninety minutes to cut through them even with a high-powered tachyon laser, which is no doubt why the captain never made that suggestion to begin with. Even the detonation of a photon charge against the door or junction of a wall plate would not so much as breach the first layer of shielding on the duranium, and because the new design of this chamber utilizes a compression seal rather than a magnetic seal on the door, the use of extreme heat is inapplicable to open it."

"Then give me another damn option, Spock, because I am not watching him die again!"

He doesn't hear Spock's answer, because his ears are starting to ring weirdly again, and he stumbles back a little, shaking his head like a puppy trying to clear them. The air feels heavy, sitting in his lungs like strangely silent, odorless smoke. The door is cold, ice-cold, deathly cold against his forehead, jolting away the grey haze with a chilled, eerie warning that if he sits down he probably isn't going to get back up again.

He's got a bad feeling that in another five minutes, he won't really have a choice in the matter.

The walls are about to take another lazy loop-da-loop around his head when suddenly there's a mad scramble in the hall and Montgomery Scott barrels into the room, red-faced and out of breath and followed by what have to be a dozen of their brand-new engineering staff, who…are supposed to be down on the planet receiving last-minute training, and geez but none of them even look old enough to be cadets, much less actual Academy graduates.

Is he getting old, or just jaded?

"No, there's naught to be done down there, the circuits are fused so deep in the nacelle it'll be a day and a half before we can run a bypass that way," Scott gasps out before Spock can even voice the inquiry, and gestures wildly with whatever he's holding as he continues. "It'll have t'be the drastic measures, then."

"Mr. Scott." Spock's look darkens as Scott unceremoniously pushes past him toward the computer banks. "We already discussed the possibility of detonating a photon charge to rupture the door's seal, and given the structural specification of the materials used the force will not be effective."

"Of course not, y'bloody fool – it's six inches of reinforced duranium, an' the window as well!"

Jim sees the wide-eyed young techs clustered at the other side of the room all staring like a bunch of petrified owls at their superiors. Likely they're wondering if this is what they can expect from a typical day aboard ship, if this is what she's like when they haven't even recalled the crew or finished construction.

Jim wishes he could tell them otherwise, but, well. Murphy's Law, thy name is Enterprise.

Spock follows Scotty out of eyesight of the door's viewer, still going on about something Jim can't hear because the door is muffling the sounds, or else the ringing in his ears is getting worse…which actually, it is, it's kind of swallowing up everything in a muffled blanket of aching nothingness that is scarily familiar and he is so terrified that it's going to pull him under, he fights it with everything he has.

Funny, how an hour ago he wasn't sure he even wanted to go on this five-year mission, and now he wants it more than anything else in the world.

Everything feels a little underwater now, which probably isn't a good sign. The room spins in a slow, lazy circle, and a reddish haze settles in to permanently frame his vision.

Bones looks up in time to see him slide away from the window, and he hears yelling going on outside that makes him want to get back up but nope, not happening, not today. His legs have other plans, and that stupid viewer is just too far away. Would be nice if they'd quit pounding on the freaking door like it's doing any good, though.

The blur over his eyes is pulsating in time with his heartbeat, strangely loud and slow and almost painful, a tight band around his chest making it hard to breathe and harder to think. It's only after the sixth or seventh annoying little chirp that he realizes his communicator is going off like it's possessed and yeah, he probably should at least try to get that.

It's all he can do just to press the button down to open the channel, they're going to have to just be happy with that.

"Captain. Captain, do you read me." It's a little stupid how painful it is, the idea that he's never going to see this crew again. He should be used to it, by now, but it still hurts.

He feels kind of bad for Uhura, because it would pretty much suck being the one trying to talk to a dead guy, but she's an officer to the last and doggedly keeps at him, trying him two more times even though he can't find the breath to move or answer.

It's on the third time, though, that she breaks off mid-sentence, a tinge of frustrated urgency flashing through her voice like a firestorm.

"Captain, if you can hear me, get down and cover your head, do you copy?"

Ooookay. Weird. Why the –

Wait, what?

Some defiant self-defensive part of his brain that is still fighting to not die somehow recognizes the words for what they are only just in time, and he manages an undignified flop onto his side, arms shielding his face, as the computer screen across the room suddenly explodes in a spray of razor-sharp transparisteel shards that blast in every direction like so many small throwing-knives.

Well that escalated quickly.

At this point, the red haze over his vision could also be blood, because hello, knife shower; and his ears are ringing from more than just lack of oxygen now, and he honestly can't tell if the room is spinning from that or if he's actually moving, because he would swear everything feels way too heavy and there's shapes looming at him out of the blur and it's too hard to breathe and he would love to pass out but there's that nagging half-remembered terror in the back of his mind that if he does, he might not wake back up and so he fights it, struggling until the floor stops moving and is cold and hard against his back again, extra-terra firma.

Then suddenly, from out of that limbo of floating dissociation, there's a jolt of air so cold and clean it makes his whole body seize up, and his lungs spasm with the surprise of being able to actually expand, which apparently makes them decide that hey, he doesn't need both of them, one is more than enough and he should cough the other one up instead.

"There we go. Thank God for anti-seizure medication…Jesus, Jim, take it easy. You just got to be a drama queen, don't you."

"Doctor, your levity is inappropriate, and your efforts better spent on seeing to the captain's well-being."

"Shut up and hold his head while I get this gash bandaged. And you got no right to be callin' me out on how I'm acting. I'm not the one doing his dead level best to make the man doubt himself every time he turns around."

"Doctor, that is n –"

"Okay, I got the bleeding sealed, at least the worst of it. Now get him in that compression suit."

What has to be an oxygen mask is placed over his nose and mouth, bringing a steady stream of increasing clarity and with it, the increasingly painful knowledge that he's going to have one hell of a case of the bends, even with the compression suit he's being manhandled into by Bones and his First Officer.

And apparently Bones is taking the opportunity to go for the metaphorical jugular while they're at it, like the tactician very few people know he is. Jim knows, which is why he's avoided Starfleet Medical like a plague planet ever since being put back on duty. He winces as one arm is sealed into the compression suit, a flash of pain worse than any charley horse crawling up the arm into his cramping shoulder. The sharp press of a hypospray into his neck dulls the agony slightly, and he turns his head, opening his eyes again.

"You with me now? Not gonna be fun for the next few hours, Jim, you know the drill." He'd been scuba diving once at the Academy years ago and ended up with a case of the bends after going too deep against instructions. The hyperesthesia is already starting, everything seeming way too loud, way too bright. "You're lucky to be alive."

"I'm aware," he rasps, looking around the room. He's still in Sickbay, just outside the door of the zero-G chamber. "What…" His eyes fall on the group of clustered technicians from Engineering, still gathered across the room, wide-eyed with shock, unmistakable fear, and what looks suspiciously like awe. "Oh, for - seriously?"

"Not like we could just boot them out, Jim, that's cold. They were worried."

"Get me up."

"Are you insane, man?"

"I said, get me up. Spock?"

He only just now notices Spock is in some weird armored EV suit with the helmet and gloves discarded on the floor, but the bulky accoutrements don't prevent his First from giving him a look that clearly says you are a moron, sir and helping him to his feet. They must make a weird looking pair, both in relatively experimental Starfleet gear, but the relieved looks on his new crewmen's faces when he makes it to his feet and manages to stay there by sheer willpower and stubbornness (and a Vulcan hand under his arm) make it worth the fact that he wants to curl up in a fetal position and just cry like said fetus. If fetuses cry.

Whatever, this day sucks.

"Gentlemen, this wasn't the itinerary I had planned for your first evening aboard," he says, managing a ghostly smile, and receives a set of incredulous looks and WTFs in return. "Lesson number one: safety protocols aboard this ship are paramount, because lives depend upon them. I should have engaged a magnetic lock to keep the door open while I was inside that room. Lesson two: for God's sake, finish a job before moving on, will you? If I find out which idiot didn't install the release handle inside that thing, I swear he will be working Waste Recycling for the first year of the voyage, if he survives Mr. Scott's disciplinary action, the technical details of which I frankly don't care about at the moment.” Wherever Scotty is, he’s too dizzy to keep looking around. “Any questions?"

A chorus of no, sirs and nervous laughs answers him, and he smiles tiredly, hoping they can't tell he's starting to get dizzy again. "Dismissed, then. Report to the quartermaster if you'd like to spend the night aboard, otherwise report to Mr. Scott for beamdown coordinates."

Barely has the last young ensign crossed the threshold than his legs buckle under him, and two blue-shirted arms catch him on both sides, easing him back down to the floor, which doesn't feel any more stable sitting than it did standing. Yay, vertigo along with everything else. He assumes Uhura and Scotty are doing damage control now that he’s out, knowing he wouldn't want them seeing him like this; they know him well. Too well, maybe, by now.

"Hey, 'least I'm already in Sickbay," he says, half-seriously. "Not far to walk, Bones."

"You're lucky you can even sit upright, Jim, the way you're just giving us the whole spectrum of symptoms except the real serious ones. Five more minutes and I don't think we'd be having this conversation."

He swallows hard, because a faint feeling in the back of his mind, the part that's still terrified, knows McCoy's right. "I still don't know what happened, anyway."

Bones glances up at Spock, who shifts uneasily. He's still got a hand on Jim's arm, which is a little weird, and also a little disquieting, because he could totally be downloading all that emotional crap and Jim would really like to not be broadcasting his fear of dying all over the place, thank you very much.

"Apparently, Captain, Engineer Scott was aware of a detail in the blueprints for this section which we were not; namely, that the zero-G chamber and the decompression chamber share the same computer console between them, in order to save funds during construction. Therefore, there was no six-inch wall of durasteel between the chambers in that intervening space; merely, the space occupied by a computer bank and console."

"Uh, yeah, I saw those blueprints myself…a computer that's top of the line and the first of its kind to be installed in a starship. It took two years for the Daystrom Corporation just to construct the prototype and cost the 'Fleet like my whole year's salary." His eyes widen, horrified, as the realization hits. "You didn't!"

Bones cringes, both hands pressing at his eyeballs. "I can't talk about it."

"Oh my God."

"It was an equitable trade."

"Oh my God, Spock, do you have any idea what you just cost the 'Fleet?"

"There was no acceptable alternative, as we were left with mere minutes before your death, Captain. Neither Engineer Scott nor I were willing to accept that alternative."

"Now look here, neither was I, you green-blooded –"

"Easy, Bones, we know." He pats the poor guy's arm commiseratingly; besides the emotional stress of the last few minutes, the man did just sort of lose a child. A million-credit child. "Anyway, how are my lungs not painting the inside of that room, if you recompressurized it so suddenly by blowing up that thing? Because I remember one hell of an explosion."

"We engaged the highest possible gravity simulation in the adjoining zero-G chamber, to reproduce an environment that was as close as physically sustainable to the conditions in the compression chamber. While not identical, we were of the hope that the difference would be negligible enough that partial recompression into a similar environment due to intense gravitational strain would enable your extraction without serious injury to your physiology."

"Holy…setting off a detonation in that high a gravity simulation? You could have blown a hole in the hull! Brought the room down on yourself! That shrapnel could have torn right through your suit, because you couldn't have used a delayed charge, it wouldn't have been precise enough - are you insane?"

"Yes," Bones says sourly. "Just because the idiot was born on a high-gravity planet, somehow he thinks that makes him the most qualified to play hero."

"My reflexes and higher bone density, Doctor, made me the only logical choice to withstand such a high gravity environment long enough to retrieve the captain from his predicament. None of you would have been able to do so without assistance and time which we did not have."

"Alls I'm saying is, it's a little weird how quick you were to march into hell for him, given how you two have been going at it like a divorcing couple the last few weeks. I've been takin' bets on when plates are gonna start flyin' down in Officers' Mess."

Spock's pale face flushes a light green either from annoyance or embarrassment, and Jim's too tired to try and determine which.

He's also too tired of walking on eggshells around his staff, trying to figure out this weirdness which is the bizarre reverence they're treating him with post-resurrection, tired of grieving for yet another future unrealized with no time to grieve, Christopher Pike having been long memorialized by the time he woke up. Tired of walking the halls of this familiar but unfamiliar ship, trying to not see the ghosts lurking in every corridor, of crewmen long and not long gone.

Tired of wondering whether or not he actually is capable of taking command of another crew, and leaving the safety of colonized space for such a long period of time, all alone in the void and dependent on no decisions but his own, which up until now have been doubted even by the best of his command staff and himself.

"Jim, I need to get you on a bio-bed so I can monitor your oxygen levels."

"Nope, 'M good here."

"Well, too bad. Make yourself useful, Spock."

"I hate you. Both of you." He chokes on a curse as he's hauled upright again, tries to get his eyes to stop rolling back in his head away from the blinding lights. "I'm gonna be sick, Bones."

"That's just the vertigo, and you can't afford to lose those fluids. Close your eyes until we get you settled. You remember your name, where we are, what stardate it is?"

"I remember I wanted to promote Chapel and transfer you to the Excelsior. And Admiral Barrett will probably send me with you when she finds out we destroyed the 'Fleet's only installed M-5 computer model."

"Don't remind me." Bones's hand tightens on his arm as his knees suddenly lock up on him, nearly dropping him like deadweight. "Severe joint pain's pretty standard after decompression. You hurting?"

"What do you think." He grits out between a locked jaw, stumbling forward another step.

"Don't you sass me, Jim, I'm on your side here. There we go."

Eyes on the floor, he exhales shakily. "How much farther?"

"Here, Captain." Ah. Home sweet home, his own personal recovery cubicle in Sickbay, so called because of the amount of time he's spent in it over the last couple of years. Scotty even laser-engraved his name on the end of the bio-bed as a prank while he was unconscious once, and no one ever bothered to buff it out because, well. Why bother.

Bones has the panels and monitors over his head all whirring within seconds, taking readings from the pressurized suit he's still squashed inside, and then he dims the lights and mutes the sensors, chuckling softly when Jim gives him heavily padded jazz hands in lieu of thumbs up at the cessation of sensory perception.

"I'm going to go update Scotty and the Bridge. You got five minutes, Commander, and that's only because if you don't fix this? You deal with me."

Eyes closed to clear his thoughts, Jim hears that last shot fired at point-blank range over his head, and he cringes inwardly, not daring to open his eyes for a moment afterwards. Bones's footsteps fade in the direction of his office, and then there's a thud and a muttered curse a moment later as the sliding door obviously does not yet move on the track correctly. Someone in Engineering's about to get a comm that will be talked about below decks for weeks.

Dead silence, broken only by the soft chirping of the sole sensor monitoring his oxygen intake.

"Captain."

Here we go.

He sighs, opens his eyes. Spock is standing almost at attention beside his bio-bed, and there's just no way he's dealing with this.

"Look, if we're going to have another of these conversations, you've got to sit down."

His First looks pointedly around the empty cubicle.

"So go get a chair, or sit on the bed. I don't freaking bite. God, are you trying to piss me off lately? Because I know I can be an asshole, but I really don't think I've done anything to deserve that, not recently anyway. I thought we were past this."

To his surprise, Spock sits abruptly on the edge of the bed and looks down at his hands, clasped in front of him. They look weirdly thin, sticking ungloved out of the bulky EV suit. "You have done nothing."

"Okay, so you're just being a dick for no reason, then. Awesome. Good talk." He closes his eyes with a grimace as the room starts to spin again, pulse pounding in his ears like heavy bass music.

"Jim…"

"What."

"That is not – I am not intentionally…engaging in such behavior." Now that's just freaky; he's literally never heard the guy stutter before.

"So…" He pinches the bridge of his nose for a second as the room tilts in a slow, nauseating circle, "...what exactly is going on then?"

"I do not know."

"Bullshit."

"I am not being untruthful," his First Officer repeats earnestly, and Jim blinks in surprise, because it looks like he's dead serious – he really doesn't. "I do not know, Captain. I am at a loss to explain the sudden friction between us."

"Uh, the friction is due to the fact that every time I turn around you're telling me why I'm unfit to captain a five-year mission in deep space, and I already freaking know that, so why the hell would I want the one person whose support I actually need, reminding me. I have no clue what your problem is."

Spock's eyes widen slightly, obviously before Vulcan control can suppress the reaction.

"What, you really think I'm arrogant enough to think this is going to be a cakewalk? I'm terrified, Spock. I still can't walk into Engineering without pausing outside to pull myself together, and the idea that half the crew I set out with the first time are still out there, dead and lost somewhere in the void of space? I didn't even write the condolence letters, because I couldn't hold a freaking stylus for two months and no one in the psych ward would let me see the list of the dead anyway."

With good reason; when he finally had, the setback hadn't been pretty.

"The only person on the Board who was ever on my side in anything, is dead, and there's at least four Admirals who'd love nothing more than to see me die for keeps in a Klingon firefight our first month out so they get rid of their problem child with little to no paperwork involved."

He chokes on the next sentence but doggedly continues, because there has not been, and never will be, time for grieving; what's done, is done, and can't be undone – they know this, better than anyone in their respective worlds.

"Chris will never be able to help us out of a jam again, I am totally on my own for this thing, and the last decisions I made in that chair up there? Got half my crew killed by a psychopathic human. Just a human, Spock! And now they want to send us into unexplored space?"

Either Bones's last hypo had the Really Good Drugs in it, or he's just been holding this back waaaaay too long, because he did not mean to say that much. The blood pressure monitor over his head beeps warningly at him, and he exhales slowly, staring at the thermal blanket Bones had thrown over him more for comfort than warmth before leaving earlier.

"I am so scared it's not even funny, Spock. And if my own staff - my second in command - doesn't think I can do this, well…I might as well have never woken up."

He glances up just in time to see his supposedly unemotional First Officer turn the same color as the white EV suit he's wearing, and it's then that the power cell goes on over his head, and he realizes what's been happening.

"Wait, are you…you're being an asshole because you legit don't want to go out there again, do you?"

"Your conclusions are erroneous, Captain. And furthermore –"

"I wondered why you haven't stepped foot on the Bridge unless I've dragged you there. Why you've driven every department head out of their mind with a ridiculous number of security checks on every detail of ship's systems. Why it was you, not Scotty, that got the launch delayed another month."

"That is simply a pre-launch precaution."

"That is paranoia, Spock. And I get it, because you know how many times I've already had Scotty run through the safety protocols for the warp core alignment? Paranoia in an officer isn't necessarily a bad thing, but denial is. Dude, I'm a fricking head case, but I can at least admit that."

A huff of air which is the closest he'll ever get to hearing a Vulcan laugh, and Spock finally looks up. And for the first time, in what seems like a very long time, it's like looking into a mirror instead of a stranger's eyes.

"You do know, I can't apologize to you for what I did, right?" he asks quietly. "And I will do the same thing again, if I have to."

"I am aware. It is my intention to ensure the situation does not arise again; therefore the argument is a moot point."

"Uh, good. But this mission? This five years in uncharted space, totally on our own, responsible for that many lives and cut loose for actual exploration and diplomatic negotiations, not just milk runs anymore? I can't do this without you, Spock. Hell, I'm not sure I can do it with you. And if you don't have any faith in me? In us? We're dead before we launch. And that scares me more than the launch itself does."

Spock is silent, looking down at the thermal blanket as if it holds all the answers to their screwed up lives. Finally he speaks, though his eyes remain downcast.

"My faith in you has never wavered, Captain."

"Well, that's indication in itself that you're a head case too, but go on?"

His gentle attempt at humor is met with no reaction, which is concerning, but the room's starting to spin again and it's all he can do to keep his eyes from rolling back in his head. He senses more than sees Spock start to move, and knows with that weird accuracy that scares everyone on board that he's going to comm Bones and tattle on him, so he reaches out half-blindly and manages to snag one arm of the bulky EV suit before its owner fully slides off the bed.

"Captain, you are in need of attention."

"That's twice in the last five minutes you've evaded my questions, Spock. What are you afraid of telling me?"

He feels the sudden stillness of the arm underneath him, and realizes he just probably hit the magnetic fastener right on the head – and really, that should have been his first conclusion, but he can't really be blamed for not assigning an emotion to the least emotional crewman aboard, can he?

"Fear is an emotion, Captain. One which –"

"Fear is a response to a stimulus." He leans back, rubbing his temples wearily. "You can't prevent its occurrence with your freaky Vulcan Way any more than you can prevent the reflex of jerking your hand back from a plasma burn. That's a psycho-medical fact, ask Bones. Or any of the other shrinks they sicced on me in the last six months, I'm basically an expert on like everything by now."

Spock's WTF look would be hilarious if he wasn't in so much pain right now.

"Is that what this is all about? Seriously? You're pissed at me, because you're scared? You delayed my launch by a month, because you're afraid of what might happen again?"

Spock's fumble for a response is both indignant and inelegant, and he just stares at the guy for a minute, blinking.

"Dude, you could have just said that, you know, instead of stalling the Engineering overhauls for another two weeks in drydock. You think you're the only one waking up at night dreaming about the warp core chamber?"

"Vulcans do not dream."

He raises an eyebrow. "Tell that to the person whose cabin isn't connected to yours by a lavatory, Spock. Look, whatever this is, it stops, here and now. I will not have the command chain of this ship at anything other than their combined best when we launch, and that starts with us. All that mess from Nibiru, and all that baggage still hanging around from afterward, it's got to go, or we're going to get someone killed. We get it together, or we get out. Understood?"

Spock looks at him strangely for a moment.

"I'm not asking you to promise me five years, Spock. I can't make that promise myself. Hell, knowing our luck, we could go up in a fireball in the first twelve months, I could totally go off the rails and you could go running back to New Vulcan to make babies with Uhura, who knows. I just…I need to know you're behind me now. That's all I'm asking for."

"I will give you no cause to doubt the fact again, Captain."

"Thank you." Two words, but they lift a sword he suspects neither had really been aware was hanging over them, undealt-with since before the whole mess with Khan had even begun brewing. "Now, I still say we're both a little nuts."

"There is evidence to support that hypothesis."

His laughter sets off a bio-bed alarm in the CMO's inner office, they can hear the siren all the way out here. It's followed post-haste by a startled crash and outburst of very creative metaphors involving various Starfleet personnel both on the ship and not.

"Touchy," he observes succinctly, glancing up at the monitors.

"Indeed. This will prove most efficacious in keeping patients within Sickbay for the intended duration of their stay. I suspect the modification was installed at Doctor McCoy's specific request."

"It was one time. One."

"One disappearance which resulted in the entire ship being put on a Gold Alert before you were finally located, unconscious in a Jefferies tube forty meters from your quarters."

"You know you'd miss it."

"There is also evidence to support that hypothesis."

Chapter Text

V.

They all have their secrets. And aboard a starship, there's very little point in trying to keep them, secret.

For example, Chekov hasn't actually stepped foot on the Terran-Asian continent in over twenty years. How in the galaxy the kid has an accent that strong when he grew up in New York and aboard starships, is a mystery greater than who cuts Spock's hair, because not even Nyota knows that, and the ship's barber swears he never sees the First Officer, ever. Maybe it's a weird Vulcan thing, maybe their hair just gets that long and just, you know, stops. Someday Jim will find out, though, because like he said, no one on this ship can keep a secret, secret. Not forever.

Meanwhile, he waits.

He also vaguely suspects he might need to get a life.

Anyway, secrets aboard ship.

For another example, there's a tiny little Terran Filipino ensign down in Spock's Microbiology lab that has way-distant Norvastran genes well-buried behind a quiet, shy exterior. One of the idiots in Ops finds that out the hard way when he for some reason doesn't think No means no. And because Sickbay leaks gossip like a faulty hydraulic coupling, the rest of the ship finds out within hours that yes, it's true Norvastrans can grow their fingernails at will into claws in about three seconds flat, and yes, Captain Kirk had been dead serious when he said that sexual harassment would be cause on this ship for immediate dismissal from a crewman's post. The kid's on probation for the next month, and if he so much as looks cross-eyed at another crewman Jim knows Scotty will boot his ass out the nearest airlock. So yeah, no secret.

When Spock and Uhura break up unexpectedly one evening, everyone finds out within twenty-four hours, even if the parting was (supposedly) mutual. When she goes on an ill-advised and extremely disastrous date with Montgomery Scott two weeks later, that spreads like wildfire.

When she finds out it was Jim who sabotaged the meal replicator in Scotty's cabin that night, well. That one is all over the ship before she's done silently castrating him from across the Bridge with a look that could flash-freeze plasma. Spock has wisely long since fled the Bridge, murmuring something about departmental inspections in Laboratory Twenty-seven or something, but for a tense fifteen minutes until alpha shift change Jim's half-seriously expecting explosions of some kind, metaphorical or otherwise. Thankfully, and he should have known better, Uhura is an officer first, and a pissed-off power woman second; and he's got captain's prerogative to dismiss everyone and wait until the coast is clear to make a run for it.

It's all good. He gets his own back when they don't lock the adjoining door and he just walks in later that evening, nose buried in the fuel consumption reports needing the First Officer's signature, and despite what his reputation may say he has absolutely no desire to be even a spectating part of a making-up threesome, so seriously, guys. Lock the freaking door.

Jim just sighs and just goes down to Engineering instead to make it up to Scotty, because after all, they both know there's only one lady in both their lives as long as this ship flies. He does call ahead, so that the man can put away the parts for that stupid still he's trying to construct in the secondary disused storage compartments that he thinks Jim's too oblivious to know about.

Like Bones can keep that a secret. Seriously.

So, like he said. Everyone has a secret, and no one really has one. You learn all kinds of things, about everyone, and in this first year out in the galaxy, beyond where they've ever traveled before, he's learned more about his crew than he ever knew before. It's been equal parts amusing, surprising, horrifying, and eye-opening.

And yet, every day he learns something new.

Like the fact that his solemn, severe, pain-in-the-ass First Officer is a total sucker for small furry animals.

It's hysterical.

They're finishing up a mission that's gone surprisingly well, considering all the warnings they'd been given about it from Starfleet Command and the First Contact team. Either the team had been way overreacting, or the people of Planet Needs-to-Buy-a-Vowel have gotten their act together in the last twelve months and realized how badly they need the Federation's help, because the original belligerence the First Contact team had been met with was only vaguely in evidence during their negotiations. There had also been no sign of any attempted telepathic or empathic violation; the First Contact's education on the severity of that type of Federation crime and the research they'd left on Federation telepathic etiquette had apparently been taken seriously by the council, and they've been nothing but the soul of courtesy to non-telepathic outworlders.

In fact, the mission's gone so well from the start that it actually didn't really bother him that much, leaving the last parts of it in Spock and Uhura's capable hands, along with their two Security people; normally by this point in such a mission he'd be biting his nails raw on the Bridge. Since their launch he's done better, but not great, about obeying regulations regarding away missions, and it's rare that he feels right sitting in his chair while his people take the heat instead. But this time, they really are more qualified by far to finish the formalities, and he has a starshipload (literally) of backlogged paperwork to finish, so everyone wins this way.

Wow, he's matured in the last year.

He snorts a silent laugh to himself at the irony, and scrawls off a signature on the last Engineering report, the most important of the ones he's missed during the last twenty-four hours spent on-planet in the Federation induction negotiations, the part of the mission he was required to be present for.

His yeoman leans down a little too eagerly to take the padd back, and Uhura's right, he's probably going to have to transfer her to a different department, because he's not stupid and those eyes are an invitation he might have been idiot enough to take her up on fifteen months ago. He's a little smarter now, and this ship will always come first.

Also Bones says he still has a massive amount of unresolved intimacy issues stemming from trauma due to, you know, dying, but the whole married-to-my-ship thing tends to go over better on shore leaves with the hopeful locals. And his ego.

"That'll be all, Yeoman."

The words come out a little more clipped than he meant, and he sees Sulu and Chekov glance at each other. Janice looks a little shocked, but nods like the officer she is underneath the infatuation before turning to leave the Bridge. He sighs, and pinches his forehead, vowing to make it up to her somehow without it looking like he's encouraging her attention.

He does not have time for this drama.

Behind him, he hears the comms board chirp with an incoming transmission. The redshirt monitoring it in Uhura's absence gives him a nod, indicating it's been transferred to his chair, and he depresses the switch to connect him to the ground. "Enterprise to landing party, report."

"Captain, we have successfully concluded the technical details for the preliminary induction of planet M-176 into the Federation. Request permission to beam aboard for full report to Starfleet Command."

"Thirty minutes ahead of schedule, Commander, that's impressive."

"Thirty-one-point six, Captain. And the acceleration was due to Lieutenant Uhura's linguistics skills, not my negotiating abilities."

"Yes, okay, you can flirt later. Beam back up and I'll meet you in the transporter room for a briefing."

"Acknowledged, sir. Five beaming up."

He's already in the turbolift, doors closing on Sulu assuming his chair, when he does a double-take. "Wait, five?"


He runs into Bones just outside the transporter room, and before he can say anything his CMO raises a hand to stop his questions.

"Yes, they called me. No, nobody's hurt, so calm down, Jim. Sickbay got a call to send somebody down with an allergy shot, that's all. Only came myself 'cause it's a slow day and I figured I might as well, it'll save me from having to sign off on the paperwork later."

He exhales in relief, and follows his CMO into the transporter room, where four pillars of light are already coalescing on the transporter pad. Not five.

Okay, so confused.

Four figures form on the pad, three in red and Spock's taller figure in blue, and as they do the transporter room resounds with a very loud sneeze. DeSalle, the tech at the controls, gives a startled little yelp, earning him a glare as Uhura stalks off the pad and over to them.

"Here." McCoy is obviously trying not to laugh as he hands over the hypospray.

"How come you never let me do my own?" Jim complains, as she depresses the shot into her own neck.

"Because you're a pain in my ass. She's not."

"Fair point. You okay, Lieutenant?"

"Fine, sir." She sighs, and gestures to the platform, where the two Security dudes are very carefully looking everywhere except their general direction, and not laughing at all, no sir. "The planetary high council were so pleased with the results of the induction ceremonies that they insisted upon presenting us with a gift, Captain."

"…well, that's new. Big change from the First Contact, too, isn't it?"

"No kidding. And apparently because they're a sign of goodwill and long life and world peace or whatever in their culture, that means someone has to keep the fuzzball for a while, at least until we break orbit."

"The…" He moves over to the transporter pad, and sees his First Officer still calmly standing there, holding what appears to be a fluffy black mop with beady green eyes. "The heck is that thing?"

"It appears to be a very nearly parallel species to your Terran domesticated feline, Captain," Spock says calmly, scritching the animal behind where Jim supposes its ears are. He raises an eyebrow as the furball starts purring, tail swishing. Uhura sneezes again as a pouf of black fur floats away across the room.

"Ooookay. We've been given weirder things, I guess, but…" He tries not to laugh as the cat stretches out a lazy paw and hugs the blue-clad arm. "It apparently likes you, Spock."

"Cats are remarkably perceptive creatures, Captain."

"It likes you more than I do right now," Uhura says sweetly, tapping a toe on the floor.

The two redshirts cough and begin edging toward the door. Jim chokes down a laugh, because while it's hilarious they all know better than to bring personal relationships into their missions and he has to head it off. "Run while you can, guys. And good work today. Report to Mr. Scott, then write up your mission logs and take the rest of the evening off."

"Aye, sir. Thank you, Captain." Not one to miss an opportunity, DeSalle takes off after the two Security men, and Jim turns back around to see the cat now trying to climb his First's torso with tufted paws, meowing plaintively. No doubt it can feel the same tension in the air he can.

"Okay, guys, seriously, this is ridiculous. We can't just take every gift that new planets want to give us for the next five years, especially ones that mean we have to feed and water and clean up after them."

Spock looks highly affronted. "She is a most remarkable and aesthetically pleasing creature, Captain. To refuse an animal a home based solely upon our unwillingness to care for a lower life form, is inhumane. Besides, to reject a gift is considered highly offensive in this planet's culture."

He runs both hands down his face, slowly. "Ugh, I'm not saying…okay, fine. Keep the damn cat. But I hate cats, so if I find that thing anywhere near – wait a second, did you just call it a she, and say it's pretty?"

"Yes," Uhura says dryly. "Which is more than I get on a daily basis."

Spock's ears turn a weird shade of jade, and Bones finally loses it, sliding into the transporter tech's chair with a cackle of laughter that can be heard down the hall.

"Okay, you know what? I haven't had nearly enough coffee to deal with this today." He spins on one heel and leaves the transporter room, gesturing wildly over one shoulder. "Keep that cat off my Bridge, Spock, I'm warning you!"

A trio of engineers look weirdly at him as they pass in the corridor, but he ignores them; it's going to be one of those days and they've definitely heard weirder on this ship, by now.


The alien cat – can they call it a cat, if it's not an Earth feline? The catalien – turns out to be remarkably well-behaved, all things considered, and its first eighteen hours aboard can be seen following his XO sedately around the labs and Sciences as he performs overnight inspections. (Jim still doesn't get how Vulcans apparently don't need to sleep every single night, but since he's seen it work for Spock over the last year he doesn't push the issue.) The cat apparently does not appreciate being locked in the First Officer's quarters thereafter, however, and yowls its displeasure loudly enough to set off the security alarms within the first fifteen minutes of Spock's Bridge shift the second day.

"Go put the baby down for a nap and then come back, Commander," he says dryly, when the call comes through from a much-amused Montgomery Scott, enraged meows being heard in the background.

If looks could kill, Jim would be long dead before the turbolift doors close behind his First, but at least the rest of the Bridge crew wait until the lift starts moving before the wave of laughter goes around.

"Captain, Starfleet Command has responded to your report with further instructions for the induction of Planet M-176," Uhura says from behind him, and at least she sounds more amused than pissed; Spock really doesn't deserve her.

"I'll take it in my quarters, no sense in boring everyone else here. Sulu, take the conn until Mr. Spock returns."

"Aye, sir."

This is the part of captaining he really hates; it's probably going to take him an hour to even understand the last steps of this process.


Make that more than three hours, and that's with Spock helping him through some of it, after he has to cave and admit he doesn't really understand all of the technicalities or reasons behind some of the procedures. There's a limit to what they go over on the command track, and this is the kind of thing that only comes with experience. Spock's done this before, at least twice, so he gets the whys and wherefores and what can and can't be said for fear of causing an interplanetary incident.

"Why do we make this stuff so complicated?" Jim complains, tossing down a stylus and massaging his temples with both hands. The stylus goes rolling off the cluttered desk and onto the floor, whereupon the alien cat pounces on it, batting it across the floor in a series of bunny-hops. "Like, do we seriously have to cover in explicit detail what number of starships the Federation will send in assistance if there's a global disaster? Shouldn't that just be a given that we'll send whatever assistance is possible?"

"After such planetary tragedies as that which befell Vulcan, planets have requested much more detailed rescue and evacuation specifications in such negotiations." Spock looks more resigned than sad at this point when speaking of the past, but Jim knows better. He regrets asking now. Spock stops him with a gesture, however, and continues. "It is a reasonable question, with that in mind."

"You're right, of course. Sorry."

"Apologies are unnecessary. While the details are reasonable, they are indeed tedious."

"And the rest of this? Having to figure out exact shipping lines for Federation trade routes?"

"Unfortunately, there have been instances where due to a lack of such details being covered during the negotiations, one of the non-Federation species such as the Orion Empire was able to challenge financial claims from the planet over those areas of space, enabling a sort of legal piracy of trade vessels. Only one loophole is nonetheless sufficient for success in these areas. I believe you yourself specialize in such a loophole strategy to some extent."

"Touché." He grins, acknowledging the gentle jab and compliment for what they are. "I have no idea how I would have gotten through this without your help, Spock. I owe you one."

His First's eyes gleam slightly, and Jim leans back, now interested. "You actually thinking about calling that in? Mark me down surprised, Commander. What can I do for you."

Spock's eyes dart to the side, where a black furball is busy trying to worry a sock out of Jim's bottom drawer.

"You've got to be kidding me. I told you, I hate cats!"

"Technically, she is not a Terran feline. Additionally, you also voiced the opinion that you were in my debt. Sir."

"Did you do this on purpose, to guilt-trip me?"

"Negative. But I am not above, as you say, pressing an advantage."

Jim drops his head onto the table with a dull thunk that rattles a dangerously high stack of data-padds. "Ugh. You know I'm doing this for Uhura, not you."

"I am certain her gratitude will be in equivalent measure to mine."

"For pity's sake, don't forget the sound dampening field this time."

An embarrassed pause. "We will not."

"Fine. Leave the little monster in here when you…get down to business tonight, or whatever logical term you call it. Gods, I can't believe I'm doing this."

"She is remarkably quiescent at night, for a felinoid species. I doubt you will even notice her presence."

"Huzzah. She better not leave a hairball in my sock drawer, or you won't see her again. Understood?"


Uhura is actually grateful, and Jim would really have done it without the guilt trip, he just likes giving his XOs a hard time; they've developed a weird sort of symbiosis, this command team, like the family he never wanted, never asked for, and never wants to let go of now. He loves his people more than anything in the galaxy, and putting up with a purring fluffball for eight hours isn't that much of a hardship.

He's always been more of a dog person, ever since he was a little kid who never had one and always wanted one, but that's not due to any kind of real phobia or anything. Cats are just…sneaky. Maybe they're too much alike, that's why he doesn't like them. Who knows.

Anyway. Two green eyes are staring at him out of the darkness under his bed when he returns later that night, the animal obviously thoroughly pissed off at being booted out of Spock's room for Vulcan sexytimes. He half-heartedly tries to coax the thing out with a saucer of replicated tuna and then a sock, and when it only growls at him and gives one loud hiss of DO NOT WANT, he finally gives up because hey, he tried his best. Not his problem anymore. The cat has a small sandbox, food and water in the far corner of his cabin, it'll be fine.

He spends two hours finishing up paperwork, thankfully unable to hear anything from next door. Once the clock strikes ship's midnight he manages to stumble into sleep clothes and dim the lights, simulating a faint starlit sky on the ceiling before falling into what he hopes will be a dreamless sleep.


No such luck.

It's been a long time since he dreamt of those events in particular, things long dead and buried so deep in his subconscious not even Starfleet psychological evaluations have been able to unbury them. Why his brain chooses now to unearth the monsters in his past and relive them in such vivid detail he wakes up terrified of something lurking just out of reach in the dark, is one for the books.

He'd better not be cracking up, only a year out from Terra; that's just Not Cool.

After two more such increasingly short nightmare sessions, he gives up on sleep and instead finishes up his paperwork backlog before trying to crash again for an hour before the alarm goes off at 0630 hours of ship's morning.

That nap is just as successful as the rest of the night has been.

He's moving sluggishly, more exhausted than he can remember being in a very long time, and it's an effort just to get dressed. After what seems like an interminable effort he finally locates his boots and moves from the sleeping cubicle out into his main working area.

Whereupon he nearly keels over of fright when someone's standing there, and he never heard the door chime over his tripping over things in the sleeping alcove. It's his fricking yeoman, and that's just crossing a line, okay.

"Yeoman, what exactly do you think you're doing?" he demands.

She looks just as startled to see him, so that's something at least.

"Sir, I chimed twice, and no one answered; I thought you were out. I was bringing by the reports from Engineering and thought I'd bring you breakfast while I was at it. Since you weren't here I was just going to leave the reports and the coffee in case you came back in the next hour or so." She looks innocent enough, but he's too tired to really care or do anything about it

"I didn't hear the door, Yeoman. But in future I'd prefer to get my own meals." At her embarrassed look, he continues with a forced smile, "While I'm aware the practice is still in effect, I disagree with the Starfleet manual in that area. A man shouldn't be using his yeoman for such menial jobs, and it smacks of sexism. I won't have it on this ship."

She brightens at that, and blushes slightly. "If that's your preference, Captain."

"It is. Thank you for bringing by the reports; let Scotty know if you see him, that I'll have them back to him by 1400 hours."

"Yes, sir."

"Dismissed."

She leaves, thankfully without another incident, and he collapses into his desk chair for a moment to drink the coffee, one good thing in his morning so far.

Hopefully the rest of the day goes up from here, because if it doesn't, he's going to drain the replicating units of this stuff before they get those treaties signed. And that's if he doesn't forget everything Spock told him yesterday and say or do something to royally screw it up first.


He's trying to choke down a bowl of soup in a thankfully deserted Officer's Mess later that evening when Uhura finds him, and plops down unceremoniously next to him. None of their shifts have coincided all day, split up as they are trying to finish the induction procedures for the planet they're orbiting.

"Thank you for last night, Captain," she says without ceremony, digging into a replicated chicken salad.

"No problem." He finally gives up on the tasteless soup and picks up his padd instead. His last mission reports to command were so bad Spock silently rewrote them without even telling him, he only found out because he went back to correct an efficiency rating after McCoy sent him an addendum. He's not going to make that mistake again.

A slender finger taps his screen, pausing the cursor from scrolling down the report. "You okay?"

He glances sideways, equal parts amused and touched. "I'm fine, Lieutenant. Thanks for asking."

"Well, you look terrible."

"I didn't sleep well last night, and it's been a long day."

"Oh, no. That stupid cat?"

He laughs, genuinely. "No, actually, I didn't hear it all night, and it was just sitting on my couch this morning. No, it was bizarre. I just kept waking up all night, weird dreams. Felt like someone was walking over my grave or something."

"That's not funny."

"I know." He smiles briefly, and goes back to the padd. "It was just one of those nights. But the day went well at least, between you guys ironing out the treaty and this afternoon's mining agreements we should be in good shape to finalize tomorrow. I'll probably want you down there with me tomorrow afternoon to make sure there's absolutely no miscommunication before the final treaties are signed. We can't afford to screw this up now."

"Of course."

"Anyway, the cat wasn't a problem. She can stay again tonight if you'd like her to."

"Of course I'd love it, but I'm not going to put you out like that again. Spock needs to deal with the thing."

"Lieutenant, I can safely promise you I will sleep like a dead man. And I would know."

Uhura brandishes a spork way too close to his eyeball, and he knows when he's probably crossed a line. But it is funny.

"Anyway! Go with my blessing, have fun. Do your wild thang."

She elbows him, stifling a laugh for the sake of the trio of junior officers who have just walked in, chattering eagerly about something or other. He returns their wave with a brief smile as his comms chief stacks her tray and stands. "Fine, but we ditch that monster at the next starbase, or find someone on the lower decks who wants a pet."

"You so have a deal, Lieutenant."


He wakes up confused and disoriented and very likely about to be sick and absolutely terrified of something he can't remember, why can't he remember what he was just dreaming about?

His voice is shaking so badly that the computer doesn't recognize his commands and so won't turn the lights up, so whatever he trips over during his stumble to the lavatory – the stupid cat, probably? – causes him to nearly nosedive into his desk. Thankfully, his sense of direction for once doesn't fail him and he makes it in the general vicinity of the lavatory door enough to fumble inside. These lights are motion-activated (someone in Starfleet Engineering has common sense at least), and brighten when he lurches inside.

"Computer, lock lavatory doors," he rasps, because the last thing he wants is for one of the two next door to come barging in with well-meaning but annoying concern if he happened to wake them up.

The panel beside the door turns red in acknowledgment of the command, so his voice is returning to normal at least. He turns the cleansing cubicle on to the real water setting and cups his hands under the thin trickle, splashing his face a few times in an effort to quell the nausea that's only just starting to recede under the light of reality.

This is ridiculous. Nightmares are nothing new to him. Hell, he had night terrors for about six months at the Academy that scared the crap out of Bones until he finally settled into enough of a routine that his brain calmed down and felt safe enough to sleep through the night. Sleep disorders are nothing new to starship captains, either; it's practically 'Fleet mandated that they're allowed whatever sleeping aids needed to care for insomnia and anything else that comes up as a result of the job. Everything from stimulants to sleeping pills are allowed in a far higher dosage than they would be to a lower-ranking crewman, simply because of the needs of the job, and while he has never felt the need to indulge in them it's not frowned upon by any stretch by the powers that be or otherwise.

But this…this is different. It's almost like there's something dark and insidious just lurking around him, some weird presence that is doing its best to scare him half to death. He isn't used to waking up frightened of something because he can't understand it; most of his nightmares are rehashes of things he understands far too well. But this? Human nature is to fear the unknown, and this is something that lurks menacing at the very event horizon of his consciousness, always just out of reach, shadowed and haunting.

He snorts at the idea of what the shrinks at 'Fleet Medical would make out of that, and vows yet again to never let on that he could quite easily be cracking up, only twelve months into their mission. He did call it, after all, before they launched, nobody can say he didn't warn them.

Leaning on the sink counter for a moment, he sighs, and hopes that's not the case. Surely if he is still coherent enough to suspect he's going nuts, it means he's not? Just overstressed and tired and in serious need of shore leave?

He sure hopes so.

"Computer, what is the time?"

"The current Federation Standard Time is 0417 hours."

Awesome. He's not going back to sleep tonight, obviously, so he might as well be productive. If he is losing it, he may as well not leave a mess for whoever has to take over this thankless job. He and Spock delayed department inspections this week because they didn't think they'd have time to do them along with all this diplomatic mess, so he can knock those out in the next three hours. Prove to his staff and the powers that be that he can actually do his job without needing someone to hold his hand, that he can perform beyond just his duty without having to be bailed out by a command staff more competent than their floundering captain.

Maybe someday they'll all believe it.


"Captain. Captain."

A gentle, then much harder shake to his shoulder, and he jolts upright, adrenaline spiking hot and then ice cold throughout his body, dizzy and sickening.

"What, what's wrong? Ship?"

"The Enterprise is in no danger, Captain."

Relief floods him in a dizzying wave, and the room swims for a second, then solidifies crystal-clear. Bones is crouched in front of him, and he follows the look up and behind him to see Spock, puzzled and a little…anxious?

Well, crap.

He presses his fingers to his eyes, then inhales sharply. "What time is it?"

"0825 hours. You were scheduled to report to Briefing Room Two twenty minutes ago. When the computer reported you in your quarters but you could not be raised by Communications, we became…concerned."

"I…" He frowns, glances down at the desk. "I just sat down to read the briefing and have a cup of coffee, I must've fallen asleep again."

Bones stands up with a grunt and creak of joints. "That's not really like you, Jim. And you're the lightest sleeper I've ever seen, if nothing else the comm should've woken you. But you aren't runnin' a fever or anything, you feeling all right?"

"I'm fine, I just haven't been sleeping well. But that's nothing new either." He inhales, holds it for the oxygen increase to the brain, then exhales slowly, shaking his head. "God, I'm sorry, Spock. That's inexcusable."

"It is of no consequence, Captain. But as Doctor McCoy said, it is quite unlike you."

"Well, I'd better go make up for lost time. I'll make sure it doesn't happen again." He forces a smile and stands, wobbling just a bit. Ignoring the look of concern on Bones's face, he shrugs. "Look, Bones, it's been a long couple of days. I'm sure everyone else on the team is tired too, probably more so since they've been working harder than I have down on the planet. If it doesn't get better once we break orbit, I'll come see you. Happy?"

"Not by a long shot. But I know it's as good as I'm gonna get. And don't think I don't know you conned one of my nurses into giving you a stimulant an hour ago, either." McCoy glares at him, jabs a finger into his sternum. "You make sure you eat something at least, other than coffee, if you're gonna medicate like that without my monitoring, I don't care if it's technically permissible under Starfleet captain's discretion. Understand?"

Though his stomach churns at the idea, he nods.

"Fine. You got twenty-four hours. Then you come see me. And the stimulant thing won't work again, either, so don't try it. I'm running a Sickbay, not a drugstore."

"Got it, Bones, got it. Okay, Spock, fill me in on the way up there."


One thing he learned in his Academy days was that a quality almost more important in a starship captain than that of tactical ability is that of acting ability. At the time he'd thought that was lunacy, but it's days like this he totally gets why. No one on his landing party even suspected how badly he wanted to just collapse on the floor of the council chamber and never get back up, and none of them ever will. He knows how to charm and disarm, and he did his job brilliantly. Planet M-176 is now officially a Federation world, and they all survived the celebratory banquet without incident, a mildly miraculous feat in itself given how Murphy's Law seems to like making the Enterprise crew its personal object lesson.

It's well after ship's midnight when they are finally able to leave the ceremonial halls and return to the ship, to finalize reports and prepare to leave orbit. Starfleet cares not for the fact that they've been operating on a different planetary day/night schedule, and wants an update right away, so it's almost 0300 before Jim and his two primary negotiators are heading to their quarters, to hopefully sleep the rest of the day as the ship breaks orbit under Scotty's direction.

"Was it just me or were they acting weird all through dinner?"

"Weird meaning…"

"I dunno, meaning weird!" He waves his hands in weary frustration, and sees Spock's eyebrows incline tolerantly. Uhura is not so courteous, and rolls her eyes. "You didn't pick up anything different, at the banquet tonight?"

"I did not. But given our forewarning regarding their very open telepathic and empathic abilities, my mind has been heavily shielded from the beginning against any such possible impressions, more so even than usual. I therefore would likely not notice any such change which might produce an instinctual reaction in a less shielded being."

"I didn't pick up on any kind of deception or change of mentality in their body language or anything I overheard, Captain," Uhura says, and while he knows it's meant to be reassuring he still has a bad feeling about the whole thing. Which is weird, since it's all over and they're breaking orbit in just a few hours.

"I believe you, I just…have a gut feeling. Like…" He shakes his head. "Never mind. It's probably nothing."

"Unfortunately, in our experience that is rarely the case, Captain. I have learned to not discount your human instincts. What do you believe you were sensing?"

"I dunno, I just…it's felt like from the beginning that there was something else watching us, you know? And it changed today, to a more…malevolent presence. I can't explain it, and I'm probably just paranoid. Lack of sleep always does that to me."

"While such a reaction is possible from sleep deprivation, it is equally possible that such an impression is how your psi-null mind is interpreting a faintly telepathic presence," Spock replies, brows drawn. "If you are indeed reacting to such a presence, then there is a strong possibility that the First Contact team's impression of the planetary council was more accurate than our current one, and that they are not entirely benevolent in their intentions, nor likely to entirely keep the terms of the treaty."

"Well, it's legal and binding now, or will be as soon as you get the reports completed and filed, Captain. They'll have hell to pay with the Federation if they break it, so they lost their chance for any double-crossing," Uhura points out. "Maybe that's why you sensed something change, they were thinking about a last ditch effort to back out? I mean, we are taking away a huge portion of their economic trade at least initially by outlawing their practice of zookeeping. I'm sure it ruffled a few feathers that the Federation doesn't allow that."

"You're probably right." Jim gives himself a mental shake, and shrugs. "Anyway, as soon as I get those reports and the paperwork finalized and sent off to command, we can write this off as a job well done, guys. We so deserve that shore leave on Gamma Hydra II and I intend to tell Command – seriously. What does she not understand about I want to get my own meals." Down the hall, his yeoman has just exited his quarters, carrying another untouched meal tray.

"Are you kidding me right now?" Uhura demands with the crossness that comes from lack of sleep, eyes flashing fire. "I already put her on report once for inappropriate advances toward a commanding officer, since you're too nice to do it. If she's still trying that, behind my back, then I swear to God, I am going to –" Rand suddenly looks up over the dinner tray and sees them, turns pale, and immediately flees the other direction. "Oh, she is so off this ship. Next starbase."

"Lieutenant, calm down."

"If you can't see what she –"

"I can see it just fine, I'm not an idiot!"

"Then why haven't you –"

"Because five years ago I was the one with no idea of propriety, Nyota, between ranks or otherwise! Do you not remember the first night we met? I'm lucky you didn't knock my teeth down my throat."

She stares at him for a second, and then her eyes soften. "That's totally different," she says, though the anger has faded from her tone.

"It's really not. I am well aware there's a problem, Lieutenant. I just…I haven't had the time to figure out how to deal with it, without embarrassing her in front of her crewmates. We all were young and stupid once." He sighs, leans against the wall for a moment. He is so freaking tired. Tired of Janice's ridiculous crush, tired of trying to figure out how to be a better captain, tired of being tired, just tired. "If you've already put her on report, though, as ranking female Operations officer aboard, and she's being directly insubordinate…that's a totally different issue."

"Neither of which are ones which must be dealt with this evening," Spock interjects at last, ever the voice of calm and reason. "The yeoman's behavior is unlikely to change overnight, meaning it may be addressed after this mission's conclusion, and after you both have obtained the requisite sleep required for a human to remain in control of their physical and mental well-being. Your judgment calls are at this time impaired due to said lack of requisite sleep."

"If I had the energy to flip you off right now, Spock," he mumbles, stumbling into the range of his door sensors.

Behind him, he hears a weary laugh from Uhura and quiet good-night as Spock's door opens and closes behind them.

Obviously they don't care about leaving him with the freaking cat again. Which, whatever, he doesn't care at this point so long as it stays off his bed. It winds around his legs purring in the dark, but almost gets stepped on for its trouble, so. Tit for tat.

He barely gets his tunic off and sleep shirt on before he collapses into what he is sure this time has to be a dreamless sleep, because despite that stimulant earlier he quite literally can't keep his eyes open any longer...


They say when you're dying, your life flashes before your eyes, and it's so not true, because he's going blind and he'd really give anything to see more than just a blue and black blur through transparisteel that's getting hazier every second.

Interesting, you can't cry if your tear ducts have been destroyed, burned out by radiation.

Everything is turning into a sort of muffled tunnel now as he breathes air that feels more broken glass than oxygen. It's poetic justice, really; this whole time, a year in space, he's never lost a crewman – and now, when his mistakes have lost him so many? It's only fair, only just. They never got the option to choose their fate today, so the only right thing to do is join them.

He should have said goodbye to Bones.

The transparisteel is freezing cold, or maybe he's just cold. They say fear is ice, and he's never been so terrified.

He really hopes Pike wasn't this scared. He deserved better.

Spock will make sure Khan pays for that.

And this.

He vaguely wonders if this is what it felt like for those crewmen who were lost when the ship was dragged out of warp, when she tore at the seams and decompressurized, throwing men and women into the cold, dark void of space.

He hopes it was a lot faster than this, that they didn't have time to be this afraid, lost in the dark.

Darkness so thick, it's practically choking him, and in a different way from the radiation which has destroyed his lungs and respiratory system. This is the darkness of guilt, of failure – the knowledge that everything you've ever loved is in danger, hurt, or gone completely.

It's a darkness that is almost real, almost tangible.

Almost a living thing.

Like shadows come alive, like something made out of fear itself and that is frightening enough to produce a shot of adrenaline that flashes through his veins, firing off nerve endings with fear over and above the lurking terror that's hiding just out of eyesight, just out of earshot.

He struggles against blankets that feel like they're made of synthesteel, crushing and suffocating and confusing, because his brain is totally misfiring if this is real because it can't be real, and why does he feel like every horrible thing he's ever done or said all just happened ten seconds ago? Grief and anger and hurt and fear and rage and shame, all of them so sharp and painful they could stop a man's heart if thrown at him all at once, and is he actually crying or just feeling like he wants to?

Somewhere outside the gray bubble of confusion holding him down, something shatters, and the noise is strangely real, breaking the illusion for an instant. He shakes his head, gasping for air that isn't exactly forthcoming – and he can't tell in the dark if that's from panic, or something else, it's all too jumbled. Then from somewhere to one side there's an explosion of noise, indistinct and muffled over the pounding in his ears.

Light suddenly floods the room, darkness banished in one blinding instant, and when his eyes adjust everything abruptly dissipates from the nightmarish dreamworld he was trapped in into startling, horrible clarity.

What the actual hell is that?

Some kind of alien creature is literally hovering over his bed: a shifting, writhing mass of shadowy nothingness that isn't quite solid and isn't quite not solid, with some kind of claw-like shadowy appendages reaching for his head, and he has the really sick feeling that until a second ago they were buried in his skull, based on how much his head hurts right now.

He thinks he's probably justified in not reacting exactly according to his Starfleet training, under the circumstances, because even a Klingon would be a little freaked right now, okay?

Before he even has time to stop trying not to scream like a child in a haunted house or think about making some kind of defensive move, however, a burning streak of green just skims his nose, leaving a brief searing warmth behind it. The tang of ozone fills the air as the creature screeches, the high-pitched wail slicing right into his skull with the pain of a thousand tiny drills. Before he can even react, it's slithered off the bed and out under the door, never even triggering the motion mechanism, like it was made of shadows itself.

Not even a second later, Spock is out the door and after it, shouting a voice-activated order at the corridor computer as he goes. Seconds later klaxons begin to wail in the corridor outside, officers starting to rush out of their cabins at the security alerts being sounded.

Finally, under the reassuring hubbub of noise and life and knowledge that his ship is in control, he bolts upright in bed and stares at the closed door, totally in shock.

Seriously, what the hell.

"I don't care if the man's asleep, you get him up and get him down here with an oxygen and shock kit. I have no idea what else, it’s not a life-form I’ve ever seen before. Oh, grow a pair, Dimarco! Tell him it's the captain and you'll be fine, he's not going to bite."

He looks over at his desk, and sees Uhura snapping orders into his desk computer, dressed in what looks like Spock's bathrobe and not much else, with her hair flying all over the place in a storm of black craziness. She glances to her left, sees him swinging his legs over the side of the bed, still dazed but not out of it anymore. "Yes, tell McCoy he's conscious and moving but he should get down here ASAP. Uhura out."

He still is trying to process things when she tugs the robe a little tighter closed and comes across the room. "What on earth was that, Captain."

"I…have no idea," he rasps, running a hand through his hair. "How did you even know something was in here?"

"Don't ask me, I was asleep. Spock just woke up all of a sudden and said something wasn't right, and then next thing I know we hear something breaking in here, he's grabbing a phaser out of the wall safe and barging through the bathroom like a house on fire," she replies, fixing her hair into a hasty, messy bun. "I have no idea what's going on, but whatever that thing is? However it got in here? The computer should have registered an intruder, regardless; this is a serious security breach. How the hell did it get into the ship, much less all the way to Deck Five and your cabin?"

He nods, hands pressing at the skin around his eyes.

"Are you okay? When we came in here, it looked like it was…I don't know what it was doing, it was attached to you somehow, Spock had to stun it twice to even get it to back off, and that last beam was the highest stun setting. I'm guessing this is a glass you managed to knock off the bedside table?"

"I'm…I don't know. I don't know what's going on." His teeth are chattering now, either from shock or cold, and the headache is intensifying. The idea that whatever that thing is, has been on the ship for an undetermined time? Really makes him want to be sick. Where has it been hiding? What has it been doing to him?

"Jim." Cold fingers on his face, and he jerks back, startled. Uhura raises her hands as if to show herself a non-threat, and he exhales, shaking his head.

"Sorry."

"You're fine. I just…you don't look good. And if that thing was…"

"Boring into my brain?" he finishes dryly. "Yeah, I get the picture, thanks."

She winces. He's about to ask another question about the thing's physical appearance when the door opens again. Two redshirts poke their heads in, then enter when he motions to them with a tired gesture.

"Sorry, sir, but the Commander said for us to stand guard until the intruder's been located," Marple ventures, saluting. "You all right, Captain?"

Jim hides a badly-needed laugh at the fact that the man's uniform tunic is on inside-out; obviously, when the alert had started sounding on Deck Five, the crewmen had all poured out of their cabins in record time, most of them probably straight out of their beds since the majority of Deck Five is occupied by higher-ranking alpha shift officers. Both the laugh and the fact that his crew are all concerned about him and on the job, are oddly warming, and the terror recedes a bit under the influence. "I'm relatively unharmed, thank you, Lieutenant. Can you do your guard dogging from outside though? I'm not exactly in a visitor-receiving mood, no offense."

"None taken, sir. Just give us a yell if you need something, we'll be here until relieved at alpha shift change."

"Will do, gentlemen, thank you." He glances at Uhura as the doors close again, and sees her trying not to laugh too. "Okay, so we need more emergency drills, note that for a future day when we're not in Red Alert mode. And it's not like you're in full uniform either, you know. Is it considered harassment to tell you to go put on some pants?"

She rolls her eyes and moves back across the room toward the lavatory. "You do know I can see right through that facade of yours, right? Just don't pass out before McCoy gets here."

Humor is indeed his go-to to hide the fact that he's very much Not Okay, and in this case it only helps for a few seconds. The lights are already at eighty percent thanks to Spock's raising them when he barreled in here earlier, but Jim raises them the rest of the way to maximum human tolerance as he throws on a clean uniform tunic, grabs a blanket and staggers over to the couch, hoping it will help dispel the creeping feeling that every single shadow is hiding another….whatever, that was.

What he can't understand, is why he's being such a ridiculous baby about the whole thing. He's had worse, after all – way worse. It's almost funny, in a way, how much worse.

And only he would end up with a monster in his cabin, in the middle of deep space. It should be hilarious.

It should be. But for some reason it only makes him want to panic more, only makes everything seem that much darker, that much more awful, brings back all those horrible memories that he only now remembers have been showing up in his dreams the last three days, completely out of nowhere and at a degree that he's never felt before.

There's a smallish commotion in the hall outside, and the door opens to admit his freaked Chief Medical Officer, who is halfway through a tirade berating one of the poor Security guys over Lord knows what. Marple meets his look over Bones's head and gives him a longsuffering nod, rolls his eyes, and just lets the door close behind McCoy mid-sentence, leaving him spluttering just inside.

"Of all the – Jim, what in the name of all that's holy is going on, on this ship? Spock's got the entire saucer section on Red Alert and there's a squad of redshirts at every access junction on every deck. That kid that woke me up just said – you look like hell." Bones squints at him, drops to the couch beside him, way too close and personal.

"I really doubt he said that," he replies dryly, not bothering to pull away as his face is turned toward the light.

"Jim, what did this?"

He frowns, crosses his eyes upward in an effort to see what McCoy's looking at, all other factors forgotten in the face of official medical examination.

"What exactly is this?"

"There's some kind of puncture wound just behind the hairline here…no, more than one." Bones pulls the pocket magnifier away from his head and looks at him, undisguised worry clear in his expression. "I've never seen something like that before, Jim. They're not bleeding, but they're there."

"Awesome." He sighs, tries to massage away the headache. "Well, our job is to meet new life forms, after all."

"How bad's the headache?"

"Scale of one-to-ten? Seven."

"That means a twelve on a normal person. Jesus, Jim. I need you down in Sickbay for a brain scan, now."

"What? No way!"

"Jim –"

"I do not need a brain scan!"

The lavatory door opens, and Uhura re-enters, back in uniform and ponytail in place, looking like she's had ten hours of sleep instead of four. She blinks at his expression, then at McCoy, and frowns.

"Okay, start talking, Lieutenant," Bones says, pointing a threatening hypospray her direction.

"We don't know much more than you do, Doctor." She shrugs, and takes a seat on the empty chair kitty-corner to them. "It was some kind of creature I've never seen before, but…it was almost like it wasn't really there, because I could see the juncture plating on the wall behind the bed through its body. And it was able to get under the door, into the hall without opening the door. So possibly it's not entirely corporeal?"

"It was corporeal enough to leave puncture wounds in his head," Bones snaps, before stabbing Jim in the neck with a hypospray.

"Ow! Seriously!"

Uhura looks at him with concern. "So it was really attached to you then, it didn't just look like it."

"Apparently everything wants a piece of this." He smirks at her snort of exasperated laughter, then yelps as another shot gets administered while he's distracted. "Bones, I swear to God, you hit me with another one of those –"

"Then get your ass down to Sickbay! I am not chancing brain damage with you, you idiot!"

"He's right, Captain. That thing was attacking you for a reason, and we have no idea why. For all we know, it could be after Starfleet clearance codes or something."

He stares at her in horrified consternation, because that makes a lot of sense.

"You're right, we need to know if I've been compromised. Okay, fine Bones, you win. Lieutenant, can you notify Spock where I'll be, in case he wants to change the pattern of Security placement?"

"Of course, Captain."

Bones looks impressed at her strategy, but refrains from pressing his luck, just helps Jim to his feet and makes sure he's going to stay there.

"Wait, Lieutenant," Jim says suddenly, pausing before they reach the door.

In the act of accessing the Security mainframe to check on the progress of the search, Uhura pauses and glances back at him.

"Find the cat too, will you?" he asks, looking around worriedly. "I haven't seen it, and if that thing…" Ate it, or something, he doesn't say, and it's not like he even likes the thing but Spock will have a Vulcan cow if something happened to it, so. Kind of need to find where it's hiding from the drama of the last hour.

"I'll find it, Captain," she reassures him. "Go get your head checked. Leonard, take one of the boys outside with you just in case that thing comes back around."

"Got it. Come on, Jim. Tell Spock to come see me as soon as he knows something, I'm runnin' blind here," Bones calls as they exit.

"You and me both," he mutters, edging uneasily away from the shadows cast by the closing door. "You and me both."


"I dunno what to tell you, Jim. That could be good, or it could be bad."

He squints across the table. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought no brain damage was always a good thing."

"Not when some weird alien shadow monster's just had its tentacles screwing around in your head, it's not!"

"Gee, that's a picture I really wanted, Bones. Thanks."

"You don't pay me to sugar-coat things, Jim." His CMO sighs, tosses the stylus down on the desk with a resigned gesture. "Look, just because a brain scan and brainwave signature pattern come back unaltered doesn't mean something's not wrong."

"But it doesn't necessarily mean something is?"

"Well…no, but. Look, when have you ever been best case scenario instead of worst?"

Jim winces. "Law of probability, we have to catch a break sometime?"

"Yeah, try again."

"Okay, okay. Look, Bones –"

"Do you feel okay, Jim? Be honest, now. Because you don't look it." He hesitates, just a fraction too long apparently, because Bones nods, resigned. "That's what I thought. Your own gut is a better indicator than my instruments, Jim."

"I'll remember that next time you try to restrict my diet card."

"This isn't a joke, Jim!"

"I know." Glancing away for a second, he swallows, hard. "Look, I know, okay. I just…what do you want me to say?" He looks back, waving in a helpless gesture. "Would you rather I fall apart instead of keeping it together? Because I can't afford to do that. This ship can't afford for me to do that. And until you relieve me of command, I am still the captain of this ship, and I intend to stay that way. Unless you can find grounds to relieve me of duty?"

To his surprise, Bones looks more relieved than annoyed at his outburst, and sits back, arms folded.

"What." He scrubs his hands over his face. "Stop looking at me like that."

"You looked more like yourself there for a minute than you have in the last three days. 'Scuse me if it gives me hope you aren't actually a few pickles short of a jar just yet."

"My God, do your people actually talk like that where you come from?"

"Now don't get testy, Jim. I think – it's about damn time!" Jim turns in his seat as the door opens, and Spock walks through, obviously having taken a few minutes to change into uniform. "Well?"

"Sit down, Spock, you look exhausted," he says quietly, reading without having to hear it the outcome of the search. "You can't find it, can you?"

His First sits stiffly beside him, ignoring the impatient gesture from across the desk. "We cannot, Captain. More concerningly, the ship's computers do not register an intruder aboard, nor have they the entire night. A bio-scan of your cabin does not reveal any such intruder or indeed any unexplained life-form within during the entirety of the night or the last fourteen nights, which was the date of the last time the transporter was engaged by a non-crew member. We have done a sweep of the ship from aft to stern and have discovered no trace of the entity, either physically, residually, or on any of the ship's recording devices."

"Good grief, you guys've been busy." He stares at his First in mild horror. "How the heck did you get that and the computer research done in three hours?"

Spock raises a pointed eyebrow. "Very efficiently," he replies dryly.

McCoy snorts. "If I have your whole staff down here for headache pills tomorrow, I know who to blame, then."

"The safety of the captain of a starship is of paramount importance at all times, Doctor, as all crewmen know. And when that safety is threatened in such an unexplained manner, every crewman becomes a Security officer. You will find there were more than enough willing volunteers to perform the search."

Once again, he's boggled by the devotion of this crew, some of which don't even know him that well. He hasn't done anywhere near enough in this amount of time to earn that, and he may never be deserving of it. It's equal parts humbling, frightening, and overwhelming.

His musings are interrupted by Spock's expectant look across the desk, to which McCoy waves a resigned hand between them. "I can't find anything wrong with him. Brain scan and brainwave signatures check out identical to the ones we took right after everything was repaired and regenerated after the Khan incident, there's no detectable damage that I can see."

Spock looks mildly relieved.

"But there's got to be something it was doing," Bones continues, looking pointedly over the desk at him. "I'm guessing you have some idea what, Jim."

He shrugs uneasily. "I'm just glad it wasn't after Starfleet clearance codes or something. The rest we can deal with, right?"

"That was not an answer to the doctor's question, Captain. I have observed that evasion is a tactic employed by humans when they do not wish to answer questions; I assume that is the case in this instance."

"You know what they say about assuming, Spock?" he replies through clenched teeth.

"No, sir."

He blinks.

"Never mind," Bones snaps, waving a hand between them to break up the devolving idiom battle. "Jim, come on, you have to have noticed something weird going on."

"Other than not being able to sleep? Which hello, kind of obvious now why - no. I have no idea."

"I was not aware your insomnia had returned, Captain, other than the incident yesterday morning."

"It's not insomnia, exactly." He frowns, rubbing his temple. "It's…weird nightmares. Almost like night terrors, Bones, you remember those? Except I can barely remember them when I wake up, and except most of them are things that actually happened, or at least almost did. Most of them a long time ago, long enough there's no real way I should be dreaming about them now. Tonight's was about…well, about Khan, but the rest have been about stuff from a long time ago."

Bones sits up at that, eyes narrowed. "And you're just now telling me this?"

"What, I was supposed to come whining to you for a bedtime story and a glass of milk two days ago because I had another Tarsus nightmare? Get real, Bones." He rolls his eyes, rests his chin on his hand wearily. "I was dealing with it, okay? It's just exhausting, is all. They're not usually this vivid. It's like the stuff happened yesterday, instead of years ago. I’ve dealt with this stuff, it shouldn’t be coming up again."

Spock's been strangely, dangerously silent this entire exchange, and he belatedly realizes that yeah, he probably shouldn't have divulged the little Tarsus gem just now to the one Xenosociologist aboard with an eidetic memory, that wasn't his smartest move.

"Captain –"

He raises a hand and cuts the words off mid-sentence, not even looking up. "I'm not having this discussion right now, and maybe not ever," he says, not unkindly, but firmly. "If you have to know details, you can have a talk with Bones after we figure out where this thing is on my ship, but it's not happening now."

Dead silence, in which Bones eyes both of them speculatively.

Then, "As you wish, Captain," and Spock sounds matter-of-fact enough about the thing, at least, for which he's grateful. "I would simply point out, however, that the coincidence between your sudden increased mental disturbance and the appearance of this creature, is too great to be ignored."

"You're saying it's responsible? The thought had occurred to me, but I really don't see how I could have slept through whatever it was doing to my head for three entire nights."

"You might not have fully woken tonight, had we not caught it in the act, Captain." Spock looks really, honestly freaked by the whole thing, and he guesses as a telepath it carries a totally different level of ew with it. "It is quite possible this entity has been aboard for some time, and has been the direct cause of your unrest for an undetermined duration."

"O-kaaay, that's even creepier to think about. Where the hell does it go during the day, then?!"

"I'm more concerned with how it got on board, and why none of the sensors are picking it up as a biological life-form, much less as an unidentified intruder," McCoy interjects, frowning. "That thing should be setting off bio-alarms on every deck it hits, if it's an unregistered life form – and it has to be, if it was attaching itself to another life form it has to at least be parasitic in nature with rudimentary intelligence and a neural network of some kind. But I dunno of any species that can go under a friggin' door like you said it did – and so far nothing's been triggered, no alarms on any deck or access junction? Not possible."

"Obviously it is, Bones."

"No, Captain, it is not," Spock says suddenly, brows drawn.

"But you just –"

"The doctor is correct, Captain; if the entity were to move about the ship in the form we saw, it would immediately set off alarms at every junction sensor. Therefore, when it moves about the ship, it must not be in that form. It is the only logical explanation."

"Uh. Okay? So you're saying, what, exactly?"

"The only logical explanation for the facts as we currently know them is that it retains the ability to alter its appearance and physiology from one species into another, since it would need to be a species recognized by the ship's computer. Also, one which is already recognized as a non-intrusive life form aboard."

"That's crazy talk."

"It is not, Doctor. There are seventeen documented Federation species in the galaxy with at least some type of animorphic transmutation abilities, though none I am currently aware of which are able to completely deceive a computer scan."

"Awesome. I've had a shapeshifter in bed with me for the last three nights. Not my usual, I gotta say."

"Jim, this isn't funny! And – what is it, Spock?" McCoy stops midsentence, zeroing in on the suddenly tense expression of their First Officer.

"Captain, you said three nights, correct? Precisely three, no more or less?"

"I can count to three, yeah. The first night I had the really weird dreams was three nights ago. I remember because I was glad you guys had turned on the sound dampening field, I probably would have woken you up otherwise when I fell out of bed."

Spock looks even more unhappy at that.

"Why, what's that…" He trails off, as his brain makes the same leap his First obviously has in that weirdly synchronous mode that scares the hell out of his command staff sometimes. "Wait, you don't think – it's just a cat, isn't it? Didn't we scan it?"

"I neglected to subject the animal to a cellular-level bio-scan, Captain, believing the transporter's basic bio-scan for hazardous life-forms at the species level to be sufficient. That is an inexcusable oversight in protocol."

"That's ridiculous, Spock, why would we suspect it to be anything other than a freaking cat. If the transporter scan recognized and categorized it as a non-harmful and Federation registered felinoid life form, why on earth should you have thought otherwise?"

"Nevertheless, I should have –"

"Seriously, we got way more important issues right now," Bones interrupts what could easily have turned into a ridiculous self-guilt session, for which Jim is devoutly grateful, "and would you mind filling me in on what on God's green earth you're talking about?"

"Unfortunately it was not, as you put it, God's green earth, Doctor. But rather planet M-176, if our suspicions are correct." Spock leans over and presses the comm-switch on McCoy's desk. "Spock to Bridge."

"Bridge, Uhura here. Go ahead, Commander."

"Lieutenant, before going on duty were you able to locate the animal previously housed in the captain's quarters?"

An uncomfortable silence.

"Negative. There was no sign of it. I was waiting until we had news from Medical before reporting failure to locate the creature to the captain."

"Thank you, Lieutenant." Spock turns back to them, looking resigned. "While not conclusive, that would certainly add credence to our suspicions, gentlemen."

"Or it could just mean whatever the thing was ate the poor cat," Jim points out dryly.

"Had it predatory intentions, it would have exercised them the first evening, Captain, would it not?"

"Well…maybe it was, I dunno. Biding its time?"

"Look, I don't care if the thing's a cat, dog, flyin' purple unicorn, I want it found before it comes after him again," Bones says, pointing a stylus menacingly across the desk. "And what was it doing in your quarters anyway, Jim? You hate cats."

"Uhura's allergic, I was cat-sitting. Wait a minute, that means if it really is some kind of shapeshifting creature and it was purposely sent to invade the ship…"

"It means you were not the intended target, Captain," Spock says quietly.

"No, it means you were; they gave it to you," he says, suddenly realizing just how not funny the whole thing really is. "But…why, Spock?"

"My only conjecture can be that the creature was intended as some kind of telepathic attack, Captain, given the position in which we found you upon our arrival in the room tonight," Spock answers slowly. "Since the natives of Planet M-176 are themselves highly telepathic and empathic individuals, and displayed a certain degree of animosity in that regard to the First Contact team, we may surmise that perhaps they thought I might be the…weak link? Among the crew."

"Meaning, they thought they could influence your negotiation decisions through that thing, or worse? It's definitely a theory…" He frowns thoughtfully. "They did send it back with you the day before everything was coming to a conclusion, didn't they. And when we completed the treaty without budging on anything, they were surprised, and pissed; that's why I got a weird vibe from them the last night."

"It is possible."

"So tonight, it, what…got so angry at me, it decided to up its game?"

"Or was trying to take control of you and get you to alter the treaty before it gets filed with Command," Bones interjects. "You haven't done that yet, have you?"

"No, I haven't, but I don't have authority to change anything anyway."

"I doubt the planet's leaders understand such political subtleties, Captain, if they are resorting to such crude methods of obtaining their goals. I believe the doctor's supposition is the most likely one."

Awesome. A sudden thought occurs to him, and he feels a rush of nausea. "But…if I'm reacting like this, as a non-telepathic human, wouldn't that thing have seriously injured a full telepath?"

Spock looks uncomfortable at the inquiry, and he senses he may have overstepped a cultural boundary; but they don't have time for diplomacy here with something they don't understand possibly running rampant in the ductwork of his ship.

"I'm just trying to understand what's going on here, Spock. I don't even know what it was doing in my head, so I can't imagine what it might have done to you. And if it's a crime of the severity I suspect it is? That's a Federation offense, on any telepathic species, much less an endangered one. We're talking a whole new level of diplomatic trouble if that was their intention, and I'm going to have a forest fire to put out with Command if that's the case."

"Despite the fact that it is not legally recognized as such, such a crime should be a Federal offense against a non-telepathic species as well, as it is an even worse crime to commit upon someone who has no idea of the concept of full telepathic consent, Captain."

The words are calm enough, but he's seen that degree of anger before in those eyes: cold, clear, and so very deadly. Only once – and it still scares him, just a little, even knowing he's on the protective end of it this time rather than the receiving end.

That, in itself, tells him his suspicions are probably correct.

He takes a deep breath, and very carefully doesn't think about what it means, not right now. He has work to do, and the headache has to wait.

"Okay. So." He swallows, and glances over at McCoy, whose previously rapid typing has slowed but not stopped, as he obviously is listening and noting this conversation while researching the shapeshifting species Spock had mentioned a moment ago. "What've we got on shapeshifting, telepathic species? Because there was nothing in the briefings that indicated the natives had any kind of transmorphic abilities."

"I got nothing yet, but the search is still running through the Federation database. It'll take another minute or so. But look, Jim…I'm not tryin' to be insensitive here, but if what he's saying is true…"

"I could have telepathic brain damage that your scans can't pick up, Bones, yes I know." He rubs his forehead wearily. "Is there a way you can check for that? Non-invasively?"

"There's not even an invasive way to check, Jim, that's totally out of our wheelhouse in Federation medicine. There's a reason why they only send specially trained ambassadors to telepathic species that have shown any signs of serious hostility to the Federation." Bones glances between them worriedly. "I have no reliable way of being able to tell if there's any kind of damage been done by that…thing."

"Great." He exhales slowly. "So, what, we just wait to see if I lose my mind on the Bridge one day? I can't chance making a bad call in the middle of a space battle, Bones."

His CMO looks helplessly back at the computer, shaking his head. "I'm gonna do everything I can, Jim, I just…I don't have an answer for you right now."

The feeling of helplessness which had so petrified him earlier in the night is now hovering again, lurking just out of reach. Like a dark shadow in the corner of his vision, a fleeting nightmare of childhood long gone that he can't quite remember and is pretty sure he doesn't want to because he will lose it right here and now if he does.

Something touches his arm, and he practically jumps out of his chair.

Frozen with his hand still outstretched, Spock stares at him.

"Sorry." He clears his throat awkwardly and settles, rubbing the back of his neck. "Just on edge."

"Understandably so." A nice way of saying you're still a wack job, but I will tolerate it under the circumstances. Jim appreciates the gesture. "Captain, we have three distinct problems at hand which must be rectified immediately."

Now this? Getting him back on track when he wants to spin out of control? This, he actually does appreciate, and that's not sarcasm. He knows Spock can see the gratitude in his eyes, and he nods, pulling himself firmly back into the present.

"Locating the – thing, whatever it is, being number one. I don't want it encountering an unprepared crewman somewhere in this ship, even if we think it's specifically targeting me or you."

"Indeed. The second, verifying our conjectures as to the purpose behind its infiltration of the ship, and determining the consequences for that infiltration to Planet M-176 from the Federation."

"Oh, they are gonna love this."

"Three, and with respect, Captain, likely the most urgent of the three, we must ascertain if you have been compromised by this entity, if you are to maintain command of the Enterprise indefinitely."

Well, that hits like a slap in the face, but one he needs to hear, and he's not too proud to admit it.

"Now look here, you green-blooded excuse for a –"

"Bones, seriously, I cannot deal." He waves a hand of dismissal in a shooing motion, and the man subsides, going back to his monitor with a bitchy grumble about power-hungry Vulcans that all three of them know is all bark and no bite.

"Okay, I hate you a little, but you're right." He sighs, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. Locks his hands around the back of his neck for a moment, eyes closed. "How, exactly, are we supposed to do that, if there's no medical scan that will tell?"

The silence is louder (barely) than his pounding heartbeat, and he tilts his head sideways, curious. Spock shifts under the look, uncharacteristically hesitant.

He bolts back upright, both hands instinctively up in a gesture of self-defense he knows he doesn't really need, but his head's not exactly on straight and it's been a long night, okay?

"Oh, no. You are not dicking around in my head, not again. I pick door number two, whatever it is. Back me up here, Bones."

His CMO looks at them both, tapping the stylus against his lips. "Actually, Jim, you're probably safer with him than with anything I can come up with medically. He at least knows what he's looking for, if it's damage from a telepathic attack."

"Not. Happening!"

"Captain, your hesitation is understandable, given the lack of control my elder self exerted in the previous instance mental contact was initiated with you. However –"

"Look, I don't blame him – you – whatever, for that data-dump, okay, but there's no way in hell I'm letting you or anyone else try it again." The memories of that day are still, even years later, sharper than etched glass with pain, residual grief of a future never to be realized, a universe destroyed of everything someone has ever loved. "I can't."

"Jim –"

"You don't understand, I can't." Not with his control hanging on by a thread, after whatever went on tonight. He's a house of cards right now, and one strong gust of wind is all it would take to bring him crashing down, buried forever under the rubble of what had been a strong man. Every skeleton he's ever had in his mental closets is walking around in his head like an undead horde, every raw emotion he's never dealt with is pooling at the surface. Every abusive word, every disappointment, every heartache, every death, every fear, every time he's ever felt helpless, all of them laid bare like an open wound.

He doesn't even realize how badly his hands are shaking until he tries to sandwich them between his knees. Folding his arms instead, he leans back, keeping his face expressionless with an effort.

"Jim, come on, be reasonable."

"You do not. Get to tell me. What is reasonable."

"When it comes to your health, I damn well do!"

"Captain," Spock interjects, trying to calm the storm before it really brews into epic proportions, "the Doctor is merely attempting, in his own illogical way, to point out that if we are to ascertain your mental state, this is the most efficient solution. A shallow mind-link only should be needed to determine whether or not you have been compromised by the entity."

He looks his First squarely in the eye. "And if I refuse?"

"Then we will find an alternative." Spock's dark eyes are unwavering as he returns the look without reserve. "I will do nothing without complete and willing consent from you, Jim."

Those terms if nothing else, tell him what very carefully hadn't been said earlier, and it turns his stomach even more. He can almost feel the blood draining from his face.

"I don't want to do this," he says hoarsely.

"Then the matter is no longer up for discussion. Doctor, you will continue your research into the biological possibilities for the intruding species while I regroup with Lieutenant-Commander Scott and the Security task forces to implement a better strategy for locating a shapeshifting species, now that we are more aware of that which we are seeking. Forward any useful data to my personal padd immediately upon its receipt. Captain, I would suggest you remain here rather than returning to your quarters, as a precautionary measure."

"I…" He clears his throat, and stands. "No, you know what? I'm coming with you. It's not like the thing is stupid enough to attack in front of every Security officer on duty, and they deserve to know their efforts are appreciated."

Besides, and he wouldn't say it out loud, but he feels safer with Spock than anywhere else on the ship right now, and that includes his own quarters or Sickbay. That could just be due to that alien influence destroying every psychological barrier he ever has put up, or to knowing that the one person aboard who actually could destroy his brain, won’t; but he'll take whatever rock he can find in this storm.

"I strongly object to your decision, but at this juncture in our relationship know that voicing such disagreement is completely immaterial to your enacting said decision."

Spock of Vulcan, Grand Sassmaster. He laughs as they leave Bones to his research, and for the first time all night, doesn't find himself staring at every shadow in the corridors.


As it turns out, the thing is actually stupid enough to attack him in front of every Security officer on duty.

Or it's just pissed.

Either way, it made the wrong decision. He has the best redshirts in the quadrant for a reason.

"Gentlemen, we do not condone the taking of life, especially that of an unknown life form." Spock's severe tone is a wave of calm over his gasp for air as he rolls to his hands and knees. You would never think a creature made partly of shadow would feel like a brick being dropped on his head from off a catwalk.

"Well, apparently its physiology wasna built to withstand twenty heavy stun blasts at once, sir!"

He releases a breathy giggle into his sleeve. "Little overkill, guys." Another hacking cough, which his slightly embarrassed Engineering and Security squad valiantly ignore. "But nicely done. Are we sure it's dead, and not just turned back into some other form?"

"Uh…given that it screamed bloody murder an' then went up in a fireball? Pretty sure, sir." Scotty nudges the tiny ash pile with his boot-toe as if in demonstration.

Someone at the back of the room coughs.

"Well, gentlemen, as Mr. Spock said. As Starfleet officers, we do not condone the destruction of life-forms of any kind, especially unknown ones, but in this case as it was unintentional and it was, you know, choking me with smoke tentacles, well done." He glances up at Scott, who nods and begins to herd the pleased-looking group out of the room. "Mr. Spock. I stand corrected, the thing apparently didn't care about there being witnesses to its dirty deeds."

Spock makes a tiny chuffing noise he's learned is the equivalent of a Vulcan laugh. "Obviously, sir."

"Help me up?"

He wobbles slightly but is able to take his own weight, wincing as he feels gingerly around his neck. "Why do they always go for the throat," he complains.

"Basic animal instinct, Captain, is to –"

"Rhetorical, Spock, rhetorical." He waves a tired hand as they head into the corridor, passing an eager young ensign from Xenobio who's carrying a handheld cryovac, obviously sent from Medical to sweep up the remains. "And speaking of animal instincts."

Spock gestures for him to enter the turbolift, then follows. "Yes, Captain?"

He sighs, leans his head back against the wall of the lift. "If the offer's still open, I'd like for you to…check my brain status, so to speak. Whatever you want to call it."

Spock turns toward him, frowning. "The matter is not one to be called lightly, Captain."

"Yeah, I know. I just…look, I'm afraid of it, Spock." He looks up, ashamed to even have to admit to it. "Not really of you, I just…too many people have screwed with my head, and I was already a head case before that. So. That's all."

Spock reaches out to stop the lift, and it sways to a gentle halt, the light over the door turning orange and flashing rapidly, indicating others will be rerouted around the unknown error.

"Human nature is to fear the unknown, Captain." The words are quiet, almost gentle. Not an accusation, only a statement of fact.

"Yeah, well. Not really human nature to fear the known, now is it." He rubs the back of his neck, shaking his head. "I dunno if it's worse because of this…thing, that's been yanking out all kinds of trauma I thought I dealt with a long time ago, or what, but…yeah."

"If the entity has indeed affected your emotional state to such an extent, then it did damage of a most invasive kind, Jim." Spock's tone is neutral, but his eyes are furious. "That in itself, is more than enough reason to be wary of such mental contact from anyone, known or not."

"I think you're over-exaggerating the seriousness of the thing on a non-telepath, Spock."

"You are hardly an expert opinion on such matters."

"Wow, that was bitchy, even for you." He cracks a smile for the first time in what feels like years.

"You are, however, an expert opinion on those such matters."

"Oh my God. Will you just do it already? We have a ship to run."

Somehow, once his head's on straight…he's pretty sure they're going to be awesome at it, too.

Chapter Text

IV.

It takes longer than it should for the door to open.

Long enough that his barely-functioning brain finally realizes this was probably not his best idea, and it could actually be considered a pretty rude one, at that. It was stupid (and self-centered) of him to think that everyone is having the same issues he is; obviously that's not the case, because if they were then it wouldn't be taking this long to gain entry to the apartment. He hadn't even paid attention to the time, really, until he was halfway here and noticed the numbers glowing cheerfully on the wall chronometer in the turbolift, and by then figured it wasn't that big of a deal given the crazy hours they're used to – were used to – keeping aboard ship.

Obviously, that assumption is now making an ass out of him, as the saying goes.

Leaning wearily against the wall of the corridor, he's about to say forget it and retreat with the shreds of his dignity still mainly intact, except that it's taking a little longer than expected to summon the energy to move again. Lucky for him, the door finally unlocks, keypad turning green an instant before the heavy durasteel slides open with a nearly silent snick.

He hauls himself upright, blinking in the soft amber light that spills from the doorway.

"Look, I, uhm. Sorry. I didn't mean to wake you up."

"You did not." A very telling statement, because Spock looks no less tired than he does. Abruptly aborting whatever else he was about to say, his First – former First – steps aside and gestures for him to enter instead; and Vulcans do not extend invitations unwillingly, so obviously the time transgression is not unforgivable. Jim notes with weary amusement how his XO still glances both ways down the hall before allowing the door to close once more, a habit born of years of Security training aboard the most danger-prone ship in the 'Fleet. "However, as I was attempting meditation and Nyota is sleeping, I had silenced the volume on all communication and mechanical devices in the apartment. It was not until your physical knock that the vibration of the door against the flooring disturbed my concentration."

Yeah, that wasn't actually him knocking, that was his head hitting the wall when he was too tired to stand upright, but let's go with that, Spock. Sure.

"That's even worse, then. I know how hard it is for you to center yourself after…well. A couple of weeks like this?" Understatement of the century, Jim, way to be insensitive and callous about the mass homicide of your own crew. "I'm sorry. I can –"

"If you say come back, I swear to gods," a voice comes from behind him, and Uhura stalks out into the living area in a fluffy brown robe and what appear to be purple tribble slippers. She looks a little grumpy but not actually murderous, per se. More like the usual annoyed any sane person would be at being woken up at…what is it, 0230 hours? Ish?

He half-smiles at the bizarre normality of the thing, then does a double-take. "Wait, I thought you two weren't –"

"We are not."

"Yeah, we're not."

"But –"

"Are you seriously going to do this now?"

"Uh, no. None of my business."

"Damn straight. Now give me your keycard."

"Excuse me?"

"You really think I'm going to be able to sleep in the next room while you two have another of your all-night therapy sessions? I'm going back to your place to crash. Give me your keycard."

Still trying to formulate a response to that, he slowly fishes the chip out of his back pocket and hands it over.

"Look, just…" She waves a hand wearily between the two of them, rubbing her eyes with the other. "For all of our sakes, both of you at least try to talk to each other, if you won't go to counseling. Leonard's about to pull his hair out over you both. You especially, Captain Denial."

He scowls, rubs his shoulder at the force of her punch as she passes, grabs her own keycard and communicator and heads for the door. It slides shut behind her a moment later, leaving his tired brain trying to catch up.

So many questions. So. Many.

"…O-kay."

Spock sighs, clear indication of his not-totally-Vulcan state of mind, and sits wearily in one of the chairs by the window, starlight casting even darker shadows on his face.

"That was weird."

"Did you come here tonight to simply state the obvious, Captain, or did you have a more material purpose in invading my temporary quarters?"

"Geez, you don't have to get pissy with me." He collapses more than sits in the opposite chair, drags his hands down his face.

Unfamiliar black clothes, the off-duty version of a generic Starfleet uniform, feel strange on his arms, braids missing from his wrists, a black mantle of accusation and grief that lingers about him like a poisonous cloud. Suspended pending the completion of our investigation. And while he knows, or at least is trying to convince himself, that he could have done nothing differently, it still hurts, a living, aching thing deep inside that probably will never completely heal.

He doesn't even realize he's absently rubbing a thumb over where three bands should be sitting on command gold until the silence breaks through that panicked litany of guilt that's been keeping him awake for days now. He clears his throat, abruptly sits up straighter, hands clasped in front of him and elbows safely on his knees. To all appearances, calm and collected and dealing with it just fine, thank you.

Spock's dark eyes are far too understanding, far too knowing, and it equal parts pisses him off and amazes him.

Then it blindsides him like a two-ton hovercraft, out of nowhere. Again.

Luck.

Blind luck.

Seconds, at most.

That was all that had stood between him and losing everything and everyone he's ever loved. The losses had been huge, yes. But they so easily could have been total, and he could have been left alone to face a future void of everything that means anything.

He stands hastily, before he gives himself away, and moves over to the windows. His remaining crew, those who aren't still in Medical under observation, have been taken care of by Starfleet in one of the 'Fleet-sponsored housing facilities, this high-rise building on one of Yorktown's many majestic curving spires, and the view is spectacular. Peaceful and quiet and serene under the stars, as if they're the only ones who exist in the universe and he could almost forget if he just keeps his eyes on the twinkling pinpoints far outside the protective dome around the 'Base.

Now, the solitude only serves to remind him that had things gone just a few seconds the other direction, he could be standing here all alone, his entire command crew – his family – dead. Depressurizing decks, enemy capture and interrogation, crashing pod ships, dangerous mass transports using ancient technology, serious injury and narrow escapes, his worst nightmare literally having come alive all around him, betrayal and duty and genocide and war and this is not good, he's starting to have a hard time breathing again and he needs this to not happen right now why now.

So not the time, and definitely not why he came over here of all places. Get it together, Jim.

Granted, that would be a lot easier to do if he could actually breathe. Breathing is good. We like breathing.

Somehow, by some miracle and this nice shiny decorative handrail that's otherwise extremely useless on a wall of plate-syntheglass windows, he manages to keep his feet while he pulls himself back together, which is a pretty impressive miracle. He might have left claw marks in the handrail, but then again Starfleet's paying their housing bill right now and they owe him one or two.

Or ten. Or six hundred and thirty-four. Crewmen who never came back with him from his last mission.

After the ringing in his ears finally stops and he can see straight again, he clears his throat, and then sees Spock's reflection in the glass, still seated in his chair and looking at him expectantly, obviously waiting for an answer to some question Jim missed during his little freakout.

He clears his throat, still facing the window and trying to school his features. "Sorry, Spock, I was daydreaming there for a minute. What was that?"

A brief pause, and then, "I asked, Captain, if Doctor McCoy was aware that you have begun having panic attacks."

Well, crap.

He sighs, drops his head for a minute against the icy glass. Then turns around, because there's no point now in trying to hide it anymore; he should have known better than to make the attempt, with this particular being anyway.

"What do you think."

"I think it is highly unlikely, as he would not have permitted them to progress to the point you feel you need hide the fact from me, for one."

"I really hate you sometimes, you know that?" He slides down to the ground with the cool of the window at his back, not even bothering to come back to the chairs. Draws his knees up. Rests one arm across them and covers his eyes with that hand, pinching the bridge of his nose. "He'd flip out, Spock. And he's working double shifts as it is right now, counseling the survivors. He doesn't need to be worrying about me."

"Jim. You are yourself a survivor."

"Yeah." He chokes out the word before it dies in his throat. "Maybe that's part of the problem." He leans his head back against the wall, angrily blinking back the tears. "Believe me, I don't need a shrink to diagnose survivor's guilt, Commander."

"I believe that would be a diagnosis we all share to some extent, Captain. Such an outcome is only logical, given the circumstances. If you will recall, I…have some experience, in such matters."

"I – I didn't even think." He feels the tears turn to angry ones, now, and shakes his head. "I can't even – Jesus, Spock. I'm sorry."

"I was not in search of apologies, Captain, merely pointing out that I…to some extent, know how you feel." He glances up in surprise at the human phraseology, and is met with a shrug. "To deny that which exists is illogical, and mentally unhealthy."

"Well, I've never claimed to be mentally healthy, but that's a talk for a different day." He slowly gets to his feet, weary and exhausted to his very bones. "Also not why I came by."

"Might I inquire as to that reason?"

"You might. You gonna?" He flops onto the couch this time instead of the chair, and grins when Spock's somber expression turns to one of annoyance. "Okay, fine." He swings his legs off the seat, and scooches forward, expression serious. "Well, for one…I couldn't sleep."

"As that has been the case for many of us since our return to Yorktown, I am unsurprised to hear this."

"I was going to go nuts if I had to spend one more night alone in that apartment, and I…well, I have nowhere to go. Also I need your advice. Like, now."

Spock's surprise is visible this time. "On what matter?"

He sighs, and runs a hand through his hair nervously. "Look, you know I applied for the vice-admiral position here on Yorktown, back before this all went to hell in a shuttlecraft?"

"I became aware of that fact only after you rejected the position." The clear and I'm still pissed about it hangs awkwardly in the air between them for a minute.

"Yeah, well, you didn't tell me you were bailing on us to go make three-quarter Vulcan baby ambassadors, either, so don't give me that look. Anyway." He rolls his eyes. "Yes, I turned it down. But…"

Spock looks suddenly uneasy. "Are you reconsidering your decision, Captain?"

"No, no…not really." A raised eyebrow. "No, I'm not," he amends, sighing. "I just…look, you saw what happened just now. I may not even pass a psych eval in six months when the Enterprise-A is finished, Spock. And…" He looks down at his hands, which still are shaking slightly.

"And what, Jim?"

"I want to be a starship captain, Spock. I want it more than anything. I've never been more sure of anything in my life than that I want to be out there, now. I can feel it, I want to be. I just…I'm not sure I should be." He glances up, exhales shakily. "Am I making any sense?"

Spock shifts slightly, attention focused as if on one of his laboratory problems. "Your concerns are in your suitability, rather than your capability, to command?"

"Exactly." He waves a hand in the air with a relieved gesture. "How do you always know exactly what I mean even when I don't know what I mean."

Spock is strangely silent.

"Anyway, that's what I was trying to say. I just…I don't know. I mean think about it, Spock. I joined the 'Fleet on a dare, and there have been an awful lot of brilliant people come and go since then, smarter and better than me at an awful lot of things. People want to say the stars are in my blood, and maybe that's true – but wanting something doesn't make you the best or correct person for the job, right?"

"All of those statements may be accurate."

"Not exactly encouraging me here."

"I did not say they were applicable to this particular situation."

"Come again?"

"You are correct in the assumption, Captain, that there will always be a more intelligent and more advanced generation to surpass all records of those gone before them." Spock raises an eyebrow. "Society would stagnate were this not the case."

"Agreed."

"And it is an accurate assessment that there are officers in the 'Fleet who better exemplify the characteristics and qualifications for the rank of Captain as listed in the Starfleet code."

He clears his throat, forces a rueful smile through clenched teeth. "Thank you very much for that brutal honesty."

Spock looks at him pointedly. "You have never been, as the expression goes, by the book, Captain. It is no denigration of your abilities, merely an accurate assessment of fact and individual skill set."

He snorts, but relaxes slightly.

"However, the Enterprise is no ordinary ship, and her crew no ordinary officers. This much, we all know. No ordinary man could captain such a vessel, and no ordinary crew could serve aboard such a vessel. She is no mere mid-space exploratory cruiser, or even the typical deep-space vessel facing deep-space obstacles, Captain; this is the flagship, and she must be treated as such, with the hardships that accompany the higher risks she unfortunately must assume.

"Your concern, that you are not the best officer to command the Enterprise, hinges upon the faulty premise that there even exist multiple officers who could possibly claim that title with any manner of success."

He runs a hand over his face with a rueful, bitter laugh. "Suitability by default, Spock?"

"Not necessarily. Lack of a second candidate does not in any way negate the suitability of the first, and that rule applies here. This is not based upon personal opinion, but upon observation of your unique ability to rally a crew against odds that should be impossible, and your intense commitment to the ship at all costs, up to and including your own life if necessary. The latter, is a rarer thing than you might think in the 'Fleet; and the former? Is impossible to train into a command track cadet. It cannot be learned; it must be innate. And it is innate in you, Captain.

All said, I have yet to encounter a second man, outside of the late Christopher Pike, upon and under whom I would be willing to risk my life and my career. Such a gamble is not in any way logical."

He stares across the intervening inches for a moment, acutely aware of the dead silence and the fact that he's fumbling very inelegantly for something to say to that.

Finally, he shakes his head, and presses fingers to his eyes briefly before leaning forward.

"Why."

"Why what, Captain."

"Why in the name of sanity would you call it remotely logical to risk that on me, then? Especially after – you know what just happened. I wouldn't be surprised if everyone we have left transferred as soon as they're cleared from Medical. I sure wouldn't blame them."

"You do your crew a disservice, Jim." Spock leans over and picks up a padd from the end-table, flicks it on, and scrolls briefly before making a selection and then extending it across the intervening inches between them. Puzzled, Jim leans forward and takes it.

"I don't…" He trails off, staring at the list. That can't possibly be right. He's been out of the loop for the last two weeks since he's technically grounded, unable to see official documents, but he didn't think he was that out of the loop.

"I believe you will find that this crew is nearly as strong as their leader. Do not underestimate them, or yourself."

"This can't be right."

"I believe you will find it is."

"How – not one of them asked for transfer?"

"Not one, at least thus far. Granted, there are several dozen crewmen still on Medical leave who have not made a decision." Spock takes the padd back, thankfully saying nothing about the fact that Jim's hands are still shaking slightly. "However, just prior to retiring this evening, I received notice that the applicant list for the Enterprise-A's open officer positions is now at 2,226 and consistently growing by the hour."

"Holy…" He rubs his eyes, head spinning. "That's insane. Is everyone in this 'Fleet going insane? Am I going insane, Spock?"

"I sincerely hope not. That would likely severely curtail our applicant pool."

He blinks for a second in blank shock, and then dissolves into a fit of laughter for what feels like the first time in weeks.

Actually, come to think of it, maybe it is the first time.

Gods, he loves this crew more than they'll ever know.

He's wiping his eyes, still trying to pull himself together when Spock stands, and moves past his chair. "Come," his XO says, with the ghost of a grounding hand on Jim's shoulder, enough to pull him back from the dangerous precipice of hysteria he's teetering on. "There is something I believe you should see."

The apartment is arranged in some weird artsy hipster layout that doesn't actually have doors, and they wind around a series of half-walls and partitions through the bedroom (it actually has two beds, so Spock and Nyota must really just be roommates now and hey, more power to them, as long as they're happy) and beyond into what looks like some sort of enlarged alcove that's really cool, actually, nestled in an apex of the building that's full of wall-to-wall windows overlooking the city and comfortable cushions and what looks like a decent, if hastily constructed and generic, replica of what he knows was the meditation corner of Spock's cabin aboard ship.

His stomach clenches again at the thought of how very little the salvage crews have been able to find so far in the wreckage. He tries not to think about the centuries of history destroyed in some of the crewmen's cabins, personal effects and memories and artifacts in the Enterprise's storage units, obliterated now along with so many, many lives. The higher-ranking officers' cabins, situated on Deck Five – so close to the top of the saucer section – hadn't stood a chance when he flipped the saucer like a massive pancake that midnight on Altamid. What personal possessions his First Officer had had left of his own vanished culture had been totally destroyed. Again.

His face must betray him, because Spock turns, and gives him that look.

"I know, I know. I just…" He folds his arms in a self-protective gesture, shaking his head. "Never mind. What did you want to show me?"

Spock nods toward one of the cushions in front of the windows, which don't actually look all that comfortable, but he's not going to complain (and that's probably part of the point of meditation, is to not fall asleep, duh). He squirrels into a sloppy approximation of a lotus position he vaguely remembers from a long-unsuccessful yoga class and waits. Spock joins him a minute later with what looks like a standard Starfleet safety deposit box, which he sets between them and opens, revealing what can only be Vulcan artifacts, carefully wrapped in some kind of embroidered tapestry or cloth.

"Is that…Vulcan writing?" Jim asks, interested now. He cocks his head to try and make out the inscription. Spock doesn't talk about his culture much, and it's hard to know when questions are too personal if the information's not volunteered, so he takes every chance he gets when its offered to learn a little more about the planet and its now endangered people. He owes them that much, at least; they all do.

"Very ancient Vulcan writing. An art nearly lost with the planet, as very few remaining Vulcans have been trained in the High Vulcan language or the elaborate transcription of it."

"What does it say?"

"It is the name of my clan, and the symbol of the house of Sarek."

"Cool." Spock's look changes to one of mild annoyance at his flippancy, and he hides a smile. "Sorry. But it is, okay? On Earth, they used to have family crests, these shield things that all had different symbols and pictures and like, different colors depending on your family's last name. I always thought they were a pretty amazing way to remember your family history in a way unique to them. It was called heraldry, I think. It died off sometime in the late twenty-first century, and never was really big in the American continents anyway, but I always thought it was interesting. This is sort of the same thing, yeah?"

Spock nods, looking slightly mollified. "The base principle of familial identification would seem to be the same."

"So…what is your clan name, anyway?" he asks, curious.

Spock then proceeds to rattle off a series of syllables that sounds more Klingon than Vulcan, and a half-drunk Klingon at that.

He blinks, and tries not to laugh, because, you know, respect for other cultures. Pffft. "…Right. Dude, can even Uhura pronounce that?"

He can see amusement glinting in Spock's eyes, and knows this has to have been a point of past discussion. "She can."

"Huh. Yeah, I'm not ever going to try it, I'll probably end up cursing your ancestors or something."

"It would be wise to not make the attempt. To my knowledge, the only other human to ever have even approached success in that endeavor was my mother."

"Duly noted." He smiles, genuinely this time, because it's infrequent that they can have conversations like this anymore without there being messy emotional baggage involved; it's a rare and almost familial privilege. He looks back at the box. "So what's this doing here with you, anyway?"

"I must admit to gratitude for having left it behind upon our hasty departure from Yorktown, else it would have been lost with the rest of our belongings," Spock muses, almost to himself. "At the time, it was due more to…"

"To what?" he prompts gently, when it's obvious Spock's finding it hard to continue.

"Put plainly, I did not wish to have the reminder aboard, Captain." Spock looks back up at him, finally, and his eyes are sad, humanly sad; there is no Vulcan hiding here. "This does – or did – not belong to me, Jim."

It's not a hard leap, and it hits him like a faint, half-remembered pang of grief for a life not-quite-lived. They hadn't even been that close, and still some part of him he thinks will never be the same.

"I'm sorry," he says softly. "You should've come and gotten me, Spock, especially with Nyota off somewhere on the 'Base by herself. You didn't have to deal with it on your own, you know?"

"I believe I did, Captain, but the sentiment is appreciated." His First looks back down for a moment. "As you felt, I too was…lost, for a time. Solitude was necessary to determine my own course of action."

"I get that." He reaches out and reverently brushes a finger against the soft embroidery. "Just the same, I'm sorry I was so stuck in my own head I didn't realize what was going on in yours."

"Likewise, though the apology is unnecessary."

"Likewise." He places a hand on the box's edge, and looks up. "May I?"

Spock nods, turning it toward him. "Apparently my counterpart left instructions for his entire estate on New Vulcan to be liquidated and the proceeds to be put toward the building of the New Vulcan Science Academy, with the exception of what is contained herein. That, he asked be remanded to me, and all other mentions of his true identity be wiped from all but the most classified of Starfleet databanks, I presume in an effort to preserve our timelines."

"That's…really sad."

"It is the way of things."

"Bullshit. You don't really believe that any more than I do, or you'd have just brought this along and stuck it in a vault on the Enterprise as a historical artifact." He moves his head to follow Spock's look as it slides away, unable to meet his gaze. "This sucks, it's okay to feel that, you know."

"That is…a vast understatement."

"Yeah, I seem to be good at those." He sighs, pulls the box a little closer. "So what did the old man leave you?" At first glance, the contents appear to be simple Vulcan trinkets, which eases his mind slightly; at least Spock will still have some ties to his lost homeworld that are very personal. He sends out a silent prayer of thanks to the elderly Vulcan for that much at least.

Then what looks like a holo-frame catches his eye, and he picks it up, sliding the catch to activate the photograph inside. A panoramic lights up in soft, gentle hues, illuminating what can only be his crew, yet not his crew, decades into their future – a future they'll never have, or never will have had. It makes him a little sad, a little melancholy, a little nostalgic even, for something he hasn't had yet and yet already has.

He tilts the photo toward the light of the window for a moment in startled silence, a little overwhelmed by the idea that in another lifetime, another world, another universe, his dysfunctional little family has already lived, already loved, already grown old together, and now all moved on, to whatever the next great adventure is.

"I…" He looks up, and sees Spock also staring at the picture with what looks like a mixture of sadness and a little fond amusement. "I don't even know what to say."

"It is cause for thought."

"You're not kidding. Red is not our color."

That gets him a legitimate eyeroll, although it's accompanied by a suspicious twitch of the lips as well. Humor has by default become the go-to survival and defense mechanism for them both, even for a Vulcan, in their own darker universe. He's lost count of the times Spock's dry humor has made him spit-take his coffee on the Bridge.

…a Bridge he doesn't have any more, and will never have again, at least not the same way.

Sighing, he closes the holoframe and sets it gently back in the box.

"Is that what you wanted me to see?" he asks, moving the holo aside and absently inspecting what looks like a small carving of some kind, turning it over in his hands before continuing his perusal of the box. "One picture isn't a real convincing argument, Commander. And those are captain's stripes on your sleeves there too, you know, not just mine. And Sulu's, it looks like."

"I am aware. It would be foolish indeed to expect changes not to take place in the chain of command over so many decades."

"Then I'm not sure exactly what you expect – huh. This is different. I would've thought you guys would think wearing any kind of jewelry was unnecessary and illogical." He holds up a small black pendant hanging at the end of what looks to have been a matching chain, before the sturdy metal had either broken or worn through just under the magnetic clasp. "What significance does this have to your people?"

Spock looks faintly amused. "It has none."

"Okay, then." He rolls his eyes and takes a closer look at the pendant, because obviously his First is going to be No Help, and then starts in surprise as his finger activates some sort of mechanism. The thing suddenly lights up and before he can do more than blink a Tri-D hologram's flickered into view, and this kind of technology is actually really freaking cool, he's never seen anything quite like it before. (It's a shame they can't risk a universe-bending paradox learning more about the things the Ambassador had brought with him from his own future time.)

What's not quite as cool, is the fact that the hologram's quite easily recognizable from the ‘photo he just put away. He looks at Spock over top of the flickering light with a sinking feeling, because he really can't take one more heartbreaking thing today, but Spock's a million miles away, it looks like, just staring straight through the replay into nothingness, obviously lost in thought.

One thing's for sure, he can at least carry a tune better than his parallel-universal counterpart. Good God, he'd no idea anyone could actually butcher Happy Birthday quite that badly. He cringes for sensitive Vulcan ears everywhere, but judging from the well-worn appearance of the item in question, the fact had not bothered this particular Vulcan at all.

And there's something oddly…sweet, about it. Something elusive and indescribably charming, that he'd never be able to really understand if he hadn't glimpsed it firsthand with that hastily botched mind-meld on Delta Vega those years ago.

I know, I know! It's illogical to celebrate something you had nothing to do with, but I haven't had the chance to congratulate you on your appointment to the ambassadorship so I thought I'd seize the occasion.

He can see what the old ambassador had meant, on the one occasion he did get him to talk about that universe's version of himself. The elder Spock had described that James Kirk as a force that could light up a room like a human supernova, and that personality is shining brighter than a star here. Even through a hologram, this man's almost magnetic charm is much smoother than Jim's own crash-and-burn personality. There's just something…compelling, about him, an indescribable power that Jim can easily believe had no problem swaying warring nations into peace, planets into negotiation, and rallying a crew of brave men and women to follow him into hell itself.

That kind of power can't be manufactured, like his Spock had just said a few moments ago; it's innate, and Jim honestly doesn't know if he has it in himself, yet. He's not willing to gamble another ship, another crew, just to find out.

Bravo, Spock. They tell me your first mission may take you away for a while, so I'll be the first to wish you luck, and to say…I miss you, old friend.

Something tells him, this first mission was likely also their last goodbye. All he knows of his own counterpart's fate is that he died relatively young for a human of the day, in space – and that, all these decades later, Jim's own appearance was enough of a last straw to shatter the remainder of very formidable Vulcan mental shields there on Delta Vega, hence the out of control mind meld and emotional transference that screwed with his head for weeks.

If this was made just before his own death in that timeline, it puts a whole different meaning on the thing, and it's even more proof that the universe has it out for them, in any lifetime.

I suppose I'd always imagined us, outgrowing Starfleet together, watching life swing us into our Emeritus years. I look around at the new cadets now and can't help thinking…has it really been so long? Wasn't it only yesterday we stepped onto the Enterprise as boys? That I had to prove to the crew I deserved command…and their respect?

Yeah, that hits a little close to home. Maybe they're more alike than he's always thought, constantly haunted by the ghost of a man who has set an impossibly high standard he will never be able to reach, not in this disadvantaged universe. Bad enough he must constantly dodge the specter of his father, but to know that somewhere, in another lifetime, another version of himself has already lived this life in a far better, far wiser, far more successful way? Is something he refuses to think about very often.

He doesn't know how Spock does it, or did it, knowing there was another version of himself alive and well in the same galaxy, who'd already made every mistake there was to be made and had every success there was to be had. How can you be your own man when your own self constantly haunts your footsteps?

I know what you'd say – "It's their turn now, Jim." And of course you're right…but it got me thinking. Who's to say we can't go one more round? By the last tally, only 25% of the galaxy's been charted. I'd call that negligent. Criminal, even. And an open invitation.

Jim half-smiles, because that recklessness sounds a little more like him, actually. Maybe they really are somewhat alike.

You said once being a starship captain was my first, best destiny. And…if that's true…then yours is to be by my side.

Okay, seriously, he's done more than enough almost-crying for one week.

So if there's any true logic to the universe, Spock…we'll end up on that Bridge again someday. For people like us, the journey itself…is home.

He wonders if that universe's Spock ever thought about running off back to Vulcan, or if that universe's Jim Kirk had had a mini-mid-life-crisis and almost tossed his career for a ground position.

Maybe they've dodged a pretty big photon torpedo after all.

The hologram says something vaguely-familiar in Vulcan that he doesn't quite understand, and then flicks off as silently as it had begun, leaving the room in half-darkness once more.

He blinks suspiciously for a second and then clears his throat, fingers the broken ends of the chain for a moment.

"First, best destiny," he repeats, almost disbelievingly. "Is that really a thing, do you think?"

"Had you made that inquiry five years ago, Captain, my answer might be in the negative; however, I will admit to being of that opinion now. It is no coincidence that all paths seem to lead us back to the Enterprise. You will hear no arguments from me on the subject, nor, I suspect, from your crew."

He shakes his head, drops the pendant back in the box. "Don't you think you might be just a bit biased, Spock?"

"I am a Vulcan, Captain. We are unbiased. I state facts as I see them, and extrapolate conclusions based upon the current and past evidence."

"And what conclusions are those?"

"That you were born to be a starship captain, Jim. That the Enterprise and her crew function at their peak when you are in command. And that we would be foolish to disregard the reassurance of those who have already lived these events in a similar albeit less disadvantaged universe."

"Spock, I'm not him."

"I am aware of that, Captain. If you will recall, I am in a similar situation."

"Yes, but I'm not asking you to risk the lives of eight hundred crewmen and another starship on your command decisions, based on the reassurance of someone who's never stepped foot in this universe."

"That is correct. But I am willing to make mine one of those eight hundred, based on that criteria."

He shifts position, draws one knee up and rest an arm across it, rubbing a thumb between his eyes to try and ward off the headache that threatens. "And what if I fail, Spock. What will you do, if in six months I'm still not qualified medically or otherwise to take over the Enterprise-A."

"That will not happen; the question is moot."

"You don't know what will happen."

"I know you, Jim. Do not presume to insult my scientifically predictive processes in addition to my areas of speciality."

It's testament to how tired he really is, that it takes him a full five seconds of indignant spluttering before it occurs to him that he's being teased.

In his defense, it's been a long, long night. (Also, Spock has a crazy good poker face.)

Not night, morning, actually; the simulated sunrise on their portion of the starbase is beginning to filter over the horizon, orange-gold mixing with streaks of pink that are chasing away the twinkling stars above them.

"I've kept you up all night, I'm sorry." He huffs out a long sigh, leans against the window to watch the sun's simulated rays stretch over the reflective surfaces of a million tiny windows along the skyline

"That scenario has been the norm for the last five night periods, none of the previous which were due to your presence; therefore apologies are unnecessary. I had already promised Nyota I would see Doctor McCoy this morning were I unable to successfully reach a meditative state last evening."

"Uh…yeah, sorry I screwed that last chance up for you then."

"You may make renumeration for your disturbing presence by accompanying me to the Medical center and informing the doctor of your increased anxiety."

"You know, I bet the old version of you was never this much of a pain in the ass."

"I sincerely doubt it. Sir."

Chapter Text

III.

"I want it on the record, I did not agree to this."

Behind him, he hears one of the Security men stifle a snicker, and he rolls his eyes at Scotty, who is grinning behind the transporter control panel. "Do you ever, Bones? Energize, Mr. Scott."

His CMO's protest is lost in the whirr of the transport beam, and a moment later is picking back up mid-sentence on the planet below, much to the rest of the landing party's amusement.

"-think it might be called the Planet of the Dead for a good reason? Huh?"

"Oh, for pity's sake, that came from the colony's bartender. Hardly a reliable source of information. Okay, Mr. Spock, what're we looking at?"

His First has been totally ignoring the little drama and scanning the area with a long-range tricorder, and finally gestures to a rocky outcropping some distance away. "The signals we were receiving are emanating from that direction, Captain. My guess would be a cave system of some kind, possibly entirely or partially underground."

"Ooooh, we get a guess today. The science gods are smilin' on us."

"If you'd like to just nerve-pinch him and leave him here until we're done, I'll be happy to look the other way, Commander."

"I shall take that under advisement for future incidents, Captain."

"Y'all are no fun." A good-natured scowl. "So what about these caves of yours, then?"

"They are either that, or some prehistoric dwellings disguised as a naturally-occurring phenomenon of geologic nature. The readings would indicate a lack of intelligent design, however. Most likely they are naturally-occurring caverns and simply were appropriated for whatever purpose needed to house the mechanism creating the signals we received aboard the Enterprise."

"Awesome." He was afraid of that. He hates caves, but they'll have to investigate if it looks safe to enter, because that signal was obviously of intelligent design, even if they couldn't decipher what it meant. He might score another First Contact out of this, or he might just score a few dozen bats and a panic attack in the dark.

Cool.

"I am also receiving very high readings of various magnetic ores scattered in layers throughout the planet's crust, which would explain why our sensors were unable to penetrate beyond the surface, with one or two localized exceptions throughout."

"Well, one mystery solved, at least it was nothing mechanical that was purposely blocking us. Let's check in with the ship and get on with it, then. Gather any samples you need here and let's move out." Spock nods and moves a few feet away with Bones, pointing at something sparkling on the surface, and his Security men are keeping a watchful eye on the surrounding area, though there's nothing to be seen for what looks like miles. "Kirk to Enterprise."

"Landing Party, this is the Enterprise, we read you. Go ahead, Captain."

"How's it going up there?"

Uhura's voice is professional but he can hear the undercurrent of mild exasperation. "We haven't broken the ship in the five minutes you've been gone, sir."

He laughs. "That'd be a record, at least. Look, we think the signals we picked up are coming from a group of cliffs that probably is some kind of cave system, we're about to go check it out. Keep an eye on our frequencies but you might lose us if we end up going inside. I'll have one of the Security guys stay outside for contact purposes if that's the case."

"Acknowledged. You're equipped with the proper tools to determine stability?"

He glances sideways at Spock, who though working is within Vulcan hearing distance, and at the nod turns back to the communicator. "Spock says yes. If he's wrong and we end up squashed like bugs then you know who to blame. Annnnd he's rolling his eyes at me, so I'll sign off now, Lieutenant. Don't forget to log those hours in the chair."

"Aye, sir. Enterprise out."

One of the things he'd said he wanted on this second five-year mission was for both Sulu and Uhura to start command training, at least on occasion, and they have to log hours in the chair in command of the Bridge to do that; that's part of the reason he can get away with having Spock down here with him on this mission.

Bones really shouldn't be here too, but when Jim had heard the planet was likely riddled with cave systems, he knew he might need somebody other than a random redshirt to deal with his not-well-buried claustrophobia. Hence the surprise summons to a landing party, and the grumping to go along with it. Bones will get over it, and a lot faster than Jim's getting over this stupid hatred of enclosed spaces. It's been years since the Warp Core Incident, as his crew still calls it with hilariously delicate diplomacy, and he still can't stand the idea of being trapped anywhere, sealed in anything. It's why he still gives everyone fits going on as many away missions as he can, he just starts getting crawly if he has to stay on board for too long without seeing sky above him.

To his knowledge no one really knows for sure about it, though, so he's done a decent job of hiding it. Spock suspects, he's too observant not to, but has no proof, and Bones isn't an idiot so he probably knows and just isn't letting on. But it's beside the point; caves it is, and caves they're going into, so he'll suck it up and deal and just hope they can get it over with quickly.

This was a really dumb away mission to insist on coming on, though. Serves him right.

Soil and mineral samples safely stowed in Spock's sample case, they set off toward the rocks in the distance, glancing around to check for any signs of life long gone. He's not surprised there aren't any; that probably has contributed to the old folk tales the bartender at the outlying planet had spun when they stopped for shore leave, calling it the Planet of the Dead as per the locals' eager ramblings. There are very few plants growing in the rocky, pebbling soil here, and the air is chilly, almost foggy and damp. The sky is blue, but a dark, indigo-ey, almost purple-blue, making everything appear oddly fluorescent in the unearthly glow.

"Damn creepy planet," he hears Bones mumbling behind him, and shakes his head, smiling, as he stumbles over a loose rock and rights himself. "Weird lookin' sky like that, and it's freezing, and –"

"Seriously, Bones. It's not that cold. And if Spock's not complaining you have no call to be."

"He's not complaining because he's used to being cold!"

He tunes out the devolving argument with well-practiced ease, because it will occupy both of them while he tries to figure out why his hair's starting to stand on end.

Like someone's watching them.

"Actually, Doctor, since the Enterprise-A's refit, several modifications have been made to her overall design which have made many of the species aboard more comfortable, including mine."

"Huh. Modifications like what, for instance."

"Manually controlled heating vents under every Bridge station, for the more cold-blooded crewmen," he says absently, scanning the surrounding area in a slow circle. "I was tired of watching you and Ensign Bovarta shiver on duty, Spock."

Both his XOs blink at him.

"What, you really think the brass were the ones who thought of that? Give me a break." He whips around, neck prickling, but there's nothing anywhere to be seen. For as far as he can see, not so much as a tree for something to hide behind.

"Put a pin in that for a second," Bones says, jabbing a finger at him. "What's the matter with you?"

"I don't know. I have a weird…feeling. Like someone's watching us. Yes, I know I'm paranoid, Bones, just leave it." He good-naturedly shrugs, trying to hide his unease. They're nearly to the rocks ahead, anyway; the two redshirts are already guarding what looks to be a sizable entrance and patiently waiting for their straggling superiors to catch up. "I'm sure it's nothing. So! You guys up for a little spelunking?"

Bones gives him that look, the one that says you aren't fooling anybody, and he swallows. "Ok look, I –" He whirls around. "What the – "

"Jim, what's wrong?"

He spin around again, full circle, but there's nothing there. "Did you see anything behind me just now?"

"Uh…no?"

"You're sure?"

"Jim, I may be getting older but I'm far from blind. What is going on with you?"

He shivers, rubs the back of his neck. "I would have sworn something was there, I felt – I don't know, like fingers, or a hand. On my shoulder. It was weird, Bones. And I don't just imagine weird stuff, usually."

"Usually. When was the last time you slept? More than an hour at a time?"

"It's been a couple nights, but –"

"Well, there you have it."

He looks around dubiously, but again sees nothing. "Yeah, okay."

He flicks a glance upward to Spock, though, and without a word his XO silently turns a couple of dials and starts scanning the surrounding area. Unfortunately, they've all seen far too many things to flippantly discount any warning, however outlandish and humanly instinctive it may seem.

"I read no disturbance of any kind around us at this time, Captain, neither life-form nor energy."

"Of course not."

"At least, none that my tricorder is able to detect. That does not negate the possibility of existence, merely that it is on a plane or dimension we are unable to perceive with instruments or our physical senses."

"Annnd that's enough of that," Bones declares loudly, as they near the rocks. "Bad enough we got to go spelunking like a bunch of crazy ghost hunters, I'm not listenin' to you –"

"Who said anything about ghost hunting!" Michaelson exclaims, hand inching toward his phaser.

Great, not another one.

"Gentlemen. Just because the locals at the edge of the system called this place the Planet of the Dead does not mean it's a frigging ghost planet, for gods' sake."

"I dunno, Jim, bartenders usually know a damn sight more than they're telling, in my experience."

"This one outdrank Scotty. Before telling this story," he says dryly.

"Point taken."

"All that to say, I will not take a crew into this cave system who's acting like a bunch of unscientific, frightened civilians. If you have a legitimate phobia of something, that's one thing, and I have no problem working around a medical issue, gentlemen. But drop the talk of ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night, if you please." He runs a hand through his hair, huffing, as the redshirts shuffle nervously, eyeing each other. "And a fear of ghosts is not a legit phobia," he adds, rolling his eyes.

"Not that, sir," Michaelson says hastily, amid a snicker from his fellow Security officer. "It's just…Mr. Spock, is that thing able to scan for life-forms at this distance?"

Ah.

Spock looks like he's about to go off on the poor illogical human for heaven only knows what, so he steps in instead.

"You afraid of bats, Mr. Michaelson?" he asks lightly.

"Of course not, sir! Captain. I mean, not exactly, sir."

"Of course not. Just, when they're flying at your head in the dark. Or in the light. Or flying anywhere, for that matter?"

"Uh." The poor guy turns the color of his uniform tunic. "Aye, sir. But it will not affect my performance, Captain, I just want to be prepared! And –"

"Ensign, seriously, calm down." He claps the man on the shoulder, grinning. "I need someone to stay outside and keep in contact with the Enterprise anyway, because the interference from the rocks is going to cut off our signals. Isn't that right, Mr. Spock?"

Spock frowns at his tricorder. "Actually, Captain, these readings indicate –" Jim gallantly doesn't laugh as Bones kicks the Vulcan in the shin without even looking up from his own tricorder – "…indicate that reception will indeed be sporadic at best." A dark glare is fired at the top of the physician's head, going totally unnoticed by both McCoy and, thankfully, the young Security officer.

"There, see? Problem solved." He stops suddenly, and turns around, looking up at the cliff face in both directions.

"Jim?"

"I don't like it," he mutters, skin crawling. "I really don't. I want us in and out of here. Johannsen, stay with Michaelson, guard the entrance."

"Captain, sir, that's against –"

"Regulation 105.7b, yes, I know, Lieutenant. But I have a bad feeling about this place, and if we're not back in an hour I need someone to come after us, find out what happened and contact the Enterprise. There's safety in numbers and I'm not losing a man on this mission, it's supposed to just be recon and I'll not have it otherwise. Stay together, and contact the ship if we're not back in an hour, then come find us."

"Aye, sir." Johannsen nods, clearly uncomfortable with letting them go alone but at the same time relieved he doesn't have to enter the cave system as well. Obviously someone's watched enough horror holovids to know you don't leave anybody alone if weird things are going on unless you want them to die.

He will have no more senseless deaths on this ship, not on his watch.

Besides, if he freaks out in there he really doesn't want some random redshirt watching his captain lose it.

Bones eyes him knowingly before shaking his head, resignedly flicking the light on his tricorder and moving ahead of him into the yawing crevasse between two rocks.

He takes one last look around, ostensibly to look for whatever's got his hackles up but in reality to look at the sky, closes his eyes, and very firmly pushes all thoughts of being trapped inside small spaces down into an even smaller space deep inside.

The cavern opens up almost immediately inside, looming upward to what has to be almost the entire height of the cliff; there's actually a few slivers of light that trickle in here and there throughout, which eases the darkness somewhat – not much, but it's something. Bones's powerful light is slicing a wide beam over the floor a few meters ahead of him as Jim stands there looking around, for a minute forgetting where he is, because it's actually pretty cool-looking. Obviously some kind of civilization did exist here, some undetermined years, maybe centuries ago – because the walls are covered in ancient-looking writing, pictures, carvings, a veritable wall-to-wall art museum. And he's probably one of only a few humans who've ever had the opportunity to look at such an amazing thing.

This is why he went into space.

It's almost enough to make him forget he's stuck in a giant cave in near-darkness, until Spock steps on a small stick right behind him and it snaps like a forcefield shattering, scaring him half to death.

His reaction can be described as less than professional, and it's a good minute or two before Bones can stop laughing long enough to shine the light on the walls for Spock to get good tricorder recordings of the artwork for the Enterprise databases.

Upon completion, Spock flicks his own tricorder light on and raises an innocent eyebrow at him in the half-dark before carefully shining it on their feet.

Honestly, if he didn't love these two so much, he'd just kill them both and be done with it one of these days. There's something to be said for that weird parallel universe they'd accidentally landed in last year where they were part of a never-ending empirical war where his counterpart had ensured permanent captaincy of the Enterprise by summarily executing anyone who so much as mildly annoyed him.

"You got a pinpoint on those signals yet?" he asks, as they move toward the back of the cavern, eyes on the floor for safety.

"They appear to be coming from ten degrees due east of this location, Captain. And only a few meters' distance; there must be an adjoining cavern or chamber to this."

"Well, let's figure out what it is and get going," Bones mutters, sweeping the light briefly over the ceiling. No bats, thank goodness. "I got a feeling whatever it is is just the equivalent of somebody forgettin' to unplug the coffee maker, this stuff looks centuries old."

"I concur. In all probability, the beings who left the signal, of whatever type it may be, are long since deceased."

"Well, it is called the Planet of the Dead," Bones mutters morbidly.

"Seriously, Bones, I swear –"

"Well there has to be a reason it's called that, Jim, nobody just up and names a planet that 'cause it looks good on travel netsites!"

"Nobody names planets anything except the Federation, and they use a stupid Latin and alpha-numeric system!"

"Gentlemen, this is hardly productive. Also, I believe that might be the object which is emitting the signals we intercepted aboard the Enterprise."

"…Great. We traveled all this way for a rock?"

"I would presume it is more than simply a rock, Doctor, given that it is transmitting a looping signal indicating intelligent life at least in the past, existed on this planet."

He rolls his eyes at the by-now familiar bickering and moves toward the thing, a little disappointed that he's been keyed up for the last fifteen minutes only to find they've just discovered what is probably nothing more than an ancient Here lies what's left of our civilization, please do not disturb kthx message.

He crouches down to look at the boulder, which is oddly cylindrical but not flat on top, as if someone smoothed the sides but left the top rough and untouched. It's a plain enough rock, dusty-gray as the rest of the stone in the cavern seems to be in the light of the two powerful tricorder searchlights, and when he cautiously flicks it with a fingernail nothing shocks him or reaches out with weird tentacles to grab him, or anything else strange or dangerous.

Improvement on their last landing party, then.

"Jim, how many times do I have to say don't touch anything until it's been scanned!"

"Seriously, Bones. The last time I had an allergic reaction to something was before Khan. Chill."

"The Doctor's caution is not misplaced, Captain. Given that this stone appears to be radiating some kind of energy signal we are not familiar with, it would be wise to not engage in physical contact until it has been further analyzed."

"So analyze it and let's get going," he says impatiently. "It's a frigging rock, and we have a colony transport to catch in the Laurentian system. How exciting can it possibly be." His gesticulating hand just barely brushes the rock as he speaks, and the next second he's squinting up at the ceiling of the cavern and two blue blurs that get less blurry after he blinks for a minute.

And that would be his head, banging out a crescendo of owowOW as one of the lights abruptly stabs into his retinas.

"Jim, you okay?" The careless tone is totally fake, he's not stupid enough to fall for it, and the fact that there's a medical tricorder buzzing way too close to his ear is testament to the fact that yeah, he's lost some time somewhere.

"Uh. I think." He doesn't hurt anywhere except the back of his head, which is subsiding now into just a dull ache, maybe as if he hit the ground? "You want to tell me what happened?"

"You touched something I told you not to, that's what!"

"Doctor. Obviously, the physical contact was an accident."

"Yeah, because I don't even remember –" His head spins briefly as he sits up, then everything settles. "Ugh. So…what happened, exactly?"

"I dunno, but you set off a shockwave that tossed you at least three meters and knocked us both over too. Judging from Spock's tricorder readings the wave probably got picked up all the way outside the cave."

"Okay…any idea what it was?"

"Negative. The energy remains unidentified."

"Is that thing still transmitting a signal?" he asks quietly. If it's not, then that's not a good sign, it means he's probably just unintentionally opened some kind of Pandora's Box and released gods-know-what into the universe.

"Yes, Captain. Signal still transmitting, with no noticeable decrease in power."

Huh. "That's…okay, that's good."

"That's bizarre, is what it is."

"Maybe that's just it's Look Don't Touch sign." He stands, a little wobbly, and gives his First a nod of thanks for the hand up. "But that's good, it means no harm done. And we have our readings so we can leave it alone now, right?"

"Correct. Given recent events, that would certainly be my recommendation, sir."

"You got it. Let's blow this place and go home."

"Jim, are you sure you don't feel, I don't know…strange?"

"No, I don't feel strange, Bones," he says in amusement, as they make their way back through the cavern system. "Honestly. I think it just stunned me, I've had worse falls in the gym sparring with Sulu. I probably just set off some kind of proximity shield or something."

"Yeah, well. You start feelin' weird you let me know. And let's pick up the pace, who knows if that shockwave loosened up the ceiling in this place."

"Thanks for that." He shivers at the thought, and hurries after his fast-moving XOs and their thankfully still-working searchlights.

They still have a good fifty meters back to the main cavern when he stops suddenly enough that the spray of shale and soil attracts their attention. Bones half-turns, light shining bright in his face before a vague apology and it's directed downward.

"What's the matter, Jim."

"Um." He clears his throat. "You're not seeing anything…strange, in front of me right now. Are you?"

"…No," is the cautious reply, and by now Spock's turned around too, his beam playing over the ceiling in a stability scan to make sure they're not going to get flattened while they stand here talking.

"You're sure?"

"Yes, Jim, I'm sure." There's mounting alarm now, in the tone, and his CMO elbows Spock sharply. "Scan the area one more time for energy readings. I've already done it for hallucinogenics and airborne toxins, there's nothing I can pick up that's in the Medical databanks."

"I have been doing so at three-minute intervals ever since the Captain indicated his initial discomfort outside this cave system, Doctor. There is nothing here, at least which is visible to our Medico-Science technology." Spock's dark eyes reflect the light beam for a moment, narrow with unease.

Well, that's not good.

He exhales slowly, half-expecting the breath to turn into an icy cloud in front of him, but nothing happens; further proof that he's probably hallucinating or else just going nuts.

"Jim, what exactly are you seeing?"

"Uh." He clears his throat with a forced laugh. "I'm pretty sure I know now why they call it the Planet of the Dead."

"Oh hell no."

He does laugh, and feels a little better, at the exclamation. All McCoy needs now is the fingers in the ears and chanting la-la-la bit to complete the picture of complete and total denial.

"You're messing with us, right Jim?"

"I wish, Bones."

"Captain, are you implying it is your belief that you are viewing the…"

"Otherworldly remains of the former inhabitants of this world?" he supplies with a shake of the head, and waves his arms dramatically at the path in front of him. "Ghosts, spirits, souls, whatever you want to call it, I'm looking at – or through! – a translucent humanoid, okay?" Okay, that's hysteria, take it down a notch, Jim.

"Don't tell me there's the whole chains and empty eyes and dripping blood bit too, Jim."

"No, it's…it's actually just…normal looking." He realizes this for the first time, because now that he's calmed down just a bit and least Spock doesn't appear to think he's totally insane, he can take a second and observe. "Just like a normal person, no horror holovid effects."

"Well, that would indicate whatever it is, it didn't originate in your head, at least," Bones muses, frowning. "Hallucinations usually take on the traditional aspects of the visual in question."

"You think! I'm a head case, yeah – but I don't just go around seeing dead people!"

"You say the apparition is humanoid, Captain."

"Yeah, Spock. Bipedal, typical humanoid faical features, just something a little…off, about it, probably not exactly human. We don't know what the inhabitants of this planet looked like, do we? Or if they developed along a Terran-parallel timeline?"

"Negative. The history of this star system, particularly this planet, has become exceedingly muddled due to its many unreliable myths and stories regarding, incidentally, such apparitions. That is one reason we were to explore this star system; its charts are incomplete and its history even more so. The Xenosociology teams have been primarily working to reconstruct the latter based upon information we can only presume is correct; we have no actual confirmation as such."

"Well, that's fabulous."

"This incident, however, is a remarkable opportunity to obtain an accurate record of the natives' appearance at least, Captain," Spock continues, and Jim stares at him in consternation as he starts pushing buttons on his tricorder. "To be able to accurately depict this planet's society and its inhabitants from an eyewitness account would be of incalculable historic value."

"Are you kidding me."

"Sir?"

"You're seriously wanting me to like, describe this thing to you for your records? Are you crazy? How exactly do you propose to explain that to the Federation Scientific Council when you submit your report, without getting me sectioned?"

Spock blinks, as if the total weirdness of the situation had never even occurred to him.

"I can't believe I'm standing here in front of a ghost – and you're trying to freaking interview me about it."

"I can't believe that sentence just came out of your mouth, and that it actually makes sense in context." Bones rolls his eyes and turns around. "Look, we've already been in here forty-eight minutes, twelve more and those two out front are gonna come looking for us, can you just take a mental picture and be done with it, Jim? Let's figure it out aboard ship."

"I am totally for that," he agrees fervently, wondering how exactly to side-step the figure without getting anywhere near it.

The apparition, a tall, vaguely female humanoid with simple, long-braided hair has just been silently regarding him with blank-eyed curiosity, but now suddenly moves toward him, and he takes a stumbling step backward before he can stop himself. "Whoa there! What –" He stops mid-sentence as it halts, head tilted as if in question, then simply vanishes from sight as quickly as it had appeared. "She's gone. What in the world."

"We are not on Terra, and I should prefer not to be on this planet any longer as well."

"Truer words were never spoken, Mr. Spock," Bones agrees, and hightails it out of the passage, muttering under his breath about spirits and spooks and who knows what else, good Lord deliver us.

Spock lingers long enough to give him one longsuffering look, then follows, light cutting a bright beam through the dark. Jim is about to follow, when something slithers through the darkness behind him, and he turns, taking a couple steps backward to see better.

Three ghostly figures are just standing in the room they came from, watching them. Not in any way threatening, just watching. They all look vaguely male rather than female, though they could just have close-cropped hair, and all about the same height – like some weird trio of identical guards or something.

It's creepy as hell, and he thinks he can probably be excused missing the fact that there's soil and small pebbles starting to trickle down the side of the passage until it's too late.

He hears the sudden wail of Spock's stability scanner an instant before the shout of warning, and has just enough time to dive under a relatively foundational-looking stone outcropping in the rough tunnel before what looks and sounds like the entire rest of said tunnel comes crashing down on him.


It's probably just a few seconds, but it feels like months. He doesn't even black out, which is better than expected, and aside from a mouthful of gravel and something that bounced off his one exposed ankle with enough force to make him yelp (hence the mouthful of gravel), is not actually physically hurt. The ledge is a decent size, enough that he can not-quite-starfish out to touch stone wall on one side and stone tunnel remains on the other three which trap him inside the small space pocket. He's actually in decent shape, all things considered.

All things considered, that he's now buried under who knows how many tons of rock containing too much magnetic ore to be transported out.

Yeah, that's panic, starting to curl in a nauseating churn deep inside, clawing restlessly at his lungs and scratching at the back of his brain. But he's not felt any air flow yet, and he can't even tell which way's up in the pitch-black. Put simply, he can't afford to hyperventilate.

He puts his head back down on his hands and starts silently going through the ship roster, calling each crewman in his head by name, starting with the A's. It's the first thing he can think of, because counting by number just points out how many seconds he's been stuck down here.

He's up to the letter C when his ears stop ringing enough to hear voices – and they're not that far away, actually. Relief sweeps over him like an ice-cold wave, and he exhales shakily. He can hear not just Spock and McCoy, but what have to be several Security people and that might be Scotty too – so no one else was caught in the collapse, Spock had been clear of the tunnel when it came down.

His people are safe.

The rest he can deal with. Probably.

From somewhere in the darkness he inhales a puff of floating dust, and that's just fantastic. He hopes his coughing isn't violent enough to start a secondary landslide on top of everything else.

Apparently it's loud enough to halt the escalating voices outside, though, because there's a very, very startled pause for just a brief second.

"Somebody wanna hurry up out there?" he bellows, in his best Captain's Voice. "What do I pay you people for, anyway?"

He hears one of the redshirts cheer and a high-pitched "Haha! I told you, didn't I!" that can only be Scotty, before another coughing fit makes him shift onto his elbows to try to get more air in his lungs.

"Jim!"

"Yeah," he rasps, hacking out another mouthful of dirt. Blech. "Not going anywhere, Bones."

"Very funny. Listen to me, you hurt anywhere?"

"Not…really, I don't think." He takes another labored inhale. "Something landed on my ankle, but other than that…think I'm okay."

"You don't sound okay."

Spock's voice, tight with tension. "Captain, do you have a sufficient flow of oxygen?"

"Uh…I doubt it." He coughs again. "Think you can work on that? I can't see a thing. No idea where the outside even is, or how deep I'm in here."

"I will see to it, Captain." Then, in a much lower tone. "How long, Doctor?"

"Given the amount of space there is under that ledge? Just move your ass."

"Understood." He hears a shifting of rocks and gravel, then distant voices.

"Gonna have you out of there in no time, Jim."

He grins in the darkness. "Such a liar, Bones."

"I am not! Just gotta do it the old-fashioned way. We can't use the transporter, Scotty already tried and the interference is just too much. I'm sorry."

"You and me both." He's starting to feel the walls closing in, like they weren't already nearly on top of him all around. "God, I hate small spaces, Bones!"

"Easy, Jim. I know you do."

He takes a deep breath, or tries to. "'F I pass out in here, sorry."

"Jim, do not, I dunno how much oxygen you got left in there and we can't take the risk. What the hell is taking you so long, I thought you people were engineers!"

"Doctor, we must finish the simulation before beginning the removal of the debris, or the removal of one incorrect boulder could bring down even more of this mountain, including the cavern in which we currently sit. Fifteen seconds remain in the simulation."

"'S like Rock Jenga." He mutters.

"Are you gettin' loopy on me?"

"No. Wish I was." He closes his eyes, inhales, opens them on the exhale.

And stares right into the curious eyes of a ghostly child, sitting on the ground by his head.

He probably scares everyone in the entire cave system half to death, and Bones totally flips out, thinking something came loose and like, squashed him. Or something.

The poor ghost kid looks just as freaked and disappears too, leaving him in darkness once more, accompanied only by half a dozen shouts wanting to know what is going on.

Whoops.

Not something he enjoys explaining.

"You screamed bloody murder because of a ghost child?" Bones demands. "What was it going to do, play ghost patty-cake with you?"

"Dude, it was sitting right by my head when I looked up, okay? I can only deal with one scary thing at a time – two's just not fair!" His heart's still racing, and after the brief eerie glow the darkness seems even more dark than it had before. "Don't – look, I just – look, Bones – "

"Hey, hey, it's okay. It's okay, Jim. I need you to slow it down now. Stop talking, take a deep breath for me."

"Talk if I want to," he mutters rebelliously.

"Then do less of it and more breathing. Spock'll have more air to you in a minute. Or he'll regret ever meeting either one of us. Come on, breathe in. Count to four, you know the drill. And out."

He scrubs his hands over his face in the darkness, thankful no one can see that's not blood he's wiping away.

"They're moving rocks now, Jim. In a second you'll have a breathing channel, then we start getting you out. See? Easy as skippin' rocks on a Sunday."

He snorts, then giggles almost hysterically. "What the hell does that even mean. People can't actually talk like that, not even where you're from."

"You can make fun of me when you're not the one inhaling CO2. Commander, you don't do something pronto you're gonna have my boot up your –"

"Bones! There's junior officers in here!" He coughs out as much censure as he can while trying not to laugh. The fact that Spock doesn't even bother to respond is even more hilarious to his slightly unbalanced brain.

"They've heard worse," he hears grumbled, and he can't argue with that, but still. Just because those two get along weirdly well after the whole business on Altamid, like disturbingly well, doesn't mean they can just lose it in front of other people.

Speaking of losing it.

"How much longer they going to be?" he asks, hoping his voice is as steady as he intends.

"I dunno, Jim. From what I could see, the scan was saying the pile had to be pulled apart in an exact order or the whole thing would come crashing down even further. You're not buried in there very deep, but the rest of the mountain's balanced on this part of the collapse. One wrong move and instead of being buried under like fifteen rocks, you're buried under two hundred."

"Dude. I thought you were supposed to be, like, comforting me or something. You suck."

"…Yeah, sorry, didn't think that through."

He laughs, oddly high-pitched, and rests his forehead on his hands. Suddenly a weird blueish glow seeps through his fingertips, and he jolts backward as far as he can go, this time thankfully only with a bitten exclamation instead of the embarrassing screech he did a few minutes ago.

"Jim?"

"Ghost kid's back." He makes a vague motion with his hand, squirrels as far away from the apparition as he can, which is only a couple scant inches. "Go 'way. Shoo."

"Did you just try to shoo it?"

"What the hell am I supposed to do?"

"Is it trying to do something to you?"

"No! It's just…sitting there. Staring at me."

"Like, going to eat your soul staring?"

He chokes out a laugh. "No, just…like…I dunno, curious staring." The child is a tiny little thing of maybe four or five, curly-haired and vaguely humanoid as the woman earlier had been, and it sits, head tilted as if in question, but makes no move toward him. If anything, it looks a little afraid of him, and no wonder, after the ungodly screaming he did earlier when it popped in to say hello.

"Uh. Hey, there. I'm sorry I scared you earlier." The child blinks, a little warily. "What do you want, exactly?" he asks, hesitating before scooching back to his former position.

The child looks puzzled, and it looks like it's saying something in return, but no sound can be heard though its lips are moving.

"Huh. That's interesting."

"What, Jim?"

"It looks like it can hear me, but I don't know if it can understand me. I can't tell if the universal translator in my wrist transponder is working, or if it got broken in the chaos, I dunno. But when it tries to talk back, I can't hear it."

"You're tryin' to talk to it."

"Well, yeah. It's just a kid, Bones. I like kids, when they’re not ghosts anyway." The child looks even more puzzled, and a little more curious, and says something else, but he can't even try to read lips if he doesn't know the language. "It's weird I can't hear it, though." He suddenly realizes his head's spinning, and catches himself on one elbow as he crashes back down. "Bones, seriously. How much longer are they going to be?"

"I can check if you want me to, Jim."

"Do it. At least see if they can like, get a hole big enough for you to shove a tri-ox hypo through to me." The quiet seriousness in his tone is more than enough for McCoy to scramble to his feet, swearing, and a moment later his footsteps retreat somewhere further away from the point in the rubble where his voice had been coming from.

He turns back around.

"Okay. That's new."

There's two of them, now. Twins? They look an awful lot alike, though he's no expert on this type of thing. The other has softer features, and hair tied in six or seven little braids with bits of what might be decorative ribbon or something tied to the ends, so he's assuming a girl, though that's a little Terran sexist an assumption, he supposes. Just because they're humanoid doesn't mean their species has humanoid development parallels, and they're wearing the same kind of generic robe-thing.

"Your…sibling? Sister?" He motions between the two of them, trying to look questioning, and the first child grins, gap-toothed, then nods, tugging briefly on the little girl's nearest swinging braid. The gesture's so surprisingly human childlike that he smiles, for the first time in what feels like hours.

The girl merely sighs tolerantly and ignores her sibling, regards Jim with wary fascination; and he doesn't blame her, if he's the first person in who knows how long to be able to see them.

"I wish I could understand what you're saying," he says softly, as the boy says something else, little hands gesturing quickly between the two of them. "But I can't, I'm sorry. I can't even hear you." He shakes his head, cups a hand behind his ear, hoping the vague sign language will translate visually.

The disgruntled frown he receives tells him it has, and he tries not to laugh at the pouting expression that follows. It's been so long since he was around children, he forgot how much he loves them.

"Hey, look, I dunno what I touched in there," he points in what he thinks is the vague direction of the chamber where he accidentally set off the shockwave that started this whole mess. "But it was an accident, I didn't mean to. I don't know what I did. But it brought part of your mountain down, and I'm sorry."

Both children blink at him for a second, and then start giggling. That it's so silent is freaking creepy, and he feels the hair on his arms stand on end despite the fact he knows they mean no harm.

"Glad someone's able to find humor in it," he mutters.

But as he watches, he sees the boy put his hands together and mimic an explosion, air puffing out of his small cheeks as he no doubt makes the accompanying noises, throwing his hands apart and grinning cheekily across the intervening inches.

"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, I know it was dumb," he says, grinning. "Not like I did it on purpose. Hey, is that what gave me the ability to see you guys? Touching that rock?"

The little girl glances at her brother, who shrugs.

"I bet it was, that'd explain why Bones and Spock can't see you," he muses. At the questioning look, he gestures toward the wall of rock separating him from freedom and sanity. "My friends. The loud one and the one with the ears." He traces a point on his own ear, and is startled when both apparitions suddenly disappear without warning. "O-kay."

Maybe he's just hallucinating this whole thing, maybe the big rock let off some kind of poisonous gas or something and he's like, actually in the Enterprise's Sickbay safe and sound and Bones is about to wake him up from an induced coma of Weirdness.

Yeah, he'd be able to breathe better if that were the case, unfortunately.

He jumps half out of his skin when the darkness suddenly is shattered by the return of his two little companions.

"Waugh! Come on!" His heart really needs to stay in a normal range here. "Can you just…not, do that?"

Both look at him questioningly, and with some amusement.

"Never mind. You went to see who I was talking about?"

The little boy nods.

"They're Good People."

A quizzical head-tilt; obviously unfamiliar terminology.

"My family," he tries, patting his chest briefly over his heart, and sees a light of comprehension. Another nod. "Do you have family, or did you, here? On this planet?"

A nod, and the boy points at his companion. The girl smiles shyly, but volunteers no other information.

"Your twin, I'm guessing? What about your parents? I don't understand how this all works," he muses to himself. "Are you all just…here? Is this some sort of like, soul resting place, is that why they call it the Planet of the Dead? Or just, selective. Like only certain people come back to haunt the place, like Terran ghosts supposedly do?"

The child stares at him blankly.

"Sorry, kid." He starts to laugh, and then starts coughing again when there's legit not enough air to draw in. "Oh, that hurts. Okay, I'm done talking for a while, no offense." He lies back down on the floor, hoping that will stop the ceiling from spinning in an eerily-lit circle. "Hey, at least talking to you guys, 's kept me from freaking out in here. So thanks for that. Even if it's not really gonna help much longer."

The blueish light to his right brightens momentarily, and he turns his head to see the male child in the act of creeping toward him, looking like a deer in headlights when caught.

He has to smile. "Look, you're welcome to stick around, but I don't think I'm going to be awake much longer." At the frown of incomprehension, he gestures at the walls around them, then back at himself, patting his chest. "Human. We need something called oxygen. I won't be able to breathe very well for much longer in here."

A blink, then the child points at the rocks blocking the way out from under the ledge.

"Yeah, that's the problem. My crew's working to clear a path but it's slow going, I'm not sure they're going to make it in time." He has nothing but faith in them; if it can be done in time, it will, he has no doubt of that. Unfortunately, they've learned the hard way that not everything turns out as it should. Life isn't a fairytale, especially their lives, and it doesn't do anyone any good to get upset or angry about it. You have to just enjoy the present, live and love as hard as you can in it so you have no regrets when the time comes.

Granted, he'd really hoped that time wasn't going to be for many years yet.

The child frowns at his words, and turns back to his sister, who tilts her head to listen to something, then shrugs. Then the boy turns back, looking pretty upset. Poor little guy.

"You okay, kid?" he asks, wishing his brain weren't so foggy. He should be marking all of this at least in his mind for the sake of historical record if he ever gets out. Spock will no doubt think his conversation with a ghost child is fascinating.

The boy reaches out a small hand toward him, and Jim looks warily at it for a moment. Hesitating, for just a fraction of a second; he has no idea what this could do to him, and he's touched enough things he shouldn't today, even if the last was an accident.

Aw, what the hell, it's a scared kid.

He's not even sure his hand will connect, because how could it if the boy's voice could not break through whatever barrier was between their worlds? But the poor kid looks totally freaked, for some reason, and the hysterical portion of his brain thinks is just a little funny that the child's scared about Jim's impending demise when the kid himself has been dead for like, centuries probably.

Unless he doesn't know he's dead? Do any of them? Maybe they just think they're all living a normal life here.

Maybe this is their normal life-form, for their species. A species without a corporeal body.

Gods, his head hurts way too much for this kind of science-ing.

He reaches out and takes the kid's hand, and –

.

.

It's like the worst transporter trip ever, and he's been held in a pattern buffer for almost two minutes before in the middle of an ion storm (not including the one whopping mis-transfer that threw them into a pocket universe halfway through the first five-year mission). This? This is like, turn your body inside out and then back again without a stabilizer, and he's two seconds from puking everywhere when the world stops spinning and he can feel solid ground under his back again.

He jerks his hand away and heaves in a strained, strangled lungful of blessedly clear air, praying his stomach will settle and still be in one piece when his breathing slows down.

Wait, what?

His eyes fly open just in time to see the child vanish, silent as a shadow.

Seriously, what?

As his head stops spinning with the onrush of oxygen, he blinks his vision totally clear and to his astonishment, sees – and hears, geez – a few meters away, the majority of his command crew and half a dozen redshirts all in varying stages of controlled panic, in the process of digging out what looks like a…that's way more rocks than Bones made it sound like.

Way, way more.

There's no way he'd have survived in there for another what, five or six hours? Ish? He can't see them being able to clear it any quicker than that without a transporter, which can't penetrate through the interference in here even with the giant hole overhead where the roof of the tunnel used to be.

Ah. That'd be why Spock looks like he's about to commit tal-shaya on the next person to ask him a question, and why Bones is freaking the hell out on some poor redshirt who's probably just delivering a message.

He does a quick once-over to make sure all his parts are like, still functioning, and what do you know. The kid apparently does know how to apparate through a wall with a human in tow.

Huh. Well, he's seen and done stranger things. Not much stranger, but stranger.

He's still sitting up, rubbing the back of his neck and trying to pull his spinning head back into enough pieces to just stop everyone, when one of his Engineers sees him on the floor of the cavern a few meters away and drops an antigrav drill in shock while it's still on, setting off a minor explosion that definitely gets the attention of everyone in the vicinity.

"Uh…yeah. So, this place is definitely the Planet of the Dead, guys…"


They lose no time in waiting for an explanation, just beam straight out without even cleaning up their mess really, and while he really wants to at least say goodbye to the kid that just probably saved his life he can't argue with both protocol and the fact that he still feels like, well, a tunnel just fell on him.

They're met in the transporter room by a Medical team and Uhura, who's been monitoring the transmissions from the surface and directing operations aboard ship while the landing party's been trying to dig him out, and the look on her face has him backing up into the waiting Med gurney quicker than Bones's pointing finger could ever make him.

"Next time you leave me in charge of the Bridge, I'd appreciate you not trying to get yourself killed on the away mission, Captain!" Her eyes are flashing fire, arms gesticulating so wildly Bones has to expertly dodge one to measure out something in a hypospray. "No one wants that on their training record!"

"Sorry," he mutters, trying not to laugh. Even Spock is edging toward the door on the heels of their rapidly disappearing security team, trying to get out of range of the friendly fire. "Not like I did it on purpose."

"Didn't do it on – do you have any idea what you touched down there?"

"Obviously not! Contrary to what everyone on this team seems to think, I am not stupid enough to just run blindly around putting people's lives in danger! I don't do that anymore!" His tone has risen into genuine anger, compounded by the fact that he's really starting to feel extremely shaky with the outrush of adrenaline.

"Sit down before you pass out, Jim. And no one's saying you do, you just are a walking embodiment of Murphy's Law and everyone on this ship knows it." Bones's firm hand on his shoulder sits him heavily on the gurney, a steadying presence in the whirlwind he's still trying to navigate.

"Sorry," Uhura says in a more subdued tone, as he sways unsteadily, hand over his eyes.

"It's fine."

"No, it's not. You scared us. And it's been a while since that happened."

"Not long enough," he hears a mutter overhead. "Lie down, Jim."

"Not yet." He holds up a hand to halt the hypospray coming at his neck. "You translated the signals while we were down there, then – you know what that thing was."

She nods. "In a vague sense, yes. It's a pretty simple language, actually – with just a little tweaking the universal translator did most of the work. The thing is, we didn't get enough of it to formulate a proper structural syntax until after you touched it; the signal pattern changed then from the loop it had bee."

"Wait, why didn't we pick that alteration up on the surface?"

"Tricorders are only programmed to pick up and analyze broad-spectrum energy signals. My equipment up here is much more sophisticated. The Science tricorders wouldn’t register any change if the strength of the signal was the same." Spock nods in agreement. "We picked up a major shockwave on the surface, then the signal changed. And it started transmitting something different, not on a looping signal like it was before. After a few minutes we had enough for a working translation to begin, and I was able to piece together the rest."

"Huh." He glances over at his First, and sees a gleam of interest. "So in other words, it's a good thing I touched it, or we'd never know what it was."

"I will put you out for a week, Jim, so help me."

"Chill, Bones. So, what is it, Lieutenant?"

"Apparently, it's…this is going to sound really weird."

"Not half as weird as what I've seen today. Go for it."

"It's apparently a sort of communications device, for the society that lived there previously."

"Okay?"

"A communications device to allow them to speak with their dead," she clarifies wryly. "Supposedly."

Bones snorts. "You're joking."

"I'm not. That's what the signal was saying. It was giving instructions on how to call up the – the translator couldn't parse the word, my guess is it means soul? – of whomever you wanted to communicate with. The stone is supposed to give you the power to see the soul, or whatever it is, for a period of twenty-four hours. And the end was like, some kind of prayer for peace in the afterlife for the person in question, I’m guessing a ritual to say at the end to thank it for the twenty-four hours of unrest. There's a part in the middle we haven't translated yet, but that was alarming enough I thought. We got all this too late to really help, and had other concerns since by that point you'd decided to get yourself pancaked. Sir."

He wrinkles his nose, but ultimately laughs, a badly needed trickle of relief in the tension.

"That's lunacy."

"No, it actually makes a lot of sense, Bones," he says, thoughtfully. "It at least explains why I was seeing ghosts everywhere, and you and Spock weren't. I screwed up the process, somehow, so I was seeing everyone."

"It does seem, from the instructions, to be a very delicate process. I wouldn't be surprised if you just set off some protocol that let you see everything, or that it malfunctioned when it recognized a non-native lifeform was trying to access its processes."

"Nice work, Lieutenant."

"Thank you, sir. So…you were really seeing, what, spirits, on the planet?"

"Or something. It was a ghost kid that got me out of the cave-in, actually."

"A physics-defying event we have yet to explain the mechanics of," Spock interjects mildly.

"Not arguing with you there, Commander. But here I am."

"Agreed. I believe you Terrans have an apt saying regarding the viewing of equine dentistry which applies to the situation."

His Communications Chief almost visibly cringes, and Jim has no such compunction about cackling maniacally. "Someday I'm gonna learn Vulcan well enough to butcher your idioms, I'm just saying."

"All right, enough, you two – Jim, you're gonna fall off that thing in a minute, you're wobbling so much. You 'bout done?"

"Wait." A horrible thought has just occurred to him, driving away the amusement in an instant of cold clarity. "Lieutenant, did that thing say how this…ability, was given? Or if it was contained to the planet?"

"No, sir, nothing about how, just that it was a process peculiar to their society."

"If what you're seeing is actually not a bunch of hocus-pocus, Jim, the only way to achieve it would probably be a neurological upset in the brain."

"Indeed, Doctor. There have been multiple medico-scientific postulations over the centuries that were we able to access certain dormant portions of our minds, we would be able to see and sense far more than we currently do as sentient beings, up to and including objects or beings existing outside our four-dimensional realm. There is much medical and scientific data to support, but not prove, such a theory, such as the evidence that various animals and small younglings of certain species seem to be capable of perceptions which adults of their species are not."

Not good.

"They seemed to regard it as a gift, Captain, from what I could tell of the recordings. But no, it said nothing about being confined to the planet, and I don't see how it could be if it's got something to do with the impulses in the brain like Leonard just said."

He swallows. "Bones, knock me out for eighteen hours."

His CMO looks down at him in surprise. "Not that I'm not happy to hear you agreein' with me on medical treatment for once, Jim, but why?"

"If it's not relegated to the planet?" He tries not to look at the corners of the transporter room, hopes that the shadows he's seeing moving are just that, shadows. "It's bad luck in the 'Fleet to not bring elements of the old ship into the new if you're christening her with the same name. Do you know how many ghosts there could be haunting this ship, tied to the old Enterprise?"

It's a wonder he hasn't seen anything yet, given how many people they've lost in transport alone – starting all the way back at the very beginning, that fateful day when their lives all met in one huge crash-and-burn that changed them all irrevocably and forever.

He hears a sharp inhale, and Uhura glances back at Spock.

"I can't – I can't chance seeing that. Seeing them." He sends a pleading look toward the door, and receives an understanding nod. "Please."

"I will take command for the next twenty-four hours, Captain."

"I don't want to leave the planet yet, though – if there's a way to, I don't know, thank that kid, I want to find it. You said there was some kind of prayer to say, at the end of the time period, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, Captain. I'll get on a translation of it right away, as accurate as I can make it. It'll be ready for you when you want it."

"I will give orders to remain in orbit for the duration of your medical leave, Captain."

"How do you plan to swing that by Command, if we're supposed to be in the Laurentian system in forty-eight hours?"

Spock blinks innocently at him. "Inconclusive scans of unusual energy readings on the surface which could indicate catastrophic planetary instability. Obviously."

"Oh, obviously." He manages a brief but genuine smile, relief seeping through the tension.

"We got this, sir. I’ll have that translation ready for you tomorrow, and make sure we’ve cleaned up the mess we made so their resting place is as undisturbed as it can be." Uhura nods, making a little shooing motion with both hands. "Do your thing, Leonard. Naptime."

His glare is halfhearted at best, because it's a little hard to be grateful and irritated at the same time.

And if that's an eerie glow he sees lurking behind the transporter pad before his eyes close, well. They're all better off not knowing what – or who – might be keeping watch over them on this ship, silent guardian angels for the ones left behind.

No.

He prefers to keep his focus on the here and now. He prefers the light of lucky stars to the shadow of guardian angels.

Some final frontiers just don't need to be explored yet.

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."

Chapter Text

The wonders of twenty-third century medicine are vast, and some of the most amazing of modern miracles to be seen in the galaxy. Long gone are the Second Dark Ages, where medical research stagnated under nations remaining embroiled in civil unrest rather than turning that energy to nobler causes, and a better world has emerged victorious over most of the deadly diseases and ailments that once plagued Federation worlds.

Most civilized planets have never even seen cases of serious birth defects, for they are all but things of the past, able to be corrected soon after birth through specialized surgeries, or even prior to birth in some cases. While illness still sweeps worlds and cultures, as it is wont to do, those serious diseases which still remain un-eradicated in the galaxy have fully-publicized cures and treatments, carefully honed with precision over decades of research for each Federation species. Such things as incurable cancers are exceedingly rare, cases one among hundreds of thousands and only due to extremely unusual immunities to standard treatment methods. While, hilariously enough, there has yet to be found a blanket cure for the various rhinoviruses which are lumped together under the umbrella of the "common cold," most minor ailments can be banished in very short order with standard medications, anti-toxins, or anti-microbials which can be easily reproduced aboard ship in a matter of hours at most.

In order to serve as Chief of Medical on a Federation starship, one must possess at least two doctorates, one of which must be a specialization in some type of comprehensive xenobio medicine, and as such the hand-picked Medical staff of the higher-class starships are some of the brightest and quickest recruits in the 'Fleet, certainly at the top of their Sciences division. That expertise can make all the difference, when a ship is buried in uncharted space, far from 'Fleet assistance or any known civilization and reliant only upon its own supplies and crew ingenuity for survival.

And yet, despite all precautions and all medical expertise and all the highly advanced modern technology they possess…things still happen.

And on this ship, they happen a lot.

At this point, Jim suspects they have their own special subsection under Murphy's Law (see U.S.S. Enterprise, Paragraph 2, subsection b: Maybe we just shouldn't touch anythingever), because nothing should surprise him at this point, nearly finished with a second five-year-mission and at least eight days' journey from charted space at normal warp travelling speed.

So of course, this late leg of their mission is when 85% of his crew suddenly start dropping like flies, completely out of nowhere.

It starts small, as these things usually do, a rash of beta crewmen on his single weekly beta shift. He takes over that afternoon to find four of them not the ones on the duty roster he'd reviewed only two hours prior to the shift change. All four, using sick leave on a slow and boring mid-week day? That's legit illness, there, and it's weird.

He stops by Sickbay that night after his duty's ended, just to bounce his concern off of Bones, and is stunned to see that nearly half the beds in the outer ward are full, something he's never seen unless they're immediately recovering from a battle or that one notable time Chekov and Sulu challenged the entire Botany department to a hot-dog eating contest.

Thank the deities of several neighboring star systems, they've grown up since then.

A harried-looking nurse points him toward one of the recovery cubicles, hurrying by with a tray of used hypospray cartridges, and he is careful to stay out of the well-established traffic patterns as he makes his way across the ward, pausing here and there to greet an alert (or only semi-alert) crewman.

No one looks like they're on death's door, thank goodness, and most of them seem to be sleeping peacefully, so his blood pressure's back down by the time he nearly runs into Bones coming out of the cubicle, eyes equal parts tired and frustrated over top of a rare mask.

"Don't tell me you've got it too." The words are more growl than anything else, and the man's already reaching for a scanner.

"Whatever it is, I don't," he says, hands in the air.

"Good, because I got no idea what it is, yet. I don't think it's transmitted through the air or we'd have a pandemic on our hands, but get a mask on if you're gonna be talkin' to them, just in case."

"What's going on, Bones?" He obediently takes the mask an alert intern tosses at him as he scurries by, but doesn't strap it on yet.

"I wish I knew. I got six Engineers, seven of your Bridge crew, and I don't know how many from Sciences in here or I sent 'em back to their cabins for preventative quarantine. All kinds of screwy symptoms. Mostly flu-like symptoms, nothing life-threatening yet, but we're over a 2% infection rate now and that's a red zone. We hit 5%, and this ship goes into lockdown until I can figure out what it is, even if it's not life-threatening, Jim."

"Understood. How can I help?"

"Stay out of here, drink fluids, and for the love of my sanity, Jim, don't touch anyone infected. God knows what your immune system would do with some new and improved superbug."

He rolls his eyes. "Bones. I like, don't even sneeze anymore, haven't since Khan. I'm not going to catch the flu of all things."

"I have no idea if that's all it is, this is the first 24 hours I'm seeing symptoms and I seriously doubt this many of these young fools are resistant to the blanket vaccine. Promise me I won't see your ass on one of these beds, Jim."

"Only if you go get some sleep, for pity's sake. You're probably going to need it."

McCoy sighs, glances at the chrono on the wall. "I can't do much until the next batch of bloodwork comes back from the labs anyway, and Spock's watching that. So yeah, I'll walk you back to Deck Five."

"Are all the species affected the same?" he asks, as they hand off sterilization equipment and leave the 'Bay.

"Basically. Only four species affected so far anyway, mostly humans. Basic symptoms are fever, coughing, vomiting, passing out, some mental confusion, among others." They enter the lift, and McCoy sighs. "Problem is, they've all tested negative for Altarian, Denobulan, and Medusan flu, and they're missing the massive headache that comes along with all varieties of meningitis…I dunno, Jim. If it's a 'flu, it's something I'm unfamiliar with. And I'm familiar with a lot."

"I'm more concerned with how whatever it is broke out on board, with us traveling at warp through uncharted space," he muses, frowning. "There wasn't some kind of accident in the labs I wasn't told about, was there?"

"Of course not! You think either one of us would hide something like that?"

"No, I don't, but I think you both work too hard and if someone filed a report incorrectly it might have somehow slipped through the cracks. Or they might've just not filed it at all," he points out soberly.

"God, I hope not. Spock will kill them, if I don't get to them first. That breaks every law of medico-science ethics in existence, not to mention a half-dozen lab safety regulations."

"They'll be lucky to escape a court martial, if they caused a shipwide epidemic," he agrees. "I'll look into it first thing tomorrow. If you talk to Spock before I do have him start reviewing footage of the labs, yeah?"

"You got it. And seriously, Jim – I need you to make sure you don't come down with this. I don't want to have to quarantine the Bridge."

"You and me both, Doctor."


He's woken what feels like only seconds after his head hits the pillow by the insistent chirping of his computer comm, and after a moment of bleary staring at the chrono that verifies yes, he's only been asleep for barely over four hours, he silently whimpers his way over to the desk, bends down and presses the button to activate the screen.

"Kirk here." He pinches his forehead briefly, then glances up, and frowns. "What are you doing on the Bridge at 0300?"

"I haven't been to sleep yet, and your delta Comms officer just lost his dinner behind your chair," she says dryly. "And apparently your delta watch officer can't stand the smell of vomit. I'll leave the rest to your imagination."

He groans and puts his head down on his arms. "Shoot me now. Please." When she doesn't laugh, he lifts his head again, and then blinks into awareness at her sober expression. "What is it?"

"We have a problem."

"Bigger than the condition of the Bridge furniture, I'm guessing?"

"Much bigger."

"Let me get changed and I'll come up there. Call Doctor McCoy to the Bridge as well and make sure he brings all the info we have on this thing."

"He won't be coming, Captain," she says quietly.

His blood turns to ice. "Why."

"Because he's put Sickbay under lockdown. A complete quarantine that can't be lifted except by him."

"What?" He runs his hands through his hair, pulling on it in frustration. "Why would he do that?"

"Because in the last three hours we just lost eight of the seventeen infected crewmen, completely out of the blue. Nothing he could do to stop it."

Sleep forgotten, he stares at the screen in numb, shock-induced horror.

"And they're still dropping all over the ship." Her tone is matter-of-fact, but he can see the tension in her eyes. "He said until he finds a reason for the deaths and nails down the method of transmission, no one leaves Sickbay, including him. He was gone for less than two hours and all hell broke loose, so you know nothing's going to get him out of there now."

"This is bad. I need him in the labs, if what was minor symptoms turned that deadly that quickly."

"Spock is rewiring the Medical mainframe to insta-sync with Science Lab Fourteen, that's where they've been doing the bloodwork tests. They’re also locking it down as a precaution."

He blows out a frustrated breath, trying to tamp down on the lurking fear that's threatening to overpower even the grief at the knowledge that they've just unnecessarily lost good people, for no reason at all. The first in quite a long time, and there's no reason why, not yet at least.

"They're going to make it work, Jim." The use of his first name, quiet though it is so that none of the background delta crew hear, is enough to tell him she's just as on edge as he is about this. Things never are that easy, not for them. Not for this ship.

"Yeah," he breathes, running a hand down his face. So much for going back to sleep. "Okay, look, get the rosters rearranged and get off the Bridge. I'm sorry, but I still need you back up there on alpha shift tomorrow."

"Understood."

"Please tell me Spock hasn’t actually stepped foot in Sickbay or Lab Fourteen?"

"Negative. He’s been in Twelve all day, trying to finish experiments to free up space and personnel to divert to this."

Thank goodness. “Good. See if you can get him to go with you off-duty, at least for a few hours; I'm going to need him too if Bones goes down. I have to figure out what to tell the Admiralty and how far we are from help. Or if they'll even let us back into charted space to get it until we figure out what's loose on this ship."

"What are you going to tell the crew?"

"Nothing yet. If Bones locked down Sickbay they won't know about the deaths, and we have to keep it that way until we have more information. For now, just that there's a massive strain of a mutated flu virus starting to spread aboard, so minimal physical contact and for gods' sake nobody cough or sneeze on anyone. Shut down the rec areas, the holodeck and Jefferies tubes until further notice, and make sure the food replication systems are being inspected rigorously. Delegate that to Scotty, but don't tell him how bad it is yet. A bunch of the ground zeros were his Engineers."

"Yes, sir. I'll send out the comms before I leave the Bridge." She glances behind her, and then leans forward. "I'll have the sanitization bots sweep the Bridge before the shift turnover too."

He snorts, managing a badly needed laugh. "I don't want to know."

"You really, really don't."


Twenty-four hours later, they've made what in other circumstances would be remarkable progress in the case.

Despite being trapped in a wing of the ship with a few dozen deathly ill crewmen, McCoy's been able to rule out nearly all of the usual culprits which would cause these symptoms, with the aid of the Medical Mainframe and the equipment available in the main Sickbay. Spock's people, conversely, have been able to tell them that it's apparently not a virus, nor any known pathogen in the Federation databanks, but rather what they suspect is a silicon-based lifeform or micro-organism based upon the inert matter which they've discovered in the bloodwork of one of the deceased victims. Silicon-based lifeforms are of course completely incompatible with any carbon-based lifeform, which would explain the 'flu-like symptoms, a typical reaction of the white blood cells against an invading foreign substance. It would also likely have an abnormally fast replication rate, which would explain the unusually rapid decline of what is at first just simple symptoms in most infected crewmen.

The unusual factor, is that the Science and Medical personnel have been unable to isolate any such organism in the samples taken from each infected crewman. Either the organism is far beyond the capabilities of their equipment, or it is in a form that their equipment is not able to recognize. And the equipment should recognize any kind of life, even silicon-based, as there exist similar lifeforms in the databanks. But it does not; they can find indicators that something is there, but cannot find the organism itself.

But something is killing his people.

In that twenty-four hours they've lost another nineteen crewmen, and over seventy more have reported symptoms, with the number still climbing. Exponentially climbing, as it spreads like a wildfire through the ship.

Since locking down Sickbay and Lab Fourteen obviously hadn't stopped or slowed the contagion, Bones had cautiously released the lockdowns around mid-day today, and he's now on the Bridge, though somewhat hilariously still wearing a bio-contaminant suit just as a precaution, going over the last reports with Jim and their very tired-looking Chief Science Officer.

"I just…" Jim rubs his forehead, leaning one hand on the Science station for a minute. "Even if we can't find out what exactly it is, how have we at least not figured out how it's spreading?"

"That's what's really bothering me, Jim," is the immediate reply, somewhat muffled behind the suit's breathing mask. "There's no common denominator to indicate a method of transmission in any way. It's not transmitted by bodily fluids; six of my nurses got coughed on directly in the face by patients before we hauled out the masks and they're still perfectly fine. Some of the deceased had no open abrasions where it could have been transmitted by blood contact, none of them ate at the same food processors, they're bunked all over the damn saucer section, if it were simply airborne or transmitted by touch we’d have a much higher infection rate by now in the cycle, aboard a ship this size…I've run every test I can think of. I can’t tell you exactly how it’s spreading. Or how long it lives on a surface, if we can’t even find it in the body!"

"I cannot add anything constructive to the Doctor’s tests, Captain," Spock says quietly, his first contribution to the conversation. The last two crewmen they'd lost were technicians from one of his labs, and Jim knows he's been taking this harder than he's been letting on. "The infected have been of all backgrounds, all occupations aboard ship, eight different species, and there has been no commonality on duty or off duty which we can discover. We have no idea how, precisely, it is spreading. A Level Five quarantine was initiated twenty-four hours ago aboard ship, and emergency sanitization procedures have been in effect in all public areas shipwide since the same time. However, we are still seeing no noticeable decrease in the spread of the contagion."

He's starting to feel sick himself, but he can tell that's just the swamping nausea of fear and helplessness, not any illness.

"That's not good enough," he snaps, anger in his voice to cover the fact that he's terrified they're about to spin out of control entirely, dead in space. Literally. "I need answers, not excuses."

"Understood, sir." If anything, Spock looks even more drained at the words.

He catches Uhura's disapproving eye behind his First's back, and pinches his forehead, sighing. "Sorry. I'm freaked, guys."

"So are we, Jim." Bones shakes his head, still studying the padd. "Believe me, if I had any ideas left, I'd be using them. In such an enclosed space as a starship, we should have seen even a small decrease in the infection rate in the last eight hours with the measures we put in place, but the curve hasn’t flattened at all. We're missing something, obviously."

"And we still don't know how it got loose aboard, either."

"Only that there was a malfunction in the medical cryostorage units some six hours prior to the first signs of an outbreak, Captain." Spock's eyebrows have now formed a permanent frown line. "It does appear to be entirely mechanical in nature, and I can see no reason why a crewman would wish to facilitate such an event."

"Neither can I, but we have to stay alert to the possibility. You have someone tracing the source of the malfunction?"

Spock nods. "Mr. Scott has a team already engaged in the process."

"Good. We just need to know for sure. If there is human error involved…"

"They're gonna be spendin' the rest of their career at a penal colony for being responsible for over two dozen deaths," McCoy snaps, scrolling down another report with an angry skritch of stylus.

"We know what could have been damaged in that cryo malfunction?"

"According to the reports, nothing. And I inspected the containers myself. Nothing was tampered with, nothing was damaged. At least that I can see," McCoy replies.

Jim sighs, trying to think straight for a minute. It's hard to do on a second day running with just a few hours’ sleep, because with one thing and another it didn't happen again last night, he was just running from one department to another and before he realized it, it was alpha shift again.

From the helm, Sulu suddenly coughs, and every head on the Bridge jerks up in alarm.

"Whoa, whoa!" Their young pilot holds up both hands in mock surrender. "I had a frog in my throat, that's all. Geez, guys. You gonna jump Chekov next time he sniffles, too?"

"Runny nose isn't a symptom of this thing, smartass," Bones snaps, moving down to the central Bridge with a scanner. Sulu submits patiently to the scan, and only raises an eyebrow when it's finished. "No fever, no lung issues. Any nausea, unexplained hot or cold flashes, mental confusion?"

"No, Doc. Seriously, if I'd known everyone was going to freak out I'd have just like, gone to the lavatory and done it."

"Do it next time anyway, you could be asymptomatic. I can’t test anyone if I don’t know what I’m testing for. You keep an eye on him," Bones snaps, stabbing a gloved finger at their young navigator, who blinks wide-eyed back at him.

"Da, I do that."

"You do that." Bones rolls his eyes, and re-mounts the steps to the upper deck. "We're all gonna be jumping at shadows here for the next few days, Jim."

"Better that than ignoring symptoms, I guess." He shakes his head. "How are your teams progressing on finding a vaccine?"

"No real progress yet. We've never had to deal with anything silicone-based before, that's a totally new arena. It's more his people's expertise than mine." McCoy gestures to Spock, who only inclines his head in silent acknowledgment. "But in another few hours we might have something that could slow the organism's reproductive abilities, that'd give people a fighting chance at least instead of only about 18 hours from the start of the symptoms."

He exhales slowly. "A fighting chance would be good, Bones."

"You're telling me. This thing just doesn't play fair, Jim. I mean, who ever heard of…hey, Spock, you all right? Jim!"

His head jerks up just in time to see his First Officer's eyes lose focus entirely as he collapses. Nyota's already out of her chair by the time he hits the ground in an awkward fold with an armful of unconscious Vulcan scientist, at least preventing a concussion on top of whatever the hell just happened.

"Bones!"

"Everybody, stay back!" The words are snapped out with an authoritative force that even the most curious of crewman doesn't dare to cross. "Careful, Jim, don't touch his hands. I dunno exactly how to handle an unconscious touch-telepath."

"Kllhe'mnhe, he's completely out."

"Spock? Come on, buddy, you're scaring us here."

"Lieutenant, I need you to get a full med team up here with biohazard gear, then get yourself down to Sickbay and into a decon chamber. It's probably too late but it won't hurt anything. You too, Jim, you need to get back now. If he's got this he could have just spread it to you, I need you to go. The rest of you, get your stations on autopilot and vacate the Bridge, now."

Gods, why hadn't he said something? Had he really just ignored it, or had he just thought it was simple exhaustion? How does this thing even affect Vulcan physiology?

"Now, Jim. I'm not joking. Total decontamination, and don't touch anyone." Jim looks up to see Uhura straightening from the Comms console, removing her earpiece and looking more scared than he's ever seen her in the hazy blue light that's flashing a Level One medical alarm on the wall. Behind him, Bones's voice cracks across the Bridge like glass shattering. "All of you, go. Just because we don’t think it’s transmissible by touch doesn’t mean I’m taking chances."

He scrambles to his feet after another second, and moves across the Bridge. "Sulu, take the conn until everyone’s off the Bridge, then log the incident and leave Bones as watch officer."

"Yes, Captain." A worried look at the scene unfolding. "Sir…"

"We’ll let you know when you can get back to your duties, gentlemen. Doctor McCoy will keep us informed, I'm sure. And no one touch Commander Spock's science station on the way out. Did he touch anything else up here today?"

"Negative, Captain, he has only been working at that station unless in conference with you and the Doctor," Chekov pipes up readily enough, looking worriedly as he stands to put the nav station on autopilot. "But he vas in Engineering this morning, I believe."

"Bones?"

"I'll take care of it, you go."

He gives one quick nod. Uhura's holding the lift for him, and he scoots inside as the doors close. She's worrying at the vokaya necklace she always wears, a simple gold band added to it all these years later in lieu of wearing a visible bonding ring.

"I don't know," he says quietly, in answer to her unspoken, side-eyed question. "I mean, you saw he obviously had a fever, but I couldn't tell anything else. He was acting fine until a few minutes ago, and even then he just got sort of quiet, nothing weird."

"How did I not notice?" She massages her temples gingerly.

"Don't do this to yourself. Did you guys even see each other today? I know he was in the labs all night."

"We took the lift to the Bridge for our shift together earlier this morning, and we just had lunch an hour ago. He seemed fine then. He actually ate, which is more than I did. Not had much stomach for it since the other night, really."

"Bones says this thing's symptoms appear like out of nowhere, and you know how he gets when he's focused. You can't take the blame for that. If anything, it should be me, because I've spent the last two hours discussing this mess with him and never noticed a thing."

"Why the hell didn't he say anything!"

"He must not have realized it was anything other than just exhaustion and lack of sleep, or maybe it's one of those Vulcan things where they just ignore the physical because they're so focused on the mental, I dunno. He's not an idiot, Nyota – if he realized he was infected there's no way he'd risk bringing it onto the Bridge."

She sighs. "You're right. He's just…indestructible, you know? In over ten years, I don't think I've even seen him cough more than twice!"

He laughs, but there's no real amusement in the tone. "I know, right. I was keeping it together, but I'm not gonna lie, I'm scared out of my mind now."

"I'm with you there, sir." The lift opens onto Deck Six. "Ugh, I hate decon showers. Let's get this over with."

He gestures for her to precede him into the corridor, then hurries after her, carefully sidestepping a passing Engineer. He makes sure not to touch the walls or anything else, just in case.

They haven't even made it halfway down the corridor when she stops suddenly, so abruptly that her boots squeak on the polished decking.

"Geez, warn a guy."

"Stay back," she says, a little breathlessly, one hand on the wall and the other over her eyes, pinching her forehead.

"What?"

She half-turns to put her back against the wall, and gives him a rueful, sort of sad smile. "I thought the lack of appetite and headaches were just related to hormones."

"Uh…I mean we’re friends, Nyota but I don’t keep track –"

"Don’t be an idiot. I wasn’t thinking about them being symptoms of the virus because they’re common symptoms. But that was a hell of a dizzy spell just now. And I never get dizzy spells or hot flashes. I’ve had both this week. You need to go get Chapel or someone, and stay back just in case."

"Like hell I will. And that could just be because you haven't slept, Lieutenant." He refuses to believe otherwise until slapped in the face with a different reality.

"Give me some credit, here, Captain, I know my own body. And I am not about to infect more of this ship, so go get someone, and then get your ass into a decon chamber like McCoy told you to."

"You're infecting this corridor the longer you stay in it," he points out, not unreasonably.

She glares at him then, and he can see for the first time there's a lack of total focus in her dark eyes. He should have noticed that this morning when she came on duty; it’s more than just feeling like garbage.

This is not good.

"Come on, let's go." He reaches warily for her arm. "Then you can have an isolation chamber all to yourself if you want, but let's go."

"I am sick, not stupid, you condescending…" Her half-hearted shove turns into a nosedive, and damn she is not as light as she looks, that must be muscle mass. "Tcha'be'she."

"For the record, you owe me," he mutters, painfully shifting so that her head isn't bouncing around and then setting off at a brisk trot down the corridor toward Sickbay. "And what the hell is a sandworm?"


Twelve hours later he gets ambushed by McCoy halfway through another pacing trek between his desk and his couch, and while the hypo only keeps him out for four hours it's a beautiful four hours, definitely enough to keep him from hallucinating all through this third day of Nightmareland.

When the man himself has had time to sleep and eat, he's got no idea, but he's trusting his CMO to not be stupid and his Medical staff to follow that example. Chapel at least is still on her feet, and she won't take anyone's crap for more than a few minutes, so he suspects he's not the only one who's been forced into unwilling catnaps.

The crew is still falling right and left, so much that they've shut down all public access to the ship except for the Mess Hall, and that’s only open because people literally have to eat. They’ve assigned a rotation to ensure as few crewmen are in the Mess at at time as possible, and are taking their rations to go when they can. They’ve made the recommendation that crewmen remain in their cabins when not on duty, and then made it an order when a few idiots decided they were invincible and were caught playing poker in the corridors. Taken the duty rosters down as low as they can, skeleton crews only.

It's not enough.

They've managed to slow the death toll, but not stop it, with a combination of decompression treatment and a heavily adjusted anti-inflammatory which seems to have halted the progression of the various pulmonary responses that have so far been the primary cause of death.

"It's a stop-gap, Jim, that's all. Like puttin' someone who needs a regrown kidney on dialysis. It's not going to hold up, and not every species is responding well to it. Spock's people have been working around the clock trying to adjust the dosages, and mine are trying to find a cure – but a vaccine? I'm days, weeks away from that, probably. Unless you can tell me how it's spreading, or what it even is at the source. I still can’t test for it because I don’t know what I’m testing for."

"I've gone over every possibility myself, Bones, I don't see a pattern either. I even had Scotty put a team together and inspect every inch of ductwork, Jefferies tubes, any filtration system that could have housed the contagion and shot it through the ship before it dissipated – and we can't find anything. Scanners show no unidentified life-forms of any kind, silicon-based or otherwise."

"God, we need Spock on his feet."

"How's he responding to the treatment?"

"Not well. Fool never gets sick, so the only notes in his medical file are trauma treatments, that's not helpful in this kind of situation. Everything's a gamble with him, and nothing's working so far. He's in some kind of weird Vulcan trance right now, I hope that's a good thing."

"Not a coma?"

"No, he still reads high on the GSC, calm down."

"I'm fine." He exhales shakily, tries to ignore the room spinning for a second before settling back into place. "We have to figure this out, though. We're already at a sixty-two percent infection rate, that’s higher than I’ve ever heard of on a starship even with a known biohazard accident. If we don't get it under control by the time we reach Yorktown base?"

"Then…?"

He swallows, mouth dry. "It's General Order Six, Bones. They've already put it in effect, based on the ship's remote logs."

"They can't do that!"

"They have to do it! If whatever this is spreads to a starbase? Especially that one? We're talking a galaxy-wide plague. I'm oath-bound to destroy this ship before I let that happen."

"Y'all are crazy, the whole bunch of you. Playing games with people's lives wholesale like that." McCoy collapses shakily in his desk chair, staring at the computer monitor. "There's got to be something I'm missing."

"Maybe if you got some decent sleep you'd have a better shot at reading that."

"You're one to talk. And stop lookin' at me like that. I'm a doctor, Jim, I know what I'm doing – and I'm the only one who's left to try and stop this thing, so I can't afford to just go down. I've been napping regularly, even if it's just two hours at a time every few hours. I'm in a lot better shape than half my staff, if you want to split hairs about it."

"You're the boss. But I worry, Bones."

"Well, worry about yourself. Don't think I didn't see you conning the delta shift nurses out of stimulants one by one last night."

"Bones, I have to stay on my feet until we figure this out. With Scotty down now, there's no command officers left standing but the two of us."

"I'm not saying it's not necessary. But have some common sense about them at least. Not even you can handle the withdrawal if you go too far with those things."

"Noted." He doesn't mention the weird buzzing in his ears that started after the last one turned his stomach inside out. "I promise I –" He's cut off by the intra-comm chirping.

McCoy reaches over with the hand not currently holding up his own head, and slaps the button wearily. "Sickbay, McCoy here."

"I'm sorry, Doctor, but we have a Blue Alert in Secondary Engineering. Looks like three possible new cases. That's an entirely new outbreak location and you said to notify you immediately if we had another."

"Initiate immediate isolation procedures and evacuate the area, then seal it off for bio inspection."

"Yes, sir."

"What makes you think you'll be able to find anything after the fact?"

"I probably won't." The physician hauls himself wearily to his feet. "But I have to try something."

"Can I help?"

"Absolutely not. I don't care if that superblood's made you immune – which I'm not 100% sure of in the first place – you are not going into a known infected area. We can't afford to lose you too, Jim, someone has to command this flying death trap." The door closes behind him, leaving Jim staring at it in tired, reflex-dulled consternation.

The problem is, the expression isn't hyperbole.

She is becoming a death-trap, flying and otherwise.

He shivers and hurries out of the empty office, into the controlled chaos which is still a very well-run Sickbay, despite the atmosphere of unease which obviously hangs over the ward. A nurse glances at him, tosses him a mask, and returns to her patient, a figure in Ops reds who is hacking out a lung on one of the Intensive Care biobeds.

The mask is optional, because it’s fairly obvious by now in their research the thing’s not transmissible by traditional methods, but to make the staff less uneasy he puts it on as he stops to greet the one crewman who seems to be aware of his surroundings here in the outer ward, then moves back into the Critical Care ward toward the most stable patients, taking the time to stop and chat with those who are alert and spending a moment trying to encourage the poor overworked medical staff who are in barely better shape than their boss at the moment.

He pauses outside one of the CC cubicles, and almost keeps moving. Uhura hasn't responded well to the treatment; something about her physiology, or maybe she just got a worse dose of the pathogen, whatever it is…longer exposure and incubation, some ancestral genetic marker in her DNA makeup, who knows. Bones doesn't, but she's in worse shape than some of the others who were infected around the same time frame. And Jim's never been able to stomach seeing someone on a ventilator, it just creeps him out. But he tiptoes in, because it's not fair to do otherwise, and at least talks to her for a few minutes, warns her not to die on him because nobody wants to deal with Spock if she does, the usual.

He leaves with a shiver as soon as he tactfully can, hoping that if she can't hear him, she's at least not feeling as awful as she looks.

Scotty and Pavel are both sequestered in their quarters, people around them having been paranoid enough to force them down to Sickbay the instant symptoms appeared, and because their conditions weren't critical at that time they were sent back to their cabins with instructions to return or call for help when their conditions worsened. So far, they seem to be hovering in the sick-but-not-dying range, although they’re fast approaching the end of the 18-hour symptom period.

Bones has a full-color holosheet tracking each infected crewman thrown up on each wall of the Sickbay for easy accessibility, and an alarm goes off at periodic intervals to send staff to check on the sequestered officers. It’s been a long time since they just ran out of beds in here, but so far it seems the remote monitoring system is working, thanks to this thing’s bizarre predictability of 18 hours before dropping into the danger zone.

Small favors.

Spock half woke up more than once in the ensuing twenty-four hours after his collapse, barely conscious and almost hilariously, humanly cranky. That is, until he finally dozed off last night, scaring every nurse on duty half to death when his vitals abruptly dropped almost to zero across the board.

Freaking Vulcan trance-things. Whatever it is, it had better be working.

He silently slips inside the cubicle, noting with absent approval that Bones has employed a sound dampening field to help with sensitive Vulcan hearing, and removes the mask so he can finally breathe easier.

Nothing has changed; if he didn't know better he'd be just as freaked as Medical was last night, because the indicators are so low they might as well read zero. He walks over to the bed just to make sure they're actually functioning (and that the guy's still breathing, because that also looks debatable), and exhales in relief when both are indeed actually happening.

"Bones says you're in there somewhere, you better not be leading him on," he mutters, leaning against the wall in utter weariness. He rests his head back against the cold duranium, closes his eyes. He doesn't dare sit down, not at this point; every time he does, he nods off. "I hope this means you're kicking its ass, whatever it is."

He sighs, rubs the back of his neck in a vain effort to loosen the muscles there. "If we could just figure out what it is, or how it's spreading with no apparent pattern. Damn it, Spock, I need you." Tears of complete exhaustion burn at the back of his eyes, acidic and painful. "What am I going to do?"

What you have always done. Find hope in the impossible.

His laugh is bitter, shaken. "Gods, I must sound like a fool sometimes to you. Acting like I know what I'm doing when I still don't, even after all this time." Also, talking to himself, but that's beside the point. He pushes off from the wall on shaky legs, paces a tight line to the opposite wall and back again, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I can't find hope in the impossible if I can't figure out how it's killing my people, or what it even is."

They can't even figure out that last. It leaves residual indicators of being a silicon-based life-form, but it either exits the host, leaving lasting damage that somehow keeps growing, or else it remains behind in some undetectable state. It's not like any silicon-based lifeform they've ever encountered in the galaxy. This ship has the most advanced medical tech in the 'Fleet, and can't detect this micro-organism, virus, whatever it is – and they're equipped to detect even energy-based life-forms now, the slightest indication of intelligent life, in any form.

"You know I don't do helpless very well, Spock. What would you do?"

Eliminate the impossible.

"Yeah, okay, but that would mean whatever it is, isn't actually a life-form at all," he snorts, half-drunk on lack of sleep and exhaustion.

Wait.

Adrenaline sends a stabbing burst of clarity through his head, forcing back the haze under the sheer force of focus.

"Oh my God." He takes a reeling stagger-step toward the door as the room waves slightly, then rights itself. Then he whirls around, new purpose fueling his steps, and in two seconds is back across the room, bending over the silent, deathly still figure on the bed.

"I hope we're on to something now. But even if we're not, you better be on your feet next time I see you, understood, Commander? You check out on me and the rest of this mission can go to hell, I don't even care. Do not stick me with trying to explain to your pissed-off wife and a board of snooty Admirals how I let the most brilliant First Officer in the 'Fleet die on my watch." He swallows. "Please."

There's a commotion in the outer ward, and he darts toward the door in concern, knowing it's likely one of the ICU patients fighting for their lives, and so misses the tiny bleep of one sensor moving fractionally as he leaves.


It's another hour before he can corner his Chief Medical Officer in some remote corner of Secondary Engineering. And it's just as well, because it looks like Medical's only just unsealing the corridor when he arrives, out of breath and actually this probably wasn't the best idea because his head's starting to spin and maybe he should have eaten breakfast or had some coffee at least, and yeah, floor looks as good a place as any to sort of fall-sit.

Something stabs him in the neck, a familiar pain by now, and sudden clarity floods his brain.

"Breathe, Jim." His head's being pushed toward his knees, despite a flailing hand of protest. "What in the name of all that's sensible are you doing, anyway? I told you to stay away from this area!"

He inhales deeply, oxygen flooding his system and bringing reality back with it. Then he scrambles across the corridor to snatch the dropped padd. "Bones, I might have it," he says, scrabbling to get the thing turned on and the report pulled back up.

A horrified silence penetrates his concentration after only a second, and he glances up, then realizes what he said. "Not the contagion! I mean I might know what's causing it. Sorry."

"You're gonna turn me gray before we finish this mission."

"I said sorry. Here, look."

McCoy takes the padd, glances up at the Medical team who's been patiently waiting for the drama to unfold. "Get the results to Lab Fourteen and then take yourselves off duty, full isolation procedures. You know the drill."

"Yes, sir."

"Okay, Jim, slow down. What am I looking at?"

"The itemized list of what was in the cryostorage compartments when the malfunction occurred."

"I've already gone through this, and we already went through every compartment. Anything biological and anything that could be weaponized was inspected. Thoroughly, Jim. It's all still there, in full concentration. Even Spock agreed nothing was missing."

"Bones, that's the problem. We've been looking for some kind of bioweapon, or some kind of life-form."

"Well, yeah, genius. This is a Medical issue."

"But we haven't been able to isolate anything! Doesn't that put up a red flag for you?"

"You know damn well it does. But I don't have an explanation for it. That's Spock's department, not mine." Bones looks exhausted. "I don't deal in theoretical medicine, Jim. It could just be some life-form we don't understand yet."

"Our sensors should still recognize it as a life-form, based on the criteria it has to meet."

"What are you getting at?"

"Did you ever, at any point try examining and analyzing those blood samples for non-lifeforms?"

The physician blinks. "For what?"

"For mechanical intelligence, or something like that. Something the computer would disregard as a life-form, since it's not technically a life-form."

"Why on earth would we scan for that, it’s not standard procedure in any way. Not to mention it’s impossible, Jim. It would kill most species within a matter of minutes, some kind of, what, mechanical parasite? Attacking the body. The symptoms would manifest totally differently from what we’re seeing."

"Would they? If the technology's far ahead of ours?"

"What are you getting at?"

"One of the items in the cryostorage capsules at the time of the malfunction was Organian nanobot technology." He points out the item in question on the list.

"I did a complete inventory myself, and the capsule's weight was exactly the same before and after the malfunction, Jim. Nothing got out."

"Look at how rapidly the thing's been replicating itself inside the human body, who's to say it's not capable of doing that inside a canister?"

His friend's beginning to look uneasy. "Jim, you know what you're saying?"

"It would explain why there's no method to the spread of the contagion. Nanobots are capable of transmuting into any type of matter, any object, they choose, and they're all but invisible even to sensors. They could be literally crawling all over everything in this ship and we'd never know. Transforming themselves into the touchscreens of every console. Inside the processors. Disguising themselves as a virus in the body because our sensors would just skim right over them, since we’ve never been allowed to examine the tech and it would have no comparison algorithms in the databanks. It's another Tribble infestation all over again, but one we can't even see."

"Dear God. I hope you're wrong."

"So do I, but it's the only lead we have right now."

"Come on, I gotta get to the labs and run those tests. If you're right, they should show up in a microanalysis of the spectrodictalygraph after we run a dye test on the patient blood samples."


Unfortunately, or fortunately, however you want to look at it, Jim was right.

Organian nanobot technology, for some reason in their cryostorage (upon research, it looks like it's a holdover from Section 31 that the Board didn't want lying around on Terra, so sure, the smart thing to do is send it out into uncharted space aboard the freaking flagship with zero warnings about what would happen if it got loose aboard. Brilliant.), had lived up to its famed intelligence and escaped during the malfunction, making its way they can only assume into the ventilation system, which is the only escape route from a sealed cryo compartment. Nanobot tech, from what little they know (since the Federation has an agreement with the Organians not to research it), is highly advanced, but its directives are simple; review, correct, and reproduce. The tech is supposed to be controlled by a master program, one which they were not given along with the tech, and so left without specifics to guide them, the tiny AIs simply found what they thought would be the closest, easiest targets and began to recreate them into "better" versions of themselves.

Unfortunately, this recreation process obviously is meant for fellow silicon-based life forms, not carbon-based ones, and so what might just be an unpleasant series of incidents for silicon-based life forms has blown into a horrific event of shipwide proportions.

"My guess is they're everywhere, and it's just a matter of time before the whole ship's infected, if we don't get rid of them ASAP," Bones says at their officers' briefing, if it can be called that with only Sulu, Giotto, and DeSalle from Engineering still on their feet and able to attend. "We sterilized everything on the Bridge again, and everything in both Officers' and Lower Decks' Mess, but that's no guarantee we got the little menaces. We lost eight more crewmen last night, and it stops now."

Jim's now on his fourth night of only nightmare-sleep, and he's pretty sure his judgment is questionable at best, so he looks across the table at Sulu's wary glance. "I need options."

"Do we know how to fully destroy them yet?"

"I got two possibilities which worked in simulations, but neither of 'em are within human tolerance, not t'mention the other affected species," McCoy says. His accent's deep enough to drown in now, slurred by exhaustion.

"Can we slow down their destruction of the body, sir?" Giotto asks.

"Yes and no. We can basically freeze their reproductive programming with a good blast from all sides in a modified radiation chamber. But it looks like it only lasts about 2 hours, and I only got two chambers in Sickbay. You do the math."

Sulu swears under his breath. "Can you up the radiation to kill the things permanently? Disrupt their signals for good?"

"Not without killin' the host too."

"Aren't they all supposed to be controlled from a master program?"

"Yes, and if I knew where that program was being broadcast from I could probably hack and reprogram it, but I don't think in this case they're following anything other than automated software that's been pre-installed. Like a sort of safe reboot mode, probably started up when the cryostorage malfunctioned. Otherwise they'd be following a much more specific directive, like to rebuild this ship into their new home or something. This seems a little too basic, too easy, for how powerful these things are."

"So…if they're in safe mode and following their own programming, can you just, like, pull the plug?"

"How? They're tinier than microscopic, Lieutenant!" McCoy snaps, tossing his Medical padd down on the table.

"I don't know, Doctor, I'm just trying to help! This isn’t my area of expertise!"

"Guys," Jim says, dragging his hands down his face. "Bones, he's got a point. We can't really go in and hit an off switch, but…" He straightens up. "Could we shut them down with a virus?"

"A what?" DeSalle ventures, eyebrows drawn.

"That's it, sir!"

"Jim, what are you getting at."

"What if we introduced something into an infected patient that would, I don't know, attack the nanobots? Like a computer virus attacking a computer. And because they're just basically in safe mode, they'll shut down. That might buy us some time to figure out how to destroy or remove them."

McCoy's eyes light up suddenly. "That might actually work. With it being silicon-based, elements like fluoride will react to it at room temperature, so we wouldn't have to risk the radiation treatment."

"You're going to kill the things with mouthwash?"

And this is why he needs his alpha crew. He resists the urge to whimper.

McCoy has no such patience reserves left. "You worry about Engineering, let me worry about Medical, thank you very much."

"Sulu, you're done for the day, go get some sleep."

"Uh, sir…you'll pardon the observation, but you look like you need it a lot more than I do."

"Not arguing that, but if this goes south I'm going to need to be in the chair to accept responsibility." He offers the young helmsman a brief smile. "Go get some rest, I'll need you back in eight hours."

"Yes, sir. But call me if you need me before that." Sulu casts a pointed look at McCoy, who's totally oblivious and scratching out computations on his padd for the cross-species bloodwork simulator.

"I can see you just fine," the physician growls. "You want to be helpful, stay healthy. Now get."

"Yessir, Doctor sir."

"You too, guys. Try to stay out of Sickbay for another forty-eight hours, yeah?"

"Yes, sir, Captain."

He laughs for the first time in what feels like – probably is – days, as the door shuts on the three young officers, then jumps as Bones fairly rockets out of his chair.

"I'mma head down there and run the first batch of simulations, get the dosage right. Go back to the Bridge and I'll call you if I have news."

“The simulations will take, what, six hours? Promise me you’ll sleep during that time, Bones.”

“Believe me, I’d planned to. Once they’re done, none of us will be sleepin’ until I have a cure for this thing.”

He knows better than to argue at this point, and besides, the idea of going more than a few feet back to more than just sitting down again is not at all attractive. He's crashing too, stimulants or not, but he's got to keep it together for a few more hours at least.

The Enterprise has been flying at top speed back toward civilization for three days now, ever since that second evening when McCoy's reports finally scared someone in the Admiralty enough, but they were forced to slow slightly yesterday when Engineering finally went down to a skeleton crew and the Bridge as well, many systems on autopilot due to the lack of personnel able-bodied and capable of manning them. His Bridge crew glance up as he enters, and as one brighten perceptibly as they see him, so he's putting up a good show at least.

"Good morning, gentlemen. I am happy to report that Doctor McCoy may have good news for us before very long today." A chorus of quiet cheers and smiles ripples around the Bridge, still subdued from its normal hustle and bustle. "Until then, we have work to do. Status report?"


Alpha shift turns into beta, then into gamma, and he still hasn't heard from Sickbay, but he doesn't want to distract Bones from this far more important work, so instead of comm-ing and making a nuisance of himself, he decides to just head down there after the delta crew file in to man the auto-pilot stations for the evening.

He's already in the lift when the intra-comm finally whistles for his attention.

"Kirk here."

"Jim, I need you down here."

A fist of ice clenches in his stomach. "I was already on my way. What's wrong."

"If you're on the way just get down here and we'll talk. Sickbay out."

The doors open on a deserted corridor, all the more creepy with the pall of death and sickness that's lingered over this ship the last few days. He half-jogs a few meters down the corridor and then has to stop, chest heaving, as his body reminds him in no uncertain terms that physical activity is not a good idea right now, and not for a while – not until he gets some sleep and flushes those stims out of his system.

Just a few more hours, and maybe he'll be able to crash. He hopes that's the case. Damn superblood doesn't do anything to keep you awake and alert, unfortunately.

He rounds the corner and bursts into Sickbay with enough explosive force to startle a wide-eyed medical assistant, who yelps and nearly drops a tray of instruments.

"Jim, for Pete's sake!"

"Sorry," he mumbles, giving the poor young woman an apologetic look as he passes. "What's going on?" McCoy disappears back into his office, and he follows, irritated. "I am on my last nerve here, Bones, I do not have time for –" He stops in the doorway, staring.

"Sit down before you fall down."

Yeah, that's a good idea. He fumbles his way into the closest chair, the one not occupied by one very much awake, if a little pale, Vulcan First Officer. Spock offers him a weary, half-apologetic look that's got more than a hint of concern hidden in it somewhere.

"It's been a hell of a forty-eight hours," he whispers.

"So I understand," is the quiet reply. "Captain, I assure you, had I realized –"

"I know, I know. Just…don't do it again." He closes his eyes, leans forward to just breathe for a second. "Catch me up here. And keep it simple, Bones."

"I've administered a compound that's stopped the nanobots from replicating in the infected crewmen, which is an improvement on the past five days. I'm still hours, maybe days, away from figuring out how to deprogram them, but that'll give us the time we need. And with him back up and running – or at least walking – we may have a real chance," Bones says soberly, gesturing at their CSO.

"I am well-versed in this Organian technology, Captain; its confiscation and the treaty in which its research was subsequently banned were the subjects of one of my theses as a graduate student at Starfleet Academy."

"Its confiscation?"

"The Organians, as you are aware, were in the early days of the Federation prone to experimentation upon various cultures and societies, under the guise of proving their worthiness to join in alliance with the more advanced Organian culture. Once they were convinced to join the Federation, naturally such activities were forced to cease."

"Yeah, there hasn't been an incident in decades from them, that's why they control the trade routes, right?"

"Correct. However, some of their…experiments, still linger, and this is one such experimental device, or rather experimental technology. It was remanded to Section 31 for research at some undetermined time and then to the Enterprise for safekeeping, once Section 31 was disbanded nearly ten years ago. The idea never crossed my mind, given that inventory remained the same in the cryostorage compartments after the malfunction, that this could be the culprit behind the contagion."

"Why would it, we were looking for somethin' biological."

"Blame is a futile game here, guys. Tell me how to fix this." He looks from one to the other, hoping his desperation isn't showing.

"The most efficient way would be to contact the Organians to see if they still retain record of the original programming code for these nanobots, Captain. Once we possess that, creating a virus to force their self-destruction or at least their de-programming should not be difficult."

"That's gonna wreak havoc in a carbon-based life-form's body, Spock! We've got to figure out how to actually break down the structure of the bot into a form that the body can process, or it's going to just leave inert matter in the lungs and pulmonary systems."

"Then I suggest you begin applying yourself to that problem, Doctor, because I see no other solution that will give each species a fighting chance for survival. The only other way known to technology by which to completely destroy these artificial intelligences is by means of a controlled tachyon pulse at close range, something which no carbon-based life-form can withstand in any concentration. Much less such a high-velocity concentration needed to pull apart the silicon-based molecular structure of these creatures. That method could be used to cleanse the ship, but only if there are no life-forms present in the sections affected."

"He's right, Bones. Can you figure a way to help eliminate the inert matter from the body in a short a time as possible, then heal the damage to the lungs and other systems they're leaving behind?"

"On a strong, healthy crewman, that might not be an issue; but we have several dozen who are hanging on by a thread, Jim. You got to give me some time to figure out how to stabilize them during such an invasive procedure."

"We may not have that time, Doctor." His First is already looking over specs on a data-padd, a frown darkening his pale features.

"One of them is your wife, Spock! We move too quickly on this, we could still lose another forty of the crew. I won't allow it until I know I can stabilize the critical patients."

"You have likely twelve hours at most, Doctor, before the nanobots move out of this ‘safe mode’ and on to phase two of their programming, which is to shift beyond the replication process and begin elimination of anything which does not immediately conform to their pre-programmed state of being." Spock's dark eyes meet his for a moment. "They will no longer simply attempt to change the crew by replicating themselves and altering physiology."

"They'll just eliminate anyone who doesn't match their programming and start creating new life forms themselves."

"Precisely."

"Looks like you have work to do, Bones. Spock, what condition are you really in?"

"I am functional, Captain. The healing trance was successful in purging the foreign programming from my bodily systems, though I doubt the nanobots are completely gone, given their prevalence aboard the ship in general. My recovery may not be permanent."

"Then come with me while you can. We have to get hold of the Admiralty and the Organian High Council, and I don't think I can negotiate my way out of a paper bag right now. I need you to make sure I don't say something stupid."

"You do not appear to be at your most lucid state."

"Yeah, well, you try setting a new galactic record for lack of sleep and see what you look like. Bones, we'll be in my briefing room, call as soon as you got something."

"You know I will. Mr. Spock, you start feelin' weird, don't try to be a hero. You call me."

Spock inclines his head in silent assent, but looks steady enough when he finally gets to his feet. Thank the gods for Vulcan physiology. Jim exhales and stands, mind already on how the hell he's going to spin this to the Admiralty; the Organians are a peaceful people, but not overly cooperative.

The abrupt change in altitude is a big mistake. His ears start ringing like a five-alarm fire, his whole face turns red-hot and then ice-cold in the space of like three seconds, and the room spins briefly into a weird shade of hazy reddish-gray before righting itself again. When it stops…yeah, he just about took a header right into his Chief Medical Officer's desk.

Said CMO is now looking at him with wary concern, already reaching for a medical scanner.

He holds up a remonstrating hand, loosening Spock's grip as he moves. "I'm fine, Bones. No other symptoms, I just stood up too fast. And I need sleep, like everybody else does. Once this is over, you can bet I'm crashing for like a week, but until then I have to keep it together."

"The rest of this crew haven't been overindulging in energy supplements to keep themselves awake pulling duty shifts, but I don't have time to argue with you at this point," McCoy mutters, turning back to his computer. "Commander, watch this idiot, will you? Convalescing or not, you're probably in better shape right now."

"Understood, Doctor."

"I resent that."

"You resemble that. Now get outta my office, I have simulations to run. And tell whoever that kid is up on the Bridge to stop messing with the Medical intracomm, the static is drivin' me nuts. Gods, I'll be glad when Uhura's back on her feet."

The door closes behind them, and Jim glances around the ward wearily, noting that everything's starting to take on that peculiar hazy quality that comes from severe lack of sleep.

"Hold on, I need –"

"Doctor McCoy expressly forbade me to permit you the use of another artificial stimulant, Captain."

"Who the hell uses words like forbade anymore?" he demands crankily, dodging a hurrying nurse who laughs at his words, flashing him a tired smile.

Spock doesn't even twitch, his eyes on the CC ward at the back of the room and mind probably miles away. Jim scrubs a hand down his face. "Did you…I'm sorry, she collapsed right after you did, no more warning than you," he says quietly, as they pass through on their way to the corridor. "If you want to work down here until we get on the call –"

"My presence will not benefit her recovery in any way, and my efficiency will be…distracted."

"Understood. Once more unto the breach then, my friend. Let's go finish this."


"I told you, don't let him near another stimulant!"

"I was unaware that included –"

"You cut off my coffee, I cut off your hand," he snarls, slamming the cup down on the table and curling his other arm around it in a protective gesture. Across the table, he hears a stifled laugh. "Button it, Sulu!"

"Aye, sir."

"Pushover."

"You did not have to deal with him the last six days," the young man says pointedly, giving their still very much recovering Communications Officer a gentle nudge.

Though she'd gone down hard, Uhura's bounced back in the last thirty hours since receiving the nanovirus treatment like the powerhouse she is, and while she's definitely not officially on duty, she's been driving Bones nuts enough that she's been permitted to leave Sickbay to free up a bio-bed; and as such, is attending this briefing primarily as a spectator.

Spock eyes him warily, and he realizes he probably looks a little manic at this point. One more briefing, that's all he has to get through. Thirty minutes, and he can finally go die somewhere. Or whatever. As long as it's not sitting upright, he'll take it.

"Spit it out, Bones," he mutters, rubbing his eyes.

"That your official start to this briefing, sir?" Uhura asks innocently, as she's the one taking notes in Pavel's absence, the poor kid still puking his guts out in Sickbay after a reaction to the nanovirus.

"I will kill all of you. One by one. 'Cept you, Spock, you didn't do anything."

"Thank you, sir."

"Ahem." Bones glares at them both across the table, and elbows their sniggering pilot, who subsides after a moment into that half-drugged state of grinning idiocy born of relief that this nightmare's almost over.

"So, thanks to the nanovirus Spock's people managed to cook up in record time we only lost one more man to the contagion, everyone else looks to make a full recovery. Lab Twelve's techs still need commendations written up for that insanely fast turnaround, by the way," McCoy adds, and Spock nods, making a notation on his padd. "And I've been able to synthesize what amounts to a preventative artificial-antibody to administer to everyone who managed to escape infection, so if there are any of the little bugs we missed in the radiation sweep, nobody should have a reaction that bad again."

"Did we miss any?"

"Not according to the modified sensor scans, Captain. Commander Scott reports the radiation sweeps complete as of two hours ago, and all personnel redistributed throughout the ship. No damage to any portion of the ship from such intense radiation save a few minor systems in the Jefferies tubes, which are easily repairable."

Bones nods in agreement, indicating for him to look at the Medical report that was just sent to his padd. Like Jim can actually see straight right now, that's hilarious.

"No shields were damaged during the personnel shifts and relocations, meaning we did hit the goal of zero percent crew exposure to the radiation. And all sensor sweeps show the silicon matrix of each nanobot has been destroyed, at least as far as I can tell. The resulting bio-shell should degrade within a matter of hours. If for some reason it doesn't, I have a Plan B involving another fluoride-based treatment, and Scotty's monitoring the degradation with an ongoing sensor sweep, aft to stern."

Scott isn't at the briefing himself due to the fact that Engineering's been shut down too long due to the aforementioned heavy radiation sweeps, since such radiation impacting their warp core would of course blow the ship into so much space jetsam. Now, they just have to get the core back up and running if they're going to get back to a base for refueling and restocking without having to start rationing procedures.

"And the core, are we going to be able to start without incident?"

"Yes, sir. There will be no need to risk a cold-core start and we will be ready to proceed on full warp speed if necessary within three hours."

"Good, good." He exhales slowly, wondering if that's the inertial dampeners flickering or just his head feeling like it's going to spin off his body. "And…" Damn it, what was he going to ask?

Everyone's looking at him expectantly, and he clears his throat, trying to focus. "Did we jettison that nanotech?"

"Indeed, Captain. It has been launched to a deserted Class L planetoid, with a series of warning beacons placed in orbit to ensure no other vessel attempts to utilize its technology, though that is an unlikely scenario given that we are still in uncharted space. An experimental Medical vessel will be dispatched to retrieve it at a later date yet to be determined by the 'Fleet Science division."

The fact that the bugs are off the ship makes him lightheaded with relief. "Good work, guys." He rubs his eyes briefly, and sits back. "Bones, what about our men."

His CMO's face is shadowed, almost as weary as his own. "I've finished the reports, so all that's left is carrying out whatever their last wishes were. There's three that I know of who requested their bodies be sent back to their home planets, I already got them in cryostorage. And I know at least one has some pretty long cultural rituals that have to be done before any kind of 'Fleet service should be held."

He sighs, rubbing his temples with hands that won't quite stop shaking. This is the first major loss they've had in months, and it's going to suck so, so much. They've lost too many people over the years, and it never gets easier.

"Captain. Doctor. I am still technically off active duty for the next forty-eight hours, and I speak every language aboard. You both need to delegate at this point," Uhura interjects, not unkindly. "Your staff is just as tired as you are, Doctor, and that's not a good combination to be dealing with grieving friends and family either in person or over subspace communiques. Communications is trained in grief counseling for a reason. Let my people help."

"It's not your responsibility, Lieutenant."

"And not every single detail on this ship is yours, sir. You've both done enough the last week. At least these preliminaries, you need to let someone else handle."

He glances across the table, and takes Bones's shrug of weary surrender as a sign of assent. He gives her a quick nod, knowing she'll be able to discern the gratitude in his expression as well. "Divert any communications resources you need from other areas of the ship, and don't hesitate to call on the quartermaster if you think we're going to need supplies for the memorial service. Aim for…three days from now? And try to give me a heads up as to what we'll be looking at, yeah?"

"Of course, sir."

"After you get some sleep, Jim."

"I'm not arguing that, Bones," he sighs, waving a hand dismissively between them. "I can't even see straight at this point, much less do justice to something that important. The condolence letters will have to wait, I'm not going to chance screwing those up."

Beside him, he sees Spock scribbling another note on his padd, and he has a sneaking suspicion he's going to find decent drafts for each of those letters in his inbox by the time he wakes up. After all these years, he's not too proud to gladly take the help when it's offered, either; he lost that pride somewhere between Altamid and their third mission aboard the Enterprise-A.

Ten minutes, he needs to stay awake for ten more minutes. Finish the briefing, make it back to his cabin. "Ok, Sulu, how long until we reach charted space?"

"Still a good four days' journey at normal cruising speed, sir. If we take her up to Warp Six, we could cut that down to two and a half."

"That's probably not necessary, but if Scotty thinks it's safe go ahead and do it. Yorktown won't care if we're early, they know what shape we're in."

"Aye, sir."

He turns to his First, trying to focus on images that are starting to waver in his jumpy vision. "Am I forgetting anything?"

"No, sir." Bless you, Spock, you can always tell when I need words of one syllable.

"Oh, good." He ignores the laugh that ripples around the table, and stands, motioning for everybody else to do the same. "Get out of here, people. Dismissed. Or whatever."

"Captain, before you crash, just sign off on these for the next twenty-four hours so no one bothers you," Uhura says, moving around the table with her padd.

Right, good thinking. He grabs the stylus and bends over the Bridge duty rosters, only to stop as the comm in the middle of the table whistles.

"Bridge to Captain Kirk."

Everyone pauses around him momentarily as he sighs and reaches forward to snap the switch with a little more force than is warranted.

"Kirk here. What is it, Mr. Riley."

"Sir, there's a Priority One for you on Channel Three from Admiral Barnett. I told him you were in an important briefing but he said he'd wait, sir."

He rests his head on the table for just a second with a noise somewhere between a curse and a whimper. Because of course, it's a Priority One, of course with one of the few Admirals who actually doesn't hate him and will in consequence talk his ear off for like an hour if he gets going.

Duty sucks. But a starship captain he is, and a captain he will act like, even when he wants to break down and throw something at the stupid comm unit instead.

He lifts his head and straightens up with a resigned sigh.

"Thank you, Lieutenant. Tell him –"

Something stabs him in the back of the neck.

"What the hell!" The table blurs in front of him, and he shakes his head dazedly, which spins him right into two sets of blue-shirted arms for a perfect ten-point catch. His head suddenly fills with cotton, Sulu neatly catches the padd that falls out of his hands, he can't tell if he's actually falling or if it just feels like that, and did they all actually just choreograph that?

"Tell the Admiral the Captain is indisposed, Mr. Riley."

"But…Lieutenant Uhura, he's most insistent…"

"The man's had a grand total of like twelve hours of sleep in the last week and has pulled triple duty shifts on a couple of those days because the entire command chain was down, so Admiral Barnett can either leave a message or request a call back."

"But…"

"If you're not capable of relaying that then pipe him down here and I'll talk to him. Or tell him you're getting too much subspace interference and pull the plug, I don't really care. But pick one, or I'll see you get transferred back to Mr. Scott's phaser crew and out of Communications for good, am I clear?"

"Yes, sir! I mean ma'am! I mean – "

"Now, Riley!"

"Yes, ma'am! Bridge, out!"

"Lieutenant, remind me never to piss you off."

"Doctor, I believe that starship sailed years ago, but thank you. Think you can at least inspect those poor kids on the Bridge before you turn in, Hikaru?"

"Damn straight. 'Night, Captain."

"Thisss a mutiny, is what it is. All of you, on report. Like now."

"Duly noted, sir. Pleasant dreams."

"If you can still talk you can move your feet, Jim, don't make us carry you. Come on, five more minutes and you can sleep for twenty-four hours if you want."

That sounds nice.

"I thought it might. In you get, Jim, come on. Deck Six."

He gives up trying to make sense of why the floor's moving so much, because everything's taken on a sort of hazy softness that's singing him to sleep where he stands. Leans. Whatever he's doing, the wall's cold.

"I need to run by Sickbay and grab that stim withdrawal treatment and a saline drip or he’s going to be mighty sick tomorrow. You got him from here?"

"I do."

"He starts snoring, just give him a good shake, it won't hurt anything."

He cracks one eye in a glare, but the doors have already closed and the lift is moving again. His stomach lurches along with it, and he hides his eyes in his arm again.

"Captain?"

"'M good," he mutters, shivering.

"That is debatable." The doors open, loud in the muffled cotton that's filled his head. "Jim. We have arrived on Deck Five."

"I know. Y'want me moving or not puking, y'don't get both." Maybe he'll just fall asleep standing up and they can just like, sweep around him for the next day or so, that'd be fine.

He hears a soft noise of exasperation, and then the floor turns sideways.

"What the – put me down, dammit!"

"Unless you prefer every officer currently off-duty on this deck hears you, I suggest you lower your decibel level."

"They've heard worse," he mumbles inelegantly, finally landing a half-hearted flailing shove to Spock's torso that accomplishes absolutely nothing except to drain his last reserves of energy. He finally goes limp, exhausted. To hell with his command image. After almost ten years, this crew's definitely seen him in worse situations. "Gods, I'm so tired, Spock."

"That is understandable. I believe you are well past the physical breaking point of human endurance from this last crisis."

He makes a vague noise of assent, eyes at half-mast. "'M too old for this."

"I do not believe age was a factor in your refusal to cede command for an appropriate rest period, necessary though the action might have been."

"Freakin' nanobots."

"That is their unofficial classification, yes."

"Freakin' Organians."

"Indeed."

The soft triple chirp of a door lock being deactivated by bio-signature recognition, and then semi-darkness, total quiet due to the better insulation of the command crew quarters.

He thinks about what it would have been like, to be the only one left aboard in the silence.

"They told me we were under an active General Order Six, Spock," he finds himself saying, barely above a whisper.

His feet touch ground again, not as solid as he'd like, as his First stops in his tracks, letting him take his own weight again. He leans against the cold wall, arms folded across his chest to hide the fact they're still shaking, either from withdrawal or the sedative or from something deeper, something worse that he can't even really vocalize.

"That would explain your insistence upon remaining on duty until events were satisfactorily concluded," is the cautious observance that comes out of the half-darkness.

He almost laughs, but doesn't, because he has no idea how hysterical it might come out. "Somebody had to be able to activate the self-destruct sequence, right?" He drags both hands down his face, exhaling in a ragged, painful rasp. "Who knew that stupid superblood would come in so handy. Full immunity, so guess who gets to pull the trigger after everybody else is gone!"

"Jim –"

"I know, I know," he says shakily. "I'm too old for a meltdown, too. I'm just gonna…" He motions vaguely to the sleeping alcove. "Thanks for making sure I didn't fall on my face trying to get back here."

"I am unconvinced that skill will not still be needed, as you have yet to move since entering this cabin." The words are light, the nudge of gentle humor he needs to ground him in the quicksand of wild hysteria he's drowning in – but they're serious, and he appreciates that.

"Don't you have another convalescent wife to go nag?"

That gets him an eyeroll, which is good. Normality means less time spent trying to get rid of his well-meaning crew means less time until he can actually fall apart without anyone he loves being able to see it.

"Are you certain you will be able to manage –"

"Dude, I've been putting my own pajamas on for years, pretty sure I can handle it. Go. You and Uhura and Bones, all of you are just as tired as I am." He makes a little shooing motion with his hands, and Spock obediently moves toward the door after one more moment of hesitation. Jim conjures up a small smile from somewhere in the half-drugged portion of his psyche long enough for the door to close, and then manages to voice-lock it with his highest clearance before stumbling into the sleeping alcove on wobbly legs. Damn Bones's hypo-happy medical treatments, he knows drugs lower Jim's tolerance for everything, which is why he avoids them like a plague.

Plague.

His legs give out before he can take more than a step into the room, and he slides down the wall to the floor, shaking. The knowledge of how close it had been – twenty-four hours more, and it might've been too late – is still lurking mockingly on the edges of his sleep-deprived consciousness, beckoning him to give in and rest, fairly daring him to brave the nightmares he's sure will come.

It's been months – well over a year – since he came that close to losing anyone, much less everyone, he loves. He's become a better, wiser, more cautious captain in recent years, done everything in his power to keep his people safe; and this had almost just thrown it all out the airlock in a matter of days.

He pulls his knees up, shivering, and scrubs a hand over his face, only then realizes it's wet. Awesome, he's losing it now, in addition to not being able to so much as think straight. He's so exhausted his whole head is ringing. Like a red alert, except he knows there isn't one because there aren't any lights flashing on the wall. Just half-darkness, and that's pretty blurry as his eyes can't stay open.

So he never hears a thing, and therefore about jumps out of his skin when something moves beside him.

One well-practiced feint and block stops the wild fist he swings out of reflex, though the lack of force behind it probably wouldn't have hurt anyone.

"Good grief. Can you not?"

Heart still racing, he startles as a blanket descends out of nowhere around his shoulders, tugged into place with gentle hands. Great, and here he is basically crying like a child alone in his bedroom where apparently anyone on his staff can find him. He straightens, clearing his throat and giving a discreet swipe to his eyes. "How did you get in here?"

"McCoy put you on Medical Leave as soon as you left the Briefing Room, so your clearance codes are inactive right now," she replies.

That freaks him out almost more than anything else, because it means he has a total lack of privacy now.

"I locked it when I came in," she reassures him, interpreting his expression correctly. "Only Spock and McCoy himself can override it, so calm down."

"I'm perfectly calm," he snaps, with way more bite than he should. She's a communications expert, she'll pick up on that immediately. If she hasn't already.

From the look on her face, she already has.

"…Right."

"Why are you here. I'm supposed to be sleeping."

"And yet you're on the floor having a meltdown."

"I am not." He clears his throat, glaring straight ahead. "I was just…resting. Got dizzy. Drugs, y'know."

"Mmhm. Drugs also the reason you're clutching that blanket like it's hugging you?"

He drops the thing like it's a hot potato, and she sighs. Picks it back up, and replaces it in its previous position around his shoulders with the put-upon patience of a patron saint.

What the hell, he's cold. He'll take it.

He will not take her sitting down on the floor and squirming into a position beside him, however.

"Medical Leave or not, I can demote you."

"Try it, sir. Your Comms board will be a shuttle wreck within two shifts and you'll be crawling back to me."

He has to laugh, because it's totally true. The laugh trails off into something more like a sob than anything else, and he doesn't quite get it buried in his arms quick enough. A hand gently rests on his shoulder for a few seconds as he pulls himself together again, then moves to briefly brush through the hair at his temples.

"Mm, Leonard is right, you are going gray."

"Oh my God, I hate you."

"No, you don't."

"I really kind of do, right now."

"Somehow I think I'll survive." It's a bad choice of words, all things, considered, and it must show on his face, because she winces. "Sorry. You know what I mean."

He looks away, head still spinning, and lets the awkward silence snatch at his consciousness with nightmarish claws.

Maybe he can stave off this meltdown with work, that's his usual MO. He clears his throat, resolutely shoves everything he can back under a thin veneer of calm that's nothing more than intense willpower over a haze of drugs.

"Did you come in here to just be nosy, or to let me know plans for the memorial services?"

"I'm good, but not good enough to set all that up in fifteen minutes," she replies, with amusement. "I came in here because Spock's on the Bridge freaking out. He had no idea what to do with you, and McCoy got delayed in Sickbay with one of the ground zeros who's still having issues with the nanovirus treatment."

Geez, now he feels like a tool for word-vomiting his issues on the least emotive species in the galaxy. Who is also a touch-telepath that probably picked up a whole lot of unneeded baggage before beating a hasty retreat just now.

"It wasn’t a guilt trip, Jim. We get it, this mission was hell. And none of us are stupid kids anymore, this stuff isn't as easy to shake off as it used to be."

"That's not sufficient excuse," he mutters, swiping a hand over his face. "I don't know why this one's affecting me this badly."

"It might be because the people who put you at the helm of this ship told you if you didn't fix the problem you'd need to destroy her in forty-eight hours, or because your body is telling you it should have been asleep five days ago," she says dryly. "And like I said. None of us are twenty years old anymore. You might have been able to blow through this with a stimulant and a prayer a decade years ago, but you can't just expect to shake it off now with no repercussions. Nobody blames you for that."

"I do."

"You're outvoted. Sir."

He laughs, a brief and almost rueful sound in the quiet of the room. "Just like that, huh."

"Just like that. Now get off your ass and into that bed so I don't have to call Security, there's no way I can haul you over there. Not while still recovering myself, anyway."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Call me that ever again and you'll wish you were on that planet with the nanobots."

"Yes, sir."

He hears her snort from the other side of the sleeping partition as he makes an ungraceful sort of swan dive into the bed. He manages to kick off his shoes before the meds really catch up to him, making him pause in the middle of a remarkably lucid debate about whether or not the rest of the uniform is really worth the effort, because it's not like he's going to be alert enough to even care in like sixty seconds anyway, judging from how fast the room's spinning.

In the end, gravity makes the decision for him, and if he tears the stupid tunic in his sleep that's nothing new to the quartermaster at this point anyway, so. Whatever.

"Liztenprcn," he mumbles into the pillow, but the stupid lights don't obey him, and he gives up, because after an hour they'll shut off anyway to conserve energy.

He hears a soft laugh, and footsteps somewhere close by.

"Lights, ten percent." His eyelids go dark, thank goodness. The lights must like her voice better. A quiet sigh. "Really, Jim, you couldn't at least get under the sheets before passing out?"

He really is too exhausted to even respond to that, somewhere in that hazy, almost painful land between sleeping and dozing, jerking awake one second and gone the next but limbs too heavy for movement. Something warm and soft settles on top of him, and it has that sneeze-inducing, vaguely incense-y smell that tells him it's that same blanket she had to have dragged over from Spock's cabin when she barged in here a few minutes ago like an uninvited, nosy sibling he wants to murder sometimes and completely can’t live without.

It's weirdly comforting, as is the fact that she didn't try to dig around in his things to find one of his own blankets. None of them really have any personal boundaries left, not at this point in their missions – but there are some gestures of respect they still never cross, and they help him keep his command, keep his sanity, on days like today.

And tomorrow? Tomorrow's another day. Another totally different, but probably just as difficult, day.

And they'll help him keep it then, too.