MacMillen's sudden nervous giggle broke the silence, as both Captain and First Officer looked at each other in perfectly synchronized confusion.
"Report, Lieutenant Uhura," Kirk finally said, tossing up his arms in a clear gesture of clueless exasperation.
"Captain Kirk!" The pleasure in their Comms chief's voice was evident, before she pulled back under the poise and professionalism of a Starfleet officer. "Sir, in short, we've taken the frigate."
Kirk blinked. "You what."
A ripple of feminine laughter. "We've taken the frigate from the Orions, sir. Some of the girls from Engineering are herding the pirates down to their own cell blocks now."
Hearing a definitely female voice in the Orion ship's aft section snapping out orders that corroborated that, Garrovick stared at his earpiece in surprise.
"Well done, Lieutenant. Is there anything I need to know about how that was accomplished?" the captain was asking cautiously.
Uhura's smile filtered clearly through the channel. They made a major tactical error, Captain, in separating their 'prize slaves' by gender and age among the three ships, sir. There's a reason the 'Fleet gives its female officers hand-to-hand training and steel-toed boots, you know. And Orion male fashion is…not exactly protective of the owner's anatomy, shall we say."
Every male on the Bridge cringed in reflexive sympathy.
"A few of the guards decided not to keep their distance and got too handsy during a transfer. They aren't the first to underestimate a trained female Starfleet officer, Captain," their Comms chief declared with far too much cheerfulness. "You should have seen the looks on their faces when Christine Chapel tossed one of them into the brig's alarm console. Short-circuited the whole cell block, so I'll be writing her a commendation for that. Has someone been teaching her Vulcan self-defense moves, Mr. Spock?"
Spock's ears turned a peculiar shade of viridian.
"Ahem." The captain shifted in his chair, feebly trying to regain control of the conversation. "Are you telling me that your vessel is no longer a threat, Lieutenant?"
"Affirmative, sir. All threats aboard neutralized. We're attempting to make sense of the alien control arrays up here on the Bridge right now. Would you like us to rescue your, ah, male officers , sir, or do you have other plans for the remaining two frigates?"
Their command chain exchanged a longsuffering look. "They're all going to be insufferable for weeks about this, I hope you know, and very well-deservedly, too," Kirk said wearily.
"Indeed. Doctor McCoy and I had thought re-taking one of the frigates was an impossibility. We were obviously in error."
"Just come about and be prepared to defend the Enterprise if need be, Lieutenant," Kirk said, returning to the comm. "I don't believe they or the Klingon ship will be much trouble now, but just in case. Garrovick, check on the status of the other two frigates. What of the other prisoners aboard your ship, Lieutenant?"
"The holds were empty, sir; obviously this was planned by the Orions to leave maximum room for our own people. It wasn't a rush job or there would be human cargo already aboard." Disgust was clear in Uhura's cultured tone. "I've a crew down in the non-human cargo bays double-checking for contraband and smuggled tech, sir."
"Excellent. Lieutenant, are any of you in need of immediate medical attention?"
"Negative, sir. We've got it cared for."
Kirk exhaled in relief. "Good. As soon as you've got things settled, begin transporting the crew back aboard the Enterprise; we're going to be giving the Orion ships to the Klingons. Have Lieutenant Masters transfer over with the first group; Scotty's got his work cut out for him and we need her Engineering expertise in a bad way."
"Aye, Captain. Sir, are you…"
"Thirty-eight years old again? Not quite," he replied with a small grin. "But apparently Mr. Spock believes me to be close enough for command responsibilities." All irritation vanished in the face of victory due to his crew's quiet competence, he glanced over his shoulder with a fond smile aimed at his First. Spock inclined his head gracefully in acknowledgment.
"Pleased to hear it, sir. We will keep you informed. Uhura out."
"Mr. Garrovick, report?"
"Shields completely down on the other two Orion vessels, sir. They are…apparently in chaos, if the internal transmissions are any indication."
"Excellent. Open a hailing frequency. Hold it, PetaQ," Kirk snapped suddenly, as their captive Klingon surreptitiously began skulking toward the turbolift doors. "Matthews, take a squad of officers and kindly escort our prisoner to the shuttle bay his crew are being held in. Wait there until we clear one of the transporter rooms to beam them back aboard the Qeh."
"Hailing frequencies open, sir."
"Orion vessels, this is Captain James T. Kirk of the Federation starship Enterprise. Your shields have been disabled and your third frigate is currently under our command. I would most diplomatically suggest you comply with our terms."
The comm scratched into life, and a disgruntled yet resigned voice with a slight Orion accent filtered through the subspace static. "Captain Kirk, this is Captain Wy'shca in command of the lead frigate. What are your terms?"
The captain smiled grimly. "Unconditional surrender, Captain. Your people will be released at the next Starbase, and your cargo will go to the Klingons as part of our negotiations with them."
An undignified squawk of protest. "Captain Kirk -"
"After the fate worse than death that Orion slave traders planned for my crew and myself, Captain Wy'shca?" Kirk snapped, anger crackling almost visibly from the command chair, an aura of furious power that sent the Bridge crew eyeing their reinstated captain warily. "I think I'm letting you off lightly. Don't try my patience."
"My people will not be harmed?"
"Negative, Captain Wy'shca. They will remain prisoners aboard the Enterprise until we reach the next Starbase or are intercepted by a diplomatic vessel. I and my Federation have no desire to begin a war with your people."
"We will accept your terms, Captain Kirk," was the doleful response, with the expected lack of protest. As Kirk had pointed out during their briefing earlier, Orion pirates were not gamblers, and they were adept at cutting their losses when needed. Obviously they had no desire to test the current situation.
After this day from hell, Garrovick was thankful for small favors.
"Release my crew immediately, cede command to the highest-ranking officer and prepare to be boarded by a Security contingent. And I warn you, Captain," Kirk said thinly, "should you try any sort of treachery that endangers my people, I will not hesitate to destroy you."
"Understood. Transmitting transporter coordinates now."
Garrovick double checked them to make sure they weren't smack in the middle of a bulkhead or something, and then passed them on to Spock for the final check.
"All appears in order, sir," the Vulcan spoke up.
"Excellent. Dispatch a boarding party with arms to Transporter Room Two, Mr. Spock, and have them board the frigates to start removing Orion prisoners to the Enterprise brig. We'll continue to have Lieutenant Riley use One for our people to beam back from the enemy ships, and we'll use Room Three for the Klingons, get them on their way at least. One less thing to worry about." Their transporters would likely need a complete overhaul after today, seeing so much use in one day, but they'd hold.
The ship's intra-comm whistled, and Kirk flicked the armrest controls. "Bridge here."
"Sickbay, Captain," a familiarly irritated Southern drawl sounded, and Garrovick grinned at the knowledge that one thing, at least, was still right with the world. "Look, when is Spock gonna send someone down here to take these two Klingons off my hands?"
Spock had the grace to look slightly abashed. "He was in no danger, Captain."
"No, but I had to stab 'em with enough Pentathol-D to knock out a warhorse," McCoy retorted testily. "That nerve pinch of yours doesn't work on a Klingon, by the way, Spock. Shared mindspace or not, it just made me look dumber'n a bag of hammers."
"Nerve pinch?" Kirk looked momentarily stymied.
"That unfortunate state of being seems to be your default setting, Doctor."
"Do you really wanna insult the human who now knows more about your inner workings than you prob'ly want him to?"
"Gentlemen," Kirk coughed, trying unsuccessfully to cover up his laughter, "and I use the term in its loosest sense - some other time? Bones, I'm sending a Security contingent to you; they'll escort your prisoners to Transporter Room Three. And what's this about shared mindspace?" he asked, eyebrows brushing his hairline.
McCoy wisely chose the better part of valor - namely, throwing Spock under the bus. "Ask Spock, Jim. I got patients to see to."
"Bones? Doctor McCoy, you do not get to just cut me off!" Kirk exclaimed indignantly, as the young navigator and pilot at the helm muffled their laughter, never having had the opportunity to see their legendary Terrible Trio in action before. "Spock?"
"I must see to the transports, sir, as per your orders," the Vulcan was quick to say, striding purposefully toward the turbolift doors.
The captain scooted out of his chair to follow. "Oh, no, mister, you are not getting out of this. Garrovick, take the conn until Lieutenants Uhura or Sulu are located and transported aboard," Kirk shot over his shoulder as he darted into the lift behind his chagrined First.
"Aye, sir," Garrovick muttered superfluously, as the doors closed on far too familiar bickering.
At least some things were back to normal…
"You're telling me that you were in each other's heads?" the incredulous yelp was eerily reminiscent of the captain's young teenaged days, echoing down the still deserted corridors.
Spock exhaled patiently. "Affirmative."
"And he's okay with it?"
"Affirmative." The matter was by no means closed between them, and he was by no means satisfied that 'okay' was the most accurate term for McCoy's tolerant distress, but it was not his story to tell. Not until the story was whole and understood, which unfortunately could not happen until this mission was closed.
"And you're not pulling my leg," Kirk said warily, as they entered the transporter room, where another group of Klingons were disappearing in the shimmer of a transport beam.
"Wait a second…is that how you managed the override codes for the lockdown?"
Spock's dark eyes glinted with approval at his quick perception. "It was the only way to do so, as I was never to be released from the brig's highest security cell. A mind-joining was the only possibility which permitted both Doctor McCoy and myself the opportunity and ability to both reprogram the codes, and simultaneously reinstate you as Captain of this vessel. We broke the connection moments ago, and the Doctor assured me he was suffering no ill effects."
"You guys are, like, scary brilliant sometimes," the young man muttered, for a moment sounding more like his younger self than the seasoned captain he had been acting.
"Bones!" Kirk beamed as their CMO entered, flanked by two Security guards and two very ticked-off-looking Klingons. "What's this I hear about you letting Spock scramble your brains?"
McCoy favored him with a sour expression. "Thought you said he'd grown up, Spock," he said dryly.
"I said no such thing, Doctor. Merely that we had no alternative save to permit him to re-take command."
Kirk glanced suspiciously back and forth between them for a moment like a cat watching a ping-pong tournament. "I feel like I've missed something major," he muttered, moving over to the transporter console. "Lieutenant Kyle, it's good to see you in one piece."
"Likewise, sir," the young man returned with a grin. "It's been a busy day, eh Captain?"
"Definitely. How are our prisoners faring?"
"Oh, do shut up, if ye know what's good for ye," Montgomery Scott's angry burr drifted across the room, where he was (very reluctantly) returning the Klingons' weaponry to them as they balefully stepped onto the transporter pad. "I believe the Bio labs still have a tribble or two in stasis somewhere, y'know. Be happy to send the little beggars back with ye."
Kirk stifled a chuckle. "Scotty, leave our guests alone. Captain PetaQ," he continued, looking up at the last batch of Klingons to be transported, "my people are nearly off the third Orion frigate, into which we'll transfer all of the contraband from the other two pirate vessels. You're welcome to it, if you take off back to your Empire with no further hostilities."
The Klingon glared murder at him with all the hatred of years-old conflict. "Were it not for your crew, Kirk, you would not be the victor here," he spat, with a look of disgust toward the two blue-shirted figures standing by the transporter room doors. "You did nothing to deserve this victory!"
The young man looked him square in the eye, all friendly animosity dissolved into a cold, deadly seriousness. "I entirely agree, Captain," he replied quietly. "I have taken my crew and their areas of unique expertise for granted too often in the past; I have no intention of ever doing so again."
Something changed with the words; an almost electrical charge in the air, an invisible air of finality that made their Security force look about uneasily, though seeing nothing out of place. McCoy glanced at Spock, unconsciously mirroring the Vulcan's puzzled eyebrow, but said nothing.
PetaQ gave his opponent one last glare of hatred before joining his scowling Commander and the two remaining Klingon lieutenants on the transporter pad.
"Perhaps we will meet again someday, Captain, on more equal footing," Kirk offered courteously. "Energize, Mr. Kyle."
"Batlh bIHeghjaj, Kirk," the Klingon said harshly, as the transporter lock engaged, soon fading them from sight.
"…What's that mean?" McCoy inquired curiously.
"May you die honorably," Kirk translated, giving a one-shouldered shrug. "Usually a compliment or a blessing in their culture."
Spock froze suddenly, head cocked to the side.
"What's the matter?"
"In this case, I believe it was not a blessing but rather a prediction," the Vulcan said tensely, looking rapidly around the room. "Do you hear that?"
"Hear what?" Scott asked, brows furrowed.
"That humming - there, it is louder now, do you hear it?"
Sure enough, it was growing louder, loud enough that the two Security men near the transporter were wincing, hands over their ears.
"It's a phaser on overload," Kirk shouted, white-faced, as he scrambled over the transporter pad, desperately searching the shadowed corners behind the rounded platform. His eyes fell on the weapon in question - a Klingon disrupter, carefully wedged in the darkest corner behind the transporter pad, now vibrating dangerously with the buildup of an overloaded photon mix chamber. If it blew, the resulting nuclear fallout would take four decks with it unless the emergency bulkheads deployed - and even with them, the entire force of the explosion would then be directed outward, rupturing the hull completely in this section of the ship.
"Spock get everyone out of here and move us away from those Orion frigates! Seal off C Deck!"
"Aye, sir." A moment later the Vulcan's voice was heard, tense and curt, over the ship's intra-comm, and the thud of emergency bulkheads being deployed began to sound in the distance down the corridors above and below them.
"Scotty, set that transporter to maximum dispersal for me and then get yourself out of here!" he shouted, yanking desperately on the weapon.
"Sir, I canna -"
The device hummed louder now, almost deafening him with its deadly siren song of imminent destruction. "Scotty, out! I'm right behind you, just get everyone out before the bulkheads come down. Go!"
He heard the clear muttering of a very unhappy man, but his CE fled the room obediently, hauling a highly protesting Lieutenant Kyle with him away from the transporter controls.
Kirk grunted with the strain, unable to pull the disruptor free from its position, cunningly wedged tight with Klingon brute force, and threw himself backward with all his strength in an effort to dislodge it. If he could get it out and manage to transport it into a wide dispersal beam, the backlash might destroy their transporter room and damage the other vessels, but it wouldn't have the long-term nuclear effects that the concentrated explosion would. If the disruptor blew as it stood now, the frigates just outside their hull would most likely be destroyed by the fallout, as their shields were non-existent thanks to his decision to utilize Spock's computer virus.
Half his crew were still on board those defenseless frigates, and their deaths would be his fault, due to his command decisions.
The hum was more of a wailing now, as he rocked back and forth and finally aimed a desperate kick to the weapon, trying to dislodge it with only seconds remaining. Down the corridor, he heard the first of the transporter deck's bulkheads drop with a dull thud, gradually growing louder as the program's algorithms proceeded down the corridor.
"Captain, it is futile," Spock's voice shouted above the ringing in his ears as the Vulcan burst back into the room. "We are proceeding as quickly as possible away from the Orion ships to minimize damage. Remaining here will accomplish nothing."
"Just - one more minute," he gasped, as the disruptor finally wiggled under the force of his desperation.
"We don't have another minute! Jim, no one needs you to die for this ship to prove you're the captain!"
"I told you both to get out of here, Bones!" he snapped, sweat trickling down his back.
"And I'm not obeyin' the orders of a self-sacrificing idiot!"
He craned his neck around, still working the disruptor loose, and met the pinched expression of his First Officer. "Spock, if you have ever been loyal to me, get him out of here," he said quietly, his voice shaking with desperation. "I promise, if I can't get it loose in the next ten seconds I'll be right behind you."
For a moment Spock looked at him with agonizing clarity, clearly knowing as well as he that Kirk was lying, and then the Vulcan turned without a word and caught McCoy's arm, bodily dragging the swearing human through the transporter room doors. The slam of emergency bulkheads dropping into place punctuated their exit just seconds after the doors closed behind them.
The disruptor was vibrating now, the whine a dull roar - and then finally, either due to the shuddering of overtaxed machinery or Kirk's stubborn determination, the weapon finally fell free, sending him over on his backside, disruptor clutched tightly in both hands.
In one swift movement he tossed it onto a transporter pad and then made a desperate dive for the controls, slamming his palm down on the transport initiator just instants before the room exploded in his face.
The Enterprise rocked violently with the force of the explosive backlash, sending everyone in the corridors sprawling on the ground and hurling the massive ship backward several dozen kilometers in space - thankfully in the opposite direction of the unprotected Orion frigates.
Just outside the Transporter Room, the durasteel bulkhead protecting the first section of the corridor buckled, wailing sickeningly under the pressure, before blowing off its supports and flying several yards down the corridor. Only Vulcan reflexes prevented Spock and McCoy, closest to the impact, from being crushed under its weight, and for a second the doctor stared at the twisted metal that had flown over their heads with a sick fascination that quickly turned to quaking nerves.
Spock picked himself up more quickly, eyes instantly taking in every detail and drawing conclusions. The other bulkheads on either side of the cross-corridor had apparently held, which either meant that the captain had succeeded in dispersing the explosion as it happened, or else that the funds the Federation had shelled out on the three-year refit were certainly worth every credit. Three steps brought him to the crackling remnants of the secondary emergency forcefield, which had obviously also shattered under the force of the blast. Deactivating it with a voice command, he moved to the nearest wall-comm.
"Spock to Bridge."
"Spock, we have to see about Jim!"
"In a moment, Doctor," he replied, not allowing his features to show regret.
"Bridge here, Mr. Spock. What in the name of -"
"One of the Klingon prisoners left a disruptor set on overload in our transporter room, Mr. Garrovick. Damage report?"
"Nothing substantial, sir, except that transporter room itself; nothing's online in there and there's a heck of a lot of energy readings coming from it, stuff I've never seen before, sir. Wait." A distant shout across the Bridge. "And…apparently the Klingon Bird of Prey was right in the line of the explosion, sir. It's nothing more than shrapnel now."
Fitting, Spock mused, with absolutely no compunction over his vengeful thoughts. But then, that had probably been PetaQ's intent.
"Carry on, Mr. Garrovick, and send a Medical team to the affected corridors on C Deck. Spock out. Doctor, you will control yourself," he said harshly, jerking his arm free of the human's vise-like grip.
"Control myself?" the human shouted, fists clenched at his sides. "D'you realize that even if he got that disruptor locked into a transport beam, the backlash will still have collapsed the whole room around him?"
"I believe I realize the ramifications even better than yourself, Doctor, as I am capable of calculating the odds of survival to innumerable decimal places," he replied icily, and saw the fire in the human's eyes dwindle within moments.
"Yeah, of course," McCoy whispered, shoulders slumping with weariness. Spock watched carefully, knowing not just from their mind-joining that the human was nearing collapse himself from injury and stress. "After all that, that it should have to end like this…I just -"
"Come, Doctor," Spock said gently. "We will ascertain the truth together."
He moved down the remaining few feet to the reinforced tritanium doors that had automatically deployed to block the radiation from the wreckage of the transporter room.
"Computer, radiation report for Transporter Room Three," he spoke, forcibly detaching himself from the tragedy at hand.
"Radiation levels normal."
McCoy blinked. "Normal for what, a nuclear blast zone?"
"Computer, specify 'normal'," Spock said, equally mystified.
"Radiation levels non-harmful to humanoid life. Levels within acceptable parameters for transporter operation."
"That can't be right, Spock…even if the disruptor had detonated outside the ship, it still would've fractured the hull there and we should get some reading, at least!"
"I am aware, Doctor." Spock frowned at the doors blocking their path. "Computer, status report of Transporter Room Three."
"Transporter Room Three is within operational parameters."
"Reason for blast doors deployment."
"Blast doors deployed to prevent unknown energy damage to C Deck."
A raised eyebrow. "Specify."
"Unknown energy buildup in Transporter Room Three."
"Analyze unknown energy."
"Energy now dissipated from Transporter Room Three. Residual energy effects non-fatal to humanoid life. Raising blast doors."
"Spock, if that's a computer glitch, we're both gonna fry from the inside out," McCoy muttered uneasily, watching as the locks snapped off the blast doors and they began to rise, thankfully - and weirdly - not letting out the expected blast of acrid air or the stench of burning flesh and metal.
"It cannot be a computer glitch, Doctor, as that would show up on the Bridge's damage report. I admit I am at a loss to explain the lack of radiation from such a destructive force as an overloaded disruptor. We shall know more when we -" he broke off in uncharacteristically visible surprise, frozen in place, as the blast doors finally cleared the bulkhead and showed the room beyond.
Spock barely registered McCoy's strangled exclamation from behind him, too intent upon staring the impossible in its thirty-eight-year-old face.
"Yeah, that's pretty much an experience I never want to repeat," an entirely undamaged James T. Kirk complained, rubbing the back of his head as he sat half-sprawled on the battered transporter pad.