Had he attempted to anticipate such an event, he imagines he would have expected a great deal more noise. If there is one thing that Jim has never been, it is low-key. Had Spock been called upon to speculate, he would have said that a panicking Jim would have involved quite a bit of talk, a not-inconsiderable amount of yelling, and what Dr. McCoy refers to as ‘flailing’. The reality, however, is far more disquieting.
When he first hears the news, Jim goes immediately and completely still. For a moment, Spock is concerned that he may have stopped breathing. That concern is allayed, however, when Jim takes in a deep, shuddering breath and nods tightly. He continues to sit, unsettlingly still and quiet, in his chair; only after several minutes have passed does he give a full-body shudder, snapping back to himself.
“Lieutenant Uhura,” he says stiffly, “get me Engineering.”
The problem, Mr. Scott tells them, is fairly simple to explain. All of the replicators are tied in to a central mainframe that tracks and channels the necessary matter conversion as well as logging activation codes and crew rations. It was that mainframe that had suffered a power surge that resulted in a cascading system failure, disabling every last replicator on the ship. The good news, he says, is that the overloaded part is easy to replace and readily available at every Federation outpost; the bad news is that there is no spare aboard the Enterprise herself, and it will probably take them three days to reach the nearest Starbase.
“Mr. Chekov, what’s the closest ‘Base?”
“Starbase 39-Sierra, sir.”
“Plot a course. Shortest possible time; I want us there in three days, maximum.”
“Yes, sir, but—”
“Is there a problem, Ensign?” Jim snaps, and the entire bridge falls suddenly and completely silent. Ensign Chekov has gone deathly pale, but he makes a noticeable effort to straighten his shoulders as he faces his Captain.
“Yes, Sir. It vill take us four days to reach the Starbase, Sir.”
Jim’s eyes narrow; he is still every bit as motionless as he has been since the announcement was made. “Commander Scott just told us three.”
“The fastest path vill get us there in just under three days, yes—”
“Then I’m not seeing the problem here.”
“But,” Chekov tries again, “it vould take us through the newly disputed region. Zere have been reports of heavy Romulan patrols in the area. A course around instead of through it vould only add tventy-five more hours at Varp 5.”
Jim is silent for a long stretch of time and a feeling of tension mounts among the rest of the crew as they wait, as though they have all collectively stopped breathing. Finally Jim nods tersely.
“Four days, then. Do it.”
“Aye, Sir.” A moment later, “Course plotted and laid in, Captain.”
“Get us there, Lieutenant Sulu. Warp 5.”
“Aye, Sir, Warp 5.”
“I’ll be in my Ready Room,” Jim declares, standing abruptly. “Commander Spock, come and see me in twenty minutes. Until then, you have the con.”
“Yes, Sir,” Spock says sedately, settling into the vacated center seat.
It has been ten months, two weeks and five days since Jim last routinely referred to his Bridge crew by their titles. It is highly unusual now for Jim to be so formal; Spock files that information away, adding it to his growing list of causes for concern. He orders that list in his mind, fully prepared to present his findings to his Captain before demanding an explanation and the right to help him through whatever is causing him distress. Satisfied with his decision, he waits with outward calm until he is due to hand the con to Lieutenant Sulu.
Jim is sitting behind his desk, entering something into his terminal. The line of his shoulders is still tight, and he barely glances up as Spock walks in and allows the door to slip shut behind him. It is several minutes before Jim leans back with a sigh and runs a hand over his face.
“Lieutenant Pioranyt assures me that our store of emergency rations should hold strong. It’ll be a little tight; people are probably going to be more than ready for a good solid meal by the time we get to the Starbase, but the food and water can technically hold out for about twice as long as the trip is going to take us.” Jim is still staring at the screen in front of him, at the desk, at the star charts lining the walls. At anything and everything but his First Officer.
“I just want you to know that I recognize the irony here, okay?” Jim interrupts. He stands with a deep breath; when his eyes finally lift to Spock’s, the Vulcan nearly recoils at the terrifying swirl of emotions there. “In accordance with Starfleet Regulation 619, I’m temporarily relinquishing command of the Enterprise to you on the grounds that I’m emotionally compromised.”
Of all the things that Spock might have expected to hear, that had been nowhere near the top of the list. It makes a sort of horrifyingly logical sense, however, and he feels all of his pent-up concern sweep past his emotional controls like floodwaters overtaking a levee. Yet his demands for answers die on his tongue at the brittle look on his lover’s face. He will not push Jim now; he can not. However . . .
“I do not understand,” he admits, ashamed at the weakness in his own voice.
“No, I know you don’t.” Jim scrubs a hand over his eyes. “It’s not . . . I don’t talk about it. Not since I was fourteen and they made me . . .” He takes another deep, unsteady breath. “I’ve put together a file with the necessary information and sent it to your account. It’s heavily encrypted, but even so it doesn’t have all the details; there are some things that you don’t have the clearance to know, and I don’t have the clearance to tell you anyway. Just . . . come and find me when you’re done, okay? I’ll answer any questions you have. I owe you that much.”
Spock is unable to do anything but stand there as Jim slips quietly past him and out of the room. It is several minutes, in fact, before he moves at all. When he finally does, it is to step over to the seat that Jim has vacated and activate the captain’s log. He adds his own confirmation of events to the recording that Jim has already made before he sets about checking the ship’s status. But everything is already in order; Jim clearly saw to that before he relinquished command. The thought somehow fails to ease Spock’s mind at all, and he turns to the file that Jim has prepared for him.
‘Heavily encrypted’, he finds, appears to have been an understatement. It takes Spock thirty full minutes to decrypt it, and twice he very nearly gives it up as an impossible task. Finally, however, the code gives way before him and the file begins to unfold on the screen in front of him.
He has, of course, heard of the tragedy on the Tarsus IV colony. Even in the insulated environment of his Vulcan school, Spock clearly remembers the reports filtering through from the Federation news feeds. At fourteen he had been in the midst of his final unit on interspecies ethics. The incident on Tarsus had been a footnote in his mid-unit treatise.
It is more than a footnote now. The commonly known facts are all represented. Scientific studies on the fungus that had ravaged the standing crops; vid recordings of Governor Kodos’s announcement that he was implementing measures to ensure the colony’s long-term survival; pictures of Federation aid workers with blankets and soup, comforting the survivors. One of these pictures has become famous: a dark-eyed woman, weeping helplessly over the body of a young child. Horrifying, but familiar.
But along with those well-known facts and figures there is information that turns Spock’s blood to ice. Kirk, James Tiberius, the reports say. Thirteen years of age. Spock barely spares the forms a glance, his eyes riveted on the visual documentation that accompanies the medical file. The child’s body is just barely short of skeletal, bruises dark against the pale skin that clings to his ribcage. His eyes are sunken, hollow, and Jim’s impossible blue. Even so, Spock would not have recognized them; there is a look there, hard and empty, of which he would not have believed his Captain capable.
It is an unexpected kind of torture, to have to wait out the rest of his shift before he can go to his lover. But Jim has entrusted the ship to him, and Spock will not abandon that duty. He sits on the bridge and receives the captain’s reports. He pointedly ignores the curiosity and concern on the crew’s faces. And finally, what feels like far longer than a mere two point six hours later, he stands from the center seat and relinquishes the bridge to his Gamma shift relief.
There are several experiments in the Science Labs that require his approval, as well as a backlog of reports for which, as acting captain, he will now be responsible. He spares these things no more than a passing thought. None of his remaining duties are pressing; they will wait. His place right now is at Jim’s side.
Spock passes through his own quarters and into the ‘fresher, pausing for a moment at the door that connects to Jim’s bedroom. Should he buzz for entrance? Such formalities have largely fallen away between them, but in these circumstances Spock is distressed to realize that he is suddenly uncertain of where his boundaries lie. But the thought of Jim in distress once more overrides all other concerns. His lover is often inclined to attempt to shoulder his burdens alone, and this Spock will not allow. Not this time.
When he enters the room Jim is lying on the bed, arms crossed behind his head as he stares up at the ceiling. Despite his recumbent posture, however, he looks every bit as tense as he has been since he received word of the replicators’ malfunction. He has removed his gold command tunic, and that as much as anything makes worry gnaw at Spock’s insides.
“The thing is,” Jim says before Spock can speak, his eyes still fixed on the ceiling, “people panicked. That’s what made it so bad. Everyone was already on edge with the crop failure. There weren’t more than a couple dozen replicators in the entire colony; they were too expensive to maintain, and there didn’t seem to be much point to them, really, with the agricultural yields that we produced. So a few families had them, but it wasn’t nearly enough to feed eight thousand people. Everyone knew we were going to have to rely on whatever food we’d managed to store until the Federation could send aid. But we were so far out. It would take weeks for the distress message to even get there, then however long it took for them to organize supplies and workers and ship them all out. So people were already scared.”
He levers himself off of the bed in a sudden, near-violent movement, and Spock simply stands still and watches as he begins to pace.
“Kodos kept us calm, though. Came on the vids and explained how we shouldn’t worry, that our government was going to see us through it. That there were . . .” His throat works spastically, and he pauses for a moment before continuing, voice flatly calm again. “That there were measures being enacted to ensure the colony’s survival. I don’t know why no one noticed what an odd choice of words that was. Colony, not colonists. I guess no one was paying too much attention to that part.
“If he’d been able to round everyone up at once, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But there wasn’t that sort of infrastructure in place, and they had to take people a few dozen at a time. Word got out. Half of the people who’d been tagged for execution were already dead by the time it happened, but everyone finally clued in to what was going on. That’s when we panicked, and that was when everything really started to fall apart. The food stores wouldn’t have been enough for eight thousand; but he was right, they would’ve been enough for four. Only no one knew who was on the lists and who wasn’t, and no one was willing to take a chance. Everyone was scrambling for any food that they could get. The riots were really almost predictable. Most of the stored food was destroyed by the time the Guard managed to get control, and they guarded what was left like the Federation’s last dilithium crystal. The four thousand on Kodos’s list for survival got rations. Everyone else got hunted.”
Spock struggles past the raw fury that wants to rise in him and considers the picture of the boy with the haunted blue eyes. Considers what he knows of his captain. “You gave away your rations to those who were not chosen?”
Jim starts as though he’s just remembered that Spock is in the room. For a moment he simply stares. When he laughs at last, the soft, sad sound is a distinctly unpleasant one. “Spock. That wasn’t the list I was on.”
It takes several long moments for Spock to comprehend. Even so, when he finally understands the words themselves, the meaning makes no sense. “I do not . . .” He struggles to avoid his customary bluntness; Jim has been trying of late to teach him the occasional benefits of tact. “It had been my understanding that Kodos’s actions were based on eugenics. You are of above-average intelligence, and extremely aesthetically pleasing. Both of those qualities make you highly genetically desirable.”
“My allergies.” Jim rubs a weary hand over his eyes. “Hardly a desirable quality under normal circumstances. But I was a drain on resources already strained to the breaking point. The fungus, the one that destroyed the crops . . . I had a reaction to it that . . .” He shook his head sharply. “I don’t want to talk about that. It isn’t important. I wasn’t on the good list, and I ran. I managed to stay hidden for three weeks, more or less. I got caught twice, but I ran away again. Then the starship Starfleet had rerouted showed up with emergency supplies, and it was over.”
The strength seems to go out of him all at once, and he sits down heavily on the end of his bed. “I don’t talk about it,” he says quietly. “Not ever, not since I stonewalled the shrink they tried to stick me with back on Earth. But I thought you ought to know why I handed over command, and . . .” His eyes dart up to Spock and then quickly away. “You just ought to know.”
Spock finds that he does not know the proper etiquette for this situation, whether Jim requires a physical display of comfort and support, or whether he would recoil from Spock’s touch at the moment. He settles for sitting carefully next to Jim and is relieved when his lover does not move away. “I am gratified that you told me.”
“I was hiding out on my own in the woods outside of the main settlement,” Jim says abruptly. “I’d been running for about a week, and I’d hardly gotten any food even a week before that. This . . . this dog had crawled away to die; no one could afford to give any of their food to pets when they could barely feed themselves. I found the body lying there, and it was like fucking Christmas because it was food. I cut it open with the sharpest rock I could find, and I tried to cook the meat but I was afraid to get a fire going too high in case someone spotted it. I ate half of what I cooked in about thirty seconds flat, and I had it down for maybe five before I threw it back up. But I kept eating anyway.
“When Scotty said that the replicators were down . . .” He takes a shaky breath. “All of a sudden I could smell it all again. The smoke from the fire, and the burning bits of fur I hadn’t been able to cut off. I just . . . I was so hungry . . .”
And no power in the universe could have stopped Spock from pulling Jim into his arms now, this beautiful creature that he had very nearly lost before they had ever met. To his profound relief Jim allows it, lets Spock cradle him, breathing in the reassuring scent of his skin before he eases Jim down to lie on the bed once more. Spock stretches out behind him, curling around Jim until the Human is tucked securely into the shelter of Spock’s body.
“You have had a trying day,” he murmurs. “Rest now.”
“Rest, t’hy’la.” The word falls from Spock’s tongue before he even knows that it is in his mind. “I am here; you will not be alone.”
“I don’t know if I can sleep.”
Spock’s hand lifts, fingers brushing lightly against Jim’s cheek. “Will you trust me?”
“Yes,” Jim says without hesitation.
Spock lets his fingertips settle over Jim’s meld points, carefully locking away the part of himself already calculating the best methods for finding a man who has been missing for a dozen years. He shuts away his fury and his grief until all that is left is the warmth of his mind sliding over Jim’s, comfort and ease and safety. Jim begins to relax against him, and Spock gathers him closer, his lips resting softly against Jim’s hair.
“You’ll stay?” Jim murmurs.
“I will.” Spock strokes Jim’s mind with his, easing the sharp edges of panic still lingering there, soothing him until his thoughts begin to quiet and slow. “Rest, t’hy’la,” he says again. “You are safe.”