‘Awake’ may not have been the proper word to describe Jim’s state of mind when he next gained consciousness, but he was at least somewhat aware. The first thing his mind latched onto was the sound. Crickets, he thought somewhere distant in the back of his mind. Crickets. Had he fallen asleep outside in the field again? His mom would kill him if he were out past nightfall without comm-ing to tell her. He should open his eyes. He should--
He felt movement.
Realizing with some kind of foggy incredulity that he was being dragged, he managed to open a bleary eye. It was starting to get dark, but he could make out some features of his surroundings.
This wasn’t Iowa. The sound wasn’t crickets, but a strange, shrieking buzz of distant, alien insects, and the air was muggy, thick, heavy. On either side of him, he saw two struts of stark-white wood. Beneath him, something was suspending him, fibrous straps that dug into his back. He turned his neck much as his sore muscles would allow and saw the outline of a set of strong shoulders, two pointed ears, strong hands gripping the struts of-- what he guessed-- was a stretcher.
“Commander?” he asked through the dry scratch of his throat, but his eyes fell closed before he heard an answer.
When next Jim awoke, he was warm. Not hot, but warm , almost comfortable but for the way his whole body throbbed like an open wound. He blinked himself into consciousness slowly, eyes focusing and unfocusing on a stretch of mottled black rock that looked like the ceiling of a cave.
He was vaguely aware of something draped on top of him-- a blanket, it turned out. And underneath him, a few of those wide, flat leaves had been laid out for padding. It took his mind a minute to catch up with the events of the day. With a sinking feeling in his gut, he remembered the crash, and the subsequent trudge through unfamiliar forest. At some point he’d passed out, and at some point--
Jim shot up into a sitting position, immediately crying out in pain as he doubled over. He clutched at his hip, where he only now remembered the ripped floor of the shuttle had gouged his skin. The wound had been bandaged, Jim realized, with a strip of the tunic he was no longer wearing. His undershirt, too, had been stripped from him, likely to air the rest of his more minor wounds.
“Lieutenant,” a voice said from somewhere off to his side. “You’re awake.”
Jim turned his head to the voice and saw Commander Spock, illuminated by the glow of a small fire. It was frigid, Jim realized, now that the blanket had fallen from his chest, and it looked as though Spock was feeling it. The Vulcan was sitting cross-legged about as close to the fire as he could get, his hands outstretched toward the warmth. What looked to be a strip of the shuttle’s carpet lay over his shoulders.
A haze of smoke billowed from the fire, cast blurred shadows against the wall of the cave, and it carried an almost nostalgic scent, heady and sharp.
“How long have I been out?” Jim asked, though his mouth was sticky and dry from disuse. He cleared his throat, but that only seemed to make it worse.
“Nearly twelve standard hours,” Spock replied. He got to his feet, shedding the carpet from his shoulders, and seemed to shuffle around for something outside of Jim’s view. Then, he turned to approach Jim.
“But it’s still night,” Jim said, looking around the cave. “Right?”
“Indeed,” Spock confirmed, and crouched beside Jim. He held out a canteen, which Jim took gratefully. He didn’t waste a second before chugging it down. “Nights here are very long, Lieutenant,” Spock said. It was a gentle reminder, as though he were talking to a child.
Jim took a few more swallows then came up for air, coughing around the water. Every movement of his body sent pain singing through his side. It took him a few solid breaths to push the pain aside. When he’d regained himself, he met Spock’s hard gaze. “Right,” he said hoarsely, the world flooding back to him little by little, edging back into his thoughts. Feeling a strange mix between hopeful and trepidatious, Jim managed, “are we all that’s left?”
Spock shook his head, and Jim felt only a tinge of relief. “The Captain is alive. I set him closer to the fire so I could monitor his condition.” Jim squinted. Past the flames, he could barely make out the outline of a body wrapped cocoon-like in another emergency blanket.
“He was impaled by a shard of metal in the crash. In the last fifteen hours, he has regained consciousness only once.”
Jim took another long gulp of water, if only to get some time to absorb that. Just the three of them, and Pike out of commission. This did not bode well. When he’d swallowed and lowered the canteen into his lap, he found he was having trouble looking directly at the Vulcan beside him.
“The ships?” He, asked, but the answer was obvious.
“Though communication should be possible with the ion storm long-over, all attempts to reach them have failed. At this time, I do not have sufficient information to explain it.”
Jim’s lips thinned. Uncertainty settled something sick in his stomach. Uncomfortable with the feeling, and with Spock’s hard eyes on him, he glanced around the cave. Spock had found them a relatively flat place to camp, the floor coated in sand, with offshoots in a few directions that varied in size and likely helped to vent the campfire. There were scattered boulders and stones that spoke to rockier terrain ahead, but all-in-all it looked like a solid location. Spock must have worked very quickly. He swallowed the fear of immediate danger, knowing consciously that they were safe for now, yet not knowing how long it would last. He glanced back at the Commander, who still knelt at his side.
“Do you know what happened?” He brought the blanket back over his body, curling it around his shoulders though his muscles ached with the effort. Without thinking, he offered the extra length of it to Spock.
To Jim’s surprise, the Vulcan took it, winding the blanket around his own shoulders and, by consequence, moving closer. He must have been cold. Vulcans weren’t known for being cuddly.
“The ion storm intensified at an impossible rate. It overloaded our engines, which caused malfunction in our systems, including shields. Due to the ferocity of the storm, structural integrity was compromised.”
Jim blanched, looking away from the Vulcan’s emotionless gaze. “Structural integrity,” he parroted, almost affronted. “We were ripped in half.” His mind returned to the sound of Carter’s bones breaking against the bulkhead, and he found it was harder to put it from his mind without the immediate purpose of survival to give him something to focus on.
“Indeed,” Spock said calmly. “I have set up a distress signal at the mouth of the cave. Should the ships regain contact, they will find us.”
Distress signal-- that reminded him.
“What about the distress signal that brought us here? The degraded one? Maybe there are other people nearby--”
“There are not,” Spock said, effectively cutting off that line of hope. “I could not identify any signal but our own. When morning arrives, I will repair the shuttle’s sensors. They will no doubt be stronger than the limited range of my tricorder.”
“So… the rest of the crew, then?”
“Unresponsive to communication and likely outside the range of our current scanning capability.”
If they’re alive at all , remained unspoken.
They were silent for a few moments. Jim tried to absorb the reality of their situation. There were still so many unanswered questions. Why weren’t the ships responding? Why had the storm intensified so suddenly? What happened to the distress signal? He stopped himself from asking, if only because he knew Spock would not be able to answer.
“Do you require sustenance?”
The question was sudden, and it pulled Jim from his own thoughts.
It was only then he realized that he was ravenous. Now that his need for water and, more importantly, information had been satiated, he found that his stomach felt like a dry, empty husk.
“Do we have food?”
Spock nodded and extricated himself from the blanket. Jim watched him walk back to where he was apparently keeping their supplies and return with a handful of small, puckered purple berries and wide, flat green leaves with striking purple veins. Hardly even enough of them to be considered a side salad.
Jim almost laughed, instead huffing something desperate and helpless out his nose. “Excuse me, waiter, I think I ordered a chicken sandwich,” he joked lamely. Spock didn’t seem to find it very amusing. He simply sat beside Jim and handed off his food.
Jim realized only then that he may have offended with the joke, even though he’d only been trying to diffuse the tension. So, thanking him quietly but sincerely, Jim set into his meager meal, glad at least that there was something to put in his empty stomach.
“I’m afraid there was little time to gather food,” Spock explained, “The portion will have to do until morning.” Spock settled back into the warmth of the blanket and wound it around himself once more. Jim concentrated on his food, bursting the hard, dimpled skin of the berries and smacking their sour juice between his teeth. He cast a look back toward Pike.
“Has he eaten?” he asked around the sticky texture.
“I attempted to feed him,” Spock said, and Jim wished without much hope of fulfilment that Spock could interject some kind of emotion into his voice. Some kind of worry or sadness. Spock had served with Pike for almost four years now. Seeing him like this wouldn’t be easy for a normal person.
But Spock wasn’t a normal person. Jim sighed.
“We can try again when he wakes up,” he said, tearing into one of the sinewy leaves and wincing at the bitterness of it.
“He likely will not keep it down. It would be logical to ration what little food we have to those able to retain it.”
It took Jim a moment to realize what Spock had just suggested, but it caused him immediate pause. He lowered the torn leaf into his lap and set it beside a few uneaten berries.
“Wait, you’re saying we should starve him? He’s sick. He needs this more than we do.” He gestured angrily at the food in his lap, eyes hardening. No one should starve, Jim thought with a flare of rage. No one should be less worthy of survival than anyone else.
“But he will not digest it. What logic is there in wasting resources?”
“It’s not a waste if we try. Besides, we can go out again tomorrow, gather more--” Spock looked about to speak, but Jim cut him off, the stress of the situation and other, buried memories causing a fire to rise in him. “You know what? He can have mine. I’m not hungry.”
Spock settled his eyes on Jim, infuriatingly calm. “You will require your energy to heal properly.”
“So will he!”
“Lieutenant--” Spock started, and Jim realized he’d almost forgotten he was speaking to a commanding officer. But fear and grief and exhaustion had dulled his rationality. He didn’t let Spock finish.
“Did you even try to find the rest of the crew? Or were you too concerned with ‘wasting resources?’”
“Lieutenant, you are behaving unreasonably.”
“What, because I care whether he lives or dies?”
“Because I am asking you to care about whether you live or die.”
There was a pause. Jim’s eyes were set on Spock’s, though he had no energy to continue to challenge him. He wanted to ask if a man who had no care whether he lived or died would’ve dragged himself through an alien forest with a broken leg, but he knew that would just lead to more animosity, which would not be productive right now. So he bit back on the impulse.
He looked down to the food in his lap, taking a deep breath. Previous experiences with starvation aside, this was a different situation. He had to remind himself of that. Spock was not systematically, willfully and gladly denying resources to anyone. They would be rescued come morning, and they would all be all right.
“To answer your question,” Spock said after a time, “I did indeed scan for the rest of the crew, and will resume the search in the morning. It is unlikely they survived--”
“However, we will attempt to find them. Should I succeed in repairing the shuttle’s sensors tomorrow, we should be able to locate the other crash site.”
Jim nodded, conceding, feeling a twinge of guilt at his outburst, as well as a slowly encroaching sadness at the realization of their situation. There was almost no chance that the others had survived, he knew, but his own life had been a miracle. Maybe they could hope for another. He had to believe they could.
“How long until morning, Commander?” He asked, unable to eat though he knew he should. He couldn’t bear not saving any for Pike.
Jim’s eyes widened and he turned back to Spock. “What?!”
“Nights here are very long, Lieutenant.”
“Of course, right,” Jim said, rubbing the bridge of his nose and wondering why that little fact kept slipping his mind. He understood now why rationing resources may have made sense to the Vulcan. Twenty-seven hours was a long time.
Jim settled into silence for a while, and Spock seemed to allow him a moment to calm down, absorb, think. Just as Spock made a move as if to return to the fire, though, Jim stilled him with a hand on his arm.
“Wait--” he said, and Spock met his eyes, a question in them.
Jim continued, barrelling forward. “Thank you. For saving my life. I think those few seconds you had a hold of me made all the difference. I could have ended up--” He stopped himself, trying to erase the memory of his crewmates’ fall.
There was a pause, subtle surprise written in the lines at Spock’s lips. “You are welcome, Lieutenant,” he finally replied. “I, too, owe you a debt of gratitude. If you had not forced me to let go when you did, I would likely have fallen with you-- and been similarly injured.”
Jim offered the man a small smile, weakened by fatigue, powerlessness, pain. Before he could say anything, Spock moved away, shedding the blanket and returning to the fire. “Please,” Spock said as he settled again under the strip of carpet, “finish your meal. I will ensure there is enough to sustain the three of us until morning.”
The three of us . Well, at least he’d managed to change Spock’s mind about one thing. He did finish his meal, what little was left, and ignored the prickling feeling of lingering hunger in his gut.
Jim didn’t know how he was going to spend the next twenty-seven hours, but exhaustion still weighed down his limbs and, eventually, sleep found him again.
Sometime during the night, he awoke to the feeling of bodies beside him beneath the blanket. On one side, Spock, an almost imperceptible shiver running through the Vulcan’s frame. On the other side, Pike, still as death, though warm.
Jim could tell from the frost that bit at the tip of his nose that it was sub-zero out there, far worse than it had been when he’d first awoken, so he pulled the blanket over his head, ignored the smell of rusty blood and saline sweat, and eventually fell asleep again.
The nights here were very long, but Spock accepted this as fact. There was nothing he could do to speed the rotation of Alpha Novus V, or to make more use of the frozen night, so he meditated as long as he could. Meditation yielded less than typical results. Even though he was at it for hours while the others rested, he had trouble categorizing his turbulent emotions.
There was something akin to fear growing in him, something that distracted him, pulled at his thoughts when his mind attempted to lay dormant. It manifested in repeated glances at his companions, the concerned knitting of his brows, the restlessness he couldn’t shake. However, he also attempted to make sense of the emotion’s counterpoint-- hope, which he could only identify by its opposition to fear. It had been growing in him since the moment he’d discovered Lieutenant Kirk alive.
It was illogical to feel two discordant emotions at once, and so he attempted to quell them. By Spock’s opinion, the twenty-seven hours between his conversation with James Kirk and the drawn-out dawn of the planet’s day seemed to pass impossibly slow.
The night worsened when it started to get cold. At about 6600 hours, the planet outside would be inhospitable. In the cave, it was something they could survive, but barely. He dragged Captain Pike on the stretcher and settled him beside Kirk, then bedded himself down on the man’s other side. With the two emergency blankets and the body heat of three people, they would make it.
Pike awoke once during the night, at its coldest point. Spock gave him a draught of water from his canteen and risked the cold to bring a small portion of berries to his captain, but as suspected Pike did not eat. They spoke for a few minutes, though Spock was not sure if Pike understood the situation they were in. When the man slipped back into sleep, Spock became certain he would not wake again.
However, if Kirk were anything to go by, Spock had a habit of underestimating humans.
Dawn did arrive, quite a long time after Spock believed it should have. Spending what amounted to more than a full standard day in a cave with limited provisions was less than ideal, but they had all made it to the other side of night alive.
When Spock stirred, Kirk was still unconscious, and it took Spock a moment to realize that he’d shifted touching-close to the human in his sleep. The need for warmth had outweighed the need for personal space, and he tried not to feel any discomfort at the thought. At least Kirk’s eyes remained closed, long lashes fluttering only slightly as Spock moved away from him.
He raised his head to check on Pike, noticing immediately that the Captain’s eyes were open.
“Captain,” Spock said, voice a whisper so as not to disturb Kirk. He slipped out from under the blanket, relieved to feel the bite of the night’s chill had largely dissipated. It was still far too cold for comfort, but no longer dangerous. He scrambled over to Pike’s side, and nearly allowed himself a sigh of relief when the Captain gave him a small smile.
“Spock,” Pike said, the usual commanding tenor of his voice weakened and dry. “Water?”
Spock complied, retrieving the canteen and tilting it against Pike’s lips. Water slipped down the dirt-streaked cheeks of his captain. Pike sputtered slightly, but drank.
When Pike waved him weakly away, Spock sat back on his heels, waiting.
With a deep, rattling breath, Pike managed to speak. “How’d you manage to get away with just a bump on the head? I’m a mess,” he said with a strained sort of chuckle.
Spock had seen his captain injured many times before, but the pallor of his skin and his voice--
He had never seen him quite this bad.
“Captain, you are weak. Please do not exert yourself.”
“I know,” Pike replied, a sharp breath following the admission. “Spock, you need to find Doctor Taigen.”
Spock paused, a thread of worry gripping him, unbidden. “Sir, I do not know if you remember her fall--”
“I remember, Commander.” Pike’s tone left no room to interrupt. “I doubt she survived, but you need to find her. Her medkit--” he stopped, wincing as he sucked in a breath. He’d gotten too worked up in just a few words.
Spock felt tension pulling at his brows, clenching his hands where they rested on his knees. “My first goal is to repair the shuttle’s sensors. We will find her, and the rest of the missing crew, much faster.”
Pike nodded softly. “You read my mind. Get that up and running and maybe we can get in touch with the ships, too. It’s a stronger signal at least.”
“Indeed. Though it may be the work of a few hours.”
“I’m an engineer,” a voice spoke up, and Spock slid his eyes past Pike to the face of Lieutenant Kirk. He didn’t know how long the man had been awake, but he seemed fully aware now. “If you can drag me to the console, I can help.”
“You are the designated security officer on this mission, not the engineer,” Spock replied, tone implying that he wouldn’t allow it. He knew that citing designations may be moot at this point, but he could try to dissuade the young officer.
“And the designated engineer is… missing,” Kirk said, shuffling up to a sitting position with clear effort. The way the man winced and hissed a breath through his teeth was enough to convince Spock that he wasn’t up to the task, but when Jim settled, sitting straight, resolution made its way back into his hard eyes. “You know I have the training,” he said, somewhat breathlessly. “Or did you let someone come along on this high-priority landing party without checking their credentials?”
Kirk leveled his eyes at Spock, a challenge in them. Spock felt his eyebrow twitch upwards. Seldom did a lower-ranking officer speak to him in such a way. Maybe it was the immediacy of their present situation-- or maybe it was simply Kirk.
“I am familiar with your qualifications,” Spock replied, “and, more to the point, your injuries. You will not leave.”
Pike turned his head to Kirk, clearly unable to sit upright himself. “Listen to Commander Spock, Lieutenant,” he said sternly, though the power of it was a little undercut by his present position and the sickly shade of his skin.
Kirk seemed to war within himself, eyes searching Pike’s for something, but thankfully he acquiesced.
“Yes sir,” he said, lowly. “Just, Commander,” He turned his eyes back to Spock. “Do me a favor and bring me a few things first? I can’t just sit here and do nothing.”
Spock almost sighed, meeting Pike’s eyes and hoping to find mutual frustration in them. Instead, the Captain looked vaguely amused.
“I believe, Lieutenant,” Spock said, attempting not to sound as tired as he suddenly felt, “the point of bedrest is to sit there and do nothing.”
Kirk’s hazel eyes darkened. “I slept almost fifteen hours last night. I’ll be fine. Please, sir.”
With one last look at Pike, as if for permission, Spock took a breath. “Very well. What do you require?”
Spock did not know what Kirk planned to do with a few large branches and the knife from the emergency kit, but he didn’t need to know. What mattered was that the lieutenant was satisfied and felt useful. Spock had come to the conclusion that usefulness was important to Kirk, and he could not fault him that.
He had given Pike and Kirk the remainder of their provisions and promised to return with more, and hopefully a medkit, as soon as he could. Then, he’d used the stretcher to drag the humans to the mouth of the cave. Kirk had requested as much so he could see by the natural light, and Spock wanted to ensure that Pike benefited from the fresh air.
He had also given Kirk instructions to clean and dress Pike’s wound. Pike had begun exhibiting symptoms of infection-- increased body temperature, swelling around the site of the trauma-- and Spock did not want to consider the difficulty of treating infection out here in the wilderness.
Another precaution, he’d left the phaser with them. He did not doubt that there could be larger animals on this planet than scans suggested, given the surprise of the rodents and insects, so it did not hurt to be cautious. When Kirk had looked to him and asked what he would do for protection, Spock hadn’t been able to come up with a satisfactory reply. He’d simply assured the man that he would be fine, and decided that he must be. There was no alternative.
When Spock arrived once more at the site of their crash, it seemed somehow more pitiful in the bright light of early morning than it had as the planet had edged into darkness. More out of place. He did not dwell on it.
The sensor repair was indeed the work of a few hours. Without the back half of the craft, where the engines and, therefore, the majority of the power were stored, and without the nacelles that had fallen off during their descent, he had to re-route power through auxiliary cells under the front console. He regretted the lack of excess materials and, admittedly, an extra set of hands, and doubted any repairs would last long.
But there was nothing to be done to change the situation. All he could do was work with what he had. He wasted no time in prying off panels and assessing the damage, but the process of repair continued agonizingly slowly as the sun climbed quietly into the sky.
After some time, Spock laid on his back on the tilted floor underneath the front console, where he’d ripped off all the panels but the one surrounding the screen. His fingers were raw from burns and the prick of exposed wires, but he paid them no mind. He had only one connection left to make. Twisting the last of the auxiliary units’ wires into the system input, he heard a hum as it sprang to life. Spock slipped swiftly from his alcove, knowing he had only moments to access the system before that tentative connection burst.
Settling into his chair, the first thing he did was send a signal up to the ships. He could only broadcast it once, but he coded it for priority one and hoped against logic that it would go through. Then, fingers moving fast across the screen in spite of their tenderness, he pulled up the scanner, calibrating it to locate the communicators of the missing crewmembers. The console pinged once, flashed their location, then a wire just below the screen burst and the screens went black.
He jumped back from the console, patting his slacks where a spark had singed him, and watched in futility as the wire fizzled, cracked, and died. The tip was blackened. He stared at it for a moment, but there was nothing he could do, nor would it be practical to devote more time to it. At least, not at the moment.
He thought of Pike and Kirk back in the cave, Kirk’s very human hope that the rest of the crew was still alive; Pike’s staunch understanding that they likely were not.
Spock found himself illogically torn between the two.
He slipped his tricorder over his shoulder. The sensors had given him a location, and he plugged it into his map now. The signal was about three miles off in the direction Kirk had come from the day before. He had many hours of sunlight left, but made haste all the same.
If the crew had been left out in the elements last night, they would require immediate assistance.
Spock kept his eyes on the screen of his tricorder and moved with purpose along a winding, narrow path, occasionally lifting his eyes from his device to confirm his footing. The hum of insects flitting through the air was constant, as was the smell of fallen leaves decaying, exacerbated by the growing wet heat. Small rodents skittered round the trunks of some of the larger trees, powder-white little things with sleek hair and stunted, puffy tails. They made no sound.
The insects were more vocal, and as the sun climbed higher, they seemed to intensify in volume, buzzing so loud at times Spock allowed himself flashes of annoyance. They avoided him physically, though, for which he was mildly grateful. Unable to get a close look, he noticed only that they were bright in color, hued in purples and blues, short, fat bodies with multiple small wings.
He decided that, once the immediacy of their situation passed, he would very much like to study them. But Spock of all people knew the importance of priorities, so he moved on.
Spock received readings of lifeforms up the path a short way, something high up in the trees. The lifesigns he picked up were individually small, but tightly packed together in a seam of light on his screen. He paused there along the trail, allowing himself the briefest moment of curiosity to look up. Above him, those wing-like leaves fanned out from their branches. It was a windless morning, so when a canopy of thicker leaves began to shudder, it drew his attention.
A cottony white head bobbed up over the lip of a leaf. It was no larger than an apple, dotted with four black eyes in two neat lines, and tipped with a stubby black beak. As soon as it appeared, it hid again behind the fan of its leaf, only to be replaced by four more curious sets of eyes.
Spock stilled as they stared back at him. The birds ducked, then ten more popped up, followed by hundreds of those small eyes darting over their perches to take a peek at Spock, the small invader to their home. A chortle rose from the group, a hollow sound as though someone were hitting an empty metal barrel with a wrench.
One bird popped up over the lip of the sturdy leaf. It held itself there with clawed feet, balancing a pudgy round body covered in a mantle of pure white. Feathers, Spock would perhaps say, or down. Looking at it from a scientific standpoint, Spock concluded that its feathers likely expanded during the heat of the day to allow its skin to breathe, and contracted tightly at night to keep its body warm. Fascinating, really.
It tilted its head and regraded Spock, just as Spock regraded it, then it shuffled slightly into a beam of bright sunlight, and its down fluffed, expanding into an impressive bustle. In the glimmer of this new light, its feathers became brilliantly incandescent — a spectrum of purples, blues, pinks, and yellows flushed along the feathers.
And with the backlight of the sun, Spock could see the dancing shadows of thousands of these birds, massive in a community nest in the cradle of the green leaves.
Spock privately admitted to himself a moment of awe. What startling creatures existed here. So much life teeming in the depths of a forest that, by their scans, shouldn’t even have existed. And it was beautiful. If he concentrated on the echoing honk and chortle of the birds, he could almost put the rest of this planet from his mind-- his companions in the cave, the broken shuttle, the calm near-certainty of what he would find when he reached the crews’ signals. But he could not allow himself to turn away from his task. There would be time to study these creatures, this ecosystem-- or there wouldn’t be. In either case, his objective remained the same.
Tearing his eyes from the sight of the strange colony of birds, he looked to the path behind him, and then to the path ahead. It struck him only then that he had found himself half-following a game trail.
Predators stalked game trails. With uncertainty before him and only his mental map of the path back to cave, he felt himself drawing on a deep well of instinctual fear. It was coded in all living things, Spock told himself, the fear in the face of the unknown.
He dipped his head and looked again at his tricorder. He had a mission to complete, and he had already dawdled too long. As he took a step forward, the birds let out a deafening chatter that followed Spock a great distance beyond the nest.
Pressing forward, Spock felt a new appreciation of his place on this planet. Its residents had never seen a creature quite like him. His smells, his sounds, the way he moved-- it was all entirely new. Perhaps if he was lucky, though Spock did not believe in luck, the predators would find his foreign nature disagreeable to their palates.
As he made his way farther into the thickening forest, he reminded himself to exercise caution. The tricorder now began displaying the signals of larger mammals. A ways off, yes, but close enough to register meant close enough to purposely avoid.
The trees grew incredibly thick as he edged into the depths of the forest, more than twenty minutes into his trek. The trees, and intermittent moss-mottled logs, made it difficult to see and to step. Far from the flat expanse of visible sand where they had crashed, Spock could barely see his own feet for the dense shrubberies that grew from the base of each tree. The flowers, too, were larger here, wide pink and purple plumes that climbed up tree trunks and obscured his vision.
He pushed them aside, eyes squinting through the leaves, and caught a glint of metal in his vision.
The shuttle. He shoved through the foliage to where trees had been felled, flattened by the crash, and saw the twisted remains of the shuttlecraft’s back end. As he moved to examine it further, something crunched under his step. He’d trampled enough branches and twigs along his walk to know the sound and the the feeling of debris. This was different. It felt brittle beneath his boot. With a sense of dread he could not understand or expel, he lifted his foot to look.
The fractured bone was human.
Horror dawning on him in spite of his usual control, Spock took a step backwards. His back smacked against the nearest tree and he flattened against it. With a frantic look around him, Spock scanned the debris-littered ground. He identified no fewer than ten human vertebrae, three femurs, two ribs and more smaller digits than he felt comfortable counting-- and that was just what was visible. Leaves and branches had scattered over them, as though a major storm had just kicked up.
Or as though the forest’s natural entropy had been progressing here for years.
Spock stepped forward gingerly, refusing to look at the bones, fixing his eyes instead on the shuttle. It was warped from its crash, metal torn, a nacelle hanging by a hinge, its condition impossibly worse than that of its other half.
The word ‘impossible’ occurred to him again as he stared inside. The carpet had been torn and shredded, scattered with leaves and twigs, mottled by exposure to sunlight. The metal, too, bore signs of use and age, speckled with rust around its worst tears.
By his estimation, the shuttlecraft he was looking at now had endured at least one hundred years of decay, and the brittle nature of the bones indicated an equal age.
He looked down at his tricorder, where it blinked steadily, showing he was right on top of the crew’s signals. Kneeling, Spock felt that overwhelming surge of dread as he lifted one of those massive fallen leaves. He swallowed something hard in his throat.
A single rusted communicator lay abandoned in the sand.
Jim figured that, in this case, he had to get used to slow progress. Whittling was hard, and he’d only taken one survival course a couple years ago, so the fact that the crutch he was carving was really just a branch with a curvy bit at the top didn’t bother him too much. It would, hopefully, still be functional. He had decided that making something that could help get him back on his feet would at least be more useful than laying around the cave all day.
But the wood was tough. He complained to Pike as he shaved off the branch’s rough bark, little by little, even drawing a laugh from the captain when he went off about the first time he’d whittled anything (a bow and arrows) and how disastrous that simple assignment had been. He hoped it was serving to distract Pike from his pain.
“You know, when you get back to Starfleet you might want to talk to the top brass about reevaluating their survival courses,” Jim said, concentrating on the slope at the top of his branch, where he was trying to sculpt the wood to fit under his arm. Pike had been drifting in and out of consciousness all morning as Jim rattled on, but now he looked to him with an amused sort of half-smile.
“Is that so, Lieutenant?”
Jim scoffed, though he was smiling. “You went through survival training. You know what a joke it was. Take bow-making, for example. They taught us how to do it, but then they just scattered some branches for us to find later and started us with all the tools. I actually overheard our moderator telling her assistant to make sure there was enough wood to work with. I thought to myself, Mother Nature isn’t going to care if there’s enough wood. Mother Nature is just going to exist and we have to exist alongside her. I don’t know. Some of it did stick, but I learned more from my independent study than I did from Starfleet’s certified course.”
“I’m sure you’re glad you did that extra reading now.”
Jim smiled at him. “I usually am, sir,” he said. He didn’t know what his rambling was doing for Pike’s impression of him, but he didn’t much care at the moment. He may not emerge from this disaster of a mission with a glowing recommendation from Starfleet’s favorite captain, but with any luck the three of them would at least emerge from it.
That was all that really mattered.
It was some time before Spock returned. Jim spent the time working quietly on his crutch, and eventually Pike drifted back off to sleep. He’d kept an eye on the Captain, watching the rise and fall of his chest periodically. The man was weak, unable even to lift his head.
Jim just kept telling himself that Spock would be back soon, maybe with survivors if they were lucky, and he’d heal Pike (and fix Jim’s damned useless leg) and then the ships would return for them. It had to happen.
He heard the crunch of Spock’s boots outside before the man came into view, each footfall deepening the sinking feeling in Jim’s gut. He only identified one set of footsteps.
Sitting up a little straighter, Jim set his branch and knife to the side, just as Spock emerged at the mouth of the cave. He looked dark in his thermal undershirt, shoulders lax in comparison to the tautness of the morning. Jim noticed immediately, if only because the contrast was almost startling. In one of Spock’s hands, he held a medkit, in the other, he’d tied his blue tunic into a sort of tote, likely carrying more food.
Jim had been starving up until that moment, but now his attention centered solely on the medkit. If Spock had found it…
He met the commander’s eyes, but Spock broke the contact, looking instead at Captain Pike, though Pike was out cold by now.
“I located the crew.” He said simply.
Jim wouldn’t accept that alone. Blood running cold in his veins, he forced himself to ask. “Dead?”
Spock answered him with a look before he spoke, eyes narrowed. “Yes, Lieutenant.”
Something clenched in Jim’s stomach and he felt his eyes fall to the floor. He’d hoped-- it was so stupid, but he had hoped . His memory returned once again to the look of fear in Taigen’s eyes as she’d slipped, to Nelson’s scream, which had been lost to the roaring wind the moment it reached his ears. His heart throbbed, chest tight, and he tried to force the panic down. He’d been trained for this, and he tried to remember what he’d been told. Shift focus, maintain calm.
But three people were dead. Three people were dead . How could he shift focus from that?
“There is more,” Spock’s voice reached him through the tumult, and he whipped his head around to him. “But it must wait. Are you stable?”
Shift focus. Jim steadied his breaths and nodded.
Spock set the kit, looking battered, down beside Pike, and Jim shuffled closer, wincing at the pain in his leg. He kept his eyes on Pike while Spock dug around in the medkit. He pulled a dermal regenerator from its depths and peeled the bandage-- a strip of Jim’s tunic-- off Pike’s wound, exposing the swollen, reddened skin.
Jim watched as Spock ran the regenerator over the wound, making three or four passes before anything noticeable started to happen, and even then the skin barely began to knit at the edges. The small machine hummed loudly with the effort, and Jim shot Spock a concerned look.
“What’s wrong with it? Why isn’t it working?”
Spock looked up, something unreadable behind his eyes. “There were unforeseen complications.”
Jim didn’t know what that meant, and he didn’t like not knowing. “What kind of complications?”
“As I said, that must wait. Allow me to concentrate.”
Spock turned the dial on the regenerator, upping its power and successfully ignoring Jim’s barbed look. But Jim knew that Pike’s health was the priority, so he remained silent.
After a few agonizing minutes of constant application, the skin over Pike’s wound was red and mottled, but at least recognizable as skin. Spock said he would not close the laceration completely, at risk of sealing the infection inside, but he could at least repair the worst of the damage. Jim could smell the regenerator overheating in Spock’s hand, but Spock used it until the last possible moment, until it made a sound like a blip and died.
They both stared at it, and Jim wondered if the Vulcan had the capacity to feel as defeated as he did.
“Do you think that worked?”
Spock shook his head. “It is doubtful. Repairs were superficial at best. It is likely the infection is deeper than the regenerator was able to address.”
“What does that mean?” Jim heard the fear in his voice and tried to shove it down. This was not the time.
“It means we have few options.”
Spock placed the busted mechanism off to the side, then dug around in the medkit. As he did so, Pike wearily opened his eyes, turning to the sound of Spock as though he didn’t even know Jim was there.
“What are you looking for?” Pike croaked, and Jim felt his face whiten, Even in the last few hours, Pike’s voice had weakened.
“We have one dose of antibiotics. I plan to use it.”
Spock emerged from the kit with a hypospray and a small tank of clear liquid. Pike coughed, and it wasn’t until Jim looked closer at the tilt of his lips that he realized it had been a laugh.
“I think we both know that’s not going to do much for me.”
“It may sustain you until the ships arrive,” Spock said, loading the dose into the hypospray and pressing it without ceremony into Pike’s shoulder.
“Come on, Spock,” Pike said lowly, “I thought Kirk here was the optimist.”
Jim watched Spock’s expression carefully, and he saw nothing. No twitch of sadness, no hopeful glint. Just… blank.
Jim didn’t even know Pike, and his heart was breaking.
They were all silent for a moment, Jim turning his eyes to watch the labored rise and fall of Pike’s chest.
“Don’t you think you’d better attend to the Lieutenant?” Pike prompted gently, and Spock seemed to break from a sort of reverie, like a computer rebooting.
“There is a bone knitter in the medkit,” Spock said with sudden authority. “Sit up straight and rest your back against the wall.”
Jim did as instructed, too numb to argue. He tried not to show the pain of movement on his face, but failed. “The knitter… It’s not in the same state as the regenerator is it?”
Spock’s jaw tightened and he circled round Pike’s still form, settling beside Jim on the side of his broken leg.
“Indeed it is. I do not know if it will completely heal you. It may also be painful.”
Jim had been treated with bone knitters before, and they did pinch a little, but somehow he didn’t think Spock was exaggerating.
“Well, if it gets me back on my feet, then it’s worth it.”
Spock nodded, removing the knitter from the kit.
“It would be good for you to get up and moving,” Pike said, almost in an aside to Jim. “I think the Commander could use your help.” Jim gave him a weak smile but Spock paid him no mind.
The bone knitter was a large, clunky sort of device, with two struts on either side that were meant to straddle the affected limb. It looked like it would function just fine, but so did the other equipment. Whatever had happened to the medkit didn’t seem to be visible.
Spock set about removing Jim’s splint as gently as he could, for which Jim was grateful. The constant ache had become background to everything else, but the second Spock shifted him even slightly, it throbbed anew.
Jim tried to concentrate on literally anything else, watching Spock’s fingers slowly untying strips of leaf from the branches. For the first time, he noticed burns and scrapes along Spock’s fingertips, green blood speckling the skin.
“Is that from the console?” he asked in an effort to distract himself. When Spock shot him a confused look, Jim nodded at the Vulcan’s hands.
“Indeed,” he said, glancing at his own fingertips as though he’d forgotten they were raw and bloodied. “I will tend to my own wounds at another time.”
Jim felt something in him soften. Though he knew Vulcans didn’t feel pain (or anything), it was strangely gratifying to think that Spock would endure the injuries to tend to his companions first. “You can do it now. I’m not going anywhere.” He gestured to his leg as evidence.
Spock shook his head, removing the last of the strips and pulling the branches gently from the sides of Jim’s calf. “It is unimportant. Please, sit still.”
Spock set the knitter up above Jim’s leg, programming it carefully and, with a look at Jim, setting it to go.
Jim didn’t consider the cave’s insistent echo when he let out a scream, part from pain and part from surprise. The knitter emitted the same strained humming noise that the regenerator had, and it clearly did not have the kind of power he was used to. Healing a broken bone had never hurt like this.
Spock put a hand on his shoulder to keep him still, and Jim pressed his forehead against Spock’s fingers, hands clenching against the ground beneath him, jaw set tight against the agonized noises his empty lungs were trying to make.
It took a long while before the machine pinged to signal the task’s completion, longer than Jim could measure in his state of mind, but Spock sat beside him the whole time, a silent sort of pillar with a steady hand. At points, Pike would say something encouraging-- albeit weakly-- from beside him, but between the humming of the machine and the blood rushing through his ears, Jim didn’t once hear him.
When it finally ended, he gasped his relief, and Spock released his shoulder. Jim lifted his head and rested it against the wall behind him, eyes closed, mouth agape, desperate for air. He’d been holding his breath as the knitter did its job.
“Was it successful?” Spock asked, and he sounded so far away past the headache that pounded in Jim’s temples.
Jim took a moment to compose himself and gently lifted his leg, too afraid to actually look at it.
There was a twinge, but nothing like the excruciating pain of moments before. “I don’t know,” he said honestly, casting his eyes to Spock. “I think I need a second before I can test it.”
Spock nodded and collapsed the knitter’s struts, tucking it back into the kit. “Very well. Rest.” He looked over at Pike. “Both of you.”
Jim huffed his disapproval. It felt like all he’d done was rest. He wanted to help. He needed to help.
“Listen to him, kid,” Pike said, eyes closed. Jim was a little startled by the demotion from Lieutenant. “Rest. Spock can handle this.” There were a few moments of silence before Jim noticed Pike’s breathing even out. The captain shouldn’t have been sleeping so much. Something was wrong. Spock was probably correct in saying the infection was too deep now.
Really, Pike’s only hope was a fast rescue.
Jim’s eyes lingered on Pike for a moment, then he returned his head to the cool, rough texture of the cave’s wall, oddly soothing against his heated skin. “Thanks, Commander,” he said, almost reluctantly. “I think you’ve saved my life a few times now.”
“It is of no consequence,” Spock replied, and Jim restrained a sigh.
“I’m trying to be grateful.”
“And I am trying to get us off this planet. The process will no doubt go faster with you in working order.”
There was a pause, and Jim cracked open his eyes to see Spock fiddling with the dermal regenerator. Prying off the back casing, Spock tilted the device toward the light from the cave’s opening.
“They wouldn’t have left us, would they?” Jim asked suddenly, giving voice to one of the myriad anxieties that had grabbed hold of him in the last day and a half.
Spock looked back to him, considering. “The ion storm reached force-8 rather suddenly; such levels can pose danger to a starship. They may have been forced to abandon the planet.”
“But after the storm. They would’ve come back.”
Spock returned his eyes to the regenerator and set his attention to the wires. Jim watched him work while Spock remained silent, but somehow Jim didn’t think the Vulcan was going to answer. He didn’t really need to. Reasons aside, Jim knew the ships weren’t coming back for them. It was a gut feeling, nothing more, but somehow he just knew.
As Spock worked and pointedly ignored Jim’s question, Jim found a kind of meditative calm in the careful way in which Spock handled each wire, extending, extracting and connecting them with absolute precision. Everything about Spock was done with absolute precision. Even with almost forty hours of stubble on his cheeks and dirt streaking his clothes and scuffing his boots, somehow he still looked like he was in control. It was comforting in a way, but also disconcerting. No one should be okay in a situation like this.
After a good few minutes, Jim was the first to break the silence, finally asking what he’d hoped Spock would volunteer on his own.
“So tell me about these ‘unforeseen complications,’” he said, and Spock stilled for a moment.
“We must wait for the Captain to awaken. I will not compromise his command.”
Jim glanced at Pike, out like a light, and returned his eyes to Spock.
“I won’t let on that you told me, I promise. I’ll even act surprised.”
“Mister Spock.” Jim did his best to look self-assured and commanding, though he was shirtless, bandaged, sweat-streaked and exhausted. The Science Officer of the Enterprise deserved respect, but goddamnit Jim did too, and he was tired of being treated like the baby of the landing party. “Three of our party are dead and we can’t reach the ships. As ‘designated security officer’ on this mission,” he threw Spock’s earlier rationalization back to him, “it is imperative that I be appraised of the full situation so I can do my job. I would call that a logical reason to tell me what’s going on, wouldn’t you?”
It probably wasn’t a good idea to dare a Vulcan, but Jim didn’t care. He couldn’t stand a mystery and, until he had all the facts, he couldn’t do anything. Jim Kirk was not the kind of person who could stand still.
Spock seemed to consider Jim’s words, meeting the challenge in Jim’s expression with his own. Then, to Jim’s complete shock, he tilted his head in a brief nod. “Very well, Lieutenant. You do make a logical argument.”
He hadn’t expected that.
“Thank you,” he said, more exasperated than grateful. “Now, what happened out there?”
Spock set aside the dermal regenerator, then pulled the tricorder from his shoulder. Jim watched him navigate the screen, blue light reflecting in his intensely dark eyes.
When he had called up whatever it was he wanted to show Jim, he handed it over. Jim took it gingerly, nerves setting in. If Spock couldn’t even tell him, it must be bad.
What he saw was a standard science survey readout. He looked up to Spock with a question in his eyes.
“These are the readings from the site of the crash. The back half of the shuttle,” he clarified.
Jim looked back to the screen.
Object: Class-F shuttlecraft, rear
Main composition: Steel, Iron, Palladium, Synthetic Fibers, Aluminum (Transparent), Plastic
Age: 157 standard years
Jim shot his eyes back up to Spock, then re-read the screen. He flicked to the next read-out.
Object: Bone, human, left rib
Main composition: Calcium and Phosphate
Age: 173 standard years
Continuing to flick through the survey, Jim felt a kind of frantic understanding forming in his mind. Scattered synthetic fibers, 157 years old. Single shuttle-standard warp nacelle, 157 years old. Human bone, 189 years, another at 173, one at 178. Factoring in the crew’s ages, these readings started to paint a strange picture. He’d wanted an answer, but not like this.
“Tell me the tricorder is broken,” he said in disbelief.
“Negative,” Spock said. “It was my first thought as well. I tested it on myself and various pieces of equipment from our own shuttle.”
“How can it all be more than 150 years old?.” He looked back to Spock, laying the tricorder limp in his lap. “We crashed less than two days ago.”
“Less than one planetary day, in fact. You understand why I wish to notify the captain. The condition of the shuttle’s other half is, theoretically, impossible.”
“But there it is.”
Jim scrubbed his face with his hands, took a deep breath through his nose, then returned his eyes to Spock’s.
“What’s the state of our half of the shuttle?”
“Inoperable at the moment. It required more work than I estimated.”
“Then let’s fix it. We need to contact the ships. Someone.”
“Mister Kirk,” Spock said, voice almost gentle. “I do not believe we will be able to reach the ships.”
Jim had a guess as to why, but he didn’t want to admit to it. The very concept of time travel was too ridiculous. Impossible. Though, everything about this mission so far had been impossible. The storm, the flora and fauna, the age of the shuttlecraft-- maybe they had to start reevaluating what ‘impossible’ meant.
“Okay.” Cautiously, Jim pulled his legs underneath him, testing his weight. There was a spike of pain, but it was bearable in comparison to the agony of before. Most of the pain came from his hip, in fact, where the makeshift bandage stuck to his wound. He stood slowly using the wall for balance. “Okay,” he said again, when he was sure he wouldn’t collapse just yet. “I think we should start by fixing the sensors.”
“The sensors will be unable to corroborate my working theory.”
Jim let out an exasperated sigh, leaning more heavily on the wall. “Then what do you need?”
Spock also stood, moving past Jim to the mouth of the cave. He looked up to the sky in the direction they’d crashed, and Jim could see him thinking in the hard line of his shoulders and the clench of his hand.
“We must wait until nightfall. I will have conclusive evidence at that point.”
Jim risked walking over to him, stepping lightly on his tender leg. “Nightfall is, what, thirty hours from now?”
Spock nodded. “Less than ideal, I am aware. Perhaps we may use the time to repair the shuttle, as you suggested.” He turned back to Jim, eyes level on him. “But first, you must rest. I will continue to repair the dermal regenerator.” He shot a pointed look at Jim’s hip, and Jim glanced down. There was a hard, dark stain on the fabric over his wound. He sighed.
“I can function,” he said, though he knew it was less a question of whether or not he could remain upright and more a question of how long.
“Please sit, Lieutenant.”
Jim shook his head in a sort of disbelieving impatience, throwing his hands in the air. “Fine, you win.” He turned back toward his sad bed of leaves, where Pike lay motionless but for his labored breaths.
“I am currently the officer in command,” Spock said from behind him, “I believe it would be considered mutiny if I did not ‘win.’”
A cord of tension snapped and Jim let out a laugh that surprised even him, something loud and barking that echoed in the cave, out-of-place. With a breath that felt like his first breath in a long while, he turned back to Spock with a quizzical smile. “I can’t tell if that was a joke or not,” he said.
Spock drew level with him, then passed, returning to the dermal regenerator he’d abandoned and taking his seat on the hard cave floor.
“Vulcans do not joke.”
“Could have fooled me.”
Though Spock didn’t necessarily have ‘expressions’ as far as Jim could tell, his face currently read as indignant annoyance. “Nor do Vulcans ‘fool,’ as I believe the term is synonymous with ‘joke.’”
“It’s an expression, Commander,” he said, sitting down and attempting to rub the ache in his temples away.
“Ah,” Spock said, looking back into the mess of wires that was the busted device. “Of course. You humans do enjoy your figures of speech.”
Jim smiled and leaned back against the cave wall. Slowly, his eyes fell shut. Now that he’d settled, he found he didn’t have much energy to talk. To move. To do much of anything. So he listened to the screech of insects outside, the subtle sounds of Spock’s fingers straightening wires. But the sound was just a backdrop, now. White noise to his swirling thoughts. It didn’t take long for the smile to fade from his face, undistracted now as he was without conversation, occupation.
The settling silence was uncomfortable, filled with quiet anxieties that buzzed around his mind. He should rest, he told himself. He needed to rest. But all he wanted to do was find the crash site and see it for himself-- maybe even give his crewmates the proper burial they deserved. That was one thing he could do, one small thing he could accomplish.
If they really were alone out here, maybe it was all he could do.
Fitfully, and reluctantly, exhaustion caught up to him.
The revolution is successful.
Jim heard the words echoing, and suddenly he was standing in shadow. Before him, bright lights switched on with a mechanical hum, flooding what looked to be a tall, stage-like platform with light. He raised an arm against the glare, waiting for his eyes to adjust.
The hum of the lights began to get louder, vibrating, and he realized that a huddled group of four people-- each in colorful Starfleet uniforms-- stood nervously on the stage.
But survival depends on drastic measures. Your continued existence represents a threat to the well-being of society.
The voice came from somewhere beside him, and he turned to see a darkened face, a silhouette, unrecognizable but for the words that came out of his mouth. Jim shot his attention back to the platform as the sound around him became louder, grinding rather than humming. It felt familiar in a way that caused his heart to pound frantically in his chest. He knew this sound. Why did he know this sound?
Carter, Taigen, Pike and Nelson, as Jim recognized them now, stood still on the stage, facing forward but holding each other for support, fear in their eyes. It looked as though they were unable to move.
Your lives mean slow death to the more valued members of the colony. Therefore, I have no alternative but to sentence you to death. Your execution is so ordered, signed Kodos, Governor of Tarsus IV.
Taigen’s eyes met Jim’s, and he reached out to her, a scream ripping itself from his throat.
The platform exploded into a shower of flame and debris and the last thing Jim saw was the flash of fire.
His eyes flew open to the sight of Commander Spock, sitting near Jim’s feet where he’d been earlier. Jim must have just dozed off. It took him a moment to realize that his own scream had woken him. It looked to have startled Spock, too, as the Vulcan met his eyes, looking… concerned?
He looked concerned.
“Sorry,” Jim said on reflex. “Did I--?” he turned his head to the captain, still sleeping. Or, more likely, still passed out. That was a small relief. Jim had woken roommates and lovers with his nightmares, but he didn’t really want the captain of the Enterprise to see him like that.
“The Captain is undisturbed,” Spock said in response to Jim’s evident worry. Then, the Vulcan paused before tacking on, “Are you?”
The question surprised Jim. He didn’t exactly expect a Vulcan commanding officer to ask after his emotional state.
“I’m fine,” he said, straightening his spine and rolling his head to crack his neck. “Just--”
Jim rubbed his eyes to banish the vestiges of the nightmare from him, and to have an excuse not to meet the steady gaze of the commander. He didn’t know how to finish that sentence.
“Of course,” Spock said sagely, returning his attention to his work. “You are troubled by the deaths of our crewmates.”
Jim’s jaw tightened, ashamed that he’d betrayed his troubled mind in sleep. “How do you do it?” he asked, watching Spock’s nimble fingers as they plucked twisted wires from the dermal regenerator’s insides.
Spock did not look up, but he paused briefly before continuing. “I am Vulcan.”
Headache throbbing anew, Jim half-sighed. “Okay. Any tips for the rest of us?”
Spock looked to him again, meeting Jim’s eyes as he lowered the device into his lap. “You must devote yourself to pure logic, the mastery of emotion. This can be accomplished through years of training and strict meditative practices. I doubt you are capable.”
Jim thunked his head against the wall once more. He let his eyes fall closed and wondered vaguely if the sleep that took him this time might be more forgiving. “Thanks for the help,” he said.