The door on the sim module cracked open and smoothly dropped into a walkway as the smoke cleared and the bright white overhead lights came back on. The hull breach klaxon had shut off when the emergency lights went out (when the fucking ship exploded; not much point in a klaxon in hard vacuum, after all), and it was momentarily too bright for George's eyes. He winced and let out a breath he felt like he'd been holding for a week, staying where he was as the rest of the cadets and a handful of officers--his temporary crew--picked themselves up off the floor and off of where they'd fallen over consoles and filed out. Nagata squeezed George's shoulder as he went by, but he didn't try to say anything, didn't try to make it better.
George wasn't quite ready to leave, so he continued to stay in the chair, breathing slowly to calm his heart rate and running back over the details in his head; he was sure to have to report on his decisions.
It wasn't that he'd expected to beat the test in two minutes flat. There would be no point in making a fourth-year command scenario a cakewalk, so he'd expected the situation to be complex, the variables difficult to assess, the crew inexperienced or pretending to be--especially this early in the term, and especially for someone with the class standing he held.
Had held, anyway; after this shitshow, for all he knew, graduation was in jeopardy. Okay, probably not. No one failed Starfleet for one blown exam. Still, if he hadn't expected to beat the scenario cold, he'd at least expected to solve it eventually.
What he hadn't expected was to get his ass handed to him. Two minutes, bullshit, he'd been completely screwed in forty seconds, and he didn't have any ideas, not one, about what he should have done differently. He'd gone mostly by the book, but he was pretty sure it hadn't mattered. He could have stood on the command seat and mooned the Klingons, or exercised his command authority by performing back-handsprings across the bridge, and he'd have been no more fucked. Six minutes from start to finish, and all he had to show for it was the pieces of his ship falling in flames into a gravity well somewhere while the two surviving Klingon crews laughed all the way home.
He considered just staying where he was and playing dumb when they came to get him, saying he'd thought he was to wait on site for his review, but, eh. It wouldn't help, and delaying the inevitable reprimand for gross incompetence was only a good way to make the whole afternoon suck (okay, so the whole weekend was gonna anyway, because obviously he had some shit to figure out, but the intense part was the near end), so after a couple of minutes during which still no better moves came to mind, he stood and followed the same path out, then turned to the right and into the command briefing corridor.
Admiral Archer met him at the door, his face somber even though his ridiculous little dog--a new pup, apparently--was eagerly dancing around his feet in a figure-eight. "Mr. Kirk," he said. "Are you prepared to debrief?"
George came to attention, then relaxed when Archer waved a hand. "Need your honest assessment, son, and I'm not a big fan of making a man sweat for no good reason. Whiskey?"
"Your ship just went boom, kid. All hands lost, yourself among them. Good a time as any for a stiff drink." Archer's knuckles were gnarled and his skin age-marked and wrinkled, but his hand was steady, holding out the glass. "Unless you have a religious or philosophical objection I failed to observe in your file, of course."
George shook his head, puzzled, and took the drink.
Archer poured another for himself and sat behind the desk. The pup leaped up onto his lap, and he rumpled her ears a bit and set her back down. "Lie down, Esmeralda." She barked once, but lay down, at least nominally, her ears alert as she kept her belly to the ground and her legs ready to spring. Archer turned his attention back to George. "So, cadet. How did you fail? Speak freely, please."
"I want to tell you where I went wrong, sir," George said slowly. "But I... I have no idea."
"Any guesses?" Archer sipped his drink, and George did the same as he scrambled to come up with any response that made sense.
Finally, he said, "You know, the only thing I could have done differently woulda been to not take the test."
Archer raised a craggy brow. "And is that what you want? To have decided not to try?"
"What? No!" George shook his head vehemently. "Sir, I didn't mean that at all. I just mean, in the scenario presented, I didn't do anything to provoke the attack, and it wasn't like it was an unknown assailant, so it wasn't a failure to read the opposition. I didn't fail to exercise due caution. I correctly went to the aid of a ship in distress, and I correctly ordered or saw to signals and actions that should have been right. So what I'm saying is--you did say to speak freely?"
"I did, and I'm way too old to say shit I don't mean."
"Then what I'm saying it, unless the Admiralty means for the correct solution to be wild-assed guesses, I don't know what else I could have done. I made the right choices, and I would make them again."
"So you stand by them."
"And you accept the consequences."
"Don't like them, and in the same situation I would try to limit the damage, but yeah, going to the aid of a vessel in distress, that kind of thing, sometimes it all goes to hell. So yeah, I guess I do."
Archer nodded, then set his glass on the desk and pushed back his chair and patted his thigh. The pup leaped up again immediately. "Remember how I said I don't like to make a man sweat for no reason?"
"Sir? Yes, I remember, sir."
"You ever work with any Vulcans?"
"Don't worry; that's not part of the test. If you'd worked with a Vulcan, the obvious next question would be, what constitutes a good reason to make a man sweat?"
George wasn't sure he knew where the conversation was going, but it seemed to be proceeding a lot more pleasantly than he'd expected, so he shrugged. "Then I'll ask: what does?"
"Seeing how he responds when he does nothing wrong, and still fails."
George set down the glass on the near edge of the desk. "Son of a--"
"I know. Mean, nasty, generally unkind. But we have to know, you know. Have to know you won't refuse to consider whether you were wrong, and have to know your psyche won't fall to pieces when you just plain lose. Preferably your losses in the field won't involve an entire ship, but you will see some loss, and it will suck every damn time."
George shook his head. "Is there a way to beat the scenario, sir?"
"Not a one. The guys running the back end have no outcome that isn't the destruction of the 'fleet ship. Oh, and you're hereby constrained against mentioning any such thing, or giving any clue to that reality, to any of your peers. Clear?"
"Of course." George watched Archer scritch Esmeralda's ears a few more times, then asked, "Is there anything else?"
"No, you're free to go."
George stood and went to the door, then turned back. "Sir?"
"Is it possible to do better than I actually did?"
"Depends on your definition of better. It's possible to last longer; the individual crew outcomes tend to be worse in those cases. Your approach was over quickly, and there's something to be said for taking out some of the enemy when you go, as long as you're totally screwed anyway. You did fine, son, and I trust that with a little real-life battle experience, you'd do a little better. Not much because, as I said, no-win scenario. Mean, nasty, and generally unkind."
"Understood, sir." George went through the door and back through the sim complex toward the library. And then, on a whim, he changed his mind. His ship had just gone boom, all hands lost, and no, he wasn't going to fall to pieces, but Archer had a point: this was as good a reason as any to have a drink, think things through, come to terms with it all.
The bar was comfortably busy for the middle of the afternoon; there were three or four small groups gathered around tables and a scattering of what George figured were mostly regulars along the bar, and he stood in the doorway for a moment.
He thought about going to a table; there were several open and it wasn't like there wasn't room. But really, he was here for a couple of drinks and some easy conversation, and that was more likely to be found at the bar, right? He eyed the lineup and found himself a space and slid into it, between a Denobulan drinking--what the hell? Something bright purple that smelled like grass and tar. Ugh. Between a Denobulan and a sandy-haired kid about his own age who was twisting a nearly-empty cup on the countertop, watching the ice cubes melt.
"Whiskey, straight up," George said to the bartender.
Sandy Hair turned to look at him, a moment of something he thought might be shocked recognition crossing his face. It passed quickly, although George though maybe the kid looked familiar to him, too--something about the bright blue eyes and the breadth of the grin that replaced the recognition. The kid turned back to the bartender, pushing across the sweating glass. "I'll have what he's having." Sandy Hair glanced over again, smirking, and from the lines on his face--smile lines, but worry lines too--George revised his estimate upward; Sandy Hair wasn't really a kid any more. "We gotta stick together, guys like us, right? Whiskey's on me."
George raised his eyebrows. "Are we drinking together?" he asked. "You think we ought to discuss that first?"
"You usually have a discussion before you have a drink with someone?"
"But nothing." Sandy Hair glanced at the bartender. "His is on me."
The bartender shrugged. George did, too. "Your credits."
"You look like you had a rough afternoon, is all. No reason a guy can't see another guy looking all, what, I was gonna say pathetic, but you don't look pathetic. Dejected, I guess, and decide he needs a drink."
"My afternoon is none of your concern." George scowled, but took the whiskey when it showed up and knocked it back, noticing out of the corner of his eye that the other guy did, too. And then ordered them two more. "What the hell?"
The guy smirked, the expression again fleetingly familiar somehow, and picked up both drinks. "Come on. We'll talk at a table."
"Your idea of having a discussion is pretty fucked, you know. Discussing is supposed to involve both people expressing things." George slid off the stool and followed the along. "I don't even know your name."
The guy paused for a minute, then shrugged. "Call me Sam. And I dunno, discuss is derived from roots that mean, more or less, shake apart. Nothing in there says that takes two people. Maybe you're thinking of conversation."
"Oh yeah? What're you, in the Linguistics club? And I got an uncle named Sam." George sat across from Sam and swiped one of the glasses, taking a sip.
"Common enough name. And maybe I was. You?"
"Command track." George paused. "Do I know you? You look familiar."
Sam wet his lower lip with his tongue, a broad slow swipe that if anything increased the sense of familiarity and at the same time distracted George from his own question. "I think it's safest to just say this is the first time either of us has seen the other," he said finally.
"Oh, nice. Linguistics club and probably the long-rumored section 31 or some damn thing."
Sam drank his whiskey and signaled for two more. "Or some damn thing," he agreed. "But we don't have to talk about work. What should we talk about? Where you from?"
George tipped back the rest of his second drink just as the waiter showed up with the third round, and set it on his tray just to pick up the next one. "Iowa," he said. "Very... boring, actually. Lots of corn. Lots of corn, lots of hoeing corn, lots of picking corn, lots of helping my brothers pick corn, and a distinct and pronounced lack of Starfleet, till the new yards open up in a few years."
"So, you're, what, a rogue farmboy who escaped?" This inexplicably seemed to delight Sam, and George found himself nodding and grinning along.
"Yeah, real wild man. Escaped to a military academy."
Sam laughed. "We all gotta start somewhere," he said.
"How 'bout you? Where'd you grow up?"
"Here and there," Sam said. "Mostly here, for the good parts."
"Your parents in the fleet, then?"
Sam's eyes went quiet, like the blue in them had dimmed from electric to slate, but then he blinked and he was fine. "Yeah, I had a lot to live up to. Hey, you know Robau?"
George thought a second, trying to place the name. "Oh, right. Commander, up to take the XO slot on Hood, right?"
Sam nodded. "That's the one. Good guy."
"How do you know him? Serve with him?"
"Nah. Maybe I went to school with him."
"So you're saying Robau was one of your classmates? Bullshit. You're like twenty-five. You should have been here while I've been."
"And yet, I haven't been. For the record, I'm twenty-seven, but maybe I was some sort of genius-level repeat offender whose…folks dumped him into the system as a last-ditch effort to save him."
"You seem--sorry, not like I know you, but you seem better than that. Or, like you could do better than that."
"Depends on your definition of better," Sam said. "Sometimes things don't go the way it seems like they should. Anyway, you can't say it's impossible, and it's been known to happen, troubled youth makes good."
"You're the second person today to say that to me, you know. That it depends on my definition of better. The other one was an admiral after I got my ass handed to me in..." George shrugged. "An exercise I'm restricted against discussing."
"Think I know the one. Distress call, Klingons, things going boom?" Sam nodded. "Yeah, there are certainly some differences of opinion about definitions for that thing, for sure." The waiter approached again, sliding a new pair of drinks neatly onto the table and retrieving the empty glasses.
"So you know about that, but you're a genius troublemaking prodigy in communications? Come on, pull my other one. I'd have heard of you."
"Comm officers hear everything, you know."
"True." George sipped thoughtfully. "But Win would have heard about you and definitely would have told me what I wasn't living up to. Right up her alley."
Sam gulped down the drink as though he was suddenly in a hurry and raised his hand for another. "Win? Girlfriend?"
"Hardly. Best friend. Total troublemaker. Pain in my ass when I get dragged in--you have no idea how often I have to go not just the extra mile, but ten extra miles to make sure I don't end up with the demerits she'd probably just hack in and take off anyway."
"Sounds like the kind of girl I'd have liked."
"She's not dead or anything--want me to introduce you?"
Sam shook his head. "I meant, uh, the kind of girl I'd have liked, when I was a little younger. I little wilder. A little more…" he looked like he was groping, and finally said, "A little more interested in girls, you know?"
George stood up, then bent back down, taking the obvious signal and whispering, "I got better whiskey at my place, you know." He held out a hand.
For a strange moment, he thought maybe he'd misjudged. Thought maybe Sam wasn't interested in the way he'd thought, but after a pause, Sam drank the last of his final drink and stood as well, chest to chest with him. "Then lead the way."
It wasn't graceful, the slide to the floor as they pushed at each other, rolling at first against the door and then slipping slowly down. George wasn't at all sure how anything had progressed, whether he'd shoved Sam against the door first, or whether Sam had taken the initiative, but he didn't care. Sam was open against him--under him, on his back on the hard floor of the tiny dorm room, hands pulling at his shirt and seeking for anything--waistband, shirttails, skin. George shifted his position again, yanking the shirt over his head so Sam could find everything he wanted, then tossed it aside and returned to where he'd been, kissing his way down Sam's throat, licking and biting at barely-stubbled skin. Sam shuddered.
"Okay? This okay?" George asked. He pulled away a few inches to wait for his answer, but Sam opened his eyes and looked up, eyes wide and needy, breath coming fast as he tried to reach up and pull George back down. "That's a yes, then."
"Yeah," Sam said. He pushed them away from the door, kicking it the rest of the way shut, and let his legs fall open for George to settle between, eyes closing again, face fierce and intense, but settled somehow as well.
George crawled up over him, ignoring the way his knees would probably wind up bruised, and went to work at Sam's old-fashioned button fly, undoing one and another before Sam shuddered under him again. "Easy," he said. He unbuttoned a third, and Sam smiled, eyes still closed.
"I trust you," he said simply. "Fuck."
"That would be the expected outcome," George said, and Sam laughed.
"You sound like a friend of mine," he said. "Not--I don't mean a friend like this. Just, for a second there, taking me so literally."
George huffed a slight chuckle of his own, then put himself back on task, rubbing the backs on his knuckles against the fine sprinkle of hair that grew coarser as he made his way down the row of buttons. After what seemed like forever, he had them undone and Sam's jeans spread wide, and he sat back on his heels to look. "You're beautiful, you know that?" He dropped forward again to punctuate the words with a kiss. "I mean--"
"You mean, beyond what you'd expect to say to some guy in a bar when--"
"No, I mean, really gorgeous. Look at you." He backed down Sam's body again and suckled at the head of his cock, poking out through the fly of the jeans and over the waistband of ordinary cotton briefs.
"You don't have to--"
"Fuck that. Want to," George said, wrapping his lips around and sucking again.
"Not where I was going," Sam murmured, his hand pushing into George's hair. "I mean, you don't have to say it."
"Want to do that, too." George lifted away again. "Want to do a lot things. Can I?"
Sam lifted his ass off the floor and shoved at his jeans until George helped, pulling them down over his thighs with a brief pause to suck red marks into the apex of his thigh, to nose hungrily at his balls. "Christ," Sam murmured. "You can do anything you want."
George groaned and tugged the jeans the rest of the way off, then leaned off to one side to rummage for the crumpled half-used tube of lube he knew was in the drawer at the head of the bed.
Sam reached for him, undoing the uniform pants he was still wearing from the exam that felt like days ago, and by the time he found what he was looking for, Sam was stroking him firmly. When he saw the lube, though, he stopped and lay back, hands hooking behind his knees, pulling them up and wide, opening himself up, hiding nothing.
George stared for a minute, then leaned forward and planted a sloppy wet kiss on Sam's mouth, licking his way in and shoving those legs even wider with his shoulders and chest. "Yeah," Sam said again. "Anything you want. He was hoarse and starting to sweat, cock hard, chest heaving, and George uncapped the lube and slid a slick finger into him fast, twisting, preparing him quickly because fuck, he wasn't sure he could stand to wait.
And then Sam curled up, looking down between his legs, watching raptly as George shoved in another finger, as George pulled free and positioned himself, as George pressed the head of his cock into Sam, and patience was easy. All he wanted was to make this perfect, and when Sam shuddered again, belly quivering, thighs shaking, George kissed him one more time. "You're okay," he said. "I got ya."
"Yeah, I know," Sam said. He pulled George in impossibly tighter with his heels against the backs of George's thighs. "You definitely...you get me. You got me."
"I suppose this was a one-afternoon kind of layover," George said, looking for a towel and finding a t-shirt to wipe them off with.
Sam blushed. "That obvious? He rolled to his knees and stood, pulling up his jeans over his bare ass, apparently more interested in speed than in finding his underwear, then stopped and took a breath. "I don't mean to fuck and run, not really. But I have to go. There are...I really have to go."
"You be back through on your way? I mean, if you mean to be, you could swing by again. No pressure."
Sam chuckled. "I think that's often my line," he said. "But no, I think I pretty much definitely won't be through again. Not while you're here, at least." He turned toward the door, then paused again and turned back. "Are you okay?"
"You had a rough afternoon. Not that this was a pity fuck--for one thing, those are usually kind of sad and awkward, and this was definitely not--but I mean, you know. Are you okay?"
George thought about that for a minute. "Yeah. Yeah, I feel pretty good. Not just, you know." He waved his hand. "This. Maybe that spot on the Farragut isn't completely out of reach after all."
"No, I think they don't wash out a good officer on the basis of getting his ass kicked by a completely unfair simulation. Farragut's a good ship. You'll like her."
"I expect I will. But how do you know I'm good, Sam?"
"Aside from the obvious crude comment?" Sam's face went a little sad, just for a moment. "Oh, I got a feeling. I get those a lot. Sort of like the one that put me in the bar today. And... forgive me for not saying this before, but my name isn't Sam."
"I forgive you. Mine's actually George."
"I know. I mean, I don't... I know. Anyway. I'm Jim."
"Jim. Good name. Good man." George nodded. "Jim. Well, goodbye, then, Jim. What is it the Vulcans say? Live long and prosper?"
Sam's face went still again, just a little, but then he smiled. "They do. The appropriate answer is, Peace and long life." He held up his hand, middle fingers split. "It's not really a blessing; they're too logical for that sort of thing. But I kind of think the concept is the same, don't you?"
George crossed and opened the door. "It is if it works like one."
"I'll buy that."
George stared at the door for some time after Sam--no, Jim. After Jim left. "It'll work like one," he said.
He pulled out his padd and loaded the astrometrics lab data, then started scrolling, but five minutes in, he was remembering the worry lines on Jim's face, the brilliant blue of his eyes, and he sighed and put his homework aside.
He wasn't that surprised when a search of the last three years didn't find Jim, or anyone like him. Not in communications, and not in command, and not in engineering, either. He went back two more. Nothing.
He picked up the astrometrics again, then set it aside and opened a comm channel. "Hey Win? George. How do you feel about mysteries?"
Winona's grin was wide and easy when she turned on the screen. "Dunno. Will solving them mean I have to cover the shit out of my tracks to keep from getting expelled?"
"Probably. I met this guy."
"Ooh. Wanna share?"
"Not--he seems familiar, and I can't find his record."
Winona chewed her lip. "You're thinking Section 31. Don't even deny it; you know you are, and I like the direction of your curiosity. Stay put. Be there in five." She glanced down. "Oh, no. Wait. Maybe I should get dressed first. Be there in seven."
George closed the channel and picked up his homework again. She'd get hung up on some fascinating problem, most likely, and show up at midnight instead, but it was fine. He had exams still to come, and he planned to succeed.