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Devour the Soul, Reaper of Men

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“Captain, I’ve got Admiral Pike on a secure channel.  Priority one.”  

“On screen.”

Uhura turned slightly and tilted her head as she listened to something on her comm-set.  After a moment, she shook her head.  “Negative, sir.  The admiral says your eyes only.”

Jim arched a brow, but shrugged it off.  It was hardly the first time that the Admiral had seen fit to shuffle special missions in his direction, he doubted that it would be the last.  Something classified from even his command crew, though… That was more rare.  “I’ll take it in my ready room.”

“Yes, sir.”

The small office just off the main bridge was still a mess.  In the weeks since they’d started off on their five year mission, he hadn’t really taken the time to organize it.  Even though they hadn’t made it out of charted territory, there were still too many other things to do, too many other things to see.  He knew that some captains spent most of their time in their ready rooms, that they conducted meetings and recorded their logs there.  

He preferred the Bridge for most of that and his own room for anything private.

Still, it was a good place to have for these sorts of conversations.  

He was trying to straighten a stack of abandoned books and PADDs when the view screen flickered to life and he looked up to see Pike arching a brow at him.  

“You do realize that you could get a yeoman to help with that,” Pike drawled.

Jim grinned and shrugged.  “I can do it.  No sense in hassling anyone else with my mess.  You look better, sir.”

Tired and pale as he was, Pike still looked infinitely better than he had bleeding out in Starfleet Headquarters over a year before.

He still wasn’t entirely sure what Bones had done - or when he’d even found the time in the chaos that had followed Khan's attack - but whatever miracle the good doctor had pulled out of his hat to save Pike hadn’t been as quick or thorough as the one that he'd used on Jim.  Of course, it also hadn’t gotten him dragged in front of the Ethics Committee like saving Jim had.

Apparently using illegally obtained augment blood raised all sorts of red flags and it had taken the combined political clout of Jim, Bones, and just about everyone they knew collectively to get the situation settled again.  Even then, Jim was pretty sure that the elder Spock had blackmailed or bribed someone that had been illicitly involved with Marcus and the mess he’d made.

“I feel better,” Pike admitted, tipping his head in acknowledgment.  “Dr. McCoy is very good at what he does.”

“That he is.”

There was a moment of silence as they contemplated just how much they both owed Leonard McCoy.  Then Pike nodded to himself and sighed.  “Actually, the doctor is a part of what I needed to speak to you about.  We’ll need to include him in this conference, but… I needed to talk to you first.  You’re going to be read into some extremely classified information and between that and the mission itself… I expect the doctor won’t take it well.  Your reactions, I’m less sure of.”

That sounded ominous.

“Sir?”

“Jim, I need you to keep an open mind and a clear head.  The things that you’re about to learn may cause you to doubt Dr. McCoy.  It may cause you to reconsider the trust that you’ve placed in him or that he trusts you in turn.  But I need you to stay calm and remember that whatever else you learn about him, you already know him better than anyone else ever has.  Because he does trust you.  And you matter to him on a level he doesn’t let anyone matter to him.”  Pike paused for a moment, letting that sink in.  “Can you do that for me?  Can you hold onto your reaction until you’ve had time to hear all of the facts and really think about what it all means?  Both for Dr. McCoy and yourself?”

Jim hesitated for a second before dipping his head.  Every word out of Pike’s mouth was making him progressively more uneasy about the upcoming debriefing and Bones’ part in it all, but the thing was that he did trust them both and he couldn’t imagine anything that could change that.  “Yes, sir.”

There was a long moment of silence as Pike peered at him.  Finally, though, he seemed satisfied with what he saw in Jim’s expression and nodded.  “Good.  Because if I’m right about what we’re facing, then there is literally no one else in the galaxy with the knowledge and skills to handle this mission besides Dr. McCoy, but I’d rather send another ship and pull him from the Enterprise temporarily than risk completely alienating the two of you.  I doubt either of you’d ever forgive me for that.”

It was Jim’s turn to arch a brow even as his mind raced.  “Since when does an admiral need the forgiveness of a mere captain and doctor?”

The older man snorted and rolled his eyes.  “Neither of you is a ‘mere’ anything and you know it.  That aside…”  He trailed off and sighed, rubbing his eyes and looking even more weary.  He still managed a faint smile, fondness underlying the exhaustion.  “I’m not your father.  I’ve never tried to be.  But you’re the closest thing to a son that I’ll ever have.”

Warmth unfurled in Jim’s chest and he couldn’t help but duck his head.  “Thank you, sir.”

George Kirk was a Federation hero, and a presence that had loomed over Jim's entire life. Despite that, he didn’t know much more about the man than what the public records told everyone.  His father was a voice recorded seconds after his birth and a picture that proved his mother had once had real life in her eyes before Nero had stolen it away.  Winona Kirk had tried, but Jim knew he hadn’t made things easy on her. Growing up, all he’d been able to see was the unfairness of it all and he’d rebelled against that in the only way he’d known how.

It had taken years to make his peace with what had happened, but eventually he’d come to take pride in the fact that he was George Kirk’s son.  

That didn’t mean some small part of him hadn’t occasionally wished that his mentor had come into his life sooner.

“As for my relationship with Dr. McCoy, well… That’s a bit more complicated.  Suffice to say, I’d rather not piss him off or upset him unduly if I don’t have to.”

“Me neither,” Jim had to admit.  Those weeks after Khan when Bones had looked like he might shatter whenever Jim got weak and shaky hadn’t been fun.  They’d kept the worst of it from the rest of their friends and crew, but that meant that the full burden of Jim’s recovery had fallen to Bones while he was trying to deal with Starfleet Medical and the Ethics Committee at the same time.

As hard as those weeks had been on Jim as he’d struggled to get back to what he’d been before Kahn, knowing what it had done to his best friend had been the worst.  

They’d had the only true fight of their friendship in the middle of it all when Jim had suggested that maybe Bones should have just let him die. After all, with Jim dead there’d have been no recovery to deal with and the higher ups would have had no reason to go after the good doctor.  

Bones hadn’t taken the suggestion well.

There was still a dent the size of his fist in the wall of the apartment they shared in San Francisco.

“All right, then.  Keep that in mind and get him up here.  The sooner we get this briefing over, the sooner we can get this situation dealt with.  The clock is already against us here.”

Nodding, Jim flicked open his communicator and hailed the doctor with a priority one frequency.  

He couldn’t help the small grin when Bones answered.  The man’s voice was as cranky as usual, but underneath the gruffness was pure affection and exasperation.  “Dammit, Jim.  What kind of emergency situation could you have possibly gotten into sitting on the Bridge?  I just saw you not even an hour-”

“Pike’s on the line.  He needs to brief us on a classified mission.”

There was a moment of silence and then flatly, “I’ll be right up.”

Jim had never questioned the way Bones and Pike were around each other.  He hadn’t often seen them in the same place at the same time, but beyond the mutual respect there’d always been a little something extra that couldn’t be explained away by what he knew of them.  He’d always known that Pike had been the one to recruit Bones, but neither had gone into the whys and wherefores and he’d never really asked.

Every man had his past, after all, and Bones had never pried into his.  

“I see he’s calmed down enough to let you out of his sight,” Pike stated, amusement in the lines of his face.

For months after Jim had regained consciousness after Khan and the radiation poisoning, Bones had refused to leave his side except for emergencies.  His less than diplomatic responses to the officers insisting he undergo investigation immediately hadn’t made their task of getting him cleared any easier, but calmer heads had intervened.  Including Pike once he’d reappeared on the scene.

Finding out that his mentor had been saved had soothed jagged wounds that Jim hadn’t even realized were hampering his own recovery.

Jim’s own smile was more fond than anything else.  “For an entire half a shift, even, before he comes up to the bridge and checks up on me.”

Before Pike could respond, the door chimed and slid open to let Bones walk in without waiting for an invitation.  

The doctor stared at Pike’s face on the screen for a long moment, quiet and suspicious.  “What kind of classified mission could you possibly need me for?”

“Hello to you too, Dr. McCoy.”

Huffing, Bones rolled his eyes.  “Good morning, Chris.  Now what mission?”

The good humor slipped off of Pike’s face and he sighed.  “It’s related to Olduvai.”

“No.”

“Doctor-”

Mouth tightening, Bones began flicking up fingers and counting off points in a harsh, rapid fire voice.  “Number one, it can’t be about Olduvai because Olduvai doesn’t exist anymore.  Number two, even if it was Olduvai, I’d airlock myself before I went back.  Number three, if it was Olduvai, we’d all be screwed whether I airlocked myself or not.”

“Bones-”

Pike waved Jim’s interruption off.  His expression said that he wasn’t offended by the outburst, that he understood where it was coming from. “I said related to Olduvai, not that it was actually Olduvai.”

That got Bones to go quiet and considering for a moment.  Then he sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “What happened?”

“What always happens?” Pike replied, his voice wry.  “Science experiments go wrong.”  

Bones crossed his arms over his chest with a wince and looked away.  Then he sighed again and looked back, nodding.  “C-24?”

“We don’t know for sure, but the evidence sure brings to mind what little I know about it.  I’d like you to take a look at what we have, see if you can tell for sure.  The information on the research itself was apparently kept hard copy and on hand. We still haven’t been able to find anything concrete about it.  I’m sending an encrypted data packet through.”  On the screen, Pike leaned forward to tap away at his computer.  “It’s not much, but it includes the distress signal we received from the research station where the experiments were taking place.  If it’s not C-24, then we’ll pass this mission to someone else, but if it is… You know better than anyone else alive what any away team would be facing.”

A trilling sound signaled that the data packet had been received and passed through to Jim’s ready room terminal.

A few taps of his own and Jim had it open.  The screen split, Pike on one side and the bloody, frightened face of a scientist on the other.  

Jim hit play and the sound of screams filled the room.  

Beside him, Bones leaned forward and gripped the edge of his desk.  

The scientist had probably been a pretty woman at some point, but jagged claw marks trailed down one side of her face, leaving her disfigured and bloody.  Her breath came in hitching gasps as she grasped something out of view of the camera and struggled to speak.  

“We didn’t- I don’t know what-  It’s not supposed to do this,” she sobbed.  “They’ve all-  We need help.  Please!  There was-  It was-”  It took her a moment and some obvious effort to get enough control to speak coherently.  She struggled through a couple of deep breaths before she tried again. “Please, if anyone can hear us.  Help us.  It’s all blood and monsters and it wasn’t supposed to be this way!”

In the background they could hear the sound of metal twisting and glass breaking.  The woman’s gaze swung to the side and her eyes widened in fear.  A clawed hand swept through the view screen, taking the woman’s head with it, and the monitor containing the camera fell to the floor.  

Jim had seen a lot of gruesome things in his life, but his mouth tightened against the bile that threatened to well up.  Decapitation wasn’t pretty, but he consoled himself that it was quick.  It wasn’t likely that she’d felt anything past her initial injuries.

From the new angle, they had a full view of another body sliding across the floor into the viewscreen.

Metal creaking pulled him out of morbid thoughts and his gaze jerked down to where Bones had clenched the edge of the desk.  It was crumbling under the strength of his grip and Jim gaped for a moment, completely distracted.

Letting go, Bones leaned forward and pointed to part of the screen.  “There, enlarge this.”

Jim obeyed distantly, half his mind wondering how the hell he was going to explain the damage to Scotty, the other half wondering how the hell Bones had managed it.  The man had a strong grip to be sure, but to crumble steel alloy like it was made of tin foil?

Hissing sharply through his teeth, Bones stepped backwards, drawing Jim’s attention back up to the view screen.  He leaned forward and took a closer look at what he’d enlarged.  The mangled body on the floor had a gaping, circular wound on its neck, a large tentacle-like appendage lying beside it, flopping around like a deformed fish.  

“I take it our worst fears are confirmed?” Pike asked, grim as Jim had ever seen him.  

Bones nodded.  “C-24 isn’t the only thing I’ve ever seen that would cause this level of mutation and savagery, but those neck wounds are pretty distinctive.  The primary transference for the full mutation seemed to come when the tongue detached from the original mutant and imbedded itself in the jugular.  Plus, if you look at where the blood is pooling here-”  He pointed at the floor under the damaged neck.  “I can’t be one hundred percent sure based on a video image, but those thicker black-looking spots look an awful lot like what C-24 does to the blood as it’s causing the subject to mutate.”

“I was afraid of that.”  Pike sighed and rubbed a hand over his eyes.  “Kirk, divert course to the coordinates enclosed in the data packet immediately.  At best warp, you should be able to reach the research station in a little under twenty four hours.”

“That’s pointless, Chris,” Bones interrupted.  “How long has it been since the distress signal went out?”

Pike’s eyes flicked away for a moment to scan his own data. “Approximately forty-two hours.”

“Everyone is dead or mutated.  Send a military ship in and turn the station into space dust.  Save the rest of the galaxy.”

The doctor’s eyes were harder than Jim had ever seen them, bitter and resigned in a way they hadn’t been even when he’d been declaring the Earth his ex-wife’s and insisting that the shuttle they were in was nothing more than a death trap.  Leonard Horatio McCoy was a pragmatist, certainly, but he never gave up even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. For him to condemn an entire space station to death without so much as a flinch went past pragmatism.  “Bones, this says there are over a hundred civilians on that station.  Some of them are children!”

“And I am very sorry for their loss,” Bones ground out with a scowl, crossing his arms tight over his chest.  “But I’m not the one that decided to play God with things I didn’t understand and sealed their fate.”

Before Jim could respond to that, Pike interrupted.  “While I do understand the temptation, the Federation will never approve that course of action.  Without definitive proof that everyone is dead and the threat is imminent and overwhelming, they’re going to insist on sending aid.  That is non-negotiable.  The best I can do is ensure that any team sent in is fully aware of what they’re facing and is as best equipped to deal with it as possible.”

Mouth tightening in a grimace, Bones looked away from them both.  “The odds-”

“Are not zero.”

“I think Olduvai speaks for itself.  There were ninety-five men and women in the facility when quarantine was initiated, almost another hundred or so in the connecting facility on the other side of the Ark.  Eight search and rescue marines were sent in.  Only two survivors walked out of either those facilities alive.  In six hours.  By the time we get there, it’ll’ve been almost seventy, over ten times as long.  That’s pretty damned close to zero, Chris.”

“If they followed proper quarantine procedures, there’s at least a possibility that there are survivors.  The blueprints of the station show a half a dozen safe rooms designed to protect them from everything from a standard biohazard contaminant to a Klingon attack.  We know that not everyone can be infected with the mutation, right?”

Bones hesitated a moment before turning back, almost against his will.  “We only had theories, but there were definitely civilians that hadn’t been infected and obviously-”  He waved a hand down his own body.  “I doubt anyone would have risked injecting themselves with pure C-24; not after their test subjects turned on them.”

“And the non-mutative effects wouldn’t have been duplicated any other way?”

“It’s not like we sat around and tested this shit.  It was hell and we were busy trying to survive and keep the threat contained.  Not necessarily in that order.  Mutated subjects turned who they could and killed the rest.”  Despite the words, he scratched his neck, expression turning to the kind of thoughtful concentration that Jim had gotten used to in the academy.  It was proof that this was his Bones, not a cold stranger willing to sacrifice innocents to eliminate a threat.  It was enough for Jim.  “If the scientists were able to get their quarantine in place before the mutation was spread beyond a small group and if the rest of the population was able to get to these safe rooms…  It’s possible. We could beam them straight into a quarantine here.  It’s been long enough that anyone infected would have turned, but trust me when I say it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Satisfied, the admiral nodded and settled back in his chair.  “Good.  Then do it.  This is already a disaster, but if we can save anyone, maybe we can lessen the tragedy.”

“It’s a lot of ‘ifs’, Chris.  We could get there and find that no one survived.  We could get there and find a hundred and five extremely deadly and hard to kill monsters waiting for us.  And in any case, that information needs to be destroyed.  Scientists are too damned lost in their own discoveries to really consider the repercussions of their actions and politicians are too damned greedy.  You’d think the Eugenics war or Kahn would have driven home that we’re not meant to be messing around playing God.”

Pike arched a brow.  “And what exactly do you call bringing people back from the dead?”

The glower on Bones’ face would have melted the view screen if it were actually physically possible, but Pike just smiled.

“Get to the station.  Evaluate the situation.  We’ll have a better idea of where to go from there.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Decide what your command crew needs to know and what can be kept quiet.  I think it’s best for everyone that any details not immediately necessary to complete the mission stays between us.”

Jim eyed Bones for a moment before focusing on Pike and nodding again.  “Understood, sir.  We’ll let you know what we find when we get there.”

The view screen went dark.  Jim took a moment to pass the new destination to Chekov and asked Uhura to arrange a senior staff meeting.

Then he sat back and waited.

It didn’t take long before Bones sighed and rubbed a hand over his eyes.  His entire demeanor slumped in on itself, weariness and resignation taking over.  “We all have our demons, Jim.  Olduvai is mine.”

“The nightmares?”

Bones nodded.  They’d started sharing a room after their first semester at the Academy, mostly due to Jim’s hacking skills and inability to leave well enough alone.  There’d been something about the other man that had drawn Jim in and, if nothing else, he hadn’t wanted to lose the only other cadet that seemed to understand his version of ‘normal’. That first semester spent with an eighteen year old, perky thing from the security track had been hell.

The nightmares hadn’t come every single night, but they’d come often enough for Jim to know that there was something worse than a simple messy divorce that haunted his friend.

He’d never asked, just provided quiet companionship and understanding, done his best to distract Bones from the ghosts that haunted his sleep.  

He had his own nightmares, after all; nightmares that didn’t necessarily confine themselves to his sleeping hours, and Bones had always offered him the same steady comfort.

“I’ve never heard of it,” Jim offered.  He needed to know more about what they were dealing with, but trying to force the issue wasn’t going to do anything but make Bones shut down.  He might get information, but he’d lose his friend.

The best thing he could do was let the doctor speak at his own pace, show that he wouldn’t judge whatever secrets were such a heavy weight on Bones’ soul.

Sighing, Bones settled heavily into one of the room’s spare chairs.  He stared at his hands, refusing to look up at Jim.  “You wouldn’t have.  It was nothing but space dust long before you were born.”

Jim’s eyes narrowed as he tried to put the pieces together.  There was too much missing and he couldn’t quite make sense of it, but he didn’t miss the implication, either.  Leonard H. McCoy was only six years older than James T. Kirk.  Which meant that he was either dealing with another time travel situation or that Bones hadn’t always been Leonard H. McCoy.  

He could maybe understand why Pike had been concerned about his reaction, but it wasn’t in Jim not to trust this man, regardless of whomever he’d been or where - and when - he’d come from.  He was careful to keep his voice calm and curious.  “How long ago?”

The other man finally looked up, weary and wary all at once.  “Olduvai was originally discovered by archeologists in 2026.  It was on Mars, but there was an ancient rudimentary transporter called the Ark that linked it to Earth.  The dig site itself was shut down after a handful of casualties due to instability, but parts of the facility were intact, including the room that housed the Ark.  A company called the United Aerospace Corporation had built their own labs around that and they used it for research and weapons testing.”

“2026… That was right after the Eugenics war, right?  After Kahn and his bunch fled the planet?”

Bones nodded.  “But before Green and World War 3.  Keep in mind, though, that the general populace didn’t really know what was going on in that regard.  We call it the Eugenics War now, but back then?  It was just ‘widespread civil unrest’.”

He said it with a curl to his lips and a look of distaste in his eyes, like he had a better understanding than any simple history book could offer.  Like he’d lived it.

“Countries were splitting apart, parts of the world weren’t fit for man or beast anymore.  The ‘civilized world’ was trying to keep its head in the sand officially and sending their coverts ops units out to stir the pots up even more.  War can be profitable and greed has always been a major motivator to humankind.   Hell, it’s probably why the UAC authorized half the research that was happening at Olduvai.”

“This… C-24?”

“They re-opened the dig site after a couple of decades and they pulled out humanoid remains.  Some of them were remarkably human right down to their DNA, a standard human 23 pairs.  But some of them showed a synthetic 24th pair.  It was hypothesized that the synthetic chromosome would make a human super human.”

Jim’s breath burst out of him in a rush.  “You mean like Kahn?”

He still had nightmares of Admiral Marcus’ skull being crushed, of feeling Kahn’s hands around his own.  For weeks after his resurrection, he’d jumped at shadows, made hyperaware and hypersensitive by the new blood coursing through his veins.  Most of the effects had gone away eventually, but it had taken time.  He’d been half afraid he was going crazy by the end of it.

“Maybe.  Maybe better.  The thing is, they didn’t know for sure.  They could only speculate.”

“But then someone took their speculations to the labs.”

“Well, isn’t that what scientists do?” Bones asked, his tone droll.  “Nevermind that there was little evidence to suggest that whatever had caused them to abandon their city in the first place was anything natural.  The two best preserved remains were a woman and the baby she was shielding, her arms raised against some unseen foe.”  He raised his arms to demonstrate.  “That’d be enough for a normal person to give a second thought to recreating anything they found there, but they were scientists.  Can’t expect a lick of common sense from the lot of ‘em.”

As amusing and comforting as it was to hear his friend’s voice settle back into something like normal, Jim still needed all the facts before he had to face his command crew and tell them something that may or may not be the entire truth.  

“What happened?”

With a sigh, Bones leaned his head back and shrugged.  “In 2046, they successfully recreated C-24 and chose a test subject.  They found a condemned criminal, a murderer that no one would kick up a fuss about.  Because, you know… That’s exactly the sort of person you want to give super human abilities to, right?  Patient zero mutated and it turned out that all their hypothesis and all their precautions were horse shit.  He got loose and he turned on them.  One of them managed to initiate a lockdown.  Standard quarantine, six hours.  The message he sent out was a lot like that one, only without the obvious bodies and without Carmack losing his head.  And without anyone on the outside having any fucking clue what the hell was going on.”

The story was too personal, the knowledge too familiar for it to be anything that Bones had read out of a book and the pieces were starting to come together for Jim.  He didn’t like the suspicions, didn’t like what they meant for Bones, but each piece of the story only added to them.  “The search and rescue marines you mentioned were sent in.”

It wasn’t a question, but Bones nodded anyways, confirming it.  His hands were clasped in front of him, knuckles white from how tightly he was holding himself.  “The double-Are-Tee-Ess, Rapid Response Tactical Squad.  They had their issues, but they were the best, Jim.  They’d been fighting Augments and atomic horrors and terrorists all over Earth.  And they went to Olduvai with no idea that they were in over their heads.  They went into the locked down sections of the facility to look for survivors and instead, they found hell.  Only one of the scientists was just plain dead.  The rest were in various stages of mutation.  Not that anyone had a fucking clue that’s what was happening at the time.  They were trying to save scientists from monsters, aliens even, maybe, without knowing that the monsters were the scientists.  That there were no survivors to be found.  If they’d had all the facts, they could have gotten everyone else out and just blown the place right then.  Maybe they wouldn’t have had to die to find out what the fuck was going on.”

He took a deep breath and Jim could almost see him force himself to relax.  

“The mutations took them apart.  Mutated the ones that would turn, killed the ones that wouldn’t.  They got their first real idea of what was happening when one of the marines that had been killed suddenly came back to life and bashed his own head in as he realized he was mutating.” Jim recognized the pain in Bones’ eyes. He’d seen it after Nero when his friend had lost as many patients as he’d saved. He’d seen it again the first time he’d managed to convince Bones that he was strong enough for a report after Kahn. None of the Enterprise’s medical staff could be blamed for any of those deaths, least of all Bones, but that was who Leonard McCoy was. He took every death that he hadn’t been able to prevent personally. “Patient zero managed to escape back through the Ark to Earth.  By then there were only four of the eight marines left.  They followed, but they were too late.  Everyone had been killed or turned.  They had to go through and shoot the corpses just to make sure they stayed dead.  It was enough to make a man crazy and one of them turned on the others.  He shot one before he got dragged off and mutated, another got shredded by the original big, bad himself.”

“And the fourth?”

“Caught a ricochet to the gut.  Projectile weapons are a bitch.  Going to phasers is probably about the most civilized thing humanity coulda done.  He was a dead man walkin’, even if they hadn’t been in a firefight with a horde of fuckin’ zombies, but the last scientist left standing was his sister and she was more stubborn than any marine ever dreamed of bein’.”

“She injected you with pure C-24.”  The tumblers had all fallen into place and it was the only thing that made sense.  Bones had been that marine in 2046.  Time travel wasn’t completely impossible, but given the things that both Pike and Bones had said, a super human near-immortal made more sense.  For a given value of sense.

There’d always been something just a bit… more about his friend.  In all the time they’d known each other, Bones had never been sick, had never been wounded that Jim could see.  He’d joked that it was just because Jim liked the attention too much to let anyone else have their fair share of germs or injuries, jokes that had stopped being funny after radiation sickness had killed him.  

“Staff Sergeant John Grimm, at your service,” Bones answered, flipping a half-assed salute at him.  Then he sighed crossed his arms over his chest.  “Some days I hate her for doing this to me.  Most days, I just miss her.”

“It didn’t mutate you.”  That much was obvious, though Jim was curious to know if Bones had ever done lab work on himself, trying to figure out what, exactly, had been done to him.  

“Not in the same way, no.  Apparently, it worked on me exactly how it was supposed to,” he shrugged and glanced away before changing the subject, obviously uncomfortable with talking about the changes.  “Sam and I were the only two survivors that day.  It took some fancy story-telling to convince the powers that be to label the facility a bio-hazard site and keep the curious from venturing back in.  If World War 3 hadn’t broken out, I doubt we’d have managed it for long. Then no one was too worried about what might or might not be on Mars.  They were too busy trying to survive on Earth.  The UAC didn’t survive the war.  It collapsed under its own secrets and lies.  After the Vulcans arrived… hell, it just wasn’t that important anymore.  Nobody was poking around it until my idiot sister decided to get a team together to see if the dig site could be salvaged.  She died there, buried under rubble when it collapsed around her.  It took a few decades before I could manage it, but I found the biggest damned war head Earth had to offer and I destroyed  it.  That place took everything from me, Jim, but I buried it.  There was nothing left.  No more research facility, no more dig site, no more hell.”  He sighed and buried his face in his hands.  “I have no idea how anyone could have gotten ahold of C-24 all these years later, but this is bad, Jim.”

Jim suspected that was an understatement.  “Why did C-24 work for you, but not for anyone else?”

“Sam thought that the genetic markers for violence and insanity reacted with the serum and created the mutation.  She postulated that pure C-24 would only bond properly with DNA that was clear of those markers.”

“So the tests were doomed from the beginning, just because of the test subjects.”  

It made sense.  No governing body would officially approve human testing for something that could unleash another generation of Augments on the general populace, but unofficially… Unofficially, they’d crave that kind of power.  

Scientists would be pushed to experiment through shadier, less reputable methods.  They’d be left to find test subjects among people who wouldn’t be missed, people no one would cry foul over when they didn’t survive the testing.  The dregs of society, the very people that were the worst possible matches for something like C-24.

Bones nodded and sat back up, lacing his fingers together and resting his hands on Jim’s desk.  “If there aren’t any uninfected survivors in those safe rooms, our best option will be to vaporize the station, Jim.  Sam’s theory was just that.  A theory.  We never really did any genetic testing.  I was the only one left that was available to test and without the others to compare it to…”  He shrugged.  “All that was left was to guess.”

“It’s a good theory, though,” Jim offered, shrugging.  “And it makes sense.  I mean, it does make sense, right?  Genetics isn’t exactly my strong point, but you’re just about the most stable guy I know even when you’re drunk, belligerent, and sharing alcohol with complete strangers.”

The gentle tease got him another scowl, but there was no real heat behind it.  “I don’t get drunk and you were supposed avoid me after that.  Anyone else would have.”

That made Jim grin and spread his hands.  “What can I say, Bones?  I live to surpass expectations.”

“Infant.”

Jim smiled fondly for a moment at the familiar insult before he sobered and turned his attention back to the business at hand.  He leaned forward, pulling up the data Pike had sent on the research station itself.  It was a small space station on the edge of the Neutral Zone that had been repurposed when the last attempts at a peace treaty had called for fewer military bases along the Federation side of the border.  

The safe rooms glowed a steady green while a sector marked ‘labs’ flashed an angry red.  The rest of the facility was a mottled collection of clear and yellow.

“There isn’t as much separation here as there was in Olduvai,” Bones murmured, running his fingers along the edges of the red quarantine zone on the lowest level of the structure.  “The labs there were completely isolated in case of unexpected weapon explosions.  Here they’re just tucked into available space.  I doubt they even managed a proper lock down.”

“But it was a military facility first.  Redundancy in the defenses is kind of a given.”

“Not as much as you’d think and most of that is to protect the station from outside attacks.  No one ever thinks about the enemy that attacks from within.”

Frowning, Jim pulled up the specs for the safe rooms.  “We’ll be able to beam them straight out of these rooms into sickbay’s quarantine-”

“No.”  Bones shook his head.  “The brig is the only place on this ship that might be able to hold anyone that turns.  And even then, I can’t absolutely guarantee it.  The mutations are big, ugly, and strong as hell.  We’ll need Scotty to increase the quarantine shields there.”

“They held Kahn,” Jim pointed out.  

“Kahn wasn’t exactly trying to escape, either.”

Point.

“You wanna go down and give it a try?”

The look Bones gave him left no illusion to just how unimpressed he was with the suggestion.  

Jim just shrugged.  It was valid as far as he was concerned.  He nodded to the warped edge of his desk.  “You should have comparable strength, right?”

“Jim, if I want to break out of the brig, I guarantee you that I will.  Kahn could have if he’d wanted to.  Hell, Spock could do it.  All it takes is a little superior strength and a little more ingenuity.  Luckily for us, the higher brain functions seem to cease.”  He frowned and tapped his mouth in thought.  “Aside from whatever test subject they used, the population should all be scientists and their children, right?  A basic support staff?”

A quick check through the personnel files that had been included and Jim nodded.  “Yeah, looks like.”

“Military security officers?  Starfleet?  Or private contract?”

Jim scanned through the files again, more carefully this time.  “Looks like a mix of retired Starfleet and private, but I don’t see anyone that would raise any red flags.  Why?”

“Of everyone that mutated, only three seemed to maintain any sense of self.  The initial convict and two marines.  The convict wasn’t any crazier than he probably started out.  He had enough of a mind left to cut his way through the blast doors and use the Ark to escape through to Earth.  He wasn’t any smarter, but he wasn’t dumbed down when the mutation overrode his higher brain functions either, like the scientists were.  Goat kept enough self-awareness to understand what was happening and kill himself again.  And Sarge…”  Jaw working, Bones had to take another deep breath before he could continue.  “He was our squad leader for a reason and he kept his fighting skills and ability to strategize.  If Sam hadn’t injected me, I wouldn’t have had a chance.  As it was, it was mostly luck and the fact that I still had an SD Grenade on me that I lived and he didn’t.”

“I’m sorry.”  The apology felt inadequate, but there wasn’t much else he had to offer.  

Bones just shrugged and looked away.  “It was a long time ago.”

Hesitant, Jim reached out a hand to settle on his friend’s shoulder and squeezed lightly.  “I’m still sorry you had to go through that.  Any of it.”

With a soft sigh, the other man relaxed slightly.  Old ghosts still shadowed his eyes, but there was a faint smile on his lips as he turned back.  “I know, kid.”

“You realize that the old man jokes are never going to end now, right?” Jim teased, nudging Bones.

“You really are an infant sometimes, aren’t you?”

“Well, you know.  Compared to you, I think I may actually be.  I’m like, literally a fraction of your age.”

Bones rolled his eyes and shrugged off his hand.  “I’d rather that didn’t get around, if you don’t mind.  Figure out what we’re going to tell everyone while I go help Scotty make the alterations to the brig.  The man may be God’s gift to engineering, but it’s still going to be tight.”

~*~*~

The briefing was tense, but not as bad as it could have been.  Jim was an excellent bullshitter and Bones had had plenty of time to learn how to tell necessary truths without giving away all his secrets.

They kept it to the basics.

A little known contagion that caused mutation and psychosis with no known cure had gotten loose in a research station and they were being sent to render aid.  Dr. McCoy was familiar with the disease and no, he couldn’t tell them why because it was all classified, sorry.  

No one questioned the doctor’s expertise or skills.  They were as used to his medical genius as they were his gruff manner by this point.  If anyone noticed that he was gruffer, tenser than usual, they kept it to themselves.

“The brig’ll be ready, but I cannae guarantee we’ll have enough space for all the survivors.  The station has a population of….  A hundred?  Give or take.  We may have to bring them up in batches.”

“They won’t all be alive, or even most,” Bones replied, eyes on the table, arms crossed tightly over his chest.  Any of the ease he’d had when he’d left Jim in the ready room was gone.  He was more tense than Jim had ever seen him, braced for a return of his worst nightmare.  “Anyone caught in their initial quarantine zone will be dead or mutated.  Same for anyone too slow in getting to the safe rooms.”

Sulu frowned, leaning forward to get a better look at the doctor around Chekov.  “I can understand planning for the worst case scenario, but you can’t know that.”

The huff of a chuckle from Bones was anything but amused.  “That’s the best case scenario, kid.  Worst case is that the safe rooms weren’t enough to protect any survivors that were in the other sectors of the station and they’re all dead or mutated.”

“They have security.  They’re not completely defenseless.”

Bones sighed and rubbed one hand over his eyes, muttering about naive fools before he finally looked up.  “Infection to mutation is rapid.  Very rapid.  Level of mutation varies, but anyone infected will be looking to do one of three things with equally varying degrees of success,”  He held up a hand and ticked them off with his fingers.  “Spread the infection to anyone in the vicinity who is susceptible, kill anyone who isn’t, or eat.”

Nose wrinkling, Uhura arched a brow.  “What exactly are they eating?”

“Georgia peaches,” the doctor said drolly, rolling his eyes.  “What do you think they’re eating?”

“It is a valid question, Doctor.”

“Flesh.  They eat flesh.  Any kind they can get their hands on.  And since I highly doubt anyone thought to stock the place with cows, probably human flesh.”

Chekov looked like he might be sick, his pale complexion going faintly green under the blonde curls.  Uhura and Sulu weren’t much better despite their darker skins, though Sulu rallied somewhat.  “So, it’s like a zombie apocalypse?”

Though his expression was pained, Bones dipped his head.  It wasn’t like he hadn’t already called them zombies himself, after all. “That’s as good a description as anything else.  That’s why anyone beamed aboard will be in the brig until I can test them for infection.  We do not want this crap getting on our ship.”

There was a moment of silence as everyone considered that.  Then Spock turned slightly, his head tilted.  “You said ‘kill anyone who isn’t’… susceptible, I assume?  Not everyone will be infected?”

“No.  Some people have natural immunity.  The mutation seems to be caused by a reaction between the infection and certain genetic sequences, predominantly the ones that cause insanity and violent behavior.”

“Seems?”

This time Bones shifted, looking uncomfortable.  “The scientist who made that hypothesis is no longer living and all the data surrounding the initial outbreak was destroyed.  Well.  It was supposed to be, at any rate, though someone obviously found something somewhere.”

The crew looked at each other for a moment before Spock spoke again.  “How many survived the initial outbreak?”

Though everyone was looking to Bones at the question, the doctor’s hands were clenched tightly around his own arms and it didn’t look like he’d be opening his mouth to answer it.  Having to deal with this all over again was wearing on the man.  

Jim sighed and stepped in.  “Two out of almost two hundred.  In six hours.”

It was a soberingly low number and the others had no idea that it probably should have been far worse than that.

He could see that everyone was beginning to realize just what that meant for their cranky, but sensitive doctor.  Their captain wasn’t the only genius aboard the ship, after all and the intimacy of Bones’ knowledge coupled with the raw look in his eyes guaranteed that he had to have been one of those survivors.  No one would guess how or why or when, but only because they’d left out the specific details.

“We’ll rescue any survivors, but we’re not taking any chances.  They’ll remain in quarantine until Dr. McCoy is willing to let them out, even if that isn’t until we can pass them off to Earth.  I want a security team present at all times, phasers set to kill.  Even if the infected is a child.  It’s harsh, but it’s the reality of what we’re dealing with.  This infection won’t distinguish between ages or genders or species and we can’t afford to, either.”

“I can’t guarantee that phasers will actually be effective,” Bones said quietly, eyes still downcast.  “The weapons used before were largely projectile or incendiary.  And against the bigger ones, they were only effective if they destroyed both the head and the heart.”

“Prolonged fire on the kill setting can disintegrate entire boulders.”  Vulcans didn’t sound emotional in general, but Spock’s half-human nature meant that he was less apathetic-seeming than most of his species. There were plenty of little things that Jim had learned to pick up over the last couple of years of knowing him.  His first officer wasn’t quite incredulous, but he was close.

“At the expense of yer power supply,” Scotty interjected, propping an elbow on the table and leaning forward.  “Yeh might be able ta get off two shots at that power and duration.  Three at the most.”

Bones nodded.  “And they’ll be quick, hard to hit.”  He shrugged.  “Then again, the incubation period is almost nonexistent.  Five to forty-five minutes.  Anyone who could be infected were probably mutated long before we got the distress signal.  The only way there are any survivors to be retrieved at all is if the immune got to those safe rooms in time and that they hold up until we arrive.”

“We’re hoping for the best,” Jim said, keeping his voice calm.  He couldn’t let Bones’ more pessimistic scenarios affect the others, but he couldn’t ignore his friend’s concerns, either.  History was against them in this. “But we’re going to be prepared for the worst.  Pike hasn’t given us direct orders beyond a rescue mission yet, but it may become necessary to destroy the station.  Sulu and Chekov, make a plan for that.  We don’t want to leave any trace of this infection behind us for someone else to find, all right?”

The pair agreed with quick nods and Jim sat back.  “Uhura, I know Starfleet hasn’t had any luck, but keep trying to raise someone on comms.  Spock, see if you can’t come up with some way to prolong our phaser life or give them a bit more kick, just in case.”  He paused and looked at each of his officer’s, knowing they’d do their best to see that the worst case scenario didn’t happen.  “I don’t have to explain the severity of this mission, people.  This remains heavily classified and information is to be shared only on a need to know basis.  I’ll make a ship wide announcement to that effect shortly.  Dismissed.”

As everyone cleared out, heading off to work on their own assignments, Jim pulled Bones back.  “You okay, Bones?  Is this going to be too much for you?”

Taking a deep breath , Bones shook his head.  “My head’s in the game, Jim, I promise.”

“Hey, no, that’s not what I mean.”  He wrapped a hand around the other man’s neck and squeezed lightly.  “Are you going to be okay?  When this is all said and done, no matter how it ends, is my friend going to be okay?”

Bones managed to dredge up a feeble smile.  “This ain’t my first rodeo, kid.”

“I know that, but every man has a breaking point and I remember how bad some of those nightmares were, Bones.”  

This time the smile was more real.  “You’ve given me my worst ones with your kamikaze outlook on captaining a starship, you know.  More reckless than any ten marines I ever met.”

“I’m doing better,” Jim protested, shoving Bones away.  “I’ve only ended up in sickbay twice, no, three times - since we started this five year mission and once was totally not my fault.  How could I know that there was a nut based compound in that beer?”

“Jim, we’ve only been on this mission for a month.”

“Yeah, yeah.  Still.  Only three times and none of them were all that critical.”

“I do love how easily you can dismiss Anaphylactic shock as ‘not all that critical’.  It proves my point, ya know.”

“Well, I wouldn’t want you to get bored.”

As they argued about it all the way down the hallway towards the turbo lift, Jim patted himself on the back for the successful distraction.

~*~*~

Sitting in his command chair, Jim tapped his lips thoughtfully and stared at the view screen.  His crew weren’t considered the best in the fleet for no reason.  They’d arrived at their destination almost a full two hours sooner than expected and most of his command team were fresh having just come back on shift.

Everyone except Bones and Scotty.

That wasn’t really a surprise to anyone, though.  Scotty had a tendency to work until he was ordered to stand down when the ship was dealing with any sort of crisis that called for his expertise and Bones… Well, Jim doubted Bones would get a decent nights sleep until the entire situation was well behind them.  He foresaw a few nights filled with Romulan ale in their future.

“Captain, the distress signal is playing on a loop on all of the main frequencies, but I’m not getting any other response from the station.”  

Jim nodded to Uhura.  “Keep trying.  Chekov, are you reading any life signs?”

The young Russian nodded his head, but he was frowning.  “Yes, Keptin.  But I cannot tell you if zey are infected or not.”

A presence shifted behind him and Jim glanced over his shoulder to see Bones standing there, arms crossed tightly over his chest as he stared at the view screen.  “It’s an infection.  Check to see if the heat signatures are significantly higher or lower than the average.”

Chekov didn’t glance at Jim for confirmation of the order.  He simply turned back to his equipment and began running his check again.  “Many, many differences.  Throughout ze station, not just ze quarantine area.”

Mouthing tightening, Bones simply nodded.  “And the safe rooms?”

“I… cannot get a reading, Doctor.  Ze general defense shields for ze station are down and power is fluctuating in many areas, including ze quarantined sector, but zere seems to be shield interference around each room itself.”  Chekov frowned and switched the view screen, putting up the station blueprints.  A few quick inputs and the status colors began to glow.  The red of the original quarantine area had spread to cover most of the station.  All but one of the quarantine rooms remained green.  The last flashed yellow.  “Based on zis data, zere are most likely infected in zese areas.  If shields are up, maybe ze quarantine rooms are still safe, yes?”

Bones stepped forward and stared for a long moment.  “And the yellow?”

“Power zere is fluctuating wery badly. Zere is interference in zat entire sector.  I cannot tell much from here. I cannot see if ze shield is up.  Maybe somezing can get past, maybe not.  I am sorry.”

“If the rooms are shielded, we can’t beam them out.  Uhura-”

“I’m still not getting anything, Captain.  I’ve been trying on all frequencies and in all standard languages listed for the stations personnel.  The shield could be interfering or there could be damage.”

“Bones?”

Green eyes met his for a moment.  “Yeah?”

“Do you think there’s a chance that those shields went up before anything else got in with survivors?  Do you think there are good odds we can actually save anyone?”

Bones hesitated for a moment before he took a deep breath and nodded.  “If they were able to get to the safe rooms and get the shields up, they’re probably as safe as they can be.  The infection is quick, but it’s also hard.  Someone mutating wouldn’t be able to manage that kind of coherency.”  He grimaced.  “Well, most of them wouldn’t, at any rate.  As long as no one brought the infection in with them trying to save someone else, they may be alive.”

“Well then,” Jim replied with false cheer, trying to settle the roil in his stomach.  “I guess we’re putting together an away team.”

“No.”

“Bones-”

“I’ll go, Jim.  I actually know what I’m doing,” he muttered, crouching down near the Captain’s chair so that he could have his say with some illusion of privacy.  “The rest of you infants will just get yourself killed.”

Which, okay, Jim could see his point, but he was not about to allow anyone to go down into hostile territory alone, especially not Bones.  “You’re not going by yourself, Bones.  Spock-”

“Is Vulcan.  His genetics will have the entire station of monsters on him in seconds and I really don’t want to see how much stronger it’d make someone whose strength is already superior to the average human’s.”

Jim pursed his lips, considering.  “We can put together a security team, then.  They’ll all have at least some combat and weapons training.”

“Dammit, Jim,” Bones growled, leaning in close.  “No security team.  There isn’t time for me to test them and frankly, most of them will just slow me down or piss their pants the first time one of those things pops up outta nowhere and I’m going to end up having to rescue them, too.”

“Then I’m going.”

“Jim-”

“You’ve tested me backwards, forwards, and sideways, Bones.  Do I have any of the genetic markers that you think would make me susceptible to the infection?”  After the radiation, after Kahn, they’d both been afraid of what would be left behind.  Jim was glad that Bones had saved him, but he’d been so worried about the cost.

There wasn’t anything about his body and his medical conditions that Bones didn’t know, right down to his DNA.  

There’d been some surface alterations in the hypersensitivity, the hyperhealing.   As his body had finally caught back up, most of that had gone away, leaving him more or less his normal self.  A little better hearing, a little quicker with his reflexes, but basically the same as he’d been before.

Bones swallowed hard and shook his head.  “No.”

“Then I’m coming and that’s final.  Protocol is very clear on the point of single person away missions, Bones.  As in they do not happen.”

“As if you’ve ever given a damn about protocols and regulations when they don’t suit your own needs,” the doctor muttered before glaring.  “You get your damned fool head knocked off and I will reattach it and kill you myself, do you understand?”

“I got it, I got it.”  Jim rolled his eyes and stood.  “Spock, you have the Chair.  Chekov, Scotty is going to handling the transporter, but I want you to keep an eye on us, okay?  He may to need to beam any survivors we find up quickly, so keep him apprised of the situation.  Uhura, I need some handsfree communicators, asap.  Bones-”

He blinked as he turned to see that his friend had already vanished.  He hadn’t even noticed the turbolift doors opening. He flipped open his comm.  “Bones?”

“I’ll meet you in the transporter room.  Do not beam down without me.”

“Cranky.”

“He’s just worried, Jim,” Uhura said softly from her position at communications.  She didn’t often drop her professionalism on the bridge, but when she did, Jim knew she was serious.  “We all are.  If this thing has Leonard so shaken, seriously shaken, not like his normal show of gloom and doom… then it’s bad.  Be careful and take care of him.”

There were a hundred fears in her eyes, reminding him that he’d already made them sit through his death once.  And to the bridge crew, Bones was their doctor and their friend.  Those who’d known him in the Academy, knew he’d managed to sidestep hand-to-hand combat and survival classes.

They didn’t know that he’d once been a soldier or that he had a genetic advantage on his side.

Nodding, Jim stepped past her, patting her shoulder on his way by.  “We’ll be fine, Uhura.  Apprise Admiral Pike of the situation.  Then get me those comms, okay?  Meet us in the transporter room with them.”

~*~*~

Jim was leaning over the console, going over last minute calculations with Scotty and Uhura when something hit him in the head.

“What-”

“Take off that shiny gold neon sign and put that on,” Bones muttered as he dropped two large black duffle bags on the floor and crouched down beside them.  

‘That’ turned out to be a tack vest of some sort along with a set of dark clothes to go underneath.  He glanced down to see that Bones was decked from head to toe like a SpecOps marine that had stepped out of an old holo-vid, pockets bulging, weapons hanging from various places.  

Never shy about his body, Jim shrugged and began changing where he was despite the glare Uhura leveled at him before turning around with an aggravated flounce.  He took a moment to grin at her back before turning his attention back to his new clothes.  There was some kind of armor in the clothing, but it was form fitting and easy to move in.  “What is this made of?”

“It’s the ship synthesizer’s modern adaption of old body armor.”  The other man stood to help him get the vest buckled properly along with a couple of weapons holsters.  “It’s light weight, but it’s designed to distribute force and stop projectiles and sharp objects.  It’s also highly fire resistant, mildly acid resistant and should keep you warm if the temperature suddenly drops.  It will mask most of your body heat from the hostiles.”

Jim frowned.  It was all well and good to keep their enemies blind, but he didn’t want to risk blinding their allies as well.  “Won’t that make it harder for Chekov to monitor us?”

“No.  There are bio-sensors woven along the inside.  As long as we don’t vanish under shields, they’ll never lose a lock on us.”

As soon as Jim was completely suited up and buckled in, Bones began pulling weapons from the bag and attaching them to the new uniform.  “I know we’re carrying phasers and that Spock juiced them up, but we know diddlysquat about how well they’ll actually work or, supposing they do work, whether we can even carry enough to effectively defend ourselves.  I know these damn things work.  This is a G-36, semi-automatic.  Aim for the head and the heart.  There ain’t no point in shooting the damn things anywhere else, they’ll just shrug it off and keep coming.”

He held it up and released the magazine, showing it to Jim before slowly reattaching it, letting Jim see exactly how it was done.  “Each ammo magazine holds 65 rounds.  When you run out, release and reload.  Quick and easy, see?”

Jim wanted to say that he had plenty of weapons training, even in antique weapons, but these weren’t quite anything he’d ever held before.  “Yeah, I think I got it.”

“You either got it or you don’t, Jim.  And we’re not leaving this ship until you do.”

Though he rolled his eyes, Jim obediently took the gun and showed that he could reload the magazine if he needed to and Bones finally nodded before beginning to stuff extra magazines into Jim’s pockets.  

When he deemed Jim was carrying enough, he grabbed another gun from the bag.  “I know you know what this one is.”

It was a USP .45 handgun.  

Starfleet may have gone to phaser weapons, but there was still an old style shooting range that they’d both frequented during the Academy.  For Bones, firearms qualifications had filled his pre-requisite in combat.  For Jim, it had just been fun to feel the power of a real projectile weapon.  It was something that even the biggest of phaser rifles couldn’t replicate.  

There was a thigh holster that was obviously made for the handgun and Jim slid it in, marveling at the easy access.  He tended to tuck his phaser in the back of his pants which wasn’t exactly ideal sometimes.

“Standard photon grenades.  You know how to use them.”  He tucked the small round grenades into waiting slots on the tack vest and held up another, older looking style.  These looked more like a piece of gadget attached tubing.  “These are SD grenades.  Two ways to use this.  You either pull this to engage and then throw it - there’s about a five second delay after you release this other part here, so keep that in mind - or you press here to set the time delay, pull there to engage, set it in place and get the hell out of the area.  Blast radius is about ten yards.  It will turn most anything within five to ash.  Anything within twenty should be down for at least a few minutes.”

Four of the SD grenades were tucked into his vest, but Bones was frowning.  “What?”

“There were a handful of other guns I’d have liked to have, but I couldn’t find any data files for the synthesizer to use and I didn’t keep any of those with me.  You have your phaser?”

Jim had to look around for a second before he found it in his uniform, but he held it up before tucking it into another empty weapons holster.  

Bones nodded in satisfaction, but still crouched down to pull out a pair of phaser rifles.  He slipped the strap of one over his shoulder and handed the other over to Jim.  When he was done, he tossed the empty duffle on top of Jim’s discarded uniform.  The second bag was strapped to his back.  

There was a faintly strangled noise and they both looked up to see Uhura and Scotty staring at them, wide eyed.  The woman swallowed and shrugged, helplessly.  “You look like you’re going to war.”

“We are,” Bones said, his soft Southern drawl sliding away entirely.  “Mr. Scott.  If at any point, I tell you to beam Jim out of there, you do it.  You do not stop and question it.”  He raised a finger and jabbed it in Jim’s direction even before the protest could fully form.  “Do not test me, Jim.  Not only am I your chief medical officer, I’m the expert here, remember?  And if I tell you to go, you will damned well go.  I did not save your goddamned life just to have you killed by some goddamned monster hopped up on that goddamned poison, do you understand me?!”

There was nothing to do but hold up his hands in surrender and try to calm his friend back down.  “Okay, Bones.  It’s your call.”

“You’re goddamned right, it is.”  One hand came up to press against the bridge of his nose as Bones clenched his eyes shut and took a few deep breaths.  When he opened his eyes again, he was calm.  “Sorry.”

“No, I get it,” Jim replied, trying to reassure him.  “I know this is dredging up bad memories for you.  I’ll be good, I promise.”

Bones snorted.  “I’ll believe that when I see it.”  Then he sighed and fished something out of his pocket.  It looked like a pair eye visors, the kind that some security ops wore during night missions.  He handed them to Jim before pulling out a second pair.  “Put these on.  If the power is out, you’ll probably need them to see.  They’re also made to link up with the hands free comms.”

Taking that as her cue to join them again, Uhura began attaching the comms.  “I wasn’t expecting the visors, but it works out nicely.  We’ll be able to get both audio and visual feedback here on the ship.”

The men shared a look before Jim nodded.  There was no way they were going to make it through an entire rescue mission without something of the former marine being on display for everyone on the bridge to see.  Despite a moment of hesitation, Bones nodded slightly.  

They’d deal with whatever got revealed when they had to, but Jim didn’t want it getting spread around any further than it had to.

“Make sure everyone on the bridge while we’re down there has been read into the classification of this mission, then.  What happens here goes no further than this crew and Admiral Pike and anyone caught telling tales will face disciplinary action.”

She nodded before stepping back down to rejoin Scotty at the console.  

“If you think there aren’t already rumors being spread, you’re not the genius I always thought you were,” Bones said, his voice low as he did something with his weapon.  His drawl was slipping out again and Jim took comfort in the sound.  “A dozen people saw me coming down here loaded for bear.”

A click and swish sound and the gun in the other man’s hand suddenly emitted a feminine voice.  “RRTS Special Ops clearance verified. Handle ID: Reaper.”

That made Jim pause for a moment and he couldn’t help but snigger a little despite the seriousness of the situation.  “Wait a minute, wait a minute…  Reaper?  As in Grim Reaper?”

The sigh he got in return was long suffering, like he was used to having it pointed out.  “They were marines, Jim, not poets.”

“Still-”

“Scotty?  If you’d please?”

“With pleasure, gentlemen.  You should be landing right outside the safe room in the least compromised sector of the station.  Ensign Chekov assures me that that I’m not sitting you down right on top of a nest of beasties.”

“Hey, Bones, does my gun talk?”

“No.  It’s a replicate.  Scotty, we’re ready.”

“If mine’s a replicate, does that make yours original?  Is that old thing even going to-

“Energizing.”

The familiar glow and tingle of the transporter swept over Jim and the transporter room faded away.  

“-work?”

There was always a moment of disorientation when it came to being beamed from one place to another.  A sense of displacement as the mind tried to reorient itself with its new surroundings and circumstances.  It had never really bothered Jim, though, so his first thought was to check Bones.  

Transporters were about the only thing the man seemed to hate even more than shuttles and while Starfleet service meant he’d been forced to deal with them, he’d never seemed like he even wanted to try getting comfortable with them.

What he saw gave him a moment’s pause, though. The friend he was used to was still there, but the soldier had come to the forefront.

Bones had his gun up and was doing a visual sweep of the corridor around them.  There was nothing that Jim could see, but he waited until the other man gave the all clear before approaching the computer control panel outside the door to the safe room.

Graceful as any predatory feline, Bones prowled along the hallway while he checked the protocols.  

“It looks like this room went into lockdown within minutes of the initial alarm,” Jim murmured, running a quick systems diagnostic.  He blew out a sigh of relief as it came back clear.  “I’m going to unlock it.”

“Wait,” Bones called softly before returning to his side, gun raised and aimed at the door.  “Okay.”

It took a minute to work out what he needed to do, but Jim had yet to meet the computer that he couldn’t crack and these had always been meant to be opened when the calvary arrived.  His own Starfleet override codes were high enough to unlock the system.

There was an electric crackle as the shield came down.

“Keptin,” Chekov’s voice startled Jim for a moment before he remembered that he had the headset on.  “I am reading nineteen life signs, all within normal parameters for a human or other similar beings.”

Three beeps signaled the unlocking of the door itself and then it swished open and he stepped inside.  Behind him, Bones had turned to face the corridor for one last glance before he too entered and shut the door behind them.

True to Chekov’s words, nineteen uncertain faces peered back at them, all but one of them children.  

“Oh, thank god,” a woman breathed, stepping forward with her hand out.  “What’s happening?  Everything happened so fast and no one has told us anything.  We’ve just been locked in here for three days and the supplies in these rooms weren’t really meant for that.”

“I’m Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise and this is Doctor Leonard McCoy.  We received a distress signal and came to investigate and render what aid we could.”  

“The station is under quarantine,” Bones said, shouldering his gun and pulling out a medkit.  “Is everyone okay?  Anyone displaying any unusual symptoms?”

“Talia Matheas, teacher,” the woman replied, smiling faintly.  “Fatigue, fright, boredom.  Nothing you wouldn’t expect considering the situation.  We were having lunch in the galley when the quarantine sirens went off.  We’ve drilled for this a hundred times, but no one ever prepares you for a lock down that lasts for more than a few minutes, you know?  Still, they did great.  No complaints, quick as any Captain could want.”

Tricorder out, Bones moved from child to child, scanning each one.  He took longer with the teacher before putting the tricorder away, going so far as to prick her finger for a quick blood sample. Then he settled back on his heels with a satisfied look on his face.  “Jim, we can transport these to sickbay.  They need food, water, and sleep more than anything else.”

Jim hesitated and nodded his head, gesturing for Bones to join him near the door.  “Are you sure, Bones?  I know they’re kids, but…”

Bones shook his head.  “You said they got here almost immediately right?”

“Yeah.  According to the computer.”

“Then they never came into contact with anything that could have infected them.  And they’ve gone almost seventy hours without any sign of mutation.  You wanted a best case scenario?  This is your best case scenario.  I doubt we’re going to find any of the other rooms this easily or in such good condition.  We have a saying where I’m from, ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’.”  He paused and shrugged.  “Course, we also say, ‘beware the Trojan horse’, so….”

With a huff of amusement at his friend’s often contrary nature, Jim nodded and clapped the other man on the shoulder.  “All right, Enterprise.  We’ve got nineteen to beam to sickbay.  Let M’benga know they’re coming.”

“Aye, Captain.”

“You guys ready?”

“Will my mom be there?”  One little girl asked and Jim crouched down so that he was eye level with her.  She was a tiny little thing, but there was a look in her eyes, like she knew the answer was going to be ‘no’.  These were the children of scientists and they had to know that three days in lockdown and being released by a stranger probably wasn’t good news.

“You guys are the very first group to go, but what’s your mom’s name?  We’ll keep an eye out for her, okay?”

She nodded, wisps of hair escaping her pony tail.  “Okay.  My name is Meredith.  Meredith Smith-Jones.  My mom is Doctor Smith-Jones.  She helps sick people.”

There hadn’t been a lot of kids in Jim’s life, but he couldn’t help but reach out and tuck the stray wisps back behind her ear.  The move earned him a shy smile.  “Okay, then, Miss Meredith Smith-Jones.  I will definitely be looking for Doctor Smith-Jones.”

“Jim, we need to move on.”  Bones had already moved back to the door, his weapon held at the ready as he watched Jim make nice with kids.  The grim satisfaction was still evident on his face.

Nineteen was already seventeen more survivors than Olduvai.

“Mr. Scott.  Energize.”

“Aye, Captain.  Energizing.”

The whole lot of them vanished in a swirl of light and Jim took a deep breath before getting back up to his feet.  “One down, five more to go.”

Bones nodded before opening the door and stepping back out into the corridor with Jim right on his heels.  “Gun up, kid.  If one of these S.O.B’s catches you flatfooted, you’re dead.”

Obediently swinging his weapon up to a ready position, Jim glanced around them.  “You never answered my question, you know.”

“Which question?”  Bones asked, edging up to a cross section of the corridor.  He paused for a moment to fish something out of his pocket.  A mirror caught the reflection of the ceiling light before it was raised to get a view around the corner.  First one direction, then the other even though they could see more on the opposite side just from where they stood.

After a moment, Bones deemed it safe enough to swing into the hallway and get a more clear look down the left passageway.  

Trusting the other man to have that direction covered, Jim looked right instead.  There was more damage towards the end, but no bodies were evident and nothing screamed zombie apocalypse to him so he relaxed slightly and grinned at Bones over his shoulder.  “Will that old gun even work?”

Rather than answer, Bones jerked him back sharply and fired as something came hurtling over a pile of debris.  A body, twisted into some grotesque caricature of a humanoid form, slid to a stop at their feet.  “Yes.”

Bones pushed the body over with his foot and stared for a long moment before crouching over it and pushing limbs out of the way.  “I don’t see any identifying marks or credentials.”

“How likely is that, Doctor?”  Spock’s voice replied through the comms, reminding them both that they had an audience.

“Depends.  Tattoos wouldn’t vanish, missing limbs wouldn’t grow back, sometimes badges or pieces of clothing get caught in the mutating skin.  On the other hand, the bodies are obviously twisted beyond possible visual recognition and their DNA has been altered at a level that renders them impossible to match.”  One black clad shoulder lifted in a shrug that was almost nonchalant even in the face of such macabre information.  “Honestly, we’ll probably have to sort out who’s dead by who we find alive.   Start crossing them off the master list of personnel.”

“Keptin, Doctor, to get to ze next safe room, you must continue down zis corridor for another thirty meters and turn left at ze next cross section.  Zen right when zat corridor ends.”  There was a hesitation from the young Russian.  “Keptin.  You will be passing a large room with many strange life readings.”

“Is there a more clear route?”

“No, sir.”  Chekov’s voice always sounded like he was beating himself up for a personal failure whenever he had to give his captain unwelcome news, but this time it sounded absolutely crushed.

Huffing, Bones shook his head.  “Are they spread out in the room or clustered together?”

“Most are together, Doctor, but some are moving quickly around ze others.”

There was a thoughtful look as Bones worked something out, then he nodded to himself.  “Probably the ones moving quickly are like this one and the others didn’t mutate that far out of their death coma.”

“Or these things are herding survivors for some reason?”

“No, Keptin.  None of zese have acceptable heat signatures for human beings.”

“There were non-humans on the station, though.  Two of those kids are definitely not human kids. It could be non-humans that the mutants don’t recognize as food or playmate, right?”

“Captain, the files from Admiral Pike indicated that while there were twelve non-humans aboard the station, all but one had a comparable human physiology.”

Mouth tight, Bones began leading them down the corridor.  “Please tell me that none of them were Vulcan, Klingon, Romulan, or Orion.”

“To do so would be a lie.”

“Motherfucker.”  The curse startled Jim.  While Bones had never been a choir boy with his language, that one had seldom been uttered in his hearing and certainly not with such vehemence.  “Well?  Finish the bad news.”

“It would appear that one of the scientists in the xenogenetics research department is Vulcan.”  There was a pause.  “It would also appear that the xenogenetics lab is within the initial quarantine zone.”

“Obviously we weren’t getting almost twenty kids out of here without paying the fucking piper,” Bones muttered, slowing as they began to near the next cross section.  He reached out a hand to pull Jim in tight behind him.  “My life doesn’t fucking work that way.”

“Maybe he’s in one of the safe rooms,” Jim offered, peering around the other man.  

Dim lights were flickering on and off in the corridor they were about to enter, lending the area a creepy feeling even though they still hadn’t stumbled over any blood or bodies.  He watched horror holovids.  He knew that bad things in hallways with flickering lights.

Bones held up one hand, bringing them to a halt.

He pulled the mirror back out.

An entire section of lighting was out, almost all the way to the very end, but Jim could hear movement coming from an open doorway halfway down.  

Tucking the mirror away, Bones leaned on the wall for a moment.  His expression was considering before he finally cradled his gun with one arm and pulled a pair of the SD grenades out.  He held them up and mimed setting and throwing them before offering them up to Jim.  Then he held up his gun and nodded towards the corridor and the room they were going to have to pass.  

Jim had done enough combat simulations to know what was being asked of him, even if he’d never been a marine.  Nodding, he flicked the setting on his visor to active-infrared night vision.  Suddenly the darker shadows in the hallway became visible debris in front of them.  It looked like something very big and very angry had thrown a table through the wall on their left into the wall on the right.  Papers and PADDs lay scattered and abandoned.

He engaged the grenades as they began to pick their way down the dark corridor as quietly as possible, careful to keep ahold of the releases.  It wouldn’t do to blow themselves up before they even got to more monsters.

Bones paused at the jagged opening in the left wall and looked around the edges into whatever space it had once enclosed.  His eyes swept the room for a long minute before he shook his head and held up four, then five fingers.
 
Jim couldn’t help but look for himself as they passed.  Then he really wished he hadn’t.  Even in the unreal sepia of the infrared, the scene was gruesome.

It was unclear how many bodies all the pieces made, but they’d managed to take out at least one of their mutated coworkers before they’d been shredded judging by the twisted corpse collapsed over an overturned desk.

The room looked like it had been some sort of research laboratory and Jim found himself hoping that none of those pieces belonged to Dr. Smith-Jones.

If he had to find that little girl’s mother dead, he wanted to be able to say it had been a better death than that.

Gesturing for him to catch up, Bones slowed at the doorway.  One hand came up to call a halt and he cocked his head to one side like he could understand the faint shuffling and the scritch scratch that Jim could hear.  

The angle meant that Jim couldn’t actually see the view in the mirror this time.

Bones nodded to himself after a moment and looked back at Jim.  He held up a finger, then pointed towards one side gesturing in a way that Jim took to me he wanted one grenade thrown to the far left side of the room.  Then he held a finger up again and made another series of gestures that didn’t make any sense at all.

Jim shook his head and grimaced, hoping that Bones got how incomprehensible that had been.

Sighing, Bones rolled his eyes and drew a large square in the air.  Then, with exaggerated motions, he put them at one side and pointed to two spots in his imaginary box.  When he was done, one brow was arched high and his entire expression fairly screamed ‘did you understand that you idiotic infant?’.

Jim couldn’t help the way his lips twitched and he nearly brained himself with one of the grenades snapping a mocking salute at the other.

Muffled sounds of amusement filled both their ears and he knew that it was probably Sulu.

Sulu always understood how funny it was when Jim managed to put that particular expression on Bones’ face.

Taking a step back, Jim froze as a PADD cracked under his heel.

A second passed.  Then another.

None of the noises in the room seemed to change and Jim released the breath he hadn’t even been aware that he’d been holding.  Against the wall, Bones reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose.  His lips moved in silence, but Jim suspected that if it had been aloud it would have been a detailed list of ways in which Jim was the dumbest genius the doctor had ever met.

It was a well worn rant, but this time Jim thought he might actually deserve it.

He held up the grenades and cocked a brow in question.  Bones nodded and held up a hand, fingers spread to do a countdown.  Five.

Four.  Jim tensed and raised an arm.

Three.  He took a deep breath and emptied his mind of everything except the task at hand.  He’d seen first hand now what these things did and he understood why Bones didn’t think of them as people anymore.

Two.  A slight adjustment in his stance to center his balance.

One.

A last breath and he was throwing the first grenade through the open door even as Bones’ countdown hit zero.  Then he stepped to the side in clear view of the anything that happened to look and threw the second.

His first throw had drawn the attention of a few as it hit the floor and bounced a few paces, but nothing looked in the direction it had been thrown from.  He had enough time to see that the room had probably been a small mess hall and get the faint impression of a grotesque luncheon before Bones grabbed him by the vest and hauled him sideways and downwards.  They both tumbled to the floor as the first explosion rocked both the room and the hallways.  Jim curled under the other man’s weight as the second explosion sent chunks of the wall they’d just been leaning against flying across the hall.

When everything was still again, Bones stood up, dragging Jim with him.  “We need to get the hell out of here.  That will have drawn attention.”

Though Bones stuck his head in to make sure everything was really dead, Jim refused to look at body pieces he’d had a hand in scattering.  

He let himself be subjected to a quick pat down with nothing more than an exasperated sigh.  He could see his friend’s hands twitch towards his medkit and knew that it was only situation that was keeping a certain tricorder and hypo from being whipped out.  

“Come on.”

They set a quicker pace down the rest of the hall, pausing only for Bones to push another door open do a quick walk through.  When Jim looked at him in askance, he merely shrugged.  “The enemy you leave undetected at your back is the one that kills you.  Besides… if we’re going to look for survivors, it’d be negligent not to check every room we pass, just in case.”

It had taken only a couple of months into their friendship for Jim to realize that Bones was more of a realist than he was the pessimist that he seemed at first glance.  It was a minute difference and Bones’ particular brand of realism leaned further towards pessimism than optimism because that’s what his experience dictated.  But he could accept that good things could happen, too, and he was willing to put himself out on a limb or go the extra mile in the effort hedge the odds in their favor.

The older man - much, much older and Jim hadn’t really had a chance to sit and think about that yet beyond the potential jokes, but he would when everything was over and he could do it properly over a cold beer - may have been against a rescue mission in the beginning, but it was obvious he was committed to it now and that he didn’t want to risk leaving any possible survivors to a messy fate.

Jim hid a smile and just followed behind him quietly.  

As they turned the corner into the light, leaving the darkened hallway behind them, he reached up to flick the infrared off.  

The new corridor looked like a bloodbath had occurred from one end to the other despite the lack of bodies and debris.  Dried blood painted the walls and floor, splattered the ceiling.  There were places where bits of flesh and brain matter were stuck to the surfaces.

“How far down this hall, Chekov?”  Bones asked as he knelt to examine a pool of congealed blood that was liberally dotted with chunks of black.

“All ze way and on ze left.”

There was a frown on Bones’ face as he pulled out a knife and pushed it through the clumpy blood that Jim didn’t like.  “What?”

“This looks exactly like mutated C-24.”

“I thought that was what we were expecting?”  

“Yes and no,” Bones replied, raising the knife and sniffing the blood.  “Smells the same, too.  Even if they’d managed to find exact copies of the notes, the C-24 serum at Olduvai was synthesized using the original DNA as a base.  Not entirely unlike what I did with Khan’s blood to save you.  I couldn’t have done it without Khan’s blood, Jim.  All the tests and notes in the world would have been useless as horse piss if I hadn’t had that blood for a base.  There should be at least some differences where they had to make compromises on base material.”

Snagging his medkit, the doctor pulled out an empty sample jar and scrapped a small portion of the blood inside.

“So they got some of the original DNA the same way they got the notes.”

Bones shook his head and wiped his knife as clean as he could on the sole of his boot.  “Not possible.  They only had two sets of remains to work from and from what I understood at the time, they’d extracted all the usable DNA to create that first batch.  Even if they hadn’t, one thing I can absolutely guarantee is that those skeletons and the vials that were left over were in an inaccessible part of the labs until the place was dusted.  Even Sam couldn’t get back in when she took that last team up.  It was unstable and full of experimental weaponry before a bunch of monsters and marines duked it out through the place.”

Biting his lip, Jim considered for a moment.  That didn’t leave a lot of possibilities.  

“Could they have gotten it from… you know?”  he gestured at Bones with a helpless hand, careful to keep it below the line of sight of the visors.  While he had a nasty suspicion something of his friend’s extraordinariness was going to get exposed during this mission, he didn’t want to be the one doing the exposing.   Some of his genius command crew had probably already figured some of it out, but if there was anyone that hadn’t, there was no point in spelling it out for them, complete with pictures and neon signs.

Another shake of the head.  “We were careful as hell about that.  Neither of us wanted that coming back to bite us in the ass.”

There was a sound behind them and Bones was up faster than Jim could really comprehend.  Super human he reminded himself as he twisted to see an obviously diseased woman shuffling towards them.  She looked like every zombie extra he’d ever seen, clutching a severed foot in one hand and a twisted piece of something that looked like it had been rebar at some point in its life in the other.

“Selfish, selfish, selfish,” she muttered and hissed to herself over and over, shaking her head back and forth and listing sideways on an obviously broken foot as she got closer.  Her eyes seemed to be focused inwards rather than at them.  “So selfish.  Selfish, selfish, selfish.”

“Bones?”  Jim whispered, unsure of what to do.  She was talking, sort of, and that went against the laws of zombie holovids.  Maybe it meant she wasn’t as bad off as the others?

Though his mouth twisted with distaste, Bones shook his head and pulled out his handgun.  He only fired twice, one bullet through the head and one through the chest.  It took her down easily.  “It’s an in-between state.  Comes after the death coma and before the full mutation.”

Even though he’d known all of the creatures they’d killed so far had once been human, it hit Jim harder to see one that actually looked human.  

He jumped when Bones touched his shoulder lightly.  “We have to keep moving, Jim.”

They cleared three more rooms as they made their way down the corridor.  Two had looked like the occupants had left in a hurry, but were otherwise untouched by the carnage they found in the third.  

Something had obviously been making snacks out of their victims.  

“I may never eat meat again,” Jim muttered when they edged back out of the room, the sour taste of bile at the back of his throat.

“You get over it eventually,” Bones offered with a shrug as they approached the room Chekov had said should be the safe room.  

It was hard to say whether the blood on the door was a bad sign or not.  There’d been so much blood up and down the corridor that it was impossible to tell for sure.

“I don’t even think I want to.”  Shuddering, Jim leaned down in front of the door’s control panel.  His nose wrinkled.  There was no way to touch it without getting blood on him and there was a suspicious looking piece of grey matter stuck to the corner he needed to open.  A knife appeared over his shoulder.  “Thanks.”

Once he was done, he handed the knife back and tapped into the system.  

“Well?”

“Twenty-three minutes after the quarantine alarm.”

Bones hesitated for a moment before raising the G-36.  “Open it, but then back up and be ready to shoot.  This one feels… hinky.”

Still feeling a little sick and creeped out by what they’d seen so far, Jim wasn’t about to argue with the more experienced man’s caution.  He typed in his override and waited for the electrical crackle of the shield going down.

Before he could open the actual door itself, three things happened almost simultaneously; Chekov’s voice, thready and high with alarm, began to warn them of danger, something came tearing out through the door, and Bones opened fire.

All Jim could do was fall backwards and shoot at the massive black shape that attacked them.

It wrapped one clawed hand around Bones’ shoulder and lifted him two feet in the air to roar in his face.  Jim’s finger left the trigger and he jerked his weapon upwards, not wanting to hit the wrong target by accident.

“Oh my god, get a breath mint,” Bones groused as he twisted sideways to get his legs around the arm that was clutching at him.  For a moment, it was hard to tell who had ahold of who.  Then the monster gave another defiant roar and slammed Bones into the ceiling.

Bones held on and twisted the other way, wrenching the arm that had him loose from its body.  

This time, the roar was filled with pain and rage.  The creature reached around with its remaining arm to grab Bones by the neck and launch him down the hallway.  

“Bones!”  Unable to see around the beast, Jim lost sight of his friend.  His cry brought its attention back to him, though, and he jerked his gun back up.  “Oh shit!”

A couple dozen bullets didn’t even seem to slow it down, though he was pretty sure he had to have ripped the heart and most of the brain to shreds as he scrambled backwards.

Suddenly it jerked sharply and lit up from within before disintegrating.

Bones, crankier than Jim had ever seen him, tipped his head to one side and the other, the cracking noises echoing in the sudden silence as he scowled at the power supply monitor of the phaser rifle in his hands.  Blood coated it all the way down to the trigger.  “It is effective, but that was over half its juice.  Glad we’re not relying on the damned things.”

It was Jim’s turn to give his friend a pat down even though it made Bones roll his eyes and swat at his hands.  “Jesus Christ, Bones.  I thought he might have ripped your head off.  Or bashed it in or something.  Jesus fucking Christ.”

“I’m fine, kid.  My head’s harder than that.”

Once he was mostly sure that Bones was all in one piece, Jim finally managed to get his heart to settle back down and took a few deep breaths.  “Don’t fucking do that to me again, asshole.”

“Sure, Jim.”  The sarcasm was thick enough to cut with a nice.  “I’ll just tell the next monster that we run into that we’d really appreciate it if it’d sit down and let us to shoot it all quiet and nice like.  Maybe it’ll invite us in for tea and biscuits.”

“Captain?”

“We’re fine, Spock.”  Jim sighed and leaned against the wall for a minute, for once not thinking about what was coating it.  He took a few deep breaths to steady himself.  “Just a little shaken.  And we can mark this room off as a definite loss.”

He didn’t need to stick his head inside to see that there was nothing else alive in the room.  What body parts he could see had been gnawed down to the bone.

In the interest of thoroughness, Bones still went inside to check it out.  He came back out with a shredded red Starfleet shirt.  “There are two of these in here and a few weapons I’d expect from a security detail.  Judging from the bones, I’d say there were maybe ten or eleven adults and at least one child in this room.”

The already sick feeling in Jim’s stomach soured even more.  None of the other remains had been youth-sized and he’d honestly thought that all the children had been in the first room.

“So someone infected got into the room and ate everyone else?”  He was proud that his voice was steady and calm.  More or less.

“Looks like,” Bones replied absently, crouching to poke at the severed arm with his gun.  “By my count that’s about 60 of the personnel, give or take a few.  I wonder if we’re lucky enough that maybe this was the Vulcan?  Did the ears look Vulcanish to you?”

Though he sounded hopeful, his expression said that he didn’t believe they’d be that lucky.

“Bones, I can honestly say that I wasn’t even thinking about the ears.  I was more concerned with the claws and the teeth.  And whether or not it had ripped your head off.”

Rather than say he was fine again, Bones just shrugged and stood up.  “It didn’t.  And I’m pretty sure the blood base on this thing was red. So, probably not Vulcan. Chekov, what’s the clearest way to the next room?”

“In same place, two levels down, Doctor.”

Seeing a flat schematic and figuring out where things actually were was always a little complicated and Jim frowned, trying to remember what was between the two levels. “Nothing on the next floor down?”

“No, sir.  Zat seems to be storage.  I read no life signs.”

“Must have figured there wouldn’t be a large presence on a storage floor. No point in having safe rooms.”

“Zat would also be my guess, Keptin.   Ze turbolift seems clear.”

The pair considered the turbolift only a few yards away before Bones shook his head.  “With power fluctuating, we’re better off taking service chutes.  ‘Course, either has the potential to trap us where we can’t maneuver and fight back.”

“We could transport?”

Bones shook his head, lips curling in disgust, but Chekov interrupted before he could say anything.  “I would not adwise that, Keptin.  There are many abnormal life signs on that level.”

“Service chutes, it is.”

They both looked around for a moment before Jim pushed away from the wall.  “Any idea where the chutes are, Chekov?”

“One moment, Keptin.”  There was a long pause.  “Other end of ze corridor.”

“Of course it is,” Bones grumbled, swinging his gun up and leading the way back.  

They stepped around the woman Bones had put down and paused before crossing the open space of the junction.

The grenade had drawn attention.  

They opened fire as a trio of bloody figures rushed them.  Only one made it within touching distance, leap frogging over its companions to get a hand on the dark-haired man.  

Bones didn’t even hesitate.  He grabbed its neck and twisted hard to the side.  The skin ripped under the combined force of the creature’s momentum and Bones’ grip.

Jim’s stomach lurched and he turned around to heave the meager bit of breakfast he’d managed to consume that morning onto the floor.

Beside him, his friend dropped the head and wiped his hands on his vest.  “Everything else in this hellhole and that’s what gets to you?”

“Sorry,” Jim muttered, wiping at his mouth with the back of his hand.  The taste of bile was bitter on his tongue and he made a face as he straightened up.  “One decapitation too many, I guess.”

Bones snorted and dug a water bottle out of his medkit.  “I can’t promise there won’t be more.”

Offering a half of a grin and a huff of sarcastic amusement, Jim shrugged as he took the water.  He opened it and took a big mouthful, swishing it around and bending over to spit it out again.  He repeated the action twice more before taking a drink.  Then he handed the bottle back over to his friend.  “Pretty sure that’s all there is to come up.”

“You can go back up to the ship, Jim.  I can handle this on my own.  Probably be quicker about it, too.”  

If Bones’ voice had been snide or condescending, Jim might have gotten pissed off.  Instead the man just sounded resigned and tired.  He was a soldier who’d been called back to war; a doctor who’d seen too much death.  His offer wasn’t intended to offend.  He was simply offering Jim the chance to avoid adding to the nightmare.

“And let you have all the fun?”  Jim slapped Bones on the shoulder.  “Hell, no.  Lead on, old man.  We’ve got four more safe rooms to check.”

~*~*~

When they finally crawled out of the chutes, Jim was glad the darkness had forced him to flip on the visor’s infrared.  There were no flickering lights in the corridor at all.  It was only the visor that showed him the absolute chaos that had been loosed through the hallway.

The floor was littered with broken vials and small lab equipment.  An entire shelving unit lay overturned near the crossway junction.  Someone had smeared blood along one side of the wall in wavy, almost whimsical patterns.

Just past the junction, there were a dozen or so infected hostiles.  He didn’t see any of the bigger, more twisted versions, but one looked like some kind of freaky mutant bull mastiff.  It was growling at something and bounced down the other hallway out of sight.  Whatever had caught its attention let out a shrill, inhuman sound that grated on Jim’s nerves.

It went silent abruptly.

Kneeling on the floor beside the chute opening, Jim did his best to control his breathing and stay still.  He turned to Bones, wondering what plan the other man might come up with.

Bones eyed the situation for a moment before reaching out and pressing Jim against the wall.  He held up a hand, motioning for Jim to stay still and waited until getting a nod of understanding in response before standing.

Gun raised, Bones moved silently down the corridor, stepping over and around the debris.  

He’d almost made it to the junction when the rumbling sound of the dog mutant made him pause as it almost seemed to shake the entire corridor.

It rounded the corner teeth first.

A bright flash made Jim curse and shield his eyes just a moment too late.  He missed most of the fight between Bones and the beast as his eyes watered and he tried to blink his vision clear again.  He could hear it, though.  The sound of flesh hitting flesh, of flesh and cloth being rended by sharp teeth, the snarling and snapping of the monster.  Bones was mostly quiet though he did mutter a few goddamn motherfucker’s and growlingly informed his opponent to ‘hold the fuck still and take it like a goddamned adult’.

By the time Jim could see clearly, Bones was straddling the thing’s neck and twisting something into its head.  It howled in anger and pain before it lit up for a long moment and finally disintegrated.

The sudden absence almost dropped the doctor to his ass, but he shifted and rocked onto a knee at the last second.  He frowned at the phaser he was still holding before tossing it aside.  At Jim’s look, he shrugged.  “Ain’t worth the clean up.”

Snorting, Jim shook his head and shouldered his weapon so that he could reach down and pull Bones to his feet.  “Nice plan, there.  Maybe next time you’re going to throw a grenade, though, I could get a little warning?”

“Was actually gonna just shoot ‘em,” his friend said, barely putting any strain on Jim’s arm as he rose.  “The mutt kinda interrupted that idea, though.”

Jim gaped for a moment.  Then he shook his head.  “You’re the CMO and you’re best plan was to leave me behind and run up and shoot at them?”

“This may have somehow escaped your notice, Jim,” Bones replied, rolling his eyes.  “But I’m a doctor, not a chess master.  And the last time I was dealing with this shit, it wasn’t my job to come up with the plans.  ‘Sides, runnin’ up and shootin’ ‘em seems to work just fine.  It’s only when you’ve got an entire horde of ‘em that it’s a problem.”

“You don’t consider twelve of them a horde?”

“Nine.  Learn to count, Captain.”

“Fine!  You don’t consider nine a horde?”

Bones pursed his lips before shrugging and waving to the now empty hall.  There were no blood and guts and ripped pieces left behind like the older style grenades had.  Photon grenades could be set to exact power levels and blast radiuses, but generally speaking, what they hit vanished entirely.  “They’re dealt with, ain’t they?”

“You-”  Jim paused, shaking his finger in his friend’s face and wondering if this was how Bones felt every time he had to sit back and watch Jim rush off into danger.  “You do not get to call me reckless ever again.  Asshole.”

Pushing past, he headed for the next safe room.  Behind him, he could hear Bones muttering as he changed out the magazine in his gun, but he ignored the sound in favor of getting into the system.  “This looks like another quick one.  Five minutes.”

“Probably safe, then,” Bones said, settling in front of the door, gun at the ready.  “Open it.”

Jim nodded and entered his code.  As the shield fell, he tensed, raising his own gun, but nothing came bursting out of the wall this time.  A few quick keystrokes and the door opened with a swish.

“It’s about damned time,” came a mutter from within.  “Do you have any idea how long we’ve been here?”

“Well, now, I’m real sorry about that, sir,” Bones replied, Georgian accent in full evidence, faux polite with just an undertone of condescension and snideness.  He’d never responded well to people who talked down at him.  “Perhaps the next time you’d like to use a facility for testing illegal biological weapons, you should do it in a place with a better Federation presence.”

After he’d flipped the infrared off, Jim had to cover his mouth at the exaggerated look of genial helpfulness on the doctor’s face.  He’d seen that look aimed at more than one admiral whose head had been too far up his own ass to know what the hell he was talking about.  Half the time, they never even realized they were being insulted.  Bones never really worried about the politics of the world or how pissing the wrong people off could affect him.  He wasn’t afraid to tell a pompous asshole to kiss his ass.

It had always been one of the things Jim liked most about him.

Clearing his throat, Jim pushed Bones into the room and followed him inside.  “James T. Kirk, USS Enterprise.  And you are?”

A stuffy, puffed up looking man tried to peer down his nose at them, but it wasn’t really working.  They both had a good six inches of height on him.

“William S. S. Lewis.  And there’s nothing illegal about any of the research that goes on here.  We have all the proper permits and paperwork, I assure you.  Our scientists don’t even test on animals.”

Bones snorted and began running his tricorder over the handful of survivors.  “Maybe you should have.”

Eyes wandering around the room, Jim nodded towards Lewis.  “How come there are only six of you in here?”

“Too many people ignore the quarantine drills,” another nondescript man replied with a sour look.  “Scientists, you know?  None of them want to leave their work unattended.  They should all be court-martialed for leaving us in here for so long.”

“Gonna be hard to do,” Bones said in a sardonic voice as he moved on to a woman who was sitting in the corner, watching them all with dark, tired eyes.  “Seein’ as most of ‘em are dead.”

They gaped at him before turning to Jim, looking for either confirmation or denial.  It was hard to tell.

Jim nodded, solemn.  “I’m sorry.  We’ve only found nineteen other survivors so far.”

“I told you,” the woman said softly, closing her eyes and leaning her head back against the bulkhead.  Her dark hair was braided back tightly, but strands had come out of their bindings over the days of lock down.  “It wasn’t the shields that were affecting my telepathy.”

“But-  That’s impossible.  There are a hundred and five people on this station.  There has to be some mistake!”

Bones growled as he twisted around to look at the gobsmacked man.  “Yeah, there was a mistake.  You idiots let that shit loose on this station.”

“Bones.”

Though he grit his teeth, the doctor heeded the soft warning in Jim’s voice and turned back to the woman and his tricorder.  “What’s a nice Betazoid like you doin’ in a place like this, ma’am?”

She huffed in amusement at his charm and blinked at him.  “Betazed isn’t a comfortable place for a woman with strong science leanings, Doctor McCoy.  And, as we’re not officially in the Federation just yet, Starfleet wasn’t an option.”

“Hmm,” he frowned at his tricorder.  “I’m not familiar enough with Betazoid physiology to know if this is normal.”

“I’m fine, Doctor.  My levels are just elevated from all of the mental chaos and death.  I knew it wasn’t just a drill, but I couldn’t get the others on this floor to listen to me.  Even these gentleman didn’t believe it was a real quarantine.”  She sighed and reached out to brush against Bones’ fingers.  Her breath caught and then she gripped his hand more tightly.  “It’s not your fault, you know.  Who you are, what’s been done to you… It didn’t cause this.”

Jim could see the way Bones swallowed and looked down.  “You don’t know that.”

“Did you create it?”

“No.”

“Did you experiment with it?”

“No.”

“Did you do your best to destroy it when you had the chance?”

He glared at her, but it was half-hearted at best.  “Well obviously I didn’t do a very good job, did I?”

The Betazoid just shrugged.  “That still doesn’t make it your fault.”

Bones just tugged his hand away with a grumble and moved on to the next survivor.  People who could see inside his head had never been the doctor’s favorite people, though Jim thought he might understand that attitude a little better now that he had some idea of what Bones was probably hiding.

The rest were human and too shell-shocked to make conversation, so it only took a few more minutes to clear them and get them beamed aboard the Enterprise.

As they left the room and plunged back into the unreal sepia of their infrared visors, heading towards the next safe room, Jim nudged Bones.

“What?”

“She’s right, you know.  It’s not your fault.”

“Shut up.”

Jim let it go for the moment, but he wouldn’t let either of them forget about it.  However these scientists had gotten their hands on C-24, that wasn’t on Bones, not even if they’d taken it out of his own blood.  He wasn’t about to let his friend bury himself in guilt over it.

The rest of the floor was quiet, though there was plenty of damage and destruction as they followed Chekov’s directions towards the fourth safe room.  

“Oh, geez…”  Grimacing, Jim nudged the lower half of a torso out of the way.  “I’m guessing that’s not a good sign.”

“Not generally, no.”  Bones sighed.  “It is possible that they shut the door on her before she got all the way inside or that something grabbed her just as it was closing, but I doubt it.”

With a nod, Jim cracked into the system and frowned.  “Weird.  This one shows that it went into lock down five minutes after the quarantine alarm, but was opened from the outside ten minutes later and went into lockdown again almost immediately.”

Mouth tightening, Bones brought up his gun.  “Ready.”

As the shield came down, Jim backed away instinctively, but nothing came bursting through this time.  After a moment, he edged closer again.  “Chekov?  Anything?”

“One life sign.  Wery, wery faint.  I cannot tell if it is human or no.”

Another moment of hesitation, then Bones nodded.  “Open it.”

Jim obeyed and flicked off the infrared as light spilled into the corridor.  There was movement from the twisted form of one of the bodies, but it didn’t attack them.  It lay curled up on its side, thrashing weakly and making soft pathetic noises.  It reminded him of a wolf he’d seen once that had been run over by a farm truck.

He started to move into the room, but Bones stopped him.  “What?”

“Look at it, Jim…  What’s wrong with this picture?”

“You mean besides the fact that everyone is dead?”

The impatient look he got at that was tempered by unease.  “Obviously.”

Sighing, Jim looked again.  

The other half of the torso had been shoved to the side, but it was obvious that being cut in two hadn’t killed her instantly.  The pool of blood was massive and clear of the dark matter that had clogged the other patches of blood Bones had pointed out across the station.  Her hands were clenched in fists and her face was tear-stained.  It must have been an agonizing death.  

Another woman lay slumped at her side, dried blood caked in her nostrils and trailing down her mouth and chin.  Her eyes were open but cloudy with death.

There were twelve other bodies in the room, not counting the mutated one near the door.

Each had the same blood-crusted noses and cloudy eyes.  “What the hell-”

“Jesus fucking Christ!  Enterprise, I need a med evac for the Captain.  The quarantine tents are occupied with the kids, but you beam him straight to the isolation ward!  Tell M’Benga he’s been exposed to an unknown virus or pathogen and to take the maximum quarantine precautions, immediate decontamination.  Whatever it is, it’s extremely fucking deadly and I don’t know how it was transmitted.  Now, Scotty, now!”

“Dammit, Bones-”  Jim’s protest died as he suddenly found himself on the Enterprise in the sterile environment of Sick Bay’s heaviest isolation ward.  “Bones!”

He ripped the visor off and threw it in frustration.  Before he could do anything else, though, a dozen hoses sprayed him down with a thick fog that left him coughing and waving his hand in front of his face.  

He hated quarantine decontamination.  

“Please remove all clothing and carefully place them into the appropriate chute.  Then, step into the alcove for a more thorough decontamination,” the computer told him in its pleasant, automated voice.  “A medical gown is located on the table to the right of the biobed.  When you have redressed, please recline on the biobed and await medical assistance.”

Though he’d spent enough time at the tender mercies of Sickbay to have a biobed that was practically his own, Jim had only had to deal with the isolation ward once.  Apparently his fever drenched brain hadn’t made it seem worse than it was like he’d thought.

Making a face, he pulled the black suit of body armor off and obediently tossed it down the chute near the door where he knew it’d be burned as a biohazard.  He tried to look on the bright side.  

At least he wouldn’t have to replace his actual uniform this time.

A screen near the biobed flickered on and Spock’s face peered out at him.  “Captain.  Are you all right?”

“I’m fine!”  Jim sighed and ran both hands through his hair for a moment, trying to think.  “Bones is the one down there alone right now.”

Tilting his head to one side, Spock seemed to look at something else for a moment.  “He appears to be attempting to examine the corpses for clues.”  There was a moment of hesitation before the Vulcan refocused on Jim.  “Captain…  I am unclear as to why Doctor McCoy has not also evacuated the station.  He has been exposed as well, has he not?”

“It’s complicated, Spock.”

“I see.”

That particular arch of the brow and touch of sass in his voice said that the Vulcan didn’t see at all.

“He has some... Immunity to some things.”

“Even if that were true, the very nature of an ‘unknown virus or pathogen’ is that one cannot know whether or not one is immune, is it not?”

Sighing again, Jim shook his head.  “That’s where the complicated part comes in. Look, give me a second, okay?  I need to do a DeCon shower and get some damned clothes on.  Keep me updated on Doctor McCoy’s status, though.”

“Of course, Captain.”

In the shower alcove, Jim closed his eyes and let the sonics do their jobs.  There was a wash of chemicals that sprayed over him and then, finally, a shower of real water.  It seemed like overkill, but Jim knew that it was better to be safe than sorry.  

He was pulling on the medical gown when the screen flickered on again.  It was the same view he’d been looking at before the transporter had dumped him back onto the Enterprise, only closer to one of the bodies.  Long fingers stuck out of fingerless gloves as Bones rifled through the pockets of a woman’s labcoat.  “Jim?”

“Dammit, Bones.  Was that really necessary?”

“Maybe not.  Probably not,” the doctor conceded.  “I found Smith-Jones.  The good doctor here had a hypospray on her and another was carrying an aero-dispenser.  I don’t know which, if either, this crap came from.  I’m not reading anything in the atmosphere at the moment.”

Which meant Bones was on his own for no damned reason at all.  

“Any guess on what it might be?”  

“No, but it’s killing this guy over here.”  The view was a little disorienting as Bones swung around and moved to the monster.  It was alive, but only barely.  It looked almost human again as it twitched in pain and whimpered pathetically.  Congealed blood was leaking slowly down its face.  “I think the doctor showed up with what she thought was just an injured crew mate and turned out to be an infected.  Maybe… something grabbed her nurse as the doors were closing.  Then, when the mutation began showing, she or someone else released whatever the hell this is in an attempt to stop it.  If they saw whatever grabbed the nurse, they probably had a pretty good idea of what the end result of the mutation would be.”

“Stuck in a small space with a monster?  I can see maybe wanting to choose your own fate,” Jim conceded as he hopped up on the biobed and lay back like a good little patient.  

The sooner M’Benga and the computer cleared him, the sooner he could get real clothes and get the hell out of the isolation ward.

“There aren’t any real weapons on any of them.  If they’d tried to stick it out, they woulda been fish in a barrel, just like the other room.”

Worse, probably, since the security team had at least had phasers and training on their side.  

“Bones, beam back up to the Enterprise.  We can interview the survivors we’ve found so far and take a rest.  Then we can finish the search.”

“My daddy always said that if you were gonna bother doing something, you might as well do it right.  Might as well get it all over at once,” Bones replied, the view of the camera growing dark as he stepped out of the safe room.  There was a popping noise and the screen flashed with bright light before growing dark again.  “Once I get off this damned hellhole, we’re turning this place to space dust.  Apparently C-24 isn’t the only bio-hazard on board.  God only knows what else is hiding in these labs.  Chekov?”

“Two levels down, Doctor.  Ze level directly below is… conference hall or auditorium, I zink.  It is all open space.  Doctor…  Ze last level seems to be ze origin of ze initial quarantine alarm.  It is many small laboratories on the schematics, however, there is much interference.  Ze Enterprise cannot get a clear sight..”

Bones’ reply was philosophical.  “At least it ain’t a sewer.”

“Hey, Bones.  What’s wrong with your visor.  All I’m seeing is black here.”

There was a moment of silence, then the inner view of a service chute appeared.  “Anything else I can do for you, your highness?”

“Keep yourself alive.”

“Like I said,” Bones said as he twisted to open the entryway.  “This ain’t my first rodeo.”

“Yeah, but you’re not as good at looking out for yourself as you are other people.”

The only reply was a snort and the sight of a gun barrel.

Considering the destruction and chaos on the upper levels, the view beyond Bones’ visor was practically pristine as he made his way down the corridor.  He paused at each door and made a more thorough sweep than he had when Jim had been tagging along behind him.  Some of the rooms looked trashed, but most were just abandoned.

Randomly, interference sent a bead of static across the screen, but other than that, the connection stayed steady.

At the safe room, his Starfleet medical override codes opened the doors as easily as Jim’s had.

“Dammit.”

The only two occupants were collapsed on the floor in the middle of the room with their arms around each other and phasers clutched loosely in their hands.

“Murder-suicide?”

“More like a dual case of assisted suicide.  They killed each other.”  Rifling through their clothing, the doctor finally found their identification.  “Doctor Hayley Weiss and Doctor … well, fuck.”

“What is it?”

Bones held up the second identification.  The picture was a pale man with a pinched face.  Doctor Julian Carmack.

“Wait a sec… wasn’t Carmack-”

“The instigator of the entire shitfest the first time around?  Yeah.  That’d be him.”  Bones sighed.  “Explains some things, I guess.  Although you’d think anyone who could relate back to that hellhole would know better.”

Jim remembered a dinky little bar in Iowa and a man who’d dared to hold his father’s fiery death up as a challenge to do better.  Sometimes knowing better only made a person more determined to succeed.  “Maybe he thought he could do better.”

“Yeah, well, he didn’t.”

“No, I don’t suppose he did.”

Bones sighed and slipped back out of the room.  The view stayed stationary as he stood still.  “That should make a hundred.  Only five left unless I miscounted somewhere.  And no Vulcans that I could tell.  All of the blood has been red-based.”

“You’re in the epicenter of the outbreak, Bones.  Five unaccounted for probably does mean five dead or mutated.”  Jim bit his lip.  He hated to say it, hated to give up without actual visual evidence, but he’d been down there and he knew that the odds were heavy on the side of them having found all the survivors they were going to find.  “Beam back aboard.  The risk at this point outweighs any possible gain.”

“I can’t do that, Jim.”

“Bones-”

“I can’t leave without knowing for sure.  I got enough ghosts, I don’t need the ‘what if’s.  What would you do if you were the one still down here?”

There was nothing Jim could say to that.  They both knew he’d never be able to leave until the job was done, until there was no doubt left about possible survivors.  Even if he forced the issue and had Scotty pull Bones, anyway, he’d always wonder if he’d left five innocent lives behind.

What ifs indeed.

Besides, given the choice, he’d still be right down there beside the doctor and they both knew it.

“Be careful, Bones.”

That got him a huff.  “Who d’ya think I am, kid?  You?”

“I think you’re the person whose great plan was to just rush at twelve zombies and hope you got them all.”

“Nine.”

“Whatever.  Be careful.”

There was a long moment of silence, then Bones sighed again.  “I will, kid.  Now be quiet and let me concentrate.”

He moved back along the corridor.  It was eerie how calm and clear everything was as he turned at the first junction.  

If the alarms hadn’t labeled it the epicenter, Jim would never have guessed.  

There wasn’t even a little blood splattered along the hallway and each new room that Bones checked looked as if the scientist in charge had just stepped out for lunch.  

There was a light flickering as Bones approached the final junction and he reached up to turn off the infrared.  It was enough light for even Jim to see by and the constant flickering caused a flash in the visor that was almost painful to the eyes.  “The power fluctuations are getting worse. The last safe room was the one that was yellow, right?”

“Yes, Doctor.”

“Figures.”

Movement drew the barrel of the gun sharply to one side, but it was simply a door trying to close around a body.  Bones inched closer and crouched down to get a better look.  “Looks like this one was killed before the change could fully take hold.”  His hand reached out and pushed the corpse over onto its back.  “Look at this.  See the way her hands were up like she was blocking her face?  And this terror….”

Though it was still twisted with the mutation, the body was recognizably human.  Its eyes bulged, wide and blank.  Its mouth gaped in a silent scream.

Bones used his gun to shift the torn lab coat out of the way, exposing the ripped throat and protruding bone that had likely caused the scientist’s final death.

The silence was grating.  Jim hated not being there where he could just look at his friend’s face and know what was going on inside his head.  Or at least hazard a good guess.  “Bones?”

“She was infected and she was well into the change.  To be this far along, she shoulda been past the point where she could feel fear any more.”

“The Vulcan?”

“Maybe. Or maybe patient zero was-”  Bones broke off and the view screen twisted around for a moment.

“Bones?  What is it?”

“Shh…”

Jim had to bite his lip to obey that and he wrapped his arms around himself tightly, anxiety starting to creep through him.  It was hard, not being down there to watch Bones’ back.  

This was exactly why he almost always assigned himself to away missions when there was a chance there’d be danger involved.  James Kirk didn’t do waiting on the sidelines while his friends were in danger very well at all.

The tableau of silence held for a long moment.  The corridor stayed empty and still, the flickering lights revealing nothing.  Then Bones stepped backwards, catching the door with one hand even as he kept his gun up and alert, and stepped back into the room.  His voice was soft when he finally answered Jim.  “I thought I heard something.”

He fingered the edge of door for a moment, the steel bent and warped, but not jagged and ripped, before turning to face the interior.  

The room wasn’t as empty as the hallway had been.  

Sightless eyes stared from the decapitated head of the woman who’d sent the original distress signal.  The rest of her body lay slumped in a corner near a bay of computer monitors and other equipment.

The body that had been visible in the background was gone and only the pool of dried, chunky blood gave evidence to where it had lain.

“That’s three if you count the missing one that we know was infected,” Bones murmured.  “Doesn’t make a lot of sense, though.  This one here… she’s dead, but nothing even tried to eat her.  There’s no more violence done to her corpse past what it took to kill her.  And this one here in the door… She was one of them.  You saw it on the other levels.  They don’t generally kill each other like this.  But even so… it’s the same deal, see?”

Bones crouched down over the first corpse again, checking the body for other injuries.  “It’s just the neck.  Just enough for the kill.”  

“You said that some of the victims kept their base personalities, right?  Maybe the Vulcan is trying to fight it?”  

Maybe the Vulcan wouldn’t be trouble after all.  Maybe the floor was so clear because he’d been down there trying to fix himself and his fellow victims.  He was a xenogeneticist.  Surely if anyone was going to be able to reverse the horrors of C-24 gone wrong, it would be someone like that.

“As a race, my people have long since mastered the violence and tendency to react overly emotionally that once afflicted our ancestors, Doctor.  Perhaps the Captain is correct and the lack of overkill is a sign of hope.”  

The sound that Bones made was almost a growl.  “I’ve been up close and personal with what this stuff does.  I’ve seen it turn good men into monsters - strong, disciplined men.  The kind of men you’d trust to have your back in any situation.  And this… disease… It twisted the worst parts of them, parts that they had mastered.  And it destroyed them.”

“Bones-”

Before he could say anything, a deafening roar had Bones jerking around.  “God damm-”

The feed cut with a burst of static.  He could hear an alarm wailing through the comm.  “Bones?!  Dammit, Uhura, get-”

“On it, Captain.”  It said something about his crew that he didn’t even question that she knew exactly what he wanted.  She’d probably started trying to get the signal back as soon as it had been lost.

“Chekov, what just happened?”

“I do not know, Captain.  His witals spiked for a moment and then we lost him.  Captain…  I cannot get a lock on his readings.  The interference is too great.”

“Is he alive?”

“I… do not know, Captain.  It was difficult to see before.  Only because of the sensors in the armor and the communication wisor were we able to keep track of him.  Now… there is nothing.”

Jim’s mouth tightened before he jumped off the bed and moved to bang on the door with a clenched fist.  “M’Benga!  Let me out of here!  I need-  M’Benga!  Spock, tell M’Benga to get his ass in here and let me out.”

There was no way he was going to sit in the isolation ward twiddling his thumbs while the rest of the crew figured out how to save Bones.

~*~*~

Things were fuzzy when John Grimm came back to consciousness.  It said something about the force behind the blow and his subsequent header into the wall that he’d actually been knocked out.

That hadn’t happened often over the last two hundred odd years of his life and it usually meant that he’d actually ‘died’, at least briefly.

He’d known things were going to get ugly the moment the word ‘Olduvai’ had crossed Chris’s lips. He couldn’t regret the mission, though. For twenty-five definite survivors, he could handle having his skull fractured.

He could feel the shift and tingle as his skull realigned itself, but he ignored it in favor of the sway and pressure that came from being in a fireman’s carry as something or someone walked down the dark hall.  His nose wrinkled at the putrid smell of the twisted body underneath him.  He recognized the scent of death and old blood underscored by a decided lack of personal hygiene.  

The visor and ear-comm were gone, likely victims of his collision with the wall.  His old G-36 was gone and he already missed it like a phantom limb, his fingers twitching without its comforting weight, but he could still feel the press of the handgun in it’s thigh holster and a single grenade was pressed against his sternum.  The second bag he’d been carrying was banging lightly against his back and he could only hope that its contents were undamaged.

John considered the situation carefully before deciding that playing dead was his best option for the moment.  If this particular mutant was taking prisoners, then perhaps he already had the missing scientists tucked away somewhere and he’d take John to the same room.  

The grumbling sound from his captor was almost recognizable as words, but was closer to incoherent mutterings.

Glad that Jim was safely back on the Enterprise, he forced himself to stay relaxed and loose as they finally passed through a door that had been warped so badly that it would probably never close again.  

There were puddles of congealed blood, speckled through with the black chunks of mutation.  

He had a moment to see a cluster of bodies piled on the floor that had been dissected with various degrees of finesse.  Then he was being dropped carelessly onto a lab table.  The smell of infected blood and other waste from human death was almost enough to make him gag.   

There was more grumbling as the creature moved away from him and John watched through half-lidded eyes as it settled in front of a computer.  It growled at a smashed monitor.  Broken and mistreated, the computer gave a valiant attempt at a response, but it was obvious that it was beyond help without a few solid days under the care of a good engineer and technician.

The garbled reply seemed to infuriate the creature.  It roared at the screen before slamming its fists into the glass.  Standing, it wrenched the monitor from its place and threw it into the wall, sending a shower of sparks through the room and making the power flicker again.  Green based blood filled with black chunks began dripping from it’s fists.

It rose up to its full height and screeched angrily and jerked sideways when its head slammed into the ceiling.  It was bigger than any other C-24 mutation that he’d ever seen, twice the size that Stahl had been back on Olduvai.

John held his breath as the creature grew further enraged and began pitching its tantrum on the other equipment in the room.

Sometimes, he really hated being right.

Eventually, it stormed out of the room and John sighed with relief.  He’d have to deal with it before he could beam back to the Enterprise, but first things first.  He sat up cautiously, setting his bag aside and rolling off the table, his enhanced vision adjusting easily to the dim light.  

There were at least four bodies that he could see.  Clothing had been discarded to one side, three sets of the kind of professional wear and lab coats he’d expect of scientists and one bright orange jumper.

“A hundred and five plus the test subject,” he murmured to himself as he crouched over the pieces.  

He brushed his fingertips over the one body that was still mostly whole, the cuts made with scientific precision.  Things got progressively messier from there.  At least one looked like it had been clawed into pieces.

Brushing his fingers off on his pants, he pushed to his feet and looked around the lab.  He hadn’t been in a xenogenetics specific lab in years, but he recognized most of the damaged equipment.   There were slides and vials of infected blood scattered around the remains of the DNA sequencer and mass spectrometer.  He nudged a vial of infected green blood with one boot and sighed.  “Jim was right, wasn’t he?  You were trying to fix this.”

Maybe, if they’d gotten there sooner, he could have even succeeded.

“I’m sorry,” he offered the silent ghosts that C-24 had claimed on the station. “I should have done better destroying this stuff the first time around… It never should have ended up here.”

Instead of hiding away from his past, he should have been looking for a cure.  He should have been researching the ins and outs of this thing that Sam had cursed him with so that he could have offered something besides a quick death to the victims on the station.

No matter what Jim or the Betazoid had said, this mess was on his head, one way or the other.

He could almost hear Sam chiding him in his mind, scolding him for his overblown sense of self-importance and penchant for holding onto guilt over the things he couldn’t change.

Shaking his head, he pulled his mind away from thoughts of his sister and dug through his pockets, looking for the comm unit he usually carried there.  The pieces of useless alloy and electronics that he pulled out made him roll his eyes.  

Of course his only sure means of contacting the ship had been destroyed.  Because he was never going to catch a break on any situation that could be traced back to Olduvai.

A loud screech of sound from the corridor gave him warning before the Vulcan came back, dragging a twisted biobed behind him.

John was moving faster than thought, his body and his mind as quick as it had been since the day he’d been injected.  He jumped up on the lab table and pulled his .45.  He emptied the first clip into the mass of it’s chest.

It roared and swung wildly at him with the biobed.  Though John managed to dodge the first swing, the second caught his legs and he winced when he slammed into another wall.

He rolled out of the way as the Vulcan slammed the mangled bed down onto the floor right where his head had been.

“Fucking Vulcans,” John muttered as he sprang sideways, avoiding another wild attempt at hitting him with the bed.  Instinct and habit had made him aim at the upper chest, but Vulcan physiology was vastly different from that of a human.  The heart was lower and on the opposite side.

As he ducked behind the table, he reloaded his gun.  

With another loud roar, the Vulcan threw the bed aside and rammed into the table.  The percussion sent the former marine stumbling into the pile of bodies, but he kept his grip on his gun and twisted back so that he could shoot again.

This time the results were more favorable.

The shots didn’t bring his opponent down, but it did slow it down long enough for John to grab his last SD grenade.

Before he could arm it, strong claws snatched him up and shook him hard.

The grenade went flying and John kicked out.  His boot caught the Vulcan under its chin.  Its head snapped back with an audible crack.  Its furious screech cut off into garbled chokes.

Despite the broken neck, it didn’t let go of him.  If anything, its grip grew stronger and he cursed everything he knew about Vulcans as it slammed him into the ceiling.    

There were so many layers to their brains and C-24 would only have enhanced that.  He doubted every bullet he’d brought would have been sufficient enough to destroy it before it could heal.

He needed that grenade.

“Hey, asshole,” John ground out, twisting in the creature’s grip, ignoring the way the claws tore through the armor and into his flesh.  It was healing even as new flesh tore.  “I am not -”  He cut off for a second as he was slammed into something else.  “The mallet-”  He managed to get a hand on the knife he had tucked in a sheath on his belt.  “For whack-a-mole.”

It took a little finesse and a lot of not caring about the damage he was doing to himself, but John managed to slice through the nerves that ran through the creatures right arm.  The damage only lasted for moments before it was healed, but it was just enough for him to wrench himself out of the other hand.

He hit the ground and rolled under its body, scrambling for the grenade.

His hand closed on it just as he was snatched up again.

When the Vulcan roared at him this time, he was ready.  He armed the grenade and pushed it down the creature’s throat before twisting again. He managed to get his arms around its head and just held on.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been at ground zero of a fiery explosion, but even fire resistant armor could only offer so much protection and the pain had never gotten any better.  As he lay there waiting for his flesh and muscle to regenerate, John wondered if it ever would.  

When things were healed enough to move, he pushed himself into a sitting position and stared at the splatter of green and black speckled flesh that surrounded him.  

It was luck, he supposed, that the combination of Vulcan physiology, C-24 enhancement, and synthetic body armor had made a strong enough barrier to keep the worst of the explosion from reaching his own body.  Any of the others and he probably wouldn’t be picking himself up again - ever.

Whether that luck was good or bad, he chose not to speculate.  All of the personnel might have been accounted for, but his work on the station wasn’t done.

His arms were bare as the last of the skin healed and he ripped the burnt tatters of his shirt sleeves off before grabbing his bag and heading off for the last safe room.  There should’t be anyone left to be in it, but he preferred to be safe rather than sorry.  

And it was as good a place as any to start looking for the answers that Chris hadn’t been able to provide.

When he found it, he sighed.  It had never even been engaged.  Either they hadn’t thought of the safe room at all, or everything had gone to shit before they’d had a chance to get there.

Maybe even a little of both.

“Scientists,” he muttered as he poked around the room. There was nothing particularly interesting to find. It was nothing more or less than a standard safe room.  

It took a little searching to find the epicenter.  The lab was smaller than most and tucked away from everything else.  

They hadn’t bothered with even as much protection as Carmack and his mad hatters had for their experiments.  There was a single biobed with ripped restraints that had been knocked over onto its side.  Dried blood was everywhere, a mix of infected and not.

A mangled ventilation grating lay nearby and he glanced up to see more dried blood on the ceiling, obvious prints from where one creature had chosen to go up rather than stay here. That explained how it had spread to the other levels, at least.

Pursing his lips, he turned his attention to the computer.  Unsurprisingly, it refused to boot up.  John sighed and began a methodical search of the room.  

The bottle was small and almost lost underneath the edge of the counter so he almost missed it.  It was unmistakable when he fished it out and John sucked in a deep breath, letting his mind go back to Olduvai and the lab there.

There’d been eight vials of C-24.

Sam had grabbed one - the one that she’d used on him.

The other seven should have been buried on Olduvai until he’d destroyed it.

Had Sam grabbed two and he just hadn’t seen?

John bit his lip as he considered that from all possible angles, but then shook his head.  He remembered the months after Olduvai and how hurt Sam had been.  Sarge had broken her back and she’d never walked again.  Even when she’d gone back to Olduvai, it hadn’t been on her own two feet.  And by then they’d realized that John wasn’t aging at all.  “No, Sam.  You wouldn’t have done that, would you?  You’d have used it if you’d had it.”

If nothing else, Sam had realized the lonely hell she’d condemned her brother to. She wouldn’t have left him alone if she’d had any way to prevent it. He’d wondered, sometimes, if that hadn’t been why she’d been so keen to go back up to that hellhole in the first place. If she’d decided that retrieving the remaining vials of C-24 was worth the risk.

She’d died there, instead.

Which begged the question of how, exactly, one of those bottles had ended up on the edge of the Neutral Zone over 200 years after being buried on Olduvai.  And whether or not the other six had somehow made it out as well.

“Dammit.”  Teeth grinding, John rubbed the bridge of his nose.  Burying this station was supposed to put the nightmare to rest.  It wasn’t supposed to give him fresh things to worry about.

He sighed and put the problem aside for the moment.  First he had to figure out how to get back to the Enterprise.  The interference had been getting worse when he’d lost contact and the Vulcan running around pulling out random pieces of the infrastructure probably hadn’t helped that any.  He had no means to communicate and the Enterprise probably couldn’t lock onto his signal any longer.

Closing his eyes, he pulled up a mental map of the place and considered his options.  The station had been a military installation at one point.  It stood to reason that there was a shuttle bay somewhere, hopefully with still working shuttles in it, but nothing of the sort had been clearly marked on the schematics Chris had given them.  

“If I were a shuttle bay…. Where would I be?  Hmm….”  

The level directly above the one he was on had been an open, empty space.  Chekov had thought it was an auditorium, but he hadn’t known for certain.  

John headed back towards the service chutes.  

As he passed the room with the body in the doorway, he was pleased to see his gun laying in the hallway.  The marine in him practically purred in contentment to have the weapon back in his hands.  He’d have been sad to lose it even though he’d hardly had cause to use it in the current century. He’d kept himself well out of most of the martial conflicts humanity had gotten itself into over the last several decades.  It was sentimental, but losing the gun would have been letting go of one of the last pieces of his past that he still had.

Without having to be quiet and careful or worry about someone seeing something they’d question, it only took a couple of minutes to get to the chute and up to the next level.  

The open space was a shuttle bay, but the only shuttle in residence was a decrepit looking thing that had probably come with the original station.

John grimaced as he headed for it.  He really hated shuttles in general, but old shuttles?

Even Jim would have recognized it for the death trap it was.  

Apparently the staff had spent their funds on shiny new lab equipment instead of important things.  

“Fucking scientists.”

At least he had some experience with older models.  He was positive that the kids aboard the Enterprise would have been completely lost and he amused himself with picturing their faces as he got inside and began the start up sequences.  

Flipping the communications station on, he hailed the ship.  There was no visual display, but audio was good enough for his purposes.  “Enterprise?”

“Dr. McCoy, you’re-”

Uhura was cut off abruptly by Jim which shouldn’t have even been possible.  “Bones!  Where are you?  We can’t-  You’re okay?”

John frowned.  “Why aren’t you in sickbay, Jim?”

“Umm.. M’Benga checked me out.  All clear!”  He didn’t have to see Jim to know the shifty look that went along with that tone of voice.

He sighed and shook his head.  “You bullied him into rushing things, didn’t you?  Dammit, Jim, biological contamination is nothing to screw around with!”

“But Bones,” Jim replied, his voice just shy of a whine.  Most of the time the kid shone with the greatness of leadership. Sometimes, though, he was every inch the infant John had always called him. “You just vanished.  We didn’t know if you were okay or what was happening or anything!  And we still don’t ‘cuz you’re not answering my questions.”

“I’m fine, Captain.  All threats have been neutralized and the rest of the base searched.  There were no more survivors to be found.  My comm was damaged and I figured y’all couldn’t really transport me through the interference so I found shuttle.  Sort of.  I just have to finish something up and then I can get out of here.”

“I’m not sure how you can ‘sort of’ find a shuttle, Bones, but hurry.  The sooner you’re off that station, the happier we’ll all be.  Admiral Pike is waiting for a debrief and he’s getting mighty impatient.”

Rolling his eyes, John nodded even though they couldn’t see him.  He knew Jim had been wondering why his mentor tended to get so personally involved in a lowly lieutenant doctor, but so far he’d kept the questions to himself. John wondered how long it would be before the curiosity finally overwhelmed him. A week, tops. Frankly, he was a little surprised that the nosy genius hadn’t already figured it out.

“Tell the Admiral to keep his britches on.  I’ll be there ASAP.  McCoy out.”

He didn’t wait for Jim to respond before he disconnected.  Jim and Chris could wait.  He needed to finish this.

Leaving the shuttle running, he grabbed his bag and hopped out again.  He knelt down and pulled out the bomb that Chekov and Sulu had given him to destroy the station.  They hadn’t called it a bomb, of course, but John had never seen the sense in giving big fancy names to simple devices.  A bomb was a bomb no matter what century it had been built in.

He set it and glanced around for a moment before standing back up.  Chekov had said it had a ten minute delay before it detonated.  The plan had been for him and Jim to be transported back onto the Enterprise and everyone long gone before it went off.

Now he just had to hope that he could get the shuttle far enough away from the station that it wouldn’t get caught up in the explosion.

He trusted that when Chekov said the detonation would be enough to completely obliterate the station, it would be.

Back in the shuttle, he took a moment to reorient himself to the controls, then he was up and taxying along the bay.  

“Come on, come on,” he muttered as he flicked a few controls here and there, looking for something that would open the outer doors.  “Where’s the damned garage door opener when you need it?”

Nothing seemed to work and he cursed soundly when he realized that the doors probably had to be opened by someone in the station itself.  No one ever wanted to contemplate the kind of scenario that meant only a single person was left alive having to escape via shuttle.

“Fuck this,” John muttered as he armed the small phaser the shuttle was equipped with.  It wasn’t like anyone was going to charge him for the damage of a single shuttle bay door considering was coming afterwards.

The hole he managed to blast in the metal probably didn’t even fit Jim’s idea of acceptable but it would have to do. He just barely managed to squeeze his way out.  He could hear the scrape and scratch of the shuttle’s surface, but he ignored it.

If he let himself think about every creak and crack, he would freak himself out before he got far enough away to survive the blast.

Before he could start to worry about that, he felt the familiar pull of a transporter beam and for probably the first and only time of his life, breathed a sigh of relief as the inside of the shuttle fell away entirely.

~*~*~

“So Pike was suitably grim-faced,” Jim said as he leaned against the doorway.

Bones just shrugged without looking up.  Undoubtedly he’d heard Jim from the moment he’d stepped into sickbay.  They’d rendezvoused with a passenger frigate and unloaded all of the survivors they’d collected except for the Betazoid.  She’d asked Jim if the Enterprise was possibly heading towards Betazed and while they technically weren’t, he hadn’t minded offering to take her.

She’d had a more traumatic few days than just about anyone else except for Bones.

It was good to see his friend looking like himself again.  The blue medical uniform looked a lot more natural on him than the combat gear had, no matter how capable of a marine he’d once been.

“Did you expect something else?”  Bones asked as he tapped away at his PADD.  Jim wasn’t sure what he was working on, but it couldn’t be so important that it couldn’t wait.  He pushed off the doorway and entered the office, letting the door shut behind him.  Bones finally glanced over at him as he took a seat.  “Chris can see the implications as clearly as I can, Jim.”

“You don’t know for sure that there’s more of that stuff out there.”

One eyebrow arched high in disbelief.  The doctor set the PADD aside and leaned forward.  “Getting one vial out of Olduvai before the place was destroyed wouldn’t have been easy.  You can’t tell me that you honestly think someone would have stopped with just one after they went through all the trouble in the first place. Not when they were all sitting snug as peas in a pod, right there together.”

“Well, no,” Jim admitted with a shrug.  “But we don’t know for sure!  Maybe Julian Carmack lost the other vials over the years.”

“And maybe he has them hidden away in a vault on Earth.  Or maybe someone else has them and they only gave him the one.”  Steepling his hands together, Bones made a face.  “The point is that we don’t know.  Chris isn’t goin’ to relax until he’s holding definitive proof that there aren’t any more scientists runnin’ around creatin’ monsters with that poison.  At least Marcus’ stunt last year means there’s some transparency with Section 31.  That’s one suspect to cross off the list.”

Nodding, Jim tipped his chair back and stared at the ceiling for a moment.  “Do you think Pike will be able to get answers?”

“I think that Chris isn’t goin’ to give up until he does. Kid’s always been stubborn as a mule. If there’s anything to find, he’ll find it.”

That was a fair point, but he’d never liked having to rely on someone else to get his answers. He’d just have to accept it this time.

Jim sighed and let the chair settle back down.  He stared at Bones, taking in the faint lines around his eyes.  “You look tired, Bones.  Nightmares?”

“Who needs nightmares to lose sleep?”  The doctor shrugged and crossed his arms as he leaned back and met Jim’s gaze with an arched brow.  “I’ve had a sickbay full of traumatized orphans, Jim.  And two career politicians tryin’ to bamboozle their way out of quarantine.  It hasn’t been conducive to rest.”

Lewis and his lackey had managed to annoy everyone they’d come into contact with, but Jim had to smirk faintly as he remembered how quickly Bones had managed to shut them up.  “You wouldn’t really have injected him with that Talloin fever, would you have?”

The fever itself was more of a minor annoyance than anything particularly dangerous.  Jim had caught it himself once as a teenager.  The worst symptom was a horrible itching sensation on the scalp and throat.  And temporary muteness.

“Damned right I would’ve.”  Bones snorted and rolled his eyes.  “I’ve given you worse and I actually like you.”

That made Jim laugh.  “You do sling a mean hypo, Bones.”

“And don’t you forget it.”

“Never.”  They shared a smile before Jim finally shifted again and broached the subject he’d had on his mind when he’d searched Bones out.  “So now what?”

Bones didn’t pretend to misunderstand.  He leaned forward again, propping his elbows on the desk and clasping his hands together to lean his chin against.  “Depends on you, really.”

“How does it depend on me?”  Frowning, Jim mirrored Bones’ position.  

“You’re the only one on this ship that knows the truth.  If you want me to leave, I’ll leave.”

Jim gaped for a moment.  “Why in the hell would I want you to leave?”

He hadn’t even realized that Bones was holding himself taut until the tension was suddenly released and Bones slumped slightly with relief.  As outrageous as the suggestion sounded to Jim, apparently it had been a genuine concern for Bones.  “What I am ain’t exactly natural, kid.”

“We’re on a the most technologically advanced spaceship mankind has managed to put together - because the Vengeance absolutely doesn’t count - traveling through the stars to uncharted space.  The fate of our world as we know it was altered because one madman came back in time and fucked things over and it wasn’t that long ago that you had to bring me back from the dead because another super-madman used another spaceship to fuck ours up.  I think ‘natural’ is relative.”

Though he hesitated for a moment, Bones finally dipped his head in agreement.  “True.  But I did lie to everyone.  I’ve lied to you.”

Jim shrugged.  “I won’t hold it against you if you promise not to do it again.”

“I can’t be open about who I am, Jim.  Not even here with this crew.  Gag order or not, rumors would get around.”

“You don’t have to be,” Jim promised.  

Another moment of hesitation.  “I can’t stay forever.  Some day someone is goin’ to notice that I’m not agin’ like I’m supposed to.”

“Because cosmetic surgery is completely unheard of.”  It would be years before anyone really noticed that the cranky old Doctor McCoy still looked exactly as he had when he’d stepped onto a Starfleet shuttle bound for the Academy at the supposed age of twenty six.  Years longer before they’d have to answer it with anything more than ‘good genetics’.   “And let’s be honest.  You’re so frowny and grumpy that most people avoid looking at you too closely anyways.  Everyone is afraid it’ll draw that laser gaze of yours onto them.  Henderoff actually told me once that he’s terrified of you.”

“I’m literally surrounded by children,” Bones groused, rolling his eyes.  

Smiling at the familiar rejoinder, Jim reached out a hand to the man he had always been proud to call his friend.  Nothing he’d found out over the last few days had changed that.  “Stay.”

Bones searched his face.  Whatever he was looking for, he must have found.  He relaxed and smiled back, fond exasperation in his eyes as he reached out to clasp Jim’s hand across the desk.  “Okay.”

Sometimes, it really was as easy as that.