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the five-year mission

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Jim woke up in bed. Oh. His hospital bed.

“Bones, seriously, how much longer do I have to stay here?” he whined, knowing McCoy was keeping himself in a ten-foot radius of his favorite patient. “Is this really medically necessary? Am I pregnant?”

McCoy appeared from the adjacent room and said, “Maybe you are and I was waiting for a good time to break it to you gently, sweetheart.”

“Ugh, shut up and let me out of here.”

“You know,” McCoy said, “Once I let you out, you’re gonna have to do a little song and dance at Pike’s memorial service.”

“What?” Jim asked. “They still haven’t done something for him? What the hell are they waiting for?”

His eyebrows said, YOU, and Jim fell back against his pillows again.

“By the way,” Jim said, “Are we gonna talk about how you cured death back there?”

“You were never legally dead,” McCoy said, “So technically I never cured death.”

Jim nodded. “We don’t deserve Uhura, but we can’t let her go now,” Jim said. “Or ever. Yeah, let’s go with ever. She’s ours forever. Tell the world we called dibs.”

He fell asleep again, thinking of Uhura punching death in the face while yelling in Klingon. It was awesome.

*

Jim woke up in bed. Still his hospital bed.

“I learned something curious,” Spock said from his bedside. Jim turned his head and took in casual uniform Spock. Even he didn’t have the ass-high creases on his pants. Well, maybe he did. It was hard to tell when he was sitting, but there were no creases to be had, period.

“Wait, you said something,” Jim said. “I was staring at your pants.”

“I can see that,” Spock said. “I said that I learned something curious.”

“Curious good? Curious bad? Curious awful? Curious fun? Curious weird? Curious neutral?”

Spock stared for a moment, then muttered, “I should see what medication Dr. McCoy has put you on.”

“Immortality,” Jim replied.

“Not quite,” Spock said. He looked back to Jim and said, “Curious disturbing.”

“Do tell.”

“Our five-year mission will be the first five-year mission in Federation history.”

“That… that’s not right.” Jim tried to sit up a little, but gave up. He frowned and said, “But Pike made me say the oath. Remember? We brought him on the ship and—there’s a plaque? And Sulu got it on video. We watched it, remember?”

“Certainly there have been missions assigned and carried out with the intention of being five-year missions, but none have managed to stay in the unexplored deep space territories where we are going for the full five years,” Spock replied. “Not even Captain Pike’s missions, the longest of which lasted three years and four months.”

“...but that’s… Spock, okay, the five-year mission is Starfleet’s thing, it’s how… okay, we have member planets, right? And that’s how we found them. In the five-year missions.”

“Curious disturbing,” Spock repeated. “I will ignore your attempt to explain Federation history to me as though you forgot my father is an ambassador to the Federation. That being said, I believed that interpretation of the five-year missions as well. However, that is far from the case in the official records.”

“Seriously,” Jim sighed. “How did we end up the most ethical people in Starfleet? Do I look like a paragon of virtue here?”

“Not at the moment, no,” Spock said. “Dr. McCoy did upgrade your status to the crew from processed lunchmeat to fresh death, but even figuratively speaking, you are not the north that anyone should calibrate their moral compasses to follow.”

“I thought people were supposed to be nice to you in the hospital,” Jim said. “So what’d you find?”

Spock pulled out what Jim called his Secret Agent PADD and said, “See my notes on the dates and patterns. Ships set out on their deep-space exploratory missions, encounter new star systems with potential member planets. If the captain reports that a star system contains intelligent life capable of warp-drive, but a majority of the planets show resistance to joining the Federation, the ship is recalled back.”

“And the next date is the date of entry into the Federation,” Jim hissed. “Fuck. Fuck.” Jim grabbed the cuff of Spock’s sleeve and said, “We’re not going to become those people.”

“We will not,” Spock agreed.

*

95% (est.) — the percentage of the original crew roster that will consider requesting transfer to a starbase or other assignment within Starfleet.

40% — the percentage of the original crew roster that will request transfer to a starbase or other assignment within Starfleet. 25% of transfers are granted within 18 months of request; 80% of transfers are granted within three years of request.

10% — the percentage of the original crew roster that will request renewing their assignment on their original ship.

15% — the percentage of the original crew roster that will be reported as dead or MIA within the first three years of a deep space mission.

Report from the Committee on Deep Space Exploration Personnel, 2253

*

The first casualty of the Enterprise’s crew was Arthur Lemon. Crewman Lemon was one of the security staff assigned to Lt. Durga Waters on a trip down to one of the planets of the Ronara system. One of the native reptiloid creatures reared up from the swamp where Lt. Waters was collecting algae samples and Lemon was caught in its massive jaws as Lt. Waters escaped.

“Bettany!” Lt. Waters yelled into her communicator as she ran back to the rendezvous point. “I’d say they’re three to five thousand years from developing into bipeds and making the transition to land-dwelling creatures! I’ve never seen anything like it!”

She thought she heard Lemon’s final yell from the swamp as she was beamed back up to the ship.

She heard the shout of the reptiloid when she and another officer returned later that day to collect a sample of that species.

*

A week into their stay in the Ronara system, visiting and cataloging each planet, Jim found Carol Marcus in the officers’ mess and sat down with her. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something,” he said.

“Just one thing?”

“We can talk about lots of things, if you have the time.”

Carol considered him, but turned back to her sandwich. “What is it, Captain?”

“Our phasers,” Jim said. “We need stronger stunning capabilities.”

Carol tilted her head and said, “Stronger than stunning, less than killing.”

“If it’s possible.”

“Stronger than stun is kill.”

“What about faster to stun?”

Carol raised her eyebrows and asked, “What makes you think that a second lieutenant on your ship knows more about increasing the punch of a phaser than the phaser manufacturers who have been trying to do just that for decades?”

“Well, you’re not trying to sell me anything,” Jim said. “And you’re not doing it for profit or love of the game, but to keep your fellow crewmates safe.”

Carol looked back at her lunch. It had lost much of its appeal, probably due to the sudden arrival of some emotional blackmail she hadn't ordered. 

“I’ll see what I can do,” Carol said. 

*

Jim had a number in his head and that number was 232. 

His original crew roster numbered 1544. 1544 people who entrusted their lives to his hands for the next five years. 

Statistically, 232 of them would be dead or missing within three years.

There were too many injuries and trips to sick bay to keep track of, but casualties? He kept those at the very front of his brain. 232. He wouldn’t let those 232 go.

231, he thought. Lemon. 231. 

231. 

*

Ronara Prime was designated the prime planet in that system because it was inhabited with carbon-based, humanoid life. It wasn’t yet warp capable, so they put the ship into orbit around Ronara Gamma and ran scans on Prime in the third week.

While the ship scanned the Prime planet from a safe distance, Jim and the chief officer of each department met to discuss their plans for exploring Prime.

“If Ronara Prime is Earth, we’re at Jupiter,” Karim, the senior biology officer, said. “We can’t create a detailed species profile without getting closer.” He raised a hand and said, “I know going down on the planet is out of the question, but sending a shuttle, something with basic sensor equipment so we can at least get better visuals of the individuals on the surface. Exploratory needs that kind of information in drawing up an idea of the kind of civilization we’re encountering and creating a plan for potential membership.”

Rita Matthews, the chief intelligence officer, stepped in. “Captain, I do not recommend a manned shuttle mission,” she said. “From what we’ve been able to garner so far, the citizens of Ronara are not capable of warp flight, but they are capable of monitoring their immediate vicinity. A shuttle would come up instantly on their local radar and we would have no choice but to risk them attacking the shuttle or revealing ourselves in making first contact.”

“And we can’t do that because they’re not warp capable,” Jim sighed. “I think I have a compromise, tell me what you think.”

Two days later, Commander Abrams was suited up in a long-distance jetpack prototype. The compromise was this: a piloted shuttle to a point 100 miles from the Prime planet. From there, Abrams would take the jetpack and skim the surface of the atmosphere in the jetpack, collecting data before returning to the shuttle.

Jim was in the chair, watching the various feeds on the main bridge screen, thinking outloud to the bridge crew. “I’m torn,” he said. “Abrams looks like he’s having the time of his life… but I still remember the ship losing gravity and the fucking disaster that turned out to be.”

“The spacewalk has an element of control that the other scenario lacks,” Spock said from his spot next to Jim’s chair. Jim looked up to see Spock already glancing down. “Abrams can propel himself, while you were at the mercy of the ship and space itself.”

“Good point,” Jim said. “When I feel like tempting fate, maybe I’ll strap on that pack and hang out around the ship.”

“Compromise,” Spock said, and Jim would say that they nearly smiled in agreement.

“Captain,” Uhura interrupted. “May I see you and Commander Spock in the ready room for a moment?”

Jim turned to say something hilarious and totally in character for him, but Uhura wasn’t fucking around. He stood up and Spock followed him, while Uhura paged Commander Matthews on her earpiece before she followed them into the ready room.

“Is there a problem?” Matthews asked when she walked in.

“Yes,” Uhura said. She stood at the head of the table and watched the three of them in turn as she spoke. “With the shuttle closer to Ronara Prime and able to pick up weaker communications on the planet, we’ve been recording their domestic broadcasts for our files and planet profiles. One of my ensigns discovered that they’re planning to launch a space flight within the hour.”

“What?” Jim asked. “Space flight? Warp-drive or—”

“A rocket,” Uhura replied.

“Have Exploratory or any of my departments reported how capable of space flight the Ronarans are?” Spock asked.

“That’s the thing,” Uhura replied. “The primary area we were monitoring had just achieved short distance flight—domestic shuttlecrafts, passenger flights. Now that we’re closer, we’re able to see that another, completely disparate people on the Prime world are preparing for a launch that will put something in their atmosphere, if not beyond it.”

“We have to get that shuttle back,” Matthews said. “Is your department monitoring their communications to ensure they haven’t spotted it yet?”

“Yes and so far their positioning is such that the shuttle has about two hours before the planet’s rotation brings the launch site into a line of direct contact with our shuttle.”

Jim asked, “What about Abrams?”

For a long moment, no one answered. Spock and Uhura pulled up the feeds they had watched on the main bridge screen. Jim winced. 

“He doesn’t have two hours,” Jim said. “He doesn’t have an hour, period.”

Matthews stood up and approached the video showing the shuttle’s view of Abrams’s spacewalk near the planet. “Sir,” she said. “We have his footage and readings loaded into our databases. The prototype—we can build another. We can’t violate the Prime Directive and we can’t make contact with a pre-warp civilization.”

Jim watched the Abrams feed, the one small man talking to the shuttle crew and the ship while he floated against the vastness of the planet below and all that space beyond. 

“If we disable his instruments and shoot a photon into the pack,” Jim said slowly. “He’ll fall into the atmosphere and burn up completely, won’t he?” He looked to Spock and asked, “No alien evidence falling to the surface?”

Jim watched as Spock refused to bring himself to look in his direction. “Spock,” Jim said.

Finally, Spock looked. He met Jim’s eyes. “Yes,” Spock said. “They will never find him.”

“Matthews,” Jim said. “Explain the situation to the shuttle pilot. Have Nurmi carry it out immediately, confirm visual, then return to the ship within the two-hour window. The shuttle crew can't know what we're doing until it's done.” Jim cleared his throat and said, “I’m heading back to the bridge. We’re turning the Abrams feed off and moving the ship back to Ronara Epsilon until their space flight is finished. Uhura, have your team closely monitor that sector of the planet.”

Jim and Spock returned to the bridge while Uhura and Matthews stayed behind the ready room to communicate with the shuttle. When Jim had the feeds turned off and the ship on track back to Ronara Epsilon, he turned to Spock for… something. Anything.

“A civilization’s first space flight,” Spock said.

Jim nodded and rested his hand on Spock’s shoulder, heavier than strictly necessary, but necessary all the same.

230.

McCoy informed him that a lieutenant on the shuttle, Cary Lahti, was 229 that night. 

*

"Communication from Admiral Reynolds," Uhura said later that week, after their report was submitted to Command. "He wants to know if Ronara Epsilon has any sectors that would make a suitable outpost for immediate habitation."

"Ronara isn't a member planet," Jim replied. 

"They are also not capable of interplanetary exploration," Chekov chimed in from his console. “Judging from the data we recorded after their rocket launch this week, it would take them decades to send manned missions to the Epsilon planet. Even if they sent a probe towards the edge of their solar system, it would not reach Epsilon for decades, at least.” Chekov looked to Uhura, asked, “Assuming that if the outpost is for immediate habitation, it would be only temporary.”

Jim and Uhura exchanged a glance, and Jim shrugged. “You heard Chekov.”

Uhura nodded to him, but didn’t turn back to her console yet. “I can make recommendations—suggest that it’s habitable, but not preferable. That if they need an immediate settlement point, they can ask a member planet.”

“Uncharted space, Lieutenant,” Jim replied. “That’s the point of being out here: there are no member planets.”

Spock had been listening quietly, but he asked, “And we have no information as to why the admiral or Starfleet would be making this request?”

“That’s cute,” Jim said. “The way you think you have the right to ask Starfleet why they do anything.”

Spock said, “Five years.”

“You think I forgot that? I’m thinking about the five-year mission, Spock. Remember the pattern? Show resistance, we’re called back, then we’re sent back. Do you want that for Ronara Prime?” Jim smiled a little, wryly, before adding, “You could be back here in a hundred years with your own ship, your own crew, to invite them to join the Federation.”

“No,” Spock said. “No, that does not seem likely.” Jim had nothing to say to that, nothing but the quick drying of his throat for some strange reason, so Spock continued. “Is that your recommendation, Captain? Our corps of engineers likely will be the ones asked to set up this outpost and prepare it for the arrival of other Starfleet officers.”

“I’m all for paranoia, you know there’s no one who likes looking over their shoulder waiting to get punched in the kidney more than me,” Jim said, “But I think we’re overthinking this. There could be a refugee situation in a nearby system that we’ve missed because we’ve been busy with the planet profile here. There could be a good reason, Spock.”

Uhura laughed dryly and said, “If Pike could see you now.”

“I know,” Jim said. “But he’d understand.” Jim raised his voice, not explicitly addressing the crew on the bridge, but speaking loud enough so they would hear. “When we’re out here, literally on the final frontier, the only thing we have tying us back to our lives and anything like help or backup? That’s Starfleet. And maybe once I’ve got one of these five-year missions under my belt, we’ll loosen that line a little, but for now? After the Narada and that John Harrison bullshit? We do our best to play it by the book.”

Pike just wanted so much from him—for now, this would have to be enough. 

*

The next star system was exciting: ten planets with seven showing signs of intelligent life. Chekov put the ship into orbit around one of the more remote moons in the system while they figured out how best to read the signs of life on the other planets, particularly the ones in the habitable zone around the star.

“No chance of mod’ing the shuttles, huh, Scotty?” Jim asked. “Or, say, unlocking the secret to cloaking tech.”

“Not that we haven’t been trying techniques with cloaking, but we’re not there yet,” Scotty replied.

Hughes, the head of cartography, projected a map of the system above the conference room table. “Our best option is the tactic the Enterprise used during the conflict with the Narada, sir. The planets we’re most interested in detailing each have at least one satellite. If we put the ship into orbit on the dark side of each planet’s furthest uninhabited satellite, then the closest, we should avoid detection while getting readings. We could send out the shuttles, and maybe even away teams into uninhabited areas since initial readings of the system show humanoid-friendly atmospheres.”

So for two weeks, the Enterprise worked its way from the outer planets to the inner ones, taking readings and building up their databank. The plan was to work their way in, then work their way back out to recontextualize the outer planets once the inner ones had been accounted for. 

“We’re numbering them Prime beginning with the inner planets, aren’t we?” Chekov asked. “I’ve noticed two of the inner planets will overlap orbits at some point, so we should designate the Beta and Gamma labels before they switch.”

“That’s fine, work it out with cartography,” Jim said. “Spock, take the con. I’ll be in medbay.”

M’Benga was doing rounds on the few scrapes and spills they had staying with them that day. When he saw Jim, M’Benga said, “McCoy’s in his office in back.”

“How’s his…” Jim sighed and asked outright, “Is he still threatening to leave?”

“Still mad as hell, if that’s what you’re asking,” M’Benga replied. “But that’s McCoy, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Jim agreed.

Jim knocked lightly on the wall next to the door before stepping close enough to let it open. McCoy looked up and looked back at his monitor when he saw it was Jim. “Anything I can do for you, Captain?”

“How long are you gonna be mad at me?”

McCoy looked at him again and said through his teeth, “How many more of your crew are you gonna shoot out of the sky?”

Jim gnawed on the inside of his lip. “We didn’t have a choice.”

“You never have a choice, Jim,” McCoy replied. He looked back at his monitor and it felt like he was talking at Jim, not to him. It made sense now, what other people said about McCoy, how he could be with other people. Not with Jim, though. “You always have one option, right in front of you, but you’re Jim Kirk so you always break through regulations, physics, good sense, anything standing in your way. You always find another way.”

“Bones, you have to meet me halfway,” Jim said. “Life’s different on the five-year mission. Five years. We’re encountering parts of space that are completely untouched by outside species—we can’t just swoop in and save someone—”

“You shot someone out of the sky,” McCoy said. “We have the technology to, what did Scotty say? Put a grapefruit on Mars? From here, with the right coordinates? And you decided the best thing to do—”

“The only thing to do,” Jim said. He sat down in the chair across from McCoy’s desk and said, “I’m sorry.” He cleared his throat and said, “I’m not sorry I made that call. I’m not sorry for what I did. I’m sorry that I have to make it. I’m sorry every day, Bones.”

McCoy looked up again and reached for Jim’s hand, squeezing his fingers tight, tight enough for Jim to feel pain. He didn’t wince, not for a second, not when McCoy might let go and never look at him again or talk to him again. “You don’t have to,” he said. “Jim, you don’t have to do it.”

“Please don’t go,” Jim said. “Don’t transfer, okay? Don’t request it. We need you here. We need you to keep doing this. You need to—you need to keep coming up to the bridge, being our doctor, telling us when something—that there has to be another way. Please. I need that. We all need that.”

McCoy held his hand for another moment, but then let go. “I’ll stay,” he said. “It’ll probably kill me, but I’ll stay.”

Jim nodded and said, “Good. I’ll—I’ll leave you to it. See you for lunch?”

“We’ll see,” he replied.

It was a start.

*

"I have something for you," Carol said. She had summoned Jim to one of the rec areas where she had a table of phasers waiting and a hologram projector. "I've been working out a solution to your concerns about the speed of our phasers."

Their interactive hologram projector wasn't great—still mid-21st century, all grids and faint 3D shadowing. Full color interactive projectors were still only for planetside labs, too big and energy-hungry to put on a starship, so Jim wondered how effective this simulation could be. 

"Phasers use concussive force," Carol said as she projected her model a few feet in front of her. "And there's very little I can do in terms of increasing that force without making the stun setting just as fatal as kill. But I can introduce another factor."

She stunned her projection with a regular phaser. The force from the phaser pushed the projection (a guy of Jim’s height and dimensions, so he’d try not to read too much into that) about six inches from Carol before he froze up and fell. “Did you see that?” she asked.

“Saw the same thing I always see when stunning someone,” Jim said. “The force that pushes them away buys you a second before they’re disabled on the floor.”

Carol nodded and switched that phaser for the modified one. “So what if the concussive force stays the same, but we increase the force of the actual blast.” She regenerated the projection and stunned him. This time, the projection was thrown several feet before crumpling to the floor.

“The attacker will be stunned on the ground and also sent, bodily, further away from the user, to give them more time to escape,” Carol said. “The force of a firearm discharging was something that weapons have lost over time as armed personnel moved from guns to phasers, but that doesn’t mean that some features from one can’t be useful in another.”

She put the modified phaser down and smiled at Jim. “So what do you think?”

“I like it,” he said. “How do we get all the phasers to do it?”

As Carol explained, he called Spock down, too, for his input. 

Spock was less enthusiastic, but he agreed with Jim.

“I hesitate to call it necessary,” Spock said. “But this is a step forward in prioritizing our security personnel when confronting unfamiliar life forms and life-threatening situations.”

Their eyes met and Jim understood what he wouldn’t say in front of Carol, in front of anyone, really: this would make them explorers that would prioritize saving their own lives over keeping intact the worlds they would find. 

There wasn’t any way around that reality: Jim would prioritize saving his crew over almost anything else. That was what he and Spock agreed on when they boarded this ship together, even if the mission was for five minutes or five years. They were all a team, a team of 1541 people, who would unite in their quest to explore and discover. They were a team and they would protect each other, because their lives—they were worth more than knowledge, weren’t they?

Jim asked, “Do you think we could get a volunteer from the crew to make sure this works?”

“We’ve all been stunned before, at one time or another,” Carol replied. “As long as we’re down here, on the mats, it wouldn’t hurt any more than anything we did at the Academy.” She smiled at Jim. “We’re not all so frail as you think.”

“Then let’s get some volunteers,” Jim said.

Later that afternoon, they had a good number of volunteers and spectators gathered in the rec room. “Now remember!” Jim said to the volunteers, half-joking. “You’re volunteering, but this is part of mission exploration, so no going after the Federation if Lieutenant Marcus just happens to kill you.”

“...well that’s comforting,” McCoy said.

“I’ll draft you to volunteer,” Jim laughed.

“Oh, I wouldn’t doubt it,” he replied. McCoy took a few steps over, putting Spock between him and Jim, as they lined up to watch Carol demonstrate on crewmembers of various sizes and species. McCoy had brought down a half-dozen nurses with most of medbay’s equipment in case these experiments went more wrong than they accounted for (McCoy had already looked at the figures and estimated at least a few fractures as the test subjects went flying). 

“Should we work our way from the heaviest weight class or to heaviest?” Carol asked.

“And how does this mod affect the phaser’s energy consumption?” Sulu asked. “It’s all good if it packs more of a punch, but we’re back to where we started if they’ll die on us sooner than our current ones do.”

“Work your way from the heaviest,” McCoy said. “You said you developed this based on… however much Jim weighs, so test the extreme limit first.”

“Good idea,” Carol replied as she motioned to Ensign Lefferts and all his muscle mass standing along the edge of the wrestling mats. 

“They’re gonna get married,” Jim crooned near Spock’s ear. “Mark my words before the mission is over—”

McCoy overheard and rolled his eyes. Uhura agreed with him and said, “Stop trying to make them happen, Captain.”

“I’m going to use my captain powers and someone is getting married on my ship before we leave,” Jim replied. “And if you’re not careful, it’ll be you and Spock.”

“You know what,” Uhura said. “I dare you. I dare you.”

Spock turned to ask Uhura, “Why do you encourage him?”

She shrugged and smiled. “Gives him something to dream about at night in his sad little room.”

“I don’t like the turn this has taken,” Jim said.

“You started it,” McCoy replied. 

“Are you quite finished?” Carol asked. “I thought we were here to see a weapons’ demonstration.”

“YEAH, SERIOUSLY,” called out one of the spectators. 

“Look, sometimes you just have to go ahead and shoot to get us all to shut up,” Jim said.

“Oh, I’ll go ahead and shoot all right,” Carol said darkly. 

The demonstration on Lefferts went well. He was heavier than the Jim hologram so when he was stunned, he wasn’t thrown back as far, but still a decent distance to make the phaser mod more useful than their current model. One after another, Carol demonstrated the mod on their volunteers, stopping after each shot to measure the change in the mod and the phaser’s energy bank while the nurses from medbay checked on the latest stunned volunteer.

And then Lt. Ortiz, who weighed about 25 lbs less than Jim, stepped up, got stunned, and the room watched her neck twist midair with a terrible crack at a terrible angle. Jim and McCoy ran to Ortiz, already surrounded by the medical staff and gaping spectators until Spock called for the security officers present to give the medics space. After a moment, a nurse unfurled the stretcher so they could get Ortiz to medbay where M’Benga could try to repair the damage and control the swelling. 

Jim stood up from the mat to disperse the crowd, but the security team had taken care of that already. “I guess we’ll update the crew when we hear back from medbay,” Jim said. 

Carol walked over from her demonstration table, the phaser and mod left behind, and joned the senior crew gathered on the mats. “M’Benga will know better when he’s run a deeper scan,” McCoy said to them, “But I think we can save her. She won’t walk again, but we’ll save her.”

“What a life,” Jim muttered. 

“It’s a life,” McCoy said. “It’s her life.”

Jim nodded, looking properly chastened, and looked to Carol. “That aside,” he said. “Did you get a good picture of whether the mod works? What about the energy numbers?” Before McCoy could say anything, Jim shot him a look and turned back to Carol. 

“I know medical allowed for fractures and sprains,” Carol said, “But what happened to Ortiz does demonstrate one of the… improvements on this phaser model when combating hostile forces.” McCoy made to speak again, but Uhura touched his arm and wrapped her hand around his forearm. “Using these in a real environment, we’ll have additional advantages like terrain at our disposal. The mod will let us throw back a hostile and then let the environment take care of them.”

McCoy wrenched his arm away from Uhura and said, “I’ll make sure to note that in her file, Lieutenant Marcus.” He stepped away from the officers and said, “If you’ll all excuse me.”

“Bones,” Jim pleaded. 

“Did you hear that?” Carol asked them when McCoy walked out. “Lieutenant Marcus. That should put me in my place.”

“He’s a doctor, Carol,” Jim said. His eyes watched the door of the gym because he did expect McCoy to come back in a second, tell them he had calmed down. Any minute, McCoy would come back. “I know, I know, you’re both doctors, but.” Jim swallowed hard and cleared his head. “I’m sorry, let’s not—I’ll make sure he apologizes but Carol, I’m on your side.”

“This isn’t about sides, Captain,” Carol replied. “We’re all on the same side. We want to preserve life through better weaponry, better defense.”

“Exactly,” Jim said. He looked around him, at Uhura, Spock, Scotty, and Sulu, and said, “That’s what we all want. That’s our mission. To explore new worlds, and to do that, we have to be alive to see them. Our crew are the best Starfleet has to offer, and they’re worth more to us when they’re alive. There isn’t anyone on this ship who wouldn’t die for one of us, so the best we can do is make sure that they never have to make that call. That we can all take care of ourselves. That we all do take care of ourselves.”

It was Spock’s habit whenever Jim made a pronouncement of any kind that he would immediately step in and shed some light on an ethical blind spot in Jim’s vision. He and McCoy were good for that, for being lights in the dark places Jim couldn’t see. They all did that for each other—not just the three of them, but all the people in this circle, the people closest in the world to Jim, especially now that Pike wasn’t on the other side of any com. 

Now, though, Spock said nothing. Jim held his glance and Spock nodded. Not reluctantly, either, but sure and confident. 

“We must enforce our numbers,” Spock said. “If only because at this distance from the Federation, we need a base number of personnel to keep the ship operational. I have noticed a disturbing trend in that our operations officers have the highest injury and casualty rate because they are the ones actually executing our orders.” Spock looked at Carol and Scotty as he added, “We must prioritize their protection and defense. Command and sciences are, by design, largely more theoretical tracks than operations, and if we continue to lose our operations officers at this alarming rate, we will not manage five years away from the Federation, even accounting for the number of officers cross-trained in secondary tracks.” 

“And we can’t explore the quadrant as deeply as we should—as we want to,” Uhura added, “If we keep returning to Federation starbases for more personnel.”

“We’re on board,” Sulu said. “All of us. This is what we wanted, isn’t it? This is why we’re in Starfleet.”

Jim nodded, even while he heard McCoy like it was yesterday:

Yeah, well... I've got nowhere else to go. The ex-wife took the whole damn planet in the divorce. All I've got left is my bones.

*

Lt. Ortiz survived the night, though M’Benga and the medics confirmed McCoy’s diagnosis: she wouldn’t walk again, not without returning to Earth for specialist treatment, which they couldn’t offer on the ship. 

The number held at 229 and Lt. Ortiz adjusted to performing her job in the sciences using only her voice and retinal tracking.

*

Cartography discovered that the ten-planet system they were currently exploring already had a system designation in old Federation records. The system had been designated Argaya and the notes on it were sparse, so now it would be their job to complete the profiles. 

“The exploratory shuttles to Argaya Theta—”

“Do we need to keep going on the Greek alphabet, by the way?” Sulu asked. “Do you think anyone at Starfleet is going to give a damn that it’s pronounced eta even though its symbol on the charts is an H?”

“It’s bullshit, but it’s standard bullshit,” Uhura replied. “The Archers started it a hundred years ago and we can’t possibly deviate from what the Archers thought would be the efficient numbering of new planetary bodies, could we?”

“Someone’s not having fun proofing their underlings’ reports, I take it,” Jim said from his chair.

“Just one more wonderful reminder of all the ways Starfleet and the Federation work together to create a perfectly homogenous society out of incredibly heterogeneous cultures,” Uhura said. Jim turned in his chair and grinned; he loved when she went all rogue on them. “We’re keeping the Greek letter designations,” Uhura added to Sulu.

“What’d you hear about the shuttle, Sulu?” Jim asked.

“Oh,” Sulu said, turning in his chair to face the center of the bridge. “Just that they think Theta is largely uninhabited, so we can put the ship into orbit around the planet and get a deeper reading on it.”

“It would help,” Chekov added as he brought up the current feed from the Theta shuttle. “The atmosphere is opaque from our position.”

“We might not be able to land and do a proper away team exploration on the surface, but the atmospheric composition is something that the shuttle’s scanning gear can’t penetrate.”

“Wait,” Uhura interrupted. “So how do we know that Theta is uninhabited if we haven’t even seen to the surface?”

Spock answered, “Environmental has not detected the presence of humanoid civilization in the atmosphere’s composition.”

“Maybe the sentient lifeforms aren’t humanoid,” Jim said.

“That is a possibility we are still investigating,” Spock replied. 

“Someone get all this to Scotty and Matthews,” Jim said. “See if they think we can risk one orbit around the planet.”

“Speaking for tactics,” Sulu said, “I think we can risk one. If Theta had lifeforms advanced enough to shoot a shuttle or a starship out of the sky, their immediate neighborhood would be like Earth’s, wouldn’t it? Shuttleports and stations orbiting the planet and colonies on the nearby satellites, but there’s no visible debris immediately around that planet.”

“And I nominate you to get all that to Operations,” Jim announced. “I also second it, and I pass the motion, because captain.”

Sulu raised his eyebrows and diligently opened up the com.

The door to the bridge slid open and McCoy walked in, strolling to Jim’s chair. Jim smiled up at him and kicked him lightly with the toe of his boot. “You up for an away team?”

“Hell no,” McCoy said. “After Nibiru? Hell no.”

“Okay, but don’t say I never take you anywhere nice,” Jim said. He motioned to the viewscreen, which still streamed the Argaya Theta feed from the shuttle near the planet. “That’s a nice green color, like spring green.”

“Green was the color of mold and decay on Vulcan,” Spock said from behind them. 

“Green’s still the color of mold and decay on food,” Uhura said.

“I’m trying to sell Bones on a nice trip somewhere and you guys are fucking it up left and right,” Jim said.

“You lost me on Nibiru when you made me jump off a cliff, Jim,” McCoy said. “I’ll always go with you, but I don’t have to like it.”

“Now that’s a positive attitude,” Jim said. “Anyway, we might not even go. We’re still checking up on the thirty or forty thousand things that have to be right for us to even consider an away team.” Jim grinned again and asked, “Got anything else to try and steal my sunshine?”

“You said I should come up and see you so here I am,” McCoy said. “Seeing you.”

Jim nodded and turned back to the viewscreen. He and McCoy, they’d get back to where they were, where they started. 

*

Everything would be perfect—no, not perfect—good, difficult, it would all be so good if it wasn’t for McCoy and the way they kept butting heads on every single thing Jim did. It felt like trying to walk off a sprain, but it was McCoy so he couldn’t just freeze him out or not talk to him. Jim had to fix it, or nothing would feel right again.

Spock came to him most nights, though, and not just on first officer business. They were becoming people they wanted to spend time with, and that was something Jim needed if he couldn’t run to medbay for a shoulder to whine on and an eye roll whenever he needed it.

“Jim,” Spock said on one of those nights. Their eyes met across the desk in Jim’s quarters. “What do you need from Dr. McCoy?”

“You should call him Bones,” Jim said.

“No one else does,” Spock said. “Only you.” Spock repeated his question: “What do you need from him?”

Jim didn’t have an answer for that, so he looked down to his PADD again and said nothing. Spock was better at reading people than he let on; he knew when Jim was like this that the discussion was over and they should talk about something else.

Except Spock stood up, leaned across the desk, and tipped up Jim’s chin with his finger. 

If it had been anyone else, they wouldn’t have gotten that far. Jim could hear him get up, though, and saw his hand lean on the desk in front of him. He let Spock tip his chin up so their eyes met. 

“Is it this?” Spock asked. His voice was quieter than usual, softer. Jim watched him lean in, close his eyes, and kiss him, that finger still underneath his chin, like that was the only thing holding them together in the moment. Jim’s eyes drifted shut as he kissed Spock and he thought, maybe it is. Maybe all it took was a touch to bring them in even closer than they thought they could be. 

When Spock pulled away, both hands on the desk to support his weight, Jim said, “No. That’s not what I need from him.”

He stood up and so did Spock, but Jim was the one who walked around to the other side of the desk, the better to rest his hands on Spock’s waist, then his hips, as he pulled him in. “But I want this. I want this with you.” 

And if someone had asked him two, three years ago, what Spock would sound like when trying to seduce someone, Jim would have put on a 20th century robot voice and said something halting and awkward like, PLEASE LET US TO FORNICATE, HUMON, because that was the kind of asshole Jim had been when it came to estimating Spock without knowing a damn thing about him.

Now Spock reached a hand up to cup Jim’s cheek, his other hand on Jim’s hip. “I want this,” he said, quiet and easy as he moved in to kiss Jim again, a deeper kiss where they tasted each other and Jim could feel his head spin, let his head spin as Spock robbed the breath from his lungs, the better to replace it with this. Spock, with his straight shoulders and perfect posture and eyebrows lifting into perfect 45 degree angles whenever Jim did something stupid, was none of those things now. Here he was strong, weirdly compact and pliable when Jim nudged him to the bed. Spock pushed Jim to sit on the edge and said, more quiet than Jim had ever heard him, “Tell me what you need.”

He wanted to scoff and say, I don’t NEED this, or I just wanna show you a good time, or any of a hundred different deflecting cliches he had at his disposal, but they wouldn’t come. Not now, not with Spock, not here when he’d tasted his mouth and couldn’t, really couldn’t keep up his defenses for another second with him.  “I need this,” he said, and Spock obliged and Jim let down his shields.

It wasn’t that he and McCoy had more going on than their best friendmanship and husbandly bickering, but it was—McCoy had shut himself off from Jim. He didn’t come to him anymore. He did his work from his office and like it was nothing, Jim was left alone with his right choices and his good captaining and no one to rest a hand on his shoulder and tell him it would be okay, even when things weren’t ever going to be okay ever the fuck again. 

Spock pushed Jim down on the bed and undressed him, his hands lingering along Jim’s skin, running along the length of his legs, moving back up and resting on his thighs. His hands moved up to Jim’s hips and held him there as he leaned in to lick down the length of Jim’s cock, eyes closed, like he was shutting out everything in the world that wasn’t the cock in his mouth and Jim’s breathing, his hips lifting up against the firm grip Spock had on him. Spock kneeled at the foot of the bed, the better to push apart Jim’s thighs and let his tongue move against his balls, then against Jim’s asshole, licking enough to slip one finger, then two inside. Of course Spock was different in bed, Jim thought to himself. Of course this was where Spock had learned how to control himself, how to let go, how to stop himself from losing his mind when he lost everything and then lost a little more. 

Like he could hear his thoughts or feel the changes in Jim’s body, Spock took Jim’s cock in his mouth again, licking and sucking until Jim could only hear his own yelling in his own tiny little quarters. For one fucking minute, he didn’t want to know anything or feel anything beyond his own body, and that was when Spock fucked him harder, sucked on the head of his cock before taking him deep down his throat. Jim couldn’t hear anything but his own surprise as he shot into Spock’s mouth. He could feel Spock taking it, felt one hand pressing hard into Jim’s hip to keep him down, the resistance almost as good as the moment when he hit the back of Spock’s throat hard enough to make him gag (just once before Spock got it under control again). 

Jim pulled Spock up so they were chest to chest. He wrapped one of his arms around Spock’s shoulders and Spock stretched an arm across Jim’s chest. Jim smiled a little, realizing Spock hadn’t even taken his pants off yet. Shit. 

“You shouldn’t have told me you were some kind of sex robot here to make me feel less lonely,” Jim said. When Spock didn’t reply, Jim immediately assumed he’d fucked it up and he was going to start being That Captain who had sex with his enlisted crew like some gross admiral had advised him to do at one of the hundred post-chest candy cocktail parties they’d attended after the Narada

Of course, then Spock had to move up higher and take the lobe of Jim’s ear between his lips, between his teeth, before he spoke. “We are alive,” he said. “My mother, your father, Captain Pike, the cadets, my entire species—we are the survivors of that carnage.” Jim stared straight ahead, up at his ceiling, every word dropping into his brain like a weight that would throw him off balance for the rest of his life. “We survived. This is survival.”

Spock moved away from Jim’s ear and leaned up over his face. It was so weird, the way he looked like Spock, the same Spock he always knew, with the sharp dark eyebrows and the paler than pale face, but there was something in the way he moved, the way he spoke now, that was him and not him, all at once. “When we die,” Spock said, “We become our service records, our photos, our published articles and research, our contributions to the world, the speeches others will make about us. Until then.”

Jim swallowed hard and nodded, then repeated after him: “Until then.”

*

The next day, Jim was finishing his lunch just as McCoy sat down next to him. Their eyes met, but McCoy said nothing. He looked down at his lunch and thought how much he wanted to stay—how much he wanted to talk to his best friend, hear about his morning, catch up on what was going on in medical, whether that junior doctor on his staff was ready to go down to the planet with the away team. All those questions and conversations weighed heavy on his tongue, any of them ready to fall out at any moment and—

And what? And McCoy would say nothing, or say something scathing, or make some snide remark that danced around a horrible thought: that McCoy actually believed Jim had survived everything he’d been through, had survived death, only to become a monster. It made something tighten in Jim’s chest, made his breathing quicken, because if McCoy didn’t believe him—didn’t believe in him—what was the point of any of this?

“Away team leaves in three hours,” Jim said as he stood up from the table. He looked down at McCoy, who looked confused. He thought I would stay, Jim thought with relief. “I’ll see you in the transporter room,” Jim finished.

McCoy nodded and turned back to his food. Jim didn’t stay.

*

“What am I doing down here again?” McCoy asked.

“You’re always complaining I never take you anywhere nice, so here we are,” Jim said, arms outstretched. “Argaya Theta. Enjoy.”

“I’ve never said that,” McCoy replied. “Never ever ever. You know I’d rather be somewhere I know to be miserable and terrible than somewhere new.”

“You’re suffocating our spirit of exploration,” Jim replied. “Stop that.”

They were part of the first away team to Argaya Theta, the eighth planet from the star in the ten-planet system they were exploring. The star was bigger and the system narrower than Sol, and at this distance from the star, the environment was… interesting. One of the operations officers called it “rainy Tuesday afternoon” and to Jim, that sounded incredibly accurate. The sky was the dull gray of an old phaser and their boots sank into the ground with a damp squish that made Jim’s skin crawl. They were at the base of a grassy hill, and the biologists walked around them taking readings and samples, discussing eagerly between themselves. Jim took it all in for a moment and then started to walk up the hill.

When he reached the top, he thought it was a good thing that he did, because the other side of the hill, at its other base, was a forest. In the forest was a village. Jim bit his lip, annoyed at this, annoyed that they hadn’t spotted it, annoyed that he was annoyed at all when this was an insane, once-in-a-lifetime thing he was seeing. His eyes might be the first outside eyes to see this village, maybe ever. He was looking on a world totally undisturbed, totally uninfluenced by the Federation or Starfleet or anything he had ever known. It was a world different from every one he knew, yet if they were able to get to know the people living and working down there, in a decade he might realize how similar their lives were to his own, their own.

He was annoyed, though, because they weren’t supposed to be here. There weren’t supposed to be people on this planet. Jim flipped open his com and said, “Away team to Commander Matthews, this is the captain.”

“Captain?”

“I’m sending a feed up to you and the bridge—we were assured there was no intelligent life in this sector of the planet, but I’m absolutely looking at a village right now. Not making contact, just wondering how we missed it.”

He heard Matthews swear quietly over the com before she answered. “The readings are never precise, sir. In this case, the forest canopy seems to have been too thick for our remote instruments.”

“Really? We watched this spot for days and we weren’t able to see the people clearly walking in and out of this forest?”

“Captain, we would have noted it if—”

“Fine, Matthews. We’ll try and keep to our side of the hill. I’ll keep a lookout and make sure that we get back to the rendezvous point if it looks like we might make contact.”

McCoy was standing next to him, further back and watching the forest carefully. “That was colder than your usual crew rapport,” he remarked.

“A stupid mistake,” Jim said.

“Should I get Mendoza or one of the operations officers up here to take some visuals?”

“Yeah, do that,” Jim said, his eyes roving over as much of the land beneath them as he could see. “Also,” Jim said as McCoy walked away. “Let them know we’re cutting this short. They have an hour, then we’re beaming back and switching back to remote monitoring.”

Gallo, one of the operations officers, came up to join Jim on the hill. “We should get down,” Gallo said, and Jim shook his head because obviously and why hadn’t he thought of that. “I can take visual readings from down here, but you’re—”

“Yeah, I got it, thanks Lieutenant,” Jim replied as he got on his stomach and propped himself up on his elbows to watch the people below. 

They laid there in silence, Gallo silently recording on his instruments and Jim watching, the biologists’ chatter behind them and the soft breeze blowing through the wind making their surroundings sound less imposing, less unknown and terrifying. 

Then someone behind Jim gasped and Jim turned around, phaser in hand.

Both biologists, Mendoza and Vogel, were lying still on the ground and several local inhabitants had McCoy and the other security officer, Novak, with their arms held behind their backs and sharp knives to their throats.

“Jim, just go without us,” McCoy called out.

“We’re not doing that,” Jim replied as he stood with his hands up. He still had the phaser in one hand, though, so it wasn’t quite sending out the message he intended.

“Put your phaser down,” McCoy said.

Jim threw the phaser down on the grass in Gallo’s direction and said, “Gallo, you can get a clear shot at the one holding Dr. McCoy. It’s one of Carol’s new models, so the force of the stun should send them running.” He cleared his throat and said, “Kirk to bridge. We have a situation. When I give the word, transport us immediately. We’ve been compromised.”

“Don’t shoot,” McCoy said again. “Let them take me wherever they want. I’ll try and get out later.”

Throughout this, Jim had hardened his face to look as impassive as he could manage, and to keep his tone calm and without inflection. He could barely hold on to that stillness as he said, “Bones, don’t. Don’t do that. We’ll never see you again.”

“We don’t have another—”

“Gallo,” Jim whispered, and Gallo fired. He aimed for the person with their arm wrapped around McCoy’s neck and he hit them in the thigh. The sound of the stun made the inhabitants cry out and back away, but that was nothing compared to the target’s screams as he writhed on the ground ten feet away, not stunned at all but wailing hard and drawing the others to them. 

Jim looked to Novak, the other hostage, just in time to see a blade slide across his throat and the person shove Novak’s body to the ground, showing impressive strength and incredible disgust. 

“Get a lock on Dr. McCoy’s location, transporter,” Jim said.

“Let me help him!” McCoy yelled. He hadn’t moved from the spot where he had been held and the crowd was now gathered around the injured person, moaning and looking to them like they were ready to move on them again.

Jim stared at him as he disappeared, wondering if McCoy was kidding. 

226.

*

Jim soon understood that no matter how much prep work they did before an away team, no matter how many hours of remote readings they took, or the amount of imaging they took of the planet, nothing could prepare them for what waited on the planet’s surface and with its inhabitants.

Their procedures couldn’t prepare them, and their procedures couldn’t save them.

*

They came upon a planet whose ground level and lower atmosphere was comparable to Earth and other Earth-like planets, but that was protected by a dense atmosphere that didn’t mix at all with the lower levels. They sent a probe into the upper atmosphere and down into the lower, which confirmed that the lower level and ground would be safe for humanoids, but operations demanded they put on special environmental suits just in case.

Operations also requested they take a shuttle, the Renown, down to the surface, as they couldn’t afford to experiment on crew lives by using the transporter. 

The Renown crashed into the planet as particulates in the lower level of the atmosphere entered through the shuttle’s imperfections and exhaust systems, killing everyone on board.

218.

*

Another accidental first contact, but this time the casualty was Sorot, one of their Vulcan science-command lieutenants, and unwitting telepathic assault from the local inhabitants.

217.

*

Four officers separated from the away team in a dense fog that set in on the planet. Dehydration and one handful of poisonous berries.

213.

*

Ensign Perry, a low-level botanist, scratched her hand on a branch as she walked down a path to look at one of the local cats. She died that night of a strange orange gangrene that medical collected and contained.

212.

*

The one time that McCoy’s advice to go with them, just go and then escape made sense? Lt. Frank went along and Uhura watched him join the community in a local ceremony. The plan was to wait until after the celebration feast (the one waiting on the edge of Uhura’s line of vision, beautiful and tantalizing, everyone there excited and picking when they dared) to run out of the compound and have the Enterprise beam them up. 

The vows were said, Lt. Frank looked to Uhura with eyes that sparkled with giddy relief, just before the priest-leader stabbed him in the stomach and pushed the blade up and up his chest.

Uhura ran, ran for her life.

211.

*

A stampede of six-legged bison.

204. Sulu’s dominant hand crushed, regenerated, with limited mobility for the rest of his life.

*

A spore escaped a sample tube in one of the science labs. The vents were immediately shut, but something in the spore reacted with something in the controlled air of the lab and caused the spore to multiply endlessly inside the lab, asphyxiating the staff inside.

185.

*

One of their operations officers had his transfer approved. He stole from the labs a still-living lizard that they had collected for study from one of the planets they visited. 

The poachers he had a deal with killed him at the exchange point. The lizard probably survived.

184.

*

Contact with a warp-capable planet. 

Correction: contact with one country on a warp-capable planet. The Federation agreed to trade deals with that one country, which sparked a war with three neighboring countries. They should leave and let the territories negotiate for themselves, but Starfleet disagreed.

One war later, settled decisively in favor of the newest member planet for the Federation: 158.

*

They celebrated their first year out in space. Jim held up his glass and said, “Four more years.” 

Spock fucked him that night, slow, his teeth worrying away at Jim’s neck, and Jim closed his eyes, forgot everything except four more years.

A fire started in the hangar that night after too much celebrating for the night crew. One of the shuttles was completely destroyed with Ensigns Dalman, Yuen, and Wallach inside.

155.

*

First contact with a warp-capable planet. It started out well, and then they demanded Uhura and Chekov as guest gifts. Uhura herself couldn't tell if they meant the situation to be temporary or permanent. 

Just in case, they escaped. Starfleet arrived later, when the Enterprise has gone, to make the planet into a Federation colony.

146.

*

Accidental first contact with a pre-warp village. This time, something of theirs—some fiber in their uniforms, some spore native to them, something—caused an allergic reaction in the people they met. The native inhabitants died and the survivors fought back.

134.

*

Jim offered himself as a hostage in exchange for McCoy. 

The extraction operation went as planned.

125.

*

First contact with a warp-capable planet reignited a royal civil war.

118.

*

Ghosts. 

Correction: less advanced, incorporeal beings, with a penchant for possession.

The local inhabitants were, in some terrifying way, separating the incorporeal from the corporeal, and selling the corporeal. Of course the Enterprise seemed like an ideal new supply.

Spock revealed he wasn’t just a touch telepath, but one of the most powerful telepaths ever recorded, when he reunited as many of the away team with their souls as he could. McCoy put him in a medical coma for 10 days before he woke up again.

113.

*

A planet whose steam rising from the ground stimulated their fear receptors.

106.

Jim returned from the surface. He had screamed on the planet, screamed until he was hoarse, and invoked 619 when he returned to the ship. He went to his room and didn’t leave for a week, though Spock and McCoy checked on him.

Jim returned to the bridge on the eighth day and took his command back from Spock. When he sat in the chair again after seven days’ absence, it felt—natural. It felt more natural and he felt more at home than he ever had before. Decisions felt surer. He felt surer. All it took was a visit to the brink and back again.

“I did that as a child,” Spock whispered that night. “I wonder if Vulcans still do it. A survival quest, and a spiritual one, in the seventh year, when young Vulcans traveled out onto the desert forge and lived for ten days on very little.”

Jim closed his eyes, felt the weight of Spock all along his back, their bodies fit against each other with an incredible heat where their skin met, the skin of Jim’s back and Spock’s chest. Spock’s arm fit firmly around Jim’s chest and held him in place.

“And when you came back?” Jim asked.

“I could hardly consider sleeping in my family’s backyard for ten days the brink,” Spock said. “But Dr. McCoy’s coma. Telepathic obliteration. Seeing oblivion where my home once was.”

Somehow, Jim thought, somehow he and Spock always found themselves in the same place, with the same look in their eyes. Even when they argued on the bridge, agreed and disagreed with each other and their other officers, there was something beneath all that, something familiar, a place for each other that they had made together. They had come back from the edge and that place was where they would stay.

*

“Funny to see you down here,” McCoy said one day when Jim needed something from medbay. 

“Has it been a while?” Jim asked. “Huh. I didn’t notice.”

There was a twitch, a frown, at the edge of McCoy’s mouth, but Jim ignored it, or maybe he had imagined it.

*

Another planet, another away mission, another ambush—this time from two surrounding forces who they were going to crush and whose cloaking technology they would adapt for their own. From the edge of the ship's designated safe zone, from orbit around the planet, none of their advanced instrumentation and weaponry showed up. There were complex cities, yes, but all underground, and huge air bases hidden until they approached from one specific path set at one specific angle. 

They had to defend themselves and all of them, everyone on that ship, every crewmember, every officer, was a soldier, too, and they were ready to beam down and take these people out. 

The Falacians. Jim would remember that. 

They were ready, all of them were ready for this battle to defend their ship, their crew, their lives, except for McCoy.

He would agree, though. McCoy had to agree and once he did, Jim would nod, Scotty would give the order, and the crew would start beaming down, now that night was falling.

McCoy, though. McCoy stood in front of Jim, the rest of the senior officers behind Jim. He was outnumbered, but there was a wild look around his eyes that told Jim he didn't know, he didn't care. 

“Do you know what I did, Jim?” McCoy asked. “I cured death for you. You gave your life for your crew and your ship, and I—I shouldn’t have been able to, but I fixed it. I gave you your life back.” He came closer to Jim, dug his fingers into Jim’s bicep, held him tight and pulled him close. “I wanted you to live. More than anything. Now everywhere we go, people are dying—people who were living their lives just fine until we came along for Starfleet, for exploration. We’re hurting them—we’re killing them. I didn’t bring you back for that.” Jim couldn’t look away from McCoy’s eyes, the frustrated tears on his cheeks as he gripped Jim’s arms again, harder. “How could you make me regret this? How could you?”

Jim pried himself out of McCoy’s grasp and stepped back. Spock came closer and stood by his side. One by one he could feel it, the whole weight of his senior officers standing behind him, at his side. He knew what they must look like based on McCoy’s expression—worried, always worried, his brows always furrowed and his eyes always narrowed, always suspicious, always thinking the worst of all of them when all they were trying to do was what they had to do. They were seeking new worlds, striving for the knowledge that awaited them, finding out what the galaxy, the whole fucking universe held for them. How could McCoy not want that, not want it more than anything?

At his side, Jim saw Sulu raise his arm. He watched Sulu discharge the phaser and then he looked back as the blast hit McCoy square in the chest. 

“I had to do it,” Sulu said.

No, not square in the chest. Just off center, directly over his heart. 

“I know,” Jim said. “I know you did. We had to do it.”

Something caved in Jim’s chest when he watched McCoy fall. McCoy had watched Sulu raise his arm, but he didn’t plead, didn’t even look scared. He looked ready, too, as ready as the rest of them, though not for the same reason. 

Jim walked over and looked down at McCoy, at the eyes he had closed just as Sulu raised his hand. His hair was slightly out of place. 

Jim opened his com and said, “Security to the north edge of the peak. Dr. McCoy was fatally injured. We need to bury him soon, before we head back to the ship.”

Spock walked over and, to Jim’s surprise, kneeled next to the body. He came up again with the ring from McCoy’s left hand.

“Keep it,” Spock said. 

“You know we were the same year, right?” Jim asked. “It’s the same exact ring.”

“You never wear yours,” Spock said. “He always wore his.”

Jim hesitated, but took the ring from Spock’s open hand and slipped it on his left hand. Of course, it would only fit on his ring finger.

He kept it.

“Dr. McCoy thought we were playing at being imperialists,” Jim said, Dr. McCoy sounding so formal and awkward in his mouth, but that was for the security officers who had just arrived and were digging a grave under a large rock overhang nearby. “We should show him what empire really looks like. A Terran empire done right.”

105.