"Do you believe in ghosts?"
Nyota turned away from the tricorder she was studying. Captain Kirk didn't look back at her though, his eyes were riveted out toward one of the fields of tall reed-like plants spread out before their survey team. They stood waist high; crowned with tiny swaying eggshell white blossoms that defiantly refused to reflect the pink hue of the overhead suns. Tarsus, she thought absently, was quietly beautiful.
"Ghosts, captain?" Nyota repeated archly. She folded her arms in front of her. This is what she got for insisting she wanted more field experience.
Kirk lowered his voice and slowly turned his head to stare at her, unblinking, even as he enunciated carefully, "Ghosts."
Goosebumps prickled her bare arms as Kirk's question faded into nothing almost as soon as it reached her ears. Echoes did not exist here; Nyota couldn't recall exactly why from her debriefings—something to do with atmospheric dampening. It had unnerved the security force when they'd first beamed down. Spock would have called their reactions irrational. Nyota was used to different tonal ranges; her own urge to talk louder was purely to experience the effect, and most definitely not any vaguely unnerved feeling.
"Ghosts, sir?" One of the security team tensed and Nyota shook her head when he swiveled back and forth, phaser in hand. She darted an annoyed look at Kirk, expecting his knowing smirk, but was surprised to find him studying the field again.
"Fan out," one of the sergeants ordered and the trio of armed, red-shirted, trigger-happy first years saluted, briefly touching their brows before they trotted down the thin paths formed between patches of white.
She rolled her eyes, wondering what their captain was pretending to see rather than harmless flowers. Ghosts, indeed. Again, she wondered why she hadn't volunteered to be on Doctor McCoy's team evaluating the medical facilities.
"Do you believe in ghosts?" Nyota countered because Kirk looked like he was waiting for an answer.
Kirk's right eyebrow rose in response. "I asked you first." Kirk cocked his head, his mouth crooked into a sort of lopsided smile.
And there was the smirk she'd been expecting. Nyota scoffed. She readjusted her footing on the hard and uneven ground. The stalks on the edge of the field in front of them bowed and touched her knees, its tips brushing against her hand, like blades skimming across her skin. Nyota snatched her hand back and automatically retreated a step.
"Careful," he murmured when Nyota's boots skidded on the broken surface, but he didn't offer her a hand because he'd learned she wouldn't thank him for it. "Top soil around here quickly dries into a thin crust." Kirk shifted his weight for balance. He checked over his shoulder with Ensign Sawyer and Lieutenant Givers, crouched in the dirt. "Anything?"
Givers rose to his feet and shrugged as he brushed dirt off his blue tunic. The botanist stretched as he straightened, coming to his full mountain of a height in front of her.
"No signs of parasites," Givers reported. It always sounded like he was talking from his belly. "Just dust." He grunted, stamped his feet on the ground to shake the grey powder off. "Lots of dust."
"The samples I took confirm no presence of even dormant larval forms," Ensign Sawyer agreed. He raised his tricorder for viewing. "I have no idea how these reeds are even growing in this stuff." Sawyer looked like he'd sprung up right in this field with his gold uniform, white hair, and equally pale skin: weedy, brittle, ready to snap if another dry breeze sighed past them.
Kirk reached out and brushed a palm briefly over the tops of the stalks like he was petting an animal; careful not to bend any of them. Nyota watched as the plants shivered and tipped toward him but did not snap.
"Any evidence of other eukaryotic organisms? Like microorganisms?" Kirk asked and Nyota was beginning to think it wasn't the weird atmospherics putting the strange tone into Kirk's voice.
"Microorganisms?" Givers toed the dirt and stared at the cracked surface as if he could see them with the naked eye.
Nyota frowned at her tricorder and she knew the others were doing the same behind her.
"Uh…no, Captain," Sawyer replied when no one else did. Then he nodded to himself. "You mean like the contagion that infected the original colony's crops?" He pointed the tricorder to the ground once more. "No. We found no signs of it." Sawyer sighed. He gazed around him, his mouth pursed. "We now have minerals we could inject into the soil to prevent fungal invasion. It was too bad they didn't have them then."
"Yes, too bad," Kirk said, softly as if he was repeating it to himself and he, too, looked out at the fields before them.
Givers furrowed his brow. "Captain?"
Kirk waved a hand toward the horizon. "Starfleet has sent us to reassure the new governor."
Nyota grimaced. The governor had been sending communiqués, pestering Spock up on the Enterprise for daily reports. Tarsus was to reestablish its colony as soon as the Federation officially gave its approval. Only they hadn't given the okay, or as Kirk had blithely informed the colonial counsel, "Not yet."
To their right, Nyota heard one of the security officers yelp, disappearing from view, dropping into the field. Givers and Sawyer froze just as the rest of the security force went running toward their fallen comrade. Givers and Sawyer huddled around Kirk with Nyota, their backs pressed against them, their phasers out with rigid arms.
Nyota swallowed and watched where she'd seen the lieutenant go down. Was it one of the terrorists they'd been briefed on? Something worse? Suddenly the Academy history on this place seemed a little less academic.
"Relax." Kirk patted her and Sawyer's shoulders, nudging them away from him. He sounded amused and took a step forward, as if he was about to enjoy a show. "I think Lieutenant Rogers is going to get a surprise."
"Captain, there's a chance that—" Givers never had a chance to finish because Rogers leapt up from the field and that seemed to send the willowy stalks whipping, rippling into a shadowy wave that swarmed closer and closer. Before Nyota or Sawyer could fire, hundreds of tiny black quivering balls of fur with unblinking yellow eyes burst out of the field, over their boots, squeaking and tripping over themselves as they scampered into the next field. The plants thrashed violently as they went through, stilling after the alien mice ran past.
Sawyer had one hand clutched to his chest, the other had a fistful of Nyota's sleeve. Whether he was thinking of flinging her bodily over his shoulder or climb onto hers, it wasn't clear. Nyota made a face. Flipping out over a bunch of space vermin? All of them except…she narrowed her eyes on their captain. Who had somehow known what Rogers would find.
"Holy—Did anyone get a reading?" Sawyer gasped out. "I dropped my tricorder when those…they…What are they?"
Kirk shrugged. "Del-trans. They're usually nocturnal. They like to nest under the plants." He ran a thumb over the stems and they made a sound like sand slipping through fingers.
Nyota wondered how she'd missed a mention of them in the debriefings. She tentatively touched the flowers. They felt sharp-edged, crackly thin like rice paper, and just as easy to break. She pulled away. "They eat these?"
Kirk made a weird choking sound. "Nothing eats these."
Sawyer tapped at the tops lazily. One stalk trembled, bowed, and shed a few petals to the ground. "They can't be eating the dust."
"No," Kirk said. The small smile he'd worn when the mice had come through was gone. "They're bone scavengers." His voice was flat.
"We should keep moving. Security seems to have decided the mice are not a planetary threat and moved on to the next perimeter."
"Captain, the core samples we took here weren't deep enough." The frown was audible in Givers' voice. "Maybe we should get another sample, deeper down at two meters depth or three—"
Kirk vetoed the suggestion with another "No."
"But if we can just get a better reading of the lower sedimentary layers, we could better analyze—"
"No. No more digging. We're going to leave them alone." Kirk shook his head. He rested his hand on top of the field, his fingers curled loose over the blossoms. It was an odd image of benediction, and an ugly suspicion curled through Nyota's mind even as Givers unthinkingly acknowledged the order.
"There's probably no point in taking samples around here anyway," Sawyer muttered to Givers beside her. He sounded bored as he flicked at one of the stalks, still running his tricorder. It started a chain reaction and soon, the whole field shivered. "These plants don't appear to have any nutritional value but it's the only thing that can grow on this region. I don't think the new colonists would want to till this sector. The ground is pretty much dead."
There was a soft sound from Kirk as if he was laughing and Nyota winced.
"They wouldn't want to grow anything else here." Kirk gestured to the fields of white in front of them, behind them. "These have been growing here for fourteen years." He didn't check his tricorder to confirm it though. In fact, she realized the reckless way he'd never once referenced it, even as he'd guided the team from the shuttlecraft site, might not have been quite the lazy, over-reliance on the science staff that she'd thought it was.
"Fourteen years?" Givers now gingerly touched one blossom with a thumb, careful not to break the petals. Apparently Nyota wasn't the only one who had started to make the connection. "What are these?"
There were no clouds, yet Nyota swore she saw shadows briefly cross Kirk's eyes. She followed his gaze and this time truly did wonder what Kirk was looking at. The flowers? The skeletal frames of new buildings peeking up from the horizon? She wondered if Kirk saw the same thing she did: how the distant security team patrolling the fields in their red uniforms looked like droplets of blood against the white ground. She thought she saw Kirk's eyes squint for an instant as if watching them pained him.
She looked to her left where the tiny animals had fled, down another furrow line, one that Kirk followed even as the science team walked across the shorter hillocks. There had been no mention in the debriefings. She gazed back at the fields surrounding them, the security team cutting a swath across them, and then again at her captain. Kirk had brushed between the stalks and never once stepped on any tilled spots. Kirk, who always used short cuts for everything, was walking the perimeter, following after the mice like he didn't want to touch the ground where…
She was so stupid.
"It's a memorial," Nyota murmured as it occurred to her.
Immediately she regretted it when Sawyer reacted by exclaiming, "Oh."
Her eyes darted over to Kirk whose mouth seemed to tighten briefly, jaw tight. Nyota winced.
"Then those things were all—"
Givers shoved an elbow into his ribs to silence Sawyer. The tricorders stopped humming.
Nyota cleared her throat. She really wished she had joined the medical team now. She wished she hadn't been so dogged in her insistence to be included. She wished there weren't so many plots of white flowers quivering all around them.
"We probably could get better samples over the next rise," Sawyer suggested timidly. He looked at his tricorder but it wasn't scanning anything. Nyota kept her eyes on her own screen as Kirk easily seemed to agree. No tension was evident in his manner now when he directed everyone to that direction, even as he pulled out his communicator and notified the security detail of their new heading.
The ground crunched as their boots broke through flaking topsoil, shells of dry dirt fracturing under their weight. She focused on the back of Kirk's head, ignored the red spots darting between fields of white, and told herself the flowers weren't whispering as they walked past.
Sawyer and Givers stayed on the narrow paths, no longer stopping to take readings, but hurrying ahead as if they couldn't wait to leave this place. Their heads were bent together in conversation. Nyota narrowed her eyes toward the pair.
"None of their business," she muttered darkly, glowering.
Kirk snorted, but there was little heat in it. He shrugged. "It's everybody's business. That's why Starfleet sent us here." He fell back into silence, his eyes skimming the fields as if they were out for a stroll in the San Francisco arboretum, and Nyota wished he would say something that would give her the urge to kick him. She thought of how only two years ago, she had wanted to punch him after he nominated himself to be her club's treasurer. She broke the silence instead.
"I never answered your question."
"What question?" Kirk asked, his words coming easy and calm as he walked beside her down the row.
Nyota watched Sawyer and Givers climb the top of the hill then vanish as they went down the next valley. "I do believe ghosts exist," she said.
Kirk grunted. "Really? I would have lost that bet."
Nyota hesitated. "I think ghosts exist because we make them."
There was an unreadable look that slid her way; blue eyes studying her the way the others had peered into their tricorders, judging the validity of the comment. Kirk nodded, a tiny bob. Then faced forward again.
"You're right, Lieutenant. Maybe not so many ghosts, just a lot of mice. Be sure to watch your step," Kirk murmured. His shoulders were relaxed, his stride just as unhurried, but somehow a little bit longer than hers now, out-pacing her, creating a distance between them. Nyota let him go, deliberately slowing.
Nyota watched as Kirk crested the next rise, still moving like he was strolling down a country path, his right hand drifting over to the flowers again. Slowly brushing them as he walked.
She wondered how many of them he had known.
"When did you know?"
At least that's what it sounded like. Leonard couldn't tell. His blasted ears were still ringing. Hell, for all he knew, the whole damn building was still ringing. Damn terrorists. Preventing a second genocide, his ass. How the hell was blowing up an empty hospital supposed to prevent anything?
Leonard shrugged his right shoulder because the other one was still pressed up against one of the rafters currently propping up God only knew how many metric tons of rock. Spock could probably tell them. In fact, that Vulcan's strength would really come in handy right about now. Leonard wished he'd come down here and help prop up this wall and give them both a lecture on the proper way to play Atlas. Leonard resisted the urge to cough from the clinging dust. Shit, things were bad if he was wishing that green-blooded walking com—
"Mmpf," Leonard grumbled. He glared in the general direction of where he'd last seen Jim before his flashlight gave out. Note to self: make sure to mention in his evaluation that they needed to install emergency beacons down here. What kind of barbaric facility didn't have—
"Bones!" A shout, followed by a cough.
"Quit yelling at me," Leonard growled in the dark toward the coughing. "You're pinned, your chest is probably compressing under a couple of tons of badly designed medical facility, and the last thing you need is…" Leonard paused when he felt a shower of stones spatter into him and not from above this time.
"And stop throwing things at me," Leonard continued. "All that damn digging they're doing up there keeps bouncing down enough rocks on me as it is."
"You told me to keep you awake," Jim rasped somewhere in front of him. "Possible concussion, remember?"
"I'm awake," Leonard muttered, but he took a deep breath to try to relax because he did remember. Sort of.
There'd been a sudden wash of flashing light, heat, shouting, and the slam of something hitting him hard. He wished he knew where his medical kit was. Leonard thought he vaguely recalled it being on the table by the filtration unit, the one that was now no doubt pancaked under the weight of the ceiling. Those kits were supposedly ruggedized for extreme field conditions, but he somehow doubted this was what the designers had rated it to survive. Still, some acetemanphylon would be perfect right now. Or bourbon. No, wait, that was in his office. Which was nice and safe and not here on this cursed planet. Dammit. He hated terrorists. He hated bombs. He hated the fact the Enterprise needed to orbit around this dirt ball for two weeks. A three-hour lecture back in their colonization basics course during second year had been bad enough.
Blinking only made everything around him darker, and the blood and dirt—which was no doubt giving whatever scrapes he had tetanus—were distracting enough that he missed what Jim asked.
"What?" Leonard mumbled.
There was a huff in the murk. "Stay awake. You're worse company than when we were at that Delta Vey mixer first year."
"You dragged me to that," Leonard pushed the words out of his dry mouth. "And I wasn't sober. Not after two hours of open bar with you and goddamn Mitchell." He still didn't know if Jim was telling him the truth that they'd had absolutely nothing to do with that asshole Finnegan finding himself naked and tied to the Cochran Fountain.
Leonard stifled a snicker at the image the next morning as they'd walked by the engineering building, then grimaced because of the echo booming between his ears. Knives poked behind his eyeballs.
"Well, you're not sober now either." Jim coughed. Then hissed.
Leonard's brow knitted together. "Can you feel your legs? They still under that pillar?"
The response was as dry as the grit floating around them. "Very."
The clack-clack of stone coming down from somewhere reminded Leonard there were six levels above them, hopefully still intact.
Leonard rested his head on a damp wall. At least he hoped it was the wall that was wet, not his head. His eyes rolled side to side—no vertigo, good—and he spat out the dust that kept building in his mouth.
"Second year," came out before he realized it.
Leonard could hear smaller debris trickling down from the gaping hole above. Vaguely he thought he heard drilling as well, although he wasn't sure if that was a good thing, because more rubble tumbled into their hole. One rock bounced hard off his unprotected shoulder. Was Scotty trying to free them or finish the job the bomb had started?
Jim exhaled slowly in the dim. "How? Part of class study?"
"Does it matter now?" Leonard asked the dark shape he could vaguely make out under the wreckage. It had taken him a while to realize that Jim thought no one gave a shit about him, so no one would notice his eating habits. But it really didn't take a doctor to notice Jim's erratic relationship with food wasn't all due to his frenetic lifestyle.
"I guess not." Jim groaned and something above them cracked loud enough Leonard thought he could feel its vibration on his skin.
"Don't move," Leonard ordered, then flinched, wishing he'd followed his own advice. His ankle burned and stretched, shrieking at him that he was an idiot. Oh right, compound fracture. He hated overzealous narcissistic terror—Wait, he'd said that already, hadn't he? It worried him that he really couldn't remember if he had. The concussion was becoming a bigger problem now. Fuck.
"Ah, hell," Leonard gasped. "You sure my medical kit isn't over there?"
Leonard stared up blearily through the cavernous darkness to where he thought the second floor pediatrics wing had been. Thank God there had been no patients up there yet.
"Bones? You okay?"
"Dandy," Leonard bit out.
"You don't sound fine. You normally complain a lot more than this. In fact you haven't…" Jim paused, his own breathing faltered and Leonard could barely make out shadows moving, shoving against something. There was a creak. Something slid from the pile covering Jim and shattered against the ground and, Christ, it felt like the floor under him shifted.
"Hold still," Leonard snapped. Something heavy and metal groaned above Jim. "Don't make me come over there and make you!"
Jim's voice was pained but still clearly amused. "I'm the captain, I can do whatever the hell I want. If you want me to stop, you stay conscious and come make me."
"Oh, I'll make you stop. Just wait until your next physical. Let's see who gets the intern from Juno with the cold, aquatic hands." Leonard warned, irritated and not a little reaching.
"Yeah, yeah. Promises, promises," Jim wheezed.
Leonard made a universal hand gesture that was wasted in the dark.
"I saw that."
"No, you didn't," Leonard scoffed. "Just don't move…okay?"
Jim made a disagreeable noise but thankfully, seemed willing to settle and wait again.
Leonard breathed through his teeth. The urge to vomit was overwhelming. Listening to the dry scrape of spade against rock grated his nerves, threading under his skin like old-fashioned needles.
He closed his eyes, trying to breath more shallowly. He did not feel good. Not at all.
"Bones," Jim called out sharply, "talk to me or something."
Leonard grimaced. Right. Fuck. Stay alert. "About what?"
"I don't care. Anything. Just talk."
His head hurt. He couldn't think of anything.
"Fine. I'll ask the questions," Jim said. "On a scale of one to ten, how hot do you think Nurse Chapel is?"
"Well, we're not talking about Nyota."
It was like they suddenly went to warp or his universal translator stopped working. "What?"
"Seriously. We are so not rating her. She'd totally come down here and whip our asses. You should see her in a bar fight." Jim's voice was almost admiring.
"Jim," Leonard tried to interject but the other man kept going.
"How about that new junior engineer that works with Scotty. What's his name, Jack, Jeff, John?"
"No, I don't think that's it," Jim shot back easily.
"I am not having this conversation with you," Leonard growled.
"How about the number of times I've caught Chekov riding the elevator practicing to ask Yeoman Rand out on a date?"
"Wrong. It was five. How about guessing at the number of germs the transporter scrubbers miss each time we beam up? Spock actually told me this one. You're gonna love it."
"Stop." Leonard closed his eyes. He didn't want to play twenty questions. His head was throbbing. His ankle was throbbing. He was going to throw up.
Then way too clearly and evenly, Jim asked, "How about telling me why you really broke up with your wife?"
"Fuck you." Leonard groaned and opened his eyes.
"That's better. You don't like my questions? Then ask some of your own. Talk. To. Me."
"Fine." Maybe it was his bad head. Or the bad air. Or the bad path Jim's insouciant quizzing had started them down. Before he could stop himself, Leonard found himself asking. " When Starfleet ordered us here to review their systems...were they sending us or were they sending you?"
Jim's silence hung between them a beat more before he cleared his throat. "Fair enough. They're reestablishing a colony on Tarsus. Starfleet wanted us to check it out and make sure everything was in order…"
Leonard shouldn't have asked. Wouldn't have normally. Didn't know what had made him do it now and he was already sorry for it. But he wanted to know, and he might not ever get the guts or stupidity up to ask his friend again.
"So was it us or you, Jim?"
Jim sighed heavily. "What do you think, Bones?"
Leonard fought the urge to throw something against an already broken wall.
"Great," Leonard snarled. "That's just fuckin—"
"It's more effective to have me with my experience to advise them so it can't happen again."
Leonard's lips curled. His head pounded behind his eyes and fueled his words. "Effective? So those bureaucratic throwbacks decided to learn from their mistakes? They only ignored the first round of reports on mass starvation and genocide. So this time around they actually give a damn? Will miracles ever cease?"
"As Pike said, it's a great visual deterrent to have an actual survivor present." The words were even, but the dark let Leonard hear the thread of something else under the level control of Jim's words. "At least he warned me the order was about to come down. He gave me that."
Leonard closed his eyes and took slow, measured inhales before it felt like he could speak without shouting.
"I'm okay, Bones," Jim said, quiet beneath the drilling sounds from above.
"I know you are," Leonard whispered at the half buried figure.
The smirk was audible. "Good. Then stop trying to slip cookies on my dinner tray."
"They're not cookies," Leonard grumbled. "They're protein-enriched nutritional wafers with the correct portion of complex carbohydrates and vitamins. I wouldn't need to give them to you if you ate enough to feed a scarecrow." Picturing that smug grin on Jim's face, Leonard felt the blood rushing to his cheeks. "I can't help it if they were abnormal shaped."
"They were round and they were chocolate chip." Jim chuckled wearily. "Watch it, Bones. People might think you're a nice guy."
"You keep skipping meals," Leonard yelled despite the thunder ringing in his head. "Eat your damn cookies or I'm prescribing vitamin hypos! Hourly! Take your pick!"
Jim chuckled breathlessly. Leonard grimaced. He raised his head higher to try to squint at the opening above them. He thought he could see shadows flitting between fragments of stone and metal. He imagined he could hear Scotty hollering distantly at someone, questioning his or her parentage.
Leonard listened hard Jim's way but all he could hear was the clangs of the rescue workers above and the light, tumbling patter of pebbles cascading down.
"I wish you had told me," Leonard called out quietly, "but I get why you didn't."
"Despite what one screwed up Romulan did last year, turns out you can't change some things," Jim said in a quiet voice. Or maybe Leonard's hearing was fading. He hoped that's what it was.
Leonard closed his eyes. "Yeah," he drew out slowly. His chest twinged vaguely. Fractured rib?
"What can I do, Jim?" Leonard asked the black.
Leonard could hear the surprise in Jim's voice when he answered, "Just…do you think you could keep it a regular mission, Bones?" He wondered a little cynically how many people ever thought to ask Jim what he needed, versus just giving him sympathy and cookies?
"Regular mission?" Leonard scoffed. "Jim, if anarchists blowing up Starfleet buildings count as a regular mission, I fucking quit. You hear me?"
"Come on, we had worse. What about Gargon III?"
"They didn't blow up a hospital with you and me in it. They merely tried to buy Chekov."
There was a snicker that didn't quite get stifled. "All right. Dea'La?"
"That wasn't a mission. That was a goddamn fiasco!" Leonard growled. "How the hell did you and Sulu get caught in the middle of a revolution the minute you beamed down?"
Leonard would throw a rock at Jim if he didn't think it might concuss him or bring down the rest of the debris.
Jim breathed in and out, measured and slow. Leonard listened to that, took solace in the fact it didn't sound like Jim was having trouble, and tried to relax his limbs as the sounds of digging grew closer. He tried to focus on that and on staying awake.
"Second year, huh?" Jim murmured, all of a sudden.
Leonard rubbed his thumb under gritty eyes. "Yeah," he rasped.
"Why didn't you say anything?"
Leonard smiled tiredly even though he knew Jim couldn't see it. "Because you didn't."
"Okay." Fabric rustled and rubble shifted. "Thanks," Jim whispered.
There was a soft sigh as if Jim was waking up from a dream. "Can you…" Jim paused.
Leonard straightened as much as he could. "Jim?"
"Can you get me oatmeal raisin cookies next time?"
The grin hurt his face, but it broke free nevertheless, just like the beam of light overhead that suddenly cut through their prison. "You're allergic to raisins, you idiot," Leonard said gruffly. "And they're not cookies."
"What are the odds?"
Spock looked up from his PADD. His right eyebrow rose, high into his hairline.
"Should you not be recuperating in your quarters, Captain?"
The captain leaned against one of the laboratory's mainframes. He was dressed in his uniform, except the left leg of his black trousers was slit to accommodate the brace.
Kirk gestured with a lightly scarred hand—the captain had refused to stay under the dermal regenerator any longer once he'd learned that they were still searching for other bomb victims.
"I have a cane." Kirk raised the black walking stick in his hand, mirroring Lieutenant Sulu's favorite fencing stance. "Plus, I promised the good doctor I was going to stay put."
Spock tracked Kirk as he made his way to the chair next to him.
"I believe what the doctor meant," Spock commented after he was assured the captain was safely seated, "when he stated you were to 'stay put,' was referring to your quarters."
"Quarters, laboratories, practically the same thing," Kirk said in a manner that reminded Spock of the day he defeated the Kobayashi Maru.
"Your quarters are on deck five. This is deck nine," Spock reminded him.
Kirk shrugged. "Both are safe and sound on the Enterprise." He nodded toward the PADD in Spock's hand. "Is that your final report? May I?"
Spock wordlessly slid the device over.
Kirk did not ask questions as he scanned Spock's assessment report, his eyes darting very efficiently from left to right as he read. He nodded at some sections, his fingers tapped lightly on the desk at others. After a moment, his hand stilled and Kirk lifted his eyes off the PADD.
"What are the odds?" he repeated.
Spock blinked. "The odds?"
Kirk glanced back to the report he held, perhaps to verify he hadn't missed a detail. "Of this happening again?"
Head cocked, Spock considered the captain's question. "You are referring to the infestation on the previous colony, or the genocide ordered by its first governor, His Supreme Commander Governor Kodos?"
There was a wince in response. Spock debated paging the doctor. Perhaps the knee was still giving the captain some discomfort.
Kirk didn't appear to have been amused by what Spock said, yet he chuckled, his pitch strangely off register to his normal tones of humor.
"Both." The PADD was pushed back across the desk.
Spock studied the report, although he knew the contents well. He reviewed what he recalled in his mind and made the appropriate calculations.
"While there is no evidence of the same microorganism that plagued the colony, there is still a possibility of infection from visiting starships, as well as contaminated seed stock." Spock met Kirk's gaze as he continued with his conclusions. "The present government assigned to Tarsus is fractured and lacks discipline. Internal protests and anti-government actions may render safety protocols inadequate. Other factors are difficult to calculate. The colonists may indeed be prone to the same kind of planetary panic that occurred in 2246 despite present preventative measures."
"And?" Kirk leaned forward. "What are the chances it could happen again?"
Spock hesitated. "By my calculations, four point three five percent."
Kirk dropped back against his seat. He stared at Spock, his mouth open.
"It is," Spock reassured, "a small number, Captain. It means there is a ninety-five point six five percent chance that a reoccurrence will not be experienced."
Kirk looked at the PADD, his eyes hidden from view. "But not one hundred percent."
"Negative. It is not statistically possible to achieve one hundred given its history and the unpredictability of human actions."
Kirk sighed. "History tends to repeat itself, huh?" His shoulders slumped.
Spock studied Kirk's posture, puzzled why the human appeared more upset than the new governor had been. The leader had presented a pleased mien when told the numbers. Had Spock misinterpreted the governor's countenance?
"How many are children, Spock?" As soon as Kirk asked, he shook his head. He tossed the PADD down on the desktop. "Never mind."
"There are four thousand two hundred colonists," Spock informed him anyway, sensing a strange desire for the information in the other man despite his denial. "Sixty percent of them are children." Spock observed Kirk nodding absently at the numbers.
"The colony is smaller," Kirk calculated. "Only half."
"Fear would have kept many away." Spock noted Kirk's set mouth. The captain appeared to have lost weight; but an immeasurable amount, one that would not have detracted the captain from his duty. Perhaps, Spock decided, it was why Doctor McCoy had asked (demanded) the captain's menu be adjusted to his specifications.
"Makes sense," Kirk murmured. "After what happened, none of the survivors returned. Who would want to?" He rubbed his index fingers against his temple in small circles. "The fields then were pretty much useless anyway."
Spock nodded. "The contagion was resilient. It took sixteen months to revitalize the soil."
"They finally got rid of the smell, too," Kirk whispered.
Spock hesitated. Kirk clamped his mouth shut as if the last remark was not meant for his presence.
"You were there," Spock realized. There was an unaccustomed sensation that twisted in his abdomen.
Kirk's face smoothed away to form a blank expression the remaining Vulcan elders would have approved of. However, the curling and uncurling fist over the handle of his cane betrayed what his face did not.
"You were young."
Again, the odd weary smile returned across the captain's face. "We all were." Kirk clapped his hands on his upper thighs and levered himself awkwardly off the chair. Kirk shook his head, vetoing Spock's offered hand. He took a staggering step back before he leaned on the cane.
"Send your evaluations to Admiral Pike. Include a copy to the governor and me as well. Don—"
"Jim." Spock stood. He wasn't certain why he felt compelled to speak. Kirk was steps away from the door when he turned around to face Spock.
Spock clasped his hands behind his back. "The decontamination processor used for their imported seeds has a dual beam containment system to filter out hazardous DNA out of their supplies." With a slight hesitation, Spock continued, his eyes on Kirk. "A third chamber to irradiate the overall seeds a final time may eliminate harmless proteins the initial two beams possibly miss."
It was…unsettling how Kirk stared at him, his usually expressive face revealed nothing.
"Your report indicated the processor's dual chambers would be sufficient." Kirk faced him completely. His mouth curved up faintly. "An additional radiation sweep after two passes sounds…illogical, Mr. Spock."
Spock agreed. He was not sure why he offered such an improvident alternative. "While an inefficient use of energy, it would be as humans often enjoy saying…" Spock reviewed the terminology before finishing with "it would be 'better safe than sorry.'"
Blue eyes crinkled in front of him. Spock made a point to stare at the comm panel just past Kirk's left ear.
Kirk nodded. "Make the recommendation, Spock." He stopped by the door as it glided open for him.
"Thanks." Kirk murmured low enough Spock could barely hear it.
It was illogical to be thanked for doing his duty. Nevertheless, Spock bowed his head in return, well after the captain had departed.
"Is it enough?"
Chris skimmed through the last section of the report before nodding. He raised his chin towards the monitor on his desk. Jim Kirk was staring back, unblinking, as if he was across the table, not light-years away.
Chris nodded. "The last time I've read a report this detailed was a certain cadet's thesis on Admiral Coro's Cardon Maneuver."
Kirk blinked, definitely not expecting that, and broke into the familiar, toothy grin Chris was used to seeing during his weekly comms. Yes, he knew an admiral didn't need to get the reports personally, but that had been his ship, too, dammit.
"Finally," Chris murmured.
The grin wavered.
Chris couldn't help but grin back at the screen. "Nothing. Just beginning to think I'd reached an alternate reality there, Jim."
The communication stuttered at times, microseconds lost to the ether of space, but it was clear enough to see Kirk was doing his damnedest not to roll his eyes.
"I didn't think anyone actually ever read that paper."
Chris was glad for the privilege of rank which afforded him a private office suite. That way, no one could hear him make a rude snort.
"Three hundred and twelve pages of veiled insinuations that Coro was an idiot?" Chris was not going to mention, however, that he also had printed it in old-fashioned paper, and had it bound. And he was never going to mention how it had somehow become the focus of a drinking game between him and John: a shot of Romulan ale every time the thesis alluded—in new and creative ways—that Coro was a moron. Last time they'd played, Chris had woken up to discover someone had gotten one of the beagle pups to urinate "Piss off Coro" in the snow.
"Well, then, I hope this report makes just as interesting of a read for the Admiralty."
Chris grunted. He shifted in his chair—the nerves on his lower spine would pretty much rebel against him for the rest of his life—and he lifted the data chip loaded with the medical, science and command assessments on the new Tarsus colony. "I'm sure it will."
Chris continued, "I've been told the bombers have been caught?" He could see the bandage that must cover newly healed pink scars peeking out from the regulation rounded black collar. Chris made a face. "That looks new."
His suspicions were confirmed when Jim shrugged only his right shoulder. Despite his care, that movement still pulled a grimace Jim couldn't hide. "Yeah, well, you know how it is. Everyone loves to throw a party."
"Now I see why Commander Spock requested backup from the Horizon," Chris mused out loud. His eyes narrowed as he caught sight of yet another white sterile gauze strip edging around the back of Jim's neck. "I'll admit, Doctor McCoy's report was…troubling." Troubling enough, Chris had been tempted to not only send the Horizon, but the Lexington and Utah as well.
Jim gave him another half lift of his right shoulder. "Some of them really didn't want a new colony built." Jim scratched his chin with a thumb. "People believe this place is hallowed ground."
Running a hand through his silver hair, Chris blew out a breath quietly through his teeth. "Understandable." He leaned back and studied Jim over his clasped hands. He shook his head ruefully. "When I first heard of where Starfleet wanted to send you, I—"
"We talked about that," Jim interrupted. "At least this way, I can be of some help. Make sure it doesn't…" Jim sucked in his breath. "All of our reports are almost done. We'll be here another week or so. If there's anything you need us to reinvestigate or reiterate, let us know."
A smile tugged at the corners of Chris' mouth. "So long as you didn't accuse anyone—and I quote—of 'lacking the sufficient understanding to comprehend the intricacies of strategy and foresight to navigate their way out of a paper bag,' I think your report will be fine."
Jim smirked, that cocky uplift of an eyebrow that he'd presented to many a frustrated instructor during his three years in the Academy. Chris had wondered if he had tested out of so many prerequisite courses because he was that much of a genius, or the teachers simply didn't want to deal with him.
A tiny buzz of a comm behind Jim caused the Enterprise's captain to sigh. This time, he did indulge in an eye roll.
"That's either Spock wanting another chess game, Sulu wanting fencing practice, or Scotty with another upgrade he wants to run by me."
Chris chuckled. He folded his arms over his chest and favored Jim with a smile. "Nice to see the crew is keeping you busy, Captain."
The puzzlement in Jim's knitted brow was comical. "I don't know what it is. This past week, I've been Mr. Popular. Chekov's been coming up to me in the Mess to tell me how everything originated from Russia. Gaila has been suddenly fascinated with Earth baking, and keeps asking me to try things. Even Lieutenant Uhura's been dropping by to see if I wanted to learn Holkanese for our next trade mission."
"We have universal translators," Chris reminded him, but his grin was widening.
Jim shot him an annoyed look just bordering on insubordinate. Just. "I know!"
The buzz behind Jim started up again. Louder, longer, as if the button was being jammed down. Jim huffed.
"No, that's definitely Bones with my meds." Jim scowled.
Chris bit back a chuckle.
"He doesn't trust me to take them if he leaves my doses here."
"I wonder why?" murmured Chris.
"Nothing." With regret, Chris leaned closer to the screen. "I'll leave you to your doctor's care then."
Jim gave him a long, pitiful expression that wasn't fooling him. "Must you? Isn't there a suicidal mission you could send me to? Maybe to a Klingon brothel?"
This time, Chris barked out a laugh. "Take care of yourself, Captain. Thank you for the reports." He reached over to sign off. "Pike o—"
His finger hovering over the "End" button, Chris waited.
"Is it enough?" Jim asked, subdued. The comm behind him was silent now, too, as if whoever was behind the door was waiting as well.
"It wasn't before."
Chris closed his eyes briefly. "That's because no one thought to check before." No one thought it could be possible. But then an entire planet winked out of existence. A black hole brought forth a massacre and thousands of empty Starfleet coffins. Chris opened his eyes and met Jim's squarely.
"I'll make sure it's enough, Captain Kirk."
"How did he cope?"
Council Elder Spa'tock paused. He knew it was dangerous to choose a name so close to his own, but he was old enough to permit himself the indulgence, to admit human sentimentality.
It was only in these rare moments, when Jim dared to contact him on New Vulcan, did Spa'tock allow himself to think of himself as Spock.
"Tarsus Colony," Spock said to the screen. It was to Jim's credit he did not flinch at the name. His old friend had continued to hesitate over the doomed colony's name for eleven point one years even after Kodos was killed by his own daughter.
"It happened to him, too." It was not a question.
"Yes." Spock studied the image before him, years younger than he was accustomed to, yet he detected shadows on the face that weren't there when they had last communicated.
Jim laughed bitterly. Despite his years among humans, Spock still could not fully understand the need to voice amusement in the face of none.
"It figures… as different as our timelines may be, this would be the universe's own fucked up joke that we would share." Jim carded a hand through his hair. "I was sent back to the planet a few days ago. There's a new colony there." A weary look crossed over Jim's face. "I hadn't thought about Tarsus in a long while."
Spock doubted it. He seated himself on the floor, crossing his legs in a meditative pose but it did not calm him as he's wanted. "I had hoped you were fortunate enough in this timeline to not have been situated there. I regret I am mistaken."
"Not your fault." Jim averted his eyes, his gaze somewhere beyond the monitor. "I just…I was thirteen."
"As was he."
"Oh." Jim appeared unsure how to react to this bit of information. "After…I was sick for a long time. Supplements, IVs, nutrition plans, therapists." Jim took a steadying breath. "And the whole time, all everyone back on Earth wanted to do was talk about it. That was the last thing I wanted to do."
Spock nodded. "It was a difficult experience. The Jim Kirk I knew, as you are aware, shared an unusual level of regard between myself and Dr. McCoy, but still he was reluctant to speak of this time to us."
Jim looked relieved to hear this. "But you know everything. How did he…" Jim's mouth pressed together. "Did he ever say how he…"
Spock recognized the struggle for words, the echo of a familiar gesture that once more made him long for his past. Not this past. He was at a lost as how to advise James T. Kirk, not when it was Jim who had often advised him.
"The memories were difficult." Spock chose his words carefully. "But he shared them with us. Eventually. We were…persistent."
Jim understood. His mouth quirked. "Yeah, I guess that does sound familiar."
There was a chime at Jim's door. He swiveled in his chair to listen.
Spock's right eyebrow rose. Even across the transmission line, he could hear his counterpart's even tone and the doctor's gravelly voice through Jim's door enunciator.
Spock found himself pleased there were some things consistent no matter the timeline.
Shouting something unintelligible at the door, Jim chuckled awkwardly as he turned back around and caught Spock's expression.
Jim rubbed the back of his neck. "Ah…apparently, I'm late for dinner." He shook his head. "How I'm going to eat with those two going at it like cats and dogs…" Jim grimaced. "No offense."
As Jim leaned over to sign off, the door behind him slid open. McCoy's "Well it's about damn time," and Spock's counterpart's stiff objection floated in. Spock caught the look of fond tolerance on Jim's face just before the screen went dark.
Spock remained where he was, sitting on the floor, his thoughts still in turmoil. Regret clouded his recollection of their conversation. It was unfortunate Tarsus must plague his friend in both realities.
But then he thought of the glimpse of twin blue uniforms entering Jim's quarters, their strides determined, resolute.
Apparently persistence was a universal constant as well.
In the privacy of his home, Spock smiled.