Jim wakes up and he knows this kind of headache, the pinching slight throb at the back of his head, the same one he woke up with when he was planted in the cold on Delta Vega. He dares to move, finds his limbs strewn almost haphazardly on a sort of lounge chair.
Somebody's quarters. It doesn't take him long to figure it out. After a couple minutes he notices, with a sudden stretch of red across his thoughts, the chess set sitting on the table and it feels almost like he's being mocked. He doesn't know when it was now—thirty-six hours ago?—after talking to the Halkans, waiting to beam up, and like he always did while waiting in the couple idle seconds before they got pulled up, contemplating what he'd do when he got back. He and his first officer had been in the middle of a game when he'd taken off for the mission, and he'd been a little too distracted by some misunderstanding or other to even give him so much as a "See you later," and when they were about to beam up, he thought, I am going to have chicken for dinner. I am going to finish that game, starting with going after Spock's hanging pawns at the back left...
He now stares dully, numbly, at the half-finished game set up on the office-style table until his listlessness is interrupted by the man sitting next to it.
"If you are recovered for the moment, we should discuss the wisest course of action for you and your companions." The Vulcan closed something he was working on. "You do not need to explain your predicament, for reasons I am sure you can deduce."
Jim sits up just a little, finally slowly indicating at his temple with one finger. "How long were you poking around in here, huh?" His voice is shockingly hoarse to himself.
"Long enough; forty-four seconds at the most."
Jim interrupts the rhythm of the explanation, just saying: "Sulu."
"You have significantly incapacitated the helmsman for a time, if that is the information you are requesting. Your doctor informed me shortly before you awoke."
Glaring at his surroundings and sluggishly shifting up higher in the chair, Jim realizes the slow dizzy churning in his brain, the fact that he feels like there is some panic attempting to rear back up in him that can't quite claw onto anything. "Did you give me something?"
"You are under the effects of a light sedative," Spock says, at length explaining with a touch of derision, "I did not want to risk you becoming animated again upon waking."
"So you got me stoned." Jim is realizing more every second his unease with himself, remembering everything that happened, letting his eyes stray down to his knuckles. He sees streaks of dried red and knows his clothes probably have blood on them too, mostly not his own. Everything is blaring harshly into his vision; he keeps his head still as if to avoid letting too much of it get in. "How kind of you."
Spock folds his hands together on the desk in front of them. "It is important that you successfully impose yourself as the other James Kirk at the present time. The former captain would not seem prone to violent outbursts rather than more controlled forms of disciplining other officers."
His request for clarification is delayed, half-apathetic. "So Sulu's in a position to be disciplined?"
"While there is only subjective evidence that he was attempting some kind of indirect mutiny, sabotage or temporary disabling of a function as critical as the transporter pad certainly calls for severe penalties," Spock explains, like that should be obvious, and it probably should be.
Jim hasn't looked directly at this man who is not Spock ever since he awoke, can't seem to do so now before he finally flatly asks, "What happened?"
"Sulu, among others, became privy to the strange alterations that Scott was making to the ship's functions; being singularly focused on an opportunity to usurp the captain, he simply took note that you were attempting some private venture with the transporter in the middle of an ionic interference; as I'm sure you know, there are several ways to tamper with a transporter signal to extend a small margin of error to a lethal one, and in such conditions a mere amateur can do so very easily."
The confirmation feels redundant: He was trying to kill Jim. And if Scotty hadn't gotten that awful dawning expression and checked the logs to discover that a certain helmsman had no business at all being in the transporter room only four minutes before their window of escape was supposed to seal up, he probably would have succeeded.
It was a couple minutes in which they could have taken a gamble, hopped blind into a transporter beam and prayed a thousand prayers they'd come out on the other end.
Instead Jim gripped back on the sudden fire coming into him and said, "Nobody's doing that," before he left in a haze of a straight line to go give Sulu a piece or two of his reaction.
At least he knows now that they were right.
He finally braves a check at the chronometer. It's been just a little over an hour since Spock had to pinch him out. With a collapsing feeling he gets the first wave of dread about facing the others, knowing how inexcusable it is that he wasn't able to be there when they got the final story.
"Where are my..." He isn't even sure what to call them. "I need to...check on my friends."
As he's standing up, he barely even glances at Spock, but he does halt in hesitation, shoves his hands in his pockets and walks over to the tri-D chess set.
"He was white?" Jim asks, doesn't even wait for an answer before his bitterly tinged voice adds, "His strategy's messy."
Spock blinks, looking at the set, looking either perplexed or hesitant before he comments, "He was a formidable opponent. When his mind was not on other things."
In sick bay, Bones runs it down for him in more detail.
"Somehow he's got two fractured ribs on one side, one on the other. Broken nose, significant contusions all over his abdominal region, but those are getting fixed up. The concussion is the most serious, but it's treatable. He's put under for neuro treatment. Shouldn't be up, maybe not even conscious, for a couple days..."
McCoy crosses his arms and leans into the wall at the somewhat secluded back area of medical, his voice trailing off from his need to sort of robotically keep talking. Jim meets his eyes, both of them stuck in a steely, sticky mess of everything they're not saying.
Jim says, "I beat the shit out of him."
"I don't know if I wouldn't have done the same thing," McCoy says quietly, not seeming sure whether he's really in need of any reassurance.
"It's like I barely even remember doing it." Jim lets out a note of a short scoff. "You're treating him."
"...Wasn't very hard to just imagine he was somebody else."
Jim sinks his back lower against the wall. He finally explains, "Cat's still in the bag even though the commander knows. He's granting us a few weeks' amnesty to figure out what the hell we're going to do, so it looks like we have to keep playing along for a while..."
"You got any ideas?" Bones asks.
Lips pressed together, Jim shakes his head. "All I've thought about is how much I need to go talk to these people and convince them to surrender. You know, Spock was supposed to assassinate me if I don't comply with nuking the hell out of them."
"Christ," Scotty mutters. He's sitting with his legs up on one of the biobeds and Jim is absolutely sure he's never seen him be this quiet before.
"Jim," McCoy says in a slow change of angle. "...I think I need you to run this down for me."
Jim lets out a sharp breath, looking to Scotty, and the engineer seems to come out of the dark funk for the purpose of rambling off some meandering technical explanation to Bones. The doctor stands with his hands loose over his hips, eventually crossing his arms and maintaining a defensive confusion.
"We lost our constant," Scotty finally paraphrases. "Theoretically, yeah, we could recreate the conditions and get torn through some other ion storm, but there's no way to control where we'd end up, or if we'd even come out in one piece. Hell, even the existence of universes this closely connected was only theoretical until...until now. Who's to say there aren't about a thousand others we could end up in? You want to take a gamble we end up somewhere even worse than here, if we're lucky enough to surv—"
"For fuck sakes, Bones, we're not gonna spell it out for you," Jim snaps harshly. But apparently he is going to, because he says, "We can't go back."
The silence then is deafening and cold, lasting through the moment when Nurse Chapel appears in a vision of neon eyeshadow around unexplainably unfamiliar eyes, slapping some records down for McCoy and mumbling, "I'm off."
The nurse's pale hair and tall legs disappear, and after another moment Jim looks up from the floor and around, between Scotty and McCoy.
"Where is she?"
The other two just give each other blank eyes.
"...Nobody knows where she is?"
The door is unlocked and slides open to Jim's hesitant entrance. A red-tinted ribbon of light runs from a long accent lamp in the otherwise dark room, and she is so still there that his eyes almost miss her.
The state of her where she sits on the bed is its own strike away from what he was prepared for: he never imagined that he could have intruded, that she would have pulled the place around her enough for it to be hers any more than it was his, that he might encroach on whatever she was doing to wipe things away. For some flick of seconds Jim is just staring as if slapped stupid by the sad fact of a something rather than a someone in front of him, swallowed up. She's just taken a shower; the light licks enough trickles in places to tell him she didn't stop to dry off or put anything on before dropping to draw her knees up to her chest and stare, as she does in her seconds of near-catatonia before they both move at once.
Leaning on his hand at the wall next to the door, he isn't sure for a moment if he hears her moving. "I'm sorry. I'll leave."
But she croaks, "Lights," and he hears the padding of her feet on carpet after the hint of a softer sound. He perceives her moving around the room and something twists into an unsettled intimacy that never could have had to do with nakedness, in that simple straining to hear something slide warmly against her skin, for her to find that much to slip into. In a moment he dares a look just as she's gotten into a bathrobe and is sitting down at her desk, her fists sitting knuckles-down in front of her on the surface, her face pressed into a suppressed calm.
He slowly takes a seat across from her and begins to explain everything he had to tell Scotty and Bones. All the while she just occasionally nods in understanding with her mouthed closed tight.
Finally he says, "I'm going back down to that planet tomorrow. I could...use your help, if you were willing to come. But I can't make you, obviously, since—"
"That would be fine," she says. "Sir."
Her fingers lace together and squeeze at each other. Jim finds himself staring at them, at her, looking for something. Finally he stands up, feels like it's completely wrong to simply leave and aimlessly begins, "Uhura..."
"I'm—" she interrupts, but the sentence gets away from her. One hand comes up over her mouth for a second. She says, "I'm going to bed."
Some of the less bravely stubborn Halkans plead in broken Standard for Jim to promise them mercy. They say they'll be slaves, they say they'll do anything, but they don't want to die. He has a feeling they were more adamant in their refusal to cooperate the last time they saw his face, but seeing him come down to speak with them again maybe loosens them into fragile hope. Or maybe it just wasn't explained to them clearly enough that they were all going to be dead if they didn't hand over the information on where they were mining all their dilithium.
"I can't—There's nothing I can do about that, but—" Jim taps his thumb against something, thinking, thinking. "I can try to organize a shipment of food supplies here in the near future. My first officer said something about some infected crops?..."
One of the Halkan leaders is still putting that together a few seconds later, and cultural body language differences aside, Jim's hardly ever seen anyone look so cynical. "You want to trade with us?" he slowly clarifies.
As soon as Jim is alone with Uhura, he asks, "You think they believed me?"
She glances up from her interpreter's notes, eyes glazed over in what he can only assume isn't actually boredom. "I think they're very afraid of going hungry. Is it advisable to make false promises?"
"When the alternative is blowing the place up, yes," he replies, catches himself doing something pretty close to staring at the way she goes back to what she's reading without a warm care in the world.
Spock is either furious or impressed when he finds out what Jim did, he can't quite tell.
"Negotiations," Spock says it like it's a swear word (and Jim finds he literally cannot look this man in the eye, it makes his skin crawl), "are not what enforces our influence over these races."
"Influence. Where the fuck am I?!" Jim is shouting now, kicking a chair against the wall in the first officer's cabin. "Your influence to do what? Blow up a tenth of the population? And all the knowledge and the resources that come with them?"
"It is theoretically imperative to the power of the Terran Empire that we maintain absolute terror, as far and wide from us as possible."
"Okay, but what about their lives?...Putting aside how often you all go beating up each other, how often does somebody, some member of another race that you've pissed off decide to come in and pick off some T.E.'s?"
"Within the last twelve months there have been sixty-three casualties as a result of external assault."
"I'd been serving as a captain for a year now," Jim quickly rebukes, "and that's about triple our casualty number."
"It is three hundred and fifteen percent your number, to be more precise," Spock admits.
Jim is confused for a few seconds, but slowly comes closer to the Vulcan as he figures it out.
"Excuse me," Jim snaps bitterly, "but just how many statistics did you get out of my head without asking?"
"I think I really hate that man," Jim declares while he's kicking off his boots, lunges all of his fury against the wall by throwing the left one at it.
"Less than two days ago you described him as some paragon of integrity."
"I did not use the word 'paragon,' I was being relative, and that was two days ago, Bones."
Jim's friend eyes him with a very tired worry. "This place is fucked up, Jim. That's it. It's just...It's fucked. You gonna try to fix a whole universe by screamin' at it?"
Every morning he gets up and thinks that day will be better. And he believes it, until the dismal blankness of everyone on the ship invades any mockery of familiarity he once had with the same blueprint of a home. It's not so hard fitting in now, with the suppressed rage creeping in on them. Jim spends every hour trying to stymie his way to the quieter avenues of bargaining or acceptance, falls back on anger nearly every time.
They speak to no one else unless they have to, but there's no ignoring that everything and everywhere seems sick. It feels like the water is dirty and the air isn't pure and their skin is all they have left. With everything outside of them so tainted and gruesome, it gives them the urge to seal themselves off, let nothing in, because the only way to change anymore is the wrong way.
He assigns Uhura or McCoy to as many away missions with him as he can, so he can get away with being the nice guy. There are a few people they approach from planet to planet who are deathly afraid of them, who don't understand when they don't harm and even sometimes help them, but he just quietly leaves them with what little favors the ship's resources can provide. This, and the others, they are literally the only things he is living for.
Uhura appears completely unaffected by it all, as involved in his pursuits as if she was just some bodyguard, usually watching with crossed arms while he takes care of everything. It's almost more frustrating that she's as competent as ever when she needs to play along. If at any time Jim attempts some gesture of camaraderie or consolation, like a hand on her shoulder to tell her it's fine when she can't make out the slightly different dialects, she seems to avoid the contact without even thinking about it.
He's pretty sure it's personal, that there's some brusque explanation for that he'd have to really want some trouble to actually ask her about, takes it personally, just leaves it alone. They were just becoming friends recently, and now it's all let go. He has the sour unshakable notion that she thinks nothing could be lonelier now than letting him in.
When they're on Cardassia, occupied by the Empire of course, it becomes pretty clear to Jim that none of the planets they frequently hit on the journey back home are going to look the same at all; everywhere that's been conquered is policed by Terran marines. Children give him wary, frightened respect when they see him in the roads. Something about it makes him want to snap, but McCoy's looking around uptown and there's Uhura looking un-awake and empty and he has nothing to bounce off of. So when she doesn't speak up loud enough in response to one of his questions he pulls her to a corner and gives her a shouting reprimand, half genuine and half pretend and all the kind of bullshit that happens when he's actually getting a little terrified.
But even though her face falls a bit as if in realization of something, nothing dissolves. Her reply is so quiet he can barely hear it.
"I know what you're trying to do." She softly shakes her head. "Just leave me alone."
He's tried everything he knows to cough some life out of her, but she peels away from every possible approach. Every day she pulls in on herself even tighter like if she lets anything touch her she'll have none of herself left.
Jim can't say he's doing much better, despite any appearances. He busily obsesses over the other three, but there are the long walks he takes through the emptiest parts of the ship, the too-long showers that leave him pruny and hollow. He's entering his quarters one night to see Bones sitting on his bed. The doctor is waiting for him with a full tray of food set out. Jim looks at it with disinterest before attempting to avoid him.
"Jim," McCoy says tiredly.
"I'm not hungry."
"Sit the fuck down." Bones shakes his head. "Always running around now. Who's takin' care of you?"
It's mainly because Bones is more like he always was when he's trying to keep him together that Jim makes himself malleable, sits down and pulls the tray stand forward. He puts a piece of broccoli in his mouth.
McCoy watches Jim slowly eat for a few minutes, trying to read his face. "She still isn't talking?"
"She's talking," he mumbles. "It's just that I've seen her upset, but not like this...I don't know her well enough to know how bad it is."
McCoy looks up and down the other man's bitter and constant worry, hesitant. "You know, maybe she just needs to work this out on her own."
"Is that your medical opinion? We should just give up on her?"
"My opinion is that Scotty wants to do this on his own, and you and I have got each other, and I don't know who or what she's got, but she's dealing with it. It's not like she's the only one sulking a hole into the floor, we're all pretty fucked up about it all—"
"—Everyone is going to be okay," Jim says evenly.
McCoy's hand drops to his knee. "Including you?"
"I'm..." Jim gives the slightest shake of his head, and suddenly half-sensically offers, "Today on the planet, one of the officers smacked the hell out of this teenager who he thought was trying to steal from us...All I did, all I could do, was basically give him a slap on the wrist for wasting our time."
"We're gonna figure something out," McCoy insists out of the air, and Jim sighs away from his food.
"If I was safe, back home, if I was in a better place and somebody asked me what I would do in this situation, I'd probably be an idealist. I'd say that I could...transform the system from the inside out," he says with a self-mocking, lofty gesture. "But there are only four of us."
The doctor shook his head. "You cannot start thinking that you have that kind of responsibility, Jim. You just can't."
"More like only three of us," Jim grimly mutters. "Uhura just...stared. Like she didn't even care."
There is a cave where the two of them get lost.
Rational thinking tells him that there can't be any haunted science to this place. It's the people that are screwed up, not the atmosphere, the axes, the gravity. Evil cannot be everywhere.
But this. This is one fucking fun-house of a cave, with wind moaning and whistling at all the right times to echo some animal that isn't there, textures that stick out like claws. Everything gets pitch black, with a silence like the slow opening of a crocodile's jaw. One bend into where he swore there would be light and a way out, and he curses.
And he realizes in a moment, she isn't next to him.
She isn't next to him.
He starts to reach, starts searching. After a few minutes he starts to run. His body is grazing through the maze so roughly that it's like hands of rock batting him back and forth and back and forth and laughing as his shouting comes back only cyclical echoes. Everything keeps getting emptier and after too long he loses his last scrap of direction. He starts to shiver in the cold, wonders if he's going mad, his hands reaching and reaching begging to touch just something besides rock. Tries to stop and get his bearings, but everything feels so misshapen, doesn't lend its arms to him, and yeah, this might as well be hell, this needing and not knowing what's next and knowing that nothing much else is waiting for him outside. If he ever gets out of the cave.
His search turns more meandering and clumsy, tripping over himself like a drunk; he starts to wonder, maybe he's been plunged through yet some other crack in all that thin fickleness, blinks through some hazy deja vu of himself at five years old and some nightmare-storybook you love as a kid because there is just something scary about voids when you're so clean and new to existing. Maybe the entire world is this cavernous limbo; everyone he knows or has known is this feeling of hard sandy cold, their faces in his mind blotted into the same cruel smile, even Uhura, especially Uhura whose eyes have no light now as if they never did. She is a figment, abandoning him, never having been. He shouts anyway.
Her name, her name, her name again. Please. Nyota...
At the same point when the meek call meets his ears, he sees a dimness and follows it and follows it, and it's most strangely like getting off the roller coaster and not realizing where you are in the theme park, the sudden spritz of light and people waving hello, because how did he get back to the entrance?
She's a grey outline that he grabs by the shoulders and moves closer to the mouth of the cave just to look at her, like he's afraid that her face is all swallowed up in the black. But she's Nyota Uhura, looking startled and speechless, and something is moving in her eyes like she's sorry and he can't take it anymore.
She makes a sound as if to ask what happened, what's wrong, when his arms come helpless and tight around her. Forgetting not to let him, she clutches him back.
When Jim and Nyota get back, there is a tumult coming down in medical bay; they see a table blown over, test tubes bleeding their contents on the floor, and a general roaring of grief blows its bad wind from the connected office.
"What happened?" Jim demands.
"He looked himself up," Scotty explains. "His daughter's dead."
They're all lingering at the doorway and there's a grim exchange of looks before she's the one who teeters into motion, the first to brave any contact with the storm as she slowly gets the doctor to sit down. A minute later she's resting a cold rag against the back of his neck and he sets his arms down to his knees. It's an oddly maternal comfort but seems to help. "It's okay, she's okay," she keeps repeating. "She's just in her bed asleep at home, okay? She's fine."
As the panic looks to be dying down, Scotty manages a surprised look at Uhura, a look at Jim, almost a look between the two of them.
After the nurses clear out for the night, the two of them sit against the wall in the little corridor that leads to the office, across from each other, tacit.
"Have you looked up your name?" Jim finally asks.
Scotty gives a bewildered shake of his head. "No. No, I don't imagine I'm going to...You know, I always had this two-quid coin? One of these antiques that's been in my family for years. My dad gave it to me when I was a kid. Been lookin' all over for it here. I haven't got it anywhere." His lips are pressed tightly together as he shakes his head. He mumbles, "It's all just royally fucked up, you know?"
Before Jim can possibly think of what to say to that the other two are coming out wearing similarly worn looks on their faces. She crosses her arms and sits down next to Jim.
McCoy leans against the wall with his hands in his pockets, and he's finally the one who asks. "So are we leaving?"
Some understanding eyes move in a slow swarm, all looking at Jim. He shakes his head.
"It's not up to me. It's not like that anymore."
She says quietly, "You're the one who has to bend over backwards to do the right thing every day we're out here..."
"Didn't know you were paying that much attention," he interrupts in more actual surprise than anything else, but then she looks sorry and he tries to soften his look at her.
"How much longer until you can't get out of all that without answering to the Empire?"
There is a sigh of silence.
"I'm in a position to try to make things better," Jim puts in. "I don't know how I'm going to feel about abandoning that. But I think it's just a matter of time before I just tell myself I don't have a choice in the matter and end up doing something terrible. And these people..."
That is something they don't need to discuss. The familiar, horrible faces, the fact that even with a full understanding that they are not their crew, this is not their ship, it still hurts to leave. It scares them, but that seems exactly why they should be getting out.
Sulu is released from medical the next day; Bones worked enough on him that he looks fresh as a daisy, except for that sickly quality that's off about him, the carbon copy flaw like a misaligned tracing job of a man Jim saved from a bad dive, a man who returned the favor only a couple months later by shoving him out of the way of a fire line. After the first day or so, Jim started to feel increasingly astonished that he'd beaten a man to within a slippery margin of permanent damage, especially a man who looked exactly like Hikaru Sulu, and he's waiting for that instinctive compassion Bones had for him to well up in him somewhere. But he looks at the helmsman drawn up to his height in a suppressed twinge of defeat as he walks by Jim, every inch of him emanating vice, and all he sees is the cruelest mockery possible of somebody he used to know and he feels like he could do it all over again, and that scares the living crap out of him.
He and Spock butt heads again the day after; they've been ordered to come down on one of the outposts to mediate some disagreement over slave trading. Jim sends Uhura into one of the throngs of sick-looking Klingons, ends up pleading for an extra hour to see if they can try not to separate families, an hour Spock insists they don't have after appearing genuinely taken aback at the lieutenant's ease with talking to the slaves.
Spock comes the closest to actually threatening them than he has since he found out who they all were, as if it's just him being impatient to win the argument, and Jim ends up alone on a balcony above the marketplace kicking something over angrily. He's up there for a couple minutes before he hears the heavy steps slowing behind him.
Without looking behind him Jim eventually grumbles, "Go away, Commander."
"Kirk," Spock says evenly. "I've come to ask if there is anything you wish to tell me."
Jim hunkers tiredly onto his arms resting on the banister, which the other takes as acceptance of his presence and comes closer, almost joining him at the balcony ledge.
It's a couple minutes before Jim says, "We want out."
The commander seems to give a little nod, and Jim can feel his thoughts thickening, calculating.
"Can you do that?" he asks.
"It can be arranged. But you have probably surmised that you cannot simply walk out of Starfleet, nor would it be advisable to reveal your identity to the public."
"Given that you and some of your companions are still intellectual assets, they will not be likely to sympathize with the fact that you are all used to living by a considerably different code. Particularly...," he pauses, "because they cannot fully understand that code. Not in the way that I do."
"You mean because you saw all that stuff in my head in a way they can't."
He nods, with a surprising amount of certainty. He seems hesitant to volunteer what he's about to say, but does it anyway, like he can't escape its pertinence. "I am curious about what I saw."
"Yeah?" Jim asks, mostly dubious.
"I do not think you are capable of understanding the level at which an entire paradigm I have understood to be reliable has now been proved...fallible."
He sighs. "I can't understand if you can't be specific."
"You live by a very different definition of honor, one that defines the value of survival in a fundamentally opposite manner, one that puts you at a much higher risk of endangerment by other races, and of poverty, of dependence on others. Your people are weaker than any I've encountered, and yet..."
"To put it simply," Spock concedes, as if he actually needed help describing what he's trying to say. "Thriving may be the better word."
"And that surprises you."
"It does not seem viable."
"Well. It is. Why are you telling me this?" Jim squints over at Spock. "Are you trying to convince me to stay? You actually think from how things have gone for the past week that we'd be any use to you?"
"If you do not believe you would be of any use," he slowly replies, "it is doubtful you would be."
That seems to settle that.
"Do you miss them?" Jim asks suddenly. Because for some reason he needs to know. "...Just in a professional sense, do you wish they were still around?"
Spock actually needs a moment to think about the answer.
"No," he replies. "I am concerned about my security, but in terms of their performances aboard this vessel, I do not consider them irreplaceable. I do not regret their absence."
"...In a personal sense?" He's remembering that chess set.
Either because he's more sure of the answer, or because he's lying—and Jim has no idea which one he hopes is true—he answers more quickly this time. "No."
Jim meets back up with Scotty and Uhura, finding Nyota exhausted and angry to have realized she just spent over twenty minutes drilling false hope for a small measure of kindness into the morale of several families of Klingons.
He finds himself interrogating Spock on the prevailing politics of slavery when the away group, which conveniently consists of no one else who doesn't understand their actual identities, is heading out of the town.
"Generally speaking, the Terrans are not comfortable with simply appropriating weaker races into their ownership. Taking slaves for their families is more often a symbol of victory, the result of isolated conflicts rather than full-scale oppression of an entire planet. Much debate can often result in discussing whether a species we are newly engaged with should be implemented into the slave trade; if the race has committed acts of resistance or violence against the Empire, the first appearances of their enslavement among humans is often an introduction of their status as an enemy of the planet which the empire is capable of conquering by force."
"You say it's not the result of full-scale oppression, but any races that have been enslaved are at least under occupation of the fleet..."
"In the instances that the location or condition of their home world is accessible and fruitful to us, yes," Spock grants. "But for instance, the enslavement of Romulans began with the incident with Nero, not with any contact with their home world—"
"They've already enslaved Romulans."
"What about Vulcan?"
"Indeed, some altercations resulted in Vulcans being taken and bred as slaves on Terra, long before the planet's destruction. But in terms of whether a given slave is Romulan or Vulcan, the culture is already becoming obsolete among the new generation of slaves..."
Uhura trips on a stone, and Spock is the swiftest at reaching to stop her fall by a solid grasp on her arm. After being steadied and realizing it was him, she snatches her arm back.
The staging of it is pretty straightforward: Spock informs them that there will be a most unfortunate shuttle accident on an upcoming mission on Telon, only it seems that everyone will assume that he intentionally marooned them there and won't much care. When he's seeing them off in the landing bay, he provides them with an emergency comm code that will be useful for getting them a transport back to Terra with somebody likely to believe any alibi, if Earth is where they wish to go. Spock even offers, "I will not pry into your plans, for it would be better if I do not know them; but I will advise you that while Terra is likely the safest place for you to remain anonymous and also unharmed, it may still be difficult for you. I have provided you with two phasers; it would be unwise to underestimate the fact that you may need them."
Jim examines with a distant, hollow confusion the brochure-specific instructions on where to go first, how they can remain anonymous until they settle somewhere, how much money they've been given (which isn't much but still seems kind, considering that it's irritatingly impossible for them to get into their own accounts without the hacking activity being detected and automatically hauling suspicion on their collective disappearing act). "Why would you do this for us?" he finally asks. "What's in it for you?"
"I gain nothing from it," he admits, gradually adding, "but it seems that more than anything my curiosity with all of you has persuaded me to be experimental."
"Well..." Jim looks more directly into the face of the man who is now captain of the ship with something closer to a familiarity than he's yet been able to bear. "I hope that you think about it for a while."
They all manage to convey some gratitude except for Nyota, who passes by Spock without a word and is the first to board the shuttle. Jim doesn't know why he's inclined to explain it.
"He and she were..." He winces at the thought of saying "involved." But the Vulcan looks at him with a minimal amount of interest in the fact, slow to somewhat quietly reply.
"...I believe I understand that an appropriate response among humans would be some encouragement to 'take care of her'?" It sounds like an obligatory, neutral reply, but Jim is awkwardly dumbfounded by what it resembles.
He even gives the only clumsily relevant response, "She doesn't want that."
"I do not see how it would be of my concern either way. Jim Kirk," the Vulcan says his name with some finality, and in the slight confusion with his own thoughts, his eyebrow goes up.
Jim crumbles in a little bit at the sight; he takes a long look at the face, with something distant and also very present in his own eyes, with the fact that he's not really looking at the man but at his body. He looks with something almost warm and familiar, and he reaches out to consternate the deep eyes even further with a touch at the shoulder. And Spock forms no protest as Kirk gives a kind of encouraging shake to him, Jim's brows rebelling sadly against the simplicity of it when he says, "Goodbye."
Jim turns and boards the shuttle, and while Scotty pilots them away, he doesn't bother watching the ship get smaller and smaller away in the tangle of space.
Just as Jim decided at some point that the second Commander Spock is the kind of sad that doesn't know it's sadness, Earth is poor. The type of poor that doesn't realize it's sure as hell not rich.
"Here's the thing," Scotty explains the day they topple into Salt Lake City off of a crowded shuttle. "I was looking at a schematic for a CX-30, which exists, but a lot of the parts I didn't know from Eve, like, at some point they started making 'em differently. Everything I keep looking at, the problems I saw with the ol' ship, she was all busted like they'd cut corners when they made it. But that's not really the problem..."
"Slaves build them," Nyota guesses.
"Yeah. No love in the trade." Scotty confirms it in his snappy way of speaking fast about these things, but joylessly. "And there are whole developments of technologies, a lot of recent developments we had...back home, you know. They don't have them. Cause think about it, why, eh, bother with less manually-powered engine systems when you can just throw some servants into engineering? Their max warp is even lower than ours, did you notice that? And the fleet probably gets along with the best technology cause they don't rely on slaves out in space, to the point they're almost a separate...entity. Everything down here is about a hundred years behind. Just look at the vehicles they drive."
"Keep it down, man," McCoy warns, a little paranoid as they're garnering some looks in the shopping area they walked to.
At the moment their minds are mostly crowded up with a kind of disoriented catharsis that makes simple demands: shower, clothes, sleep. There's a surreal reduction to simplicity as they become just four people backpacking around town in jeans and jackets, a clean set of fake IDs (helped by some of Scotty and Jim's hacking work) burning holes in their pockets.
The first night they spend in a motel; some alarmed shriek heard from the street outside wakes up Jim in the middle of the night, unless it's Nyota coming in from the cool of the evening, the realization that she was out dawning in grey clarity as her figure appears in the room.
He sits up from where he's lying next to Bones and whispers a clumsily demanding "Where the hell did you go?"
She's still and faceless in the dark, then moves to undress for a shower without answering. She is not in the one bed when he wakes, and he thinks she didn't sleep at all.
She carries on her numb dance in such a way that it seems like some calculated escape, something sharper than the same old denial. She withdraws, resumes; he wonders if he'll just have to let her this time.
Jim and Scotty are standing in line at a convenience booth for some health amenities the next day, and there's an unspoken confusion between them when they realize the woman in front of them has a pair of pointed ears, a reddish hair color making Jim guess she's of mixed birth with human or some other species, but it's impossible to say if she's Romulan or Vulcan.
It's Scotty who takes the first chance to point at his own wrist, and Jim looks back and quickly notices the slender black band strapped tight above her hand, a red eye of a light blinking ominously next to the skinny hand.
"Doesn't it remind you of those little torture gadgets they had on the ship?" Scotty whispers to him when the woman is placing an order from a list. "I bet you anything it's a tracking device with some kinda...disciplinary..."
"Yeah," Jim agrees, looking closer at the servant now, and then he sees under her sharply cropped hair the symbol branded crudely at the back of her neck. Hard to tell from a couple feet away, but it's shaped vaguely like a coat of arms.
It only takes an afternoon of poking through some news files for Jim to understand at least part of the likely reason Spock warned him about Terra. He asks the rest of them over breakfast if they've read up anything, and when he gets a few shakes of heads, he can only start after a silence with "We could be in trouble."
He shows them a list he found, and it doesn't matter what any of the names are, only what the list is. Bones is the first to demand where the hell he got it, to which Jim has to explain he risked the use of Kirk's security clearance to peek into the records. "Don't worry, I cleaned the access history."
"You're not gonna mess around with that again, are you?" Scotty asks, and it's strange but assuring being talked to like that, knowing that the rank boundaries are slipping down. "We could all be fucked the minute they realize any of the missing crew members apparently just booked it to Earth..."
"Yeah, yeah, but this was important."
"So what is it?" Uhura demands, squinting at the list as she's the last person to pick it up. Then in a moment she just adds a small "Hmm."
Essentially a privately maintained blacklist, entailing suspiciously "anti-Terran" actions monitored by international computer systems and civilian tip-offs, it passively singles out to be watched closely for potential arrest anyone who appears to oppose the Empire's regime.
Ever since some point beginning approximately fifty years ago, almost half of the actions recorded were related to forgoing or opposing the ownership of slaves.
"Well." Bones says, "Lovely."
"We're just travelers right now and our story is that we're doing so at our leisure for a period of a few months. Nothing too strange about that." Jim talks over making a drowsy swiping motion at his eyes. "And it looks like this list is hardly a dead end, it's just...point one on not making you look good if you do something to more actively piss off the officials."
"But we'd still be the exception to the rule wherever we went," Uhura tiredly interjects, already knowing where this is going. "And we can't afford to draw attention to ourselves."
At which point Scotty concedes with his own set of curse words.
They put a lazy lid on discussing it for a couple days, but they all know it's on their minds at the first café they sit in that has servants wiping and sweeping while employed humans do the courtesy work.
They're fairly isolated wherever they go that day due to the weather being lousy, and find themselves talking more flippantly about their situation in public.
"As far as our options go..."
"There's a reason it feels like we're outlaws on the lam, Jim."
"You think it's a good idea to just keep moving?" Jim replies with a lopsided grimace. "Bones, I've told you already, we have to stop somewhere or we won't be able to make a living, and—"
"Well, how much do we have? And I don't mean literally the amount, I'm asking for the math."
"There is no math. I can't begin to know how to calculate how much money we need, we don't know...if you'll be able to open up a clinic or something, and where...?"
"That's a start, though," Uhura interrupts. "McCoy, you're our best asset right now. But even if we do find somewhere, we'll probably end up pooling most of our money just into getting a big enough place—"
She trails off abruptly when a teenager, one of the servants with a more utilitarian bar code of a brand on the nape of her neck, comes by their table just to take up an empty glass, and Jim startles the rest of them by leaning right forward, whispering to her:
"Hey. Where can we go if we don't have slaves?"
The girl jolts back just a little, almost seeming to not understand, a dull shock seizing her expression. They all realize it's fear when she casts a sidelong cautious look.
Jim sits back as if to let it go, but then as if moving quickly out of her indecision, the girl then leans forward a little; they're all realizing after the bewildered look on Jim's face that she's doing something with the drawstring on his sweater. There's a stern shout from behind the front counter, and she snatches the glass up and walks away.
"What did she...?" Bones is asking, but Jim shakes his head to show he's as lost as they are.
All she did was tie the string into a knot.
Jim looks up from his forlorn examination of his empty cup, gives the bored-looking bartender a vacant smile. "No thanks, I think I'm headed out."
"Is that tall one your wife? Outside?"
Jim clears his throat. "Yeah." Continuing with an attempt at non-suspicious friendliness, he converses, "We're heading into Texas."
"Yeah? Looking to buy some napes?" In response to Jim's momentary blank reaction, he shrugs. "You look like you're on the move to settle somewhere, I thought."
"You're right, actually, we've just come here from living in Wales for a while. I don't even know where to go for it..." Jim schools his expression, a cocked eyebrow lifting but probably only adding to his look of befuddled tiredness, and he has a pretty good guess what this conversation is about anyway.
"Well, if you like Vulcanoids, you can pretty much find them anywhere. Closer to California you find purer Vulcans, who pretty much anyone will tell you is the best you can get. You looking for domestic or hard labor?"
"I used to stick by Klingon back when I was having the place built, but I don't have the steel to keep 'em in line anymore. Back home we just have the one Romulan boy. Buy them young enough and they'll grow up pretty polite and all."
He's too busy cleaning the wood to see how Jim's stare is affixed a bit acidly back at him. His face doesn't match his drawling reply. "Yeah, that's what most people tell me."
"Just, uh. You've probably heard it before, but seriously, kid. Don't mess around on the east coast."
That gives Jim enough pause that he doesn't formulate some false response. The man just interprets it as being unfazed.
"I mean it. People hear about what's going on there and think they can grab a phaser and go pick up some napes like it's a fucking pumpkin patch. But those slavers messing around the Carolinas...My sister's friend was doing that, his partner got shot in the head when they went over there."
Jim's brow furrows, and he's sure it conveniently looks like sympathy. "That's rough."
"Horrifying. Of course people get to bitching that the fleet isn't intervening, but it's really not worth their time, considering. People just need to be less reckless, you know?"
Jim is already sliding off the barstool when the bartender looks back up at him.
All they're doing is meandering across the country, sometimes just making it on foot through the anonymity of bustling towns as they practically unconsciously go a crooked path northeast as if responding to a gut desire to get on the opposite end of the continent from the Empire's headquarters. Jim doesn't mention anything that the bartender said until they're at one of their gritty impasses where nobody wants to say where they should go because nobody knows. It wasn't the first time somebody mentioned that they should buy a car, but a day ago Scotty had put down a padd from which he'd apparently been reading an encyclopedic mess about this and that engine or vehicle or compact drive, and declared that he knew which one they should buy.
It wasn't hard to figure out that Scotty was trying to skim up as many reusable parts as possible when the one they bought was a bulky station wagon type which McCoy wordlessly but positively appraised for all the equipment you could fit in the back if needed. They were in an odd place that day as Jim had to put on his brightest faces to charm the salesperson into the kind of deal you sign off on without conducting more than a rudimentary background check. The clever ruse of it felt like old times until Bones cracked a dry joke about how Jim could probably flirt their way into a nice neighborhood, only to realize that wasn't very funny.
Jim is the last to get into the car later, shuts the passenger door after him and immediately starts.
"So this is what we could do. We could buy a slave..."
A sighing sound of resignation in the back seat.
"We could buy slaves," he continues, "and just not work them, or try to pay them, or..."
"Doubtful we could afford it," Scotty says.
"The part that I don't understand," McCoy suddenly says as if he's been wanting to declare it for a while. "...The commander didn't make it sound like it would be nearly this commonplace."
"Right, but when you think about it, everything he said was only accounting for the Empire's role in all of it." Jim gets a squinting look from McCoy and adds, "Who knows, maybe things have changed since he's even been to Earth. I'm pretty sure that even if there was a time when it was cushioned by some kind of ideology, that all went out the window at some point after somebody somewhere realized that it wouldn't be illegal to privately capture and sell whoever they can nab off the streets."
"There still is the ideology," Uhura puts in, wiping a hand at her eyes. "Look, you think people are actually looking into where these people come from when they're buying them? They're probably all truly convinced that it's okay, they're owning hostile enemies of their people who tried to kill and rob their military and lost their battles and deserved what they got, and oh, 'The Empire takes such good care of us.' And why wouldn't the highest-ups capitalize on whatever system keeps the people happy without turning anybody's stomachs? It's disgusting that we aren't even from here and it's already becoming obvious what's going on."
After that there is a long silence, and then Jim suddenly asks, "Have any of you heard anything about the east coast?"
Bones narrows his eyes again. "Like what?"
"I don't know." This time he doesn't have any research pulled up. He's acting on a hunch and too much of a hope to see if it's nothing like he thinks it is, has an itching need for them to go see it for themselves. It's that he needs a journey of some kind that badly, maybe. "But I think we should go there."