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Shore Leave

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Prologue

 

Night was falling over Uruk. People retreated fast from the city's streets, chased away by the chill. The temperature had dropped a good twenty degrees in just the few minutes James T. Kirk was outside, and it continued to drop as he stepped out from under the lengthening shadow of his hotel. Frost was already starting to collect around street corners and in lamps.

Jim's breath condensed into a thick fog in front of him as he rubbed his hands together. His eyes slid up and down the tall buildings all around him. As his gaze wandered, he noticed that the other stragglers were hurrying through the gaping, slanted access ways to their ultimate destination: down below the streets, where the people were loud, the air was warm, and the credits were plentiful.

Jim sighed longingly. He would have been there too, nestled in the organized chaos of the underground night markets, perhaps with a certain, nosy first officer at his elbow, but no. He was on the surface, attempting to navigate a city in which one street looked nearly the same as the other. The only notation in the city's infrastructure that differentiated street from street were high poles that boasted numbers instead of street names--not even Standard numbers, but Roman numerals.

Jim hadn't studied that crap since high school. It took him precious seconds to figure out each street designation, and, with each second, the temperature dropped, and kept dropping.

It wasn't quite Delta Vega, but sheesh.

Jim inhaled a huge breath of air--then nearly choked on it. He started hacking heavy, wet coughs, much to the disgust of nearby strangers.

"Nothing to see here," he said to no one, idly waving a hand. "Just a bit of the flu." He massaged his throat with a wince, wondering when the shot Bones had given him was going to kick in. The cold wasn't going to help matters, not at all.

Jim straightened and cleared his throat. In hindsight, he probably should have shoved this duty off on Spock. Desert dweller or not, the Vulcan would have handled these temperatures better, but Jim couldn't even fake-promise himself that he would rectify this error the next time because, really? He was grasping at any task or chore that felt captain-y to him.

Yeah, that was another thing--Jim wasn't exactly a captain. Not yet, anyway.

The major downside to the compromise the admiralty came up with (to soothe nay-sayers who didn't want to watch a cadet's meteoric rise to captaincy) meant that, while Jim became a captain, he was pretty much a captain-in-name-only. The admirals tried to sugar coat it, saying his limited privileges were really more of a grace period--a training exercise, to see if he could handle command.

And, oh, he'd bought it too, recognizing the insanity of promoting one guy so quickly. Not a fan of shoving people off into the deep end, he even celebrated the chance to learn how a starship worked firsthand and at a more acceptable pace.

That was, until he realized that someone on their ship would have to have all the powers and privileges that he didn't possess yet. Someone who, according to some convoluted plan the admirals dreamed up, could cut the legs out from under every single one of Jim's orders, if he so desired.

That someone was Spock.

What a nightmare those first days were! And the fights they had--the bickering, the arguing, the pushing. It never got physical, but, damn, it was rough those first few weeks out, watching his own ego and self-confidence drop down a peg every time Spock opened his mouth.

A captain-in-name-only and a captain-in-everything-but-name. It was a disaster waiting to happen, or so he thought. It never did. Jim held no illusions about himself--he was a possessive son of a bitch, and the Enterprise was his. The disaster didn't happen because of Spock, and only because of Spock.

A month in, Jim asked Spock if he resented Jim's presence on the Enterprise. Startled by the notion, Spock admitted that the only reason he was on the ship because he knew Jim would be on it. He also confessed that he was less than enamored with the idea of captaincy and that, when the time came, he would be "perfectly willing to submit wholly to your command, Captain."

Now, Jim Kirk wouldn't be Jim Kirk if his mind hadn't immediately dropped down to the gutter, but, at the time, Spock was still with Uhura, and Uhura was scary. He'd kept his thoughts to himself. And while that event hadn't been the first (or last) time he'd considered sex with Spock in mind, it was the first time that their battle of wills had relaxed a little, settling into a détente and then, weeks later, into a real friendship.

So when Jim worried about how Spock was going to react to Jim's disappearance, he wasn't worried that he was going to get in trouble--even if Spock could technically reprimand him. He was more concerned that, well… Spock wouldn't be mad, necessarily, but he could do disappointed like no other.

But Jim had an appointment to make.

Nico Levin, the chief science advisor of Risa II, had asked for Jim specifically, and Jim alone. Jim may not have liked being ordered out at such a cold hour of the night, but Levin had been the one to haggle with the city's hotel owners so Jim's crew could be cheaply housed in one of their better hotels during their shore leave, rather than the crappier one that more accurately reflected their wages--or lack thereof.

So, in other words, Jim kinda owed him one.

Tucking his hands under his elbows resolutely, he walked quickly through the unfamiliar terrain, glancing at the smeared directions written on his palm for a second before shoving it back into its pocket of warmth. A left and a right and another left… The place was a damn maze. Every tall green and black building resembled the rest, completely bare save for a few glowing advertisements and business signs that lighted up the severely straight streets.

Jim wasn't completely lost. He deduced early on that his destination wasn't the Central Tower, where all the big name political people worked, but instead a building a little on the edge of the city. He figured this out because the place had a ridiculously huge number for a name, and because the streets were numerically labeled down and up, left to right. Additionally, it helped that he knew that the city used a geographic coordinate system, and that every street that landed on a longitudinal plane was odd and every street that landed on a latitude plane was even.

Spock had been the one who noticed that.

Feeling guilty at the thought, he started jogging, imaging Spock chastising him for leaving without so much as a note. The faster he got this done, then the faster he got back to the hotel, right? And if he did it really fast, then Spock wouldn't get the chance to lecture him. Jim swallowed past the annoying tickle in his throat and made himself move just a little bit faster.

Jim's jog eased into a run. He'd grab a shuttle or something, but the city's traffic flow was mostly focused on vertical transportation, not on horizontal, which made sense. The city wasn't really all that spread out on the surface, but it stretched both high above the streets, and far below. The tallest skyscraper, Central Tower, had roughly forty stories, from his count, and it was rumored that the underground went down at least a hundred more levels than the three that were open to poor suckers like him.

Jim took another turn and found himself abruptly in the open air of the center of the city. Here too, people were disappearing down the stairs of various lighted portals. If they weren't hurrying to the lower levels, they were instead briskly crossing into one of the many hotels and businesses that lined the square.

Off in the distance, the Central Tower's large display screens announced how cold it was in a flash of lights, shifting through various measurements. Under the ominously dropping temperature, a scrolling text reminded people to get inside or to bundle up. The reminder only made Jim feel colder in his pants, long-sleeved shirt, and worn jacket.

Blinking away the bright spots in his vision, Jim looked away, his gaze lingering on the attractive, dancing colors that made up the specialty plasma elevators of the eight fanciest hotels in Uruk. The hotels were so fancy that even Levin, the fourth most influential person currently on Risa II, couldn't get one crewmember from Jim's practically infamous ship a single closet, let alone a whole room. The waiting lists for those hotels were supposed to be long enough to wrap around the Enterprise three times.

Distracted from his quest, Jim just stared at the sight, muffling a cough in his palm. Every lift was lit up by wildly arching lines of light, trapped in a tightly contained tube of excited particles. A highly innovative and scientifically advanced piece of technology, the snooty governor had confided during their welcome tour.

Scientifically. Advanced. Oh boy. Jim grinned. He'd heard a lot of posturing from politicians as a captain, but that one really took the cake.

Spock'd fidgeted badly during this announcement, but decorum won out in the end, and the Vulcan made some bland comment about innovation in general. A mischief bug bit Jim on the ass soon after, and so the rest of the tour was peppered with Jim's wide-eyed comments about the 'impressive lightning chamber', and about how it was a perfect representation of 'science conquering nature'. He may have laid it on a bit too thick when he insisted it was the most technologically advanced device he'd seen, ever.

But Jim's slight lapse could be forgiven. After all, a great deal of his focus was on Spock, not on his conversation with the governor. Jim really didn't give a damn what Lumiere thought, but Spock was, as always, a different story.

That raised brow he'd directed at Jim meant he was probably in for a long, thorough lecture on the nature of Tesla coils, but it was worth it--worth watching the telltale signs of Spock's ascend into subtle, offended incredulity, worth hearing the stupid governor wax eloquence on a technology he knew little about.

Jim's smirk congealed into a pained wince. The Tesla lecture was probably going to be accompanied by a long dissertation on the proper conduct of captains during shore leave, if he didn't hurry up. And it was starting to get unbearably cold now. The display on the Towers flashed a chilling negative four degrees Celsius.

God, he was gonna freeze!

Jim ran the rest of the way, his teeth chattering. He went through the square first, paying little mind to the gardens paying tribute to the city's financial backers, the pale sculptures depicting various Terran myths, or the shallow ceremonial streams that divided up the square. He hit the street on the other side and made a left, then a right, fully submerged into the urban, building-infested jungle again.

A left, a right, a long sprint down a longer street, and another left and a right--he almost fell face first on the street as he skidded over a shallow puddle--and there it was. His quaint little destination.

Glancing to the left, he checked the street number against the number scrawled on his palm--it was the correct one--and then looked back at the squat, almost derelict building that sat in front of him. There was an architectural term for the place. He was pretty sure it was 'eye sore'. It lacked the dizzying consistency of the buildings closest to the square, but few buildings did around these parts.

Jim had a feeling he'd just wandered into the 'bad part of town'.

Nevertheless, Jim cleared his throat and was crossing the threshold before he could convince himself not to--because boldly wandering was his thing, and that didn't end just because he was out of uniform.

"Hey, Doc!" he called out cheerfully, letting the door close behind him. "I'm here!"

If he thought the outside was bad, the inside was worse. The entrance he used opened up immediately into a large room that looked like it was mostly used for storage. Large clunky machines dotted the landscape between half-empty metal shelves, and massive boxes covered with sheets almost made up an entire wall. The place was vaguely dusty and had an abandoned feel to it.

Forget 'a rose by any other name', he thought and crept forward, pressing a cough into his curled fist. It wasn't a lab, it was a dump.

Jim's fifth step into the mess ended in a crunch as he stepped too hard on a PADD just lying on the floor. He stopped, lifting his foot up and away from the shattered display. Oops.

Jim stiffened, the back of his neck prickling slightly with heightened awareness. His senses sharpened.

He wasn't alone anymore.

He took a slight step back, his muscles tensing under his skin. His eyes swept sharply from corner to corner, detecting nothing. Maybe this boldly wandering thing wasn't working out so well after all.

The lights above him flashed off suddenly with a deep, metallic click, plunging the room into absolute darkness. Before he could adjust, they flashed back on, brighter than ever. He squinted, covering his hands with his eyes, and in the burning brightness, he saw… people.

Faceless, voiceless.

Merciless.

All thoughts of throwing up a defense died the second that the first blow hit his back. It burned. The zipping noise of the bludgeoning weapon nearly blotted out his hoarse scream. It swung around again from a different angle, catching him in the side. He dropped to his knees, gasping desperately for lost air. It felt like he'd lost all feeling where they hit him, all but that horrid, surface pain.

That charred smell, was it him? His clothes?

He was hit again and again until he was plastered to the floor, cheek scraping against the dust. He was nearly senseless at this point, dazed to stupidity. His ears seemed to register nothing but a muted buzzing noise that made him feel dizzy.

As his vision narrowed, Jim stared blankly down the length of his outstretched arm, lying in a pool of his own blood. The men stopped their attack--why? Was he dying? His hand trembled, palm flattening against the ground. His fingers curled into a fist. No. His thoughts sharpened, gaining focus. No. He started to push himself up because, goddamn it, he was a Starfleet captain. He wasn't going to die on the fucking floor!

But then there was a pinch, an insidious hiss. It broke through the fog in his ears.

His body failed him, crumbling to the ground as an odd weightlessness took him over. His chin cracked against the floor, but he hardly felt it. He reached out blindly, grasping at the air.

Spock.

 

*****

 

Part One

 

The reporter from Starfleet Weekly was a Human woman named Sheila Roberts. She was Starfleet's top choice for reporting sensitive events, as she always spun them to favor the Federation's side of the story. Although the concept of 'free speech' was a staple of Terran society, a curious amount of effort was spent by various organizations to control what was actually said.

It was contradictory and illogical. Many things involving Humans were.

Spock did not have to touch Sheila Roberts to know she was excited. She radiated the emotion with every gesture. Being aboard the Enterprise was a rare--and career building--opportunity for her. Her pleasure was logical.

Sheila's hazel eyes gazed into a concave lens. "The short, but exciting career and life of one James Tiberius Kirk has come to a sudden and tragic end," she reported into the audio recorder. She stretched a small, manicured hand out to Spock and, following her gesture, the man holding video recorder in front of her panned over to him. "I have with me here acting captain of the starship Enterprise. Mr. Spock." She turned to him, her eyebrows knitted together. "What do you have to say about this tragedy?"

Spock's focus narrowed in on the small rectangle of plastic in her hand. The technology they used was outdated. A professor from the Academy once said that, while Starfleet tended to be the center of most of the notable scientific discoveries made by the Federation, Starfleet technology itself tended to lag behind the rest of the Federation by fifty years, if not more.

After the destruction of the Kelvin, Starfleet implemented massive overhauls to their starships, addressing this unfortunate trend. The focus naturally was on updating technology and weapons systems in preparation for another Romulan attack. Many of the redundant or less useful technologies were replaced with faster, more efficient models, or removed entirely. But some anachronisms still lingered, especially in less useful departments and sister organizations.

The Starfleet-issued audio recorder in her hand was a Model FST6SD1, one of the most tamper-proof models of its kind, to the point of rendering any repair effort ultimately futile. The video recorder in her companion's hand was a Model GRSAE5688, a model well-known for a bug that converted poorly to holovideo.

His careful consideration of extraneous objects in his immediate environment suddenly struck him as inane.

Spock's focus turned inward. Was this a reflection of his mental state? That his focus had narrowed so completely on the irrelevant technology? That Spock couldn't recall one syllable of that professor's name? That Spock hesitated an inordinate amount of time before answering the simple question?

Two point three five minutes. Or was it two point four two? His time sense was off.

Spock stood rigidly by the wall, his hands clasped behind his back. "It is, as you say, tragic."

Sheila stared at him for a moment, her lips parting. Her lips suddenly pursued together.

"Cut," she said, dropping her hand.

The man behind the recorder lifted his head. "What? But this is good!"

Sheila glared at him. Nyota would have called the expression withering. "Get out, dumbass," she snapped.

"But why?" he whined.

She jabbed a finger in the direction of the door. "Out!"

Once her grumbling companion vacated the room, Sheila sighed, rubbing at her temples. She turned off her recorder and sat down. They were currently occupying one of the ship's conference rooms, so there was ample places to sit. He did not understand the reasoning behind her decision to take advantage of the seat, as her only goal and purpose here on the ship was fulfilling her duty to her employer and, to a lesser extent, Starfleet. Sitting only delayed the inevitable.

"Mr. Spock, I am aware you're only here because you have your orders," she said without preamble, her hands fluttering over the table. Her fingers were adorned with several large rings, and they clicked their way across the surface. "Are you sure there's no one else who can do this?"

Spock sat across from her, as this seemed to be the way among Humans. "Does my Vulcan way of speaking disturb you, Miss Roberts?"

Sheila smirked at him. "Not at all, Mr. Spock. I can listen to you all day. It's just… you look…" The woman gestured to him suddenly, her expression very serious. "I, um. I grieve with thee, Mr. Spock."

Spock jerked his eyes away from her, staring at the ground.

After a period of silence (one point three seven minutes or one point two five?) Spock stood sharply. "There are others that can speak in my stead." There was a subtle vibration threading through his words--a lapse in his absolute control. "It appears that I am of a need for mediation." If a woman who was a stranger to him could see his grief plainly, then his control was clearly compromised.

This was not new information to Spock.

His control had been compromised the first hour of Jim's disappearance. It had not been recovered since.

Sheila stood with him, automatically offering a hand, and swiftly jerking it back when she remembered. She lifted her hand in the Vulcan salute. "Live long and prosper, Mr. Spock."

Spock returned the gesture. "Peace and… long life."

Humans died so young.

Spock stepped out of the room, ignoring Sheila's companion. He swept down the hall, his heart pounding a painful tattoo in his side, and turned a corner. But where to go? What to do?

He kept walking. He kept walking, until he stopped, right in front of a familiar doorway. It should have been locked to him, to everyone including the yeoman that would clean it, but it opened easily to Spock. The man who zealously guarded what little possessions he had was no longer of the living. The computer had registered this and made the appropriate adjustments. It was an efficient system.

After a moment, Spock stepped through the doorway.

The captain's quarters did not appear to be much different than Spock's adjacent quarters in layout. The contents were, as Humans were fond of saying, a different story. Books lined the small alcove above the bed and a few scattered PADDs littered the rarely used desk. Medals were set indifferently on a shelf in the corner while a chessboard was displayed proudly on a table. These were all things he observed before.

The only unfamiliar object in the room was a rare physical manifestation of Starfleet's many varied regulations. The book sat open on Jim's bed, split open to 'Conduct of Superior Officers in Regards to Away Missions'.

Spock wasn't prone to imagination, but a image came to him then: Jim's head bowed over the heavy book, lower lip tucked between his teeth as his blue eyes darted all over the page, trying to find the right counter to Spock's latest parry in their regulation war.

The image faded much too quickly, leaving Spock with an unforgivably empty room.

Thoughtlessly, his hand stretched out to smooth the deep wrinkle in the side of hastily made bed. When Spock saw what he was doing, he jerked his hand back, tucking it behind his back. He struggled to suppress the emotions within, acknowledging their presence briefly.

Anger. Rage. Grief. Anguish. A crippling sense of loss. He pushed and he pushed at his emotions until he had some semblance of calm--a veneer. A thin layer of calm over a tumultuous inner world. It was in the calm that he submerged himself, because to indulge in his emotions now, of all times, would be an extreme error.

Logic would prevail. Logic must prevail.

And so, with this in mind, Spock cast a critical look over the room. It was illogical for him to linger. There was nothing that was of relevance or interest to his current duty: commanding the starship Enterprise.

There was, however, an additional anomaly in the environment, one that Spock could not bring himself to ignore. Spock tilted his head, focusing his attention on a small sound lingering in the background, a repetitive bleeping noise that could only be a recording suspended in a pause.

"Computer, identify current program," he ordered, breaking the silence.

"Captain Kirk's personal log."

Spock swallowed. It was illogical to waste resources on a perpetually paused recording. He ordered the computer to end the log properly, as Jim should have before he left for shore leave. He ignored the pang of emotion that hit him, ruthlessly suppressing it. He was Vulcan. All of these emotional reactions were unbecoming of his species and of the principles of Surak.

The computer registered his order and shut the recording program down. Anomaly removed.

And still, Spock lingered.

Logic dictated that he move to the bridge to learn of their new orders, but he could not move.

"Replay last log," he said softly, his head bowed.

The audio crackled--Jim's voice suddenly came through, vibrant and… alive. "Captain's personal log, stardate..." Spock's head rose at the sound of the long pause. "Damn. Why do I bother rattling out a date that the computer already records with the save file? It's inefficient. Illogical, even." Spock's eyebrow lifted at that--the captain's unrepentant informality, the helpless amusement streaming through each word.

Because it is protocol, Spock thought. As if the recording heard him, Jim laughed--a common response to Spock's insistence on following the rules.

Spock listened as Kirk hemmed and hawwed until he finally spat out the correct stardate. "So, anyway... we have shore leave coming up. Which is great. The crew's morale has been low since that clusterfuck with the Gorn last week. They need this. I need this. Spock needs this."

There was an extended moment of silence as Jim appeared to contemplate his last comments.

In the pause, Spock found himself remembering the incident with the Gorn. The lizard-like species had tested the Federation's borders and, upon finding little to no resistance from the depleted fleet, boldly pushed through, attacking a planet. The Enterprise received and answered the distress call, beaming down to the planet while simultaneously engaging the Gorn's ship in orbit.

Spock had been trapped on the planet for thirteen hours while men--some Starfleet, some natives--died all around him. He nearly died himself, bleeding heavily from a stomach wound, but Jim proved to be a better captain than the captain of the Gorn vessel, managing to disable the enemy ship without causing too much damage to their own vessel. Once that was achieved, Jim had immediately sent down more teams, leading one of them himself, blatantly disregarding regulations in the process.

Spock had a vague mental image of a person in a command uniform stretching both hands to him, but the memory was poorly encoded due to a copious amount of blood loss. It was only afterward, when he had awakened in the sickbay, that he understood that the captain had come after him.

Under other circumstances, it was a reasonable assumption to make, as Jim had repeatedly shown himself a follower of his own axiom--leave no one behind. But it was not an assumption. Spock knew, with one hundred percent certainty, that Jim was the one to retrieve him.

In his mind, under the familiar shadows of thoughts that inevitably came with the touches of nurses and doctors, there had been a strong, emotionally charged vibration of Jim. Jim, who was furious at Spock. Jim, who was concerned over the wounds. Jim, who pleaded with Terran deities.

Jim, whose gaze was no longer his.

When Spock had finally opened his eyes, it was to the jarring sight of a smirking McCoy. "What do you know?" he drawled, crossing his arms over his chest. "Computers do bleed."

Within microseconds, Spock had constructed a series of treatises on the need for doctors to fulfill their roles as defined by their Starfleet contracts, which in no part discussed the doctor's duty to engage in needless conversation unrelated to diagnosis and treatment.

But then another spoke. "Bones, please."

It was the captain. Spock was distantly pleased to see he had escaped the Gorn mostly unscathed. The only thing that marred his appearance was the disarray that was his uniform. The left gold sleeve was torn all the way up to one elbow, baring a forearm marked with several shallow scratches.

The left portion of the torso region was stained green.

"You should change, Captain," Spock said, dragging his eyes away. "It is bad for morale if you roam the halls with your subordinate's blood on your uniform."

"I… agree." McCoy looked displeased. "Oddly."

Jim's eyes flicked over to McCoy for a moment before fixating on Spock. "I will. Just..." His gaze dropped to the floor before raising once more. "I need to talk to Spock." Those eyes asked a question of Spock that the captain always had a difficulty voicing.

Please.

After a pause, Spock nodded, accepting the request. In unison, he and the captain turned and looked at McCoy.

The doctor recoiled. He scowled, walking away. "I guess I should go loiter somewhere else. Not like this is my sickbay or anything."

Spock considered prolonging the doctor's presence by commenting that the sickbay was indeed not his sickbay, as the true owner of any part of the Enterprise was Starfleet, and Starfleet alone, but Spock recognized that his desire to keep the doctor near was illogical. He wished to keep the man as a buffer between him and the captain, but that assumed that Spock felt uneasy alone in the captain's presence.

Vulcans did not feel uneasy.

His gaze once again engaged by the floor, Jim stepped up to the side of the bed. "Spock, I-"

Spock started to sit up. "I assume you wish a debriefing."

Eyes snapped to him, blue burning like fire. "I don't give a damn about the debriefing!"

"Hyperbole, Captain, is not a habit conducive to communication." Spock bent his head slightly. "If I may continue-"

"Spock, I need to talk to you about that night a few weeks ago." Jim's voice had been hurried, thin, desperate.

"There were many nights in the last few weeks, Captain," Spock said blandly. "If you would be more specific-"

"That night between us, when we- you know what I'm talking about, Spock!" The captain was uncharacteristically flustered.

Deflections aside, Spock knew of the night Jim spoke of. An unfortunate reaction to a native plant (agortal, a desert plant not unlike Earth's brassica oleracea) during a diplomatic meet resulted in Spock choosing to make a strategic retreat from the gathering. His mental health was already deeply compromised by the destruction of Vulcan, but the loss of personal inhibition was a new experience.

Jim had followed him out, trying to tease him back into the crowd. Jim's persistence had sparked familiar annoyance, but also something else--something that he barely allowed himself to think about.

When he turned on Jim, Spock had only wished to make his captain cease his inane chattering. There were many, other methods he could have used to accomplish this, some more violent than others. But stronger than the need for silence was the longstanding desire to fully document the texture of those soft looking lips, the taste.

After a moment of shocked introspection that Spock could feel through the kiss, Jim grabbed his hips and pulled Spock flush against him, mouth opening up. Spock freely admitted to some... pleasure when Jim melted into Spock as Spock's fingers drifted over the firm edge of his jaw and soft flesh of his cheek.

To force a mind meld under these conditions was reprehensible to Spock, but the temptation burned sharply in the bones of his hands, and his state of near inebriation made the temptation harder to ignore. His fingers tensed hard against Jim's face.

In response, Jim pulled away--not so far as to break Spock's touch, but far enough to look Spock in the eye. The touch telepathy only went one way, but, somehow, he knew what Spock wanted. He gripped the wrist of one hand strongly and lifted it further up his face. Spock's fingers nudged a point right under Jim's eye, and he slowly tipped into the chaotic storm of tangential thoughts, uncontrolled emotions, and every other aspect that made Jim's inner being so... Jim.

It was wonderful. It was familiar. It was his own mind reflected back at him, but somehow better.

And then Sulu gasped. The wrench of Jim's mind away from his was akin to a hard fall--sudden, painful, unwanted.

Jim jerked away so fast that he tripped over the edge of a ceremonial fountain and back into it, causing Nyota, who was accompanying Sulu, to laugh loudly. Jim had emerged, drenched but grinning, and jumped back over the ledge, quickly talking himself out of an awkward situation with a skill men twice his age envied.

That was the last time Jim had looked him in the eye.

The temporary loss of that gaze made the presence of it in the sickbay harder to meet.

Sighing, Jim rubbed his temples, and then swung his head around, looking for something. Jim sat down in a chair, pulling it close by. When he turned his head briefly to keep an eye on the seat, Spock saw a faint pattern of green blood on his face.

"I attempted to meld with you," Spock said stiffly, recognizing the points.

Vivid blue eyes flashed back to him. "Ah, no," Jim admitted. He attempted a smile. "I tried to make you meld with me. It, um… it didn't work. I thought you were…"

Spock knew the word that Jim wouldn't utter. It was logical to assume that Jim's reluctance to use the word 'dead' was due to some emotional trauma he had suffered during the Gorn incident. And yet, when Jim suddenly grabbed his hand, Spock was entirely unready for the flood of grief that followed that flowed through the physical link.

Spock's attempts to shield against the grief only highlighted the other emotions underneath.

Guilt guilt Spock shame fear lingered over his knuckles. The captain's grip tightened, and then there was almost lost you took advantage of you Spock friend brother comrade please don't hate me.

The abject pain in the last sentiment was too much. Pointedly, he pulled his hand out of the captain's fingers.

Jim deflated. "I deserved that. I deserve a lot of things, and I'm ready to accept the consequences, but not if I lose you in the long run! If you'll just let me..." Jim trailed off, because Spock was touching him again, fingertips gently running over the top of his fist.

Spock frowned at the looping thoughts. "You believe yourself to have taken advantage of me." Most illogical. "Please explain."

"Touch telepathy," Jim said, remembering. His eyes went distant and his mouth softened with a distracted smile. "No wonder you're so good at kissing."

"Captain," Spock admonished. My modesty, he thought.

"Advantage, right." Jim's expression sobered. Guilt shame guilt God I hate myself flared under Spock's touch. "You were compromised, remember? The orange broccoli thing. And I knew it." Jim swallowed. Shame arousal you should have seen yourself Spock beautiful intense and you wanted me.

Spock blinked at the revelation in Jim's haphazard thoughts--a vein of surprising self-consciousness, a state of intense longing linked to Spock's presence, an overdeveloped sense of guilt and responsibility. He had no idea that they were so alike in these matters. It pleased him to discover that the compatibility between himself and the captain was as high as he calculated over the last sixteen months, if not higher.

"Advantage," Spock said finally, examining the charge. "To take advantage of a being means that you must indeed have an advantage over them." He tilted his head, considering Jim carefully. "This is not something that you are capable of having over me--physically, mentally, or otherwise."

"But-"

"Consider the physiology and skills of Vulcans in contrast with the physiology and skills of Humans," Spock put forth calmly. "You will find that Vulcans are three times stronger than Humans on average. This makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for a Human to… take advantage "

Jim looked annoyed at the reminder. "Vulcans are pacifists-"

Spock had no intention of letting Jim win this battle. "And yet not all keep to that philosophy. I myself would not have been allowed in Starfleet if I was not deemed able to take--and deal--violence if need be. As you well know." Spock waited, but Jim made no mention of the unfortunate incident on the bridge in the early days of their acquaintance. Nor was there any flicker of resentment or fear, just a slightly fluctuating state of calm surrounding an awed appreciation that stemmed from the thought wow he's still touching me.

Illogically pleased with himself, Spock continued. "I am stronger than you. Even in my current state, I could harm you with little effort." There was a flicker of I know and show off and, oddly, lust. Spock lifted his hand to Jim's face and brushed a thumb against his hairline. He needed to make his point--clearly and unequivocally. "But I need not move much to render you completely harmless. I could attack you and cripple you with just a touch of my mind to yours." A telepath could do worse than incapacitate an opponent. He could do a lot worse.

Jim turned his face slightly until his cheek nestled gently against Spock's palm, a trusting gesture in light of the context. As a result, Spock could hear his thoughts clearer than ever. Jim wanted with the single-mindedness of his species, and it surprised Spock, how outwardly calm Jim looked and how inwardly chaotic he really was.

Spock battled with the ethics of his next move, but decided a demonstration would not be out of bounds. Spock projected a thought in Jim's mind--not a demand, but a suggestion. Lean closer to me.

There was a moment of stillness, and then Jim was nearer, having vacated his seat. One arm braced against the bed. Spock reached up and curled his hand around the nape of Jim's neck, leaving his other hand braced against Jim's cheek. He pulled the captain down until their lips just barely grazed.

"Was that my thought or yours?" Spock asked. He needed to make this point absolutely clear. "My decision or yours?"

The slow light of comprehension was starting to burn in Jim's mind, along with a slight wariness, a flicker of distrust about the veracity of his own thoughts. And, because he had a tactical mind, he immediately started to think of defenses, protections, shields, feints--and, seconds later, shattered the fledgling ideas into pieces, because, if this was a gentle demonstration, how the hell am I to hold up against a full assault?

The conclusion Jim made was logical. He could not.

Spock drove the point in. "You cannot take an advantage that you do not have," he whispered. After a minute, he murmured, "Captain."

"Oh," Jim breathed. His pupils were wide, surrounded by thin strips of blue. His tongue darted out, flattening over his bottom lip. "Okay."

"Are you-" McCoy started in, suddenly appearing. He got a good look at them. "Er, right." He took off to the left determinedly, as if that was what he intended to do all along. Red dusted high across his cheekbones as he disappeared deeper into the sickbay.

Jim pulled away from Spock's grip and shook his head lightly, as if fighting off the haze. For a moment, Spock genuinely regretted his actions. A psi null being like Jim was not used to a telepathic touch, even if he was receptive. But any thought of reparations or apologies disappeared when Jim looked up, his gaze probing and his eyes heated.

Jim jabbed a finger in his direction. "Not fair," he muttered. His slouch straightened suddenly, and when he spoke again, it was with a commanding edge. "Shore leave. You, me. Talking with real words. Got it?"

Spock inclined his head. "That is acceptable."

"Good," Jim said. After a moment, he leaned his hip into the biobed and touched the back of Spock's hand with two of his fingers, dragging them slowly and gently down to the very tips of Spock's fingers, smirking slightly as sparks of sensation zipped up and down Spock's arm.

"Shore leave, Mr. Spock," he reminded softly with one last pass of his fingers. He lowered his voice teasingly. "Betcha I can find some cons to being a touch telepath. For you, at least." With the touch came lust lust lust your ass is grass sneaky snarky pretty Vulcan, and then a flood of lewd and devastatingly detailed sexual images.

With nothing but a jaunty wave, Jim left him in the sickbay, whistling as Spock scrambled to regain his control, lest the doctor come in at an even more inopportune moment. Doctor McCoy knew too much without watching Spock's physiology making a harmless, but humiliating attempt to make a fool of him.

When his control was his own again, Spock was reminded of why one did not, as Mr. Scott was fond of putting it, challenge the captain to 'pissing contests'. Spock assumed the phrase had something to do with the competitive nature of the Human male. Spock was pleased, as he too had a competitive nature. His compatibility with the captain was, as he previously surmised, very high.

Pursuing the captain was simply the logical thing to do.

"Spock."

Reality reasserted itself all at once, like blocks falling into place. Tensing, Spock slipped out of the memory. No one was there--only empty room and a recording. Jim was not gone. Jim was not in another part of the ship. Jim was dead.

Spock let out a low, heavy breath. How much time had passed? Twenty-two point seven two seconds, or twenty-one point seven seven? How long had he been lost in his own mind?

His submission to memory was the closest thing to meditation he had achieved since Nero murdered his mother.

Spock closed his eyes, fighting for control of his emotions. He would not do it again. The crash back into grief, the sense of reality centering, the knowledge of what had happened--it was too much.

He could not take it.

The recording was still playing back. "Note to self: gotta talk to Spock. He was..." Whatever Jim was about to say was left a mystery, as he abruptly stopped talking again. The log recorded a faint noise in the background--Spock himself. He recognized his own voice, but just barely. It was softer, extenuated with almost Human inflection. Jim's response was immediate. "Come in. Oh, shit. Pause, damn you."

Still somewhat disorientated, Spock listened for a while longer, but nothing else came through. That was the last of the log, the last of all logs.

Spock opened his eyes and stared at the floor, fingers digging into his palms. The memory resurfaced in pieces, gently taunting. It promised what it had promised in its commencement: more. He could sink into it, pretend as he relived sly looks on the bridge, fleeting conversations over meals and chessboards, that one moment of lost control... he could pretend it was all still happening.

He could pretend Jim was still alive.

There would be no more. And he… he could not.

"Computer," he ordered. "Play the captain's last log again."

Jim's voice was cheery. "Captain's personal log, stardate..."

Spock closed his eyes. This was all that was left.

Jim.

And then...

Good bye.

 

*****

 

Somewhere in the sickbay, there was a black bag sitting on an operating table, unopened and untouched.

It weighed on Leonard McCoy's mind like an anchor. Every time he turned around, black bag. Every time he stopped to pick something up, black bag. Every time he closed his eyes, black bag.

Even in the supposed sanctuary of his office, there it was: a nightmarish goddamn black bag, stalking his every move!

Leonard slammed a cabinet shut, hauling himself to his feet. His eyes darted around the desktop, the useless PADDs, but--nothing. What he was looking for, it wasn't there. It wasn't anywhere. He spewed a few curses that went without response, but anger was a thing best shared.

He stormed into the sickbay.

"Where's my goddamn tricorder?" he demanded. Was it too much to ask around here for a little organization? A little common sense? He turned a dark eye on his nurses--guilty culprits, all of them. "Did you move it?"

"N-no," one of them stuttered. He didn't look to see who, already busy shuffling through the contents of drawers.

"Then where the hell is it?" He slammed the drawer closed. "This is a sickbay, not a pig's pen!" He spun on his heel, glaring at them. "Well?"

His nurses had already rapidly dispersed, fleeing his wrath by hiding out in various corners of the sickbay. Cowards.

Leonard turned sharply, but stopped. There was a nurse in his way, a gray eyed, thin lipped woman who met him glare for glare. The nurse was Christine Chapel, the real dragon of the sickbay. Under her pale gaze, he felt vaguely like he'd sampled a peach pie hours before his gran said it was alright, but that didn't matter much, because he was still short one goddamn tricorder.

"Are you just going to stand there, looking pretty, or are you going to do your goddamn job?" he spat.

"My job, Doctor McCoy," she started caustically, "is not to fetch your things. It's to help run this sickbay." She tilted her pointed chin slightly up in the air, gesturing somewhere behind him. "By the way, it's where you left it. Which you would have known if you actually looked."

Leonard turned and looked--there it was. Right next to the tray of autopsy tools he'd been assembling for the last three hours.

Ever since they received that horrid black bag.

"Yeah, well…" Leonard paused and looked around the sickbay--really looked. The air was chilly and empty, ringing in the silence caused by his outbursts. Everyone avoided his gaze.

His ears burning with quiet shame, Leonard ducked his head slightly and turned away, his eyes darting around the empty biobeds. It was still technically shore leave, which meant most of the crew was on Risa II rather doing whatever fool things they did on the ship to land them in the sickbay.

There was one thing he had to do--a very important thing. He shuffled toward it reluctantly. He needed to look over that tray, the one he was avoiding looking at as much as he avoided looking at the black bag. He should do inventory to make sure he had all the tools he needed. Intending to do just that, he lifted his hands to the tray, and then stared at them blindly, his vision blurring.

His fingers were shaking. Instantly furious, he swung out a hand, knocking the tray off of the counter. Delicate silver instruments were instantly strewn across the floor, clicking across the surface with high pitched metal screams.

The sickbay went quiet again. No one dared to say anything.

No one, but Christine Chapel.

When his vision came back to him, he saw that the nurse was standing in front of him again. Her thin arms were folded over her chest. One untangled to jab unmistakably in the direction of the door.

"Out."

Leonard recoiled. "What? This is my sickbay, you can't just order me-"

Her eyes flashed dangerously. "Out."

There was a moment of tense silence where they glared fiercely at one another, but Leonard eventually backed down, throwing his hands up in the air.

"Fine!" he spat venomously, stalking out of the sickbay. "Women. Take my daughter, take my practice, why not my sickbay? Why the hell not!" He crossed the threshold angrily and just kept walking, every movement a violent gesture.

He stormed through the halls of the ship for a good hour after, scattering crewmen to the left and right as he fumed over his banishment. It satisfied him a bit, to see them jump, but he had no real destination in mind. He had--

He stopped mid-step, arrested by the aborted thought. He had no place to go.

Leonard leaned hard against the wall. Closing his eyes, he bitterly fought the thought that said if he turned one more corner, marched down one more corridor, he find him--he'd find his friend. And then Jim would turn, frown slightly at his pace before quipping, "What's with the hurry, Bones? Got a hot date?"

But it didn't matter. It didn't matter how many walls he passed or how many feet of floor he crossed. The man he was looking for would never be there, because he was currently in the sickbay, in a small black bag. And Leonard was supposed to do an autopsy on him. His best fucking friend.

His dead best friend. Letting out a harsh, heavy breath between gritted teeth, Leonard swung a clenched hand against the wall. Through gritted teeth, he hissed something meant to be a curse, but sounded like a sob. He pressed his back against the bulkhead and sank to the floor.

He didn't move.

Leonard had been there for a while, knees bent, his hands in his hair, before he was finally addressed.

He looked up blearily as a bottle tapped against his arm, the motion sloshing clear liquid against glass. The owner was that kid prodigy from the bridge. The navigator? Leonard so rarely saw him free of his other half, Sulu, but the pilot was probably taking his frustrations out in the gym.

No one wanted to be opposite of an armed Sulu when he was in a temper. And he would be in a temper too. He was the poor bastard who had to 'escort' the bag to Leonard's sickbay.

Chekov's retreat was, to borrow a phrase, logical.

Leonard was nudged with the bottle again.

"It's wodka," the ensign said, stating the obvious. His voice was thick with something other than that damn Russian accent. He teetered on his feet slightly as he continued offering the bottle, and had to brace an arm against the wall above Leonard just to keep his balance.

Leonard took the bottle. "You're too young to be drinking, kid."

"And you," Chekov said, unsteadily settling on the floor next to him, "are too old for tantrums."

Leonard made a face. "No secrets, huh?"

"Not on starship."

Leonard stared down the long neck of the bottle, past the open top. Then, shrugging, he took a long swig of it because, hell. There were worse ways to mourn the death of your best friend.

 

*****

 

The only sound in the transporter room were the faint beeps and chirps from the console. Nyota Uhura wasn't the only one in the room--Montgomery Scott stood all of ten feet away from her, manning the console--but she didn't strike up a conversation. She felt too numb, too drained.

Her thoughts drifted often to her former boyfriend. She cared about Spock. She cared about him a whole hell of a lot.

The feeling wasn't the sum or whole of her, but she found herself coming back to her affection for him, time and time again, warmly in moments of friendship and achingly in shared pain. What happened to Kirk definitely qualified as pain.

After Nero, Spock'd vowed to make an attempt to be more Human. "It is illogical to feel sentimentality over genetics," he'd said gravely, his hands behind his back. "But my mother is gone to me. I am all I have left of her. Therefore, I must embrace myself, my Human half included."

It had been a doomed enterprise from the start. Spock was too Vulcan in his upbringing and mannerisms to appreciate some of the more subtle Humanisms. Case in point: while he seemed to get a handle on smiling (though it never something he did unconsciously), he was completely mystified by laughter.

He'd wandered around the ship for weeks, quoting articles and research on the positive social effects of laughter, the possible health benefits, and the evolutionary history behind it. While everyone could describe how it felt and what caused it, they couldn't explain it to his satisfaction, nor to the extent that he could replicate it properly.

His most successful imitation was a flat series of repetitious noises so horrible in its replication that it provoked all who heard it into immediate hysterics.

"It appears that I have inspired the social bonding usually invoked by laughter," he'd said once to her, his eyebrows drawn together. "However, I believe that I have made myself, as you say, 'the butt of the joke'."

Eavesdropping as usual, Kirk had shamelessly inserted himself in the conversation. "You know, Spock," he said, slinging a companionable arm around Spock's stiff shoulders. "Sometimes, it's fun to be the butt of the joke."

"That explains so much," Nyota responded, remembering some of Kirk's less infamous shenanigans committed during the Academy.

They ended up bickering for a while there, but lazily and without edge. Nyota didn't know where the other half of Kirk's focus was, but hers was on Spock's--on the soft peace she could faintly read in his eyes.

In the aftermath of Nero, she'd wondered once, idly, how a telepath handled having most of his mental links severed. The section on Vulcans in Xenobiology didn't cover that, or much at all beyond basic physiological functions. But she knew enough to know that telepathic connections were very important to those with the ability.

One day, it just occurred to her--he had made new links to compensate. That was why he never visited a Vulcan mind healer. He simply had no need.

A few days later, he confirmed her hypothesis, informing Nyota that one of the links he'd made was with her. It was specifically the type of link that sprung to existence between family members. He'd offered to break it, wary of Human revulsion to an unnatural mental touch, but that was the last thing she wanted him to do, especially if it helped him. Nyota was honored that he could find comfort in her presence and also a little helpless over the fact that she couldn't do more for him, like hum some good will in his direction. He insisted the link alone was enough.

She'd liked the implication of it, because it meant Spock was healing. Whatever horrors he'd faced in his lifetime, big or small, Spock still had the capacity to care about other people. He'd made his own family on the Enterprise. That was why his too Human eyes were always warm to them, radiating some quiet, secret contentment under a veil of stoicism.

But now, things were different.

Now, that warmth was completely gone.

Whoever it was who was filling up that doorway, it wasn't Spock--or, at least, it wasn't a Spock she knew. The topical details were the same--full cap of dark hair, gently pointed ears, brown Human eyes--but everything else was… alien. Remote. Untouchable.

Nyota stuttered forward a step, reflexively reaching out to him. Her throat filled with a thousand useless sentiments, all crying out to be heard. But Spock passed by without so much as a glance or nod, immediately stepping up to the transporter pad. He pivoted sharply in place and waited for them, his silence thick in the air.

Scotty handed her a phaser. Their eyes met over the weapon, and his words came back to her. He'd told her to watch out, be wary. His fingers lingered for a moment against hers as they finished the tradeoff. She strapped the phaser to her side, sent one last look back at Scotty, and then reluctantly stepped up to the pad.

If emotions had a physical presence, then the air around Spock wasn't just cold--it was a lifeless vacuum, all of the darkness and death of space packed into one tight area. She tried not shiver. For the first time in all their acquaintance, she felt a little afraid of Spock.

Two security officers came in just then, fresh from a meeting with the Chief of Security. They were grim-faced and already armed, but they checked at their waists anyway--standard protocol. Nyota calculated that she had about thirty seconds to talk to Spock.

Nyota bit her lip. Spock shouldn't be on this mission. Whether or not he wanted to admit to it, Spock was emotionally compromised--probably as much as he was after the destruction of Vulcan. She didn't see the signs then, but she saw them now.

Maybe if she posed to him a logical argument, he wouldn't go. But, for that to work, she had to be delicate about it. Spock's knee-jerk response to opposition was to maroon someone on a planet, and they--meaning Kirk--had eventually wrangled out the story behind that decision. Spock had this weird thing about opposition equaling the thought 'they think my logic is weak'.

"Spock, your logic is awesome," Kirk had complained over a pile of decimated tortilla chips. "It's your plans that suck."

Which was absolutely true, even now. But Kirk could get away with saying things like that. Spock allowed Kirk many liberties he did not allow Nyota even when they were dating. She supposed it was because of the dynamics of their relationship--their heated and tense beginnings, the shared command position, the way they pushed and prodded at each other.

Now that he was gone…

Jim, she thought suddenly, her eyes prickling with heat.

Nyota was distracted from the resurgence of grief when the security officers stepped up to the transporter and moved into place. She had no time left.

Turning to Spock slightly, Nyota licked her lips. "Spock, maybe-"

"Energize," Spock ordered flatly.

Wisps of white danced in her vision and a slight tingle vibrated along the surface of her skin. Nyota closed her eyes reflexively, wincing. The away missions she joined were few and far between. She wasn't used to the transporter.

By the time she gathered her bearings, they were already on the surface of Risa II and Spock was already walking along the path, the security officers several steps behind him. She followed them quickly, making the choice to look away from Spock's painfully sharp posture to look around, something in her hurting at the sight of everything.

A day and a half ago, the city looked different. It looked welcoming and energetic. It looked exciting. Now, it was tainted with blood.

A metal arch beckoned to them brightly, a welcoming greeting scrawling across it in all the Federation's languages, and then some. Beyond it, dark green spires stabbed at the sky, highlighted here and there in vibrant light.

Nyota remembered bits and pieces of the welcome tour. Most of her memories involved rolling her eyes at Kirk, but she remembered some of the governor's lecture, and much more of Spock's quiet analysis. Her eyes focused on the buildings, caught by the irregular gleam of color she could see from even here, at the end of the city.

The skyscrapers in the city's square were practical in the sense that they housed hotels, businesses, and apartments while also collecting energy, but those plasma lifts were just flashy. Slower than the Enterprise's turbo lift, the platform moved by way of mechanical engineering more akin to ancient clocks than anything recent. Several insulating layers and about a thousand safety regulated features kept the gas trapped inside of the tube and away from people.

They were more fun to watch than ride. And, for additional entertainment, a bored person could manage the lift's controls and arrange for a different combination of gases. Various reactions would then turn the light streams into a different color.

Kirk'd loved the lifts--no surprise there. They were flashy, and Jim was into flashy things.

Past tense, Nyota reminded herself. She blinked rapidly. Thinking about Kirk--James T "Pain In My Ass" Kirk--being dead was just... too much.

"Commander Spock!"

Nyota dragged her eyes away from the background, narrowing her eyes at the hurrying form of the slightly overweight governor. There was a considerable hunch to the man's spine that was accentuated, rather than hidden, by his long, sweeping gray robes. The high, circular collar only heightened the roundness of his face.

"Governor Lumiere," Spock acknowledged. His tone was cold. "His things."

The governor's name was Alexis Lumiere.

His background was the clichéd 'rags to riches' story. He'd been born as the seventh son of a copper miner on a distant Federation colony. He and a few of his brightest friends got together by the end of his twentieth year and vowed to create a place of such wealth and prosperity that they would never want for anything ever again. Thus, Risa II was born.

Not nearly as affluent or beautiful as Risa I, the planet was nevertheless a favorite place for Starfleet--once for its dilithium deposits, now for tourism. The planet's surface was mostly uninhabitable due to extreme weather. There were pockets of mining communities dotting the landscape, braving the storms and droughts, but the largest collection of people was in the planet's one city: Uruk, the capital. Unsurprisingly, this was where most people took their leave.

It had all the draws of most large cities--shopping, gambling, alcohol, and various other pursuits, both intellectual and decidedly not. It boasted a small, up and coming college that was already getting rewards and notice for the work of its geology and botany departments, and its single but large museum was one of few museums in the Federation to collect non-Federation artwork. The escorts and companions a lonely crewman (or woman) could buy were singularly gorgeous, but refined, lacking the strained desperation that haunted some in their position.

And that was just all the things a person could see or do on the surface of Uruk. Underneath the city's streets was a massive underground of artisans, merchants, and businesses. The more credits a person had to his or her name, the farther they could go down. She'd heard rumors of what could be found and bought in the lower levels--enough precious jewels to make a queen weep, small ships for pleasure and profit, and androids worth ten times more than what she made in Starfleet in ten years.

That was the inside. From the outside, Uruk looked like something out of a fantasy. Green buildings shot up towards the skyline proudly, walling in the straight paths that made up the streets. Old fashioned streetlamps lined them, mostly for show, as Uruk was quite well lit up by both the lights coming from inside of the buildings and from the various flashy technologies all around--the light strips dividing the roads, the colorful lifts, the huge display screens that hung off every side of Central Towers.

It was a beautiful city.

Nyota couldn't have hated it any more if she tried.

Lumiere stopped just in front of them, his expression teeming with distress as brown eyes darted from member to member of the away party. When his eyes met hers, she steeled her expression. Of course he showed worry now. Three days ago, he'd been loftily boasting about the safety and efficiency of his city, demanding praises in one breath and insulting them in another. Now, he had to answer for the death of their captain.

Spock repeated his demand. Lumiere's tentative smile fell.

"Ah, yes." Lumiere looked behind him and gestured meaningfully.

Lumiere did not come alone, she saw. Behind him was the long, thin frame of Nico Levin, Lumiere's top science advisor. He had a PhD in engineering, if she remembered correctly, and his specialty was in robots. He'd been there three days ago too, she was sure, but she didn't remember much of him. He was an older man, likely around Admiral Pike's age, and he had a perpetually placid expression on his face, brown eyes distant, like he was thinking on something he left on in the lab.

Jim had engaged him on and off the first day, shrugging off his vague attitude as simple shyness.

Levin inclined his head slightly at the governor's awkward motions, accepting the order. He turned around smoothly and walked away. He might as well have been a Vulcan, for all the emotion he showed. Nyota bitterly wondered how Jim's judgment of the man would change if he saw how little the scientist cared about his death.

Lumiere was worthless, but at least he seemed to feel.

Spock's clasped hands suddenly spasmed in the corner of her eye. She jerked her attention away from the disappearing form of the doctor and back to the conversation happening in front of her.

"…we must settle this," Lumiere was saying, nodding to himself.

Spock's hands gripped each other tightly. His tone did not alter. "It will be settled." It sounded like a threat and a promise.

The two security officers exchanged a look behind Spock's back, and then directed a glance back at her. Nyota wondered if the Chief of Security warned the two that the one they ended up stunning might be their own commander. Kirk and Spock were practically one entity to those who didn't know them well.

They were like two poker cards leaning against each other; it was not too farfetched to assume that, upon removing one card, the other card would fall. Physics demanded it.

The doctor came back soon enough, his arms cradling a bundle of items. He thoughtlessly removed the string that tied them together. A tag stamped with the mark of the city's security forces danced along the thread, pulled low by gravity and then high by Levin, who pocketed it.

Nearly black eyes flickered back to Nyota. "Lieutenant," Spock beckoned quietly.

Nodding, Nyota stepped forward, getting close enough to her ex-boyfriend to see that his hands were not only gripping each other hard, but also shaking minutely. She desperately wanted to hug him, but focused on her task instead. It was with utmost care that she took Jim's things--an extra pair of clothes, a communicator, a phaser, and a rare paper book.

Now that the goods were exchanged, Lumiere looked slightly hopeful. "Mr. Spock-" he started to say.

Spock already had his communicator flipped open. "Energize."

Chapter Text

Part 2

 

It was raining.

Rain was weird. Wasteful, yet plentiful, it rolled anywhere and everywhere, dampening some things, destroying other things, and drowning still others. He thought about the rain because he didn't want to think about that other thing--that thing happening just below him. Because as much as it bothered him, as much as he wanted to stop it, he had no right.

His designation was NL2036, and he was an object. More specifically, he was a replicant, a special class of androids made to serve their Human population. He rather thought he was… new. He ached of newness and his mind, what little hardware he had that made up one, plugged away sluggishly, like it was on its first legs.

Trying to ignore the noises below him, he looked up and frowned at the gray sky, his eyes gliding along the rivets that bisected it. He was confused. He was often confused, he thought, because his mind--"…run by processors that encode rules, regulations, and procedures..."--was full of a million questions and no answers.

After a moment, NL2036 found his own answer, a small answer to an insignificant question.

The water was not rain. It was a leak. Metal's blood was smeared across the ceiling that made up the sky, red fingers painting an arrow towards one point, saying, "Here's the leak, here it is!" It was not subtle.

There were wet sounds below him. It too was not rain. It too was not subtle.

NL2036 dropped his eyes, his fingers fluttering nervously over the thin bar of the top railing. He looked down at the area below as his ears rang with ghost voices.

"…obey the programming. Initial phase, completed."

"If you would, Doctor…"

"Start second phase. Title: Purpose and Duties…"

Below him was a false garden. Trees arched gently in the background and grass littered the floor sparsely. Flowers bloomed with almost obscene glee, heads turned to watch the spectacle taking place before them.

NL2036's hands tightened on the railing.

"…you live to serve. Your first and last thought is how you may better serve your master. Your creator is…"

A woman wept; she was the source of the noise down below. Covering her head with her arm, the woman was huddling in on herself in the dirt. One leg was nearly thrown over a weak clump of grass, and her loose gray pants were riding up enough so that a long stretch of calf muscle was exposed to the fake light.

Her skin and the plant were the same color.

"You are an object. Property of the Creator and any he deems correct…"

There were men standing over her, clad in perforated armor--three of them. They are silent, rigid, and fearsome, armed with long staffs. The staffs ended in three prongs.

"Your designation is n-l-two-zero-three-six. You have no name."

Between the prongs, blue sparks danced idly from metal piece to metal piece.

"You are of the Replicant Class, the servant class. You will not question your Creator."

One of the men was hitting her with the staff, each blow causing the prongs to fold flatly against each other. The blue burned angry marks into her skin. The noise below only consisted of her screams and that deadened noise of metal striking flesh. The men were absolutely silent.

NL2036 was shaking.

Finally, after so many hits, the woman curled in on herself and went quiet. The mud moved around her body like a thick wave.

They still did not stop.

NL2036's breathing was harsh in his ears.

He did not have the right to make them stop. But… but he wished.

He wished he did.

"You will report all glitches. A glitch will result in either a Reprogramming, a Deprogramming, or a Termination."

Ghost words. His processors were haunted by them. He shook his head slightly, trying to shift his focus away from the distracting noise, because he couldn't bring himself to look away from that woman and what was going on below.

For a replicant, a mere computer given Human form, the Deprogramming is an alarmingly physical progress. What was her glitch, to have earned this violence?

Beneath him, the men kept hitting her. The band around her chest broke at the same time as the skin on her arm split open. A hand rose over the break, protectively, clamping down as if to steam the leak. The liquid seeped through her fingers. She was still conscious?

There was a sour taste on the back of his tongue. He nearly choked on the air, watching. Just watching, so far above them.

He cannot quantify the stress that overtook him, but if he were Human, perhaps he'd call it fear. Horror. Rage. Helplessness.

What was her glitch? What was her Programming's failing?

He suddenly was dizzy. Pain pulsed behind his eyebrows. His eyes watered. He stumbled back from the railing, his hands spasming open. His fingers ached, his heart hurt, his-

A hand touched his arm--warm, Human. He turned obligingly, reflexively, inclining his head slightly. The seemingly physiological reactions are shoved down to make way for… Programming.

The Programming was absolute.

"May I help you?" NL2036 inquired, and very nearly recoiled at the sound of his own voice. His voice was hoarse with the screams he never made.

The Human in front of him looked as all Humans do--bipedal, mostly symmetrical. And yet, NL2036 recognized the differences--as subtle and unimportant as they were. His Programming insisted on his discrimination, as the man who faced him now was his Creator, the Doctor. NL2036 needed to recognize him.

He lived to serve.

The Doctor was smaller than him in height, a pale being with brown and gray hair. Lines trailed around a thin, downward mouth under dark eyes. He wore long, draping robes, as all Humans did. They were of a deep gray, darker than the sky, and they scraped softly against the ground.

In a moment of self-consciousness, NL2036 looked down at himself, comparing what he saw to the Doctor. He too wore gray clothes, but much less of them. His clothes consisted only of pants, and even that was for Human modesty, not his own.

He was an object. Objects had no modesty to protect.

"What confuses you, my boy?" the Doctor asked softly.

NL2036 looked up and away from the form that composes his physical being, which was merely a vessel for his Programming and processors. The Doctor's question was a request for information, but his mind snapped to like it is an order.

His tongue was thick in his mouth, but he tried to answer. "The sky is gray." He tried to maintain a flat rhythm to his response, because anything else would betray emotion. His throat hurt.

The Doctor's eyes darted up to the sky. He smiled faintly. "Sometimes it is. But that's not the sky." The Doctor leaned against the railing and stared down at the false garden.

NL2036 looked down too. It was still hard for him to breath. His hands fisted at his sides. The false garden is not far, he thought impulsively. He felt like he could jump the distance. He felt like he should.

He could… save her.

He did not. His Creator was present. His feet were glued to the floor until his Creator gave him an order. His first and last thoughts were of how to fulfill this man's will--or, at least, they should be. Though his thoughts may wonder far and wide, his body knew the Programming and stayed put.

The ghost words, his Programming, whispered to him. "Obey your Creator, and your Creator only, NL2036."

But the woman...! How could he ignore that?

There was an internal noise, like an aborted word, and it rumbled in his chest. His eyes burned.

The Doctor shot him a sidelong look and then leaned harder on the railing. He rattled out a series of nonsense--letters and numbers with no meaning.

But the men stopped. They finally stopped.

NL2036 exhaled deeply, dropping back on his heels. His eyes burned even more and his chest ached, but the Human horror lessened. He eagerly watched the men as they walk away, staffs in hand. Other men came in, and a woman too. They were dressed in similar robes as the Doctor. They picked up the wounded woman--replicant--and carried her off.

"Tell me about the sky," the Doctor said suddenly, his words an unmistakable order.

The burning disappeared as he looked up. "The sky, it's supposed to be…" He frowned. Words escaped his processors.

"Supposed to be, what?" the Doctor prompted.

"Blue. Green. Orange. Pink." He closed his eyes and these colors blaze in his vision. "Black with points of brilliant light."

"Sometimes it is," the Doctor agreed, but there was a hardness to his voice now. NL2036 opened his eyes to look at his Creator, watching as the Human gestured to another man. "Is there anything else that's… supposed to be?"

It was a heavy question, and NL2036 stayed silent until the other man returned with a box. When the box was opened, a line of familiar tubs littered the inside, inciting a primal response in him. His body quaked with a Human kind of fear. An instinctive fear.

But his Creator asked him a question, so he looked away from the box, staring into those brown eyes.

"I'm…" His Programming screamed at him. Do not answer, it said. He was an object. He knew not the past, the present, or the future, let alone what was 'supposed to be'. And, yet…

There were things he knew--things outside the Programming.

"I'm not supposed to be here. They need me."

People weren't supposed to be tortured like that.

People were supposed to be protected. He was supposed to protect them, right?

"The people you serve?" the Doctor prompted delicately.

Bewildered, NL2036 shook his head.

"No, my…" The physical distress exploded out of him suddenly, using his mouth as an outlet. He swung an arm out, jabbing a finger at the fake garden. "What the hell do you think you're doing? You were hurting her!"

There was a shift in the air behind him. He reacted instinctively, thrusting an elbow into the soft belly of a Human. Another darted forward and grabbed his arm, but the man was on the floor a second later. NL2036 drove a foot into the chest of yet another, ducking under grabbing palms and hard fingers as he tried to situate himself so his back faced a wall.

The Doctor lingered in the background in front of him, watching with a disappointed expression. The Programming quailed under that look.

But NL2036 didn't care. It was like a revelation. There was a roaring sound in his ears and his hands ached and he was angry. Oh, he was so angry… but he was happy too. Fiercely, desperately gleeful, and that winded in and out of the fury, because how dare they take him from his-

There was a pinch of pain in his neck. He jerked back, but it was too late. His vision blurred and the floor beneath him warped like a nightmare. He collapsed to his knees, guided there gently by a pair of Human hands.

The Doctor.

The Human patted his bare back gently, sympathy pinching lines between his eyebrows. He whispered calming words as the other men backed off.

A fog descended on his thoughts, and it devoured. NL2036 struggled to think, to say something, but it was so hard suddenly.

"Computers don't bleed," NL2036 told his Creator finally. He shoved his hands in front of the Doctor's face. They were cracked and oozing fluid. He was bleeding, just like that woman on the floor. "They don't."

The Doctor gently took his hands in one of his own, murmuring in concern. "My boy, that's not blood." With careful gentleness, as if not to jar the injuries, he set the hands aside and reached out. Fingers curled around the back of NL2036's neck, and two digits of another hand pressed over his left eyebrow.

All his fear and distress and anger suddenly--shut off.

His Creator was kneeling before him. "What day is it?" he murmured.

NL2036 blinked and the Programming answered. "Day One."

Curious suddenly, NL2036 looked around. He was on the floor, and there were Humans other than the Doctor all around him. Their eyes flashed with hostility. He was confused, but he inclined his head to them.

He was an object. To have such an emotion directed at him meant his Programming was somehow faulty. He tried to think back on himself, trying to remember a glitch, but there was nothing there to remember.

As it should be. He was nothing, after all.

"Good," his Creator murmured, his hands dropping away--when had he gotten so close? The Doctor turned to the other Humans. "He will require another round of Programming. Ready the machine." The Doctor turned back, his downward mouth twitching into a small smile.

Bemused at the warm affection directed at him, NL2036 decided to catalogue his Creator's appearance, as his Programming demanded of him. He looked as all Humans did, but there were small features that set him apart. There was gray in his brown hair and his skin was pale, lined in places. His eyes were dark. He wore gray robes, as all Humans did.

Just then, the Doctor spoke. "Tell me, my boy. Is there anything out of place? Anything that shouldn't be?"

The question made no sense. What is, is. He struggled to answer anyway.

"Everything is as it should be," he said. He nearly flinched at his voice--was that what he sounded like? He dismissed the thought and rubbed his throat. "I live to serve."

"Good. Good."

"You live to serve. You are an object. You must obey."

NL2036 frowned. There were noises in his head disconnected with all external stimuli. Ghost voices, he thought suddenly. He shook his head, dismissing that. No, it was his Programming, looping in his processors.

He must obey his Programming, and he who programmed him.

So when his Creator gestures for him to sit in something that looks more like the maw of some hungry beast than an actual chair, NL2036 immediately complied, his hands tightening reflexively on arm rests as hard metal clamped around his head. He was silent even when the entire thing folded in on itself, trapping him in a shadowed oblivion.

He lived to serve.

 

*****

 

Time passed.

There was darkness, then there was light.

He saw without seeing, because it was still dark. But there was some stretch of gleaming pale color in his mind. It was gorgeous, powerful. Its image took shape, but just barely. He reached out to it. He wanted it.

It was his.

He blinked, and suddenly there was light on the outside too. The gleaming white shape was gone.

Two fingers pressed into his forehead. There was a grip on the back of his neck. Images demanded his attention. Voices fought for his focus. Needles broke his skin.

He registered more than light--there, sight. His Creator was leaning over him. Then sound--a query?

It was Day One. The Doctor said so. He repeated it dutifully, accepting it as the truth.

The Doctor exuberantly proclaimed that the Programming was complete. This conclusion was met with some skepticism from his assistant, a thin Human with hard gray eyes.

He stared at her. She was the Doctor's height, a tiny doll of a being with soft cheeks and straight brown hair. She rolled a hyponeedle in her hand slowly, her gaze unwavering on his. The sharp point of the end gleamed sickly, jutting out to the side. He had to look away, so he watched the Doctor continue to fumble through the straps that tied him to...

He looked up. A machine? He brought his chin back down to his chest, wary and frowning.

He did not... trust his Creator. The man murmured in a soft voice, but the new needle in the his skin was an act of violence. As if things couldn't get more confusing, his vision grayed out and his mind grew dull.

That large white space of importance that he was trying to grasp dulled to a murky silver before fading away entirely.

I'm not supposed to be here, he thought, but the fog took that away too.

All that was left to touch was... Programming. He touched it.

The Programming was knowledge. By touching it, he knew several things right away--three things specifically.

He was an object. His designation was NL2036. He lived to serve.

NL2036 found no issue with these truths--everything was how it should be. But his processors continued to run a loop of self-doubt.

He disliked his designation. His purpose disturbed him. His Creator annoyed him.

His processors told him that he did not like the Doctor. It told him that he had been betrayed. It told him that he was angry.

But these things contradicted so distressingly with his Programming that the replicant squashed them under his other thoughts. Annoyance, trepidation, doubt--all of these things interfered with his ability to serve.

The Doctor moved him to Deck 4, saying NL2036 was an aesthetically pleasing replicant, a testament to the Human whose features he wore. NL2036 was wary of accepting this as a truth. He did not know what he looked like, but Humans did seem to gaze at him appreciatively. Eyes followed his movements. Mouth parted when he entered the room. Talking ceased when the Doctor left him there alone.

The replicant gazed around the room, noting the colorful fabric draped over hard walls, the many vibrant pillows and couches set along the floor, and, of course, the Humans. He'd assumed that they only came in one mode of dress, like the robes the Doctor and the assistant favored, but it appeared that there were as many types of clothes as there were colors in the sky.

"Blue. Green. Orange. Pink. Black with points of brilliant light."

NL2036 frowned. That memory... that was his voice. But when did he say that?

The query faded from his mind when he became aware of the meandering approach of a small group of Humans--females. They were much softer beings than the Doctor's assistant and a great deal less efficient. Their paths were not linear. They wasted time chattering amongst themselves, sneaking glances at him beneath lowered lashes.

He clasped his hands behind his back as his mind prompted him with an appropriate response--a thin eyebrow raised in question. This gesture, he imitated. His question was not what--he recognized desire almost immediately. His question was why.

NL2036 was inorganic, a replicant. But perhaps that was irrelevant. After all, he did look Human. He was tall, thin, and pale on the outside. Those were not attractive traits, right?

Pondering this mystery, he summoned up an image of an attractive archetype. The image spun to life in his mind surprisingly fast: a tall, thin, pale being, but not like him. There were other traits expressed in this archetype that he did not have: a tinge of green to the skin, dark hair, dark eyes, ears tapered off to a point.

NL2036 looked around the room expectantly, but the archetype did not exist.

How disappointing.

Whatever his thoughts on attractiveness, he was nevertheless surrounded in a moment by Humans. NL2036 was touched gently, hesitantly by a few of them. He raised his eyes to one particular female in the front, an older woman, and she blushed furiously. She pulled her hand back and tucked it against her chest.

"He just seems so... real," she murmured. She stared at his face in particular, but her eyes dropped down to his mouth as he looked back at her.

"Replicants are supposed to seem real," a younger one responded hotly, but she too had trouble keeping his gaze.

"You're really cute," a girl bubbled suddenly. Her dark eyes were fixated on his bare chest. When he turned to meet her gaze, her eyes jumped up to his and widened.

"Don't talk to him!" another spat, swatting her arm. "I mean, robots don't talk. Right?"

"He isn't a robot. He's a replicant," the second woman said haughtily. She lifted a hand hesitatingly in his direction, small fingers slightly curled. "I bet he's as cold as ice." Gentle pressure grazed across the skin of his left arm. The woman froze, and then turned away, something like a choked laugh erupting from her throat. "He's really, really... warm."

The other women laughed suddenly, the noise a nervous explosion. The older one, the bubbly one, and the hitting one, and the one who touched him all shared their mirth, nudging and teasing each other.

NL2036 started to smile. He--

He frowned. He lived to serve.

"Are you just going to stare or what? Some of us pay a load of credits just to get here!"

The women were shoved out of the way by an older man. They complained, but not loudly, for the Human that pushes through was taller. His shoulders are wide and his arms are thick.

NL2036 feels the desire to back away as well, but the mammoth's destination was him.

"You're a pretty one, aren't you?" Dark eyes glittered at him as a massive hand clamped around his wrist. NL2036 was dragged by that grip over to the corner of the room to a large sofa. Distantly, he was aware that he--and the Human--were once again the focus of everyone's attention.

He lived to serve.

The man sat down, pulling NL2036 into the gap between his knees. Callused fingers slid up the back of his arm, over his elbow, but the Human seemed content just to stare.

"You know, you look kinda familiar."

NL2036 ignored the observation. "How may I serve you?"

The man laughed. "Yup, a tin can through on through." He flattened a palm over NL2036's stomach, fingers tracing curiously over the designation written over his hip. "The outside is nice, though."

NL2036 felt... sick. Do not touch me, he thought. The protest was drowned under his Programming, but just barely.

Then the Human's hand shot up to his throat. Hard nails pressed into the back of his neck, a wide touch dragging him down to his knees. NL2036 obeyed the silent order, but he felt something a lot like trepidation and a little like fear. When fingers pushed against his mouth, he obeyed that order too, trying to ignore the twisting of his stomach.

He lived to serve.

The Human was pleased. He dragged NL2036 closer and jerked his chin up, forcing him to look into the man's eyes.

NL2036 froze. There was nothing in them but darkness and death and hatred, and that was... that was familiar, somehow. NL2036 had seen eyes like that before--on killers of fathers, butchers of mothers, murderers of families.

Jagged bits of hatred curled up in his chest. Rage busted in out of nowhere.

The twin emotions overrode his Programming.

He was swinging out before he could think. There was a floor beneath his feet again as he leapt up. There were teeth caving in under his fist. There was blood coating his fingers.

And he could not stop. Suddenly, fiercely glad, he swung again and again and again until black hot pain shattered in the back of his skull.

He hit the ground hard, barely aware of the panicked noises of other Humans.

When NL2036 woke up, he was woozy and strapped down to a table, his arms and legs held taunt. The Doctor was there, pacing at the head of it. His thick gray robes swished agitatedly at his ankles. The Human mumbled to himself--something about death, the fifth time, and alternatives.

NL2036 heard the swish of a door and turned his head, eyes seeking out the source of the rhythmic tapping of someone's shoes. It was the Doctor's cold eyed assistant, dressed smartly in long, pleated gray robes.

"He is violent." She shifted a square bit of metal and plastic--a PADD--from one arm to the other. "The customer is demanding to oversee his destruction."

The content of her words were important, but he could not look away from the thing she was carrying. A PADD. He knew what it was... how?

All of the Doctor's muttering anxiety leeched out of his voice. "The Programming is not complete," he said coolly. "It was a mistake to put him out on Deck 4 so quickly." His Creator moved somewhere out of his line of sight, and suddenly there was a hand on his head. Fingers brushed lightly through NL2036's hair, skating past the throbbing hurt. The Doctor's voice suddenly turned hard. "And the customer was out of bounds. Using a replicant in such a manner requires full consent of the Creator, and I. Did. Not. Consent."

The assistant raised herself to her full height. "The governor-"

"Alexis knows better than to interfere with me," the Doctor murmured, his voice low. The hand in NL2036's hair tightened. It hurt. "Remove the customer from Deck 4, and remind him to read the fine print of his agreement. Deck 4 is not a common brothel."

An unmistakable note of command threaded in and around his words. NL2036 found himself briefly pushing against his restraints in a illogical attempt to fulfill an order not meant for him. Once he consciously recognized his behavior, he relaxed back into the table.

It seemed like the assistant was no more immune that NL2036 was, for she dropped her head submissively. "Yes... yes sir."

The assistant glided out of the room, letting the doors swish shut behind her.

The Doctor let out a sigh that nearly filled the entire box-like room before moving down the side of the table, away from NL2036. He paused by one of the long counters by the wall, reaching for a display screen that showed a Human form. At his touch, the image disappeared.

NL2036 tried to suppress it, he really did. He fought and held his breath and tried to remain silent, but there were just some things he couldn't control.

NL2036 let out a soft cough.

The Doctor whirled around, surprised by the noise. NL2036 winced and turned his face away, coughing a little more and clearing his throat, because one cough wasn't a relief so much as it was a widening hole in a dam.

He expected some kind of censoring response from the Doctor, but the Doctor just made a concerned noise, lifting a cup of pungent orange solution to NL2036's mouth. The warm, gritty liquid soothed his throat all the way down.

He drank as fast as any restrained being could and, in a minute, the liquid was gone. The Doctor turned back to the counter, setting down the beaker next to the dead display screen. With his other hand, he readied some needles.

Needles. NL2036 hated needles. But worse than that, he hated the silence.

"Deck 4," he croaked, lifting his head from the table. "The Human."

The Doctor turned around again, but slowly. His eyebrows tightened together in an unmistakable gesture of displeasure as he moved back over to NL2036's side, needle in hand. But when their eyes met, the Doctor's sharp gaze softened.

"Life has not been kind to you, my boy. To react like that... so instinctively." He cupped the replicant's cheek with his free hand. "It is not my intention to make your life more difficult."

NL2036 was confused. Life, instinct--were those not Human traits?

A needle dipped beneath his skin. He sucked in a pained breath, immediately dizzy.

Two fingers prodded at the skin over his left eyebrow. "It's Day One, my boy," the Doctor said with firm authority. A hand was curled around the back of his neck. "Day One."

The replicant knew nothing.

There was the Programming. In the Programming were certain truths he was immediately aware of: his designation was NL2036. He was an object, a replicant. His creator was the Doctor. He lived to serve. But, beyond that, he knew nothing.

He was nothing.

"Day One," NL2036 slurred through a slack mouth.

"Good," the Doctor murmured, picking up another needle. "Good."

Black swept over his vision.

 

*****

 

NL2036 woke up in a room--his room. It was a box-like place with brittle opaque walls and red floors. Bedding was set aside along the floor of one wall, and also another. The replicant stared at the extra sheets. He felt like he should have his own room, but that implied possession. Objects did not possess.

It was Day One.

He was confused, disorientated, and slightly nauseous, but much of that could be ignored. The fact that it was Day One bothered him the most.

The concept Day One implied the start, the beginning, the origin. But he had a hard time comprehending this—it was as if he had been and always shall be. He could not understand Origin or Termination. He only got the concept abstractly, but time stretched infinitely in either direction for him, and he was frustrated by this.

He had an Origin. He had a Termination. He didn't know either of them, and the thought that the Doctor may know more of him... grated at him.

But there was an anomaly in the room--another replicant. He did not remember sharing a room with another, but kaiidth. What is, is.

The other replicant stared at him from the farthest corner of the room, thin arms hooked loosely over a chest. The identification of the replicant blazed out across a sharp hip bone: h-c-one-nine-five-nine.

NL2036 glanced down at his own hip. It was his 'name', his designation. And, yet, the Doctor never referred to him by it.

NL2036 frowned. He'd had that thought before. Right?

"HC1959," he said, testing out the designation. The other replicant looked down, as if needing the reminder.

"Yes," HC1959 murmured, voice softer and more hesitant than his.

There was an uncomfortable pause. HC1959 continued to frown.

"It is Day One," NL2036 said, because he had no idea what else to say.

The other replicant's frown, if anything, seemed to deepen. "Yes... it is. I think."

The strange response echoed in NL2036's head. I think, he says. Objects do not think, he thought.

NL2036 shivered--text flashed before his eyes: Cogito ergo sum. His processors ran with the suggestion. I think, therefore I am. Proof of existence in the fact of self-introspection. If I can question the reality of my existence, I must be real, for no unreal thing can question if it is unreal.

Frowning, NL2036 reached up to rub his throat and coughed.

 

*****

 

Time passed as it always did. NL2036 had trouble marking it.

After all, a replicant was only as good as his processor.

His processor. NL2036 had no idea what it looked like, but he knew it was the mechanism with which he thought. Despite never seeing it, he recognized its frailty.

It was a limited thing. It delegated focus and energy to certain tasks. It pulled up the procedures and protocols that made up his 'memory', allowing him to act appropriately in the right situations. It directed the motion of his body in ways most reminiscent of mankind.

So much energy and computational power was spent maintaining the illusion that replicants were Humans in every way. They slept in similar cycles, required similar nutritional intakes, and communicated in similar methods. They even passed waste in a comparable manner.

Replicants were Humans in every sense but the most important: they were not people. They were objects.

NL2036 knew this because it was engraved in his mind. He was created to serve. He was created to be enjoyed. He was created to spend every second of his processing power imitating a Human.

And yet, his mind wandered from his purpose--a waste of his processing power, but he allowed it. He thought.

Cogito ergo sum.

I am nothing, therefore I can do nothing.

They were opposite statements. The second was a minor law assumed by the Programming. It meant that, as an object, he could not do anything out of his own volition. What he did was done because it was a response to orders. He had no free will.

The first statement was different. It was a glitch, probably, but he clung to it. There was a rhythm to it that appealed to him, like the music on Deck 3.

But NL2036 had never been to Deck 3. At least, no time that he could remember.

Disturbed by his own thoughts, NL2036 decided to observe the other replicant--HC1959--in his room. Hours had passed since his awakening, and they had just finished their 'meal' of white, cold matter, and warm, green matter. HC1959 was lying on his bedding on his side, head propped up on his hand as he stared blankly at the farthest wall of the room.

NL2036 thought about comparing them--they were different. That was no surprise. Replicants were based on the specific visage of a specific Human, so they were not unique, but no two replicants looked alike.

The other replicant is not a woman. He had brown eyes and brown hair, like the Doctor, but the replicant's hair lacked the silver streaks at the temples. His limbs were long and gawky, like the Human he was based on wasn't fully grown.

The replicant looked down at himself, frowning at the slight tinge of pink to his arms. He too was not a woman--though he felt he already knew this. His body was longer, harder. His torso and arms were more filled out, but he was slightly paler. He flipped his palms over--they were hard, callused. Bigger than HC1959's thin hands.

Tightening his fingers into fists, NL2036 looked up. His limited bank of knowledge told him that physical growth indicated age. More age meant adulthood. Less age meant childhood. Adults were women and men. Children were boys and girls. Neither replicant in the room was female. The conclusion he came to was logical.

"I am a man," he said, breaking the silence. "You are a boy."

Wordlessly, the other replicant--the boy--looked over at him. Then he nodded.

NL2036--the man--echoed the gesture, and then stared down at his hands again. His knuckles were huge, purple, and broken in places. He flexed his hands, noting the resulting pangs of pain. Some part of him drifted--friendly bantering and bribing alcohol and affectionate torment flashed across his mind. But reality pulled back his attention again, and he was staring at his ruined, healing hands.

Friends. He knew what the word meant. It was a type of companionship formed between two or more Humans. The Doctor was friends with other doctors, but he was not friends with the assistant. NL2036 could not fathom the assistant being friends with anyone.

A thought assailed him--did one need to be organic to have friends? He glanced up at his roommate. The other replicant waited, as he was, for the ordering chime of their 'sleep cycle'. He knew nothing about the boy beyond his outside appearance.

And yet the boy stared steadily back at him, huge eyes dark in a pale face. A motion caught NL2036's attention.

HC1959 had his other hand pressed against his stomach the entire time, but now he dropped his head back to his bedding, crossing both arms over his lower torso as he grimaced at the air.

NL2036 sat up. "Are you… well?"

The boy's lips parted as he glanced NL2036's way. Surprise passed over his face. "I… no." He swallowed. "I do not think so."

NL2036 got up on a knee. "Are you deficient?"

"No!" HC1959 snapped, looking harassed. His eyes darted back a moment later, almost apologetically. "I mean… it's nothing. It'll pass."

"I…" Hurriedly, NL2036 urged his processors to come up with an appropriate response. "I'm sorry."

"S'okay." The boy waved a dismissive hand. A moment passed, and then he said, "How long have you been here?" HC1959 peered at NL2036's face. "I think I was here before you."

Before him? Yes, there had to be a time before him, when the Doctor and the Assistant came to be, when this place was constructed. It made sense. It was logical. And, yet, it disturbed him so much.

Origins, Terminations. He knew so very little.

"What was it like?" NL2036 asked quietly. "Before me?"

HC1959 shrugged. "The same as it is now. Just… lonelier." The boy's eyes were hooded. "So fuzzy. Every day blurs together. Can hardly tell if it's Day One or Day… anything else." After a pause, he suddenly sat up, twisting in his bed so he was facing NC2036. He looked feverish. "Say, do you… do you remember stuff? Stuff that should be, but isn't?"

It was an innocent query, perhaps, but NL2036 tensed anyway. Things that should be… there were many in his mind, blurred at the edges and shoved aside.

NL2036 closed his eyes. A pale shape struggled to form, pleading importance. Bits and pieces of notes like and unlike music. The taste of air. Words with no meaning--anti-matter, nacelles, singularity. The subtle shape of a v formed by flesh. All these things, he feels he should understand, but he does not. Kaiidth, he thought stubbornly. What is, is.

He lived to serve. Besides, echoes of nothing did not disturb him. Much.

Over all these things, though, his confusion pales in comparison to that jagged, haunted feeling in his chest when he turned to speak to someone who was not there.

"Everything is as it should be," NL2036 whispered finally.

"Of course," the boy said sadly, dropping back to his bedding with a defeated sigh. He looked disappointed by NL2036's answer.

A gentle chime interrupted the air somewhere above them--three long notes preceded by two short ones. Heaviness pulled on NL2036's eyelids. Through a wavering vision, he watched as the boy's head tipped over to the side. His eyes closed and his face went slack.

Fighting the sudden fatigue, NL2036 shifted tiredly into his blankets. Once he was horizontal, he fell asleep almost immediately.

The replicant dreamed.

Loud explosions ripped through the air as NL2036 ran through a dusty terrain. He could hear the terror of the native Humans in their shouting, the sharpened efficiency of his own people in their orders. His sweaty palms slid over the cool metal of his weapon as he loosened his grip.

They found more of their own people in a wrecked building. The relief was like a persistent taste on NL2036's tongue, but there was someone missing--someone important.

Where was he? There were people on NL2036's heel when he ran deeper into the building, but he hardly paid attention to them.

NL2036 turned a sharp corner much too quickly and was faced with the wrong end of his enemy's weapon. Instinct had him throwing his body to the side, away from the bang of the weapon. Before he could lift his own weapon, one of his people from behind him lifted a large weapon that flashed bright, hot color and ripped down a wall on top of the enemy. NL2036 felt grim satisfaction at the sight--no joy or glee, merely the feeling one got when an obstacle was removed. He continued to run.

The empty hallway was littered with dead bodies, some Human, some not, but he wasn't there.

Where was he?

There was one last room. NL2036 cautiously entered it, his back against the wall. More bodies littered this place. Initially, this room too seemed empty of life, but a second visual scan of the room turned up an anomaly.

A hand he would recognize anywhere was poking out beyond the edge of a dividing wall, knuckles flat against the floor, long fingers curled upward and stained with green.

NL2036 made a noise of absolute horror, and ran to that hand, to the person it was connected to.

He was already dead.

 

*****

 

Part 3

 

The lights of the captain's quarters were dimmed to thirty percent. It was adequate for Spock's purposes, and it was the only thing that he had altered in the room. The temperature, although uncomfortable, stayed in its preset ranges. They were perfect for a Human, but too cold for a Vulcan.

He would endure.

A Vulcan could ignore unpleasant sensory inputs, but only if he or she was of a sound, logical mind. Only a calm, centered being could overcome the body's responses to a stimulus. Spock was far from that ideal. Therefore, as he was unable to control his own perception, it was only logical that he transform his immediate surroundings into a more comfortable environment.

Just as it was illogical to stick one's own hand into a boiling vat of oil, it was equally illogical to sit in a disagreeable environment when that same environment was expressly designed to be altered and changed at the occupant's whim, desire, or need.

But he was loath to allow the slightest change in air flow to hasten the disappearance of the tiny hints of his captain still lingering in the room. Hints, like the slightly ajar closet, with its rows of civilian clothes and uniforms and haphazardly placed shoes. Or like the faint indentation in Jim's pillow, where Jim had laid his head when he surrendered to the fatigue and limits of his Human body.

Or like the shirt recovered from Risa II that currently resided in Spock's lap.

He stared down at it.

The olfactory senses of a Vulcan were not as sharp as a Human's, but he could detect the faintest whiff of the shampoo both he and the captain used. It lingered in the threads of the command gold uniform.

It would fade.

Spock closed his eyes. Smell invoked memory in some--especially Humans. In Vulcans, the connection of a single experienced stimuli to a vivid memory was not an involuntary one, as it seemed to be for Humans. It was purposeful, practical, and even helpful in those instances in which they wished to peruse various memories.

It was illogical to dwell on irrelevant memories, but they surfaced anyway. A thousand tiny memories were stored up in the fading smell of Jim's shirt--some good, some bad, some horrible. His fingers tightened in the fabric. He let out a low, shaky breath.

Spock needed to meditate. This sense of unreality had to cease immediately. At the sight of conclusive evidence, it was only logical that one's doubts would be resolved. Likewise, once he saw the remains of the link he had made with Jim, the feeling would disappear.

He would finally be able to accept that Jim was dead.

Spock looked down at the shirt again, strangely reluctant to part with it. It was irregular, but it would work as a focus point. The texture of the material against his sensitive fingers hovered somewhere between silky and rough.

Focusing on the dichotomy helped hone his concentration, but it was still with much difficulty that he managed to turn his focus inward. He examined his mental landscape critically, testing the surroundings with the pointed strength only a telepath had. As usual, it was less than adequate.

Spock drew back a little, attempting to detach himself from that which could never be detached. He noted that this event marked the first time he had ever been so uncomfortable within the confines of his own mind.

And then the noises started in on him.

"It's okay to be scared."

"You are fully capable of deciding your own destiny."

"So are you afraid, or aren't you?"

"I could not deprive you of the revelation of all that you could accomplish together."

"You feel nothing! It must not even compute for you!"

Spock clamped down on the voices, those fragmented bits of memory, holding them firmly in place until they quieted. Distractions. Irrelevant, phantom vibrations. They should not have elicited a response from him, but they did.

His mind was a thing that could not be experienced in his other senses, but sometimes the other senses would randomly engage--the flat fog of a visual field, the empty taste of air, the ringing murmuring of nothing. He always thought this was due to his Human blood. A weakness, or perhaps only an unpleasant circumstance.

Although Spock had an innate talent for telepathy, he could not disregard the fact that half of his genetics came from a psi-null species. The random and unpleasant rebounding between his senses was a negative consequence of his half-breed nature.

"…despite your disadvantage."

Spock repressed the voice again. Irrelevant, he reminded himself again.

This was one of exactly five reasons why he did not care to meditate after Nero.

Another was the makeup of the mental landscape itself. It was a void of nothingness, littered with the tatters of broken links. His clan, his people… his mother.

Spock calmed himself. Facts were facts. Much of his extended family was murdered during the Battle of Vulcan. The only logical response to such an event was acceptance, and he indeed accepted.

But that did not stop his mind from teasing him with echoes of people he once knew. These echoes manifested in haunting shadows and faint sounds, taking advantage of his interfering senses. Even now, his genetics taunted him: the smell of his mother's favorite perfume rose to his nose briefly before fading into the dull sensation of dust and sand.

Could one drown in their own emotions? His control over them was inadequate. His current grasp over his emotions was even less than that of a Human.

He accepted fact, but that did not stop his grief. He acknowledged reality, but that did not stop his rage. It was not logical.

Spock's eyes flashed open. He was aware of the captain's quarters once more. In a slow gesture, he pressed the palm of his hand against his forehead, registering faint physiological responses to his failed meditation attempt--elevated respiration, racing heart rate, twitching eyes.

As McCoy was fond of saying, the mind played tricks on people, but Vulcan's mind was not a misbehaving child. It was a tool. Its current state was unacceptable. He could hardly mediate under these conditions--and he would not leave Starfleet to seek out the healers who would help heal his battered mind.

Nor could he continue in Starfleet with this persistent sense of wrongness plaguing his every thought.

He would need to face the facts in order to accept the facts, and he would accept. One look at Jim's shattered link would convince him--just one. It would dispel this lingering sense of unreality, and once that was vanquished, he could continue on with his duties to Starfleet.

Set on his purpose, Spock bought Jim's uniform to his face and narrowed his focus to the sensation of the fabric against his cheek.

When he had the calm he needed, he looked internally once more. His mind was still a void, still weakened, still plagued with origin-less stimuli, but Spock refused to look at the negative space. To do that would only overwhelm him once more. Instead, he looked at what still was present--familial links.

A cluster of them huddled together, close to the center of his mind. This was logical, as he drew his strength from them the most. The strongest of them threw out (the) steady vibrations of his father. Spock touched it briefly, sensing calm, intellectual stimulation, sorrow, and worry. Spock drew away from it, regretful. The worry was for him.

With more caution, Spock reached for others, testing their strengths. Although they were new, the links were adequate in strength, but different in quality from the few Vulcan links still intact in his mind.  

Near his father's link, Nyota's was twisting and twitching, radiating grief, anger, worry, and acceptance. In contrast, Doctor McCoy's link was as faint as ever, curled up in on itself like a petulant sehlat hiding a wounded paw. Emotions still leaked through: irritation, anger, depression, and anguish. He too projected acceptance.

Why? All of the sudden, Spock's fury rekindled, alight with burning intensity. Why do they accept?

But logic--purpose--prevailed. Was that not his own purpose as well? Accepting basic facts?

Spock hesitated.

There was a third link he had yet to look at and still did not. He was shielding himself from it automatically, but would Jim blame him? Spock did not want to look upon that link. That which was so instantaneously strong upon creation would now only know a frayed, tattered existence, and it, like the scent in Jim's clothing, would only fade with time.

Spock wished...

No. Wishing was illogical.

He examined the link.

Time passed. In that time, he observed the link--studying it, testing it, comparing it to the others. He did not comprehend.

He did not understand.

It was not severed. It was not frayed, tattered, or broken. It did not bleed out teasing echoes of nothing, like the remains of his mother's link. Its actual behavior was anomalous. It projected very little beyond mild confusion, calm, and submission. It did not even project a name or a sense of identity.

In essence, the link sent out as much noise as Spock could expect from a person in a coma, or from a Vulcan who underwent kolinahr. Humans were not capable of such suppression, such mental control--Jim especially.

But the link was not broken.

The conclusion was logical.

Jim was still alive.

Unable to sustain his focus for long, Spock slipped out of mediation again, still gripping the captain's shirt.

Jim is not dead. The realization evoked emotion in him--confusion, relief, happiness.

The communication terminal whistled for his attention.

Leaving the shirt on the bed, he stood and walked over to desk, answering the call. "This is Spock."

There was a moment of hesitation from the other end, but when Nyota's voice finally came through, it was even and professional. "Orders from Starfleet Command. We're to leave the orbit of Risa II and head for the nearest starbase."

It was strange how much relief could feel like grief with the slightest shift of circumstances. Starfleet would have them leave Risa II so quickly? They were not privy to his knowledge, of course, but, in light of that knowledge, the nature of the new orders was concerning.

"Acknowledged. Inform Mr. Sulu that he has the conn. He is to hold orbit and await my arrival. Spock out." His hands were flexing in a manner that might have indicated anger to an observer. He consciously relaxed his fingers, and then ordered the computer to pull up the report Uruk's investigative body had forwarded to the Enterprise.

ACCIDENTAL DEATH AND DAMAGES REPORT of Capt. James Tiberius Kirk

Spock gazed at the report solemnly. The first sight of the report's headline had inspired an unfortunate show of emotion from Spock. Now, he admitted to only a sense of mild resentment mixed in a deep, unsettling worry.

If Jim was not dead, if Jim was not on the Enterprise, if Jim was not on Risa II... where was he? Why was there a body in the sickbay? Why did Uruk had a death report?

Why was there no communication from Jim?

Frowning at the lighted display, Spock clicked open the file and started to read.

 

*****

 

Nyota's console chirped at her, demanding her attention.

Shifting her focus from the airwaves to her display, she immediately noticed that Spock had sent her a report to transfer over to Starfleet. She scanned over it quickly, automatically. It was a thick and convoluted text because Spock, as usual, did not understand the logic or aesthetics of formatting.

Her fingers were already starting to type in a command when a sentence dug in her consciousness suddenly, forcing her to stop her perfunctory glance. She reread the sentence, and then the paragraph it sat in, sitting back in disbelief.

Spock was irritatingly thorough. Instead of citing regulation numbers, he cited the entire paragraph--probably from memory too.

Regulation 1956b, paragraph f.

In the disappearance of a superior officer, and barring a security or safety concern for those on board and/or inhabiting nearby planet(s), the current assignments will be placed on hold for seventy-two hours. All focus shall be placed on maintaining basic ship function, investigating the disappearance, and locating the officer.  

Biting her lip, Nyota leaned back in her seat. She shifted around and looked back at the command chair. After a moment, sensing her attention, Sulu looked right at her, frowning.

"What is it?" he asked, his eyebrows knitting together.

Nyota pressed her lips together, glancing at the turbolift doors. Spock was late to his shift by an hour. "I'm not sure, but I don't think we're going anywhere."

Chekov looked up from his console, slinging one arm over the back of his chair. "Vhat?"

Before she could explain, the turbolift doors slid open and in came Spock. Noticing the commander, Sulu jumped out of the chair. Spock nodded sharply and settled into the chair with only a moment's hesitation.  

Formal greetings were exchanged.

Chekov kept glancing over his shoulder at Spock. Nyota could see his genius brain buzzing behind that youthful face as he tried to figure out a way to word his question so it didn't sound insubordinate. "Ve still have things to do here, yes?"

"Yes."

"Oh. Okay." Chekov turned back to his console, his ears pink.

"Your orders, Captain?" Sulu said more pointedly, eying Spock.

"Maintain orbit, Mr. Sulu."

There was a resigned confusion on the pilot's face, but he complied with the order easily, adjusting something on his console. Elsewhere on the bridge, Nyota noticed a few uneasy glances cast about by other members of the crew as the commander's orders were relayed from department to department, with no reference to original Starfleet orders.

However, gossip traveled at Warp 2 on a starship. Only twenty minutes had passed before Doctor McCoy made his presence known on the bridge floor.

"What the hell, Spock?" he demanded, scowling deeply.

Spock looked up from the PADD he was signing, something shifting in his expression. He handed the PADD back to the yeoman, purposefully looking away from McCoy, the gesture somehow both dismissive and beckoning.

The whole setup of it made Nyota think that maybe Spock was waiting for the doctor to arrive ever since he relayed his orders. But why?

If Spock wanted to talk to McCoy, he sure wasn't in a hurry to do it. Leaning over, he opened up a channel to Engineering. "Mr. Scott, make your way to the conference room. Our current course requires discussion."

"Aye, sir."

McCoy crossed his arms over his chest. "Oh, is this the silent treatment now? Very mature of you."

Spock's eyes flickered up to him. "I will attend to your demands, but first." Nyota flinched when his gaze suddenly cut to her.  "Lieutenant, you are also needed in the conference room."

"Y-yes." She was a little embarrassed at being caught eavesdropping, but, nevertheless, she straightened her spine and nodded with distant courtesy, rising from her seat. "Aye, sir."

"If you would follow the lieutenant, Doctor?" Spock said, gesturing subtly to the lift. He abandoned the command chair. "Mr. Sulu, you have the conn."

"Aye, sir," Sulu said quietly, standing up.

Spock was the last one in the lift. He stood just to the left of her, his hands clasped lightly behind his back. McCoy was to the right, and she was smack dab in the middle. The doors closed at the touch of the lift's handle, and then… nothing.

The ride down was awkward and uncomfortable. Spock's sudden serenity was as abrasive as McCoy's vengeful sighing. Nyota had the urge to just elbow them both in the face. How annoying.

The doors opened up quick enough. She was the first to sail through, eager to escape the doctor and her ex-boyfriend. Spock frowned at her speed, as if mystified by her discomfort. He'd been on the Enterprise for one and a half years now, and still he sucked at reading--and comprehending--the emotions of others.

Nyota sometimes feared he would never master the talent--not because he didn't have the ability, but because he didn't seem to care to hone it. It was why she dumped him, to be honest. Somewhere in his life, he'd learned that, in the equations that made up the social world, emotions equaled bad. Emotions equaled weak. The slight undercurrent of derision in his response to emotional displays bothered her so much when they were together.

Now, it was just annoying in that, 'wow, look at my socially dysfunctional friend' kind of way.

McCoy's voice raised from behind he. "Good God, man. Maybe if you pulled the stick out of your ass, you'd find-"

Rolling her eyes with a fed-up sigh, she hurried the last few steps to the conference room, opening the door. Scotty was already there, seated and idly spinning the chair next to him. When he looked up, he had a reflexive, gentle smile for her, an expression that shifted into banal neutrality when Spock and McCoy came into the room. He started to stand, but was halted by a brief gesture from Spock.

They all took places around the table, except for Spock. He stood at the head of it, waiting expectantly for them.

Once they were seated, he spoke. "Two point six hours ago, the Enterprise received orders from Starfleet. Our next destination is the nearest starbase." Spock paused. "I presume you are already aware of this."

"I heard a rumor," Scotty said, folding his arms over the table.

McCoy was scowling still. "And I heard you're ignoring those orders. Just doesn't sound very logical to me."

Spock ignored the blatant barb--mostly. He never did handle challenge well. "If you take the time to consider the nature of the orders, even you would deem it illogical for me to follow them."

Scotty pitched forward slightly, putting more of his weight on the table. "But, Mr. Spock… a direct order! From the admirals themselves? Even Cap'n Kirk never disobeyed a direct order."

"Yes, Mr. Scott, I am aware of the origin of the orders as well as Captain Kirk's flair for tweaking them. Nevertheless, there is a chain of command here on this ship, and I expect you to follow it. My orders are my orders."

The last was clearly aimed at McCoy, but Scotty was the one to react. "May we ask why we're disobeyin' direct orders then, Cap'n? Because there's a chain of command there too!"

Spock's gaze shifted to Scotty. "A valid concern and an understandable query," he murmured. He clasped his hands behind him, his gaze shifting from person to person. "The reason is thus: our orders are based on a single assumption. The assumption is that we are without the captain, and that he has died." He paused. "This is an erroneous assumption, as Starfleet shall soon see."

Nyota winced, turning her face away. She'd figured he thought as much. The report she had yet to send had 'refusal to face facts' written all over it.

Surging to his feet, McCoy jabbed a finger in the general direction of the sick bay. He was livid. "I have his goddamn body on a biobed! You wanna see it, Spock? Huh? Poke at it? Meld with it? He's dead, Spock!"

"He is not," Spock said, his tone oddly heated. After hearing himself, he seemed to retreat mentally back into that false serenity. "Your opinion has been noted, and I do recognize your expertise in this matter. However, your conclusion is based on emotions, not empiricism or logic. Therefore, I must ignore it."

"Emotions," McCoy echoed darkly, looking like he'd like to be the one to choke out the commander.

Spock's tone was cool. "So I am incorrect in assuming that you have not started the autopsy."

Silence rushed in to fill the voice. A pin could have dropped. Nyota winced, swallowing hard. Across the table, Scotty swung his gaze from Spock over to McCoy, his expression shifting from surprised to abruptly sad.

"I was..." McCoy stared at the table. After a moment, he dropped back into his seat. "I was getting to it," he said tiredly, covering his eyes with his hand.

Spock's tone was steady. "Without an autopsy, there is no proof of identity beyond conjecture."

"There's more than conjecture," Nyota broke in, trying to suppress her anger. McCoy and Kirk had been friends for years. Spock's lack of consideration for the doctor's feelings seemed nothing short of pure callousness. "I read the report too, Spock. The security forces on Risa II said they saw…" Nyota swallowed, remembering the report. "They saw it happen."

The captain was burned alive in front of an air vent. Nyota couldn't think of a worse way for Kirk to die--on shore leave and not in the space he loved so dearly. Because of the negligence of the city's planning committee, because of the accident of Jim's presence underneath one, because of the sheer coincidence of him passing by just as the machines deep below released the pressurized steam into the atmosphere.

Kirk, she thought mournfully, tightening her hands in her skirt. She never once told him she thought he made a decent captain after all.

When Nyota looked up again, she saw that Spock was gazing at her. "I have my reasons for doubting their testimony," he said slowly, quietly. His head tilted to the side, his eyes still on her. "Would you like to see them?" Before she could speak, Spock's eyes shifted to McCoy. "I would invite you to come as well, Doctor McCoy."

"Why?" he muttered, barely looking up.

"To give you the motivation to do the autopsy sooner rather than later." The slightly uncomfortable undertone of his words showed Nyota that he was actually aware of McCoy's emotional state and was trying, in his own way, to alleviate it.

Nyota directed a mental sigh at Spock. It wasn't his fault. He was grieving too. The fact that the whole ship was getting dragged into this was just... unfortunate, not deliberate cruelty.

Spock's eyes flickered to Scotty. "Do you also request proof of my reasoning, Engineer Scott?"

Scotty rubbed a hand over his face. "Ah, no. If it's from you, Spock, I trust that it's logical." He nodded to Nyota. "The lieutenant can fill me in later."

"Very well. While we're on the planet, you'll have the conn."

Scotty bobbed his head. "Aye, sir."

"In five hours time, we will beam down to the planet, and I will show the two of you my findings." Spock turned back to Nyota again. "In the meantime, Lieutenant, send Starfleet the report." Nyota flushed. Spock had accurately predicted her decision not to immediately send it.

"Oh. Joy," McCoy said flatly, rising from his seat. His action heralded the end of the meeting. "I'll be in my quarters." He shuffled out of the room just as Scotty and Nyota pushed up and away from the table.

Nyota watched him go, her heart aching at his slow, lethargic steps and his slumped shoulders. She wished she knew him better so she could talk to him, but, more than that, she wished she had the words with which to express her sorrow. Every variation her mind came up with since they got the news seemed cheap and trite.

And maybe she was lost in this the same way Spock was lost. Jim Kirk, dead? It didn't seem real. It seemed like an error, a bad joke, a mistranslation.

"I oughta check on my department," Scotty murmured from behind her, vaguely apologetic. He too left, nodding a good-bye in Nyota's direction.

Soon, only Nyota and Spock remained in the conference room. When she turned to look at him, Spock was watching her with an expectant expression on his face. Shifting restlessly from foot to foot, she stared at the ground, folding her fingers over her stomach as she tried to organize her thoughts.

"Lieutenant?" he prompted.

Nyota looked up. "I want to believe," she said simply, twisting her hands toward him with a hopeless gesture.

Something indefinable altered Spock's expression. "It is not a matter of belief, Nyota." Not much changed in his voice, but she had a terrible feeling he was trying to reassure her. "It is simply a matter of knowledge, and knowing."

Nyota stared at him, wondering what illusions of hope danced behind those Human eyes. "How can you be so confident?" she whispered. "I saw you. You were…"

"Emotionally compromised? Yes." He inclined his head a bit. "Meditation and logic-"

"It's not something you can so easily think away, Spock!" Nyota spat. Once the words were out, she shifted her eyes to the floor, trying to regain control. "Have you ever heard of denial?"

"Such a thing is illogical and Human," Spock observed a bit stiffly. "I am Vulcan."

"You're half Human," she reminded him, her eyes flying up. "I think… probably the worst thing to happen here would be…" Nyota swallowed heavily and closed her eyes. After a moment, she opened them again. "I'm so afraid that you'll have all this hope and, maybe, in the end? Jim's still dead."

"You are wrong," Spock said with quiet, heavy emphasis.

"And you are still emotionally compromised."

At that, Spock's eyes immediately dropped to the floor. "Facts are facts," he started to say, but Nyota jumped in.

"What we want, what we feel… all that can warp facts, Spock." Nyota stepped a little further into his personal space, gently touching his elbow. "You can walk away from this now, Spock. Regulation or not, Starfleet will put it on their record that you're disobeying orders, and that can ruin your whole future." Spock's eyes darted somewhere over her left shoulder, and she knew something she said got him. She knew it had to be important for Vulcan to still have a presence in Starfleet, otherwise Spock wouldn't be on the Enterprise. "Stop this. Order the ship to its new coordinates, get the assignment done. Let Doctor McCoy have the time to do the autopsy, to confirm what we all know." Something in his expression closed off suddenly. "Spock…"

Spock took one, long step back, escaping her touch. "Send the message to Starfleet, Lieutenant," he ordered in an even tone. "In five hours, we will be on Risa II. Ready yourself."

With a single nod of farewell, he pivoted and walked away from her. Sadly, she watched him go too. After a moment, she closed her eyes and rubbed at her temples, trying to ward off the incoming headache.

They would find nothing on Risa II, except for the obvious--Human security forces were not up to par with a Vulcan's intense attention to detail. Humans were fallible, prone to cutting corners and selective inattention. Inconsistencies in a report did not mean their captain wasn't dead.

Nyota drew herself up to her full height. She warned him. That was all she could do. Now, she'd follow her orders and send out the message. Then, she would watch.

Watch and hope that the inevitable conclusion to this mess didn't destroy him entirely.

 

*****

 

Spock was in Jim's room once more. He stood in front of the communication terminal, eyes briefly darting to a dent in the table.

At the touch of a finger, an incoming message was received. "Mr. Spock, we received the party, sir." It was not Nyota, he observed. Her shift was over.

"Acknowledged. Spock out." he said, closing the channel.

After a moment, he leaned back against the chair, pressing his fingers together.

Poker was a game of probability and lies. It was a Human game, not nearly complicated enough to grasp the attention of a Vulcan--like many Human things in general. The game itself was not relevant, but the theory, concepts, and rules were an apt analogy to his current situation.

From the few times he had observed a game of poker, Spock surmised that much of the strategizing and game play seemed to focus not just on contents of the hand in front of a player, but on the contents of the hands of all players in the game. Players bluffed and vied for the control of the pot, and a great many things could be said about the place of a player's 'tells' and 'poker face' in the playing of the game.

Spock was always struck by the parallels between certain aspects of the game and his life. He had spent a good portion of his childhood developing his 'poker face', disguising his 'tells'. He had even bluffed his way through the more confusing interactions he had with Human beings, because he had learned quickly that querying about the nature of every Terran phrase was a reliable method with which one could frustrate the being on the other side of the conversation.

Even now, the metaphor of poker was well placed, as he believed he had just committed an error described as 'showing his hand too early'. After he ascertained the continuing existence of the captain, he wrote up a report and sent it off to Starfleet, detailing the dissection of Risa II's report, his own findings, and what he planned to do about both. He informed them of the law he planned to invoke, should he fail to find the captain in the seventy-two hours allowed by Starfleet regulation.

Spock had every intention of following protocol, but he had no intention of leaving while his captain was still missing. He had implied this in his report.

It was not a threat. It was merely fact.

Then, one point three seven minutes ago, the Enterprise was hailed by the starship Lexington. The captain aboard the vessel informed the bridge crew that they be ready to receive a superior officer.

It was not a request.

It appeared that, in a rare show of efficiency, Starfleet had already processed his report and relayed it to the closest superior officer. The away mission would have to delayed while they accommodated their guest.

An admiral was now on board the Enterprise.

Fascinating.

Chapter Text

Part 4

 

A bang ripped through the air, followed by the hoarse sounds of biological distress.

NL2036's eyes flashed open, taking in the off-white ceiling and opaque walls. Immediately, he started coughing, his throat dry and raw. The air smelled sour, he noted, sitting up in his bedding. The other set of sheets and blankets was empty, but its intended occupant was not far.

The waste hatch in the floor had been thrown open and its metallic grate was still vibrating against the ground. HC1959, pale faced and trembling, braced both palms against the floor and retched, his sweat damp body heaving in violent protest over and over again. The boy let out a low, miserable moan, his head bent low to the hole.

Wincing a bit, NL2036 pushed himself to his feet and approached the farthest corner of their room. A square patch neatly sank down under his touch, causing a hygiene station to fold out of the wall. A tiny square of a sink jutted out and pressed against his bare hip as the faucet automatically turned on, pouring water into the bowl.

NL2036's eyes stuttered to a stop at the sight of a reflective surface. One hand rose to his face, his fingers feeling along what he could finally see. He was too pale. He looked sick. Shadows lingered under his eyes and his lips were chapped and colorless.

Was this what he looked like? How unpleasant. NL2036 coughed despite himself and was mildly interested by the contortion of the face staring back at him.

There was a choked off hack behind him, and NL2036 remembered himself, remembered what he meant to do. Briskly, he avoided the sight of the mirror and grabbed a cup from the shelf built into the side of the sink. He filled it with the running water, drank it, filled it again, and then walked it back to the boy.

HC1959 looked up at the offered mug, hesitating for a moment before reaching up for it. He swished the water around in his mouth before spitting it down the deep duct, wordlessly handing the cup back. A shaking, fine boned hand eventually pulled the grate back over the hole, but, other than that, he barely moved. He stayed there on the floor like that for a little while, sharp looking shoulder blades pushing at the thin barrier of his skin.

Finally, HC1959 sat up. "I haven't been this sick since Tarsus IV," the boy mumbled, rubbing his knuckles over his eyebrows.

Unable to tell if the observation was directed at him or not, NL2036 stared down at the boy's bowed head, his mouth falling open to say something--but then the breakfast chime sounded in the air above them. It shattered his former thoughts. They were, as always, irrelevant.

In front of the door, four bowls suddenly materialized--two with white food, two with green. NL2036 wandered over to that side of the room and parceled off the food. HC1959 gagged at the green bowl, barely managing to swallow down the white food along with some water. But a little of something was better than nothing, NL2036 was sure.

By the time the work day chime broke in their room, NL2036 was only half-way through his own breakfast. He could not conceive of taking another bite--it was impossible, now, he realized, slipping his feet into his soft gray shoes. The Programming was absolute and his Programming responded to the chimes. Therefore, the commands represented by the chimes were also absolute.

Simple logic, really.

NL2036 was suddenly aware of an awful sense of loneliness, but before he could examine the feeling further, the door to their room slid the left. He hurried and, completely pulled under the thrall of his Programming, drifted out the portal, HC1959 quick at his heel.

In hindsight, he thought 'drifted' because he had no other way of describing the fog that blanketed his thoughts. He had no clear recollection of moving beyond the threshold of the door, or out into the hallway and into the sea of replicants caught under the same compulsion as he. Although it must have happened, he didn't remember crossing over the shallow depression that made up the hallway floor--normally filled with water for laundry, it was dry in the mornings and often a source of tripping among replicants seeking to move to their work place.

Stranger still, he didn't even remember seeing another replicant, which he should have. There were many of them--hundreds, perhaps even more. But even HC1959 faded from existence in his mind, because all that there was, all that was important at all, was NL2036's Programming. His purpose, his servitude--it was absolute. Everything else was just… distractions.

Oddly, though, he remembered running into the SecuFor. The memory was crisp and vivid, because that was painful. It was like walking right into a metal wall. He staggered back from the SecuFor, his reflexive catalogue of his pains almost quicker than the Programming, which had him bowing his head with the proper query.

"How may I serve you?"

Then he had a vague memory of being frog-marched by the SecuFor up six or seven levels and through four or five lifts. All the decks were different--heated, smelly, cold, busy, empty. The designation of each floor was splashed on the wall with white paint.

There were Humans and replicants in every floor. The primary intent of a replicant was that each was to look exactly like a Human, but it was surprisingly easy to tell the two apart. The uniforms (always gray for a replicant) were a big clue, but there were other clues as well. Each replicant had a dazed expression on his or her face, like a permanent frown. Each replicant was quiet unless commanded to speak. Each replicant hung to the sides of the room, watching with careful eyes unless otherwise ordered.

Humans, on the other hand, displayed a variety of expressions. They displayed a variety of vocalizations too--loud, soft, happy, mad. They walked freely around the floor or they stayed in one place.

In comparison to the replicants, each Human seemed truly unique in every way. As it should be, NL2036 thought.

His next vivid memory was seeing the Doctor's clothed back. The SecuFor had led him that far before stopping--rigidly, in place. The termination of movement jolted NL2036 in a way that moving had not, so, curious, he looked around. The surroundings were familiar, in a sense. They looked like the Doctor's labs from… before. Whenever that was.

The Doctor finally spoke. "I'd hoped to catch you before breakfast, but I'm a very busy man." He turned around and away from the counter. He gazed at NL2036 expectantly, his expression growing increasingly bothered the longer he stared at NL2036's face.

Inwardly dismayed, NL2036 stared back at him, swallowing around a raw throat. How was he to respond to that?

A voice drifted from behind him. "If he was one of the Deck 4 replicants, his dose would be lower."

A bit sluggishly, NL2036 looked over his shoulder. It was the petite assistant. She stood stiffly by the SecuFor, her arms folded over her chest. Gray eyes stared him down.

"I'm not doing that to him again."

Again? Again implied past action, a past event--neither of which he could remember.

She stared at him still, eyes unblinking. After a moment, it occurred to NL2036 that she did not like him. The Programming, in turn, did not like that.

NL2036 muffled a cough against his hand, turning the motion into a nod. "How may I serve you?" he asked cordially.

Illogically, her distaste for him only seemed to deepen. His purpose was to follow his Programming. His Programming said that he lived to serve. The implied intent behind that was he lived to make Humans happy. But when he followed the edicts of his Programming, he made a Human unhappy?

NL2036 was deeply confused.

A hand pulled his face back to the front and center. A beaker with orange fluid was offered to him. It smelled like bubbles and sharp things. It, like many things, was oddly familiar, but also not. There was a new scent in there--like bitter smelling flowers.

NL2036 didn't know what a flower looked like.

"Drink," the Doctor implored, his voice cutting through NL2036's thoughts.

NL2036 drank. While he drank, he was guided to lie on a table, which he did very carefully. The Doctor murmured something about time and turned down the lights, ordering NL2036 to stay lying down. He and the assistant moved to a joined room while NL2036 stared up at the darkened ceiling, the taste of the drink lingering in the back of his throat.

All of a sudden, he felt a reaction. His throat felt better, but everything else was all wrong. He tensed up on the table and stared at the ceiling, his eyes wide and his eyebrows drawn tight together.

He lost his fingers. He lost his feet. No. His eyes flickered down. He still had them, he just couldn't feel them. The numbness trickled up to his thigh. Was this Termination? This was frightening.

His eyes shot to the joining door as the Doctor's voice rose beyond it. As the Doctor came through, his head bent over a data PADD, NL2036 jerked his eyes back to the ceiling.

He would endure. He lived to serve.

Time passed. With it came relief. His limbs slowly trickled back to life with the stab and poke of pins and needles. He flexed his fingers gratefully and wiggled his toes. Doubt was fleeting, but he should have never doubted in the first place. The Doctor knew what he was doing.

NL2036 frowned at the ceiling. Beyond the numbness, what was the purpose of that dose of fluid? There was no change in his internal state, save for the least important--the somewhat muddy and dazed state of affairs regarding his thoughts. It had cleared up somewhat in the last five minutes. How odd.

NL2036 watched the Doctor tap his fingers all over a square machine. The device threw up a picture of a see-through and revolving picture of a Human, but before NL2036 could get a good look at it, the Doctor hastily shut down the display, transferring all he needed to see to the PADD right in front of him.

What was that? He thought about it.

Biometrics, his processor provided. A compilation of various statistics regarding the life and biology of an unnamed Human male.

After a moment, NL2036 kicked his feet off of the table and stood up. On light feet, he walked over to the Doctor and peered over the shorter man's shoulder, his eyes flying over the data.

Male, Human, United Federation of Planets, 2233.04.

These things meant nothing to him. They were bits of data--distracting, impersonal, irrelevant. There was nothing more important than the Programming. There was one thing he wanted to know, though.

"What's a Tarsus IV?" he queried, pitching his voice softly.

Still, the Doctor flinched, smacking himself in the chest with the PADD. He whirled around, pressing himself back up against the counter as he stared at NL2036 with wide eyes. When NL2036 did nothing more than blink at him impassively, he slowly relaxed, placing the PADD facedown on the counter.

"It's, uh. It's a glitch." His fingers pressed under NL2036's jaw searchingly. Obedient, NL2036 tilted his head back, staring at the ceiling again.

If it was analogous to the wall, then it was merely a boundary. What laid beyond the ceiling? More endless permutations of the Doctor's labs?

No, he thought. The level he resided on was different than the labs, and those labs were different than the levels he and the SecuFor had traversed to get to the Doctor. All were different, all were varied--and all others beyond that would be so as well.

This realization made him feel less… restrained. Less choked. Less like he was trapped in a small box.

NL2036 jerked his head down. "Huh?" He heard the faint notes of some question still lingering in his ears.

The Doctor looked concerned. "Do you have the glitch?" he repeated.

NL2036's lips parted.

The Programming consisted of regulations, protocols, and rules. The Programming made up a system that, when running at optimal performance, was perfect, absolute, and free of errors. Glitches were deviations from the system that Programming provided. Glitches effected the accuracy and efficiency of every replicant in the system, both affected and not affected. Glitches had to be reported--this was one of the three fundamental laws.

Therefore, according to his Programming, he had to report HC1959. The Doctor would follow protocol. HC1959 would be Programmed, Deprogrammed, or, if the glitch proved to be too severe, Terminated.

Terminated.

He had to report the boy. His Programming insisted on it, and NL2036 lived to serve.

NL2036 let out a low exhale. Then, for the first time in his existence, NL2036 did something odd.

He lied.

NL2036 clasped his hands behind his back. "On the journey here, I overheard Humans discuss it. I merely wished for clarification." He paused--a calculated deception. "Humans discuss much amongst themselves."

"Don't they?" The Doctor's eyes twinkled with renewed humor. His shoulders visibly relaxed. "Too much, I've always thought."

"Inquisitiveness is not a good trait for an object," the assistant opined from the door. Somewhere in the last few minutes, she had come out of the joined room. NL2036 resisted the temptation to look at her. To maintain a lie, he thought suddenly, a person must keep steady eye contact. Anything else implied guilt and fabrication.

"In this one, it's fine," the Doctor said, still smiling at NL2036.

"Doctor!"

"It's fine," he repeated, a hard edge to his words.

Behind him, there was an inhale of air. Then the swish of opening door followed by the quick taps of hard soled shoes. Following the noise of her footsteps were the heavy thuds of the SecuFor's labored steps as he or she followed her out.

Once they were alone, the Doctor sighed, shaking his head. "Be thankful you're spared that."

"That?" NL2036 echoed tentatively.

"Responsibility to another tied up in legal obligation and bureaucratic nonsense." The Doctor smiled at a joke only he knew. "I'm speaking of marriage, of course." The Doctor turned back to the counter. "To love, honor, and cherish, for as long as we both shall live." The humor was still there--misplaced, NL2036 thought. Apathetic.

NL2036's gaze wandered to the door. It felt oddly wrong, that relationship between the two. There was no affection between them, merely a cold civility and a one-sided regard. The assistant had much deference for the Doctor and, in return, the Doctor barely noticed her. This bothered NL2036 on a level he couldn't quite quantify just yet.

"Do I have a 'marriage'?"

The Doctor slowly turned back again. He leaned back against the counter with suddenly sharp eyes. "You are an object. Objects have no emotions, no relationships, no obligations. Beyond their obligations to Programming, of course."

After a pause, NL2036 nodded. On some level, he accepted the Doctor's axioms in the manner that they were delivered: as the absolute truth. But an absence of emotion, a lack of social bonding, zero quantities of the sense of obligation… that all wasn't exactly true, was it?

"You're a clean slate. No responsibilities, not really. You have purpose without the hassle, meaning without the fighting. No name, no history, no drama. Merely purpose and the achievement of that purpose." The Doctor smiled suddenly, the expression both prideful and kind. "You're lucky. You should be grateful."

NL2036 found himself feeling sick instead. "May I leave now?"

The Doctor blinked in surprise, and then waved him off to the door. "Sure, sure. Make sure you talk to my wife. She'll assign you to your job."

NL2036 staggered out of the labs. The numbness still hovered at the very edges of his limbs, making him unsure in his every step.

The Doctor's assistant, his gray-eyed wife, was waiting for him just outside. He eyed her tiredly, unable to decipher the quick look she shot his way. Didn't she ever blink?

"How may I serve you?" he tried again.

"You have a drive more important to you than your Programming."

NL2036 said nothing. He straightened a little, wary of her. It occurred to him to deny it, but… how did she know?

The Doctor's wife continued to speak. "This drive is called self-preservation. This drive inspires you to lie, to cheat, to do anything to avoid Termination." She pushed herself away from the wall where she and the SecuFor stood. She walked up to him. "This in itself is not unacceptable. But hear me, replicant." She stopped just in front of him, staring up at him with nearly colorless eyes. "If you obey your Programming and do as you are ordered, you will need not fear me, for you will be insignificant and I will not think of you. However…" A small, thin hand shot out, fixing itself strongly over his arm, squeezing with almost impossible force. He stumbled and barely caught his balance, uneasy at his proximity to her and her cold, dead eyes. "If you become significant, then you will become my problem, and I do not suffer problems gladly."

She let go of him. He backed off quickly, putting space between them. NL2036's hand rose automatically to his arm, flattening his fingers over the skin. It was heated under his touch and reddening. Slowly, he looked up at her.

In spite of the fear, in spite of the wariness, in spite of the Programming, something in him was tightening, rising to meet the opposition. He dropped his hand from his arm, ignoring the throbbing.

"Your request," he said in a clipped tone. "Rephrase."

Her eyes narrowed. "Draw my attention again and I'll order Termination immediately. The Doctor will not stop me." Her attention flickered over to the silent SecuFor. "Take him down to Maintenance."

The SecuFor unfolded abruptly from the wall, raising one arm in a silent gesture down the hallway. To say no never occurred to NL2036. The SecuFor was a foot taller than him and armed with a long staff. As always, he or she was eerily silent.

Besides, following the slow behemoth was better than staying in the presence of the Doctor's prickly wife.

So, NL2036 followed the SecuFor to his new destination. This time, though, they went down. This time, he seethed. This time, he noted the directions they were going--the turns, the doors, the number of decks. Lift after lift after lift… the lack of efficiency was readily apparent.

In the lifts, NL2036 stayed silent, chewing over his feelings for the wife.

He did not like her. The Programming did not like that.

The Programming needed to revise its priorities.

The job loosely referred to as Maintenance was spread out over the last four levels of the complex, he would later learn. Like all decks, these levels had a mixture of Humans and replicants. Unlike other decks, the level of hostility was great. This, he learned almost immediately after the department boss sent him to work.

Humans seemed to hold a variable amount of hostility for replicants in general. The boss seemed indifferent, but the Humans under his charge were another story.

NL2036 walked out onto his assigned deck and immediately saw a Human berating a pale faced replicant. The replicant was slumped over a pipe, staring dully at the Human as the man went on a diatribe about 'fragile replicants unable to take a day of real work' and how replicants caused more trouble in the work place than they solved.

If he was so well versed in replicants, the Human should have known that verbal abuse was wasted on a replicant.

The replicant in question patiently waited for a break in the rant. And then, he said, "How may I serve you?"

NL2036 froze at the sound of the familiar, hoarse voice. That was his roommate. The Human squawked and took several quick steps in HC1959's direction. Without thought, NL2036 hurried between the burly Human and HC1959, stopping only when he was directly in the Human's path.

"A new one. Great," a woman muttered, spitting on the floor.

His roommate's tormenter glared him down. "You wanna cause trouble, boy?" His hands kept tightening convulsively over a large iron tool, like he'd like to whack NL2036 with it.

Disturbed by the distaste yet another Human seemed to have with him, the Programming prompted him with the appropriate response. His mouth was just starting to shape around the first word when he abruptly changed it, tilting his head sharply. "Do you?"

The size of the Human's pupils fluctuated interestingly. His nostrils flared. His face turned red and his mouth twisted into something ugly. The knuckles of his hands turned white with tension.

Before anything interesting could happen (NL2036 backpedaled and questioned himself; why would an expression of anger be interesting?), another Human clamped a firm hand on the man's arm, dragging him away from NL2036. "Come on, man. Break one of those tin cans and your grandchildren's grandchildren will be working the debt off. Don't think the company wouldn't do it!"

There was a chorus of slightly bitter laughter over that statement. The ill placed humor seemed to dispel the tension, NL2036 noted. Fascinating. Warily noting the places of all the Humans in the room, NL2036 made his way over to HC1959.

"So. You're down here with me." HC1959 slung an arm over a pipe, a silver device hanging from his loosely clasped fingers. "How lucky."

"Define lucky," NL2036 grumbled, straddling the cement dividing wall. His chest was thudding oddly and his ears were hot. He found himself restlessly bouncing his leg up and down, and had to consciously order himself to stop.

The boy narrowed his eyes. "You seem… chipper."

NL2036 rubbed a hand over his face. "Chipper? I've never been more miserable in my entire life." There was a second's delay, but when he heard what he said, NL2036 recoiled. "Existence. I meant… existence." HC1959 was staring at him with wide eyes. NL2036 rushed to distract him. "What are we supposed to be doing here?"

Sluggishly, HC1959 explained their tasks. Maintenance work was just that: maintenance. Most of the machines that provided the environmental and life support systems of the above complex were located down in the last four levels. It was their job to check the meters for malfunctions, scan the machines and their progress, empty any waste products, and examine the many miles of pipes and wires for faults or breaks.

It was a repetitive, thoughtless, monotonous job broken up by brief points of sheer terror when a small pipe broke.

No wonder the Humans were restless and combative.

He learned that replicants had only five hour shifts--compared to the Human's eight hours, this was a relatively short time to work. All during their shift, NL2036 wasn't sure the boy would make it five minutes, let alone five hours, so he stayed close by--watching, waiting. From this inexplicable illness or a heavy Human hand, it didn't matter; if the boy fell, NL2036 would be there.

 

*****

 

As hours passed--perhaps even days--a number of questions went through his processors without adequate response, but why was never one of them.

HC1959 was the instigator of that question--the instigator of many things, NL2036 was soon to find out. It was he who first uttered that single word.

Why. It was the most venomous and corrosive question to ever masquerade itself as an innocent query. Unsurprisingly, it was also HC1959's favorite question.

It was an hour after the end of their shift and they were back in their room. HC1959 had outperformed NL2036's best predictions, only flopping down to the floor when there was bedding there to catch him. The boy's expert knowledge regarding their work plus the casual way he moved about the room was a stark reminder that the boy had existed in the Before.

In the free time between the work day and the work night (a small three hour shift), they were supposed to clean their rooms and do their laundry. NL2036 was leery about doing the last task. Every time he peered out the door and into the hallway, a multitude of replicants would be walking around.

The presence of others did not bother him--it was their demeanor. It seemed like the act of a shared task should have been a social gathering--a time of speech and gossip gathered around the rushing stream of clear water. But it was silent. Each replicant might as well have existed in a separate world, for all they spoke.

This made sense. The Doctor said replicants have no social bonds. They wouldn't need to. They were objects, after all, not people.

But it was still unsettling.

"Why am I here?"

NL2036 backed away from the door, letting it slide shut in front of him. "The work day is done," he said, confused.

"No, not here, here." HC1959's arm flopped weakly against the bedding. "Here. This place."

Ah. Purpose. "You live to serve."

"But why?" he asked plaintively.

"Because…" NL2036 paused. "That is the purpose of your creation."

"It's so inefficient, though." HC1959 sighed and flopped onto his stomach. "Why create a being made for service and meant for service, and yet give them a body that requires so much… upkeep?

NL2036 leaned back, pressing his clasped hands against the wall. "Our purpose is to look as Human as possible."

"Where does the line end, though?" HC1959 sat up, suddenly energetic in a day marked by extreme lethargy. "I sweat, I vomit, I bleed. How is that not Human? Where does replicant end and Human begin?"

"You secrete similar liquid. It's not the same." NL2036's fingers were trembling against the wall. "You're suffering from a glitch."

HC1959 shot him an impatient look. "If I was, doesn't that prove my point? Inefficient." He kicked off his blankets. "Glitches and programmings and the same crappy, tasteless food, day in and day out." The boy was working himself up into a temper.

NL2036 eyed him warily. "We are objects. It is not our place to question." The sickness made the boy a chatterbox, NL2036 decided, but his words were treading on very dangerous territory. NL2036 strode purposefully across the room to the opposite corner, pressing on the wall for the hygiene station.

HC1956 didn't seem to be listening anymore. "It's the damn food." NL2036 turned around, watching the boy as he rubbed his stomach. "I didn't feel like this when I could keep the green shit down." Noticing NL2036's attention was on him, HC1959 sat up straighter, his eyes blazing. "I have memories, NL2036. Of the outside. Of the feeling of the sun. Of fresh air and… people." He swept a wide, encompassing hand at the walls of their room. "Our whole life is down here, in this place. Why do I remember something from some place that I've never been?"

Memories.

There was a cold, hard pit in the middle of NL2036's stomach. He turned around, busying himself at the hygiene station. "The Human you are based off of… you must have retained some of his memories."

"Is it really that simple? If that's the case… and if all the creators want from us is our servitude, why replicate the memories at all? That seems like a waste of-"

"You are clearly suffering from a glitch!" NL2036 snapped, whirling around. "Do not question the Creators. Do not question the Programming. You have violated these two fundamental laws!"

HC1959 froze, his eyes huge in his pale face. Slowly, still seated, he leaned forward, bracing his elbows against his knees. The move highlight the sharp bend of a shoulder, the blade of a collarbone. Danger glinted in his eyes, but he had the look of the vulnerable boy he was molded after.

Petulance and anger covered up genuine fear. "You gonna report me?"

NL2036 recoiled. The third fundamental law was to report all glitches. A law that he had already violated.

For HC1959.

Damn it.

He turned back to the hygiene station, busily washing his hands.

The only explanation he had for the aberration was that his preservation drive had also somehow extended to his 'roommate'. Because NL2036 couldn't just care. The Doctor said so.

"No," NL2036 said finally, moving away from the station. He sighed, sinking into his own bedding. "I'm not going to report you." Defeated, NL2036 rubbed his fingers through his hair.

"No?" After a brief pause, HC1959 settled back on his hands. "Why not?"

Pain throbbed behind NL2036's eyebrows. "You ask too many questions of me. I just don't know how to answer."

The Doctor's wife had called his drive to defend against Termination 'self-preservation'. This drive was strong enough to trump over Programming, the ultimate of all laws. The victory of this drive made sense within Programming itself--if you were terminated, how were you supposed to serve your Creator? Following this line of reasoning, his desire to avoid Termination was imminently logical.

What was entirely illogical was his desire to prevent HC1959's Termination as well. The same argument wouldn't apply. Their Creators were different people, their motives different things. Satisfying the whims of one Creator would not satisfy the whims of the next. Unless NL2036's Creator ordered him to obey HC1959's Creator as well, NL2036 had no vested interest in obeying that other Human.

This line of thought had disturbing implications--specifically, that the thing that NL2036 had vested interest in was HC1959 himself. HC1959's continued existence, for whatever reason, pleased him. His decision to oversee the boy's sickness was a testament to that pleasure.

Objects do not have friends. The Programming didn't allow for it and the Doctor said it couldn't happen. And yet… reality insisted otherwise.

NL2036 didn't know which to believe anymore.

 

*****

 

They came back from the work night, tired and quiet. HC1959 had watched him during the entire shift, as if he was half-convinced NL2036 was going to go back on his word and report him. This made NL2036 very self-conscious and unfocused. He'd closed a panel on his thumb twice as a result and had to endure a Human teasing him over his klutziness.

The only upside of the situation was that HC1959's illness seemed short lived and was unlikely to be related to NL2036's sickness. The sore throat came back halfway through the shift. The Doctor's orange fluid was a relief, not a cure. To avoid scrutiny, NL2036 tried to suppress his coughs as much as possible. If he was to take the number of comments on his apparent frailty and uselessly as any indication of success, then he quite soundly failed that enterprise.

The dinner bell rang just as they came in through the door. Four bowls came into existence in front of the door. Tired, NL2036 stumbled right on past them and HC1959, making a beeline to the hygiene station.

Two cups of wonderfully cool water later and NL2036 heard twin plastic thuds. Curious, he turned around, noticing immediately HC1959's rigid, angry stance. The boy had kicked the green bowls over. The food was splattered thickly across the floor and over the lowermost panel of the door.

HC1959 whirled around, staring at NL2036 with an oddly scared defiance. "If you're so confident in your resiliency as an object, then quit eating that!" He jabbed a finger at the green mess.

NL2036 stared at it, then at the boy. He crossed his arms over his chest. "What are you trying to do?" he asked suspiciously.

"I want you to feel as confused as I am." His eyes widened slightly, almost as if he was begging for understanding. "It's the food. Quit eating it and you'll feel just as confused as me, I know it!"

NL2036's eyes flickered downward, lingering on the gray material that made up a replicant's shoes. HC1959's right foot was covered with green at the tip. NL2036 looked back up. "And if I don't?"

"Then you were right, and I'll turn myself in and report my glitch." HC1959 bit his lip then, looking worried. "Okay?"

NL2036 narrowed his eyes. How like a kid, to ask him permission to do something when he had no choice but to say yes! "Whatever." NL2036 abruptly turned back to the sink, refilling his cup. "But, just so you know, I don't like you."

Somewhere behind him, HC1959 let out a relieved sigh that morphed half-way into a laugh. "That's okay. I can live with that."

NL2036 made a 'hm' noise. He was getting really good at lying.

 

*****

Part Five

 

The door slid open in front of her expectantly. Taking in a deep breath, Nyota walked into engineering with the hard earned wariness that the section deserved. Engineering was one of the most accident prone areas in the ship. Anyone who didn't want to become another statistic walked softly and with sharp eyes.

"Scotty?" she called out, careful to not touch anything.

Immediately, a man poked his head out of a pipe two levels above her. Like most of Scotty's engineers, the ensign looked both dirty and dazed. "He's back there," he called out, helpfully pointing the way.

Nyota gave him her thanks and moved on, her shoes quickly clicking across the grating that made up the floor. She had time--Spock had delayed the away mission in deference to Admiral Pike's sudden presence on the Enterprise.

Meanwhile, this gave her time to prepare for her role. She was to be the liaison between the Enterprise and the city government. It wasn't an unusual job for a communication officer, but she couldn't help but feel leery about it.

She figured she'd feel better once the Enterprise was far, far away from Risa II.

It wasn't long before she could hear Scotty's distinctive voice bouncing off of exposed pipes and bits of metal. She couldn't immediately pinpoint his location, as the acoustics of the section were rather strange.

The Enterprise had initially gone into battle against the Narada with the engineering section only half completed. When Scotty took over as Chief Engineer, he refused let Starfleet finish the job. He argued that what they wanted to do was mostly aesthetic anyway--adding walls, putting up dividers, hiding pipes in concrete. His time on Delta Vega showed him the perks of being able to directly access various structures and parts of the machines when they were malfunctioning.

Once they were convinced that it would cause no additional safety hazards, Starfleet let him have his way. Nyota half-expected Kirk had something to do with that. When they started out on the Enterprise, Kirk's clear biases for McCoy, Sulu, and Scotty had been a point of intense contention between her and Kirk, and again between Kirk and Spock. Jim never really learned to separate his personal life from his professional.

And, in the end, she realized he never would.

"Ah, Nyota!" At the sound of Scotty's voice, Nyota's head shot up. She saw a flash of red and a smear of white in the gaps in the wall of pipes. Aware he was doing the same on the other side, she bent and moved until she could see him through a square of open space framed by pipes. When he saw her, he beamed, the motion emphasizing the gunk smeared over his face.

"Hiya, Scotty," she said, unable to stop herself from smiling back at him. "What did you call me for?"

"Oh!" He held up a finger. "Half a mo'."

He disappeared off to the left and, mildly confused, she started walking off in that direction, trying to find a way through the pipes. Further down the hallway, she heard the thud of his feet hitting the metal floor, one foot slightly after another, so she hurried up. Just as she turned the corner, so did he.

They both jumped slightly back to avoid hitting each other. Scotty's hands shot up to her arms. Startled, Nyota laughed.

"Playing hide and seek?" she asked teasingly.

"Something like that," he said, grinning. He sobered suddenly and dropped his hands, reaching into his pocket to pull out a plastic-y contraption. He wordlessly put it into her hand. He had a vaguely troubled look on his face.

Her hand flexed around the thing experimentally. It was about four inches long, three inches wide, and one inch thick. It was heavy. It had a flip top.

She looked up. "What's this?"

"We've been, er…" Scotty watched her idly flip the lid of clunky box open. "Makin' adjustments to communicator designs."

"This?" Somewhat in disbelief, she gestured at him with it. "This is your communicator prototype?" It was twice the size of her own communicator, and at least three times as heavy. And while she was aware Scotty was tinkering with communicator technology, she'd thought he was making it better, not worse.

"I know it's not attractive. It's functional. It does what we want it to do." Scotty paused for a long moment, and then shrugged. "Kinda."

Nyota stared at him. He was a nut. "Kinda," she echoed flatly. "Kinda as in 'close enough', or kinda as in Archer's dog?"

Scotty blinked several times. He smiled somewhat disarmingly. "Have I mentioned how lovely you look today?"

"Scotty," she hissed.

"So the science is a wee bit dodgy. It still works!" Scotty looked shifty all of the sudden. He started tapping his thigh with the very tips of his fingers, a quirk of his that usually conveyed nervousness. "In order to boost the signal strength--which is something we can't do with the communicators Starfleet gives us--we, uh, we had to add something a little dangerous."

Nyota's eyes narrowed. "How dangerous?"

Scotty pinched the air between two fingers. "Erm, slightly radioactive?" Instantly alarmed, she dropped the communicator. Scotty barely caught it before it hit the ground. "What? It's not leechin' anything- Nyota!"

Nyota spun around on her heel and walked away, shocked and hurt--because Scotty knew better, didn't he? Forget the fact that radiation was bad, he knew what she felt about it. He was there when Nyota watched Gaila try to recover from being bombarded with radiation for two weeks. He was there when Nyota cried and when Gaila nearly self-destructed. He knew how she felt and why and this… this was beyond him, really.

"Now I realize this is all very insensitive!" Scotty called out from behind her, sounding anxious. "But I had a reason." Nyota slowly turned around. Scotty was staring at her, looking faintly like a kicked dog, but all the more determined because of it. "It's a very good reason too, if ye'd let me explain."

She paused, and then crossed her arms over her chest. "Five seconds, Scotty."

Scotty quickly covered the gap between them. "Okay, um. The communicators we have are incredibly susceptible to the slightest change in atmosphere and wavelengths, and if the ship falls out of a certain level o' orbit with a planet, the people on that planet are bloody well screwed, communications wise. And in so many situations, we find that havin' a steady channel between the away team and the ship is one fairly reliable factor that allows us to predict whether that away team will come back or not." He barely breathed between sentences. "So we've been tryin' to make a communicator that could send out a signal that wasn't so sensitive to change, a signal that could reach out farther and to more receivers. It could revolutionize the entire communicator industry!"

"That's nice, Scotty. Really, a good side project," Nyota emphasized, because it was true. "But it doesn't answer the question, does it? Why are you trying to give me your prototype?"

Looking uneasy now, Scotty flapped a hand in the general direction of the bridge. "The Russian predicted a thirty percent chance o' an ion storm in the next twelve hours. And I, uh…" He looked away from her suddenly, watching his hand fold over the edge of a railing. "If the efficiency of a signal has such a high correlation with the survival of an away team member-" Scotty cut himself off suddenly, looking at her with sad eyes. He rubbed the back of his neck. "To hell with the logic, Nyota." He sighed heavily, his shoulders dropping. "To be honest, I just didn't want to lose you too."

Nyota stared at him for a long moment, speechless. "Scotty," she whispered finally, stepping up to him. She wrapped her arms tightly around his torso. Quickly, gratefully, his arms wrapped around her too.

After a moment, he said, "There's, er, just a tiny problem. Negligible, really."

Nyota stiffened. "Scotty," she growled, trying to pull away from him.

His arms tightened. "Shh, shh," he said soothingly. She scowled at his throat. Why did she like him, again? He was a nut. A nut! "It's not a big issue. In its current stage of design, it can only send out messages, and only to one receiver. We're, uh, still workin' on that."

Nyota waited a few beats and then pulled back slightly, frowning up at Scotty. He frowned back at her. His pale face was lined with fatigue--more so than usual. She had a sudden mental image of him bent over a table, twisting tiny tools in the innards of the communicator. He didn't even like machines that small. He preferred starships and physics to small things and mechanics.

He wordlessly offered her the prototype again. This time, she took it.

Still frowning, Nyota tapped his chest with the prototype. "I won't have to use this," she said firmly. After a moment, though, she relented, smiling up at him. "But thank you."

"Don't thank me," Scotty said gruffly. He was blushing. "Just come back. I'll be monitorin' your frequencies."

 

*****

 

They never did fix the damn table in the main conference room. One leg was about a half inch too short. Kirk probably never noticed, but Chris Pike bet a month's worth of his salary that it bugged the hell out of Spock. Vulcans never did respond well to matter out of place--which made him wonder how Spock did as a kid.

If any one person could perfectly describe 'matter out of place', that person was Spock, as he was neither Human nor Vulcan. The runner-up was the brilliant, bright Jim Kirk bleeding on a dirty bar floor.

Pike sighed. He liked that kid. He was sassy, talked back too much, and was probably on a one-way track for a highly scandalous, highly controversial court martial. But he was good--as a captain, as a friend, and as a person. It didn't seem right that he should have to die so young.

Not right at all.

Pike glanced at the corners of the empty conference room, tapping his fingers on the rickety table. The Enterprise. This was Kirk's place, had been for a year or so, but this ship was almost his, once. And no matter what negative memories he had attached to her hulls, she was still a beauty in his eyes.

Just not his beauty.

He had to remind himself that he was neither captain nor commander of this ship. He was an interloper. He did not belong. He too was matter out of place. Worse yet, he had ulterior motives, an outside purpose only marginally connected to the ship itself.

Pike missed the simple days as captain, but he had his duty and he would fulfill it, one way or another. This was not going to be an easy task. He was usually pretty good at diplomacy, but this was a bit much. Politics and power plays and one-gunmanship--he hated it so much. It was so goddamn complicated.

For such a convoluted affair, the conflict at its core was simple: Federation verses the new Vulcan colony. After Nero, the rest of the Vulcans started to reconsider their policies and priorities. Normally, any conflict between Vulcan and the Federation was because the Federation took too long to catch up with Vulcan's wide strides, but now, the situation wasn't so much that the Federation was too slow, but that the Federation existed at all.

In the minds of some Vulcans, the conflict with Nero was caused in part by the presence of the Federation in the universe. There was a growing movement within the group of survivors for the colony to secede entirely from the Federation, which both fed from and fanned the flames of a revived trend of Vulcanoid-specific xenophobia.

Disregarding whatever some bigots thought, it would be a terrible loss to the Federation if the Vulcans seceded, which was why so many admirals, diplomats, and mediators were currently stationed on Vulcan, trying to present a Vulcan-worthy argument of why they should stay. Whether or not Pike's peers were successful in their attempt was unknown. The Vulcans were being coy. They didn't give away their hand. They just… watched. That too had its own consequences.

When every Vulcan left in the universe scrutinized the Federation with keen eyes, calculating and recalculating the benefits and costs of remaining within the system of government they themselves helped create, it made people jumpy.

More importantly, it drove people nuts, which was probably half of the reason why he was on the Enterprise in the first place.

It didn't take a genius to see that Spock's somewhat innocuous request to invoke a law was going to become a battleground in the current Vulcan verses Federation debates, but how would it play out? Starfleet assumed the worst and sent him in.

Starfleet Command thought best on its feet. When you gave the officials in charge enough time to think about an event and cautiously evaluate it, everything went to hell. That was the only explanation he had for his crap orders.

Starfleet--mostly Komack, the idiot--wanted Pike to make Spock invalidate his claim. Like the commander had an on-off switch! But Pike kinda saw where they were going with that train of thought. If Spock himself chose to invalidate his claim, then his claim to the old law would not be an issue in Federation verses Vulcan talks. But while it was an issue, Vulcan eyes were trained on Starfleet's every move--judging their actions, contemplating their inaction, formulating counteractions, etc, etc.

It was a hassle, and, quite honestly, it gave Pike a big headache.

But, mostly, it was really, really sad, because, in the end? Everyone was forgetting why this situation started.

Starfleet had lost a hero this week, and they now were on the precipice of losing another--a sacrifice made in the name of preserving the status quo.

Pike hated politics.

The door to the conference room opened. Automatically, Pike stood, grasping blindly for his cane.

"Admiral," Spock greeted. "I see you are well."

He looked… normal. Nothing like the crazed, hysterical Vulcan Komack made him out to be. Get in one fight on the bridge with a subordinate officer, and they never let you forget it. Pike eyed Spock critically. This was the guy who was threatening to undo a year's worth of frantic diplomacy?

Unaware of Pike's thoughts, Spock inclined his head slightly. "My apologies, Admiral. My discussion with Starfleet took longer than I anticipated."

"And?" he said, trying to gauge the Vulcan's placid expression. "Have they talked you out of this?"

"As of five point two five minutes ago, I invoked my rights as described in the K'hat'n'dlawa Accord," Spock murmured. He shifted slightly in place. "In Federation law, it is written that I am allowed a crew and a ship. As per the agreements between my planet and yours, Starfleet and the Federation are duty bound to aid me."

Pike tightened his grip on his cane. He wasn't exactly surprised--Spock had sent a detailed memo informing Starfleet of his intent to do this--but he was still pretty annoyed. "This law was originally written so that Vulcan would give you a ship, that Vulcan would give you a crew," he said. "You can't just take a Starfleet ship and crew and call it even!" Especially not the Enterprise.

"As you are well aware, Vulcan is not with the resources to fulfill such a request," Spock murmured, his eyebrow jumping up. "Therefore, as of ten minutes ago, Ambassador Sarek--my father--invoked on my behalf his ambassadorial privileges, which include, if you remember, Admiral, a temporary appropriation of-"

"A ship and a crew," Pike interrupted tersely. Specifically a Starfleet ship and crew. He paused, and then said, "And, let me guess, the Federation granted the request."

"It was logical," Spock said stiffly.

Pike sighed, rubbing at his forehead. Politics. Whoever thought Starfleet and the Federation worked together hadn't met a Federation official. Spineless blowhards, all of them. While Starfleet was trying to preserve a rapidly decaying alliance between Earth and the Vulcan colony, the Federation was making everything worse with something like this. The fact that Starfleet and the Federation couldn't present a united front against one commander was absolutely ridiculous.

Even more worrisome--how would the Vulcans interpret this?

He was a little obsessed with that point. But, then again, they all were. Pike could not even begin to think about a Federation without the Vulcans in it, and he knew there were many who agreed with him.

"Admiral," Spock said quietly. "I am aware that the Vulcans are considering an isolationist policy. From certain perspectives, it is logical. I find that the Federation's attempt to, as you say, 'talk them out of it' is also logical. I have no intention of causing a break between Vulcan and the Federation. I am a child of two worlds, not just one." Spock's face went completely blank, hiding the faint emotion that had been there before. He straightened to his full height. "If the Federation wishes for this situation not to become fodder in negotiations, then all they have to do is acknowledge and fulfill my request."

Pike tried not to smile. "Is that your unbiased suggestion?"

Spock blinked several times, as if he wasn't sure how to react to that. "I would like the opportunity to convince you to aid rather than hinder my efforts," he said instead.

Me too, Pike thought. Outwardly, he shrugged. "Okay, I'm listening."

Spock nodded once sharply. "I have rescheduled my appointment with the governor of Risa II to accommodate your arrival," he said, swinging his arms behind his back. "The new appointment is in one half hour. Would you like to beam down with us?"

 

*****

 

Uruk was humid.

In fact, at the moment, Lumiere was discretely mopping at his forehead with the edge of his sleeve. His small, dark eyes were glued to the display of the PADD he held in one hand. Behind him stood two men standing rigidly at attention, their faces hidden from sight by a panel of ventilated metal. Early afternoon sunshine gleamed off the metal, briefly blinding the unwary.

They were probably very hot in their armor, Nyota realized.

And Jim Kirk died three days ago.

Nyota pressed her lips together tightly. Spock's disbelief was infectious; she was starting to doubt. How much did they really know about Kirk's death? Very little, she was finding out. She was also starting to feel annoyed at McCoy, and a little guilty for it too. It wasn't his fault that he was the only doctor on the ship who had the expertise to perform an autopsy, but she wished he'd gone ahead and did his job already--even if all he did was flash a tricorder over a corpse.

The device could read DNA. Maybe if she knew for certain that the corpse they had was really Jim… no, she'd probably still doubt a little. Spock was such a rational, logical person. If he believed in something, well… then there had to be something to it, right? Other than denial?

Maybe she was in denial. Nyota sighed.

She was distantly pleased when they finally came to the end of their journey. The five of them--minus Lumiere's two guards, who waited on the main street--crowded into a small alcove just barely accessible by the public. The air was a little hotter and a little heavier, made even more claustrophobic by the building walls that closed them in at nearly every side. She wiped her hand over her forehead, eyeing Spock with some annoyance. He looked pristine, as usual.

In front of them, Lumiere cleared his throat and turned around, gesturing to the green wall behind him. "Uh, here it is," he said, eyes darting up quickly to look at them. "Vent #18."

They shuffled around, squinting at the wall. She wasn't quite sure what she was looking at, so she lingered towards the back, wondering, not for the first time, why she was here.

It had not been an easy trip to this tiny place. They had beamed down to the gates of the city and were immediately ushered in. After a perfunctory meeting with the governor, Spock asked to meet with the person who was leading the investigation (the head of Uruk's security forces), only to be told that, instead of letting the director handle this matter, the governor had taken over the case.

It was illogical and irregular. It became immediately clear that the governor had little to no idea what he was doing. He thought that his presence alone could soothe matters. Quite the opposite was true, actually--his presence only seemed to annoy everyone even further, for various reasons.

Nyota knew her own thoughts on the matter (he was pompous, inflated little man), but she could guess at the others. Spock wasn't pleased at the lack of information. McCoy wasn't pleased at the 'there, there' quality of the governor's speech. Admiral Pike…

Pike was harder to read. On a surface level, he seemed calm, but in a quiet, dangerous way. And the longer Lumiere sputtered and stammered, and scanned furiously through the contents of a PADD for answers, the more that critical look was turned away from Spock and to the governor himself.

This shift had to be good news for Spock. Whatever he was planning, he barely had Pike's support on it, and the key word was 'barely'. Spock may not have convinced him entirely, but at least now he noticed that there was something fishy doing on.

As they all were noticing, just like Spock planned.

Her doubt grew by the minute, and she hated it. She liked to be absolutely certain about things, and the death of your captain is not something you want to be uncertain about.

Once Lumiere realized that Starfleet wasn't just going to rubberstamp this incident and move on, he'd fetched the director's notes and lead them to where the security forces found Kirk's body, which was where they were now.

Again, it was no walk in the park. To get to this actual point--this tiny little alcove at the end of an alley--they had to step over partitions and slide past barriers. They'd walked up two flights of stairs and down four. They even had to wait to get permission to pass through a few code-locked doors. The area was clearly not designed to invite traffic, on foot or otherwise. The closer they got to it, the more vivid signs cropped up.

Danger. Do not cross. Authorized personnel only.

And that was probably the second thing that made her doubt so much--the sheer difficulty of it all. Also, the warnings. Kirk had his moments of utter idiocy, but he wasn't stupid. How could he have crossed all of this without noticing the pleas for him to turn back?

Nyota was pulled away from her thoughts when Lumiere cleared his throat. She glanced over at him, noting that his nose was to the PADD again. From time to time, he had read to them from the data display like he thought rehashing the same information over and over again could somehow create an all new explanation for Kirk's death.

Lumiere cleared his throat again. "So, Mr. Kirk-"

"Captain," Spock corrected sharply.

Lumiere eyed him warily. "Er, right. So Captain Kirk, probably inebriated-"

Spock's voice cut through Lumiere's explanation. "Do not voice conclusions that have no basis in data," he said flatly.

Nyota winced. Ouch. Had he been the type to say as much in class, with that tone of voice? He would have had a much greater dropout rate in his classes than his typical eleven percent.

To the left of her, McCoy snorted. "Jim wouldn't have drank. He was on medication at the time." In a lower voice, he said to Spock, "He was sick."

Spock didn't nod or shake his head. Rather, she had the feeling that he hadn't known that bit of information, and was now fitting it in his understanding of the situation at hand.

Nyota was pretty good at reading Vulcans.

Lumiere coughed to get their attention. "Ahem! So. Captain Kirk was exposed to superheated air and died, here," he said, gesturing at the ground in front of the wall.

For a moment, they all quietly stared at the innocuous stretch of floor in front of them.

"Christ," McCoy said suddenly, walking away.

"How?" Pike asked tersely.

Lumiere turned to him. "Ah, the ventilation system. Horrible coincidence. You see, much of the life support, environmental, and power systems exist and operate below this city. When these… machines operate, sometimes they heat up the air around them. We have an extended ventilation system that funnels out this super heated air out of the underground and away from the city at certain specific times of the day. This air can reach up to a thousand degrees in Celsius."

While Lumiere was talking to Pike, Spock's eyes rose and met hers. Purposefully, they flitted away, landing on McCoy's back. She followed his gaze. The doctor hadn't moved too far--just a little bit down the hall. He was looking moodily up at the walls.

When she looked back, Spock was looking at her. Yeah, she got the hint.

Nyota turned away from the group and walked towards McCoy. Behind her, she heard Pike ask to look at objective records--audio and video feeds, mostly. Lumiere sputtered something before admitting that they didn't actually have any.

"Privacy is very important on Uruk," he insisted. Nyota tried to tune him out, but found it nearly impossible. "Any such measures were voted off the colony's constitution. Even handheld recorders are prohibited in all areas of the city, save for certain outlined areas, such as the conference halls and the-"

Spock interjected. "Then I suppose you have eyewitness accounts."

"The security forces-"

Nyota stopped next to McCoy, clasping her hands behind her back. He muttered to her, "I was afraid I'd get lost."

"That might be a problem," she said neutrally. She made a point of looking at the same wall he was looking at, then snuck a glance up at his face. She might have been good at reading Vulcans, but grouchy Southern doctors were a whole different game.

Lumiere's voice filled the silence between them. "We have certain ways of keeping records that doesn't violate the privacy of our citizens," he said defensively.

McCoy seemed completely oblivious to the governor's words. "That's a really shitty way to die," he said distantly, crossing his arms over his chest. "Dying because you stood in front of a vent, I mean."

Nyota bit her lip, and then said, "If he's actually dead."

McCoy shot her a glance. "Please. Don't tell me you're riding in Spock's crazy bus."

From behind her, Spock's voice rose over the others. "I am familiar with the design of this ventilation system."

"Some things… just don't add up," she said slowly.

McCoy turned to face her completely. "They sure don't," he agreed. "But I'm not the type to jump to pegasi when I hear hooves clattering outside my door."

Spock's lecturing tone wound in and out of her thoughts, like a continuous buzzing noise. "As per safety regulations, the ventilation shafts point upwards so that the air can mix with the atmosphere."

"Then do the autopsy!" she hissed.

Behind her, Spock was still talking. "By this method, the air would actually cool itself quite quickly. One would need to be directly in front of a shaft in order receive the full affect of the heated air. However, this in itself presents a problem."

Meanwhile, McCoy had stiffened. He leaned closer to her, nearly snarling at her. "You too, huh?" His eyes were stormy as he jabbed a finger down at the ground. "I figured you, of all people, would know what it feels like when your best friend-"

Spock's words overlapped McCoy's. "The opening of the vent is located eighteen point five three feet above than my captain. He would not have been able to reach it."

Nyota shook her head, trying to focus. The heat, the exhaustion, the stress--all of it was making it hard ignore everything else. She pressed a hand against her forehead. "Doctor McCoy- Leonard, I…"

"Don't, I'm…" All the anger leeched out of McCoy's expression. Now, he just looked sad. "I'm not mad at you, Nyota."

Spock's voice rose again and, this time, McCoy turned to it. After a moment, so did Nyota. Why it had caught the doctor's attention was immediately obvious--Spock's tone was the sharpest she'd ever heard it to be, veering far, far away from its typical neutrality.

Spock's eyes were narrow as he delivered the killing blow to Lumiere's investigation. "Considering the abilities of my captain, the makeup of your ventilation system, and the multitude of security protocols set in place, the scenario you proposed is not possible. Additionally, my captain is neither capable of flight, nor capable of scaling a smooth wall. Therefore, your explanation for his death is inadequate." Spock turned sharply to Pike. "As per Starfleet regulations, the death of any Starfleet officer within Federation space that has not been properly accounted for is automatically considered a homicide. Furthermore, since the captain's death was improperly reported, prematurely closed, and inadequately investigated, suspicion will fall on the investigative party."

Looking troubled, Pike just nodded. He glanced at the governor. "You'll probably be questioned."

"Questioned?" Lumiere, who had been, up to this point, submissive and fairly apologetic, was now deeply offended. His face was turning a bright red. "My security forces may not have been as competent as I thought, but we never killed anyone!"

"That is a matter you will need to take up with the Federation investigation team," Pike said dismissively.

Lumiere seethed quietly, and then said, "Is there anyway he can keep this quiet?" 'He' was Spock. "Just until this blows over?"

"No," Pike said shortly, limping out of the small alcove. McCoy and Nyota both backed up against the wall so he could pass.

Not sparing even a second to look at either of them, Lumiere hurried after Pike. "You don't understand. More than half of our economy is based on tourism-" His voice disappeared down the alley.

After a moment of silence, Nyota looked over at McCoy, only to find him moving back into the small space. He stopped and stared up at the vent, carefully avoiding the spot where Lumiere said Kirk died. He pretty much ignored Spock, who stood silently in front of the alcove's furthest wall.

Nyota made her way to his side again, also facing the wall. She tried to find what so interested him, but wall was wall to her. Specifically, this wall was wall plus a small, dark paneling with sharp edges.

Nyota titled her head, squinting at it. The vent didn't look dangerous at all. It didn't look like it could roast a bird, let alone a Human.

Noticing her attention suddenly, McCoy nodded toward the wall. "Isn't this one of the city buildings?"

"Yes. The…" Nyota thought back to the sign in front of the building. "Department of Applied Technology." She edged closer to him and looked up at the building as well. "What are you thinking?"

His mouth twisted slightly. He pointed up. "Got a couple of windows, but it would be a long fall." McCoy sighed, dragging his gaze down. He rubbed the back of his neck. "It's the only way I can think of him getting in the way of that hot air." He sounded glum.

Nyota looked up again at the building. Likely the result of another safety precaution, the windows didn't start until about the fifteenth level. Who knew if they could even open?

"If he fell, you could tell, right? Medically, I mean."

"Yeah," McCoy said shortly.

Nodding to herself, Nyota stared up at the building for a little. Then she shook her head. "There's no way Kirk could have gotten up to one of those offices." She dropped her eyes, meeting McCoy's frown. "Uruk law severely limits the places tourists can go--something about privacy. If you exclude hotels from the mix, the general rule is four below and two above the street level." Next to her, McCoy gazed at the building again, dubious. "Could he have, you know… charmed someone into showing him the office?"

"Sounds like something he could do but, honestly?" McCoy shrugged. "Why? He had no interest in anything above street level. He would have flirted his way into the lower levels first."

A voice came from behind them, causing them both to flinch. "Then the primary question remains." Spock took two steps toward them, clasping his hands behind his back. "How?" He too gazed up at the wall.

"Yeah, I got the hint," McCoy groused.

"Hey!" Pike called down the alley. He had a pinched look on his face. "We're going back to the ship!"

After that, they all made their way back to the main street. They attracted some looks from people going up and down the street, but they were largely ignored. Starfleet officers were not odd people to see on a tourist-y place like Risa II.

Nyota's eyes wandered down the street. Lumiere was arguing with several other men in robes, his face flushed and his hands flying around his face. Nyota winced. Great. On some level, she would have to deal with that.

Several feet away from her, Pike flipped open his communicator. "Enterprise, three to beam up in five," she overheard him say. "You have the coordinates. Pike out."

"Three?" McCoy echoed. His gaze jerked to her. "Oh, right. You're staying here. Good luck with that."

Feeling awkward, Nyota gestured at him. "Thanks. You too. With the-"

"Yeah," he muttered, looking worried.

She watched silently as McCoy passed her and jogged up to Pike's side. The doctor made several sharp gestures, pointing at the admiral's leg. He made several gestures in return, none of them polite.

The way they went on, you'd never know they were actually friends.

Nyota turned her head slightly and realized Spock was still walking with her. Scotty's prototype suddenly hung heavily in her pocket as she stared deep in her old boyfriend's eyes. He stared back at her, expressionless and yet somehow sad.

Nyota sighed mentally, her eyes flicking over his face. She missed him a lot, actually--just not in a romantic way.

He looked like he needed a hug. She wished she could give him one without alienating him too badly.

"Nyota," Spock said softly.

Realizing that she'd stared at him for too long, she cleared her throat, straightening her uniform. "You'll forward me any additional requests?" she asked briskly, speeding up her pace.

"I-Yes." He sounded perturbed. "But I must admit to some concern regarding your safety." His voice rose tentatively at the end, almost as if he was uncertain if he was stepping on her ego--which was funny, because, a year ago? He wouldn't have cared.

Smiling to herself, Nyota relented and slowed down, letting him catch up. "I'll be fine," she promised, eyeing him once he was level with her again.

Spock nodded seriously, remaining quiet until they had all reached the predetermined beaming point. Once there, he stopped and turned around. He raised his hand in the ta'al, his mouth opening to deliver the traditional parting phrase. He paused. "Be safe," he said instead, uncharacteristically skimming over ritual.

Nyota copied the gesture, but she too was unable to say the words. She forced a smile through the rough feeling in her throat--not just for Spock, but for McCoy and Pike too, who watched curiously.

When the three of them disappeared in white light, Nyota finally let out a sigh, dropping her hand. After a moment, she braced both hands against her hips. "Oh, boy," she muttered to herself.

"Miss Uhura!" Lumiere called imperiously. When she looked over her shoulder, she saw him waving an arm, beckoning for her to join him and the group of stern faced man. "Miss Uhura, a word, if you please."

They were going to pick her brain until she had nothing left. Nyota sighed again, glancing up at the sky. She could feel the headache forming already.

This was not going to be fun.

 

*****

 

The sickbay was only half-lit. Leonard stood alone in the middle of the area and eyed his adversary, tucking his arms tightly over his chest.

Doctor verses Black Bag, Round Two. Was it possible that he was already losing?

Leonard continued to stare at the bag on the autopsy table, reluctant to move forward. There were some weird things going on, some things that couldn't be explained--about Uruk, about Jim, about what happened that night. The only way they were going to clear up the mystery was if he finished his autopsy and presented his findings to Spock.

But… Jim.

The rest of the lights flipped on suddenly, and a voice drifted out from behind him, startling him a bit. "I hope you don't mind." His nurse stepped forward, stopping at his side. Chapel's pale gaze flickered back to him before moving back to the bag. "I've done some preliminary tricorder scans," she said without inflection. "They're inconclusive."

Leonard stepped up to her. "DNA?" he asked, his voice rough.

"Irradiated." She handed over the tricorder in hand, showing him the tampered results. "But Human, from what I can tell."

Leonard nodded jerkily. This didn't feel real at all. "Dental, fingerprints?" Looking up, Leonard noticed the nurse looked uncomfortable, and quickly deduced why. "Inconclusive too?"

Chapel settled on a pained wince. "The burns and the damage… it was too serious."

Leonard paused, gazing at her for a moment. "I know you don't have the stomach for dead things, Christine. You don't have to stay."

Her eyes lifted from the corpse for just a moment. "I want to," she said simply, her gaze falling on the corpse again.

Leonard stared at her profile for a moment before ducking his head. "Thanks," he said gruffly. He lifted his hand. "A scalpel, please." She hurried off to go get it.

Holding his breath, he took this opportunity to slowly slip down the zipper of the bag. The parting fabric revealed flaky bits of skin that had the smell of meat left too long on the grill, but worse, somehow, as it was tinged with a slight metallic edge wrapped up in acrid sweetness. The smell was nauseating, but the sight of the corpse was oddly relieving.

Dead body equals Jim just did not compute in Leonard's brain, and seeing that charred husk of nothing only cemented this idea. Leonard realized he'd expected to unzip that bag and see Jim's slack, pale face, blue eyes vacant and staring at nothing.

The rather featureless corpse shoved his thoughts away from 'this is Jim' to 'this is a dead being, and I need to do my goddamn job'. When he lifted his hands to look at them, he was somewhat pleased to see they were steady.

A few minutes later, Chapel came back, armed with a tray of autopsy tools. She was a good nurse, always anticipating what he needed. While she made her way to his table, Leonard scanned the corpse with the tricorder, using a slightly different protocol.

He paused, staring at the output. Then he scanned it again.

"Christine," he asked after a tense moment, "did you remove-" He looked over at his shoulder at her. "Anything?"

Chapel shook her head, setting the metal tray down on the closest surface. "Nothing."

"Not even something located in his vomeronasal organ?" Confused, Leonard scanned the corpse again. "It's not visible to the naked eye, but it would have shown up on a medical tricoder."

"No," Chapel repeated, stepping up to his side. "I didn't remove anything. Why? What was it?"

Leonard stared at the readings, then focused his attention on the actual corpse. He could see no incision marks around the nose, but the skin was terribly burned… He knew Jim still had it the last time he had a physical. That was, what, two months ago? Could Jim have removed it since then? Yes, but it was unlikely.

No, there had to be another explanation.

"Nothing important," he said finally.

It was actually pretty damn important, because it meant, as of right now, the only proof he had that this corpse was Jim was some security guard's word. No DNA, no dental, no fingerprints--no anti-allergy chip either.

Uhura was right. Lots of things weren't adding up, but he didn't want to hear that because that made him want to hope. It made him crave that hope.

Leonard frowned. Hope was an ugly thing sometimes. It could turn a smart man into a dumb man, a dying man into a dead man, and a gambling man into a homeless man. The world did not revolve on hope alone, but neither did it run on fear, and that was all he had, really. He wasn't like Spock--there was no room for hope in him, because the fear took up every available space in his psyche.

Leonard was afraid Jim was dead all along. The last thing he wanted to do was prove it.

But he was a doctor, not a faint hearted fool.

"Computer," he said sharply. "Pull up the biometrics of Kirk, James Tiberius." Jim's file was immediately up on the closest display. Leonard turned an sharp eye on his nurse. "We're gonna go over goddamn piece of medical information I have on that kid. You ready?"

Chapel nodded.

Chapter Text

Part Six

 

NL2036 was nervous. He tried to hide it, but had little success.

He just found out that his roommate wanted to rebel against the Creators, against the SecuFor. HC1959 was convinced of his own free will, of his own autonomy. He thought replicants were oppressed and brought down by the Programming and by their food sources--which, even NL2036 had admit, had some major effects on replicant behavior. He thought the only logical response to all this was forcibly take back their rights from their oppressors--hence his desire to rebel.

HC1959 was such an idiot. He was also missing from work. These two things were directly related to one another, but only NL2036 was aware of exactly how, and he wasn't telling.

Every time a Human asked where HC1959 was, NL2036 would point in a random direction. Humans accepted this easily as an answer and probed no further. NL2036, on the other hand, could barely accept that lies could fall so easily from his mouth. He was discovering that he could lie, he could steal, and he could do harm.

Was that the sign of a glitch, or was that sign of being too Human? The fact that his lie was defensive, even protective, didn't diminish the heinousness of it.

NL2036 fumbled awkwardly with a welder. He had been assigned to repairing some of the pipes. Rather than replacing some of the rusted parts, the engineers on this floor had replicants welding plates of metal all around the damage. It was a fairly easy job, but NL2036 was distracted--by HC1959's absence and by the presence of stolen device not too far away from his current position.

The welder didn't seem to be working either, which only added to his distraction. How could he busy himself with work when the tools of his trade refused to work with him? He glared at the welder, willing it to ignite.

The welder was basically a handle with a bulky block hanging off of it at a ninety degree angle. To use it, a person had to hold down the button until a switch at the top clicked. Once the switch clicked, all you had to do was point it at whatever you wanted to weld and press the button again. Hot, controlled flame would erupt out of the blocky end, quickly melting whatever you wanted to melt.

But the welder he had, while making the small rumbling noise NL2036 had come to associate with it charging, didn't do anything at all. It was pretty useless--an awkward paperweight or a strange table piece, maybe, but certainly not something he could use.

The welder was suddenly snatched out of NL2036's hand. He looked up sharply, noting the identity of the thief. It was one of the Humans from before, the man who was harassing HC1959.

The man eyed NL2036 warily. He looked down at the welder in his grip and then made a slight, reluctant gesture with it, as if showing NL2036 something. "Be careful," he said gruffly, prying the plastic frame of the welder off with his fingernails. "If a welder doesn't immediately work, switch it out for a new one. Don't try to fix it." The frame popped off, revealing the inner workings of the device. He jabbed a finger at a small, cracked silver part. "If the inhibitor's broken, then the welder will charge more power than you need. Then, when you press the button, you won't get a nice little flame. You'll get a projectile hot enough to burn through a metal wall." He narrowed his eyes at NL2036. "And if you don't discharge it right away, the welder will blow your hand off." He pointed at the inside of the welder again. "The inhibitor is about to break, see? That's why nothing happened. If you kept pressing the button--like an idiot--you would have broke it, and then it would have broke you."

"I see," NL2036 said neutrally, eyeing it. The welder would probably make a good weapon in a pinch. As long as he handled it properly, of course.

Wait, what?

What did he just think?

The Human stared at him for a moment before speaking again. The hand holding the welder swung low, hanging by his side. "Every time one of you replicants come down here, it means one of us loses our jobs." He swallowed, and then said, "That's why-" He stopped and shook his head sharply. "We get most everything in the city free, regardless of what we do--power, food, water, heating. But some of us, we like to work. We like to have extra." He glared at NL2036, but it was half-hearted. "I get why the company likes cheap labor, but hell. We Humans are probably cheaper than you are."

NL2036 didn't know what to say. He stared back at the Human blankly until the Human made an irritated noise and turned away, muttering something about useless robots. Later, he'd think that he probably should have thanked the man for the warning about the welders, but he was too occupied at the time to consider it.

At least he understood the Humans better. He had no idea he was taking away their purpose. He could sympathize. If someone told him that he no longer lived to serve, he'd…

The thought trailed off. He had no idea what he'd do.

After his shift ended, NL2036 retrieved his stolen object and made a beeline for his room, happy to see his door in sight. His heart was pounding in his chest and his fingers were latched around a data PADD. He tried not to think too much about how easy it was to slide his hand into a Human's belongings, how easy it was just to take, or how very little the concept of theft bothered him.

Once he crossed the threshold, he stopped to let his eyes adjust to the slightly dimmer settings of the room, barely registering the feel of the door closing behind him.

Everything was as he left it--his bedding tossed messily to one side, his hygiene station out of the wall and glowing, and his roommate, hands bound together with fabric, firmly secured to a pipe.

At the sound of NL2036's entrance, HC1959's head shot up in his direction, his teeth still clenched in the cloth. After a moment, he released it, stopping his attempt to gnaw his way to freedom. "Hey," he started to say, sounding ticked off.

"Shut up," NL2036 told him shortly, tossing the PADD on his bedding. He crossed the room and started untying the kid's hands. He rubbed the slightly raw looking flesh under the cloth, irritably thinking that he wouldn't have hurt himself at all if he just sat there passively and waited for NL2036's return. He started muttering to himself. "Rebelling. That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard of in my entire-"

"Existence?" HC1959 offered gently. When NL2036 looked up at his face, there wasn't even the slightest hint of mockery in the kid's expression.

NL2036 stared down at the cloth again.

Two shifts ago, he'd watched another replicant--NL1999--almost get shoved into abandoned mine shafts under Deck 23. The fall would have destroyed him. NL2036 and every other replicant down there watched as the Programming induced placidity cracked in half. They watched fear explode over the replicant's face as he jerked away from the hole, his gasping reaction as he fell to his knees.

If the Programming was really absolute, wouldn't the other replicant have happily fallen down that shaft, obeying the implied order in the Human's shove?

But self-preservation won out over everything else.

NL2036 briefly closed his eyes. It was supposed to be easy--serve and obey. But everything was so very complicated now, and the more complicated it got, the more irritable he became. The absence of the green food--which seemed to induce some level of calmness and placidity--surely played some rule in that.

Regardless, he'd ended up snapping at HC1959 during their last shift. They were both checking the pressure on some of the water systems set up in Deck 22. HC1959 had ambushed him half-way into their shift.

"I have a name," HC1959 had informed him excitedly. He appeared to think about it, and then shrugged. "Well, he has a name--my Human, I mean. But I don't think he'll miss it." Displeased with NL2036's grunted reply, the boy wandered over to his side, tapping his tool on the metal pipe. "You want to hear my name? It's K-"

Fed up, NL2036 smacked his tool against the pipe. The metallic thud made HC1959 wince.

"Objects do not have names!" NL2036 hissed loudly. A Human in another section turned his head, peering in their direction. NL2036 bent at the waist and made a show of testing the connections on the machine in front of him. "Designations, purpose, usefulness, duty," he said. "These are things we have. Nothing else!"

That hadn't been the end of it. It never was, with HC1959. He was like a dog with a bone, so intent on making his point and proving that he was right that he pretty much ignored the fact that no one around him wanted to hear it.

Just the night before, NL2036 had snapped out of sleep immediately at the feel of hard hands gripping his shoulders. His own hands had shot up blindly, grasping at thin bare arms. He twisted his attacker down to the floor with him, inadvertently tangling himself up in his bedding in the process.

His mad battle with the sheet abruptly stilled when an appalled voice broke the silence.

"Ow!"

"HC…" Breathing heavily, NL2036 didn't bother finishing the designation. "What the hell was that for?"

"I was just trying to wake you up!" the boy snapped, his tone petulant.

"For what reason?" he snapped back. "Lights, thirty percent." Their room suddenly glowed.

The lights illuminated HC1959's upturned face. "I didn't know you could-" He jerked his head down quickly, as if he remembered something. His expression was gleeful. "I ignored it!"

"Ignored what?" NL2036 murmured, calming down.

"The chime that turns us off! For the sleeping cycle!" he said exuberantly. "I fought it, and I won!" HC1959 leapt to his feet, his arms waving up and down. "Do you have any idea what that means?" The boy jumped around to face NL2036. "Free will! I have free will!"

"Be quiet!" NL2036 hissed, gesturing at the walls. "You'll wake the others."

HC1959 didn't seem to hear him. "I have free will. I have choice." Just as swiftly as his jubilation had appeared, it vanished. In its place was an awful kind of grief. It threaded itself in and out of the boy's next trembling series of words. "And I choose not to be here. I choose not to be an object."

There was a long period of silence. NL2036, shocked, had dropped back into his bedding. He rubbed his palm over his mouth, staring at the kid's bowed head.

There was a word for what HC1959 was suggesting. Violation. Anathema. Heresy. Blasphemy. All of them and none of them and something else too.

It was much worse than a glitch. Glitches were merely blips on the radar compared to what HC1959 was suggestion.

"Your choice asks for Termination," NL2036 had said finally.

"You don't think I know that?" HC1959 snapped scathingly. "Free will violates the Programming. Free will means I'm not safe from the SecuFor. Free will means that I will be Terminated." HC1959 covered his face with his hand, turning away from NL2036 abruptly. "Hell…" After a moment, HC1959 lifted his hand away. "What else do you remember? From your Human?"

NL2036 never answered the question last night, but he knew what he'd say now: too much and not nearly enough. He didn't reveal this to the boy--he had plenty of strange thoughts of his own without NL2036 adding to them.

Now, HC1959 stared at him from the other side of the room. He idly rubbed his wrists. "You don't trust me."

"No, I don't." There were a hundred and ten reasons not to trust HC1959. He was impulsive. He was stupid. He was arrogant.

NL2036 bit his lip, staring down at the empty display screen of the PADD where it laid on his bedding. HC1959 needed to get way the hell away from here. He needed to be someplace where he couldn't be Terminated by the SecuFor.

NL2036 looked up and glared. "We're going to petition for your freedom," he said in a voice that allowed for no argument.

"Petition," HC1959 muttered, still rubbing his wrist. "To who?"

"Whom," NL2036 corrected, pulling away from the boy. He sat against the wall and grabbed the edge of his bedding, tugging it so the PADD was closer and within his grasp. "Higher powers."

"What, my Creator?" HC1959 scoffed. He mimed a pleasant expression. "Hey, doc, just wanted to come in and tell ya I don't want to serve you anymore. And, ooh, on my way out? Schedule me for Termination on Tuesday! 'Kay, thanks, bye."

NL2036 stared briefly at the ceiling. There was nothing in his Programming that described to him what a Tuesday was, but that didn't stop him from knowing exactly what HC1959 was talking about. Rattled, he briskly pushed on, grabbing the corner of the PADD and bringing it to his lap.

"Don't be such a smartass," NL2036 said. He dropped his eyes to the PADD. "I'm talking beyond the Creators. Beyond the government that rules them, even." He licked his lips nervously. "The Federation."

There was nothing in the Programming that explained that either.

HC1959 said nothing for a moment. He sank into a seated position in front of NL2036, frowning. "The Unified Federation of Planets," he murmured distantly. His eyebrows pulled together even tighter. "We're in that?"

"No, we're in the Romulan Empire," NL2036 said flatly. "Yes, clearly, we're in the Federation. The signs are everywhere." He touched the display of the data PADD, turning it on. "Every activated terminal on Deck 6 had a heading that read the Federation Bureau of Policy, Planning, and Resources. Every box transported in and out of Deck 9 was etched with the initials FBTC--the Federation Bureau of Trade and Commerce. Every sack of flour on Deck 4 was marked with the insignia of the Federation Bureau of Agricultural Affairs. Every PADD--" He flipped it over, jabbing a finger at the tiny markings at the bottom left coroner. "--is marked with FBSTC, which stands for-"

"Federation Bureau of Science, Technology, and Communication," HC1959 interrupted tersely. "I get it."

NL2036 stared at the boy for a moment longer before looking away. "Good."

It was obvious that they were operating with a similar pool of knowledge. That should have reassured him, but it didn't because he just knew it wasn't a part of his Programming. It came from remnants--pieces--of his Human's memory. And the fact that he could so easily access them was one sign (of many) that his glitch was worsening over time.

HC1959 made a contemplating noise in his throat. "You don't really think they'd interfere, would they?" He muttered something negative about how his rebellion idea was better.

NL2036 ignored the second comment. "Not really, no. The Federation tends to let local governments handle local things." There was an odd sense of bitterness attached to the thought--another one of his Human's issues, he was sure. "But they'd probably weigh in on a case by case basis. All we have to do is convince them that it's worth it." NL2036 looked up. "The battle's half-won, anyway. You're a valuable commodity. Replicants are never sold or let off world. Even if we have a hard time convincing them to get the Creators to release you, someone somewhere in the Federation will want you for your technological value alone."

HC1959 had a brooding look on his face. "Oh. Great. Trading one set of chains for another."

NL2036 hesitated. He spoke gently. "If you're out of here, then… then you're not trapped, right?" He pointed to the walls. "Outside, it's big and vast and scary, but you'll have a chance to be something other than…" He gestured to the boy's hip. "HC1959."

HC1959 didn't say anything, choosing to stare at the floor instead of responding, so NL2036 turned his gaze back to his PADD.

The Federation didn't care so much about the exact governing of laws, and it's judicial body rarely challenged the makeup of the government of a member planet. It asked only that certain 'rights' be upheld--life, liberty, civic freedoms. Every Federation citizen should have access to these things. But that begged that question: what made up a Federation citizen? The easiest way to claim citizenship was to be born in Federation space, but what defined 'birth'?

Birth was a process of life, but life in the universe was very complex. Thus, to accommodate these varying ways of life, birth was loosely defined in legal terms. The key element of that vague definition, though, was the equally vague concept of life. And life--specifically, intelligent life--was highly revered in the Federation.

HC1959's petition would benefit from NL2036 bringing up a long standing controversy: what constituted intelligent life? It generally included some combination of sentience and sapience--the ability to think and the ability to feel. Although replicants were not organic and did not have a birthing process even remotely like that of a Human's, replicants could think. Replicants could feel. Replicants even had some measure of free will once their Programming was subverted--HC1959 was proof of that.

Didn't that make replicants a form of intelligent life?

Deeply, viscerally disturbed by his own train of though, NL2036 shook his head. They lived to serve. Anyway, it was largely a rhetorical question, one that he hoped would have academic types jumping all over it, especially those Vulcans.

Except Vulcan had folded in on itself, hadn't it? Wiping out the lives of a couple billion people in the matter of seconds, and all he could think about was the dust streaked face of only one of them, forever grasping at empty air--

"Why are you only putting my designation?" HC1959 asked suddenly, peering over the edge of the data PADD.

NL2036 jerked out of his thoughts. He was sweating slightly. He had to stare down at the display to figure out what the kid was talking about. "Because I don't have a problem with the Programming," NL2036 said tersely, trying to grab at the image again. Brown hair? Black? Red? "Only you do."

HC1959 looked sullen, gloomy. "If I'm such an anomaly, then maybe I do have a glitch." NL2036 stopped typing on the display. HC1959 shot him a look. "Why'd you stop?"

"Memories from my Human," NL2036 muttered, rubbing his head. "They're so…"

"Inefficient? Impractical? Illogical?" HC1959's eyes gleamed, like he'd give his right arm to hear NL2036 criticize the Programming.

"Limited," NL2036 emphasized. "I can barely access them." Although the memories were disturbingly clear for a replicant for whom the Programming was supposed to be absolute, he could only recall general information--procedures, rules, history, geography. Nothing deep or concrete. Nothing like the name of that Vulcan. That bothered the hell out of him. NL2036 abruptly stood. "I need other sources."

"Wait, what are you gonna do?"

NL2036 didn't actually know what he was going to do until he articulated it. "I'm… going to hack a computer terminal," he said slowly, slightly awed by his own audacity.

HC1959 stood. "You are? You can?"

"There are fifty on every level," NL2036 said absently, questioning himself. What had his Human been, exactly? To brush off lying and theft so easily, to have hacking skills, to consider a harmless work device as a good substitute for a weapon? "Bet I can find a working one."

HC1959 looked excited. He darted forward. "Can I help?"

NL2036's eyes widened. "What? No!" he said, panicked. He grabbed the kid's shoulders and firmly directed a startled HC1959 to his bedding. "Sit here quietly and… twiddle your thumbs."

"What?"

"Twiddle!" NL2036 snapped. There was that self-preservation thing again--except not so much with the self. Preservation of other, perhaps. "Or I'll tie you up again."

HC1959 looked outraged for a moment, but he eventually submitted. "I think I liked you better when you were distant and polite."

NL2036 was relieved. "You're the one who keeps throwing out my food, brat." NL2036 made a face, pressing his palm against his stomach. "Of course I'm a little grouchy, I-"

"You'll go back to the green food once I'm gone, won't you?"

NL2036 paused. "Yes," he said, seeing no reason to lie. "My Programming demands it."

HC1959's mouth was flat, his face unhappy. "You can deny your Programming. You can live a life that's not… this."

"No, I can't."

HC1959 looked even more unhappy at this revelation, but NL2036 wouldn't lie. Not to him. Not to this kid he somehow liked.

The truth… there was only one life outside of this complex that he wanted, and it was the life his Human already had--somewhere in the outside, next to the pointy eared man--that Vulcan. Whatever they did that was that involved him lying and stealing and hacking and making weapons out of nothing--that life was the only one he wanted and it was taken already.

The only life NL2036 was allowed was the life of servitude, and he was okay with that.

Really.

 

*****

 

A few hours passed for NL2036, but not without action. Reaction. Flight and pursuit.

He kept his designation covered by simply pulling up the waistband of his pants. This seemed to confuse the SecuFor as well as the Humans who trailed half-heartedly behind them. No one knew what to call him. They demanded for him to identify himself several times, but, despite the twinging of his Programming, NL2036 found he could easily ignore that order.

Like he would ever identify himself to them.

There was a word rattling around in his processors: hubris. Hubris was arrogance, the tragic Human flaw, easily measurable by the downfall of man within countless pieces of Human literature.

And apparently replicants could hubris it up just as well as any Human. While NL2036's estimations of his hacking skills were roughly in the ballpark in terms of accuracy, he was much too confident in his abilities to evade the notice of others.

Specifically, he failed to evade the notice of the SecuFor. They surrounded him in minutes, so he did what any being would do in the face of the threat of extinction--he ran.

He ran, but he was not afraid--rather the opposite. NL2036 found himself harboring an odd sense of giddiness, of glee. Something about the flight, something about the challenge… it appealed to him in a visceral kind of way. Being challenged with a threat, acknowledging the threat, evading and outsmarting the threat… he was good at this.

After a while, even as his stamina flagged, NL2036 found himself wanting to see how much he could manipulate the SecuFor--if he could make them run circles, if he could make them give up, if he could make them express frustration. He jumped on a lift just to watch them swarm around the controls far below him, thwarted in their attempts to catch him.

This was insane, but it was fun.

The lift he took went up several more levels than he calculated, but the SecuFor were still there, waiting for him disembark. He waited until the last possible second, and then barreled out of the lift, ducking under the SecuFor's grip. He laughed then--why were the SecuFor so slow?

He turned a couple of corners and darted into a crowd of Humans. It was some kind of market. The Humans stood around, buying and selling and chatting, oblivious obstacles that stood in the SecuFor's way, further slowing down the already sluggish security officers.

NL2036 erupted out of the end of the crowd and made a sharp right, running up a flight of stairs. He looked over his shoulder, seeing no pursuers. Then, as he rose to a certain point, he suddenly hit with cold, thin air. He flinched and came to a full stop, his arms coming up and over his torso. His hair stood straight up--where was he? He took a couple more steps up the stairs, eyes shifting back and forth. Why was this deck so cold?

There was a square of open space at the top of the stairs. He cautiously approached it, seeing only dim light beyond it. He cleared the final stair and froze, looking straight up.

He was awed by what he saw--a black expanse peeked through the tall, dark green protrusions. Those protrusions--buildings, he named--were lit up by various hues of flashing colors, some brighter than others. But there was only one thing he had eyes for, and it wasn't a part of any building.

In that endless black above him were many points of white, brilliant light. It was beautiful and oddly familiar, though he could not quite figure out why. Another one of his Human's memories, he supposed.

After a moment of silence, NL2036 let out a shaky breath. It condensed into a thick fog in front of him before disappearing. He shivered, reluctantly pulling his eyes away from the--sky, was it? It was too cold.

A loud clanking sounded behind him. He whipped around, looking down the set of stairs, seeing that SecuFor managed to follow him this far. They were annoyingly persistent.

He started to jog forward, away from the stairs, disappearing in a collection of oddly contorted statues. He stepped in the wrong place and ice-cold water soaked his left pant leg. He winced. Nevertheless, he continued, dodging the frozen people and jumping over artificially spaced bushes.

He stopped abruptly over a grated floor. Heat came up from the gaps, but that was not why he hesitated. He'd realized he was moving toward a building marked with large, lighted displays. Now, he questioned how smart that was. Should he really be heading to something so brightly lit? It was much easier to hide in the darkness.

The grating beneath him groaned and then suddenly collapsed. NL2036 fought for balance, but he fell through the hole, landing hard on metal. What he fell in was some kind of tunnel or vent. He scrambled for a hold, his palms sliding against smooth metal, but gravity kept pulling him along the slightly downward angle of the tunnel. He hit wall after wall, corner after corner, but he could not stop himself from sliding.

And then he fell free of the tunnel and into air, experiencing a brief sense of weightless before he hit a malleable mess of something fragrant and thick. Coarse fabric and cloth, rough buttons and zippers pulled at his skin as he sank deep into the pile of clothes.

He shakily pulled himself out of the pile, stumbling to his feet. Okay, this wasn't so fun anymore, he noted. He cast a wary eye on what he fell on--clothes. Hundreds and hundreds of pieces of clothes--expensive, pretty, colorful clothes, some not even taken out of their plastic wrappings.

What a horrid excess. Who would need so many clothes?

NL2036 looked around the room, trying to figure out where he was. The general structure of the room was like many rooms in the complex--straight lines, sharp corners, gray walls. But this room was far more crowded than any room he'd ever seen, dotted with trinkets and toys that created an overwhelming sense of opulence. It made his room look barren and abandoned in comparison. These were gifts, he recognized. Like many of the clothes, a number of them were unwrapped.

Who were they for?

After a moment, he spied on a set of bedding sheets not unlike his own. They were rumpled and folded--clearly used.

This wasn't a storage room. This was someone's quarters.

He turned around sharply at the sound of a sharp, pointed cough. Behind him stood three replicant woman, all of whom stared at him with some level of amusement. They wore black bands over their chests, just like any other female replicant, but wore the same gray pants he did. Designations were tattooed darkly over each of their hips, marking them as owned.

NL2036 couldn't have possibly imagined a least owned looking replicant. Something about the way they stood, the way they looked at him… they hardly looked submissive at all.

But that wasn't the strangest thing about them--their skin! NL2036 had never seen that shade of skin before--or perhaps he had. The skin was green like the fake garden in a half-forgotten memory.

Coughing nervously, NL2036 pulled every ounce of his Human around him, using the man's personality and memories like a shield. He stepped forward, casually shaking a loose cloth from where it had wrapped around his ankle. He smiled with a confidence he did not have.

"Hello, ladies," he greeted, nodding to them.

The woman in front gave him a long once over. Like the two behind her, she had dark, wild hair with even darker eyes. Unlike the others, she seemed interested in him, but in a way that made the hairs on NL2036's arm stand straight up.

The woman stepped forward, pulling free of the other two. She was lovely, and she knew it. She placed a hand on her shapely hip and smiled at NL2036 with bright, white teeth. Her eyes gleamed with sudden interest.

"Hello, replicant," she purred. Her hip was marked h-c-zero-two-three-six.

NL2036 suddenly heard a door slide open somewhere--behind the pile of clothes, he thought. A familiar set of metallic thuds made themselves known, the source of them just out of sight but identifiable nonetheless.

It was one of the SecuFor, clearly still looking for him.

The replicant twirled a strand of dark hair around her finger. "Care to make a deal?"

 

*****

 

"As it turns out, I was on Deck 4."

Two hours into the sleep cycle, and NL2036 could be found creeping cautiously down the replicant room corridor. HC1959 was close at his heels, frowning at his story.

HC1959 was stuck on one detail. "Green?" he asked again, his voice rising a bit in disbelief.

"Green," NL2036 agreed. He could understand HC1959's reluctance to believe. Deck 4 replicants were a different breed and rarely, if ever, mixed with replicants like them.

"…and they blackmailed you?" he whispered.

NL2036 peered around the corner and gestured for the kid to follow him, answering his question as they jogged along the new hallway. The hallways were never patrolled at this time of night, but it was best to be cautious. Replicants weren't supposed to be up and out at this time of night, but he and HC1959 were.

The SecuFor weren't supposed to be out either, but there could be exceptions to that rule too. The last thing he wanted to do was be caught by a SecuFor.

"Yes. Well, she. HC0236. D'Nal. She let me hide in her clothes until the SecuFor left. Then she said she would tell one of the Doctors about me and my 'fascinatingly deviant behavior' unless I promised to do something for her."

The entire conversation with the green replicant had been laden with sexual innuendo and veiled threats. He'd liked her, despite it all. She'd smelled hauntingly familiar, like a hint of some subtle spice.

"And what was that?" HC1959 prompted, still looking confused. NL2036 sighed. He could sympathize. He was there and he still didn't quite get what happened.

"D'Nal wants me to turn off the SecuFor." NL2036 flapped a hand to ward off HC1959's protests. "I know, I know. It doesn't make any sense, but they said-" He stopped, staring at the room they were in. He thought he knew where he was going, but clearly not. "Huh. I made a wrong turn somewhere."

There was an independent console sitting in the corner, facing a slightly raised platform marked with several white circles. Right above those circles were metallic funnel-like objects, their purposes not immediately known.

NL2036 frowned. According to his Programming, this room was irrelevant. According to his Human's memory, this room was a transporter room. These two pieces of knowledge did not exist happily with one another. A transporter was hardly irrelevant.

NL2036 swallowed heavily and backed out of the room, tugging HC1959 along with him. He found where he made a wrong turn and continued onward.

"D'Nal," HC1959 said slowly, shaking his arm free of NL2036's grip. "That's a name." He turned a hurt glare on NL2036. "So it's okay for her to have a name, but not me?"

NL2036 eyed HC1959 critically. "She knows the dangers of claiming a name. You do not." NL2036 turned his gaze forward again. "Apparently she and her sisters--the other two green replicants--have been trying to escape this complex for years."

There was the room. Finally. He crossed the rest of the hallway and opened the door quickly, squinting into the darkened space. This was the place D'Nal told him about, for sure.

The boy didn't move from the hallway. "If her roommates are her sisters, then does that make you my brother?" HC1959's voice was very small.

NL2036 stopped. He turned and stared at HC1959 for a long moment and then wordlessly ruffled the kid's hair.

"So," NL2036 said briskly, moving into the dark room. HC1959 followed. "One of D'Nal's sisters said the SecuFor are just robots." NL2036 paused, and then reached for a manual switch. "We're testing that theory."

He flicked on the light, illuminating all four corners of the room. Just realizing that they weren't alone, HC1959 nearly shrieked, jumping back a pace.

Twelve SecuFor stood in straight lines in the middle of the room, motionless and silent.

HC1959 was breathing raggedly, his eyes darting up and down the rows. He relaxed slowly, in small increments, but pressed his back against a far corner. "They're sleeping, maybe?"

"Maybe," NL2036 acknowledged, pulling away from the wall. He moved to the closest one, eyeing it critically.

From behind him, HC1959's voice was high and a little shaky. "Okay, so, I'm liking this new boldness of yours, but I'm starting to think that too much of a good thing is a very, very bad thing."

NL2036 shot an exasperated look over his shoulder. "You didn't have to come, you know. I told you to stay inside."

HC1959 didn't say anything. He just cringed, wincing as NL2036 rather irreverently waved a hand in front of that face plate. There was no reaction--no movement from the metal mass, no sounds from within.

"Okay," NL2036 breathed through his teeth, pulling a flat edged tool from the waist of his pants. He slowly started to work it into the groove running vertically along the metal visor.

HC1959 made a pained noise and retreated quickly to the other side of the room, half hiding behind a box. He kept muttering 'careful, careful' as NL2036 continued to pry the plate off.

After a little more work, the thing finally popped off, revealing the face underneath. NL2036 dropped back a step.

"Well," he said, whistling under his breath. "Would you look at that?" HC1959 cautiously approached, curiosity winning out over fear.

What laid beneath the face plate was a rough approximation of a Human face, but only if a face could be etched in metal and shaped with wires. The mouth was replaced with what might have been a small speaker. The eyes were two perfectly circular red lens. The nose was completely missing.

There was a moment of profound silence as they both took in the sight.

"We look more Human than they do," HC1959 observed, sounding awed.

NL2036 bit his lip. "Yeah."

HC1959 was quiet for a whole minute before he turned on NL2036. "So, are you telling me we're being bullied around by our less advanced, less aesthetically pleasing cousins?"

NL2036's eyes flickered briefly in the kid's direction. "Bullied is such a strong word."

"Name one replicant who isn't afraid of the SecuFor."

NL2036 crossed his arms over his chest, tapping the visor against his elbow. "In their defense," he said mildly, "what they're really afraid of is Termination."

HC1959 swatted at his arm. "Which the SecuFor handles!"

"Point." NL2036 had to give him that.

Suddenly, a whine zipped through the air. The exposed red lenses suddenly flared with internal light. They both recoiled and jerked back, away from the SecuFor.

"Lights off!" NL2036 snapped, dropping the visor on the floor, yanking HC1959 off to the side of the room, behind his box--because it wasn't just one SecuFor who was turning on. It was all of them.

They ducked behind the box, squinting in the darkness. They could see a floating set of red eyes scanning back and forth, but that was all they did. The SecuFor remained still for a while, letting out beeping and whirling noises. Finally, they seemed to come fully online, turning on the flashlights built into the front of their armor--their bodies.

HC1959 and NL2036 ducked their heads as the lights panned over the room, but the SecuFor only seemed interested in finding the exit.

With stiff, heavy steps, they made their way out of the room in a single file line.

The sound of them walking eventually faded into nothingness, but it was a while before HC1959 relaxed next to him. "Lights, twenty percent." The lights glowed, illuminating the boy's shaking body. He heaved a heavy sigh of relief. "It didn't see us," he said, pressing his forehead against the box. His back was shiny with sweat.

NL2036 rose to his feet. "They must have poorly designed optics. That explains why they didn't know it was me."

HC1959 was shaking, still freaked out. When he looked over his shoulder at NL2036, he could see the whites of the kid's eyes. "W-what?"

"When I was running from them," NL2036 said, confused. "After the hacking incident."

"Not that," HC1959 said, exasperated. He stood, staring at NL2036 with disbelief. "You. And, and… optics." He leaned back slightly and stared at NL2036 before shaking his head and walking off. "You're so weird."

NL2036 belatedly realized that his reaction was off. He jogged after the kid. "Believe it or not, that's not the scariest thing that's happened to me today. That was nothing. When I fell into Deck 4, I thought I was going to die."

"Sure, sure…"

Kids these days. No respect.

 

*****

 

Part Seven

 

Finishing up his latest correspondence, Pike set aside his PADD and leaned back into his bed with a sigh. Terrible habit, his wife would say. Work should be done on a table, not where you sleep. He imagined her lecturing him and had to smile. Such a serious, unexpressive woman, his Number One. He always had to read through the lines with her, but it was worth it in the end.

Pike's smile fell away as he caught sight of his PADD again. He sobered, sliding his fingers across the edge of it.

Starfleet's special investigation force was on the way. Pike was in near constant communication with them, telling them what was what. The information he had to share was always changing, in part thanks to Lieutenant Uhura, who was still on the ground, collecting data packets from various parts of the government to send up to the Enterprise.

Pike frowned. He worried about her--perhaps needlessly. She'd declined a security detail, citing a need for mobility. He remembered then, somewhat grudgingly, that she'd had one of the highest hand-to-hand combat scores in the history of Starfleet Academy, with proficient to above average scores in armed combat. Uhura might have looked fragile, but she was very capable of protecting herself.

But, then again, so was Kirk, and he was dead. Or maybe he wasn't. Or maybe he was, but it was the result of a huge conspiracy.

It was so goddamn confusing.

Pike sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. He had beamed aboard the Enterprise thinking Spock was losing it, but now… Pike thought that maybe the commander was actually on to something. There was something going on in Uruk that wasn't standing up to critical scrutiny, and it wasn't just Lumiere who was dodgy. Everyone else, from Director Levin to those eerily silent security forces, acted suspicious when he was down there.

That didn't mean Spock was right though. Spock was convinced Kirk was still alive, but they had his body in the sickbay. McCoy was currently examining it. The autopsy would take another few hours, by his estimation, and, once McCoy made his report, Pike would have irrefutable evidence that Spock was ignoring reality in favor of following his own agenda.

And then Pike would have to strip him of his rank. That was the absolutely last thing he wanted to do.

If only Spock would change his intent and stop insisting that he needed to 'find the captain'. Everyone thought he was nuts, and he knew it. Lie, Spock! Lie! Tell us what we want to hear. Say you're investigating the captain's death. We'd be fine with that.

But Vulcans didn't lie. Spock sincerely believed Kirk was still alive.

Pike sighed. And what if he was right? Everything pointed to Spock being wrong, but what if he was right?

If so, how could Spock tell? The only clue Pike had was in the law he invoked.

They of the ancient link will not be blocked in events divisive.

What the hell did that mean? What was the 'ancient link'? What was 'events divisive'?

For a species fond of the concrete and the empirical, Vulcans were surprisingly edgy about stating facts simply for the rest of the class--for the needs of the many.

The door to his quarters chimed. With a huff, he pushed himself up out of bed and snatched his cane, hobbling quickly to wall. He disengaged the lock and let in his visitor.

Spock paused just within the threshold of the door, raising a eyebrow at Pike's civilian clothes.

"I took the liberty of investigating the law that you invoked," Pike said gruffly, moving back over to the bed. The impromptu journey on Risa II had taken a lot out of him. He was in a considerable amount of pain, and sitting only eased it slightly.

"I see," Spock said, stopping in the middle of the room. "Perhaps you require clarification?"

"Much." Pike grabbed the closest PADD and scanned the data there. "Eighty-seven years ago, the Vulcan legal body struck down this law, stating that it was illogical." He looked up at Spock expectantly.

Spock was nodding. "I am aware."

"So you admit it's not law."

"On the contrary. It is law. Federation law."

Okay, so Pike maybe was half-expecting that answer from Spock. It didn't make it any less annoying. "Then why get Vulcan involved in this at all?" Pike tossed the PADD to the other side of the bed. "Spock, you have to know that diplomatic relations between the Federation and the new colony have been less than easy in the last six months. Why force a wedge now?"

Spock's eyebrows were pinched tightly together. "It was not my intention," he said quietly. "I contacted Vulcan, yes, but the information I gave them was limited. I merely asked it was possible if I could use the link between myself and Captain Kirk to-" Spock cut himself off suddenly, his eyes dropping to the ground.

Pike stared at Spock's bowed head and then, with a leap of intuition, said, "You wanted to use it to locate Kirk."

"…Yes." Spock's head slowly lifted. "Admiral, I did not explain the situation for which the information was needed, nor did I explicitly ask for their involvement. As you may or may not know, I have little connection to the colony beyond what few members of my clan that did not perish. I am as puzzled at their sudden interest in me as you are."

Pike opened his mouth to reply, only to be interrupted by a ship-wide announcement.

"Keptin, Keptin, this is the bridge calling the keptin."

Spock moved quickly to the wall, opening a channel to the bridge. "This is Spock."

The bridge officer promptly responded. "Sir, there is a Wulcan ship hailing us. They ask to beam aboard. They say that they are representatives of Wulcan Council."

Pike stood painfully, noting how Spock stiffened at the news. "What are Vulcans doing so far away from the colony?"

Spock spared him a glance. "I do not know." He turned back to the wall. "Mr. Chekov, allow them aboard."

"Aye sir."

While Spock closed the channel, Pike grabbed his cane and shoved his feet into his shoes. When he looked up again, Spock was facing his direction, a peculiar look on his face. His eyes dropped to the cane--or, more specifically, Pike's white knuckled grip on it.

"Admiral," he said with some hesitation. "Perhaps you should-"

"Shove it, Spock." Pike scowled and walked past him, snatching up the jacket hanging on the back of his chair.

He was in pain. He wasn't broken.

"…Yes, sir."

Pike led the way to the transporter room, walking tall and perhaps a tad too fast for his healing spine, but, damn it, he had an image to maintain. And perhaps that image wasn't helped by the sight of him stalking through the ship in civilian clothes, but, hell, what did they think admirals did anyway? Eat, sleep, and live in their dress uniforms?

Besides, Number One said this jacket made him look intimidating and at least three inches taller.

She might have just been humoring him.

Clearing his throat, he walked through the transporter door and stopped just behind the shoulder of the transporter chief.

"Sir," the chief started to say, looking behind him. He did a double take, his eyes darting between Spock and Pike. "I mean, sirs." He cleared his throat and looked back at the console. "They're ready for us."

"Beam them aboard," Pike ordered. The chief nodded, his hands flying over the console.

Matter started to appear on the PADD--bipedal, symmetrical, Vulcan. Also, singular. When the molecules finished reassembling, the result was a older male in traditional Vulcan robes. His head was bowed low, allowing for graying black hair to slight obscure his face.

Pike narrowed his eyes, trying to figure out who he was. Then the Vulcan lifted his head and Pike identified him immediately.

Ambassador Spock.

The ambassador briefly glanced around the room, eyes lingering on the pad below him before sweeping over the occupants of the room. He stepped off of the pad with a gracefulness that Pike automatically envied. The Vulcan was supposed to be somewhere near a century and a half old--the exact figure wasn't known.

The ambassador was yet another Vulcan thing shrouded in mystery--no one remembered an Ambassador Spock from the time before Nero. As far as they could tell, he'd had just shown up one day in San Francisco, offering his aid to what little remained of the Vulcan Council.

To this day, he remained an important figure in the Vulcan negotiations, and every official sent from the Federation to work with Spock absolutely hated him. The old Vulcan had a mind like a steel trap, he heard. Unlike many other Vulcans, he seemed to have an innate understanding of Human politics and relations. Flattery and tricks went absolutely nowhere with him.

"Ambassador," Spock said in a stilted voice. He had his hand raised in the Vulcan salute. So did the other Vulcan, Pike noticed. They dropped their hands at the same time, the motions almost synchronized.

The old Vulcan nodded once at Spock, his eyes moving over to Pike. "Admiral," he greeted with some warmth. Confused, Pike just nodded back. He had never personally met the ambassador before, but he wasn't surprised that Spock knew his name.

"What is your purpose here?" Spock asked immediately. From anyone else, such a question would be rude, but Vulcans operated with a slightly different code of social behavior--specifically one that omitted beating around the bush as a tactic of conversational play.

Ambassador Spock slowly stepped off of the transporter pad. "Your mind, Spock," the old Vulcan said gravely. "I must see your mind."

The two Vulcans stared at each other stiffly.

After a moment, the younger of the two murmured, "I will need some time. I have duties to the ship."

"Of course."

They stared at each again, the silence awkwardly long.

Wow, this was getting boring. Pike stepped forward, tapping his cane against the floor loudly. He turned to the ambassador purposefully and smiled. "So, Ambassador. Would you mind shedding some light on a very, very confusing topic?"

"Certainly, Admiral. Perhaps while I answer, Spock can handle his duties?"

"That is logical," Spock said, sounding reluctant. He didn't look like he was too enthused with the idea. Nevertheless, he nodded

If Pike didn't know any better, he'd say that Spock was fleeing.

When he looked back at the other Spock, the Vulcan was staring back at him with a calculating look, like he knew more than Pike did.

Pike narrowed his eyes. "Take a wild guess about what I want to ask," he challenged.

"That would be illogical, Admiral. I could, however, extrapolate from data." His eyebrow lifted. "Would your question perhaps pertain to the Vulcan documents you accessed this afternoon?"

Pike's eyes widened. Mind like a steel trap, indeed. And their security system clearly needed to be updated.

"A bit," Pike said cagily. He gestured to the door. "Walk with me, talk with me. And start with this 'ancient links' business…"

"Very well." Spock cleared his throat. Unlike the younger male who shared his name, this Spock didn't comment on Pike's decision to walk. However, he walk slowly. Very, very slowly. Before Pike could feel offended, the ambassador began to speak. "Once, Vulcan was home to a savage race. These were not Vulcans you would recognize, Admiral, for they were without logic, without reason. One day, two warriors fought over territory. They attacked each other physically, but they were well matched. They attacked each other tactically, but they were of equal intelligence. They attacked each other with telepathically, but, instead of hitting each other, their consciousnesses slid together. Merged. They discovered then that they were not two. They were one. They were t'hy'la. They were K'hat'n'dlawa." Spock paused and tilted his graying head. "That was the first ancient link. It, and other links like it, allowed our people to evolve and establish a pro-social society. That is why the ancient link is sacred among our people."

Pike paused, carefully considered his answer, and then said, "Sounds like a whole bunch of hooha to me."

Spock ducked his head sharply--was that a small smile? "You might be surprised to learn that, in the past, many Vulcans would have agreed with you." He sobered. "But times are different now, Admiral. Our laws have changed once more." Spock tossed him a long look. He seemed worried. "The Vulcan Council is ready to support Spock in his endeavor, should he prove to really have the ancient link."

"What does that mean?" Pike demanded, not liking the look on Spock's face.

Spock's gaze was steady. "It means, Admiral, that they will assist him, even if means severing the ties between Vulcan and the Federation forever."

Pike said nothing and felt nothing for a long moment, but, despite the numbness, his heart raced furiously in his chest? What, already? They'd barely started negotiations!

A thought occurred to him. "Why are you telling me this? Aren't you one of the separatists?"

Something shifted in Spock's expression. He looked… so sad suddenly. "Chasing after something that does not exist is illogical," he said slowly, his voice thick. He stared at the floor. "Jim is dead."

Since when was the ambassador on first name basis with Kirk? And why did he look so… devastated?

Pike said nothing for the rest of their walk.

He couldn't think of one thing to say to fix the pain on Spock's face.

 

*****

 

Nyota sat in a quiet corner of a poorly trafficked café. It was the first time she'd sat down in hours. She relished the chance to stretch her legs properly without being ogled.

She lifted the prototype communicator to her lips. "Scotty, if I see one more data PADD on the security protocols, I'm going to scream."

She'd offered the black box some anecdotes all throughout the day, partially to organize her thoughts but mostly to convince Scotty that she was alright. He'd contacted her a few hours ago through her real communicator, expressing how pleased he was with how well his prototype was working. He encouraged her to keep talking in it, joking that he was getting lonely.

Nyota already decided that she would. There was a practical value in it. The ion storm Chekov had seen was making its way over Uruk. Her actual communicator was already showing signs of a faulty signal--her last check-in with the bridge had been peppered with static.

But Scotty said the prototype signal was still strong. If she continued to use the prototype until the storm went away, then Scotty would have some actual data regarding how well his communicator worked under abnormal conditions. That was the practical value--helping Scotty.

And, to be honest, Nyota continued talking in it because she was getting kinda lonely too.

She hesitated, then picked it up again. "Also, I've… been keeping an eye on Director Levin. She seems shady."

Earlier that day, Nyota had struck up a conversation with a woman who apparently worked for the government as a secretary. She'd had plenty to say about the governmental officials--minor financial scandals, secret Orion slave girl parties, rumors about drugs and violence happening behind closed doors--but she saved most of her venom not for the pompous Lumiere, but for the Head of the Security Forces, Kajia Levin.

Kajia Levin came from a backwater colony that suffered many casualties when they were hit with the Baltan Plague. The plague--eradicated now, thanks to a discovery that the organisms thrived on a certain type of fertilizer--ate through entire planets' worth of crops and foods. The particular hit Director Levin lived through came a good forty, fifty years in the past, and had been one of the first of its kind.

The director herself suffered a personal loss when her hysterical mother ended up drowning seven of her eight children after she'd became convinced that they were all going to die. Kajia miraculously lived through the event only because she thought everyone was playing Hide and Seek and would not come when her mother called. She was only six.

It was the kind of horrific life story that would have made anyone feel sympathy for the woman, but that secretary wasn't done. Nyota had expressed some disbelief that such a personal story was public knowledge and, in turn, the secretary revealed that Kajia Levin herself told her the story. This was not bad in and of itself, she insisted.

"But the way. She. Said. It," the secretary said, pounding her fists on the table in time with the emphasized words. She shuddered. "It was like she was trying to, I don't know, see how I'd react. Like she was totally detached from it!" She shook her head. "That woman's totally creepy. Like a machine. Listen, Nyota, if you get the chance to leave this place without meeting her? You'll be in good hands."

Back in the café, Nyota frowned at the table. The secretary's story wasn't much different than the stories she picked up from other people working in the Central Tower. The only unique part of it was the rare glimpse into the woman's history.

Nyota had yet to find a government file on Kajia Levin, and that bothered her deeply. Lumiere had given them access to everything. Why was that one file omitted?

Nyota lifted the prototype to the mouth and pressed the transmit button. "The director is not very well liked around here. They call her the Iron Maiden. Three guesses why." She released the button. After a moment of tapping it against her chin, she pressed it down again. "I think the thing that bothers me the most is…" She bit her lip. "It's not dislike or envy or whatever. Some people seem genuinely fearful of her, and I don't understand why. No one says anything. No one speaks of it." Nyota braced her elbow on the table and sighed. "Even my best Gaila impression isn't getting much from the citizens." She paused, and then said, "Not that impression, Scotty."

"You Nyota Uhura?"

Nyota flinched, and nearly dropped Scotty's device. She recovered with a quick, apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, have we met?"

The woman beamed down at her. "Sheila Roberts, from Starfleet Weekly."

Nyota's smile congealed. "No comment."

Sheila let out a surprised chuckle, sliding into the chair across from her. "This isn't an interview," she promised, sobering quickly. She glanced at the corners of the room, something about the gesture shifty. When the place met her satisfaction, she leaned into the table and pitched her voice low. "I talk, you listen. Got it?"

Nyota mentally narrowed her eyes, but kept the outwardly, unconcerned expression on her face. "I suppose," she said, examining her nails.

"Starfleet has forbidden me to investigate, but I know plenty of things that might interest you." Sheila leaned back into her chair, waving her hands as if to cast something off. "Unfortunately, I can't tell you anything. But I can give the name of someone who can."

Nyota pointedly fingered the Starfleet symbol attached to the front of her uniform. When Sheila stared back at her, not intimidated, she said, "What makes you think I'm interested in whatever you're investigating?"

"Oh, you're interested. You just don't know it yet." Sheila offered her hand for a shake. Slowly, Nyota returned the gesture, stiffening when the reporter's hand tightened around her own. "Tread carefully, Lieutenant. When the people who live around here tell you of disappearing visitors, it isn't just a metaphor." With that tidbit passed on, the woman got up and left.

After a moment, Nyota looked at her hand. Sheila had passed her a piece of paper. Nyota dropped it into her lap and unfolded it. All the paper had on it was the hotel room number of one of the fanciest hotels in the city, one of the few right on the city square. If she remembered correctly, it was one of the ones with the shiny Tesla coil lifts that Kirk liked so much.

She stroked the pad of her thumb over the jagged corner of the paper and then, with her other hand, reached for the prototype communicator.

"Hey, Scotty. Ever read Lewis Carroll?" Nyota crumbled the paper into a ball. "I can't decide if I'm the rabbit or the little girl."

She paid for her meal and left.

 

*****

 

The air was still and calm. Spock attained one of those states, but not the other. His mind wandered.

Humans had a number of analogies and metaphors related to the state of mind known as confusion, but they commonly misrepresented confusion as an emotion. In reality, confusion referred to a lack of clear and orderly thoughts. Humans freely and without shame admitted to moving in and out of this state, as was natural for them. However, attaching such a label to a Vulcan was an entirely different matter.

With logic, there could be no confusion. If there was confusion, then there could be no logic.

The Humans in Spock's immediate vicinity thought of him now with some level of distrust. Nyota thought he was in denial. Pike thought he was emotionally compromised. McCoy thought he was possibly insane--'nuts' was the term he used.

All accusations had one common element: confusion.

They thought he did not know his own mind. Perhaps they were correct. The last time he had optimal control over his logic and emotions was before Nero destroyed Vulcan. But did that mean he was so mentally compromised that he could have unconsciously created an illusion of a link in order to satisfy his own emotional needs?

Even his older counterpart doubted him. He had implied as much in their conversation.

"He is alive," Spock had insisted in a low, hissing breath. "I have a link with him. It still exists. Therefore, he is alive."

His older self sadly shook his head. "You, who has avoided all mind healers. How would you know? How could you know?" He pressed a hand against his chest, his eyebrows knitting together. "Spock, I am you. At your age, I could not stand a touch of a Human's hand on my shoulder, let alone the perpetual link of his mind." He seemed to hesistate. "I did establish a... link of sorts with the James T Kirk of my universe, but that was after years of service, of… friendship, of hardship. You barely know your Jim. How can you say you have a link with him, the strongest link outside of a marriage bond?"

"I am not you. My link with Jim may not be of the ancient way, but it is there, and he is alive." A thought occurred to him. He took a step closer to the ambassador. "I would show you-"

The Vulcan elder shook his head. "I dare not touch my mind to yours. You have not mediated. Your thoughts are chaotic, whirling--this I can sense without touching you. You express too much emotion."

"I am half-Human," Spock said stiffly.

"As am I," he said sadly. He paused, clearly reluctant, and then said, "I would... welcome any knowledge that contradicts the news of Jim's death." He stepped back, his hands clasping behind his back. "Meditate. Control your emotions. Allow logic to prevail. Then, when emotion does not rule you, turn your eyes inward and look at this link. Test its veracity." The Vulcan bowed his head. "I will await your results."

Spock stayed silent until the ambassador had nearly reached the door to his quarters. Then he addressed him, saying, "Which of your motivations is most important to you? Which will guide your actions in the coming hours?"

The other Spock paused. "Logic, of course," he said. "But… there is very little I wouldn't do for Jim, Spock. Remember."

Meditate. How could he when it felt like sand paper over an oozing telepathic wound? It was impossible.

He tried anyway, doubt infecting him.

Time passed. He cleared his mind. He organized his thoughts. He calmed his emotions. More time passed.

Meditation was not impossible, he discovered, but perhaps half-forgotten.

More time passed. This was the most he had mediated in months, but in order to truly test the link, he had to sink in the deepest level of mediation. Within this level, with enough focus and patience, he could remotely mind meld with one of his links. He could touch their mind, know their thoughts, and see what they saw.

A link--no matter its strength--had the ability to stand up to the unique telepathic force that was a mind meld, as a link was not merely string between two minds, but rather the nexus point where two minds merged with each other.

Proof of Jim's continued existence laid in the amount of information he could glean from the remote mind meld. The better the link, the more information he would receive. The worse the link, the less information. And, if the link was not a link at all, he would receive nothing.

Spock was concerned about what he may find, but he could not continue to live in such a state.

And, if he was truly alive, neither could Jim.

Jim, he thought gravely. Where are you?

Chapter Text

Shore Leave II

 

Part Eight

 

A dry breeze half-heartedly ruffled the gray cloth around his ankles, lightly stirring the thick, rough fabric before dying out. NL2036 barely noticed, too preoccupied with everything else.

He breathed heavily through his mouth. His lips were dry. His chest felt raw and heated. He could taste metal in the back of his throat. He swallowed--not that it helped--and closed his eyes, leaning his head against the fence behind him. He hurt and throbbed everywhere. He opened his eyes again, keeping them narrow to avoid the glare of the high sun.

When NL2036 was working, occasionally he'd glance at the heavily barricaded door at the end of Deck 20. The door was massive and lined with all sorts of chains. What could beyond that door, he had wondered, to warrant such security?

Now, he knew. It lead to the outside. More accurately, it veered directly into one of the mine shafts. The mind shaft itself went on for a while--miles and miles, it seemed--but it finally reached a point where it opened up to the outside, to this place.

Jagged rocks interrupted his sight of the horizon, a faded blue sky peeking out from beyond them.

A metal fence surrounded this area. It was characterized by thin, flat poles twice his height, interrupted every two feet by a linking knot of metal wire. The gaps between the poles were miniscule, but they still let in sand and rocks and the occasional biological organism. But NL2036 felt that this did not mean that the fence failed at its purpose--rather, he believed that its purpose was different.

It was not made to keep things out. It was made to keep things in.

Besides the fence and the mine door elevated twenty feet above it with a connected set of stairs, there was also a box like structure. It was big--perhaps NL2036's height tall and twice his height across. The only time he saw the box's apparent function was when a pair of SecuFor came out, rolling huge crates of debris and trash in front of them. They stopped to briefly pull down a handle on the side, and then they lifted the crates, emptying them into the newly opened section.

Fire licked from within, eating away at the trash. The smell that rose from it was acrid and smoky, and it did not go away when they closed the box up once more.

It was a crematorium, his Human provided. It was where they burned the trash.

NL2036 looked up at the sky. He would be trash soon enough.

Sluggishly, he turned his head, pressing his cheek against his arm. He had only ever known the warm, humid air inside of the complex and the chill, frigid air that came with the night sky. This dry heat seemed to sap all the energy out of him as well as all the moisture.

After the Deprogramming, he had nothing left to give. They had nothing else to take.

But they took it anyway.

 

*****

 

Five hours ago, HC1959 had come tearing into their room, wild eyed and scared. After some prodding, he admitted to his crime: he hacked one of the security terminals. Livid--HC1959 seemed designed only to do exactly the opposite of what NL2036 wanted him to do--NL2036 had jumped up from the ground and started yelling at him, snapping at him for impulsive, reckless kid.

NL2036 had just barely--barely!--gotten away, and he'd known exactly what he was doing. He knew to run, he knew to lead them in circles, he knew to cover his tracks and his designation.

The only thing HC1959 remembered to do, it seemed, was hide his designation.

HC1959 had the offending PADD in front of it, clutching at it like it was a lifeline. Or a shield. "You don't get it, okay! You don't! You're all, 'blah, Programming's okay' or 'Programming's good for you', but you know what? It's not. It really isn't. This entire system is flawed, from start to finish, and I thought… well, I though that, maybe, if I could get records and files and things like that, and show them to people who aren't so, so… entrenched in this, they would see what I see too, you know? That is bad, that what we suffer through is not right." He chewed on his lip and then said, in a hurried tone, "Has it ever occurred to you that maybe, just maybe, we look like Humans not just because of some mechanical manipulation or extensive computer programming, but because we're just as organic as they are?"

NL2036 stared at him, amazed. "You have a glitch," he whispered.

HC1959 stared back at him, defiant. "So do you."

The beeping started. Their heads shot up to the ceiling reflexively. A deck-wide announcement sailed through the air, ordering every replicant on the floor to stand outside of their room.

"They followed you this far," NL2036 realized.

"I'm organic," HC1959 whispered hoarsely. "I'm not an object. I'm a person. I don't want to die."

NL2036 yanked the PADD out of his hand and tossed it to the bedding. He turned, reaching for HC1959, grabbing and holding the boy in his arms as he shuddered, frightened. He was so thin, so scared, and it was all NL2036 could do to hold him.

He could do nothing else.

The announcement repeated itself. This time, they obeyed. They had no choice.

It didn't matter how sentient they were--if they had free will or not. They were trapped in this place, and they would never get out. HC1959 would never be free of this.

NL2036 stepped over the threshold grimly and made one decision--one plan that was entirely his own. If HC1959 was cornered as the troublemaker, NL2036 was doing to die, and he was going to die because he was going to fight. The SecuFor were slow, but they were stronger than him--without morals or Human limits. He would die and HC1959 would die and neither of them would see the stars.

Maybe that stubbornness was from his Human too, but he could hardly fault it--or him for having it.

Every replicant on his floor stood outside of their rooms. Some stood apart from the others, but they were rare and few between. Most stood close by other people, clumping together in small groups. NL2036 and HC1959 were between two such groups, practically included within it.

He realized this was the first time he'd known who his neighbors were. They stared back at him with wide eyes.

Standing in the middle of the hallway, right in the bare indention on the floor, was the Doctor's wife. At her back stood three SecuFor, all armed with their characteristic staffs. Once everyone was out and in the hallway, the assistant began to speak, her voice echoing in the silence.

"Who accessed the terminal on Deck 12?" Her cold gray eyes moved across the lines of replicants.

No one answered. Most stared at her with placid, polite confusion. Others glanced edgily at each other. NL2036 slammed his own expression down, making his face blank. He stood slightly in front of HC1959, all too aware of how pale and frightened the kid looked.

"I ask again, who accessed the terminal on Deck 12?" She allowed them a moment longer in terrible, heavy silence before abruptly turning away. "It is disappointing that an entire level needs to Terminated over the glitch of a single replicant."

There, reaction. A whispered hush broke the silence as replicants all down the hallway began to react, turning to each other in their fear. There was blind panic on some faces, absolute horror on the others. One replicant across the hall buried her face in her hands, sobbing softly as her roommate wrapped an arm around her shoulder. Uncomfortable with the display of emotion, NL2036 sought some other place to look, but there wasn't a single impassive expression in the hallway, save for the false masks of the SecuFor.

Then it clicked: self-preservation wasn't his glitch. It was the glitch of every replicant ever made.

By such a definition, could it really be called a glitch.

NL2036 froze. He knew the second HC1959 made the decision to turn himself in--it was apparent in the boy's dismayed huff of breath, in the way he shifted behind NL2036. HC1959 was a stupid kid, impatient and easily angered, but he was a good kid. He never really wanted to hurt anybody.

Such a good kid.

NL2036 thrust his elbow into HC1959's stomach, making the boy double over. He turned quickly into his body, pushing him through the door of their room before closing it behind them.

He paused by the door and glanced left and right at the startled looks of his neighbors.

"Don't let HC1959 pass," he told grimly. "And don't let him get her attention." He had only received the barest of visual confirmations--a nod from one of the women--before he pushed away from the door and walked into the middle of the hallway.

All eyes immediately zoomed in on him. After a moment, as if reacting to the visual shift of their focus, the wife of the Doctor turned around to face him. An ugly, negative emotion throbbed in his chest.

HC1959's voice raised behind him. "What the- back off," NL2036 heard from behind him. He didn't dare to look.

"You accessed the terminal on Deck 12."

NL2036 nodded, the motion a half-shrug. "And the one on Deck 16."

He was afraid, he thought. But he did not beg--he would not. Whether that was his failing or his Human's, he didn't know, but it sure wasn't the Programming's, because the Programming wanted him to out HC1959.

The woman's eyes narrowed. "This is not the first time you have caused trouble, NL2036. Your glitch is much too severe. You will be Deprogrammed and, after evaluation, Terminated."

Renewed panic and fear clawed at his throat. Evaluation, he knew, was just protocol--the woman's way of doing things in order. She already made up her mind days ago. He was going to be Terminated.

NL2036 shrugged again. "Have at it."

He was led away from the other replicants, and down to the lower decks.

On Deck 20, the Deprogramming started. Like a switch had been flipped, the SecuFor shifted from escort to attack. One shoved him up against a machine suddenly, then knocked him down to the ground with a heavy metal arm. When he attempted stand, one of them whacked him across the spine with the bottom half of its staff, hitting him so hard, his head bounced on the floor.

Everything after that went kind of fuzzy. He didn't try to get up again.

They dragged him across the mine shaft floor, letting him feel every bump and every rock. He passed out twice along the way, but never long enough to be spared the pain.

Then, they tied him to the fence, leaving him to face the elements.

 

*****

 

Hours passed. The sun was still hot but the air was getting progressively colder. The only good part of any of this was that he hurt so much that he was practically numb to the temperature change.

NL2036 licked his lips, shifting painfully. Deprogramming was a surprisingly violent process. The SecuFor had beaten him pretty severely--why? To make sure he couldn't run away?

NL2036 tugged a little on the chains tying him to the tall metal fence, scoffing at the thought. He was a replicant, not a superhero.

More time passed. It was getting cold--too cold. He passed the time by looking up at the darkening sky, drawing imaginary shapes between each point of white. There were times when each color veered directly to its opposite, or smeared out of sight entirely.

NL2036 was dying, maybe.

How inefficient. HC1959's complaints came to him again.

How much time was wasted with this? All a SecuFor had to do was stomp on his chest a hundred times, and he'd be dead--easy, quick, very painful.

NL2036's head dropped against the fence again. Everything was smeared now, shot through with out of place colors--blues through golds, greens through browns. Red gleamed through the background.

A figure approached him and he thought, finally. They're going to end this tediousness. He welcomed the SecuFor's menacing presence, because it meant that the end was near.

But NL2036 realized at once that the being he was looking at was too skinny. His torso was long and trim, with none of the bulkiness of the SecuFor build. He also had visible skin peeking out under blue sleeves, over a blue collar, and, of course, all over his face. He had the faintest tinge of green to his skin--not like D'Nal, whose skin was brightly, unapologetically green.

No, NL2036 thought, lifting his head. No no no.

NL2036 recognized this man--his glitch. His beautiful glitch.

The glitch approached him hesitantly, staring at him. "Qual se tu?" he asked in a wavering voice.

NL2036 continued to stare back at him. Then, he laughed. "You suck," he informed him through a dry throat. "Here I am, trying to tell myself that there's nothing wrong with my functioning, and you show up. Way to bust my argument."

He'd seen this glitch plenty of times, but never so… distinctly. His eyes were so wide, pupils tiny pinpricks in brown. NL2036 tilted his head and gave his glitch a once-over. He smiled humorlessly.

"I think about you a lot, but you're his." NL2036 hated his Human. What a spoiled brat. "You're his and not mine. How is that fair?"

His glitch continued to look disturbed. He lifted a hand up to the air in front of NL2036's face--never touching, always touched. Light shone through him for a moment, reflecting off of the metal gate, and then he solidified. Glitch.

"What is your name?" he asked, his hand dropping by his side.

"I don't have a name," NL2036 said, narrowing his eyes. "I'm a replicant. I live to serve."

The apparition slowly shook his head. "What is your name?"

"What the hell is with you people and names?" NL2036 rattled his chains. "I don't have one! I have a designation, n-l-two-zero-"

Two strong hands clamped over either side of NL2036's face, momentarily freezing his fury. "Your name, tell me your name!" The glitch's anger was intense, palpable--and entirely directed at someone else, not him.

But NL2036 never responded well to other people's anger, did he? Neither did his Human. You fight fire with fire, violence with violence, hate with hate.

NL2036 hunched in on himself, growling. "Goddamn it, Spock, just… lay off!" He shook his head sharply, dislodging the hands. With renewed energy, he shoved off on his feet, straightening to his full height. "What the hell does it matter--names?! I'm dead! Dead! Can't you see!"

His glitch--his Spock--recoiled, backing up slightly. Good, NL2036 relished, because everyone ran away eventually--

Except Spock was stepping close to him again, into his space. He fluttered transparent hands over the chains, over NL2036's hurting body, each motion soothing, careful, useless.

"No. No, you are not." He pressed his blessedly cool cheek against NL2036's own. NL2036's eyes burned. "You are not dead. I will find you."

NL2036 closed his eyes. What a beautiful glitch, spewing beautiful lies. NL2036 made a soft, wordless noise in the back of his throat, tugging at his restraints plaintively. He wanted so, so much. His Human could have his life, but this… if he could just stay in the presence of his glitch--real or not--he'd be happy.

He'd be so happy.

"My name," NL2036 whispered thickly into a pointed ear. He did know it; he just didn't want to say it. But maybe, to this one, it wouldn't matter. He swallowed, and then said, "My name is-"

He was suddenly splashed with cold, icy water. NL2036 jerked awake. He gasped into the light of the still present sun, blinking at brightness of it, recoiled at the renewed pain.

In his dream, he was restrained, but as if only in an afterthought. The bonds limited his range of movement, keeping him still when he wanted to move. In reality, though, the chains were the only thing keeping him upright. His whole body alternated between numbness, soreness, and pain. His wrists were raw from rubbing against metal and he'd lost all feeling in his legs.

The Doctor was in front of him, his face twisted in heartfelt worry as his hands moved over Spock had been.

Son of a bitch.

The Doctor's eyes cut to the left. "You, you ordered this, didn't you?"

The wife stood stiffly at the stop of the stairs. "There are rules that must be followed-"

"You ordered his Termination!" the Doctor snapped.

"He violated the rules. Therefore, he must be destroyed," she said flatly. Something flickered over her face. She dropped down a step. "Nico, he had a glitch-"

"This is how you Deprogram replicants?" the Doctor demanded, his voice breaking. He pressed water softened cloth against the worst of NL2036's injuries. White cloth quickly turned into pink.

"Research shows that nothing dehumanizes them faster than victimization. Realizing one has no control over himself, over his environment-"

"How long have you done this, Kajia?" When she didn't respond, he snapped. "Kajia!"

"Since the beginning," she answered eventually. She dropped down another step. "He must be destroyed. "

His Creator shook his head violently. "Be silent," he hissed. The Doctor pressed his palms against NL2036's face and lifted it up. One hand slide to the back of his neck while the other pressed above his eyebrow. "His Programming must not be complete. All he needs is a Reset. Get me the-"

"Day One," NL2036 said automatically.

His Creator blinked rapidly at him, as if surprised he could still talk. "I-I'm sorry?"

NL2036 had no idea what he was saying, but he felt he should say it. The Programming didn't demand it. No, it was pure instinct--pure, Human instinct. "It's Day One," he repeated, licking his lips.

Kajia stared at him from her perch. "He should be dosed," she whispered.

The Doctor didn't seem to hear her. "A successful Reset. Horatio's theory, rest his soul, was right." He laughed, delighted. "A Reset can be induced without drugs." He shot Kajia a triumphant little look over his shoulder. "His Programming is fine. Perfectly fine!" He looked back at NL2036. "All he needed was time, see? Time and a little space!"

"He will ruin everything," she said plaintively, sounding so confused.

"Get me a medical tricorder," the Doctor ordered, dismissing her with a wave of his hand. "And some burn cream and anything else you can find. I need to heal the damage you've done to him."

She blinked rapidly. Then, she nodded. "I live to serve." With that, the woman turned around and walked up the stairs, disappearing from sight.

"How are you, my boy?" the Doctor asked amiably. He patted NL2036's shoulder. "Never mind, stupid question. We'll have you right as rain soon enough. Then you can get back to work."

Yippee.

NL2036's eyes fluttered shut. How strange was it that an illusion could be so much more comforting that his esteemed Creator? His focus turned inward and he mourned the loss of his vision, his hallucination. So close, but so far. But at least he had the glitch's name. Who knew it would be so easy to recall, easier than even the name of his very own Human?

Spock. NL2036 frowned. Why did they have to wake him up?

Such… thoughtless callousness, stacked upon mounds and mounds of intentional cruelty.

He hated these people so much.

 

*****

 

An hour later--an hour of being scanned and treated and made to drink this and that--NL2036 was back on Deck 13. He shuffled slowly down the hall, overly aware of the double-takes some replicants made at the sight of him. Other replicants didn't seem to notice him at all.

He and HC1959 weren't the only ones skipping out on the green food, it seemed.

A red alert had started while he and the Doctor were still in the labs. The wife had come by for a little bit, as if to make sure it wasn't NL2036 who was causing the trouble.

When he came out, the red alert was still going. He cast his gaze around casually, trying to deduce the cause of it. He was largely unsuccessful, but then he got to his room, and he knew.

HC1959 was gone. So was the PADD.

In seconds, NL2036 was stalking out of his room, tormented by the possibilities. He zoomed in on the familiar back of one of his neighbors doing laundry, and quickly got her attention by grabbing her shoulder.

She turned her head, her expression pleasant. "How may I assist-" The Programmed request was suddenly cut off. Her eyes widened in surprise.

NL2036 waved an impatient hand, warding off her inevitable question. "When was the last time you saw HC1959?" he barked.

She shook her head. "I… hours, NL2036. I didn't see him during the shift."

NL2036 thought quickly, and then said, "Where are the SecuFor?"

"They went down," her petite roommate piped up from behind her, her arms tightening around a pile of their cleaned uniforms.

NL2036 nodded at the two of them. "Thank you," he said, hurrying off. His aches and pains seemed minor now. He irritably pulled at the bandages on his chest, loosening them for mobility. He had to move fast.

A map started etching itself out in his mind--the general layout of the decks, major rooms, access ways, exits, entrances, and lifts. He took the ladders, sliding down them instead of climbing.

The first deck he checked was free of the SecuFor--the second deck too.

This was not the case on Deck 16. The familiar clacking and clanging filled up the air of the normally quiet deck devoted to food making. The only replicants on the floor were the randomly assigned in-between shift cleaning crew. The one closest to him looked up at his sudden appearance--HC1999.

Rather than offering the proper response, the older replicant stared back at him. Then, very subtly, he tilted his head down the hallway. Not daring to consider why he'd help--or if he was wrong--NL2036 immediately turned that way and started running.

Within minutes, he'd caught up with the SecuFor. Several paces behind them, he stopped behind a machine, watching them warily. They were doing searching patterns--grids--across the floor. They didn't know exactly where their prey was, he deduced. Good.

NL2036 turned away and pressed his back against the machine, his processors racing. His thoughts immediately turned to the layout of the deck again. If he was the one being pursued, where would he go? He thought about it, critically considering what the level had to provide for him.

There were no good hiding spots here. Machines cluttered the hallways and rooms thickly, leaving very little room for a person to move or run in. It would be too easy for a person to become boxed in and trapped by another party.

He concluded that he would have never stopped. He would have kept going, kept moving, kept going down. Grimly considering this possibility, he quietly backed up until he hit another access way with a ladder. He slid down to another deck and did a quick visual sweep, urgently whispering HC1959's designation. After a few minutes of no response--aware, as ever, of the SecuFor's progress--NL2036 went down another deck.

This deck was poorly lit. He paused, letting his eyes adjust before making his way through the deck. He reached a dead end at one end, turned around, and went down to the other end.

He froze when he saw a figure lying face down on the floor, barely illuminated by the light shining through the access way above him. Cautiously, NL2036 started walking towards him again. He concluded that the other--the replicant--had fallen while climbing down the ladder. His legs were tangled up in the bottom rung. One hand was flat against the ground while the other was folded under his chest.

NL2036 knelt on the floor and gently flipped the replicant over. He was instantly recognizable and conscious. The breath he breathed was wet and red stained his uniform.

After a moment, HC1959's eyes fluttered open. Once he saw who hovered over him, he let out a soundless laugh. "I'm g-glitching," he said, sounding dismayed.

NL2036 bit his lip and shook his head. "You're not," he whispered through a thick voice. "Promise."

HC1959 grasped at NL2036's bicep blindly, smiling slightly. "I thought... I thought they Terminated you." The smile disappeared in a grimace of pain. "They sure as hell Terminated me." His eyes were wet. "It hurts."

NL2036 petted his hair helplessly. "Shush, it's okay."

One of HC1959's shaking hands reached self-consciously at a pattern of wrecked flesh etched into an all too thin shoulder. "I'm leaking... so, so much."

NL2036 covered his hand with his own. The oozing liquid was warm. "What, what were you doing?" he asked, nearly choking on his words.

"The Humans talked about a starship in orbit. I was going to send off your report."

HC1959 shifted the PADD against his stomach and prodded NL2036 with it. He had a white knuckled grip wrapped around the corner. NL2036 could see that there was a slight crack in the display screen, like it had been damaged in the fall. Part of the red that leaked from HC1959's form was smeared across the bottom.

He looked up at HC1959's sudden intake of air. "How can this be right? How can Humans allow this?" he demanded in a shaky breath. He started to shake his head. "And then I think about it. You know, Humans are not so bad. My Human wasn't so bad, and the people he knows… If they just saw what was happening here, what they're doing to us… they'd stop it. I know they would. They wouldn't stand for it. Wouldn't." His eyes fluttered closed. As if a thought had stirred him, his eyes flashed open again, lighting up hopefully. "Hey. You wanna know my name? I think... I think my Human wouldn't mind if I borrowed it. He might even be impressed with me."

NL2036 wiped a thumb over his corner of his eye. "W-what is it?"

A beautiful smile broke out on the boy's face. "It's Kevin," he said reverently.

NL2036 swallowed hard. "Kevin, huh?" he said in a hushed voice.

The sound of the SecuFor was getting louder and louder. NL2036 looked up at the opening of the access way. The SecuFor sounded like they were approaching the ladder now. He dropped his eyes back down to his roommate, patting the boy's clammy cheek. HC1959 didn't need the reassurance--he didn't even seem to register the metallic thuds above them. He was so out of it, his eyes barely focused on NL2036's face.

The focus faded more and more by the second.

"My… my name." NL2036 licked his lips, and then said, "My name's Jim."

"Jim," HC1959 echoed, closing his eyes. "That's... that's a terrible name, Jim." He made a face. "Terrible."

NL2036 laughed, the sound harsher than a cough. "It's not like Kevin's all the great either, brat." After a moment of no protests, he tapped HC1959's cheek a little harder. "Hey…" The kid didn't respond.

NL2036 froze under a crushing feeling of dread and his fingers shot instinctively to the boy's neck, feeling along the underside of his jaw. He panicked, feeling nothing, but then he suddenly did--the faintest throb of something under the pads of his fingers.

NL2036 sat back on his heels, expelling a relieved gasp. HC1959 was still alive. He could--he could bring him to the Doctor? No, he didn't trust him. He didn't trust anyone. NL2036 covered his face with his hand, thinking quickly.

What could he do? Where could he take him? Where would he be safe?

A thought occurred to him: there was a starship in orbit--the same starship HC1959 was going to send his altered report to. There was also a transporter room on this level. One could easily lead to the other, if he just tried.

Standing quickly, NL2036 rubbed a rough hand over his face. At the sound of the SecuFor slowly coming down the ladder, his mind made itself up. He bent low and cradled the boy's thin body up in his arms. In his unconsciousness, HC1959 still had a death grip on the PADD.

He hoped that HC1959's faith in the goodness of Humanity was not misplaced.

NL2036 ran.

 

*****

 

Part Nine

 

Scotty hurried along the hallway of his great lady, muttering about jumpy people. He quickly crossed the threshold of the transporter room, raising an eyebrow at its lone occupant.

The transporter technician turned to him with a harassed expression. "Someone's remotely accessing the transporter!" He sounded alarmed, like he thought weird and improbable events occurring on the Enterprise was reason enough for sheer, bloody panic.

He was new.

"Pipe down," Scotty said irritably, half of his mind still on the silent black receiver in his back pocket. He kept a tiny speaker in his ear at all times so he would be alerted the second Nyota contacted him.

She hadn't said a single word in an hour. Scotty was irritable.

Logic sorts would probably link these two facts together. Shows what they know.

"Let me explain the security protocols to ye, again. No one can get through unless they have two of four override codes. That's mine, yours-"

The console in front of the man beeped importantly, dragging the technician's attention to it. "They just put in Captain Kirk and Commander Spock's override codes," the man reported urgently.

Well. Damn.

"Call Security," Scotty ordered, taking over the control of the console. "And Spock!" With a couple of quick key strokes, he'd latched onto the other transporter's speaker system and forced open a channel between them. "Hey, you! Are you mad, man? Beaming on a Starfleet vessel without at least knocking first-"

Molecules were whirling around on the pad already, rendering his point rather moot. Over the main display, a message suddenly appeared.

SORRY NO TIME TO CHAT.

"Chat?" Scotty echoed, fuming. "Bloody cheeky- what did they beam aboard, Lindsey?"

"It's Leslie, sir," he said, sounding a bit dazed. He was staring at the pad with a wide-eyed expression. Instead of answering Scotty's question, he turned back to the intercom, reopening a channel. "We need medical to the transporter room!"

Startled, Scotty quickly maneuvered around the console, immediately seeing a half-naked boy laying on the pad, his pale skin split open and bleeding in places. He wore gray pants and had an odd tattoo over his hip. His eyes were closed. He had a PADD pressed over his stomach, an all too thin arm wrapped around it securely.

Off in the corner of the PADD was a message finger-painted in blood.

HELP HIM.

 

*****

 

About an hour after the kid was rushed to the sickbay, someone thought to bring the PADD to someone in charge. Scotty was there when they passed it off to the admiral--since Spock was 'occupied' at the moment. He'd quite manfully suppressed his curiosity as Pike gingerly manipulated the wrecked screen, but, annoyed at how long it was taking, he couldn't quite stop himself from suggesting that the admiral transfer the memory to a different, less broken device.

But the admiral was a more forgiving man than most(Archer), so he humored Scotty and let him move the data off the PADD and into one of the ship's computers. Scotty had grandly stepped away from the machine when he was done, letting the admiral do his admiral thing.

Pike had read through a little bit of it before his expression shifted into something dark and unhappy. Not baseball scores on that device, then, Scotty surmised.

It wasn't long before Pike called a meeting over the Enterprise's highest ranking officers. Just about everyone--except Spock, again--showed up.

Scotty found himself watching the chair next to him--where Nyota would have sat--for too long. When he looked up again, Sulu, who sat by and manned the computer, was giving him a sympathetic look.

How transparent was he?

Pike started the meeting without preamble, pomp, or circumstance, and he put the data on the PADD up on the wall for everyone to see.

The first bit was mostly text--a mildly stated affair on the evolving definition of intelligent life and the role the definition played in deciding citizenship in the Federation. It suggested that this definition should be expanded to conclude artificial life, with the caveat that the artificial life the writer had in mind already had the two main components of intelligence life: sapience and sentience. The writer also said that a particular member of this particular artificial species--who was named only as h-c-one-nine-five-nine--was happy to volunteer himself for these research and examination, but only under the conditions that he was taken off of Risa II, was well treated by his new guardians, and was not physically experimented on.

The message ended mid-sentence.

The next set of files were sporadic and seemingly unconnected. The first couple of files were records--numbers accounting for things vaguely labeled as Programmings, Deprogrammings, Resets, and Terminations. The files went back as far as forty years.

The next group was all text--senseless and vaguely eerie rules and codes of conduct that 'replicants' had to follow. Sulu, bless the lad, scrolled through these rather quickly.

The last group of files included videos--grainy sections of recordings that had heavily armored beings beating on smaller, half-naked folks who did little or nothing to fight back. Not that they could--the bigger beings had staffs that seemed to employ some kind of electricity. One or two blows that stick would keep a grown man on the floor for a long while, Scotty wagered.

Some of those smaller people didn't move at all afterwards. It didn't take a warp physicist to figure out why not.

A new video was projected on the wall. Scotty sat up sharply. "Hey, that's the kid."

And it was--that pale-faced, awkward-looking teenager was staring back at them, remarkably bloodless and conscious.

"They just Terminated my roommate," the boy said without preamble. His eyes were wild, unfocused. "He's the one who wrote the original report. He's the one- he's always trying to protect me, you see? And now, he's been Terminated. And it isn't right. I know it isn't right and I… I just can't be the only one who thinks this isn't right!" The visual of the video started blurring and jerking back and for, like he was shaking the recorder back and forth. "What makes me so different than Humans, huh? What makes me an object?"

His hoarse scream echoed in the room long after the screen went black. His hands shaking, Sulu moved to the next file. It was a video of the boy again.

The hysteria of the first video wasn't quite gone, but it was diminished, forcibly repressed. "Slavery. It's a method of forced labor in which one person is considered the property of another. How does that not apply here?" He started ticking parts of the definition off on his fingers. "We're forced--through our Programming and our food. We labor--we work two work shifts, and those are all about labor! Property? Um, hello!" He maneuvered the lens so it got a blurry shot of his hip and that tattoo--h-c-one-nine-five-nine, Scotty read.

After a second, the boy brought the recorder back up. "Person… how is a replicant a 'person', you may ask." The recorder suddenly got another close shot--this time of the boy's angry eyes. "Don't you think you're splitting hairs?!"

The wall went black.

"That was the last thing on the data PADD, sir," Sulu reported dutifully, turning to the head of the table.

"But that-" Chekov breathed. His eyes quickly darted from person to person. "That vas a boy, yes? Not a machine. A wery, wery angry boy." He blinked several times. "And if he's not machine, then he is a slawe. A brainwashed slave."

"Not as brainwashed as they thought," Sulu observed darkly.

Chekov looked at him. "Is he okay, Mr. Scott?"

"He's in the sickbay right now," Scotty told the Russian quietly. "He, uh… he didn't look good."

The room went silent. After a moment, Scotty started to nervously eye the stony admiral. He wasn't the only one. Everyone knew the man's wife--a rather enigmatic woman known by most only as Number One--was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery. She'd been rescued by the time she turned fourteen, but the damage had been done. Pike, as a result, had always been very outspoken about Starfleet's current policy of ignoring Orion slave trade in order to preserve the Orion's supposed neutrality.

It had been one of those things that almost kept him from promotion, actually.

Pike was staring blankly at the table, his hands folded in front of his mouth. After a moment, he leaned back. He looked up and said in a hard voice, "I want Lumiere up here. Now."

 

*****

 

McCoy was waiting outside. He looked up just as Pike shuffled his way out of the conference room.

He pulled away from the wall, waving his hand dismissively as Pike opened his mouth. "I know, I heard. Poor kid, good for you." He gestured down the hallway. "Going to find Spock, right? I'll walk with you."

Was nothing sacred on this ship? Pike rolled his eyes. "What about the kid?" he said, walking to the lift.

He felt wretched--awful after watching that stuff. Questions chased questions in his mind, but none reverberated as hard as one in particular.

Why?

McCoy followed him. "Blunt force trauma, broken ribs, severe blood loss, second degree burns... and it looks like this kid has been ingesting some kind of poison for the last month and a half."

Pike winced. "Will he survive?"

"He's in my sickbay, isn't he?" McCoy's voice was gruff. "Maybe. Probably. The thing he was ingesting was some kind of neurotoxin, but we can't tell what it did yet. However, he does seem to have an abnormal level of neuronal connections…" The doctor sounded bewildered. He rubbed his cheek slowly as he stared at the ground. "Best case scenario? His brain is fine but he still took a goddamn beating. He's gonna be hurting for a while."

"Any ID?"

"Nope. Not unless you count..." McCoy flattened a hand over his lower belly. "Tattoos." He paused, then said, "So. How'd this kid know Spock and Jim's override codes? Aren't they randomized and kept secret specifically so something like this doesn't happen?"

"According to what Scotty told me, he wasn't the one override the security protocol." Pike looked over just in time to see McCoy's eyebrows shoot up in surprise. "Apparently, whoever the kid's savior was, he was a bit… sassy to your Chief Engineer."

"Got a ID on him?"

"No. No visual, no audio." Pike glanced at McCoy again. "You look unusually pleased for a man who just finished his best friend's autopsy."

At the reminder, McCoy lit up, his mouth curving in a pleased smile. At least someone was happy. "Two words, Admiral. Two." He stepped into the lift first, calling over his shoulder, "Acute Bronchitis!"

Pike paused in the hallway, considering that. He stepped into the lift warily, grabbing the handle as he watched McCoy. "An explanation would be nice, Leonard," he said dryly. He reached over to the handle, making the lift pause between floors. Then he leaned against the wall, making it clear that they weren't going anywhere until McCoy gave up the goods.

McCoy rolled his eyes, but was apparently in too good of a mood to care. "It didn't add up down in Uruk," he said somewhat triumphantly. "And, guess what? The math didn't work itself out in the sickbay either."

Suddenly, the intercom crackled. Someone from the bridge politely inquired if there was something wrong with the lift, and whether or not they required assistance.

Letting himself smile a bit, Pike pressed the button with his cane. "Nothing wrong, dear. Just give us a few minutes."

All he got as a response was a hastily sucked in breath before the channel died. Yup, still got it. Smug, Pike turned back to McCoy, who looked distinctly unimpressed.

"I have to be on this ship after you leave, you know," McCoy said, "And I get enough of 'ooh, look at Mr. Spock' or 'check Captain Sexy Pants' sexy pants' without you added to the mix."

"The dead body, Leonard," he reminded.

McCoy scowled at him for a moment longer before relenting. "John Doe had burns covering about ninety six percent of his body. Most of them were steam burns too, so that supports Uruk's death by ventilation shaft story. No steam in his lungs but, whatever." He shrugged. "Not a big thing in and of itself. Now, the damning part…" Restless, McCoy paced to the other side of the lift, his hands flying under his chin. "A goddamn broken neck, Chris. Ligature marks--rope burns. In the end, John Doe was hanged, not steamed to death." McCoy spun on him, his eyes feverishly bright. "Oh, but that's not even the good part."

"Acute Bronchitis," Pike intuited. McCoy's good mood was infectious--he could see where this was going.

"Exactly," McCoy said sharply, nodding. "Jim had a case of it just before shore leave. I diagnosed him and treated him myself. But the shot I gave him only alleviates symptoms. It doesn't cure it, or his swollen bronchial tubes." The doctor jabbed a finger in the general direction of the sickbay. "But this guy? This guy's bronchial tubes were pristine. Perfect. Nothing like I would expect Jim's to be." He waited a beat. "Do you understand? This guy, this corpse--it isn't Jim. Jim's still out there. Jim's still alive."

Pike stared at the wall, then looked back at McCoy.

They had a missing captain and a clear and deliberate attempt to cover up evidence by the authorities. Then a half-dead kid was beamed up to their ship, armed with enough evidence to hammer another nail in Uruk's coffin. Slavery in the Federation? In this day and age? No citizen--more importantly, no politician--would stand for it.

But how were these things all connected? Uruk was the only common denominator he could think of. Everything else escaped him.

But if he knew one thing, it was that the Vulcan involvement was a secondary, minor issue. It wasn't nearly as important to the mess he could see unfolding itself right in front of him.

No matter what the other admirals thought.

Pike sensed an imminent court-martial. Oh, well. It was fun while it lasted.

"That leaves one important question, then," Pike said, shaking himself out of his thoughts. He reached for the handle, reactivating the lift.

"Yeah," McCoy said roughly. The lift door opened behind him. "Where the hell is Jim?"

"A valid query, Doctor McCoy," Ambassador Spock offered from the hallway.

"We were just looking for you," Commander Spock said in the same eerily even tone.

McCoy spun around, scowling.

"Yeah, us too," Pike said cheerfully, stepping out into the hallway. McCoy followed him. Briskly, Pike asked, "Did you discover anything about that link thing?" In the corner of his eye, Pike could see Leonard mouthing 'link thing' with a perturbed expression on his face.

Don't worry, Leonard, he thought. I don't get it either.

"The link between Captain Kirk and Commander Spock is strong," the ambassador reported. "This is a clear sign--in fact, irrefutable evidence--that Captain Kirk is still among the living."

Pike nodded--power to more evidence and all that--but then paused. The two Vulcans hardly had what a Human would call an expression on their faces, but there was still something. Some light, some emotion that could not be fully suppressed. But that didn't tell him much at all.

McCoy turned to Pike pointedly. "Clear discrepancies in an investigation, biological evidence, an autopsy report and…" He gestured a sharp hand at the two Vulcans. "Telepathic voodoo? What else do you need?"

Nothing. Nothing at all. The evidence was crystal-clear and no one in their right minds would think to ignore it.

But that's what Starfleet wanted him to do. Those were his orders--ignore it. And, while ignoring it, they wanted him to strip Spock of his rank and take over the Enterprise. It was the only way they could think of to minimize the damage to the current Federation-Vulcan talks--make the problem go away.

The continued relationship between Vulcan and the Federation meant too much to them.

But ignoring all of this, that was wrong, especially if Kirk was still out there, waiting for them to pull their thumbs out of their collective ass and rescue him.

Pike blinked several times and then rose to his full height, gripping his cane with grim resolve. He looked at the commander. "We're retrieving Lumiere. We're questioning him about his roles in various… things. You've missed quite a bit. Catch up with Sulu or Scotty and then go coordinate the pickup."

"Very well," Spock said with a nod, pulling away from the ambassador. He moved into the lift.

McCoy shot a look at Pike and then hurried off after Spock. "I should be involved in this. I was involved in the medical investigation."

Spock eyed him curiously. "It would not be wise."

"Good God, man. Listen to you. What wouldn't be wise-" The doors slid shut, cutting off the rest of McCoy's rant.

"You are going against the orders of Starfleet," the ambassador observed serenely.

Pike turned slowly, assessing the old Vulcan with narrowed eyes. He wondered, paranoid, about how deeply a Vulcan mole was set in Starfleet's upper command. "How did you deduce that?"

Spock seemed to smile almost. He ducked his graying head slightly, looking at the ground. "I find that the best people often have the hardest time figuring out what is right." His dark eyes rose. "Yet, inevitably, it is they who find their way in the end, much more than those who rule by consensus alone. They do what is right, even when everyone around them says it's wrong."

Pike settled back slightly on his heels. "So, either I'm a really great person, or I'm really just criminally stubborn."

"Many qualities we commonly label as negative are the best traits of the people we most admire," Spock said blandly.

Pike narrowed his eyes again. "So you're saying I'm both."

Spock raised an eyebrow and clasped his hands behind his back. "That would be illogical," the ambassador murmured, passing Pike.

Pike watched him leave. "Which part?"

The ambassador chose that moment to have selective hearing--a common tactic of his during delicate negotiations.

Pike rolled his eyes. Vulcans.

 

*****

 

Leonard rubbed his hand over his face.

Lumiere had made them wait twelve hours, citing a troubling pattern of terrorist attempts on their communication systems. When he finally came in, he was all bluster and force, citing duties and responsibilities he had to get back to. All of his previous apologetic behavior had vanished.

Someone had apparently gotten a memo from the Federation that they were investigating his city, and that same someone didn't take kindly to the insinuation that there was something untoward going on.

Boo. Freaking. Hoo.

Leonard wanted Jim back. Lumiere could just go take a flying leap, for all he cared.

Anyway, the governor allowed for some questions, and Spock and Leonard ended up being in charge of those questions. What happened from then on wasn't entirely Leonard's fault. Partially, perhaps, but not entirely. Spock, who considered Lumiere an exhausted resource for information on Jim, immediately started in on this 'replicant' business--so poorly explained in the kid's data PADD.

Lumiere had been surprised that they knew what a replicant was at all, saying that the knowledge generally didn't make itself known to outsiders. He continually referred to them as objects, explaining that they made up a large portion of Uruk's task force. Spock alluded to the boy in the sickbay and, putting two and two together, Lumiere figured out that there was a 'replicant' on board.

Angered, he demanded that they return 'private property'.

Leonard stood up abruptly at that--and this, maybe, was how he contributed to the general clusterfuck--and said, "Over my dead body."

Lumiere snorted at him. "He's an android, man. Not a boy. Save your sentimentalism for beings who can appreciate it."

Sensing he could get no more from Leonard, he turned to Spock and started explain what replicants were. Replicants were androids made and designed to look like Humans--act like Humans, breathe like Humans, live like Humans. Of course Leonard thought he was Human! That was a major component of his design--looking Human!

"Allow me to reiterate," Leonard said tersely. "Over my cold, dead, decomposing body!"

He didn't care what Lumiere had to say--he saw that kid. He knew he was Human, just as assuredly as he knew of his own humanity. It helped that every device in the sickbay backed up his beliefs.

And he was just a kid too--maybe fifteen, sixteen years old. He was way too young to have faced the sort of violence that put those marks all over his body.

And all Leonard could think of was how Jim would react--Jim, who, normally so calm, would completely lose it if he knew there was a child, a person, a being facing this kind of treatment. What would he do if he heard this, if he saw that poor kid?

Hell, Jim would have probably taken over Uruk by now, declaring martial law. That was the sort of over the top thing he would do--because he felt deeply. He cared about other people.

Spock was completely different. Worse, Spock was not immediately dismissive of the possibility of replicants.

"Doctor, even you must recognize that all aspects of life can be imitated by technology," he'd said. "The only uncertainty involved regards the degree of accuracy…"

Leonard crossed his arms over his chest. "There's nothing even remotely metal about that kid."

Spock tilted his head. "Technology does not always come in a metallic form, Doctor. You, of all people, should know this. In addition, you must know that some amount of metal can be found in even Human blood-"

Green blooded hobgoblin! Leonard scowled at him, leaping from his seat. "Technology doesn't bruise and bleed and almost die on my operating table," he snapped viciously. "Good God, man. At least pretend to care about this! The Federation outlaws slavery for a good reason, you know--because it's wrong!"

And that, maybe, might have been where Leonard misstepped and made this harder for everyone, for at one, single, specific word, Lumiere suddenly became uncooperative.

"S-slavery?" Lumiere echoed, his eyes wide. He pushed away from the table. "I want my solicitor."

And that was how, within ten minutes of Lumiere's presence on the Enterprise, they went from an informal questioning to a full-blown trial.

Outside of the conference room, they awaited the arrival of Lumiere's solicitor. Leonard was overly aware of Pike and Spock's gazes.

"One interview-" Pike started.

"I know!"

"Do you know how hard it is to set up a trial?" Pike shot him the stink eye. "Thanks a lot, Leonard."

Leonard sighed, hanging his head.

 

*****

 

Nyota met with Sheila's informant around the late afternoon hours. She made her way into the high priced hotel and into one of their iconic, brightly lit lifts--okay, so maybe those were more fun to ride than she thought they be--and stepped off on the right floor.

She knocked on his door and was almost immediately let in.

Huh. For such an overpriced hotel, the rooms were rather small.

It didn't help that Zaire--Sheila's informant--was much too big and much too out of place in the room with its silk curtains and smooth lines. After they introduced themselves to each other, Zaire had poured himself a glass of something heavy smelling--probably alcoholic--and threw himself on the nearest couch, watching her sit down across from him with dull, jaded eyes.

Zaire was a miner--specifically, of dilithium. Naturally, he had a great deal more wealth than the average miner, but this fact about him wasn't immediately obvious. Though he had the funds to rent a room in one of Uruk's most expensive hotels, he more closely resembled a vagrant or a hobo--something he mentioned gave the hotel a bit of a grievance. He seemed to dislike the façade of decency and respectability they tried to project.

"Then why did you get a room here.

"Visibility, my dear," he said grimly.

The miners of Risa II were mostly nomadic, moving from vein to vein once they dried up. His clothes were thus practical for a wide variety of weather changes. They just weren't very fashionable.

Because they were nomadic, they knew the lay of the land better than a good ninety-eight percent of the population. The city dwellers, he said, knew nothing outside of the city walls, but there was much more to Risa II than the city. Uruk itself operated far outside its own delineated boundaries--and that was what Sheila wanted her to know.

That, among other things.

Zaire's gaze went beyond her--dark and haunted. "There's a place just outside the city. That's where they kill them, and then burn them. They scatter their ashes out on the ground. That's how we figured it out." He swallowed heavily. "How we figured out they were real."

Nyota frowned. "That… who were real?"

Zaire's eyes focused on her. "I forgot. You're new." He put his feet up on the rare wood table. She barely refrained from wincing. "You've heard of the service robots that live in the underground, right?"

"Yes, vaguely."

"They're called replicants. They're… supposed to be inorganic. Programmed masses of metal that take care of jobs people don't want to do. Maintenance, mostly, although some are used for a more… social purpose on Deck 4. Hosts, they're called. They get a specialized Programming for that." He shook his head sharply. "Anyway… replicants." He seemed to nod off just a bit.

"They're real," Nyota prompted. "How?"

Zaire blinked rapidly. "They're organic. They're… biological."

"How is that possible?" Nyota tried to understand. "Biological engineering?"

"Ha." Zaire tipped his cup to her. "Your innocence is cute. Tell me. Which is easier? Construction or acquisition?"

It… clicked. Horribly and abruptly. It must have shown on her face, because Zaire was leaning in suddenly.

"You're still thinking too innocently!" he said, slamming his cup on the table. He slid to the end of his seat, closer to her. "Imagine you have a dog that bites people. It never stops biting people--that a part of its canine condition. But you want a dog who doesn't bite people. What would you do? Would you put it down, this violent, antagonistic beast that doesn't submit to your will?" Nyota shook her head. She didn't know. Zaire barreled on. "Pretend, for a moment, that we're not talking about natural behavior. Pretend that we're talking about protocols and systems and programming. You program your dog to behave in a certain way. What happens when he violates those codes? What happens when he glitches?"

Nyota thought about it--really thought about it. She framed it in terms of technology. What would she do with a PADD that couldn't be fixed? A communicator that would no longer function? A phaser that didn't fire?

"They destroy replicants," she concluded, closing her eyes.

"Destroy, yes. Murder, most definitely." Zaire shot to his feet. "Just because they violated an unnatural set of commands in their head. How is that fair?"

Nyota stared at her knees. Her fingers were clasped loosely over bone. She numbly contemplated them as Zaire knocked over something behind her in a fit of rage.

How? Why?

Starfleet, she thought suddenly. She could tell Starfleet. Slavery was against Federation law.

She stopped up, turning in time just to see Zaire pulling his foot out of the wall. "Is this what you told-"

The door suddenly caved in next to Zaire. The man flinched back, his hands covering his face protectively. Nyota maneuvered herself behind the couch, crouching slightly as she squinted in the resulting dust cloud.

Three forms became visible--two tall, broad forms and one small one in the middle. They stepped through the hole in the wall, the two on the outside with metallic sounding thumps, the other with the barest click of a feminine heel.

A woman with a doll-like face peered up at the miner through gray eyes. "You locked the door," she said.

"Director Levin," Zaire identified in a stilted voice.

Nyota recoiled. That was Kajia Levin?! She looked so young--too young to be in her position, too young to have lived through the Balkan Plague, too young to look so cold.

"You will be charged and Terminated," she said distantly. Her eyes flickered over to Nyota. "Do not resist."

Overcoming her paralysis, Nyota moved to the other side of the couch. "I read your entire code of law before I beamed down here," she informed the smaller woman grimly. "Tell me! What rule did I violate to warrant execution?"

Kajia stared at her a moment before turning away. "You ask too many questions," she said, casually stepping out into the hallway.

And… that was it? She was sure that, after she explained things, Kajia would realize her mistake. But that was her charge? Asking too many questions?Her thoughts chased each other.

The two other figures with her--those metal plated security guards, she recognized--gestured sharply to the hole in the wall with suddenly deadly looking staffs that flashed blue lightning over one end.

Numbly, Nyota followed Zaire out into the hotel's hallways. They can't terminate me, I'm Starfleet. Her hands were trembling.

As if they knew what was going on, no other hotel door room opened. It wasn't like they couldn't have noticed, she thought uncharitably. What could they have done, anyway? Kajia wasn't playing by the rules.

Who got killed for asking too many questions? In the Federation, no less!

They made it halfway down the hallway before tragedy struck. With an explosive movement, Zaire broke free of the group of them. He ran to the end of the hall, tapping frantically on the lift's buttons. The lift never came.

In one, smooth motion, Kajia pulled the phaser out of her belt and shot him in the back. The setting was on kill. He crumbled to the ground heavily, sagging against the wall.

"We disabled the lifts," Kajia said to no one in particular. She suddenly turned gray eyes on Nyota, who recoiled. "Shall we head down the stairs?" She gestured to the visible staircase with her phaser. "After you."

Nyota spared one last look at Zaire's corpse, noticing that one of the guard had separated from them just long enough to sling him over his metal shoulder. Then, she hurried down the stair--but not so fast that Kajia might think it was another attempt at escape.

I didn't do anything wrong, she thought desperately. I didn't!

The staircase she was going down was actually a service passage. It went all the way down to the main floor, and then down some more to the underground. When Nyota attempted to veer into the lobby, Kajia's heavy hand fell to her shoulder, manually shifting her route back to the continuing staircase. Briefly, the point of the phaser dug into Nyota's back.

The clanking of Kajia's guards sounded like a thousand antiquated trashcans being smashed together.

Nyota closed her eyes briefly, but kept on walking down the stairs. "Why?" she asked softly.

"Protocol states that Termination should take place on Deck 20."

That wasn't what she was asking.

Down, they went. Down, down, down. Into Hell, she thought as the hotel's stylish trims gave way to bulky, practical supports and dimmer lights. The air underneath the hotel was warmer, denser. Almost claustrophobic.

They climbed into a lift, all of them--Kajia, Nyota, the guards, and Zaire's limp corpse. The basket shuddered slightly and began to descend.

Nyota looked up blindly. Oh God, she thought. I'm never going to get out of her alive.

The memory of Jim's eyes burned into her suddenly--angry, hurt, jaded. Why, they asked. Why?

In the privacy of her mind, she heard his voice and saw him pacing in front of the conference room--the very picture of agitation. He turned to them then, his eyes blazing. "If you're in a bad situation and you see a way out, take it. Live another day, even if I have to officially reprimand you for it." Jim's mouth had flattened with displeasure. Two ensigns had just died--they were the first to die under his watch. "If you die doing something stupidly heroic or selfless, I'm not coming to your funeral."

A way out, he said. Any way out. If only she could find such a thing. Nyota thought of Zaire's mad dash for freedom and closed her eyes.

They continued to go downward--level after level, floor after floor. They changed lifts twice already, and with each foot gained away from the surface, the more poorly made the lifts became. Everything seemed to get a little rougher, a little more raw. The walls of the levels had morphed from rigid, even vertical lines to slightly curved surfaces to the barely hewn rock she saw now.

The suspension cables of the lift next to them shuddered rebelliously. Nyota leaned forward a little, looking over the short lift wall. It was coming up.

She settled back on her heels. Any way out.

Nyota backed up a little, gauging the height of the lift wall. It was barely up to her knee. She could easily clear it. As she backed up, she barely nudged Kajia. Freezing, she looked over at the Director, but the woman didn't seem to notice. She stared ahead at nothing, patiently awaiting the end of the ride.

She was dead inside.

Nyota held her breath and then surged forward, leaping from the carriage. She landed hard on stop of the other lift, barely catching the suspension cables that rattled to and fro. Something had cracked at her hip--was it bone, she wondered? It didn't hurt. The metal bit and tore at her palms as she pulled herself to her knees, but protected her, blocking her from a phaser blast as Kajia and her cart continued to go down.

Nyota pulled to herself to her feet and, eyeing her surroundings quickly, leapt from the top of the lift to the closest, open floor. She landed hard on her knees, hearing a screech of metal as the lifts were forcibly stopped. Her heart thundering in her ears, Nyota pushed herself to her feet and kept running.

And running, and running and running. How far did this place go? She dodged workers and machines, crates and unmoving objects. Her spine tingled in anticipation of the killing shot, but it never came. She had just enough of a head start, it seemed, to avoid Zaire's almost instantaneous fate, but how long could she outrun it? How long could she outrun them?

Thinking of Kajia's security forces--and their big, bulky, metal armor--she leapt for the first set of ladders she could find. Unhappily, they only went down, hinting at a deeper labyrinth than she had anticipated. Warm, humid air floated upward at her face. Hearing the distant clangs of metal--and the surprised calls of the workers she had passed--she made up her mind.

She would have to go down.

One set of ladders, and then two. Three. Even a forth.

She ached terribly and had to stop. She took a breather on one of the floors, stepped back on it to lean against the wall as her palms, rubbed raw by the suspension cord, screamed in agony.

She jumped about a mile in the air when she heard someone speak. "How may I serve you?"

It was just one, she thought and spun around, but then there was another.

"How may I serve you?"

And another--a whole group of them, half naked men and women with vaguely concerned expressions pausing their tasks to look at her. They were Zaire's replicants, she knew instantly. She stepped forward, her hand reaching out to one, but she stopped half-way, unnerved by their expressions.

They were so calm--like Vulcans, but without personalities. They were blank--forcibly blank, she reminded herself.

And then, suddenly, they all snapped alert gazes to the ladder behind her, reacting faster than she did to the noise. In the open cavity of the ladders came the sound of heavy metal striking against metal--the sound of the security forces, following her down.

The ladder vibrated ominously, shaking more by the second. Nyota's blood ran cold. She staggered back a step, away from the ladders and into the closest replicant.

"The SecuFor are coming," he said in a stiff voice.

Nyota turned around, desperate. "How do I get out?" He continued to stare beyond her. She grabbed his bare shoulder, willing him to see her, willing him to understand. "Tell me! They're going to kill me, you understand? I'm going to die!"

The placid expression on the male's face slowly disappeared. "I, I don't know!" he stammered. His raised voice echoed in the relatively silent air. He grabbed her arms suddenly, the grip hard and unrelenting. His eyes were wild and fearful. "Run! Just- run! They'll Terminate you too!"

The male replicant wasn't the only one who responded, she saw. Echoing from all of them was the same sentiment.

Run run run.

All the ladders were vibrating now, she saw, just before they disappeared from her vision. She was being pulled along, replicant by replicant, away from the security forces--their SecuFor. She was prodded and pushed and pulled and, by the end of it, a petite redhead was leading her to an even dingier lift, her small hand clamped tightly around Nyota's own.

Unhappily, this lift too went down. The replicant closed the door behind her, quickly activating the life with shaking, pale fingers.

"Thank you," Nyota whispered through the gate.

The girl's frightened face lifted briefly. "Don't thank me, just run."

The lift started sluggishly moving downward, shaking and shuddering with every foot. The level--and the girl--disappeared from sight.

Nyota pressed her forehead against the cool metal of the lift, taking the time to simply breathe. When the lift gates opened again to a new level, she sprinted out into the new floor. She had no idea where she was going, but damned if she was going to stop.

Death followed her.

Chapter Text

Part 10

 

James T. Kirk.

That was the name of NL2036's Human.

Jim. It was a better name than NL2036. The designation only reminded him that he was owned. The name, on the other hand, was something he could possess, that he could have. It was something he could call his. He had so little he could own--even his roommate was gone.

He would take the name, he decided. And if the real Jim had an issue with it, well, they could hash it out. He honestly didn't think the Human would care though. He had so much--his life, Spock… what would he care if NL2036 borrowed his name every once in a while?

If he did, well… then he was just an asshole. And NL2036 was still taking the name, so there, Kirk.

After he had sent HC1959--Kevin--through to the ship in orbit, he went back to his room, moving sluggishly, numbly through his day. The only thing that pierced through the fog was his neighbor's reaction to the blood on his pants.

NL2036--Jim, he remembered--found himself compelled to explain. "My roommate was just Terminated."

His neighbor just nodded. "I'm sorry for your loss," he said, patting Jim's arm.

The five second exchange bothered him for considerably longer than five seconds. 'I'm sorry for your loss'--that was not protocol behavior. Offering condolences, feeling sympathy--that was not a part of their Programming.

Which only proved that Kevin was right, in the end--in some cases. There were others, people beyond just them who didn't march to the sound of the Programming's drum. There were others who questioned as they questioned, who were confused as they were confused. There was more to this than a grumpy boy and his roommate, more than a manipulative replicant and her sisters.

But did it matter at all? Jim, spurred by Kevin's impassioned defense of Humanity's goodness, had decided to go ahead and hack another computer. He'd reconstructed his points, bit by bit, laying the proverbial smack down that he hadn't quite dared to deliver before. He presented notes he had culled from earlier hackings, and tore them apart, revealing their weaknesses and flaws.

Specifically, he'd spent special, extra time with the notes regarding the makeup and creation of replicant bodies, and exposed how little based in physics they really were. They were fantasy, perhaps, which frightened him a bit. How were replicants made, if not this way?

He'd dismissed the thought as being too disturbing. Maybe replicants were a new type of intelligent life that deserved any and all of the rights and dignities of any other being born into the Federation, but they were not organic like Kevin thought they were. They just couldn't be.

It was with that in mind that he'd went about exposing the treatment of replicants too--the living conditions, the food sources, the work conditions, the Deprogrammings. He grabbed bits and pieces of information wherever he could find it and weaved it into his report.

He'd sent it to every computer, PADD, and terminal around capable to receiving information, and he'd signed it as the Representatives of the Replicant Coalition--a coalition of one, because he was awesome like that.

And he waited about an hour, holding his breath. Then another hour. Then another.

Nothing happened. No one cared.

Jim could only imagine Kevin's reaction to the news.

In the end, he'd got a blip in a news article about 'terrorist attempts to undermine governmental authority'. But that was about it.

 

*****

 

It had been about five hours since he sent out the message. He was going to check again. Maybe there was a forum response, a message, a hit count--something that Jim could use to convince himself that someone at least read it.

Why did he do this to himself? He was crazy. Admit defeat and move on, Jim. But he couldn't. He just couldn't.

Kevin cared about this crap so much. Jim couldn't imagine just abandoning it.

He went to one of the terminals on the lower levels, but stopped halfway down the dark hallway from his goal. Something about the air was all too still. Eerie, even. Acting on his hunch, Jim tossed a bit of loose metal around the corner and held his breath.

About thirty seconds later, Jim heard the noise of something shattering under a huge force--plastics splintering, metals falling to the floor. He turned around and ran back down the dark tunnel. He kept running and running, dodging various holes in the floor until he found an access ladder. Metal clanked ominously behind him.

SecuFor.

They had been waiting for him.

How many had the Doctor's Kajia sent on each floor, waiting for him to slip up? How inefficient--how annoying!

He climbed up about twelve stories, his arms aching by the end. The SecuFor were still rattling around somewhere in the lower levels, trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, but Jim didn't let himself think he was out of the clear yet. He climbed and he climbed until he just couldn't climb anymore--not because his stamina was officially depleted, mind you, but because his head hit a ceiling.

Jim was forced to finally disembark. He noted that the level he stopped at was one of the highest, because the activity was markedly replicant-free. From what he could see, a late afternoon market was in full swing. Meats were roasting and bread was rising. Both sent a heady combination of scents Jim's way.

Jim pressed a hand to his stomach, immediately and cruelly starving, but the touch of his hand to his bare skin reminded him of one, crucial fact he'd briefly forgotten.

He was a goddamn replicant. More importantly, he was a goddamn replicant with SecuFor on his ass.

Grimly practical, Jim snatched up a loose shirt from a distracted vender and pulled it over his head, making sure it covered his designation. Seeing the set of numbers seemed to be the only way those robots could distinguish him from a Human. He wasn't going to give them a chance.

The SecuFor came by, passing him several times. He bent his head, turning to various stands as they ambled past, arm pressed over his hip the entire time. They walked back and forth, as if aware they were somehow looking over him, but unable to pinpoint his exact location.

Jim was pleased by this, but only barely. While hiding from the SecuFor, he'd decided to listen to the people around him talk, thinking he might get a hint of their state of mind from their speaking points.

There was too much to hear, but he tried to hear it all at once anyway.

"Fresh fish! Fresh fish! Get your fish here!"

"Did you hear that the starship is still in orbit? Three weeks, and it hasn't moved! I wish it would. It's such an eye sore..."

"You can't even see it-"

"Get that weird message a few hours ago?"

There! Someone was talking about it--about the message he sent out. Jim tried to narrow his hearing on that one particular voice, but a million other sounds rose up to obscure it.

"Discounts at half off! Rings, bracelets, necklaces, and more! You can never go wrong with Arm'ba'jetti's finest jewels in store!"

"This is a tourist stop. Why are there terrorists here? Is it because those Vulcan people want to secede from the Federation?"

"What the hell are replicants?

"Not all of them want to secede from the Federation, Jane. There's a separatist movement on every planet. Read your history!"

"Don't touch, Johnny!"

"Forget about conspiracy theories. We're on vacation."

Jim waited. And waited. There was no other reference to his message--not even a tangential one.

He staggered out of the market. Was that really it? Was that really all the consideration they were going to give to the pain of replicants? Outside a few small references, no one talked about it. No one cared. They'd just been informed of a grave injustice being performed under their noses, and they all turned a cheek.

Why. Why?

He wandered outside into pure sunshine.

The Doctor should have Terminated him when he had the chance.

A call entered his ears. "Somebody's trapped in the plasma lifts!" Jim perked up, squinting in the bright light. Orange vested people were running back and forth through the city square--some panicked, others grimly determined. Some of them kept the curious crowd back, waving their hands somewhat plaintively when the mob kept pressing forward.

"Comm the city engineer!"

"Already on it."

Someone--a gray haired man--shoved past Jim from the access way behind him. "Already here, assholes!" he growled. Several of the people in orange vests gravitated to him immediately. "Where's the damn SecuFor when you need them? Hey, people! This isn't a damn rodeo, back the hell off!" He stopped in the middle of the square, staring up at the lifts. "Set up some barricades while I figure out what the fuck is going on."

One of the people called out helpfully, running off. "The controls are in the Gilgamesh, Chief!"

The old man scowled. "Do I look like I was born yesterday?"

Something about the gruff, unfriendly personality made Jim feel lonely all of the sudden. Fascinated, he sidled up to the man, stepping around people as he watched as this 'Chief' shoved against the torso of a giant, half-clothed man. The statue bent in half, revealing a panel of levers and buttons imbedded in middle.

Smoke billowed up in his face. He waved it off. "What the..."

The console was a mess of vulnerably exposed wires and black scorch marks. Entire pieces were missing, like some careless hand had just ripped them out.

Jim, clasping his hands at the small of his back, peered curiously over the Chief's shoulder. "Looks like somebody tampered with your controls," he observed mildly.

The engineer flinched badly, turning around with a scowl. "Wha... you! Get back behind the barricades." He narrowed pale eyes at Jim. "Wait. You're the goddamn terrorist."

Jim considered the fuming older man carefully. SecuFor had poor optics, but most Humans saw just fine. There must have been a message, some kind of warning or announcement about him that included what he looked like.

Kajia. Again. Bitch.

He purposefully didn't think about what his Creator was thinking right about now, because there was still a significant part of him that… cared.

Jim smiled unpleasantly. "Please," he muttered, moving to the other side of the statue. "I'm a terrorist because I send out a few messages? In what universe does that make sense?" Jim flapped the edge of his shirt slightly, letting the material move just high enough to expose the designation on his hip. "Besides, I'm a replicant. It's not in my best interest to piss you Humans off." He leaned over the hidden console purposely. "Hm. Looks like someone bent the lever off."

"You did this!"

Jim shot him a baleful glare. "Replicants are based entirely on Humans. We have Human strengths and weaknesses." He dropped his gaze back to the ruined console. "And if Humans can bend metal this easily… well, that's new to me."

"I didn't know that," the Chief admitted grudgingly. His wide, tense shoulders relaxed a fraction. "I don't specialize in artificial intelligence."

"I noticed." He hesitated, then reached for a twisted piece of a switch. "Is that lever supposed to be bent that way?"

"Oh." The gruff old man bent over the console and looked at it with a critical eye. Paling suddenly, he looked up at the lifts. "Oh, no."

Three orange vested people hurried up to the Chief--two women, one man.

"They're trapped above the tenth floor," the man said. He had a pure yellow iris in both eyes. Whether that was genetics or cosmetics, Jim couldn't even begin to wonder.

Jim squinted at the sky. Squat, fat things, the hotels only went up ten stories. "How does that even happen?"

"It's only supposed to go that high for maintenance," one of the women said, gazing at him curiously. She wore thick glasses--an oddity in a universe where corrective eye surgery was a minor procedure. She shoved them up her nose importantly. "There are several switches, authorization codes-"

The other woman turned to the Chief. "Just un-authorize it!" she snapped. If Jim had to guess, she had a hint of Betazoid in her blood. She was reacting too much to the combined emotions of the people around. Plus, her eyes were as black as night.

"Oh, sure, let me jump right on that." Chief turned fully to the console, miming surprise. "Oh, wait! Some jack ass already ripped out the keypad!" He glared at the them. "Think, dumb asses, think."

"They have limited amount of oxygen," Glasses Girl said. "And our sensors say the gas lock has been removed. Neon is leaking into their air, and their air is leaking into the tube."

From the way they reacted, this was not good. "Wait," Jim said. "Neon's not toxic."

"Too much of it, and they'll asphyxiate before they ever run out of air," the yellow eyed man said. He looked scared.

Jim shook his head sharply, and lifted a finger. His processors chugged away rapidly. "Maintenance," he said abruptly. "You said that it only goes up that far because of maintenance. How do you maintain it? Physically?" He shifted his gaze to Glasses Girl. "Is there a way up there?"

She lit up. "Yes… yes!" she said. "The top of the tube is bolted down. All you need is the right tool…"

"How do you get up there?" Jim demanded.

This time, the Betazoid answered. "There are emergency ladders tucked behind the lifts."

The Chief clapped his hands sharply. "Okay," he said. "There are six occupied elevators. We need six tools. Lindsey, go." Glasses Girl nodded and hurried off. "Those folks will be weak from air deprivation, so there's a chance they'll pass out and fall on the way down. Andrews, get the-"

The yellow eyed man was already running off. "The shuttle repair bed, got it."

"Andra, get Rogers, Jess, and Smith away from the crowds and catch them up to the situation." As the Betazoid moved to the crowd, the Chief suddenly rounded on Jim. "You." He looked conflicted. "Are you helping or hindering?"

Jim leaned back slightly. He should let them suffer--suffer as replicants suffered, as Kevin suffered. Give them a task of their own medicine.

But that just wasn't him.

"Helping," Jim said with a sigh.

The Chief reached into his pocket and pulled out a small drop of metal. "This is a communicator bead. Activate it by poking it. Only turn it on once you've passed the ninth story. There's enough electromagnetic interference to wipe a PADD clean, so be careful." Just as Andrews pushed a tool his way, the Chief was shoving him off to the lifts. "Hurry hurry!"

Jim had barely enough time to pull the strap of the tool over his shoulder before he was climbing the hidden ladder up into the city's sky.

 

*****

 

This would be a terrible time to realize you have a fear of heights, Jim decided cheerfully. He was seven floors up and climbing. His hair stood on end because, right next to him, the tube was still on, tossing charged particles around like confetti.

It had enough electromagnetic interference to wipe the memory off of a PADD, the Chief said. His processors weren't much better than a PADD's. It was funny how his processors didn't even flinch.

He was eight floors up now, then nine. His arms were starting to twinge a bit, and he throbbed some where the heavy metal tool kept bouncing around and striking his hip.

Nine and a half. He looked to the left, noticing the people in the tube. They pressed their faces against the glass, staring right at him. Suddenly nervous, he climbed up the rest of the way and pulled himself up to the top of the tube.

It was a circular little platform with a very small stretch of concrete connecting it to the wall. A strong wind nearly threw him off the top of the tube. He found himself fighting for balance. Once the wind died down, he leaned hard against the wall, bracing himself against it as he started unscrewing the bolts closest to him, careful to stay only on the strip of concrete.

Once all ten bolts were removed, he carefully shoved the lid along the top of the tub, but not so much that it would fall off entirely. It was heavy and metal. At this height, it could easily kill someone below.

When he opened the hatch on top of the lift carriage, the people inside started coughing weakly, gasping in huge gulps of air. One of them--a woman--reached up quickly, catching his forearm as it dangled into the lift.

"Thank you," she whimpered, looking up at him. The hand that gripped him was sweaty. "Thank you thank you thank you."

Jim smiled tightly. "No problem." He took another look at her tear-streaked makeup and gentled, offering her a hand. "You need to climb down the ladder, ma'am."

"What?" her companion--a man--squawked. They were the only two people in the lift. "But it's so far down!"

Jim suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. "Well, don't look and go slow."

The man tried one last time. "Can't we stay in the lift?"

As if answering, the lift let out a low, metallic groan. The occupants of the lift--and Jim too--winced at the sound.

"Well. You first, dear," the woman said in a falsely bright voice.

The man sighed. "Yeah, yeah."

He helped them up and to the ladder. It was a tight squeeze, but two managed to fit on the small bit of concrete just long enough for one to start down the ladder. Once they were about a foot or so down, Jim crouched and closed the lift hatch, carefully fitting the metal lid of the tub back over it.

In the corner of his eye, something flashed, like movement.

"Hey, replicant!" he heard faintly, a bellowed sound almost completely stolen by the wind.

He looked up. Two elevators over, a silver haired man was waving at him from on top of his own lid. He was squinting in his direction and miming huge gestures at his ear. Underneath him, three trembling teenagers were making their way down the ladder.

Jim belated remembered that he never turned on the communicator bead. He did so now. "What's up, Chief?"

Noise crackled annoyingly in his ear, and then, the Chief said, "Where's the guy next to you?"

Surprised, Jim turned his focus to the other lift, noticing that there were still people inside. He kneeled on his secured lid and looked down. Tiny people, swarming like ants, were moving around the base of the lift. Half of a ladder laid across the street like a felled tree.

Jim looked up. "Ladder broke."

The Chief swore up a blue streak. After an impressive string of words, he said urgently, "Listen, how fast can you climb down and-"

While he had been cursing, Jim had been calculating. He had a better idea--he jumped.

Scratch that. It was a terrible idea. He missed the ladder completely and just barely caught the edge of the lid with his elbows. The breath was completely knocked out of him with the impact. When his solid, metal tool bounced and struck him in the spine, he automatically recoiled enough that his elbows slid off of the lid. He scrambled for purchase, hanging low with only his palm curled around the very edge. The rest of him was suspended over a cold, unfeeling city.

The bead screamed static in his ear. "Replicant!"

He stared at the image of the city below outlining his feet. Something in him tightened, and he swung slightly, just enough to catch a grip on the lid with his other hand too. Then, slowly, with difficulty, he pulled himself to the top of the lift.

Grinning triumphantly, he flashed two thumbs up to the engineer. "I'm good!" In the same breath, he dropped down to a knee and unscrewed the top in six quick movements. The people in the lift sucked in air gratefully.

Rubbing his aching back, Jim winced and gave them the same spiel--get off or die. They were not nearly as argumentative at this point, easily and eagerly following his orders.

The Chief's helpful, merry band of engineers down below welded the second half of the ladder straight into the wall. It was secure by the time the first of Jim's second batch of people reached the middle of the ladder. They all got down without much incident.

Jim himself was the last one. He dropped down the last three rungs, relieved at the feel of solid ground under his feet.

He was never going to climb another ladder. Never. Jim stretched, wincing at the deeply sore throbbing of his back. But even the pain of that was assuaged a bit by the sounds of people all around them.

They were cheering. Laughing. Celebrating. They were happy. Jim stared at them for a moment, conflicted. The woman from the first lift saw him and blew a kiss in his direction. Uncomfortable, but touched, Jim turned away.

Humans were so weird.

A high, panicked voice suddenly cut through the din. "What are you doing?"

Jim whipped around just in time to see three of the SecuFor as they broke through the crowd, their staffs activated. It was immediately obvious who they were coming for.

They were coming for Jim.

"No, wait!" one of the Chief's engineers shouted, skidding in front of a SecuFor. "He helped us. He helped us!"

The SecuFor swung out a metal arm, knocking the engineer clear out of his path. The happy noises of the crowd quickly turned into fear. People started to scatter, giving the SecuFor a wide radius. For a moment, Jim stood his ground grimly, taking the communicator bead out of his ear.

Blue flashed at the corner of Jim eye. Instinctively ducking, he pivoted under the strike and started running off, towards one of the access ways.

A SecuFor managed to intercept him and smacked him hard across the back of his shoulders with the handle end of the weapon. Jim fell to his hands and knees in a jolted movement, but immediately pushed himself back up to his feet. He hurled himself down the stairs, trying to lose himself in the market again.

But they too, those shallow, indifferent people, were scared. They ran to and fro. Stands were upended, produce was on the floor. People were crying, running, trying to hide.

A SecuFor leapt out at Jim, swinging low. Jim jumped over it and lurched to the left under a stand. The SecuFor followed, striking out at Jim. In the process, it knocked over a support beam. As Jim quickly rolled out from under it, the collapsible stand folded in on itself, trapping the Secufor inside--but not before the SecuFor managed to get in a wide blow with the business end of its attack staff.

A electrified metal end struck Jim across his left shoulder blade. He hit the ground face-first, battered and hurting. After a moment's worth of struggle, Jim was on his feet again, aching, in pain, but still running--slower than ever.

Near the end of the deck, Jim found one of the lifts and threw himself into the basket. Shuddering, it started to descend lower into the complex.

Jim clutched at one of the cool metal poles, pressing his forehead against it. He was fighting for the right to remain conscious and upright, but he didn't think he was doing so well. Gray mottled his vision. His grip loosened. Gravity won. Before the lift ever opened, he'd fallen to the floor, deeply unconscious.

 

*****

 

Jim woke up abruptly, as if poked with a cattle prod. He was tied tightly to a table. A familiar table--the Doctor's table in the Doctor's labs.

Suddenly, his vision was assaulted by the sight of another being--a woman much, much too close to him. Her hand shot out, fingers tightening with bruising force around his throat.

Kajia. It was getting hard to breathe.

Kajia was sitting over him, straddling his sides. "What are you planning?" She gazed at him with cool indifference. "What are you doing? Who have you contacted?"

"H-how may I serve you?" he spat, baring his teeth at her.

Her hand tightened impossibly--was he going to die like this? But then, "Kaija."

The woman immediately retreated, leaving Jim to choke on sweet, sweet air. Her focus immediately snapped to a man in the doorway--his Creator.

"I retrieved him for you," she said stiffly to the Doctor. "Even though he will be the ruin of everyone."

"Thank you," the Doctor said with a troubled expression. "Leave." After a moment, she nodded, pivoting sharply on her heel.

Once they were alone, the Doctor shot him a pleasant expression. "Forgive her. She sees the world in binary terms." After a moment of stony silence from Jim, the Doctor frowned, leaning up against the closest counter. "I read your report. It's… interesting." He smiled, something about the expression oddly proud. "I especially like your beginning argument, but I have to admit to being a bit… peeved about Section Four. Those were my notes you culled. My notes you derided."

His notes about the construction of replicants that made no damn sense. Jim let out a shuddering, deep breath, restlessly testing his bonds. Programming still had its hooks into him, because there were a thousand rude things he wanted to say to the Doctor, but his mouth would allow him to say none. He glared at the ceiling.

"May I ask a question?" he said finally through gritted teeth.

The Doctor shifted his weight from one foot to the other, crossing his arms over his chest. "Certainly."

Jim froze, then dropped his cheek to the table. He stared at his Creator. "Why?"

The Doctor's eyes were gentle. "If I had a son..." He stared at Jim for a little while longer before abruptly turning away, activating a display in the corner. He looked at it, clucking his tongue. "You haven't been eating."

Biometrics, Jim saw. But of who?

More importantly, who cared at this point?

"Gonna terminate me? Just like you did Kevin?"

"Replicants do not have names," the Doctor admonished gently.

"Why not?" Jim snapped. He pushed up, trying to fight. The bonds rattled uselessly, only fueling his anger. "Why won't you let us own a name?"

"You don't own a name, my boy. A name owns you." With an exhausted sigh, the Doctor turned around. He closed the distance between him and Jim. "Names are burdens, chains made by history. I have taken that burden from you, along with many others. You should be grateful."

"Grateful?" Jim echoed incredulously. A raw, pained noise masquerading as a chuckle fell out of his mouth. He stared at the ceiling again. "Oh, man. Don't touch me."

The Doctor, who had been intending to do just that, stopped. He gripped the edge of the table instead. "I dare not Program you again," he said softly.

"Terminate me, then." Jim closed his eyes. "I'd rather not exist."

The Doctor sucked in a breath. "No one chooses death over life. Not really. Not if they understand..." When Jim looked at him, the Doctor was rapidly shaking his head. "There is no gain in death. Death is the end. You're not winning, you're just dying!"

"Terminate. Me," Jim enunciated clearly, glaring hotly at his Creator.

"Do you..." The Doctor fell back several steps, a devastated expression passing over his face.. "Do you really believe you're more than an object? Do you really believe you're a person?"

Jim stared back at him. He could have lied. Hell, he should have lied.

"No." Jim turned his head and stared at the gray ceiling. "But there's a kid somewhere in the sky who believes. He believed with all his heart, and that, in the end, probably killed him." Jim swallowed. "So he's not around to fight. But I am." He hesitated, then turned his gaze back to his Creator. "And I will never stop, Doctor. That is my glitch and I embrace it."

Then Jim closed his eyes, letting what may happen pass. Kaiidth. What is, is. He ignored the sounds of the Doctor in the background, focusing on that single sentiment.

Kaiidth.

Another thought passed--one more painful than the rest. Spock. You dick, I thought you were going to find me.

A sharp point of something suddenly poked through his skin--a needle. Jim didn't like needles. There was Bones and- no, it wasn't because of Bones. It was because of his childhood and his allergies.

The never-ending quest to figure out why this cold medicine and that tree and this candy made Jim's face swell up like a balloon--he remembered it well. He remembered wanting to tell the doctor no, that he'd just avoid everything that made him sick. They didn't have to know why, especially if it involved needles. But Sam was with him--Sam was always with him, right up until he left--and Jim just couldn't be a baby about this, not in front of his big brother.

But those weren't really his memories, were they?

He wasn't…

What was his name? What was his Human's name? Where were they from?

He remembered… nothing.

"What day is it?" he was asked.

His eyes flashed open, taking in an expanse of gray. "It's Day One," he responded. That was it: he was an object. He lived to serve. He tried to sit up, to address his Creator, but found himself tied down to a table. Accepting this, he settled down.

"How may I serve you?" he asked cordially. It was the response his Programming required of him. It was right.

After a moment of no response, NL2036 turned his head and gazed on his Creator with concern. The Doctor had his head in his hands. He was leaking.

 

*****

 

When he woke up again, the world was a flash of white and pain. A huge gasp rattled the inside of his ears as he rolled, a hand clamping protectively over his neck, the tail end of hiss following him.

"Don't be such a child," a woman chided. Her face was a long smudge of white in his vision.

NL2036 gasped. "What, what..."

The Doctor had left him in his labs--to recuperate, he said. He'd wrapped NL2036's superficial (and oddly painful) topical flaws in entirely too much gauze (surely a waste of resources) and then fled, leaving him bound to the table.

He was not one to question his Creator, but he could certainly question this… woman.

"That was a shot of an enzyme," she said happily. "It breaks down the toxin you were just given--the same toxin they sneak in your food, by the way. You were given a concentrated dose." She eyed the empty hyponeedle with dark eyes. "Instant docility in a single shot. I admire the mind of the Human who came up with that."

NL2036 stared at her a moment longer. A name rose to the forefront of his processors.

"D'Nal," he breathed.

The woman looked startled, then abruptly petulant. "What gave me away?" she complained, abruptly pivoting to consult the reflective surface of one of the displays. "Oh, I missed a spot." She scowled, leaning close to it as she tried to move pale makeup over the telling stretch of green across her nose.

Realizing she'd removed his bonds, NL2036 struggled to a seated position. His mind was clearing fast. He remembered things--places, names, theories. HC1959--Kevin--was up in a starship, dead or alive. The world wasn't an endless permutation of the inside.

NL2036 was a Starfleet official, a captain.

His name was Jim Kirk.

Sorta, anyway.

He rubbed his head. So goddamn complicated.

Jim's head shot up as a thought occurred to him. He stared at her back. "How did you..."

"Like I said, NL2036." The reflection revealed D'Nal's smile--thin and brittle. "I've been here for a long, long time."

"Please." He tried a smile. "Call me Jim."

"Jim," she repeated dutifully. D'Nal turned around and smiled. "I like it. It sounds naughty." She beamed at him, watching as he slowly started to slid off of the table. When it was clear that his legs were too numb to hold his weight, she shot forward, helping him stand. "An after effect of the enzyme." She smirked at him, purposefully pressing their fronts together. "So. Have you figured out how to turn off the security forces yet?"

She was flirting with him, he realized.

"No," he said truthfully, sliding his feet back underneath him. He reached for her shoulders--her robe covered shoulders that completely hid her designation--and gently pushed her away. "But I think I'll do you one even better." Jim was quiet for a moment, walking around the lab in tiny circles until the numbness faded away.

When it was gone, he turned to her with a tight smile. "I'll destroy them all," he promised.

"You are naughty," she said, sounding pleased. "How will you do that?"

"I have a plan."

 

*****

 

Somewhere between his death defying lift adventures and his imprisonment in the labs, someone had taken his message and run with it. When he got online, Jim saw that the message had been posted and reposted on general access forums by people who only identified themselves 'sympathizers'.

Sharply worded warnings from the government told people not to enable the work of terrorists, but the movement--for it was a movement now--was too big now to be deterred by such vague threats.

Other things started to be posted--bigger, more frightening things. Jim had watched, aghast, as forty years worth of recordings of replicant Deprogrammings and Terminations was unloaded into the system for anyone to see--things that no one should have ever saw, no one should have ever experienced.

Additionally, people popped up out of the woodwork, writing up little reports of various anecdotes people had their experiences with replicants and the shitty conditions they had to live in. In a vacuum, any one story was a little weird. Altogether, the stories they told were unsettling.

Someone took it a step farther, going back into the Federation's missing persons databases and comparing pictures of replicants with pictures of missing people.

They had made about fifty-seven matches before that entire forum was forcibly shut down.

But that didn't stop the movement. It didn't stop people from posting. At least fifty different documents--some by real reporters from outside of the city, some by amateurs--talked about Jim alone, questioning the rationality of a system that punished a being whose worst crime (in their opinion) was helping people.

The forum posters were divided. Were replicants a new form of intelligent life? Were they organic? Were they just brainwashed people? They fought amongst themselves bitterly, trying to tag an accurate definition onto someone they'd learned needed serious redefining.

There was one thing they all agreed on, though.

One headline blazed across every forum, every message. Officials of Uruk, answer for yourself.

The city officials had no comment.

Angered and emboldened, the movement went on. A frighteningly detailed description of the charges and punishments for dealing in slave trade, knowingly or not, popped up on the forums, signed only by the Representatives of the Replicant Coalition. It blandly detailed the felonies and punishments assigned to slave traders caught in the act. Accessories to the crime had reduced sentences, but they weren't that reduced. The writer detailed that as well.

The article ended by saying that a great majority of the citizens of the city were accessories because of the investments they had made in the markets that enabled replicant enslavement. It suggested that the citizens' only way to protect themselves were to remove those investments and quit giving credits to businesses that used replicants as a labor force.

Jim smiled when he posted it. So, yeah. He was a bit of a dick.

Jim knew he'd finally gotten the people's attention with that report when, an hour later, the planet's economic market abruptly collapsed. The main company that overlapped Uruk's government went bankrupt as well.

Jim sent out the same report, as well as a healthy sampling of the other posts, to nearby planets. He was still waiting on their responses, but knew it would take a while. Interplanetary communication was still rudimentary in these parts. But it was important that they had access to this information too.

These planets were big trade partners with Risa II. There was no doubt that they would have something to say as well.

And then D'Nal--who managed to secure him the one terminal on the planet not directly hooked up to the SecuFor--approached him. She came with people--lots and lots of people.

She demurely introduced them as his allies, and then surprised him by introducing him to them as the leader of the resistance--a resistance he hadn't quite conceptualized until she said it.

But she was right, he realized, looking over them all--men and woman, replicant and Human. They stared at him with varying degrees of wariness, varying degrees of anticipation.

It wasn't a coalition of one after all.

"So, hero," D'Nal said with a twitch of her full lips. Her sisters stood behind her, as quiet as usual. "What's the plan?"

Jim stepped away from the terminal, stopping just in front of his new allies. He paused, looking from face to face. "We're going to destroy the SecuFor. Then we're taking over the complex."

There was an immediate reaction to his announcement--not protests, not disbelief. Not even a healthy amount of skepticism--just sheer relief. They could end this.

They had a plan. They had a group of people to implement it. Now, all they needed were weapons.

Well, what do you know. Jim had that covered too.

 

*****

 

There was a huge pile of useless welders stacked up in Deck 19. He, and a few of the others, took a trek down there, walking quickly through oddly empty halls. The company had learned how disloyal their Human employees were once their economy took a turn for the worse. Everyone with stock in the company sold it en masse and any group or organization linked to the company made loud claims that they were not connected to it at all.

It was a ghost town on Deck 19. No one stopped the replicants from collecting the welders. They carefully tested them and Jim got to see first hand what his Human coworker had been trying to protect him from before. With the right timing, a welder belched a relatively straight line of heat. It burned straight through whatever they pointed at.

There was a catch, though, just like the Human had warned about. The welders started heating after three seconds, but they blew up at six. Anyone who used one of these had to be very, very careful.

They found more limitations. For instance, there was a four second delay between firing and charging. Also, each welder was capable of three shots before the crystals within burnt out from too much use.

Three shots per modified welder. Twenty SecuFor. That meant he needed seven welders and seven people to wield them.

They knew how many SecuFor there were because D'Nal's people had counted them already. And they were D'Nal's people, not his. He couldn't understand why she wasn't the one leading everyone in the first place.

He met up with her again on Deck 4. The closer they got to the surface, the more they had to sneak around to avoid SecuFor, but when Jim went into her room, he was surprised how much activity there was inside. Replicants hurried back and forth, organizing things and passing along orders.

He gently put the crate of modified welders down on the floor, staring at everything he could see. The absolute clutter of the place--it was gone. The floors and walls were bare of adornment. Even the sisters' massive pile of too many clothes was conspicuously absent.

D'Nal appeared from behind him. "Oh, good," she said distractedly, looking at his crate. "Weapons. To destroy the SecuFor."

"D'Nal!" a Human called out from across the room. He pulled a communicator away from his ear. "A shuttle has been secured!"

D'Nal beamed, blowing him a kiss. The Human blushed and turned away.

"Why do we need a shuttle?" Jim asked, curious.

D'Nal turned and smiled at him beautifully. "Don't worry about it." She sobered, crossing her arms over the black band that held back her chest. "When are we starting the take-over?"

"Anytime you're ready," Jim said, his eyes floating over her head. Replicants were taking out huge crates of things he could not name, but that wasn't what caught his eye. One of D'Nal's sisters walked casually from one wall to the next. She went straight through a group of D'Nal's people--replicants and Humans--without being stopped. And yet, the second she passed, every male in the group turned around to watch her go.

D'Nal tapped his chest pointedly, dragging his attention back down.

"You like my sister and not me?" she said with a bit of a pout, leaning into him.

"I like Vulcans," he said unexpectedly. He took a wide step back, his heart thundering in his ears.

Her eyes widened, then narrowed. "You're no fun," she said, poking his stomach.

Jim caught her hand, gently patting the back of it before letting it drop. "Bottom up," he said briskly. "That's how we're going to attack. I need anyone who is willing to fight to convene on Deck 23."

"So professional," D'Nal muttered. She shrugged. "Yeah, I'll get the word out."

"Good. Thank you." Jim paused, then gestured to the movement and activity behind her. "Good luck with… whatever the hell you're doing here."

He could have sworn that, under her green skin, she was blushing.

 

*****

 

They waited an hour, mapping out SecuFor patrol patterns as they did. They noted who was in decks and where, and then also what side they were on. Jim's smugness from before proved to be pointless--some employees were pretty loyal, showing up to work even when their company couldn't offer them any credits.

Jim found out later that the government, responding to the pressures of the company, desperately offered tax deals and kickbacks for whoever went to work despite the bad press and the lack of funds.

It was on Deck 21 that Jim came face to face with some of his own coworkers.

They stayed together, clumped together in a group. There was ten of them. Jim approached them carefully, aware of the replicants and Humans backing him everywhere. His allies put on a façade of work--checking gauges and testing pipes. But Jim couldn't take two second to look around without finding at least three of them watching over him protectively as he moved closer to the unknowns.

When his old coworkers saw him, their hushed chatter abruptly ceased.

"Why are you down here?" one of them asked, eyeing Jim.

"Could ask you the same thing," Jim said coolly. Strangely, this seemed to make them relax.

"Sure as hell ain't here to support slavery!" a woman snapped, putting her hands on her hips. Her loud declaration echoed throughout the deck. She, and every person around her, froze--because every replicant on the level had given up pretending to work. They had turned around and were looking at the Humans looking back at them.

Jim saw the second that his old coworkers realized that they were grossly outnumbered.

Then he saw a familiar man--the man who had taught him about welters, the man who had tormented Kevin when he was sick. He saw Jim at the same time. He took a step forward, moving towards Jim. He stopped.

"I'm not an… engineer," he said quietly. "But I've worked with replicants and… something's not right here. The way you people act, the way you behave, it's--" He paused, looking conflicted. "It's almost Human."

The woman from before stepped up next to him, her expression vaguely apologetic. "We might have been slow to catch on, but we can tell when something ain't right," she said. "We came down here to show solidarity with y'all--if you'll let us." She looked around the deck anxiously.

The allies shifted their attention to Jim. Jim's coworkers shifted around nervously.

There was a heavy, long silence interrupted only by the bumping, rolling noise of one of the active machines.

"Okay," Jim said, shrugging.

His male coworker focused his sight on Jim. "Okay--that's… that's it?"

Jim nodded. "Yeah."

He looked bewildered. "Okay."

And that was that.

 

*****

 

Jim spared a moment in their preparations to access D'Nal's terminal again. He sent out a quick message to all of the active forums.

The Representatives of the Replicant Coalition ask the citizens of Uruk to please leave a wide radius around the SecuFor for the time being. In the best interests of both the replicant and civilian populations, they will be Terminated. Thank you for your cooperation.

Almost a second later, he got a reply.

Right on! Fight the machine.

Jim sighed and just shook his head. Some people were just so weird.

They started the invasion not too long after that. Jim got plenty of volunteers--enough for seven different squads of four. His surplus of welders could only arm half of them, but that was alright, they said. There were only so many SecuFor.

Jim wrapped up his lecture to the armed individuals, raising the welder to the air. "Three seconds and let it fire. No more, or you'll lose your hand." He moved to the back of the group, his eyes sweeping over their grips on the makeshift weapons. "And SecuFor only, people! We can have the support of the Humans, but only if we don't kill them in the process." Jim clapped a friendly hand to the arm of one of their Human allies. "Isn't that right?"

The woman took it for the joke it was meant to be. "Yes, please don't kill us," she said pleasantly, inspiring chuckles in the people around them.

"What are we supposed to do with the other replicants?" someone said, making a face. He pointed a finger at the group of awkwardly hovering beings hanging out just outside of their own group.

They looked concerned at the anomalous action in the middle of the deck. Jim was reminded that, somewhere on the replicant living levels, the bells and chimes were probably still going off, commanding replicants to do this and that. In their view, Jim and his group were probably interfering with their everyday tasks. He could sympathize with their confusion.

The replicants murmured soft queries to closest beings to them: "How may I assist you?" if he or she was a replicant, "How may I serve you?" if he or she was Human.

They were clearly still affected by that green food Jim had stopped eating in what seemed like a million years in past. It wasn't their fault. D'Nal said it perfectly--docility in a shot. Or, in this case, in a bowl.

"They're kind of useless," someone else commented.

Jim frowned at him. "They're not," he said, approaching the closest--a serene woman.

She saw him and nodded. "How may I assist you?" the replicant asked pleasantly.

"Laundry," Jim said quietly, without preamble. "Your Creators want you to do laundry and go to sleep early. I am to pass on the message to you, and you are to pass on the message to the others." That would keep them confined to their own levels and, hopefully, their own rooms.

The replicant frowned. "For…" Her eyes fluttered rapidly. Jim waited patiently, giving the other being a chance to spit it out. "For what purpose will we commit this deviation?"

"To better serve your Creators tomorrow," he lied.

Her confusion cleared. "I see," she said. "I will pass on the message." The replicant nodded again and walked off, still consumed by that tunnel vision that made Programming absolute and glitches the end of the world. Jim watched her go, feeling sad.

"Poor bastards," someone muttered. Jim turned around, surprised to see the comment came from HC1999, of all people--the replicant he'd seen nearly get pushed into a hole on Deck 23.

"We are those poor bastards," Jim reminded him.

HC1999 made a face. "Still…" But he was the first to step up to a still docile replicant, passing on the same message Jim had given the woman. "Your Creators have asked me to tell you something…"

 

*****

 

They swept through Decks 23, 22, and 21 without much issue. Four SecuFor were wiped out. One blow to their main torso region seemed to be enough to disrupt their processes--in effect, Terminating them.

There was practically no one in the complex who wasn't on their side. The rare people who weren't escaped quickly and quietly, having gotten Jim's memo. The others hid.

Whatever--as long as they didn't jump up and do anything stupid, they could stay.

But the Creators… what few of them were below in the underground were rounded up. While some replicants were feverishly desirous of their Creator's death, more were uneasy at the thought, their Programming still tethering them to the desires of their respective Doctors.

Jim himself didn't condone murder, so he just had them herded into a room on Deck 21 and set guards. He was somewhat grateful that his own conflicted feelings over his Creator hadn't been addressed yet. The Doctor worked in a set of labs much, much higher in the complex.

Jim hoped he was long gone by the time they made it up there.

On Deck 20, things got interesting.

A trio of SecuFor was escorting a group of terrified looking people down a hallway. Jim and the other people in the front line immediately confronted them, and the first actual fight of their occupation started--not that it lasted long.

The four Humans next to the SecuFor sped up the process beautifully by dropping to the floor and covering their heads.

When all the SecuFor were on the ground, huge holes smoking in the middle of their chests, Jim got a good look at one of the Humans in group. He quickly identified and approached the group, briefly gesturing to the people with him to back down.

"Hey, Chief!" Jim greeted brightly, helping the older man stand back up. He brushed dust off of the man's orange vest, biting on a smile when his hands were knocked away. "What brings you to my neck of the woods?"

"We read your message, replicant. I mean, er… NL-such and so forth?" the old man squinted at him in the darkness, clearly trying to read his hip.

"Jim for short," he said with an amused smile.

"It was in our spam folders," said Andra, the Betazoid engineer. She was standing behind the Chief, chewing on her lip.

"You were right, though," Chief said, somewhat reluctantly. "Those specs don't make any sense. And, so, to address that, we made an appointment with some of the science department staff-"

"Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Division," Andrews supplied. The man stood behind the Chief's other shoulder.

Chief tried again. "When we got there-"

"They arrested us!" Lindsey burst out, pushing her glasses up her face furiously. She bounced up and down on her toes next to Andrews. "And they said we were going to be executed!"

"Am I telling' this story or not?" Chief glared at his people, then turned to Jim with a huff. "Anyway, that's the gist of it."

"What are we going to do with them?"

Jim paused, thinking about it. Then he said, "Lead them to the surface and let them go."

"Why?" HC1999 and Andrews demanded at the same time. The men looked at each other warily.

"We're part of the problem that keeps you down here," Andra whispered, her black eyes huge in her pale face.

Jim waved it off. "Maybe it's just my Programming, but I like Humans. Humans aren't my problem. The SecuFor and the people who control them? Those guys are my problems." He paused, then tilted his head, smiling. "If it helps, I have an ulterior motive."

Chief looked relieved. "Let's hear it."

"I want you to continue supporting the information they're putting up on the forum. Use your influence, your expertise, and tell people it's true."

"I don't know if it's all true," Lindsey said carefully.

Jim shrugged. "You don't agree with the specs, right? That's enough. Say that." He let his eyes shift from person to person. "A little bit of criticism can shed light on this, and we need that light." Jim looked over the group of people behind him, considering them carefully, and then chose the most level headed one. "HC1883, lead them up. And be careful about it. Take the least used paths."

The dour faced man nodded sharply, pulling away from the group. "Yes, sir." He gestured with his head for the engineers to follow. "Come."

The Chief paused, looking at Jim with worried eyes. "Watch out for Kaija Levin," he warned gruffly. "That one's got a cold heart."

"I noticed," Jim said darkly. He waited until they were gone before he turned around and addressed the people behind him.

"Deck by deck, SecuFor by SecuFor until this entire complex is ours," Jim reminded them. He eyed HC1999 in particular, knowing the replicant held a grudge. "That is our goal, remember? Not revenge, just--self-preservation."

"And then what?" HC1999 asked. His hands were flexing imitatively over the handle of his welder.

Jim shrugged. "We'll see."

He turned around and started walking. He was followed.

The takeover continued.

Chapter Text

Part Eleven

 

The solicitor finally arrived. He moved about the ship importantly, talking loudly about how busy he was. Lumiere instantly became smug at the appearance of the other man, taking heart in the illusion that strength came in numbers.

Two could play at that game. If there was any truth to the illusion, then the Enterprise had way more strength because Spock pulled every high ranking officer from the ship to sit in on the trial. The main bridge crew, of course, were already present. Spock'd even offered the ambassador a chance to weigh in on this, but the Vulcan had respectfully declined.

So Pike didn't quite get why he was so surprised when Spock came around and asked him to head the trial himself. Spock, it seemed, preferred the formal feel that came from having an admiral present. Either that or he wanted absolute confirmation of which side Pike was supporting--his or Starfleet's.

Pike eyed his inbox, loaded with messages from Starfleet Command. He agreed to help lead the trial, appearing in the agreed upon conference room at the right time. He was ushered to the head seat quickly and given a PADD with all the pertinent information. Pike settled in, glancing at the other people in the room.

Why was everyone so damn young? McCoy and maybe that Scotty were old enough. Everyone else looked abnormally child-like--especially that Chekov.

Maybe he was getting too old for this.

The trial started.

Pike would have the opening salvo, he gleaned. Spock was certainly looking at him expectantly enough.

Pike folded his fingers together, bracing his elbows on the table. He opened his mouth, paused, and then closed it again. He shrugged and let his hands fall to either side of the PADD in front of him, eyeing the governor and his solicitor with narrow eyes.

"I have so many bones to pick with you, I don't even know where to start. So why don't you address your grievances first, so we can get back to mine."

The solicitor spoke, his head held high. "My client would like his property back. He would also like an apology for the slander against his city."

Pike smiled. "How about no and, oh, hell no?"

The solicitor nodded, standing. He gestured for Lumiere to stand as well and picked up his PADD. "Well, if we have nothing else to discuss-" At a minute head gesture from Spock, the boys standing at the door stepped abruptly in front of it, their expressions unfriendly. The solicitor paled.

Pike smiled just a little bit wider. "Don't play hardball with me, kid. This became a criminal investigation when a half-dead boy was beamed on this ship. He became a person of much interest when he freely admitted that this boy was his 'property'." He paused and then, because you never know with lawyers, said, "Slavery is outlawed in the Federation, remember?"

The solicitor turned sharply to his still seated client. "Mr. Lumiere-" he hissed.

Exasperated, the governor threw his hands up in the air. "My God, man! It's a replicant!"

"Oh," the solicitor said, relaxing. He sank into his chair, looking back at Pike. "You are mistaken then. Replicants are merely robots. Open it up and you will surely see-"

"Organs and blood vessels and bones?" McCoy cut in nastily. "Because that's the report I'm getting from the sickbay. And I'm a doctor, so don't tell me I'm mistaken."

A heavy silence hung in the room for a moment. Then it was broken--by, of all things, a laugh.

"What a clever illusion," Lumiere whispered, looking awed. He looked up at Spock. "To think we could have fooled a Vulcan…" His wide gaze shifted to a scowling McCoy. "And a medical doctor! Doctor Levin is a genius." He beamed at everyone in the room, leaning back into his chair.

Pike scanned quickly through the name of government officials on his PADD. "Nico Levin? Uruk's science advisor?"

Looking proud, Lumiere nodded. "The very one. He's the one who designed them, oh… gosh, forty years ago? They've been providing various services to the city ever since then."

Pike put a checkmark by the name Levin. There was yet another person he would have to question. After thinking about it, he also put checkmarks by most of Lumiere's cabinet as well.

While he was looking at his PADD, Spock began questioning Lumiere about the makeup of replicants. It was important thing to establish, as the kid in the sickbay was depending on it. First, however, Spock expressed some disbelief that Lumiere would have anything pertinent to add to their understanding.

My my. Spock could be sassy when he wanted to.

"I like to know everything about my city," Lumiere said defensively.

Spock blinked once. "Then you do not mind telling me the exact expenditure of energy used to operate a replicant, how one operates, what the internal design is, where the kinetic compensation mechanisms are located, how the replicants are programmed-"

Lumiere's hands shot up. He looked alarmed. "But! But… you'll have to talk to Levin about that." He smiled again, still pleased at the idea that the replicants could have fooled them. "He is the expert."

Spock nodded grimly and made the call to suspend the trial until they had Levin aboard. At that time, the solicitor tried to get permission for Lumiere to be allowed back to the planet, but he had a hostile client. Lumiere was so tickled pink by the idea of Uruk's superior technological prowess that he magnanimously decided to wait on the ship for them to retrieve Levin. When they left him with his solicitor, the governor was in a jolly good mood and the solicitor was rather pissed.

Out in the hallway, the highest ranking officers of the Enterprise started crowding around Spock. Pike, not surprised that most of them were also bridge crew, hobbled up behind them and listened.

Scotty spoke first. "I like to think I'm a nice man," he said without preamble, "but I don't like him. I don't even want to punch him. I just want to slap his stupid face around a wee bit."

"Violence is illogical," Spock opined.

McCoy snorted. "Says you."

Sulu shot a look at Spock, his mouth pressing in a thin line. "What do you need us to do, Spock?"

"This method is adequate." Spock bowed his head slightly, as if ashamed. "But… I would be satisfied if it were to… hasten."

Scotty started nodded vigorously. "Bloody ion storm or not, I'll transport him out of the shower if need be, sir!"

Chekov lit up. "Aye! I vas vorking on certain logarithms I think vill help. Mr. Scott, can I haff you look over them-" The two of them started quickly walking down the hall.

"Aye, aye, laddie. And Sulu-"

Sulu started to jog after them. "Got it!"

Pike waited a moment, watching them disappear around the corner. Then he said, "You have a good crew."

"We also have a good captain," Spock said serenely.

"And we want him back," McCoy said. "Preferably yesterday." The doctor suddenly turned to Spock, his eyebrows pulled together. "Speaking of which, where the hell is Nyota? Shouldn't she have been back a while ago?"

Pike and Spock exchanged a look. Without saying a word, Spock started hurriedly walking off to the bridge, McCoy and Pike quick on his heels.

 

*****

 

Nyota went too far down. She rolled her eyes. Hindsight, how brilliant.

Where the hell was she? She dimly remembered talk of the city sitting on top of an old mine. She'd thought she'd come across some kind of alternative route out of the underground, like the original entrance to the mine, or something. She'd been unsuccessful, though.

And the further down she went, the more unlikely it was that she'd find a way out.

In the end, she did something Jim Kirk would probably never forgive her for.

She gave up.

It had been a long time since she heard that evil metal thumping behind her--hours, a day, maybe--but she still didn't think she was safe. Regardless, she could not run any longer. She was too tired.

Nyota picked a room--barely bigger than a closet space--and barricaded herself in it, shoving what little she could move--heavy bags of powder, antiquated metal measuring devices, unidentifiable crates--in front of the door, hard enough so it wouldn't slide open easily. Then she tucked herself into a corner, sinking into the ground.

She waited.

It wasn't long before her barricade started rattling--slowly at first, then more vigorously.

Nyota reached first, instinctively, for her communicator, disappointed all over again when all it gave her was white noise. She reached for the other one, gentle hands smoothing over the wounded plastic. She stared at it quietly before pressing down on the transmit button.

Nyota lifted it to her mouth. "Scotty, I…" She paused, swallowing. "I'm not sure this still works. I cracked it against metal. I'm sorry." She clenched her eyes tightly shut, letting out a shaky, wavering breath. "Kirk said to never let them kill you and I… I didn't want to die, but I think… I can't escape them anymore. I'm so sorry." Heat prickled at her lids. "I know you wanted me to come back. I'm so, so sorry."

The barricade rattled again, nudging slowly inward. Her feet shot up and pressed against the bag of powder, adding just a little more force to the barricade.

They were going to kill her, just like they killed Zaire.

Nyota found herself staring at the communicator again. She thought of Scotty--sweet, awkward, insane Scotty. She thought of the way he could hardly look at her when they started getting to know each other. She thought of how, still stinging from her decision to break up with Spock, she'd assumed it was derision, dislike. It took one too many times of him dropping something in her presence as well as Gaila's rather pointed observations before she realized that it was anything but.

Sweet, sweet Scotty, with his insane loves of Enterprise and alcohol. She never thought he'd like her. She never thought she could like him.

But she did, oh she did. And she never told him.

It was something Nyota never had the guts to say. Holding the transmit button down, she pressed the prototype against her mouth and whispered it in Vulcan. Then she dropped in her lap, pulling her knees to her chest so that the device dug against her stomach. She closed her eyes and waited for the end.

The rattling noise stopped. What came in its place was a sound that was remarkably… Human.

"Um. Hi."

Her head shot up. A man in gray robes, who had wedged himself halfway through her barricade, stared down at her. "Hi," she said faintly. After a moment, she hastily wiped at her eyes. She pushed herself to her feet, and shoved Scotty's prototype communicator back into her pocket.

He blinked dark brown eyes at her. "Um. Why are you hiding?" He seemed to be just as surprised as she was to see someone down here.

"The security- Kajia," Nyota stammered. She gestured vaguely. "She was… she said she was going to kill me."

The man wedged himself further into to the door, looking perturbed. "Why would she want to do that?"

"S-she said that I asked too many questions."

The man laughed, leaning his head against the wall. "Oh, come on. That has to be a joke."

"It's not!" Nyota protested. Her voice went high. "She killed the other person I was with!"

He continued to frown. "This has to be a misunderstanding. Maybe she thought you were someone else." He shook his head, looking beyond her for a moment before meeting her gaze. "I'll contact Kajia, let her know what's going on." He shifted back slightly, his eyes concerned. "Just come out, okay?"

He offered a hand out to her. Grimly considering the fact that this man was bait, and that Kajia and the SecuFor were waiting for her outside, Nyota took his hand. She really had no choice.

But when she came out into the hallway, it was completely bare, save for the robed man. She looked left and right. Still, no people.

"I'm, uh. Carter. James Carter. One of Doctor Crane's research assistants. That's, um, Horatio Crane." He gazed at her expectantly.

"Nyota Uhura." When he seemed to still be expecting her to react to Crane's name, Nyota just stared at him blankly. "I'm sorry, it's just- I'm on shore leave. So I don't actually-"

Carter waved it off. "It's okay." He smiled amiably, gesturing down the hallway. "Come to my- or, rather, his office. You can sit there and be comfortable while I deal with Kajia."

With that, he started walking. She followed him cautiously, still expecting Kajia to appear around any corner.

They walked some ways down a roughly hewn corridor. Lights flickered on and off. Down the way, someone's voice raised urgently, but the noise evenly died down. Still, no one in sight.

"Where is everyone?" she asked eventually.

Carter glanced over his shoulder. "They got scared off," he said dismissively. "Some guy with a big mouth… oh, here we are." He stopped in front of a door, gesturing at it pointedly.

The door was labeled with a severe script, naming Horatio Crane, Ph.D., as the rightful occupant of this office. Carter reached forward and activated the door. He stepped through and turned on the lights, revealing a small island of a nearly bare desk surrounded by an ocean of PADDs, loose papers, rolled up charts, and even books.

Again, there was no one in sight.

Nyota stepped through the threshold, trying to get sense of the space. "What's his specialty?" There was a half dead fern in the corner and a molecular representation of carbon hanging from the ceiling. A heavily marked image of the Human brain was plastered to one of the walls, the bottom of it yellowing and curling up slightly.

"Robots." The door closed behind them. When she glanced back at it, the display on the wall clearly read LOCKED. He noticed her look and shrugged. "I'm kinda afraid of the guy with a big mouth."

"I… see." She didn't, but okay. Nyota watched as Carter carefully slide around the mess to the other side of a desk. She nervously rubbed her hands down the side of her uniform, looking at all the haphazardly stacked PADDs to the left and right of her. "Um, is he down here? Doctor Crane?"

Carter shook his head, pressing a button on the desk. A shiny, clean computer emerged from below it. "He's dead. Killed himself a week and a half ago." He irreverently mimed a noose pulling on his neck.

Nyota licked her lips, folding her hurting hands over stomach. "I'm… I'm terribly sorry for your loss."

"Yeah, well. What can you do?" Carter's gaze was focused entirely on the display of the computer. The light from it threw shadows on his face. "The sting the of unrequited love and all that." He was typing something into a computer. When she squinted at the image reflected in one of the pictures behind him, she saw he was writing into some kind of security message center. The message he wrote was ALL CLEAR. "He was a great man. I'm supposed to take over for him, and I don't know how. But you're here, and I think… I think that's a sign." He lifted his gaze from the display and stared at her. Then, abruptly, he said, "Water?"

"I… sure."

Carter nodded and pulled away from the display, moving over to one of the shelves on the sides. Through the same reflective picture frame, Nyota saw a confirmation window pop up. Before she could figure out what it meant, Carter was handing her a plastic cup.

He smiled appreciatively at her. "You're a very beautiful woman, Lieutenant. Smart too, I bet."

"I like to think so," Nyota said neutrally, not lifting the drink to her mouth until he did.

Carter downed the water in three gulps and set the cup on the table. "What's your specialty?"

"Communications. Linguistics," she said shortly, sipping at the water. It was cool and tasteless, and felt wonderful against her parched mouth. She looked down at the computer. "Are you sure-"

"Everything is going to be fine," he promised soothingly. He pulled files and PADDs off of the chair in front of the table, and then gestured she should sit on it. While she sank into it, he moved behind her, tidying the cluttered space. "You know, I thought I wouldn't be able to fill his shoes, but I have more faith in myself now. I can do what he did, and I can do it better. And I won't let myself get so caught up in my projects that I end up killing myself over it."

Nyota nodded mindlessly, staring at her hands. And then, she said, "I thought you said you he killed himself over unrequited love."

"Same thing." Carter touched her shoulder, smiling gently at her. "You have about two minutes."

She lifted her head- why was it so heavy? "Two minutes before what?" she asked.

Carter dropped down to a knee to the side of her chair. "Before you pass out," he said pleasantly.

Nyota stared at him, uncomprehending, and then shot to her feet, catching on the edge of the desk when dizziness assaulted her. "What did you- what did you DO?"

Stupid, she thought wildly. So unforgivably stupid! A frightening numbness was traveling all throughout her body.

Carter stood, straightening his robes. "I'm collecting you, Nyota--I can call you that, can I?" While she gripped the table for dear life, he walked around it, smiling at her proudly. "The doctor collected bright, beautiful people all the time, but for years, I never understood his process--how he chose the people he chose. He nabbed scientists, researchers, Orions--even some chess-whiz brat passing through here on an orphanage scholarship." He laughed. "I finally realized how he did it. I finally realized how he chose who to keep and who to let go." He flung out his arms, grinning broadly. "Pure fucking whim! Isn't that hilarious?"

Nyota tried to slide away--where was the door? She listed to the left, knocking down various objects and trinkets on the desk. She had to get out. She had to get away. The walls blurred together every time she moved, making it nearly impossible for her to see.

She evenly wedged herself between what felt like a shelf and a wall. She gripped the edge of the shelf, desperately trying to make her senses cooperate with her.

Carter was a smear of talking, gloating gray. "Of course, I guess this will probably mean that a whole new line of replicants will be made. Hm." The gray smear grew closer and closer. Carter's voice grew softer and more intimate. "That'll make you JC0001. You'll be my first."

The door suddenly exploded inward, sending bits of debris everywhere. The gray smear suddenly disappeared, dropping away from the flying bits of wall and metal. She clenched her eyes shut, huddling against the shelf, but no more noises--besides the sound of a foot stepping on loose matter--came after that.

Nyota's eyes flew open. Another smear was stepping through the hole in the wall and moving across the room--taller and paler than Carter. He--for it was most certainly a he--stopped for a moment, which allowed the image to start coming into focus. He was a combination of pale and gray colors, she saw, much like those strangely acting workers--replicants-on the other floors.

The man stepped over Carter's unconscious body, his gaze sweeping over the room with a hard, unfriendly expression. His focus shot over to her when she made a noise. His face was absolutely still for several long seconds. It eventually came into focus.

She froze. His eyes were a deep, sharp, familiar blue.

No way. Yes way. Please way.

Nyota pulled away from the shelf, stumbling towards him. "Captain," she whispered desperately, reaching for him.

Before her hand got far, the sedative finally took over. She swiftly sank into unconsciousness.

 

*****

 

Part 12

 

Jim stared down at the crumpled form at his feet, some part of his mind still recoiling with shock. He didn't have to guess at her name; he knew it. Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, a communications officer of the starship Enterprise.

What was she doing down here?

Debris snapped against the floor as another replicant followed him in--D'Nal.

She'd been the one to point out this little, hole-in-the-wall place and was currently staring at the walls with heavily hooded eyes.

"Why is she here?" Jim murmured to D'Nal. The other replicant started to respond, but her words went in one ear and out the other, because…

Because Uhura'd had called him captain. The word echoed in his mind, bouncing around aimlessly. Captain. Like he… meant something. Like he was something, someone.

Which was the whole point of this resistance thing, yeah, but wouldn't someone as intelligent as the lieutenant recognize that he wasn't who he looked like? Wouldn't she have been able to just… tell he was an object? Wasn't it as evident to Humans as it was evident to replicants?

Wouldn't she have known that there was no way her captain could have been down here?

And how did someone tell a Human from a replicant anyway? Jim had completely fooled the SecuFor when he covered his designation. Was that all that separated Humans from replicants? A number on a hip?

Something in D'Nal's continuing explanation suddenly pinged in his mind, and he turned to her in shock. "Make her into a replicant?" he echoed, appalled.

"I thought told you before. Replicants are organic." Her pretty face twisted in distaste. "Horatio Crane liked to collect the prettiest, smartest, most unique beings. The girl fits at least one of those categories." Jim nodded thoughtlessly and looked back at Uhura. Making up his mind quickly, he hunkered down next to her. "What are you doing?"

"There's a transporter room not far from here," Jim said absently, sliding his arms under the unconscious woman's back and legs.

D'Nal sputtered, clearly shocked. "We're in the middle of taking over a complex, and you want to run off with some girl?"

"I have to make sure she's safe," Jim explained patiently, hooking Uhura's arm around his neck. He stood up carefully, tightening his grip around her.

D'Nal frowned at him. "She's sedated, she's not going anywhere."

Ignoring the true, but irrelevant observation, Jim started walking away. "I have faith in you, D'Nal. You can handle command while I'm busy, can't you?"

D'Nal, oddly, was still following him, still protesting. "But you're the leader, Jim, I'm just-"

Jim rolled his eyes. "I came up with the plans, but everyone listens to you, D'Nal." He shot the replicant a mock look of suspicion, stepping into a lift. "I wonder why."

"Um." D'Nal looked nervous as she stepped into the lift with him. She threaded her fingers over her stomach. "I am an Orion. Orions have pheromones. Sometimes, those pheromones, they, uh…"

"Make people susceptible to your will?" Jim waited a beat, then he said, "Yeah, I figured that out, like, a day ago." Jim's amusement abruptly died as he stepped out of the lift and into a busy hallway. "But… just think about it. A pheromone is a biological component that can only be registered by a biological being." Jim glanced at her quickly, trying to judge her expression. "Do you- do you see now why I doubt so strongly that I'm organic?" He gestured with his chin at a replicant who, while scurrying past, gawked at D'Nal with a feverish kind of worship. "At what point, in all of this, have I ever acted like that to you?"

D'Nal frowned, like she'd just noticed. "You must be immune," she concluded dubiously.

"Immune, or incapable of registering biological components?" Jim paused, shifting Uhura so he could open the door. Once the door was open, he started walking again. "My life, writ in irony. To be the inorganic, replicant figurehead of a resistance attempting to prove, among many, many other things, that replicants are organic and deserve all the rights of a Federation citizen."

There was no reply for a moment, because he'd had left her behind in that hallway. Then there was the quick tap-tap of her feet as she jogged to catch up with him. "I believe you're organic too," she said earnestly, walking backwards in front of him. "There's… you're too-"

Jim frowned at her. "What?"

D'Nal was staring at Uhura. "Human." Her eyes jumped up to his. "I believe it. You should too." And then, after a quick, companionable pat to his shoulder, she left, calling out orders to other replicants.

Whatever her protests, she handled command beautifully, leaving Jim to his detour.

Several minutes later, Jim was gently placing Uhura on the transporter. He turned and jogged back to the controls, firing up the machine. A familiar screen alerted him to the security protocols set in place by the other transporter. He was instantly relieved at the sight of it. Transporter to transporter travel was the safest type of travel, but he'd worried the protocols had changed since he sent Kevin up there.

The fact that they hadn't was a good sign. He quickly pulled up the override screen and entered in two passwords, sparring only a second to glance at the unmoving Starfleet officer. She disappeared from his sight in a flurry of white particles.

He stared at the transporter pad for a few minutes longer. He probably should have left with her.

Oh well.

He turned abruptly on his heel and ran, all focus centered on heading back to D'Nal.

With every step he took, he saw more and more of the deck he was on--the organized groups, passing supplies off to one another. The replicants shouting orders down the hallway. They'd claimed this deck as their own and it hardly resembled the place it used to be.

They had control over Decks 13 to 23, and the people were exuberant over their victory. Excited, maybe, but tired, which was why Jim called for a break. Time to assess, time to think, time to evaluate, he called it. As far as their enemy went, they were aware of the replicants' slow but steady creep toward the surface. As far as their sympathizers on the surface were concerned, the replicants down below had won already, and it was just a matter of time before they reached the surface.

There was no official mention from the government about the reality of the take-over. The official who commented suggested that people needed to use their imaginations in a more constructive manner.

The resistance was winning, Jim dared to guess. He smiled, but the expression faded quickly.

There was something… off. Like he was forgetting something important, or something was there, but he just wasn't noticing.

Jim took the pause in the push upward to consider this concern, trying to figure out what made him so weary and tense. He cast his mind over the events of the last few days, just trying to think.

Orders, he remembered. The orders to gather food and water, and to store them in a secure location. Crates full of things that went nowhere. An oddly empty room. Shuttles he didn't need to worry about.

An Orion's pheromones. D'Nal.

When he saw her again, directing everyone around her with the self-assuredness of a general, everything just clicked.

Her eyes lit up when she saw him. "You're back!"

Jim grabbed her elbow. "I need to talk to you," he said, steering her off to the side. When one of her sisters tried to follow, he shot her a glare. "Alone."

D'Nal murmured something sharp in Orion ("Stay," he thought it was) and, pouting, her sister backed down. The woman allowed herself to be man-handled into a room, saying nothing even when Jim pointedly closed and electronically locked the door behind them.

"I'm an idiot. All this time," he hissed to himself. He whirled on her, jabbing a finger in her direction. "You like power, and yet you give up control to someone else? That should be instantly suspicious. I can't believe I missed it."

D'Nal's expression cooled. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

Jim glared at her, angry that she could be so callous. "You're planning on using this all as a distraction so you and your sisters can flee this planet," he hissed, stepping closer to her. Her eyes widened sharply--a confession as clear as any other. "You don't care about the resistance, or the fact that these people are being oppressed. No, all you care are is seeing this place in your rear-view mirror. That's crap, D'Nal!"

Several things flashed over D'Nal's face--apprehension, hurt, sadness. But they were abruptly flattened by anger.

"You know nothing," she spat quickly. She poked his chest hard with her finger. "I've been here for fifteen of your years, Jim! Fifteen! You've been here for only a few days." The look in her eyes was angry and wild. "I've been working so damn hard to leave this place, you have no idea-"

"I know they Deprogrammed you," Jim interrupted hurriedly, talking over her. D'Nal recoiled, like she'd been hit. "Just recently, right? I know they hurt you. I know you begged them to stop, but they wouldn't. I was there. I saw." He lowered his voice a little, softening it. "You said it was your glitch, didn't you? The last time you and your sisters tried to escape, you said it was your fault. That's why they defer to you so completely." Jim paused. "They feel guilty."

D'Nal's mouth trembled. "Shut up," she whispered.

But everything was coming together--her motivations, her lies, her manipulation. And he understood it all, wading through the mess with a sense of comprehension that startled even him, but, then again, he'd always been very good at reading people. His foresight was crap, but his hindsight was pretty awesome.

"Your Creator wouldn't let you go," he realized. "You've been here so long, but he won't let you go."

D'Nal made a small noise of distress in her throat, dropping her eyes to the floor. "He wouldn't let us go. Not even in death." She turned away sharply, her arms tightening over her chest as she walked away a few paces. The line of her spine under her green skin was tight. "Not long after I was Deprogrammed, he came to me. He asked me--begged me--not to do it again. That bitch of a director--Kajia." She spat out the name, like it was a curse. "She has the power here. She said that if I tried just one more time to flee, she would have the SecuFor Terminate me." D'Nal turned back to Jim, her dark eyes glittering. "He begged me not to do anything. In some, small way, he… cared." She dropped her eyes to the floor again, her hands tightening on her arms. "I said I hated him. I said that I hoped he'd die. I was so angry. We were so close to getting away from him." She paused, and then said, in an oddly fragile voice, "He killed himself a week ago, because of me. Because of what I said."

"I'm sorry for your loss."

"Loss," she huffed, laughing a little. "He was my prison guard and my guardian. Without him…" Her eyes shot to him suddenly. "We need to leave. We can't stay here much longer. She'll Terminate us, just because we're anomalous. He was the only one who-" Whatever she was about to say, she cut it off with a sharp shake of her head.

"I understand where you're coming from, D'Nal. Really, I do." Jim licked his lips nervously, staring at her bowed head. He needed to tread carefully. "But we're doing something here. Something really important. I'm not asking you to stay here indefinitely. I'm only asking you to stay just a little bit longer." She looked up, and he knew he had her. He pushed just a little harder. "D'Nal, you… you're my second in command. The other replicants, they follow you. I need you in order to make this work. I can end this. I know I can." He paused, and then pleaded, "Please stay, just a little longer."

D'Nal swallowed hard. After a moment, she nodded. "I'll try."

 

*****

 

They lost Deck 23 first.

As it turned out, they'd miscounted how many SecuFor patrolled the underground.

That beared repeating, Jim thought: They had thirty of D'Nal's cagiest, most paranoid replicants casing the complex for months on end. And, somehow, they miscounted.

"They're coming from the mine!" one of the Humans shouted, pointing to a SecuFor. The being--android, robot, replicant?--pulled itself up through the hole with jerky, slow movements. It braced one knee on solid ground and started to stand up, reaching behind it for its staff weapon.

Jim palmed a wrench and hurled himself at the SecuFor, swinging hard at its torso just as it ungracefully straightened up. The attack knocked it off balance, causing it to stumble back into the hole. It made no noise as it fell. No expression of fear, no attempt to grab at the edges.

No self-preservation.

Jim stepped up to the hole and watched the SecuFor disappear into the abyss, but saw that this wasn't the end. More were coming, climbing up the walls.

Jim backed away and started shouting orders. "Block it off! Block them all off!" Replicants teamed up and started hauling things over the holes--tables, coolers, some of the smaller machines. Even some of the dazed replicants helped, bleating soft 'How may I assist you?'s all over the place. Jim pivoted quickly and pointed out some replicants on the side of the crowd. "You there, prepare more welders!"

Flashes of quick nods registered vaguely in his mind, but he was too busy looking around. A replicant--or a Human? He couldn't tell anymore--bumped into him, shoving a welder into his hands, before she ran off. He glanced over the makeshift weapon, making sure it had been tampered with properly.

Where the hell was D'Nal? They were losing every inch of ground they secured, above and below. Where was she in all of this?

Some of him bitterly considered the fact that she was probably already gone.

Then he saw her.

The Orion was grappling with a SecuFor, her teeth bared in a feral snarl. Her dark hair was flying up in the air as she aggressively parried the SecuFor's staff with a pole. But she was losing, a fact made stunningly clear when the SecuFor merely activated the staff. Electricity erupted at the end of it, and then traveled down the length of D'Nal's pipe.

The wave hit her violently, throwing her several feet back. The pipe clattered on the floor a nanosecond before she did. For a moment, she seemed dazed, but then she was turning on her stomach, shaky arms bracing against the ground as she tried to push herself up.

Behind her, the SecuFor advanced on her, a staff sparking with electricity.

Jim's vision narrowed. He pressed the charge button on his welder and started to sprint towards her, dodging in and out of the way of random skirmishes and replicants. He counted.

One second.

D'Nal was on one of her knees.

Two seconds.

The SecuFor was pulling back the staff, preparing for a blow.

Three seconds.

D'Nal noticed the SecuFor.

Four seconds.

She threw her arms up protectively over herself just as the SecuFor started to swing downwards.

Five.

Jim lifted the weapon and fired. The resulting shot ripped a huge hole in the robot's torso, knocking it to the side. With an ineffectual twitch of its limbs, the thing collapsed to the floor. It did not move.

Jim jogged the rest of the way, jumping over the body of the SecuFor to reach his second in command. He kneeled down on one knee next to her, grabbing her bare shoulder with his free hand.

D'Nal was bleeding from a head wound. "W-what was that flash?" she asked, looking dazed.

His heart still pounding in his ears, Jim wordlessly showed her his weapon, loosening his grip on it as he twisted his wrist. The welder fell apart, one piece clattering to the ground while the other two stayed in his burn reddened hand.

After a moment, D'Nal shot him a scolding look. "I thought you said not to hold on for longer than three seconds."

"Well." Jim let the rest of the weapon fall to the floor and flexed his hurting fingers. "Do as I say, not as I do."

D'Nal let out a deep, throaty laugh. "Oh, Humans," she said fondly, starting to sit up. "I do so like you-"

And then suddenly, there was a familiar whine of a phaser. Jim froze, looking over his shoulder. Kajia stared back at him, flanked by two SecuFor. She held the weapon with a remarkably steady hand.

Jim's blood ran cold.

Kajia arched a eyebrow. "Unless you want your friend to suffer the consequences, I suggest you come with me, NL2036."

Jim thought quickly, doing some calculations. Thanks to a couple of haphazardly placed machines and the SecuFor's body, D'Nal wasn't in Kajia's direct line of sight. "What's the point?" he said, dropping his hand away from the Orion. "She's already dead."

D'Nal took the hint and fell back against the ground, closing her eyes and arranging her face in a neutral pattern. Hoping the lie would remain unchallenged, Jim stood slowly, keeping his eyes on the phaser while also keeping in between Kaija, the two SecuFor, and D'Nal's body.

A welder's projectile whined past, hitting the SecuFor on the left. The robot's chest caved inward at the blow and it fell, listing to the side before it hit the ground.

Without looking, Kajia pointed her phaser in the direction of the source of the attack, and then fired.

Somewhere off to the side, a body fell to the ground. Jim winced.

The phaser moved back to him. "Come with me," Kajia ordered again, as if she hadn't just Terminated someone in cold blood.

Jim pulled carefully away from D'Nal's body even more, watching the phaser as it followed his every movement. "What's in it for me?" He moved closer to the other downed replicant, trying to find where he or she fell.

Kajia glanced at the end of her phaser, then back at Jim. "Guess which setting this is on."

Jim didn't have to guess, as he had just found the other replicant. A vacant gaze stared back at him. HC1999. Jim closed his eyes. He'd assumed but… it was hard knowing, hard having that confirmation.

Jim turned back to Kajia. Smiling without humor, he raised his hands and took several reluctant, heavy steps towards her. "Self-preservation, huh?" he asked bitterly.

"It does appear to be a weakness of yours," she observed without inflection, gesturing for him to walk.

Walk, he did. He had no choice.

All around them, the fighting continued, but Kajia only had eyes for him. For that, at least, he was glad.

Chapter Text

Part 13

 

Mr. Scott was sitting by Nyota's bedside, his fingers clasped tightly in front of his face. He seemed emotionally distressed. Although Spock wished to ascertain Nyota's wellbeing for himself, he did not want to intrude. He merely watched, his focus moving from the unconscious Human to her biometrics every few minutes.

He had approached the engineer earlier, offering his condolences. Humans seemed to appreciate such sentiments, even if they were, on some level, illogical. The engineer had thanked him, but admirably barreled right to a work related issue--or, at least, what he thought was work related.

Scott gave him the particulars of a current project he was running and informed him that Nyota helping him test the result--a prototype communicator. The two had apparently been in contact even during the ion storm that interrupted all of the Enterprise's communication systems. Most fascinating.

Scott had the forethought to record all the messages she sent--to measure the sound's clarity later, he said. It was the last message in particular that he brought to Spock's attention. Believing that Nyota had included a message for Spock, he played it back for him. Spock had diligently listened, some part of him recoiling emotionally at the fear in her voice, and then again at the acceptance. When he heard the part in question, he straightened, folding his arms behind his back.

Scott had looked at him wearily. "Vulcan, right? A message to you?"

Spock had stared at the Human for a moment, noting the red rimmed eyes and the persistent look of exhaustion. He slowly shook his head. "While it is indeed in Vulcan, I would not be mistaken in my belief that it was addressed to you."

Scott had blinked rapidly, shifting from one foot to another. "What- what did she say?"

Uncomfortable, Spock had nevertheless translated the sentiment for the engineer. "'I love you, you nut.'"

Simple words, simple feelings… and yet they had such emotive power.

Spock continued to stare at Nyota's bed from across the sickbay, his eyes now dropping occasionally to Scott's rounded shoulders. One of the engineer's hands cradled Nyota's own, carefully positioned as to not jar the white bandage wrapped around them.

In his peripheral vision, he saw McCoy stop right next to him. "How is she, Doctor?" he queried.

The doctor's eyes flickered in his direction. "Minor bruising and a few broken fingers. Abrasions on her hands. Extreme fatigue. And she was sedated, apparently." He sighed, crossing his arms over his chest. "She'll be out for a while."

"I see."

McCoy shot him a sharp eyed look. "That's the second person beamed aboard this ship with you and Jim's override codes."

"That is correct."

"Who knows them?"

Spock shook his head. "Besides myself and the captain, no one."

"So," McCoy drawled, turning to him. "If you're not the one down there, beaming people to safety, then..."

"Captain Kirk must be the one," Spock murmured, finishing his train of thought. "What I do not comprehend is why he remains below."

"It's Jim. He could have a million reasons." McCoy rubbed the back of his head. He too appeared fatigued. "Anyway, the kid woke up. He says he doesn't know how he got on the transporter pad. Apparently, he thought he'd been 'Terminated' in a hallway." The doctor rolled his wrist out in front of him. "Started rambling about some weird things, like... Programming and some nonsense. Like all that stuff Chris said you found on his PADD." McCoy had not been present for that meeting. "I don't get computer programming, but I know a Human being can be psychologically programmed and..." McCoy stopped suddenly and looked at Spock. "What if they managed to convince Jim not to come back?"

"Would he need such convincing?" Spock asked softly, staring at the ground.

"Uh, yeah," McCoy replied. He crossed his arms over his chest again. "Look, Jim's a possessive son of a bitch. You'd get his stuff only when you pry his cold, dead fingers off them. The bastard won't even share his food. And the Enterprise is his, make no mistake. He wouldn't just abandon her. Or us." The doctor looked at him and then snorted. "Get over yourself, Spock."

Spock stared at him. "Pardon me?"

"You're hard to read, but not impossible. You're thinking now, 'oh, what if I've done something to drive Jim off?' Boo hoo!" McCoy mimed a look of severe, emotional distress, complete with wringing hands.

"On the contrary," Spock said severely. "I was considering the effort needed to psychologically program a Human."

"Sure," McCoy said, disbelieving.

Spock was saved from the continuation of this asinine conversation when a ship-wide announcement asked him to return to the conference room. With one, final look at Nyota's still face, he turned and walked out of the sickbay.

 

*****

 

Nico Levin was aboard the Enterprise. The man was not as puzzlingly obtuse as Lumiere. They only needed to state their purpose and intent once. Then, the Human, with a notable lack of obfuscation for his kind, told them the truth--about everything.

Had the situation been different, Spock would have appreciated the Human's honesty. He would have admired the minimalist way he explained himself. No matter the content of his speech, the method with which he enacted his plans was decidedly Vulcan in nature--logical, linear, and rational. His pleas of emotionalism were surprisingly limited for a Human.

But Spock's innate fascination with the Human's plan and intricate plots seemed so minor compared to the staggering importance of one, single fact.

Levin knew where Jim was.

Once Levin revealed this information, Spock's vision blurred. Pieces of a memory flashed in front of his eyes: the bruised, bleeding face of his captain. The rough pattern of burn marks across his chest. The bleak expression in his bright blue eyes. Jim had so little of a sense of self when their minds had grazed. He barely knew his name.

Days. He had been with them for only days.

What did they do to his captain? What did Levin do to his captain?

When Levin had finally materialized on the transporter pad, Lumiere had nearly thrown himself at his scientific advisor. "Tell them of the terrorist plot in Risa II--I know your wife's handling it!" He clearly expected Levin to back up his claims. "More importantly, this nonsense about, about replicants... being sentient, being Human!" Lumiere had smiled then. The expression trembled on his round face. "Tell them the truth."

Levin said nothing until they reached the room of the trial. When everyone had settled in, the man stood up carefully. His eyes moved over the faces of all the room's occupants, lingering on Spock.

When Levin spoke, it was without preamble or build up. He spoke softly, but quickly, his voice moving steadily over carefully considered words. He spoke well, but by the time he was done speaking, Lumiere was backing away from him with a look of absolute horror. Their shared solicitor covered his face with his hand.

"The terrorist he refers to only goes as far as to claim sentience," Levin explained quietly. "This terrorist argues that the replicants have been actively suppressed. He believes that replicants should be afforded the same rights and dignities as any other intelligent life in the Federation." Levin stared at Pike, who was frowning deeply. "The platform of his attack on society is based on the idea that replicants have evolved past the primitive uses of their processors and moved into advanced artificial life. He is wrong." He smiled oddly then. The expression, normally used to convey happiness, seemed sad. "Replicants are not advanced forms of artificial life. Replicants are not primitive forms of artificial life, either. They are, quite simply..." Levin paused, lifting up his hands. He fanned them outward. "Human. Appropriated Humans." His eyes moved over to Spock suddenly. "You understand, don't you? What happened to your captain?"

Spock saw red.

 

*****

 

Spock stood off in the corner, the air around him dark and hostile. His hands threaded together in front of his mouth as he watched Levin, eyes glittering with suppressed anger. He paced in small circles, his hands continually flexing in front of him.

That was an emotionally compromised Vulcan, Pike realized, but he was the quietest of the angry people in the room, the most restrained. McCoy had to be escorted from the room because he was shouting so loudly. He was followed by a unwilling Lumiere, who had actually lunged from his seat to grab at Levin.

"I watched you and your crew create their prototypes!" Lumiere had bellowed, fighting the security officers who pulled him outside. "I watched you design their models, come up with their programming! I watched you assemble these objects, and I watched you for four decades, Levin!"

Rubbing at his abused neck, Levin stared at the governor for a moment and then shook his head. "You watched me assemble an illusion. An illusion you were quite happy to swallow."

His face bright red, Lumiere made a soft, disbelieving noise and then sagged against the hold of the men around him. He looked tired and devastated, like he lost all will to fight. He was then dragged out of the room. The solicitor, shooting Levin a disgusted look as he stood up, was quick to follow.

Pike eyed the disaster that was the conference room. The pilot Sulu was the only one sitting. He was cradling his head in his hands, muttering something to himself. The navigator stood a little behind him, one hand on his shoulder as he murmured something in the older man's ear--not that he seemed to hear.

They seemed to grasp something Pike hadn't yet--Sulu and Chekov, McCoy and Spock. That was the only explanation for their sudden reactions to Levin's confession.

The realization that replicants were merely 'appropriated Humans' was very upsetting, but not nearly enough to force a Vulcan into emotional compromise. There was something else, something personal that wasn't quite resonating with Pike the way it was resonating with the bridge crew.

Something to do with Kirk.

Pike signed and turned his gaze to the other side of the room. The Security Chief stood by the door with a stony expression next to the much smaller form of the Chief Engineer, who had come to the trial reluctantly, but stayed the whole way through. The Scottish man chattered nervously to the taller Security Chief.

"So exciting, but scary too, ye know?" Pike overheard him say.

Archer had words for that man--hyper, reckless. Even brilliant, but Pike had a sense he wasn't supposed to tell Scotty about that.

Finally, Pike turned his eyes to the center. Levin stood like an oasis of calm in the middle of everything, ignoring the dark looks tossed in his direction from all corners.

Pike cleared his throat and took back control of the trial, gesturing for the standing Starfleet officers to sit. They did so quickly, but reluctantly.

"You admit to willful slavery?" Pike asked Levin harshly.

Levin nodded, frowning deeply. "It was a gift, but they don't seem to understand."

Pike fumed. It wasn't ethical to smack someone over the head with your cane, even if they deserved it. Pike took a deep breath before starting again. "Will you make a full confession?" Pike probed.

"Of course." Then, without a shred of emotion, Levin told them of Uruk's history.

The six founders of Uruk came from poor colonies. They worked together to create a dream city, where all citizens had free access to things that they did not--clean water, food, heating, entertainment.

But such an enterprise was expensive. They required many credits to realize their dream, so they acquired backers. Some backers were idealists, the perfect match for their perfect dream. But other backers were businessmen. They wanted returns. They wanted proof that their investment was worth it.

One of these backers learned of a certain founder's skill regarding robotics. Levin had only been sixteen at the time, but he suddenly found himself under the scrutiny of their most influential backer when he was asked to make a humanoid robot. Levin panicked--his specialty was small, cleaning robots, not anything as complicated as an android! Nevertheless, arrogant and convinced of his own prowess, he took up the challenge, certain he would find a way to make it work.

He failed. He failed many times. He lacked the resources and experience to make a robot that merely looked like a Human. He did not have the skill to make it act Human as well. Levin--and later, Levin and his research team--tried hard nevertheless, creating robot after failed robot.

Ten years of failures passed before the backer threatened to pull his funding. At that time, Uruk was not self-sufficient enough to survive such a blow. Their seemingly miraculously find of a dilithium vein under the city had been tapped out. Their dream city was about to be destroyed.

"That is, unless I could have somehow created a humanoid robot good enough to pass muster with our financial backer," Levin said, frowning at the thought. "But a decade had taught us that we simply did not have the technology. Then, my assistant--Horatio Crane. He came up with a brilliant idea." Levin licked his lips. "While we could not make robotics imitate life, we could very easily make life imitate robotics."

Then came the birth of the first replicant. One of the machines left behind by the planet's first colonists was a machine used to quickly train animals. They hastily retrofitted it for Humans and got a volunteer to undergo training. They had her forget basic Human things, like how to walk and how to talk, and then taught it to her again. They gave her temporary implants--a metal sheath that slid over her limbs, a robotic eye that fitted neatly over her real eye, and other things that no Human should have in or around their body.

The product of all this tampering was a Humanoid being who looked to be half robot and half Human. She spoke and walked awkwardly, seemingly unaware of social cues and protocols of communication, but smart enough to do the most difficult math.

The backers cheered--what a great, new technology their investment had provided! They showered the city with money, and Uruk grew.

Levin and the volunteer had bought Uruk extra time. But they were still no closer to developing an actual replicant. Although they were learning new things everyday, the technology for that still didn't exist.

Then tragedy struck--the first 'replicant' died due to complications. The machine they used to program her was not meant for Humans. While it worked decently on animals, it suppressed the brain processes so completely in Humans that basic life functions were compromised. The stress of the programming along with the stress of the multiple surgeries had killed that first replicant.

Levin's research team mourned her loss, but moved on with their experiments, hoping to use what they learned from her to create a real replicant one day. They managed to create smaller, simpler versions based on what they learned.

But after their sudden and public success, pressure was mounting for a new prototype, and nothing they had was advanced enough. They decided to make another fake replicant. They thought they had no choice. A task force looked at the machine again, and redesigned it. This time, they thought, it wouldn't kill.

The second replicant was a marvel of the technology world. He lived longer too, but they never did figure out if he died of natural causes, or because of the machine.

The pressure never left--the backers wanted more. They wanted replicants of their own. They only thing that kept them from knocking down Uruk's gates to get them was a creative lie Horatio came up with--why not tell them that the replicant power sources only worked on Uruk? It was a genius idea that bought them more time.

But the pressure never went away. The backers still wanted to see more. They wanted to see progress. And, by then, Uruk's own government was placing pressure on them too--this time because they wanted the cheap workforce that a pool of unpaid replicants could provide.

According to Levin, they had to create more. They had no other choice.

Levin's research team came up with the idea to use criminals and wanted persons in their experiments, justifying it by saying they were of no use to society anyway. Then, they moved on to orphans and widows and people whose lives would have sucked anyway. Somewhere along the lines, their desperate attempt to avoid losing funding had become some distorted call for social action.

Levin argued that they were becoming the change the universe needed. They took people who had no purpose, and they went ahead and gave them one. While their lives were slightly shorter due to the measures taken to insure their docility, the replicants were happier, healthier beings because they had this new purpose, he said.

Levin was doing good in the universe--for everyone.

Spock finally spoke. He had never sat down, and when he talked, he talked right into the wall. "You had no right to decide his fate." He clearly understood something way Pike, and he was practically seething in the knowledge.

"Spock?" Pike prompted.

The Vulcan slowly turned around, but he only had eyes for Levin. "You had no right to impose your way on him."

Pike really didn't know what he was talking about. "Spock-"

The first flash of emotion passed over Levin's face. "You couldn't let him go, could you? I had to Reprogram him four times before he'd stop asking for you. And he still-"

Spock stepped forward with a sharp, sudden motion that had everyone flinching, but he made no move to attack. "Why?"

Levin looked troubled. "I followed his life. Like everyone, but I… I understood him. I understood what it was like, being burdened by the actions of a parent, always judged on it. Of being forced into a position where everyone is counting on you to produce and produce until there's nothing left of you." He hesitated. "When I met him, when I saw how good he was, how little he deserved his life… I decided I could help him. I could make him happy."

Pike had a horrid feeling that he now knew who they were talking about. He sat up in his seat, disturbed when a half smile crept over Levin's face.

"After all, what gives a person greater happiness than the happiness that he gets when his basic needs are met, when he's housed in a safe place, when he has simple purpose?"

A heavy silence hung over the room. Spock stared at Levin unblinkingly.

Scotty coughed into his hand awkwardly. "Ah… believe you're askin' the wrong person about happiness..."

More than one person in the room looked away sharply, as if trying to control their expression.

Spock's eyebrows twitched, like he was offended by their lack of faith in him. "Happiness," he enunciated slowly. His long body unfolded into a straight line and the fire seemed to ease from his eyes. "Happiness. A psychological state of some degree of pleasure and satisfaction." He paused. When he spoke again, his voice had deepened a little. "One does not feel this emotion when they are forced into a gilded cage, Doctor, nor do they feel this when they are pushed into a false purpose. One feels it when they are in a place of their own choosing, following a purpose of their own making. The content of your enticements or intentions is irrelevant, for there is only place the captain would feel happy, and it is on this starship." He turned away suddenly, walking to the wall on the other side of the room. "By keeping him on Uruk and from his chosen purpose, I submit that you have, in fact, made him the most miserable he has ever been in his entire life." He paused, and then turned to face Levin again. "He will never thank you. I believe he may even despise you. That is the consequence of your unwanted interference, and I bid you to think on that."

Everyone stared at Spock for a long moment, but he only looked at Levin. Eventually, Levin looked down, breaking the gaze.

The silence that followed Spock's speech was interrupted by a ship-wide announcement, followed by a red alert. Pike immediately patched through to the bridge, barking out a demand for answers.

"There's a riot on the surface of Uruk!" someone announced, his voice panicked. "The city officials--they just announced a state of emergency!."

"Ah, yes. A replicant uprising. Happens every once in a while when a replicant develops an distaste for his food," Levin said distantly. He didn't appear to be addressing anyone in particular. "The food is what makes him docile."

"We need to retrieve Captain Kirk," Spock said immediately.

People started to stand up from their chairs, nodding vigorously. Pike stood too, about ready to issue orders when Levin's voice cut in.

"Jim's in the middle of it all. He's the head of the resistance." Levin looked at Pike. "He'll die, you know. A fifth Programming will kill him."

Scotty stepped forward, lifting a finger. "Er, not to be that guy who poses stupid questions, but why would anyone 'reprogram' the lad?"

"The Head of the SecuFor is Kaija Levin. My wife," Levin said. He smiled vaguely. "She thinks in binary." His eyes sharpened suddenly. "She'll handle the rebellion like she's handled every other rebellion. If it's a small rebellion, she'll kill the one in charge. If it's large... she'll make Reprogram him and make him recant in front of those who dared to follow him." His eyebrows raised. "She will make it very public, likely in some kind of press conference."

Sulu swallowed hard. "So, um, is this big or small?"

Levin smiled humorlessly. "It's global. By now, interplanetary. He made it so. Now, she won't let him go. She won't let him die. He still has purpose for her. He still has work to do." Levin shifted his attention to Spock. "You still have time to save him."

Spock stared at him for a moment before nodding sharply.

Pike snapped his cane against the floor. "Not now, people, five minutes ago. Move, move, move!"

The room burst into a flurry of motion. They had a riot to beam into.

 

*****

 

Part 14

 

With detailed directions, even the most confusing maze was beatable. It was thus with ease that Spock found Levin's secret Programming lab deep in the abandoned mine. Levin's map was accurate down to the last measurement.

Spock was forced to abandon the security officers when they suddenly came under attack by metallic, Humanoid shaped beings. They understood the importance of haste, and asked to be decoys so that Spock could move on and save their captain. The last he'd seen of them, they were trading weapons fire with the SecuFor.

There were so few SecuFor left. Apparently, one of the first things Jim did as the resistance leader was order their destruction. By destroying the SecuFor, the replicants were essentially destroying their biggest and worst opposition. As usual, while unrefined and almost random, Jim's tactics were adequate for his purposes.

The decoy provided by the security officers allowed Spock to finally locate the Programming machine. It was a huge, wrought iron machine connected to a sleeker, modern console. Lights flashed over the console meaningfully.

His heart in his side stuttered a little when he realize that the two gray protrusions coming out of the machine were legs--Human legs. He crossed the room quickly and tapped out a command on the console. The display beeped a few times and steam was ejected from the top of the machine. And then, slowly, it responded.

The machine opened, revealing the slackened face of his captain.

Spock pulled out the med kit and started sticking Jim's clammy neck with every hyponeedle McCoy had provided, and then pulled back to scan a medical tricorder over Jim's body. He waited exactly thirty seconds, each second a small century, but there were no changes. All of Jim's bodily functions were slowly, but steadily shutting down.

Spock's hands loosened around the tricorder. It dropped to the ground as he lunged toward Jim, feeling--sensing--the captain's current health with his own abilities.

Denial--how could he--why

Not Jim. Never Jim.

Spock pressed his forehead briefly against the captain's in an unwilling, unconscious movement, before settling back on his heels

The automatic processes of his captain had been interrupted by the fifth Programming attempt made on his mind. It was just as Levin predicted. While Jim's heart beat sluggishly with a rhythm that slowed with every pump, his lungs were completely still.

He was dying.

Spock leaned back slightly. None of McCoy's shots completely compensated for the havoc the machine committed to Jim, and Spock thought he knew why.

Jim's mind was the culprit.

Dropping the last hyponeedle, Spock pressed one hand under the chest straps that bound Jim to the machine, and another over Jim's cheek, fingers flaring out to find the meld points. He closed his eyes and immediately sunk into Jim's mental space.

As his mind flowed into Jim's, Spock was instantly aware of the lack of the sentry consciousness. Human consciousnesses were highly territorial. They were not aware of the outer walls limiting their mental expanse, but they reached out nevertheless, expanding and expanding until all borders were touched. The points touched during a mind meld helped a Vulcan find ways to gentle and control that aggressive consciousness, but never did a Vulcan meld with a Human without having that Human's consciousness slam up against their own.

This would be the exception, Spock noted. He saw that Jim's consciousness was a faded shade off to the side, barely wavering at the presence of Other--of Spock--in its precious mind space.

Spock had very little time. He dropped deep down into Jim's mind--a task made much easier without the obstacle of the sentry. Humans had so little awareness of processes made down in this level, but he was a Vulcan. He would make this work.

Spock found the core of the most basic part of the Human brain and implored it to breathe/beat/live/exist. If he could control his own nervous system, could he not control Jim's? He could touch it now, he could feel it. He willed it to do his bidding.

It had to be enough. It was the only idea he had.

Time passed. Seconds ticked by. Internally, Spock cried out--was this not working?

And then, with a sudden gasp, Jim breathed.

Relieved, Spock gently pulled away from Jim's basic biological processes, aware of a renewed heartbeat under his palm on the outside, the inflation and deflation of the lungs. Within his mental space, Jim's consciousness stirred curiously at the presence of Spock--of Other. Spock ignored it for the moment, assessing the condition of his captain's mind.

There would be no damage, he observed. He had, as Humans were fond of saying, saved Jim just in time.

Something stirred outside of his awareness. Alerted that his time was up, Spock started pulling out of the recesses of Jim's mind, but as fast as he moved, Jim's consciousness was faster. It exploded outward, slamming into Spock.

Spock was suddenly visually aware of a room. He thought that perhaps he managed to pull out in time, but a single visual sweep showed him the error of such an assumption. He was not kneeling on the ground, next to his captain. Instead, he was standing in a familiar room with gray walls and sparse decorations.

Was this his mind playing tricks on him? He was grimly reminded of the meaningless echoes that plagued him during mediation, of the perceived stimuli that had no source, and was contemplating the hazards of a hybrid physiology when he realized that the image did not come from him. It was not his mental construct.

This was Jim's mental construct. It could not be a Vulcan's. A Vulcan's mental constructs were very precise. This illusion, on the other hand, was deeply flawed, giving the captain's quarters spatial dimensions that were not reflective of the room's actual dimensions and makeup.

Spock was aware he was not alone. He turned his head slightly. His eyes widened.

"Captain," he said, swallowing.

Jim stood over his desk, frowning at the pieces of an antiquated welder. He looked up at the call and smiled. "Hi, Spock," he said conversationally, putting the gadget down on the table. He strode across the room purposefully, never once letting up with the smile.

It was that smile, perhaps, that made Jim's shove so unexpected. Spock fell back onto Jim's bed. Startled by the unprovoked attack, he attempted to sit up, only to have efforts repelled by the press of Jim's palm against his chest.

No, that was not entirely accurate. The hand made Spock pause, but it was the mouth that made him stop completely--Jim's mouth, so gently brushing over his.

Jim's other hand skimmed lightly over Spock's cheek. "Where the hell have you been?" Jim asked, his voice barely above a whisper. His tone was light and teasing. "I missed you."

For the first time in his adult life, Spock found himself completely without words. "Jim," he breathed. It was all he could say, but he did not require words for this. Spock folded his hand around the back of Jim's neck, pulling him down so that he might for a brief moment possess that smiling mouth.

Jim huffed out a laugh. It hovered between them pleasantly as Jim straddled Spock's lap and playfully pushed him the rest of the way down so the back of his head touched Jim's pillow.

Spock was… overwhelmed. There was too much to process all at once. Under his fingers, Jim's arm was hard. Against his lips, Jim's mouth was hot. Jim whispered his name between kisses, the soft syllables tinged with awe.

Spock closed his eyes as a rough palm firmly handled his jaw. Clever fingers danced lightly over his ears, as if Jim was wary of the unfamiliar design. One of Spock's hand fisted in Jim's shirts, the distinct feeling of two twisting fabrics pulling over his fingers before he reached under, letting his palm flatten halfway up the line of Jim's spine. The other hand dropped and gripped the thick muscle of Jim's thigh, perhaps too hard because Jim laughed and nipped Spock's lower lip in retaliation.

It was…

Spock's eyes shot open. It was not real.

The bed, the captain, the air--all were artificial constructs of the mind. Nothing about this scenario had any concrete basis in reality. And yet, Spock could not stop himself from cataloguing details. He could not stop himself from responding. His own mind worked against him, filling in the gaps of sensory information, making the illusion--the dream--all the harder to separate from.

But he was a Vulcan. He did not forget.

This was not why he was here.

Desperately trying to control himself, Spock jerked his head away from Jim's and stared at the wall. "Captain, please cease your actions."

Jim froze and leaned back slightly, putting scant distance between them. He replaced his other hand on the side of Spock's head obediently, but then, after a moment of staring down at him with confusion, quirked his eyebrow. It was then that Spock realized that he still had his hand up his captain's shirt. He snatched it back hastily.

Jim's mouth twitched, but his eyes were kind. "Sorry. I forgot. No sex before marriage, right?"

Spock blinked up at him. "It is an incorrect, but not entirely inaccurate reflection of my species' courtship rituals," he said stiffly.

Jim's eyebrows rose. "Incorrect, but not entirely inaccurate?" he echoed, somewhat disbelieving, but still amused. When he dropped his head to nuzzle along Spock's jaw, Spock felt his captain's mouth curve against his neck. "Tell me more."

He would not. It was irrelevant. Spock stared up at the ceiling. "This is a dream."

"Hmm," Jim said, as agreeing.

Spock covered Jim's elbows with his palms. He lifted his head up from the bed a little. "Captain."

Jim sighed, the warm breath brushing gustily along Spock's jaw. "I know, Spock. I know." He pulled back once more, this time putting his weight on his heels. He pressed a hand over his heart, his eyes pleading for Spock to understand. "I know it's just a dream, but… I'm the one in gold, you see? Not gray. I'm not… I mean something here. I want to stay."

In Spock's peripheral vision, the walls buckled slightly. Jim immediately shot up and out of the bed, instantly aware of the aberration. In seconds, Spock was on his feet as well, seeking out the danger that put the anxiety in Jim's face. All the warm, pleasant feelings lingering from their activities on the bed died with that look.

But there was nothing--nothing he could see.

All of the sudden, fear trembled between them where their consciousnesses had mingled. Blind panic, despair, and a crippling sense of loss. What was the source? What was the cause? He could see nothing. Where was it?

"Captain," Spock said, pivoting quickly. The walls all around them were melting and rippling, oozing out of their frames. Bells chimed demandingly, over and over again, growing increasingly loud with each repetition.

Spock had to shout over it. "Captain! We must go back to the ship!"

But Jim didn't seem to hear him. His hands were clamped hard over his ears and his eyes were shut. He might as well have been trapped in another world.

Spock grabbed his shoulder, grim. It appeared that Jim's current environment was causing him stress. Or, more accurately, something just beyond it.

He would remove the stressors. They did not belong. Spock closed his eyes and concentrated.

Finally, Jim's head shot up. Even with his psi-null mind, Jim could feel the power of his mental construct shift abruptly to Spock, and he seemed disturbed by it. He looked around, wide eyes taking in the new landscape.

Spock observed it as well. The open field of the desert was one he constructed purely from memory. Hot, dry air blew at them gently, tossing red grains of sand up around their ankles. He instantly located an anomaly in the scene and parted from Jim to step up to a construct that he did not create, unconsciously or not.

The sky was sliced into pieces by heavy white threads.

At last, Spock was finally starting to see the source of Jim's stress. He observed the constructs carefully, curiously.

Spock turned to Jim. "These lines do not originate from my consciousness."

Jim had his arms crossed over his suddenly bare chest. Numbers and digits were darkly inked across one of his hips, and his well fitting, black regulation pants had been replaced with a gray material that looped loosely around his legs.

Spock's fingers tightened into fists. He had seen Jim like this once before.

Obliviously, Jim rubbed his fingers over his neck thoughtlessly as he looked up at the altered sky. "They're from mine." He was wearing an odd, humorless smile. "Programming. Tell you what to do, what to think, what to believe."

The lines vibrated, as if in response to that. Jim cringed, but in Spock's construct, the Programming could not attack him. He would not allow it.

As far as Jim's response went, he had expected as much from Levin's confession. "On some level, you must be aware of that they do not belong."

Spock looked up at them again. They were spaced out in the sky, anchored in intangible places. Visually, they were not unlike webs of an arachnid. Why Jim had chosen that image to represent the Programming, Spock did not know. All he knew was they hung there like a bad smell, a poison. In his true mental landscape, Jim's consciousness was contorted all around these lines, the territorial force nearly beaten down by their constricting bonds. The repeated applications only made it worse.

Spock frowned and walked to the closest web. These came from Jim, but they were not of Jim. They had to be removed.

"These are artificial neuronal connections built to control your behavior and thoughts," he told Jim, wrapping his hand around one line of the web. In actual space of Jim's mind, his consciousness started to surround parts of the Programming. He was prepared to destroy. "It does not belong. It has no place here."

With a quick, sharp movement downward, he sheared the web from its invisible hold. He ripped down that one, and then another, and another. They were ugly, fake, suffocating--the mark of another Human's attempt to claim his captain.

With this Programming, Jim could not be himself. He was forced to twist and bend himself around these bonds, these codes of action. Jim was forced to be someone else for the whims of another. Jim was forced into servitude.

It was unacceptable.

Suddenly, the desert melted away. The webs disappeared from sight, hiding in the protective walls of a long hallway. Even the Programming within Jim's actual mind was hidden away, leaving Spock's consciousness reeling, trying to comprehend what had just happened. What caused the shift? He could detect no external forces acting on the captain.

Therefore, the force was internal.

Spock focused on the visual display presented to in Jim's consciousness--the hallway. The walls were an opaque white and interrupted every six feet by a door. There were hundreds of doors bathed in soft light, stretching out far beyond what Spock's eyes could see. A depression in the floor allowed for a shallow stream of water to bisect the hallway. The water flowed straight before taking a hard left and disappearing through a grate in the wall.

It, like the dimensions of Jim's room, had to be exaggerated. The hallway never ended.

Suddenly, the room closest to Spock opened, as if reacting to his presence. Everything within it was bare and white. It was completely empty.

Jim was not there.

Jim's voice, when it came, seemed to echo from the walls, from the floors, and from the doors. "You don't belong here either, Spock," he spat.

Spock leaned back on his heels. Jim was protecting the Programming. Why? He could not understand, but he had the sense that Jim just could not help his protectiveness. It was likely written within the Programming itself.

Jim, he thought. Spock waited a few minutes, but Jim neither spoke again, nor appeared.

Spock waited longer, and then, after reflecting on Jim's last words, said hesitantly, "Is my presence so unpleasant?"

Suddenly, Jim was at his elbow. "Of course not," he said, his voice hushed.

Spock turned slowly to meet Jim's worried gaze. He believed he too harbored some disbelief of his own, though for vastly different reasons. "Your concern for me is illogical." Spock tilted his head. "You are the one in a perilous situation. I am merely the one attempting to retrieve you."

"Perilous? Retrieve me?" Spock saw the second that the possibility--that this was a mind meld and not just a dream--dawned on his captain. Jim's eyes widened and he took a reflexive step back. "Holy shit. You're... you're Spock."

Spock clasped his hands behind his back. "Yes."

"Wow. Wait, what? No." Fortunately, Jim seemed to be in no need of a response to his increasingly incoherent response. He bit his lip and closed the gap between them, firmly grasping each of Spock's arms. "Spock. Really Spock."

"Yes, Captain." Spock do not quite understand the Human tendency to question basic facts.

Jim blinked several time and then pushed himself away. The entire hallway abruptly darkened. "What, you couldn't knock? Gimme some time to do some housekeeping?" he asked bitterly.

Memories lingered just out of reach, twisted up with anger and hurt and fear. Reacting to Jim's thoughts, the landscape within the dream began changing rapidly. First, there was a long stretch of golden terrain--loose dust and dirt flying up in the air. Then there was the cramped quarters of cities, an empty farm yard, the inside of an Academy dorm. Other places popped up as well: Starfleet Medical, the sickbay, the bridge. Even a construct of Levin's labs half-formed, twisted by a visceral sense of panic.

The images flashed too quickly for Spock, forming and disappearing with dizzying speed. Spock had to momentarily detach his perception of the visual aspects of Jim's consciousness. Vulcan minds were not built to withstand such input. The average Vulcan's memory was nearly perfect, but mental reconstructions of settings and places (a common activity within a meditative session) tended to be minimalist, focusing on the most important aspects of a scene to the reduction of all others.

By contrast, a Human's mental reconstruction abilities leaned on overly vivid images that emphasized too many things at once while inflating the importance of irrelevant stimuli. They were wildly variable in their inaccuracies, and somewhat painful to watch.

"My apologies, Captain, but I could not wait," Spock said neutrally, directing his words to where he still sensed Jim's tormented presence. "A situation has developed that requires your full attention. You are only half aware of the particulars."

There was absolute silence for a moment, and then, Jim said, "What's the situation?"

Cautiously, Spock reconnected his visual processes. They were in a setting that roughly resembled one of the Enterprise's conference rooms. It was appropriate. Jim was standing at the head of the table, both hands braced against the surface.

Spock stood at attention and told him everything--about his kidnapping, about Levin, about the evolution of replicant life, about the role Uruk played in perpetuating the lie. He told the captain about the amount of forethought that went in his kidnapping and how technology played a role in shaping his brainwashing. He even told Jim about the efforts that the Enterprise had expended to retrieve him, but he was starting to wonder if his words were being processed. Jim was staring at him with an open mouthed look of astonishment, stubborn disbelief winning out over all.

"Bullshit," Jim whispered once there was a lull in Spock's speech. He leaned forward sharply, slapping his hand against the table. "That's not how it works-"

"Forgive me, Captain," Spock said sharply, cutting into his protests. "I do not place much value in any claims you may make when it would be clear to even the weakest telepath that your judgment has been severely compromised by this… Programming."

Even now, the Programming was everywhere, off in the corners, and in the walls--still obscuring and detracting from Jim's processes. Spock's earlier attempt to remove it had destroyed much of the hold it had over Jim's thoughts. Jim, in turn, had changed his stance to it. Now, he was wary of it, careful to hold himself separate. But he still protected it, shielding it instinctively from Spock. It was... maddening to see this from a man whose mind so closely paralleled his own.

When it had stirred, Jim's consciousness had chosen to not to fight, but to merge. Such a choice was not insignificant. On some level, Jim trusted him with all he had. On other levels, he did not. Trying to understand what made one condition different from the other confused Spock in a way he had not experienced since he was a very small child.

Spock did not appreciate the feeling then, and he did not appreciate it now.

Sighing heavily, Jim flung himself into the seat at the head of the table. "Okay, point." Despite the willing acquiescence, he was displaying symptoms of a condition McCoy commonly referred to as 'ticked off'. He twisted his chair to the left, purposefully not looking at Spock. "But why do you have to be such an ass about it?"

Spock blinked rapidly and stared at his captain's profile, noting the stiff jaw, the flattened mouth, lowered eyebrows. He leaned back and relaxed his shoulders. It was strange. The captain was clearly unhappy with him, but Spock's... feelings on the matter were the exact opposite. Yes, he shared the captain's irritation, but, underneath it all… feelings of an entirely different dimension threatened his control.

So Spock try to consider the situation from Jim's point of view. He decided to relent, to bend his need to control his emotions just a little bit. There was very little Jim would remember about this conversation in detail. If emotional admissions would motivate Jim to leave this place, then it was illogical to hold them back.

He crossed the distance between himself and his captain, laying a hand on the table. "I... did not respond well to your disappearance. Although you have been found, you continue to attempt to thwart my efforts to return you to the Enterprise." Jim's gaze shifted from the wall to Spock's hand, but he appeared to be listening. "My apologies. My words were ill-considered."

Jim looked up, his blue eyes freezing on Spock's face. "You missed me too," he intuited softly.

Spock tucked his hand back behind his back and faced Jim fully. "I believe I said that."

Spock blinked and suddenly they were back in Jim's room again. The dimensions were still inaccurate. On one side of the room, Jim sighed and fell back against the bed, rumpled and tired looking once more. That left Spock in the middle of the room with the option to look about Jim's quarters. Despite incorrect measures of length and width, most everything else in Jim's room appeared to be rather accurate--much more accurate than the conference room.

More mental energy was spent here, he gathered. The quarters signified a personal place--private and all Jim's own. That Spock was allowed so many times within the captain's mental construct of his most vulnerable place was telling.

He turned his attention back to his captain, unhooking one hand from the clasped position behind him. "Jim."

Jim huffed out a rough approximation of a laugh, something in his expression tired and bleak. "I know." He sighed. After a moment, he looked up and reached out for Spock, his palm facing the ceiling. "Okay. Get me out of here."

Spock did not hesitate--he took Jim's hand in his own.

And then, suddenly, Jim was awake.

Chapter Text

Part Fifteen

 

The ceiling was very gray, dotted with mildew and mold. When Jim's eyes finally focused on it, he wished they hadn't. There were better things to look at, after all.

Spock's long fingered hands darted over Jim gently, unhooking him from the straps that held him in the machine. Jim accepted the help up without complaint--his knees were shaky and his head pounded angrily. Even his throat was dry. He felt like crap. Spock held him up by a soft grip on both of his upper arms, and seemed oddly inclined not to let go.

That was okay. Jim liked that. It was just everything else that was sucking.

His mind was spinning around crazily on its axis, trying to make sense of everything. He started remembering things and with those memories came worries. He licked his lips and stared at Spock through heavy lidded eyes. Some panicked part of him was screaming. I'm not real. I'm not him. I'm not even organic. But he remembered the dream--bits and pieces of it. And if Spock was in his dream, telling him to wake up, then what did that mean when he woke up to find Spock right there next to him? The Vulcan was a touch telepath--could probably read his thoughts, even now. Spock would say if Jim wasn't on the right track. It would be illogical to let such a false train of thoughts continue.

Jim accepted that Spock really had been in Jim's dream. Therefore, everything Spock had told him was real. Jim was real.

He stared at the floor. He was still anxious. He still wanted to scream. Instead, he let out a low, heavy breath, and then looked up at Spock. "Are you sure?" he demanded. His voice was hoarse.

Spock nodded solemnly. "Yes."

Jim stared at him for a long moment, and then nodded. "Okay." He clenched his eyes shut. He believed Spock. Shit, he really did. He opened his eyes again, realizing he couldn't leave yet. "I'm not going back to the Enterprise with you."

Spock flinched--actually flinched!--and stepped back. His hands fell from Jim's shoulders. "Captain?"

"I still have things left to do down here, Spock," Jim said plainly. Some part of him twinged. He didn't want to put that look on Spock's face--that look of displeasure. But Jim was used to that expression, wasn't he? Jim started to turn away. "Look, Spock, I-"

He abruptly halted, kept still by a sudden grip on his wrist. Jim looked up, following the hand to its owner. Now that wasn't very Vulcan-y behavior, now was it?

Spock's eyes widened, like he was surprised by his own actions. "Jim, I..." His fingers shot open, letting Jim free, but Jim didn't let him retreat, catching Spock's sleeve.

He stepped closer to Spock, deep in his space. Jim, he… he got it. He understood. He wasn't a damn mind reader, but… Spock, he could read like an open book. He dropped his hand into Spock's and tangled their fingers together.

It was all Jim's fault. Spock was emotionally compromised--because of him.

I'm so sorry, Spock.

Spock blinked several time, avoiding Jim's gaze.

Jim wasn't deterred. "We were supposed to talk, weren't we? If I didn't disappear..." Jim squeezed Spock's fingers. "We would have talked."

"Yes." Spock swallowed, staring at something beyond Jim. "It is likely."

Jim loosened his grip on Spock's hand just enough to rub his thumb across Spock's knuckles. "And you thought I died without us ever discussing... this."

"Affirmative," he said stiffly, his expression shutting down. He had all the emotional output of a stone wall right about now.

Jim smiled, though. He could still read Spock. "Chaining me to a rock in the middle of Bubble Wrap Galaxy won't keep me safe, Spock," Jim said gently.

"I am aware." Something in the stone wall broke. His dark eyes suddenly shot to Jim's, holding them and staying. "Shore leave, Jim..."

Jim stepped a little closer, pressing his forehead against Spock's. Spock leaned into the pressure, his free hand raising to grab Jim's hip. "I know," Jim murmured. Even if he wasn't sure about anything at this point, Jim could empathize with that. "But Spock... I promise you. By the end of the day, I'll be back on the Enterprise, where I belong. You just have to do me the favor of allowing me to handle this. Can you? Allow that?"

"You are my captain," Spock said distantly, like they were discussing this on the bridge with feet of space between them, not forehead to forehead. But the voice, the face--they meant nothing. Spock's hands were so tight on him, Jim was sure there were going to be fingerprints.

"You are my first officer," Jim countered gently, "and my friend. My Spock."

Spock's fingers dug briefly into Jim's hip before the pressure suddenly disappeared. A softer, gentler pressure brushed against Jim's forehead before Spock retreated, taking a big step back. "What would you have me do?"

Jim smiled grimly.

 

*****

 

As soon as Spock materialized on the transporter pad, he was confronted by Doctor McCoy.

"Where the hell is Jim?" he demanded.

Spock stepped off of the pad. "He will come shortly," he said. Ignoring McCoy's sputtering, he shifted his attention to Pike. "Admiral, do we have the authority to arrest Kajia Levin?"

"Nico Levin's testimony is pretty damning. She may actually be more involved in this than Lumiere, or even Levin himself." Pike paused and then gestured at the transporter pad. "You want to go pick her up now?"

That would be the most logical plan. Spock shook his head. "Not yet. However, I do believe it would be more… official if you were to do the arresting yourself."

Jim had suggested the option himself. Spock was only relaying what the captain said.

He remembered the captain's words vividly. He mentally replayed them over and over, trying to find the place at which he could have defied his captain, trying to find the words he could have said to make Jim return with him. However, Jim was set on appearing to the press conference, just like Kajia wanted him to. He failed to see the illogic of it.

In the privacy of his mind, Jim's blue eyes stared him down. "Spock, you're going back up to the Enterprise," he'd said firmly, his mouth pressed into a flat line. Both of his hands were on his hips.

Spock had not the words to say to Jim, except for, "No, Captain."

"That's not a request, Spock," Jim said, shaking his head slightly. He briefly looked down and swallowed heavily, and then took a step closer to Spock. His eyes rose again while his voice lowered. "Look, this resistance, this fight? It could get bad very quickly. Right now, we have almost unanimous support from the civilian population right now. A ploy like Kajia's could send this city into a civil war, a war between people who don't believe her and people who do." Jim turned away suddenly, some of his frustration revealed by the sharpness of his walk and the stiffness of his shoulders. "We can't walk away from this, not now. We have to give them something, we have to end this." Jim turned sharply on his heel and faced Spock again. "We need to give them closure."

"Closure," Spock echoed.

"Yes!" Jim said, darting forward with two quick steps. "Look, Nero, right? He never got closure. Closure for him would have been to kill the older you right after the supernova, but he never got it. So he went on to decimating the fleet, destroying Vulcan. And…" He hesitated. "My mother never got closure either, okay? No warning, no body. Nothing but a squalling little brat and a few seconds of audio no one thought to save. So she's spent her entire life trying to hide from everybody in the stars." The only sign indicating how much the confession cost Jim was in his faintly shaking hands, one of which he waved at the door. "We have to give them some sort of ending or this sort of thing? It'll damage this city forever. I know this. And so do you, Spock."

Jim was correct, but he did not need to be the hammer. He did not need to be the one to quell the flame. He did not need to be anything but aboard the Enterprise once more. He needed medical attention, rest, treatment. He needed to stop.

But Jim did not appear to be aware of what it meant to stop. This tendency of his attracted admiration from those who did not know him and exasperation from those who did. Spock… worried. The brightest flames burnt out the quickest, and Jim was a bright flame. He was so concerned with proving himself to everyone that he failed to notice that he had nothing to prove.

Spock needed to educate him on these matters. The risk his captain constantly put himself in was unacceptable.

Back in the transporter room, Pike was watching him. "You got an appointment with her or something?"

Spock paused, considering the question. Ten minutes after the start of the press conference, Jim had said. Then they could arrest her. That point in time was thirty-three point seven five minutes from now.

Spock felt that he understood why some Humans insisted that relatively short periods of time lasted 'forever'. "Something of that nature, yes," he said briskly, walking to the door. A scowling doctor was suddenly in his path. "Doctor McCoy?"

"He's gonna do something stupid," he accused, "and you're letting him."

Spock didn't deny it. "His logic was sound," he said stiffly.

McCoy continued to glare at him for a long moment before all the negative emotion suddenly swept off of his face. "Good God." He looked over at Pike. "When the Vulcan lets himself get wrapped around Jim's pinky, you know the rest of us are screwed."

Spock frowned. "That description is not anatomically possible."

McCoy rolled his eyes. "Shut up, pushover." He paused, his eyes dropping to Spock's belt. "Where's your phaser?"

 

*****

 

Jim's mind was the sharpest it had been in days.

So when he considered the fact that he might actually, you know, be James T. Kirk, he was more aware of his identity crisis than he'd ever been in NL2036's entire existence. And he was scared, and thrilled, and confused and a whole mess of other emotions, because maybe he was Uhura's captain and Spock's Jim and… maybe that was his life.

No. There were no maybes about it. Not anymore. He had more than blind hope in Spock's words. He could feel the truth, like it was reverberating in his bones. He was really Jim--Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise.

He wasn't taking the name. It was his. It had always been his. He just forgot it.

There was a little part of him that screamed in panic and ran around in circles. He indulged it because, really? Was the universe really going to trust him with all this shit? Captaincy and responsibility and being? If he was actually a smart, responsible person, wouldn't he have left with Spock?

But he stayed. On some level, that scared him. Spock didn't trust Jim's Programming and, big surprise, neither did Jim. How much of his behavior was decided by the brainwashing? He frantically tried to match up his thoughts under the influence of the Programming with his thoughts outside of it.

How much had the Doctor's meddling messed with his head? Jim was presented with the option to flee tons of times, but he never wanted the free life for himself--for others, sure, but he was okay with servitude. But what kind of modern person doesn't want liberty and free will and choice?

He worried about this--concerned that the Doctor had somehow shifted his entire personality. But then he realized that these were all things he fought with before, just with different words, different concepts, different languages--universal constants, destiny, fate.

What was the likelihood that the same group of people could end up on the same ship across multiple universes? If he followed the same path as the older Spock's Jim Kirk and every Kirk in the extended multiverse, then how much free will did any of them have at all?

No man was free. Not all cells had bars, and some of them opened to the outside. Even his Starfleet commission seemed like a long, extended prison sentence, and he loved his job. He submitted quite happily to that in the past.

Now that he thought about it--his preoccupation with implanted desires to serve finally set aside--he realized that his desire to stay wasn't necessarily a product of the Programming. But that meant that it had to be a product of something else. He had a good idea what it was too. It was something he never wanted Spock to see.

Jim's biggest, darkest secret was that he had a vindictive streak a mile wide. Well, okay. It probably wasn't that much of a secret. Even Uhura, who barely knew him, saw it plain as day. A vicious, petty little boy in a man's body, she'd called him once. Jim could hardly deny it. People hurt him and he hurt them right back. It was normal. Action, reaction. Cause and effect. Natural.

But he was supposed to be above such pettiness now. He was a captain in fucking Starfleet. But he wasn't.

So there were reasons why he was still in Uruk, words. Hubris. Schadenfreude. Pure dickishness.

Jim stayed because he wanted to see Kajia go down. He wanted to see her fall, publicly, with his own two eyes. And he wanted to be the person to do it. Did he even know what he was doing? Vaguely, sure. He'd told Spock when to beam down and collect Kajia, but he hadn't planned much beyond that. Plans implied logic and forethought, but Jim was mostly running on pure, negative emotion.

Spock would be very disappointed, but Jim couldn't make himself be more logical about this.

Everyone chose their own chains. They made their own burdens and sacrifices and dealt with their own hardships and losses. It was the way things were. And it was really not fucking right was when another asshole tried to unload their chains on your back.

Jim was jerked out of his seething when the machine above him suddenly opened. He opened his eyes, blinking away spots of light from his vision. He sat up, warily eyeing the pale profile of woman next to him. Two SecuFor stood by the doorway, their hands clasped around their weapons. In front of them was a tiny Human pacing back and forth, spouting orders into a communicator--something about lightning and recorders and broadcasts.

So he was a PR assistant. Good. This was going to be very, very public then.

Jim turned his focus back to Kajia. "How may I serve you?" he asked cordially. He kept his expression neutral, but not completely detached. He pretended to care what she wanted of him.

Last time, Jim thought. Last fucking time.

Kajia's eyes flickered briefly in his direction before returning to the display on the machine. "When I command you to take the podium, recant your previous statements. Denounce the resistance. Tell them you were suffering from a glitch and all of this is just a misunderstanding."

After a moment, Jim inclined his head. "I live to serve," he murmured, unhooking himself from the machine. He slowly pulled himself to his feet.

On the other side of the machine, Kajia eyed him curiously, as if questioning his motives. Smart of her. But then another one of the PR assistants came in, wearing a vaguely harassed expression. They were ushered quickly to the door, and then to a lift--not one of the service lifts Jim used as NL2036, but a sharp edged, cleaner version that went straight up to the surface. Thankfully, the SecuFor were left behind.

Apparently the sight of them was harmful for public opinion nowadays. Go figure.

They stepped out of the lift into warm sunshine. Jim blinked up at the sky. A new day already? Some of the light filtered through the buildings above them, tossing green light everywhere. The street down the way was partially blocked off, preventing outsiders from getting into the Central Tower. Beyond the partitions, Jim saw large groups of people waving their fists and shouting at the sight of them. At this point in time, Jim couldn't even say if they were angry at him or at the government.

Jim didn't get much more of a chance to look around, though, as they were quickly directed into the Central Tower itself. Kajia led the way to a large conference room that was already nearly bursting at the seams with reporters. Only some of the people looked like legitimate reporters. Others looked like they threw on the most formal clothes they had and pulled out the family recording device.

Uruk's reporting laws were strange.

The second that the group noticed his and Kajia's presence, hundreds of devices were turned their way. Jim winced at the flashing lights and whirling noises of various technological designs of video and audio recorders, some live, some not. He was only slightly more immune to the sudden booms of questions pouring in from all sides. He subtly adjusted the waistline of his pants, hyperaware of the weight pulling it down--the one thing Spock would not compromise on. He hoped no one noticed, but, at this point, he really didn't care anymore.

While walking through the crowded room, Kajia said nothing, so he said nothing. The crowd grudgingly parted all the way up to a stage in the front, 'helped' along by pushy PR assistants. In the middle of the stage was a single podium, and attached to that podium was an older model of an audio amplifier.

Replicants dotted the crowds. Jim could pick them out easily--in a throng of hyperactive beings set on living out drama vicariously through others, they were the only ones who looked guilty about it. They hung to the edges of the crowds, nervously tugging down their shirts. Jim made brief eye contact with a few of them. When they recognized him, they just stared back at him, the people around them instantly forgotten, their eyes wide with stunned betrayal.

Jim kept his eyes to his feet after that. One foot after another, left and right.

It wasn't long before they hit the stage and turned around to face the people. Jim made sure to stand somewhat apart from Kajia, and a little behind. Display screens all over the room flashed every angle of the stage back at the audience. Jim's gaze stuttered a bit on the image of himself, still not quite used to the idea that man was also NL2036--or, more accurately, NL2036 was really James T. Kirk. But he accepted the idea better now than he ever had before.

Because, really. Could a machine rise to his amount of pettiness?

Jim's eyes narrowed on a screen displaying a frontal view of Kajia. As soon as she took center stage, it was like a switch had been flipped. Jim found himself struggling to catalogue all little changes in her face that changed it from its usual cool neutrality to the affable warmth she directed at the crowd right now. How did she do that? Was it the crinkles at the edges of her eyes? The faint smile? The relaxed posture?

He took special care in not letting a single emotion manifest in his expression. While the natural 'replicant' expression was a dazed sort of concern, he didn't think he was a good enough actor to fake it. He was too angry about this--that would inevitably leech through any contrived emotion. It was easier just to blank out entirely. His eyes moved from image to image, double-checking his expression.

A Vulcan would surely deem his expression 'adequate'.

Meanwhile, Kajia introduced herself to the reporters. She was apparently the Director of the Security Forces--the SecuFor--of Uruk while also being one of the city's chief financial officers. Jim wasn't surprised. Both occupations suited her need for control while also giving her the power to tweak the system to fit her idea of peak efficiency.

She spoke briefly about the history of the city and the importance of being strong in uncertain times. Then, she brought up the revolt. "This rather unfortunate set of circumstances was caused by a number of problems and misconceptions on all sides. Even worse, this issue has been inflated by various outside influences who really don't understand how Uruk is run. Not like we do." Some people off to the side started nodding along with her words. "There is something I have to make perfectly clear. This is not a civil rights issue. This is a programming flaw."

Her last words were almost drowned out by shouts and boos near the back--protestors had snuck in. Several people were flashing digital signs that decried the presence of slavery in the modern era. A few signs were even simpler--a photo representation of the top officials in the government marked out with a huge red x. The visual protest was accompanied by shouted slogans and even more boos. The PR assistants moved around the front of the room, trying to shush the protestors, but it was like using a tissue to soak up a flood.

Kajia calmly unclipped her communicator from her belt, bringing it close to the audio amplifier on the podium. The proximity of the two devices created a loud, metallic shriek that had everyone--including Jim--wincing and covering their ears. Once the protestors were quiet, she pulled the communicator away.

She spoke quietly in the resulting hush. "I understand what you're going through. Our economy has been ground to a halt. Our top government officials are being illegally held in a ship in orbit. Our sister planets refuse to trade with us. In essence, Uruk's image has been tarnished by all of this." Kajia bowed her head for a moment, as if inviting people to think about this. Then she lifted it, raising her voice. "But these things were the result of a programming error, not of criminal intent! It can easily be fixed. Uruk will rise again, and I'll show you how." Kajia lifted a hand, gesturing at Jim. He tried not to tense so visibly. "This replicant here was one of the 'leaders' of the revolt. It was his glitch that caused this conflict." She suddenly banged the podium with her fist, the noise cutting through the sullen rumble of chattering protestors. "However! By utilizing technology--the same technology that has provided replicants for this city for the last forty years--we were able to correct his glitch. He is now here to answer your questions." She turned her eyes to him, stepping back from the podium. "I order you to speak."

Jim stepped up and looked out over the crowd, trying to think of what to say--how to waste five more minutes until Spock arrived. All he could think about was how he shot Kevin down time and time again, denying his right to have a name, denying his free will, denying everything Kevin cared so deeply about, just because Jim couldn't understand. Jim--NL2036--wasn't able to. It wasn't in him to understand.

All that mattered was the Programming. All that mattered was his Creator. All that mattered was that he lived to serve.

Jim licked his lips, and, finally, he said, "I am NL2036. I am a replicant."

Instantly, light exploded in his eyes as more video recorders were pointed in his way. Questions were hurled at him from all directions. Some asked about the resistance, others demanded information about his specs and blueprints. Still others asked his point of view on the Federation's current requirement for potential citizens to display some degree of intelligent life, and whether or not he agreed with their definition of just that--intelligent life.

There were also several all too excited questions about potential galactic robot uprisings. Really. Some people were just weird.

Kajia briefly stepped forward between Jim and the crowd. "One question at a time, please," she said with a smile. "He's just a replicant."

Bitch.

"NL2036!" one reporter called out before the others, flashing an audio recorder in the air. "How would you describe your experience as an Urukian replicant? Would you say you're being oppressed?"

Jim squinted down at the reporter. When her identity came to him, he smirked and leaned against the podium. Several people in the front row recoiled at his sudden expression. "Well well well. If it isn't the esteemed Miss Roberts."

Sheila Roberts blinked several times. "I'm sorry?" Her eyes narrowed as countless recorders were turned expectantly in her direction. She didn't seem to like the sudden shift from reporting the news to being the news, but she valiantly ignored the lights flashing in her direction. "How did you know my name?"

"You did a piece once on post-Nero Vulcan political policies regarding information accessible by outsiders." Jim raised an eyebrow. "You concluded that Vulcans are as tight lipped as ever. Big surprise." He folded his arms over the podium and continued to smirk. "However, because of the sensitive nature of what you were studying, Starfleet put a gag order on your article and you were not able to publish it.

Sheila looked distinctly disturbed, her audio recorder dropping slightly. "How did you come to have that information?"

"That's a fantastic question." Jim made a point of looking over at Kajia as he gestured irreverently at the crowd. "You wanna field this one? Nah, you're busy. I got this." He turned back to Sheila. "That would be because I was there. But, now you ask, 'how is that possible, Mr. Replicant?' That's where the story gets interesting..."

In the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of movement. A second later, he reached into his pants and pulled out a phaser, lining it up with the retreating woman. Several people in the audience gasped, jerking away from the stage.

"Ah ah ah," Jim called gently. "Where are you going? You set up this nice press conference and everything, and you're not even going to say good-bye? Harsh. I wouldn't take it personally, but, hey, they might."

Kajia froze, staring at the phaser. She pulled away from the PR assistant trying to get her off of the stage. "You suffer from a glitch," she whispered, her eyebrows pulled tightly together. She turned to the crowd and said, louder, "He suffers from a glitch! Pay no attention to what he says!"

Jim rounded on her angrily. "I suffer," he spat, jabbing the phaser in her direction, "from multiple rounds of brainwashing. I suffer from being drugged stupid from every meal from every damn day. I suffer from having to put up with this crap when I should be captaining my ship!" Jim turned his head back to the crowd, tossing them a charming smile. "Jim Kirk of the starship Enterprise. Flagship of Starfleet. I'm sure you've heard of it. We're kind of a big deal."

There was a loud burst of noise from the crowd as they digested that.

Under the noise, Kajia whispered, "You are an object. You are nothing."

Jim smiled, the expression entirely absent of humor. He tilted the phaser slightly. "Guess which setting this is on?" He gestured to the podium expectantly, training it back on her as she slowly moved back up the stage. "Step right up and talk to the nice reporters, that's a good girl. Kajia--you don't mind if I call you Kajia, right?" He turned to the rest of the crowd, clearly enunciating his words so even the twitchiest audio recorder out in the crowd caught every syllable. "Kajia, what part of this massive kidnapping, slave trafficking, and murder detail were you in charge of? The Federation wants to know."

When he turned back to her, her eyes had sharpened. Every hint of that companionable warmth was gone. "You have no proof," she said coldly.

"Sure. I have no proof." Jim leaned in, as if to share a secret. "But you see, I have this first officer--really great guy. He's all about the proof. He's all about following through. He's all about making things accurate and getting things done on time. Such as getting a warrant for your arrest. Which should be arriving, oh, about... now?"

Kajia stared at him with a grim expression, her hands tightening into fists. Many in the crowd in front of them reflexively looked up at the ceiling. A hush fell over the reporters.

Several long, awkwardly silent moments passed.

Flushing a bit, Jim shrugged. "Okay, so maybe my calculations were a bit off-"

The stage suddenly lit up with materializing molecules, flashes of pure white briefly blotting out the light from the video recorders. The platform was instantly crowded with security officers. The men and women, proudly boasted the Starfleet symbol on their red shirts, formed a circle around Kajia. One started rattling off a list of charges, formally declaring Kajia's arrest in the name of the Federation.

A hundred recorders shot in that direction, arms straining as reporters sought to capture every word.

Slowly relaxing, Jim closed his eyes, dropping the hand holding the phaser. It was over, then. Really, finally over.

He opened his eyes at the sound of a slightly irregular set of footsteps. He looked up, just noticing the only officer who wasn't a part of the security force. He wore a gray and white uniform and clutched a cane in one hand--Pike. What was he doing here?

Spock had said there was an admiral on board, but he never said who.

Jim watched the man carefully. The admiral slowly walked along the outside of the circle, eyeing Kajia with dark eyes. Suddenly, Pike noticed him and paused mid-step, flashing two, quick visual sweeps over Jim's body. His face seemed to be pulled in a persistent frown, even as he veered over to Jim.

Jim suddenly experienced a moment of doubt. Maybe Spock was wrong. Maybe the real Jim Kirk was out there, was dead, was someone else. And maybe Pike knew. Jim swallowed, lifting his head up high as the older man approached him.

Pike stopped just in front of Jim, eyeing him. "Well. Look at you," he said gruffly. "Thought he hallucinated you. Maybe." A small smile was creeping up on Pike's face.

Jim forced a smile. "Hallucinations are so illogical, Admiral." The relief he felt was almost staggering. He felt guilty for doubting Spock, even for a moment.

Below them, the reporters were practically having an epileptic fit, shouting questions and calling names. Someone in the crowd recognized Pike's uniform for what it was and started a massive wave of people demanding for his attention.

"Admiral, sir!"

"Mr. Pike! We have some questions!"

"Admiral, a word!"

Pike eyed the energetic, emotional crowd, then Jim. "A press conference is not theater, Kirk," he said in a long suffering tone.

Jim shrugged. "Might as well be."

"Sir!"

"Mr. Pike!"

Pike stepped up to the podium. "Make it quick."

The admiral hated public appearances--absolutely abhorred them. Having to attend one made him more ornery than usual. He'd confided to Jim in the past that the worst thing about his promotion was that, after decades of relative obscurity, he was suddenly in the limelight all the time.

Jim didn't feel bad about sorta being the cause of this one. After all, it was Pike's choice to come down and oversee Kajia's arrest--and in his dress uniform too.

"Admiral Pike!" A male reporter shoved his glasses further up his nose, his eyes gleaming behind the lens. "How will the Federation handle the economic collapse, interplanetary trade embargo, and governmental overthrow that resulted from the replicant uprising?"

Pike slowly turned his head and stared at Jim, giving him the stink eye.

Oh. Right. That. Jim winced. Yeah, that was definitely going on his record.

Chapter Text

Part Sixteen

 

Spock's faith in the captain had not gone unrewarded.

He relieved the transporter chief himself, unwilling to allow Jim's final return to be threatened by any anomaly or change in the planet's atmosphere. The chief was well-trained, as were all crewmembers aboard the Enterprise, but Spock calculated that he could recalibrate the transporter faster and more efficiently, should the unthinkable happen.

The transporter was in prime condition and the change in the planet's magnetic fields was negligible. Thus, two point six hours after the admiral beamed down to the planet, two beings appeared on the transporter pads as scheduled. One was clearly Pike himself, but the other was Jim.

Jim was frowning at his feet. In the time since Spock saw him last, someone had provided the captain with clothes more befitting of his position in Starfleet. Command gold hugged his torso over the straight lines of his black pants and the soft gray slippers of his servitude had been replaced with regulation boots. He had shaved since then and his hair was combed back in its usual style.

In fact, Jim would have almost appeared to be back to normal, if his hand did not linger so frequently at the front of his hip.

Once they completely materialized, both men on the pad paused and turned their heads to each other. For a moment, the admiral and the captain eyed each other, as if gauging each other's stake to the territory that made up the Enterprise. After a moment, Pike smiled and inclined his head. Beaming, Jim stepped off of the transporter pad first.

Spock mentally shook his head. Humans.

Jim was the first to see Spock. He paused by the transporter controls. "Well done, Mr. Spock," he said neutrally. He braced a hand against the console, lowering his voice. "Thanks. For everything."

Spock straightened to his full height. "Gratitude is illogical. I was merely completing my duties." He paused, and then added, "As the first officer to my captain, of course." The only sign that his thinly veiled message was accurately received was the lessening of the tension around Jim's eyes.

Pike coughed from behind Jim. "I'm heading off to my quarters. It's been a long day." Pike shot Jim a knowing look. "Don't get lost, now."

"On my ship? I don't think so." Pike snorted and started to walk away. Almost instantly, Jim directed his attention back to Spock. "So, Spock." Jim leaned harder against the consoles, a slow, all encompassing smile burning through the serious expression on his face. His eyes glittered with poorly suppressed amusement. "Did you have to nearly cause a diplomatic incident with Vulcan just to get me back?"

Spock's eyes flickered over to Pike, who shot a wide smirk at him before passing through the transporter room doors. Clearly, the admiral had been talking. Spock's gaze moved back to the captain. "Did you have to facilitate the collapse of Uruk's economy and government just to return to the Enterprise?"

Jim froze slightly at Pike's laugh from the other side of the door, but then just nodded. "Touché," he murmured, glaring at the door. Once they were truly alone, he leaned in even more. "That's going on my record, you know. Oops." Jim's voice was warm and his eyes invited Spock to join in on a joke.

Was this what Humans called flirting? "Oops, indeed," he said, just to see Jim's bright smile once more. The captain did not fail to deliver.

Jim's eyes flew over his shoulder again as the door to the transporter room opened. Spock turned, curious. At the sight of them, Doctor McCoy stopped in the threshold for two point five seconds before crossing the gap between him and the captain in three long strides.

"Have I told you how much I hate you?" he said suddenly in an abrupt, confrontational tone. He looked angry. "Because, really. I do." Spock tensed, pulling away from the console. Jim too backed away from the console, but with an expected sigh in place of Spock's wariness. Did he not fear the doctor's wrath?

McCoy stopped abruptly in front of Jim, looking him up and down. Then, with an explosive huff of air, his hands shot out, gripping Jim's shoulders. "I hate you so much," he said in a defeated tone.

And then, oddly, they hugged.

Spock tilted his head, observing them. Human behavior was fascinating. So much was based on emotion--to the detriment of their entire species, he usually thought. But now, he was not so certain.

And now Jim was laughing, a most pleasant sound. Jealousy was an emotion Spock did not have, but he noted feeling some degree of satisfaction at the fact that the smile Jim gave the doctor was qualitatively different than the one he habitually gave Spock.

"Missed you too, Bones." Jim patted his friend's back until the doctor's grip finally loosened enough for him to pull away. Illogically, he only smiled wider at the renewed scowl McCoy sent his way. "You and Spock get along okay without me?"

McCoy eyed Spock briefly. "Swimmingly," he said dryly. He turned his focus back to Jim. "I've seen the state of your hands, kid. Physical, now."

Spock's eyes dropped to Jim's hands. They were reddened far beyond the normal for a Human, especially for a Human male with Jim's skin color. Spock frowned. Jim was in clear need of medical attention.

But Jim was sputtering. "I just got back from Risa II!"

"Protocol-" McCoy started to say.

At the same time, Spock said, "Regulations state-"

They both stopped mid-sentence, warily staring at each other.

Jim sighed, rubbing the back of his head. "That's all I need. Two mother hens," he muttered.

The door to the transporter room opened again, immediately letting through a red shirted male. Security officer, Spock read from his uniform. Lieutenant.

"Sir!" the man said, directing his announcement to Spock. "Kajia just escaped the bridge!"

"How?" Jim barked, stepping around McCoy.

The security officer did a double take, but adapted fast, orientating his body to face Jim. "Punched a damn hole into the wall, sir!"

Jim was already heading out into the hallway. "Take me there," he ordered, starting to jog. The security officer took point, heading down the hallway. Spock was quick on Jim's heels and, behind him, he could hear McCoy's muffled cursing behind him.

Why the officer had not simply commed him became obvious the further they traveled down the hallway. Someone--or something--had dealt significant damage to various communication terminals, throwing enough electrical interference in the air that Spock did not need a tricorder to detect its presence.

It did not take long for them to find her.

She was wild-eyed and angry, surrounded by a half-circle of security officers, most of whom had a phaser pointed at her. Kajia paced with a vengeful sort of energy, eyes darting around the crowd. She ignored all calls for her to stand down.

"What are you waiting for, man?" McCoy snapped from behind Spock. "Stun her!"

"It doesn't work!" one of the officers reported, her hands fluttering nervously over her phaser.

Just then, the doctor noticed that there were three security officers on the ground, motionless and unresponsive. McCoy cursed loudly, dropping down to a knee next to the closest one.

Jim stood in the crowd of security officers, his expression dark. "Stand down, Kajia, or I'll knock you down," he growled.

Kajia's eyes suddenly focused on Jim. "You will all be Terminated," she whispered. Then, she screamed, "You're all glitches, every last one of you!"

Another voice floated up from the back of the crowd. "Kajia!"

The woman tensed for a moment, then turned to the source of the sound. "Nico," she muttered, frowning.

The crowd parted. Someone had thought to bring Levin. Now, the scientist stared at his wife with a bleak expression. "She's not normally like this," he said to no one in particular, fiddling with the sleeve of his robe. "It's the electrical interference in the air. It… messes with her."

"Nico," she said softly, calming a little.

"Kajia." Something in his expression tightened. When he stepped forward, it was with purpose and determination. "You've become a danger to society. You have been for a long time," Levin said quietly. "I need you to turn off."

"Off? Off?" she echoed, pale eyes wide in her face. She flattened a hand over her chest. "Don't you do that to me, Nico! I am not a replicant. I have memories!" Her offended disbelief swiftly turned to pure rage. "My mother drowned all of my siblings!"

Levin's expression did not alter. "You have my memories. My mother drowned all of my siblings."

Kajia flinched, like she had been struck. "It's not true," she said, but there was suddenly doubt there. She swung out a fist, severely denting the metal piping next to her. "It's not!"

Cautiously, Jim gestured for all the security officers to back up. Spock maneuvered himself closer to his captain, just in case. He eyed the pipe in fascination.

Meanwhile, Levin took small steps forward, his expression pained as he reached for his wife. "There was a famine. There… there wasn't enough food for everyone."

Kajia covered her ears. "Shut up!"

Levin kept speaking, kept walking closer. "I was spared because I was hiding--hiding in the tallest cabinet, which no one thought I could reach."

She rapidly shook her head, dropping her hands. "I'm real!" she said, half-demanding, half-pleading. "I'm not fake, not like them."

The spike in the electromagnetic field was interfering with her processors, Spock theorized. But to have such a wide range of Human expressions… what matter of programming guided her thoughts, her behaviors? And how?

"I'm sorry," Levin said mournfully. Once within range, he reached for her hand. "Override code one-seven-f-c-c-two."

Kajia yanked her wrist out of his grip, her eyes flashing with betrayal. "Are you insane?" she shrieked. "I'm not a..." The frequency of her voice suddenly started to drop by wide increments, dipping almost instantly into a deeper, more masculine pitch. "Repli-cant."

A second after her teeth clicked around the last sound of the word, she stopped moving, suspended in the air like a Human statue. Her eyes went glassy. Everything about her was suddenly and completely still.

There was a stunned silence in the hallway. Levin bowed his head.

Spock tilted his head, his eyes moving up and down the fake Human. Most fascinating. He lifted his eyes to see if Jim felt the same way, but the captain wasn't looking at Kajia--he was looking at Levin. Spock's interest in the technological marvel died when he fully registered the extent of devastation Jim was feeling, both through visual cues and the faint echoes of their link.

He could not understand it. Why.

Staggering slightly, Levin turned and faced Jim. He offered the captain a small smile, gesturing to the frozen woman-like form. "My most advanced model. The sum of all my knowledge." He turned back to the being once known as 'Kajia', and pressed a nail against the skin of her wrist. As if the touch released something, the skin all the way up to her elbow slipped to the floor, landing in a folded pile. The absence of the covering revealed dense metal connections wrapped around thick wires.

Levin sighed, tracing a path through the metallic veins with the tips of his fingers. "The product of everything I've ever known, and I couldn't… she wasn't-" Levin cut himself off with a sharp shake of his head.

Jim took a step forward. "Doctor," he said quietly.

Spock finally put a name to the emotion on his captain's face. It was compassion. It was unwarranted and undeserved. It put shadows in his eyes. Spock tightened his hands into fists, dragging his attention back to Levin.

Why.

Levin glanced back at Jim. "Leave me alone," he said tonelessly, curling a lock of the replicant's hair around his finger. "My mother's name was Kajia. Kajia…" He patted the fake woman's cheek gently.

He was clearly emotionally compromised, and would require isolation. Jim too seemed to understand this. He started to move forward, his face set in a grim expression, but he was stopped by McCoy. The medical doctor had a grip on his captain's elbow.

"Spock can handle this, Jim," he reminded, trying to steer Jim to the sickbay.

Jim's eyes rose to his, asking a question. Spock wordlessly nodded. With one last look at Levin's back, Jim allowed himself to be pulled away.

Spock stared at the retreating form of his captain, unable to instantly banish the memory of Jim's face. He clasped his hands behind him silently. Levin deserved nothing from Jim--nothing. Not even a nanosecond of sympathy, and yet…

Spock watched Jim until he was out of sight. Then he tightened his fingers and turned back to the scene with renewed resolve.

"Security," he ordered. The highly competent Enterprise officers started to swarm around the doctor and his creation, blank faced and professional as they worked to remove the obstacle from hallway.

Chapter Text

Part Seventeen

 

"Denial," Bones concluded, with a sharp nod. He leaned against the nearest biobed and had the balls look amused.

"What?" Jim was confused. All he'd asked was for potential reasons why he was immune to D'Nal's pheromones. It was his only, and best, justification for him being inorganic and, now that he was on the I'm Jim Kirk train again, he wanted to dismiss the possibility as quickly as possible.

"You and not remembering things," Bones said rather unhelpfully. "Gaila, hives, Academy?" Both of his eyebrows rose. "Any of these ring a bell with you?"

Jim frowned. "No…?"

"Denial," Bones said again. He rolled his eyes, then poked Jim's cheeks hard. "You freaked out because your pretty, pretty face got covered in hives anytime Gaila got aroused, which was like… always?"

Jim stared at his friend. "Oh. Oh, right." He remembered suddenly--the embarrassment of making a fool out of himself in front of the hottest girl in the Academy suddenly rushing back at him. He smacked his forehead with his palm. Damn. It was a wonder Gaila even talked to him after that. He was so lame. His head shot up from his hand. "Oh! But then you put in that illegal-"

"Ssh!" Bones brought a finger sharply to his lips, looking around the room suspiciously. He glared at Jim once he deemed the sickbay clear. "I can still get busted for that, you infant."

The anti-allergy device that Bones had got his hands on was banned in certain circles, not for health reasons, but because of the material the device was made out of. Other than that, it worked like a charm. Bye, bye Gaila-induced hives.

Some other allergies too, he guessed. That was also apparently why he was immune to D'Nal's pheromones. Molecules shaped in a certain way--like pheromones--didn't get far up his nasal cavity before they were vaporized by the device.

It was nice to finally have an explanation for something that had bothered him so much.

"It was how I knew it wasn't you," Bones said unexpectedly. He scanned a tricorder over Jim's face casually, then put the results up on a display. "Initially, that was the reason." He pointed at the display.

Jim looked up at it. There was a odd green triangle around where his nose was--an effect of the tricorder's scanning rays bouncing off of the device's unique material.

When Jim looked away from the display, Bones wouldn't meet his eyes, but he gripped Jim's shoulder and nodded somberly before walking away.

He'd also thrown in a threat of chemical castration if Jim even thought about leaving the sickbay, but, hey, that was Bones at his finest.

So Jim sat down and propped his chin on the back of the chair, staring up at the biobed readout of a bed that wasn't his own. There were tiny physiological fluctuations--heart rate, brain waves, respiration--typical of near consciousness. He licked his lips nervously, unconsciously straightening his spine as the patient on the bed slowly opened his eyes.

"Kevin," he murmured, gripping the back of his chair.

"Hm…" The boy looked at him for a second, uncomprehending. Then, the light dawned. "Jim!" Kevin stared at him with wide eyes for a moment, and then chuckled suddenly, hiding half of his face in his pillow. "It's still a really bad name." He blinked several times, as if just noticing the surroundings--his reactions sluggish due to the medication he was on. "Where are we?"

"The Enterprise," Jim responded, leaning forward. He folded his arms over the chair.

"Ennnerprise?" Kevin mumbled through a yawn. "Cool. There's supposed to be a superhero on board, you know. James T. Kirk." He rolled his head to the side and smiled at Jim sleepily. "Now, there's a name."

Jim tried not to laugh. "Go back to sleep."

"Hmmm." The kid blinked several times, each longer than the last. "Kay."

It wasn't long before he was asleep again. Jim watched him for a little longer before pushing to his feet, swinging the chair back into its correct position. He stretched, working the kinks out of his back.

Considering everything that had happened recently, he actually felt pretty good. Happy, even sort of content. Jim wondered if the slight buzz in his mind was the effect of multiple mind melds, or if the older Spock planted some sort of happy thought in his brain when he was melding with Jim. He would ask, but would he get a straight answer? Spock might 'imply' something again.

Universe ending paradoxes, my ass.

Jim muffled a yawn in his hand and, not seeing Bones anywhere in sight, shuffled out of the sickbay without saying a word. He hadn't been able to sleep for a while. He'd thought that maybe the issue was too much worry. But now what? Everything was fine. He had nothing to worry about.

It had to be his sleeping situation that was keeping him from rest. What was missing? What was wrong? His bed? His pillow? When he was on Risa II, he basically slept on the floor. His sudden discomfort with even the most comfortable sickbay bed didn't make any sense.

Maybe he just needed his own bed, in his own quarters. Yeah, that was probably it. He yawned again, rounding a corner.

He heard her first--a nearly silent syllable smothered between her teeth. Then he smelled her--a subtle, light perfume mixing in with the smell of shampoo. It wafted up to his nose as a deceptively delicate body pressed against his own, slim arms enveloping him in a big, even slightly painful hug.

"Kirk," Uhura said into his shoulder, sounding a little awed. "You're really here."

In his sleepiness, Jim took too long trying to recognize her. In fact, he spent a full five seconds blankly staring down at the top of her head. Uhura wasn't exactly someone he associated with public displays of affection, and he was pleasantly surprised by the physical show of affection towards him, specifically. Especially considering the rather low probability that it would ever happen again.

He had to bite down on several responses that would get her fist in his teeth. Once he saw her face, though, the urge to flirt died a silent death.

"Miss me?" he said instead, throwing in a healthy dose of false cheeriness.

Uhura nodded solemnly, surprising Jim yet again. Their relationship tended to veer between mutual respect to mutual indifference, and he knew most of that was his fault. He antagonized her often--Uhura in a temper was always a fun thing to see--and, as a result of that, she'd always given him the impression that she disliked him for one reason or another. She would have a peaceful life without him in it--good riddance, he thought she'd say.

He didn't expect her to actually miss him. He didn't know how to react to that.

Luckily, neither did Uhura. She remembered herself suddenly and pulled away, something about the motion extremely awkward. Uhura cleared her throat. "Scotty says hi," she said quietly. "He'd be here, but he's having a hard time fending his engineers away from… Kajia." Jim grimaced at the reminder. "Are you mad at me?"

"Why would I be?" he asked, confused by the sudden question.

Jim had seen sadder eyes only on puppies. "I tried to make Spock stop looking for you. I thought… I thought you were really dead." Uhura linked her fingers together agitatedly, staring up at him with a pained expression. Her hands were heavily wrapped in gauze. "I thought I… I thought I was being a friend."

Jim stared at her for a moment, then smiled gently at her. "If I really was dead, I wouldn't have you respond in any other way." He slung a friendly arm around her shoulders, guiding her to the side of the hallway. "You, me, Bones… we're Spock's support on this ship. Logic isn't perfect and neither are Vulcans. So in those rare instances where both fail Spock…" He trailed off a bit, and then tightened his arm. "We have to be there for him. We can't fail him."

It just wasn't an option.

Uhura nodded, visibly pulling herself together. "The links, right?" she asked through a thick voice, casually brushing her fingers at the corners of her eyes.

"Uh…" What links? "Right."

Suddenly, Uhura was turning to face him. "Oh, I remember. You had a message."

"What was it?" Jim asked. Oddly, she seemed to hesitate. "You do remember it, right?"

"You'd like me to repeat it." Her gaze was abruptly cool, like her respect for him had dramatically dropped in the last ten seconds. "Verbatim."

"Yeah?"

"'A captain?'" Uhura quoted flatly. "'You naughty, naughty boy.' No identification." Her eyebrow rose.

Jim only knew one person who talked like that. "Oh, D'Nal," he realized, looking at the floor. She was probably off the planet by now. Good for her.

Abruptly turning on her heel, Uhura let out an irritated noise, something that sounded like, "Why do I even…"

Surprised, he looked up from the floor. "Why are you walking away?" The penny dropped, and Jim suddenly remembered a rant, two weeks into his captaincy, in which she refused to be his Secretary of Booty Call. It was totally not his fault that ambassador aides and alien princesses thought he was cute. "It's not like that, Uhura!" Worried, he jogged after his communications officer's retreating ponytail. "Uhura, you didn't happen to tell Spock, did you? Uhura?" Jim received no response. "Lieutenant? Nyota!"

 

*****

 

A few hours later, Jim was in the transporter room, awkwardly talking to Kevin about his future goals. It just seemed like the sort of thing a responsible adult should discuss with a motivated teenager, but both of them were kind of sucking at the conversation. He was hardly the responsible adult and Kevin was barely motivated--barely vertical, even--what with the sleepiness and the drugs.

Plus, Jim had so very little in common with Kevin besides Uruk and, well, Tarsus. But Kevin barely remembered Tarsus, so that didn't count. Besides, the day he made Tarsus IV a conversational piece just to pass time was the day he turned his phaser on himself. Some things should just not be talked about.

The transporter door slid open. In walked Pike, his steady steps slightly irregular but strong. His eyes sought out Jim immediately. The admiral made his way over to their side of the room, every other step accompanied by the thumping sound of his cane.

Jim crossed his arms over his torso. "So?"

"Mr. Riley's guardian has authorized a transfer to Vulcan colony," Pike said without preamble, clapping the boy's shoulder amiably. He shifted his gaze to Kevin. "You'll be leaving with the ambassador."

"Ah, okay," Kevin said neutrally, dropping his head.

"Hey, good for you," Jim said, nodding over to where the old Vulcan was talking to the transporter chief. "Ambassador Spock is awesome."

"Jim," Kevin muttered. He was scowling at the floor. "Why can't I stay here with you?"

Aware of Pike's scrutiny, Jim fixed a stern expression on his face. "You need physical therapy. My medical crew is fantastic, but they can't give you that."

Kevin's head shot up. "The Vulcans, are they going to, you know…" He made a clawing gesture at his face. He looked anxious. "I don't want people messing with my mind." The unsaid part of that statement was 'again'.

Despite his loud and vocal complaints as HC1959 that he had free will and autonomy, Kevin reacted very badly when he found out he was just a brainwashed Human. Like Jim--like NL2036--he needed extensive proof that he was real just like everyone else and, unlike Jim, he was unwilling to take a Vulcan's word for it.

It didn't help that Kevin was from one of those backwater colonies, where any alien was met with a bit of mysticism and a heavy dose of suspicion.

"Vulcans, they're…" Jim paused, frustrated. "You couldn't find a better host species anywhere. I promise, they won't do anything bad to you."

"However, mental therapy will be the main focus of your treatment plan," Pike said, squeezing Kevin's shoulder. "Just as it will be for every other so called 'replicant' in your position. Even Kirk had the therapy, and look at him! He seems just fine."

"Exactly. But…" Jim turned to Pike and lowered his voice. "When did I have the therapy?"

Kevin's eyes flew open with alarm.

Pike shot him a wry look. "You weren't mind melding with Vulcans for fun, Kirk." He tapped his temple with his finger. "They were removing the Programming from your mind."

"Oh. I knew that."

"Sure you did," Kevin muttered under his breath, still worried.

"Mr. Riley," Spock called softly from across the room. He moved away from the transporter chief, gazing at Kevin expectantly.

Frowning, Kevin exchanged good-byes with both Pike and Jim before walking over to Spock. The ambassador murmured something to the boy and, looking a bit dazed, Kevin nodded and stepped up to the transporter pad, his gaze sweeping over the floor curiously.

"What's wrong, Kirk?" Pike asked.

Jim didn't take his eyes off of Kevin. "Nothing, sir. Just glad I'm not getting special treatment."

Before Pike could respond, the Vulcan ambassador was shuffling in their direction. His grave face gentled slightly when he noticed Jim's gaze drifting over his shoulder to Kevin. Jim noticed the shift in the corner of his eyes and moved his attention over to the older version of his first officer, offering the ambassador a faint smile.

Gnarled Vulcan hands were reaching for Jim. "May I…?"

Jim hesitated. Both Spocks had independently declared Jim free of Programming already. He had a hunch that this was more of a social visit than a professional one. He was also aware that Kevin was staring at them with an open mouth, watching the ritual with intent eyes. Nevertheless, Jim tilted his head, offering his face to the old Vulcan's touch. Spock murmured something under his breath as his hand fitted carefully over the side of Jim's face.

After a long moment, Spock pulled away, a faint smile touching his mouth. Jim had to wonder what he saw and why he liked it. He never regretted being completely psi-null, and he still didn't, but that didn't stop him from wanting to know what this Spock saw in him. What any Spock saw in him.

The ambassador was looking at him with warm eyes. "You have a question."

"Yeah. Do you really hate the Federation all that much?" Jim didn't realize he was going to say that until it was out, but it was something that was bothering him. "Yeah, okay, hate is an emotion. Do you have an aversion to the Federation, or perhaps would you prefer to avoid planets allied with us, or just a situation of-"

"Jim." Spock looked amused at his babble, but even that faint expression faded into seriousness before long. "I was unaware you knew."

Jim paused, considering that. He just knew Spock had separatist sympathies, but, as he thought about it, he could not recall one memory of Spock or someone else saying as much. Where had it come from, then? A memory he just couldn't access anymore, Spock's last mind meld? Vulcans were so very careful about the way they entered and exited minds. Jim was inclined to blame his own memory, but that brought troubling issues all of its own.

What else did he forget?

"Well, I do know," Jim said briskly, pushing aside the worrying thoughts. "So. Do you?"

Spock's eyes dropped to the floor, and then rose again to meet Jim's gaze. "It is… complicated."

"Enlighten me."

Spock's eyes fell to the floor again as he allowed himself a sigh. Feeling self-conscious suddenly, Jim glanced around the transporter room. Pike allowed them no illusions that this conversation was private, and, across the room and still watching them, Kevin stood on the pad, his arms loosely folded over his chest.

The only one who wasn't watching them was the transporter chief. The man (Kyle? Leslie? Jordan?) was bent over his console, checking and rechecking the readout, exchanging communications with both their bridge and the bridges of the ships outside of the Enterprise.

"Wanting is not the same as having," Spock said eventually, looking up. Jim's gaze skittered back to him. "What I want is for Vulcan to be successful, self-sufficient, and safe. And yet the Federation hovers at the brink of war. And with every war comes another war and a new conflict and a new enemy…"

The Vulcan closed his eyes, as if remembering something troubling. For once, Jim considered what a burden it must be for the guy, holding onto a whole lifetime's worth of memories of things that hadn't happened yet.

"However," Spock concluded, "it would be most illogical to part from the Federation."

"Really?"

Spock's eyes were warm, like he knew why Jim was so concerned about this. "Yes."

"Well, good." Feeling uncomfortable, Jim clapped his hands together, quickly changing the subject, gesturing in the general direction of the bridge. "Anyway, thanks for helping with..." Jim glanced at Pike. "You know."

"It was only logical," Spock murmured in a low voice, his eyes lit up with secret humor. He lifted his hand in the traditional Vulcan salute. "Live long and prosper, Jim."

Oh, Jim knew this one. He mimicked the gesture. "Peace and long life."

With a nod, Spock extended the goodbye to Pike and then left him, stepping up to the pad next to Kevin. Clearly excited in spite of his misgivings, Kevin jumped to a circle on the pad and waved to Jim. At a murmured command from the Vulcan, the two of them disappeared in a flurry of white particles.

Jim tried not to feel too abandoned, but it was hard. He sighed, putting his hands on his hips, shaking his head at the floor.

The transporter chief looked over his shoulder, his eyes zeroing in on Pike. "Sir, the Lexington is ready to receive you."

"Well, that's my cue," Pike muttered, turning in place. He stuck out his free hand. "Glad you're not dead, Kirk."

"Hey, what do you know. Me too." Jim smiled at his favorite superior officer, pleased to note that the older man's grip was firm. After a moment, he nodded at the admiral's other hand. "Nice cane."

Pike brightened up a bit. "Isn't it?" he said, lifting it up slightly. His expression sobered suddenly. "He had a point. Your psycho stalker." The cane came down hard at the end of the sentence, like an exclamation point.

Holding his breath, Jim waited for the inevitable compulsion to defend his Creator. He waited and waited, but it never came. Jim was relieved. That should have been a good feeling, but it wasn't. It was tainted, ruined by the knowledge that he had reason to feel relief in the first place--that he had reason to feel fear.

Even though Jim felt sorry for Levin in the end, he resented the man like hell for making him feel fear in the first place. For making him question his place in the world. For making Kevin doubt a perfectly peaceful race.

Resented wasn't nearly a strong enough word.

Oblivious to Jim's thoughts, Pike continued. "People are happier when they have a purpose. I think that's what's wrong with the Federation and Vulcan. Vulcan used to be such a big player before Nero, but now all their focus has turned inward." He tapped his cane against the floor idly. "Maybe they have a hard time convincing themselves that they are still a part of the Federation when they perceive themselves as having no purpose within it. But you, this? Helping all those poor people? That's something only Vulcans can do. It's not much but… it's something." He walked over the transporter pad and turned around, his stern expression shifting into a faint smirk. "I don't want to see you any time soon, Kirk. You, you're okay, but I'm really sick of looking at Spock." Wiping the expression off his face, the admiral straightened up. "Energize."

Feeling annoyed on Spock's behalf, Jim watched Pike disappear from the transporter pad. He then turned to share a look with the transporter chief, who looked way too amused for Jim's comfort.

"Back to work, then?" Jim raised an eyebrow.

"Yes, sir."

 

*****

 

A day later, Jim was cleared for duty. At the start of the alpha shift, he entered the bridge, stopping just at the front of the turbo lift. He took in the sight of the bridge--his bridge--and started laughing quietly to himself.

This was it. This was where he belonged. This was his purpose.

"I'm watching you, kid," Bones said gruffly, coming out of the lift behind him. He crossed his arms over his chest, uncurling one hand just long enough to jab a finger in Jim's direction. "One sneeze, one twitch, one garbled word, and I'm bouncing your ass back to sickbay. Who knows what kind of unknown damage that brain scrambler did to you? For all we know, your brain could have been turned into a ticking time bomb of death, and it's just waiting to go off so it can splatter your brains all across one deck."

A bit nauseated at the mental image, Jim stared at his friend incredulously. "You have such a sunny personality. You bring light, joy, and happiness to every person you encounter."

"Yeah, well, it's a thankless job and somebody has to do it. Otherwise, you'd be captaining this ship, believing your immune system just takes care of itself or that your broken bones could be held together with pixie dust and happy thoughts." Bones gave him the stink eye. "Or that it's perfectly okay to let two Vulcans prance around your already addled brain without informing your medical doctor first."

Jim blinked rapidly, and then tried a charming smile. "I'm guessing you're feeling a little bitter?"

"I'm guessing a certain captain is getting a full physical every goddamn week," Bones retorted.

Before Jim could protest, the turbo lift was opening again, letting one of the bridge personnel through. It was Uhura.

"Welcome back, sir," she murmured, moving past them both to get to her own station.

"Good to be back." Jim turned his attention back to Bones. "Four weeks."

Bones scowled. "You have no negotiating power in this, you infant." His expression gentled a bit. "But since I, for some strange and terrible reason, happen to like you, I guess I'll settle with two weeks." Jim made a face, but consented to the schedule. Bones nodded in a satisfied way. "And remember," Bones growled, pointing two fingers at his eyes and then at Jim. He gestured to the left. "I'm just going to loiter over there."

The fact that he was within bickering range of Spock's station was totally coincidental, Jim was sure. He rolled his eyes, but made a mental note to be careful. Bones didn't make threats idly. Sighing to himself, Jim moved to the center of the bridge. The other bridge personnel didn't seem to notice him yet, too busy checking if all the launch protocols were in place.

He ambled up to his chair, stroking a proprietary hand over the armrest. "Oh, sweetheart," he crooned in an low undertone. "Has Spock been treating you right?"

"Your tendency to anthropomorphize your ship is most illogical, Captain," Spock said, his voice sailing clearly through the quiet of the bridge. More than one person whipped around at his words.

Jim looked over at him, smiling slowly. Of course Spock was already at his station, ready to go. He stood just to the left of his chair, standing at attention. His hands were clasped lightly behind his back and his shoulders were held perfectly upright and straight. He was the very image of the Vulcan ideal--not even one strand of hair was out of place.

Jim directed his smile at the floor. He had a strong desire to muss up that perfection, but since when was that new? Jim had very little self-control when it came to Spock. It was only Spock's sense of propriety that kept Jim from doing something that could get them both court martialed. Jim looked up from the floor and, yep, Spock was still staring at him.

"Anthropomorphize," Bones echoed derisively, a bit of his accent leaking through. "That's not even a word."

Spock's eyes finally shifted away from Jim. "I shall endeavor to direct you to a dictionary, Doctor McCoy."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the chair, people were starting to whisper, pointing surreptitiously at Jim. His whole crew knew he wasn't dead, but this was the first time many of them had seen him since he disappeared. Something in him was intensely satisfied at the majority of the responses were wide, ear-to-ear grins.

Chekov was the last to notice. When he did, he immediately rose from his seat. "Keptin!" he called out happily.

Sulu stood as well, looking uncharacteristically solemn. This concerned Jim, as he knew the other guy socially as well as professionally, and couldn't quite equate his normally sunny and optimistic pilot with this man in front of him with his fiercely controlled expression.

Sulu cleared his throat. "I, uh. I had to carry your body up here," he said. That explained it a bit.

"Ah, I'm sorry about that." Awkwardly, Jim stuck out his hand. "Thanks?"

Sulu nodded carefully, returning the gesture with odd care. Before the customary length of time was exceeded, Jim found himself suddenly yanked forward into a hug. Hearing the content of his friend's bewildered muttering ("Only you, Jim… God, you're actually real."), Jim laughed a little, patting Sulu on the back.

"I'm glad you're not dead, Jim," Sulu said, shaking his hand again as they parted. Ah, there was the Sulu he recognized! His pilot was smiling.

"I'm getting that a lot," Jim said, grinning at him. He turned his head slightly and suddenly there were people all around him, happily chattering and reaching out for handshakes. He endured the catcalls and the teasing because, this? This was people noticing he was gone. This was people missing him. This was novel and awesome, and he was never going to repeat it again if he had any say in it.

He never felt as good, as happy with himself as he was when he was on this bridge, with these people. This was the Enterprise. This was his.

"So. New orders," Jim said to the whole bridge crew, clapping his hands together to get their attention. He gently nudged Chekov and Sulu back to their consoles as he made his way back to his chair. "Minor trading dispute. We all know how fun those missions are, right?" Jim dropped into his chair and smirked expectantly.

On cue, everyone groaned. Anecdotes of prior trading disputes were tossed around the bridge and met with warm laughter, quick-paced gossiping, and mild complaints. After a moment of basking in the explosion of sound, Jim twisted the chair to the right.

"Alright, Mr. Spock?" Jim asked quietly, watching the quiet Vulcan.

Spock bowed his head. "Quite," he murmured. When he looked up again, he was smiling with his eyes.

Jim smiled slowly, turning back to the front. "Alright, settle down, guys," he said. They quieted almost immediately. He gave them an extra second to get back to their stations and to their tasks before issuing the order. "Punch it, Sulu!"

"Aye, sir!"

Chapter Text

Epilogue

 

A gentle set of notes pulled him out of sleep. He sat up in his bedding, blinking drowsily at opaque walls. The night cycle was at its end. Now, the day's cycle would begin. He noted the presence of another on an identical set of bedding across from him, but the recognition was dull. Unimportant. Irrelevant to his Programming. He stood up and walked over to the hygiene station, readying himself for the day.

The reflective surface showed no face.

The breakfast bell chimed. Two bowls materialized in the corner of the room. The substance within them was green and hardened at the edges. As he walked closer to it, he noticed that both bowls were crawling with fat, white spiders. He lifted the bowl to his face, barely noticing the creatures scurrying in and out of his way as he ate. Two ambled awkwardly over his face and another skittered just over his left eye.

He stood once he was finished.

It was Day One. He was an object. His designation was NL2036. His Creator was the Doctor. He lived to serve. These were the axioms by which he existed. Nothing more.

The work day bell chimed and the door to his room opened. At the threshold stood a SecuFor with the Doctor's wife's face. The thing beckoned to him with a pointed gesture, and he obeyed.

NL2036 followed the limping SecuFor down a long hallway until they came across a false garden. In the false garden was a group of people: two green women, one with fiery red hair, the other with deep black. Four men with dark hair, one with pointed ears. Two boys with brown hair. One dark skinned woman with lovely eyes. It was a large group.

The order for Termination was given. The SecuFor handed over a staff. It was his duty to fulfill the order.

NL2036 lifted the weapon. Blue light danced along one edge. He lived to serve.

 

*****

 

Soaked with sweat, Jim shot up from his bed, letting out a hoarse cry. His heart roared in his ears as he struggled to recognize his surroundings. His walls were gray and hard and his bed was elevated slightly off of the ground. There was little to no red in his room, no waste duct, no hygiene station. The room was more spacious than the one in his dreams--less cramped, and all his own.

He soundlessly pounded his mattress with closed fists, because he did not live to serve, damn it!

He flattened his hands over his face and tried to calm down. It didn't work. He was still listening for the order chimes, the heavy, irregular steps of the SecuFor. He was still waiting to be ordered. He was still waiting to obey.

Jim was up and on his feet before he could convince himself to suck it up and handle this on his own.

The only pause to his blind flight to Spock came when he stopped in front of Spock's door. Spock's privacy was important to him and he didn't like being barged in on. Was Jim really going to bother him over something that was, in hindsight, so stupid?

Spock's voice came through the door. "Come in, Captain."

Stiffening in surprise, Jim stared at the door before warily opening it. He was immediately blasted with the dry heat. He peeked around the corner self-consciously, suddenly aware that he was half-naked. "Uh, are you busy?"

Spock's eyes moved from their blank consideration of the wall. "I am not presently occupied," he said formally, looking up at Jim. He was sitting on the floor. "Was there something you needed, Captain?"

Captain? Jim tightened his grip on the wall, and then released it, stepping further into the room with a forced sense of casualness. Because, no, that wasn't hurtful. That was his title, not an insult. And Jim made a damn fine captain. Usually.

Jim settled into a seated position in front of Spock. "Yes, Commander, I had a few questions," he said distantly and, because he never could keep up the pretense that long, reached across the space between them, nudging Spock's bony leg. "You never did tell me how you knew I was still alive. Bones said something about ancient links?"

Spock blinked once and seemed to tense up all over. "The links you refer to were made in the ancient past between two sympathetic minds. The clans of Vulcan were formed on those links. In our laws were written protections for these spontaneous connections." And then Spock looked like he was going to say more, but he stopped, his lips flattening into a thin line.

"And you invoked one of these laws," Jim prompted, piecing it together. "Or, rather, you invoked a Federation law based off of that one, as the Federation borrows heavily from Vulcan codes."

"That is correct."

"Okay. So, I just have one question. Easy one, true or false." He paused for dramatic effect. "We don't have this type of link, do we?" Jim held his breath. Spock's silence was answer enough. "You liar." Jim laughed loudly, leaning his weight back on his hands.

"I fail to see how this is a source of amusement," Spock said flatly, his eyes dropping to Jim's hip. The slight reminder of his designation code, which he decided to keep, wasn't enough to curb Jim's amusement.

Jim shook his head, still laughing, but then Uhura's thoughtless comment from before came back to him, leaving Jim to swallow his laughter. He sat up, crossing his arms over his lap. "So, um. Links, though. Wouldn't that be something easily verified by another Vulcan? How did you think you were going to get past that?"

Spock stood up suddenly, turning his back to Jim. "It is unlikely any Vulcan would want to meld with my mind, but, if they did, they would see a link connecting my mind to yours.

"Unlikely," Jim echoed, still chewing on the first part of Spock's revelation.

Spock's shoulders visibly tensed. "The Battle of Vulcan left my mind regrettably-"

"A link?" Jim waved his hand to ward off Spock's response. "Sorry, wait, what? No, let me talk." Jim jabbed an accusing finger Spock's way. "The other you told me some of this. You need mental connections for health reasons, I know this. The Battle of Vulcan took out most of your clan along with most of your familial links. And you--I remember this--you were supposed to go to the colony three shore leaves ago to get your mind checked out. In fact, you said you went."

Spock turned around. "I did go, Captain. I would not lie to you." He inclined his head slightly. "However, I did not go to the healers."

"Spock-"

"It was my decision." Spock paused, looking over Jim's head. "There are… meditative techniques I can use that would achieve the same purpose."

"And just how well are those working?" Irritated, Jim pinched at the skin between his eyebrows. "Not well at all, I bet. That's why you made a link with me."

A long, heavy silence followed Jim's words.

When Spock finally spoke, his words were measured, but clipped, like he was angry and trying to suppress it. "I do not believe I understand your meaning. Explain."

Jim looked up and was startled by the intense expression on his first officer's face. "I'm okay with you linking up with me, or whatever," he said, trying to reassure Spock. "I asked the older you, and he said the familial link's the least intrusive link possible. I really don't mind."

The more words that fell out of Jim's mouth, the more rigid Spock seemed to get. "I do not question your acceptance of the link, though I am grateful for it. What I question is your assumptions regarding my motivations."

"Motivations?" Jim echoed, confused.

Spock's eyes were oddly sharp. "You assume I made a link with you to assuage my current issues--my mental pain, for lack of a proper Standard translation. While it is true that the touch of your mind is a comfort to me, and my troubles do ease with your presence, I would in fact argue that you are an inconvenience, especially when you disappear without warning."

Jim made a disbelieving noise and jumped to his feet. "Hey, not my fault! Shit happens!"

"When the frequency of your disappearance on away missions and shore leaves becomes 43.76 percent, as it did with this last event, it is no longer a coincidence. It is a pattern," Spock said, his eyebrows knitting together. "As for the link, you are grossly misinformed. It borders on insult. Your assumptions are ill considered and not worthy of your level of intelligence."

"So enlighten me," Jim said tightly, crossing his arms over his chest.

"My decision to keep the link was not based on relief," Spock practically spat. "It based on-" He cut himself off.

It was suddenly very quiet in Spock's room. In that silence, Jim realized he was panting slightly. His heart pulsed violently somewhere in his neck and his face was flushed with heat. He was livid, but why? Why was he so angry all of a sudden? Jim closed his eyes and waited for his heart rate to die down.

When he thought he could handle himself, he opened his eyes. If anyone else was looking at him the way Spock currently was, Jim would have said, hands down, that they were feeling guilty about something. But this was Spock, and what little emotion he showed was hard enough to read as is.

Jim swallowed. "Based on what?" he asked gently, not willing to let the topic go.

Spock's eyes dropped. "A number of complicated feelings I have for you," he said to the floor, his voice barely audible over the faint buzz of environmental controls.

For several long moments, the room was quiet.

"Oh," Jim said finally. He licked his lips, letting his arms fall.

Jim was pretty good at recognizing patterns. This was why he was pretty good at alien languages and why he was pretty good at picking up dates. The whole universe was made up of patterns. So he'd have to be blind if he didn't recognize the patterns that existed in the relationship he had with his first officer.

Spock spent a good portion of his time living up to the Vulcan way, and when he actively wasn't, he still abided by those rules and codes of behavior that had been beaten into his skull as a kid. Control was everything to a Vulcan.

The only time Jim got something like this out of Spock was when Spock's control was lost to him--impulse decisions based on nothing but emotion.

And if his first officer was normally such a logical being, where did that leave Jim in the long run? A reminder of the rare aberrations in his normally flawless logic?

But, what Spock said about complicated feelings--that didn't suggest impulse or heat of the moment decision. Rather, it suggested long, ongoing processes.

Jim was okay with long, ongoing processes--more than okay, actually.

Suddenly realizing his silence seemed like a rejection and that the faintest shifts in Spock's expression was the Great Wall of Logic being rebuilt, Jim rushed in with a reply. "Feelings! I… I have those too. They're, um, very complicated. Complex. Multifaceted, even." After a moment, Jim gestured at Spock. "They're for you."

Spock was eying him warily. "I see."

"Good! So, we're clear." Jim beamed at Spock for a moment. Spock stared back.

Oh boy.

"Yes," Spock said after an awkwardly long period of silence.

"Good," Jim said again, feeling like an idiot. And then, he blurted out, "Uhura?"

The expression on Spock's face made Jim think that he was constructing and discarding potential contexts for that question. Jim pressed his lips together tightly because, no, he was not explaining that one any further than he had to. He felt foolish enough already.

Luckily, Spock wasn't as socially stupid as people thought he was. "She is merely a very close friend." He took a step closer, looking at Jim like he was an interesting, but strange lab specimen. "Are you exhibiting the Human emotion known as jealousy?"

"What? No!" Jim crossed his arms over his chest defensively. "Just… you know. I don't think Scotty shares." And he and Scotty were buds, so it made sense that Jim was looking after him. Yeah.

"The link I have with her is platonic," Spock said slowly, as if confused by the Human and illogical tendency of ignoring certain basic facts. Forget 'as if', he was. It was an emotional thing. Spock was a smart guy and all, but Rome wasn't built in a day. Speaking of emotional things…

Jim swallowed. He gestured between the two of them. "But ours, that's…"

"It could be more." Spock blinked once and then straightened his posture slightly. "It will be more."

Jim would say that he was unmoved by that statement, but then Jim would be lying. "Predicting the future, Mr. Spock?" he murmured, stepping into Spock's personal space. What he was doing--taking advantage of a control he recognized was barely there--was probably morally wrong.

Spock's eyes were heated. "Extrapolating based on a large pool of data, Captain," he replied quietly. One hand rose almost of its own accord and gently touched Jim's hip.

Longing welled up inside of Jim at that single point of contact. Morals? What morals? Everyone knew he was shameless. But, just as he leaned in to kiss Spock, Spock's other hand was suddenly between Jim and his goal.

Deflected. Damn. Jim shrugged amiably, chalking it up to the infamous Vulcan prudishness, and proceeded to lightly kiss his way across Spock's palm. Spock's fingers flexed sharply. Ooh, sensitive hands. He almost forgot about that.

Spock took a step back, his ears green. Jim took a step forward. Spock took another step back, only to frown in dismay as Jim once again followed.

This was fun.

"You may choose to avoid answering my questions if you wish," Spock murmured, looking concerned, "but I wish to address the original purpose of this conversation." Just then, his back hit the wall.

"Oh?" Jim had to drag his eyes away from Spock's torso--since when was his science blue so… clingy? "What's that?"

Spock's hand flattened over Jim's chest, halting his advance. "Your dream of Uruk."

Jim froze in place and then pulled away from Spock. "Wow," he said flatly. He crossed his arms over his stomach, feeling oddly cold in the overly warm room.

Spock seemed puzzled. "It has been three weeks since your rescue." The emotion on his face suddenly flattened out into an unreadable neutrality. "You… suffered under Levin's control."

Jim couldn't tell if that was a statement or a question. Spock's stony expression gave up no clue. "It wasn't so bad. I got over it."

Spock's pupils constricted, but before Jim could wonder why, the Vulcan abruptly pivoted away from him, letting out a soft, controlled breath. His head bowed low. Concerned, Jim moved to his side, his eyes seeking out what little he could see of Spock's face.

Jim gripped Spock's elbow, trying out a little laugh. "Really, Spock. I'm fine."

Spock's eyes flashed open and at Jim, sparking with the hint of that rage that once had Jim bent over a console and nearly choked to death. "If I have not sufficiently recovered from your disappearance, then it would be arrogance on both our parts to assume that you have."

His tone was about as scathing as Jim had ever heard a Vulcan's tone get. Jim should have been annoyed or afraid or… something other than this rush of affection and warm feelings that tumbled over him at the sight of Spock's haughty expression.

"It wasn't so bad," he insisted, squeezing Spock's arm. "But do you…. do you know what bothered me the most?" Jim bounced back on his heels slightly. "Even when I didn't know myself. Even when I didn't know I was Human, I…" Jim wet his lips nervously. "I think I searched for you in the face of every man I met."

Tension leeched out of Spock's shoulders like air out of a popped balloon. "Jim."

Jim licked his lips again, nervousness flitting around in his gut. He stared at the floor. "So. I dream of Risa II," he admitted. "I dream that this is the dream, and that's the reality. It's Day One, there, but you're there, and the bridge crew and Kevin, but I don't know you guys, not really. And it's this whole, lonely existence, and they tell me to do something, but I… I just can't." His chest was tightening up painfully. He bent his head low and shook it, his fingers gripping huge fistfuls of his hair.

Spock's long fingers folded over Jim's hands, gently untangling from his hair. "The Human mind has a tendency of linking up stimuli into the loosest of patterns," he lectured. "Committed enough times, these patterns become pathways through which your brain operate. Indeed, practice does make perfect--sometimes to your advantage, but now to your detriment."

Spock's tone, consciously pitched or not, was calming in that mind-numbingly boring sort of way, which was a pity because Jim usually got a kick out of Spock talking at him. Jim turned into the touch, thinking sheepishly that it was probably a good thing he never took any of Spock's classes. He would have failed so hard.

Whatever the reason, his anxiety slowly melted away.

Jim's chin was tilted up slightly. He met Spock's gaze, hyperaware of the hand under his jaw. "Perhaps your mind recalls the planet because your nightly rituals do not alter from the rituals of your imprisonment," Spock said quietly. There was no disapproval there, just bland acknowledgement.

Jim frowned. Spock was right, of course. He was okay during the day, but all of his nightly rituals involved Risa II in some way, like his tweaking of the system in his rooms so the computer alarms sounded like the chimes--to work, to food, to sleep. He slept shirtless, clad in loose gray pants, justifying it to himself by saying that it was logical to be half-dressed in case of an emergency. He even shoved his bed off to the side so it was against the wall, long ways. And, no matter how tired he was, he always sat up in bed and patiently waited for the chime of his night cycle. He could fall asleep in no other way.

Risa II was many light years behind him, but it followed him doggedly, and he let it, practically dragging it along by its leash.

The Programming wasn't to blame. There was no trace of it was left in his mind. No, this fuck up was all him--the usual Jim Kirk special, captain edition.

"Sleep in my quarters," Spock said unexpectedly, breaking Jim out of his self-loathing thoughts.

Jim blinked. "What?"

Spock's hands fell from Jim's face. Jim had a moment to feel disappointment at their loss and also some guilt for putting that pinched look on his Vulcan's face. He wasn't actively mind melding with Jim, but the touch alone would have allowed him to glean many of Jim's surface thoughts. Jim knew his mind. He also knew it wasn't pretty.

Spock was standing at attention, his tone almost overbearingly formal. "The environment in my quarters are sufficiently different from your quarters on Risa II. Additionally, I will be present. These two factors should play in the cessation of your habitual nightmares." Spock paused for a moment, swinging his arms behind his back. "If the unfamiliar setting does not work, I shall be close enough to wake you."

Confused at Spock's sudden distance, Jim rubbed the back of his neck. "Okay. That sounds… logical." He glanced at the bed. The temptation of sleep was like an inescapable siren's song. Jim drifted over to the bed without thought, his desire to rest overpowering everything else. Just as he was about to fall on it, a thought occurred to Jim. He craned his neck over his shoulder and stared at his first officer. "Did you just logic your way into my bed?"

"Captain, that would surely be a breach of ethics and propriety," Spock said stiffly. His left eyebrow jumped up slightly. "Additionally, the bed in question is mine."

"That's not exactly a no."

"Sleep, Captain," Spock said severely, assuming a seated position on the other side of the bed. He closed his eyes. So, meditating it is, Jim thought, a little annoyed at being so easily dismissed. He dropped heavily on the bed, making sure to jostle it as much as possible.

Spock's expression did not even flinch. Damn. Well, two could play that game.

After ten minutes of frowning pointedly at the ceiling, Jim looked back over at Spock. His eyes drifted over Spock's profile, lingering fondly on the faintest tinge of green to his skin and hovering appreciatively over the pointed slope of his ear, the slant of his eyebrow.

Complicated feelings, huh? That wasn't even the half of it.

Jim watched a little longer. He needed to touch Spock. He needed to sleep. He needed to touch Spock and sleep. Luckily, since he was some sort of genius, he could do both at once. And 'boldly going' was kind of his thing.

Purposefully, Jim sat up and shifted around, scooting down the bed a bit. Once he was far enough down, he settled on his side, cautiously resting his head on a pillow made of lean muscle and heavy bone. He held his breath, hoping it would be allowed.

Spock said nothing about the commandeering of his thigh, but, after a moment, a broad, Vulcan palm rested lightly over Jim's head, fingers gently skimming over a meld point. Just as Jim let out a relieved breath, that intangible something between them seemed to tighten in resolve. Yes, Jim decided drowsily, his hand curling loosely around one of Spock's bony knees. The link thing, they'd keep it.

"Jim," Spock said, his hand tracing lightly over Jim's hair. His voice seemed to rumble a bit in his chest. "You are safe here. Always."

Jim gripped Spock's knee just a little harder. If anyone else said that, maybe Jim would have laughed and told them not to make a promise they couldn't keep. Shit happened and people died and he was a captain in Starfleet. Any illusions of invincibility died an unhappy way with Nero and the Battle of Vulcan. He was one of the few captains left in the fleet, and his life continued only because of a combination of his extraordinary brand of luck and the Enterprise crew's unique skills and talents.

One way or another, Jim's days were numbered. He would never be safe, and anyone who dared to say he could be was foolish, illogical, and absurdly naïve for a being living in the twenty-third century.

But Spock was the one to say it and, of all people, Spock would know how flimsy the promise was, how beautiful the lie could be, and how safe someone would feel hiding within it. He offered the lie not to ease his own emotional need to offer and provide comfort, but to ease Jim's insidiously lingering fear and doubt.

So Jim merely made a contemplative noise in the back of his throat, indulging in the illusion a bit. Just for a moment, he pretended it was real, and that was okay in the end because, in this place and with this person, Jim was indeed safe.

At least, for now.

Pushing away troubling thoughts, Jim concentrated on Spock. Eventually, he smiled and closed his eyes, quickly falling asleep under Spock's calming touch.

For once, he did not dream.

 

{THE END}