Title: We Two Alone
Come, let's away to prison;
We two alone will sing
- William Shakespeare
Starfleet Academy, Summer 2257
Even before he opened his eyes, Jim could tell that something was really wrong.
His limbs felt heavy with exhaustion, as if he wasn't waking from a full night's sleep, and a headache was gathering at the base of his skull. As he turned his head on the pillow, he felt a sharp stab of pain at the juncture of his neck and shoulder. Ouch.
Taking a slow, deep breath, he sat up carefully, massaging his neck. He squinted against the morning light filtering in from the window. It seemed slightly out of focus. He blinked and rubbed at his eyes, but the world stayed blurry. He felt feverish.
And wasn't that perfect, because if there was one thing he didn't have time for today—or this week, for that matter—it was the flu.
"You look like hell," Dan Corrigan, his roommate, confirmed as Jim groaned his way to the bathroom. Corrigan was already on his feet and getting dressed. "Thought you got in early last night."
"I did." In fact, he'd turned in before ten, feeling inexplicably tired after his hand-to-hand session. Cupping his hands, he splashed cold water on his face, then bent his mouth down to the faucet. The cool liquid soothed his throat. "Hope I'm not coming down with something."
"Better perk up then, Kirk. Don't you have class this morning?"
"Diplomacy seminar," Jim muttered. Six hours of small-group discussions, student presentations, and simulations. Ordinarily, he'd be up like a shot preparing for his day, reviewing the assigned readings and going over his notes for his presentation. But this morning he felt so sluggish and depleted that he could already tell that he'd have to detour by the cafeteria for a strong cup of coffee before the seminar. At the rate that he was going, that meant that he'd barely make it to class on time. Not good.
"Summer session, and you're still in class all day?" Corrigan said, sounding smug. "Should've gone for the biosciences. I'm in the lab for a few hours this morning, but then I'm free."
"Shut the fuck up, Corrigan," he grumbled, lacking the energy to think of a clever retort. He peered at his pale, splotchy reflection in the mirror. Can't skip the shower, he decided. It might save him a few minutes, but if he walked into his seminar looking this rumpled, Commander Billings was likely to use him as the focal point for an off-the-cuff lecture on proper grooming and the importance of maintaining a respectful appearance. And he really, really did not want to attract attention today.
The hot shower woke him up a little, but did nothing for the ache in his neck. He shrugged into a fresh uniform, then sat down to fasten his boots. His head pounded as he bent down, a pain that focused at the base of his skull and radiated down his neck. Massaging the taut muscles, he straightened back up awkwardly, doing his best not to move his head.
Should've done more stretching after the workout yesterday, instead of rushing back to the dorm, he thought in disgust. A stiff neck would slow him down all day, throw off his concentration.
Can't afford to make stupid mistakes this week, dumbass.
The boots finally on, he sat back and took a deep breath. Even the minor effort of getting dressed had left him a little breathless. His temples throbbed. Sighing, he glanced over at Corrigan, who was sitting on his bed, scanning the morning news feeds as usual. "Got anything for a headache? Or a fever?"
Corrigan gave him a curious look. "That's got to be a first for you. Jim Kirk, admitting that he needs meds? You wouldn't see a doctor even when you had bronchitis last winter."
"It was a cold," Jim huffed. "And I'm from Iowa, man. We don't get sick."
"Sure you don't," Corrigan laughed, but his expression was sympathetic. They weren't good friends, but they helped each other out when they could. "I don't have anything here in the room. But you should hit the clinic before class. One hypo, and you're good as new."
Jim shook his head. He knew a fair number of cadets who would head off to the Academy clinic at the first sign of a sore throat, hoping for a quick fix or, at the very least, a medical excuse to lie in bed for a day or two. Corrigan, for example, was a borderline hypochondriac from L.A. who popped a pill every time he got a sniffle, which was just pathetic, as far as Jim was concerned. Jim avoided doctors whenever possible and hadn't seen the inside of the clinic since his last physical, a year ago.
There was no big mystery behind it. He grew up knowing that being sick wasn't something that would get him a cozy day in bed. Even now, he could hear his uncle's derisive shouts echoing through the farm house: I don't care what the hell's wrong with you, get your lazy ass outside and start your chores, and don't give me that lip. But Frank's attitude wasn't really that different from what he heard from his grandparents and most of the adults in Riverside, a mixture of stoicism and Midwestern work ethic, and by now, it was a point of pride.
So he just rolled his eyes. "Never mind, I'm not that desperate. And I can't risk getting grounded."
Corrigan shrugged. "Tough it out, then. I'm off to the lab." He slapped Jim on the back on his way out the door. It was probably meant to be encouraging, but it made Jim grit his teeth at the jolt of pain that radiated out from his neck.
After another minute, Jim stood shakily, tucked his PADD into his jacket pocket, and headed to the cafeteria.
The coffee picked him up a little, but by noon, Jim couldn't deny that he was sick: he was alternately burning up or chilled. The muscles of his calves and thighs were starting to ache, as if he'd been exercising hard, and not just sitting in a classroom. He desperately wanted to go back to bed.
The soreness in his neck made it hard for him to look down at the PADD in front of him, and even when he managed it, the letters on the screen seemed to be out of focus. And for that matter, the instructor looked a little blurry around the edges, too. He kept blinking, trying to clear his vision.
"Am I boring you, Mr. Kirk?"
Jim snapped back to awareness with an unpleasant jerk that sent a sharp pain through the back of his skull. Damn it, he must have nodded off. He glanced around, registering that all eyes in the classroom were on him, and he straightened himself in the chair, suppressing a wince. He could hear muffled laughter from somewhere behind him.
"Uh, no, sir. Sorry." The truth of the matter was that Commander Billings was a tedious lecturer, droning on and on with a monotonous nasal voice, but even in his feverish state, Jim wasn't dumb enough to say so.
"Would you like a pillow?"
Asshole. "That's not necessary, sir." He wiped a shaky hand across his forehead; it was damp with sweat.
Billings swept his gaze around the classroom. "Diplomacy can put you to sleep, no question about it. Negotiations often drag on for hours." He fixed Jim with a pointed look. "Even so, your job at Axanar is to remain attentive and focused, no matter how dull you may think the speakers are."
"Yes, sir," Jim said, and was relieved to see his classmates turn their attention back to Billings, as he went on with the discussion.
The Axanar Peace Mission was the culmination of a full year of galactic diplomacy. For the last month, since the start of the summer session, the cadets had been immersed in the political and economic background of the area, including the Battle of Axanar and its aftermath. Jim, along with the other command-track cadets, would be working behind the scenes as assistant diplomatic attachés. He'd been more excited about the role until he found out what it really meant: taking notes, running errands, and observing the official delegates.
But in the end, he decided he didn't care what he'd be doing at Axanar. The highlight of the trip, as far as he was concerned, was the opportunity to train on a starship. They'd be travelling on the Farragut, Starfleet's newest Constitution-class ship. Three weeks there and three weeks back. Last summer's training, after his first year at the Academy, had been basically an introduction to ship life and routines, and the ship had never left the solar system or even attained warp speed. This would be his first long-term shipboard training, and his instructors would be watching everything, all the time.
Jim was determined to stand out. The cadets would be rotated through most of the main operating systems: helm, engineering, communications, weaponry, even administration. Their performance on the trip would play a large role in determining the direction of their specialized training over the next two years at the Academy. Jim was ready for all of it, dying to prove himself.
Commander Billings was expounding on Captain Garth's military strategies in the battle against the Klingons, normally something that would have riveted Jim's attention, but his thoughts kept drifting. He knew that he was ill, and it was coming on fast and strong. The ache in his neck was getting progressively worse.
It might be a 24-hour virus, he told himself. Anything else just wasn't an option. The Farragut was leaving in three days, and he had to be at the top of his game.
When the seminar finally broke in early afternoon, the other cadets rose quickly, heading for lunch, laughing and chattering. Jim was usually one of the first out of his seat, impatient with restless energy after sitting still for so long, but today every movement jarred his neck and he didn't have the energy to move fast.
"Mr. Kirk," he heard Billings say as he finally turned to leave, and he suppressed a groan. The last thing he wanted right now was a reprimand from his instructor. Damn it, he knew he hadn't been paying attention, but he thought he'd been faking it pretty well, except for that time he nodded off…
Billings gave him a sharp look, then said quietly, "You don't look well, and you certainly weren't yourself in that seminar. Are you feeling all right?"
Jim looked back at him, surprised at the show of sympathy. It was the first time he'd seen a side of his instructor that was anything but stern and by-the-book. It was actually a little disconcerting, making Jim loosen the tight hold he'd had on his emotional control all morning. "I'm a little under the weather, sir, that's all." His voice wavered a bit—Damn it, must be the fever—and he took a breath. "Thank you for asking. I'll be all right."
"Go to the clinic during the break, Kirk," Billings said firmly. "Get yourself seen by a doctor. You've got ninety minutes before we start the student presentations."
"That's not necessary, sir. I'll go after class." The only thing he wanted to do right now was go back to his dorm and take a nap. He'd muster the energy to go to the clinic later… if he really had to.
But Billings just waved a hand impatiently. "That was an order, Mr. Kirk."
Shit. "Yes, sir." Jim saluted half-heartedly and left the classroom.
Well, Billings was probably right, anyway. Whatever was wrong with him, it didn't seem to be going away, and he needed to do something about it. He could tell that his fever was climbing higher, because it was becoming an effort just to sit in his seat and keep his eyes open. His head had been pounding fiercely for the past two hours. He probably just needed an antiviral hypo, and maybe a muscle relaxant for his neck. He hated doctors, but they could be useful. Why drag this out? He'd come back for the afternoon session, good as new.
But at the Academy clinic, no one seemed to care that he was in a hurry to get back to class. Jim sat shirtless and uncomfortable on the biobed while the doctor on call asked him the standard intake questions. Dr. Grace Levine was a middle-aged, methodical, can't-be-rushed type, and Jim found himself checking the time more than once as she asked him about his symptoms and reviewed his medical history.
"Lie down," she told him. "Let me see what the scan shows."
He couldn't see the screen above his head, so he watched her face instead. At first her expression was bland as she gazed at the screen, but after a moment the doctor's eyes narrowed and she pursed her lips, frowning at something she was seeing.
"What is it?" he asked nervously. "What's wrong?"
"One moment, Cadet," she said. "Lie still. You have a fever of nearly 39 degrees. And there are some signs of inflammation here…"
"Where?" he asked. Instead of answering, she leaned forward to adjust something on the monitor. Jim took a deep breath and made an effort to relax. He knew the doctor was scanning his vitals, and his blood pressure was probably climbing through the ceiling. Fuck, he hated being out of the loop. Doctors were like that, never coming clean with everything they knew, only revealing bits of information that they thought you needed to know.
Scan complete, Dr. Levine began a manual exam, which Jim endured with barely concealed impatience. He felt tired and irritable, and not at all convinced that he'd made the right decision in coming to the clinic. He closed his eyes against the glare of the lights as the doctor felt his glands, palpated his abdomen, and examined the skin along his torso.
"Bend your head forward," she said finally. "Try to touch your chin to your chest."
It was surprisingly difficult to do, even with Dr. Levine gently supporting the back of his head. His knees flexed involuntarily in an ineffective attempt to relieve the piercing pain that lanced down his back. "Fuck!" he gasped. "Sorry, damn it, my neck's really stiff. I should have done more stretching after my workout yesterday…"
"I don't think that's the problem," she said with a gentle sympathy that set his teeth on edge. "I doubt very much that it's muscular strain."
"What do you--"
"Just a minute, Cadet Kirk." Jim rubbed his temples in frustration as she scribbled on a PADD. God, he felt like shit. His headache was getting worse, and now his stomach was starting to feel queasy. He glanced at the small basin on a tray by the side of the bed, thinking that he might have to grab it in a hurry if he needed to throw up. He concentrated on taking shallow, even breaths, wishing fervently that the doctor would just hurry the hell up so he could get out of the clinic.
Dr. Levine finally tapped the PADD with a nod of satisfaction. She plucked a vial from a shelf and fitted it into a hypospray with a click. "I'll give you something now for the fever and the headache while we wait for your transport."
"My transport?" he repeated dumbly, feeling like he'd missed something. "Transport where?"
"Starfleet Medical." She pressed the hypo against his neck, but he was so distracted by what she was saying that for once in his life, he didn't even feel the sting. "You need a more thorough workup than we're equipped for here at the clinic."
"Wait, what? Are you serious?" he sputtered. He raised himself painfully into a sitting position. "No way! That's not necessary, and I'm…" I'm fine, he almost said, but that was obviously not true. "I'm late. I don't have time to go anywhere right now." His seminar was starting again in ten minutes. "I'll come back later this afternoon if it's not better, I promise. But right now I've got to get back to class."
Levine's eyes were understanding but her tone was firm. "I'm sorry, Cadet Kirk. I know this probably doesn't fit into your plans, but you really don't have a choice here. Once you walked through the clinic doors, I'm responsible for your treatment, and my decision is that you need to be transferred to Starfleet Medical."
"But I can't go to the hospital!" Jim told her, a little desperately. This was exactly the reason he tried to avoid doctors in the first place. The second he stepped onto their turf, they took over and started making decisions for him, without any consideration for what he wanted to do.
Getting hysterical isn't going to help, idiot.
Making an effort to rein in his frustration, he lowered his voice and spoke as calmly as he could. "With all due respect, I think you're overreacting. I just came in here to get something that'll pick me up enough so I can concentrate in class. I don't need to be coddled." He gave the doctor his most persuasive smile, for good measure. "So thanks, but I'm feeling a lot better already."
"I'd be surprised if you weren't. I just gave you a strong painkiller," she said. "This is potentially quite serious and no, it can't wait."
Her words chilled him—I can't get sick now!—and he took a deep breath, trying to mask his worry. "So what's wrong with me, then?" he asked, a note a fear creeping into his voice. "It's not classified information, is it? Just tell me."
"I suspect some form of meningitis, but I can't start treatment until we make an accurate diagnosis."
"Meningitis?" For a moment, he just looked at her in astonishment. He'd been so sure it was the flu. No wonder he felt so bad… He'd heard of babies and small children who got meningitis, but nobody his own age. Wasn't it one of those ancient diseases that were eradicated ages ago? "But… it's treatable, right?"
"Usually it's just a matter of a simple course of antibiotics or antivirals." She gave him a quick smile, obviously intended to reassure him. "I'll inform SFM that you'll be arriving on a priority transport."
"Yes, ma'am," he said glumly. So fifteen minutes later, he was sitting on another biobed in a small exam room at Starfleet Medical, shivering in a flimsy medical gown and wondering how he was going to convince the next doctor that he really, really needed to be cleared to go to Axanar.
For the two years he'd been in Starfleet, Leonard McCoy had successfully avoided space flight.
It wasn't that he was afraid of the risk. True, space exploration was inherently dangerous, but so were most of the high-speed travel options he was forced to use on Earth. The fact was that he was a pragmatic man who liked his comforts, and space travel held no appeal for him, to put it mildly. He had no desire to spend weeks or months in close quarters with other people, eating replicated food and drinking reclaimed water.
And professionally speaking, it wasn't the best use of his talents or training. He didn't see much challenge in caring for the routine medical needs of a few hundred men and women in the prime of their health. There was a perfectly good career option available to him in San Francisco – Starfleet Medical was a major teaching hospital with well-funded research facilities – so as far as he was concerned, there was no need for him to look any further. Given the choice, Leonard was going to do everything he could to complete his training with the ground firmly under his feet.
Dr. Edward Puri, his direct supervisor, bulldozed right over his preferences as usual.
"I'm not giving you a choice this time," Puri informed him in his clipped British accent that, to Leonard, always seemed to convey arrogance and impatience. Puri had called him in for a meeting just before his shift at the hospital, and they were sitting in his small office. "It's an excellent opportunity. You need some field experience, and the Atlantis is heading out to Starbase 11 in a month. If you want an attractive starship placement once you get out of the Academy—"
"I don't," Leonard said firmly, leaning forward in his chair. "I'm happy right here, in San Francisco." As I've told you repeatedly.
"—commensurate with your abilities, you'll need some hands-on interspecies training and familiarity with shipboard life," Puri continued, ignoring his protest. "A short training cruise this summer will be a marvelous chance for you to learn about space medicine firsthand."
"I get plenty of interspecies experience right here at the hospital, and you know that space medicine isn't my specialty." It was a familiar subject of disagreement between them. The more Puri enthused about adventure and exploration, the more Leonard dug in his heels.
"That's exactly why you need the exposure, McCoy." His eyes narrowed. "As a matter of fact, let me check something." Puri reached for a PADD on his desk and began tapping commands, while Leonard tried to keep his expression calm. His shift was due to start in ten minutes, and the conversation was putting him on edge. From the look of determination in Puri's eye, he had the distinct feeling that his summer plans were about to take a turn for the worse.
Puri gave a low grunt of disapproval, then looked up from the screen. "From what I can see, you've yet to log any off-planet hours at all. For a third-year cadet, that's completely unacceptable. You missed the first-year session on Starbase One—"
Leonard furrowed his eyebrows, as if trying to recall. "How did that happen? Wait, I remember… I was attending that xenobiology conference in Paris, that you yourself recommended I attend," he said pointedly. "Dr. Phlox gave the keynote lecture. One of his final talks before he died."
"Yes, that's right." Puri frowned. "Well, I suppose we can excuse that one. But then I see that you didn't take part in the lunar jump later that year."
Leonard leaned back in his chair. "Well, I intended to, of course." In a pig's eye. "There was an outbreak of Rigellian flu at the time, and I volunteered to take extra shifts at the Academy clinic—"
Puri looked down at the PADD again. "And you opted not to train on the Andromeda last January."
"We were given a choice, and I preferred to go to McMurdo Station. It was a good opportunity to study the effects of exposure to extreme cold environments." McMurdo was in Antarctica; Starfleet maintained an observatory and research station there. Leonard had initially been apprehensive about the cold weather, until he realized that January would be the height of the Antarctic summer. All in all, as bad as the weather had been, it was infinitely preferable to breathing canned air on the moon.
"Be that as it may, McCoy, it seems to me that you're overdue for a taste of life in the stars."
Leonard restrained the impulse to roll his eyes. Puri, the hypocritical ass, had never served a day on a starship, as far as Leonard knew. In fact, as head of cadet training at Starfleet Medical, he was living proof that it was possible to build a successful Starfleet career path without leaving earth.
"Frankly, I'm just not that interested in pursuing a deep-space career," Leonard said. Maybe it was time to lay all his cards on the table. "I've never said otherwise. When I enlisted, I understood that because of my experience and degrees, I'd be given a certain amount of choice in my final placement."
"Really? I'm not aware of any such clause in your enlistment contract," Puri said, looking at him coolly, waiting for his words to sink in.
Leonard looked at him, a whisper of doubt beginning to gnaw at his gut. The recruiting officer had practically drooled all over herself when she saw his resume, and had more or less promised—hadn't she?—that he could be stationed wherever he wanted. It wasn't stated explicitly in his contract, true, but…
A promise is comfort for a fool, his mother used to say. Too bad he hadn't learned anything from her.
His discomfiture must have shown in his expression, because Puri gave him a sympathetic look. "Going into space can be a bit of a fright your first time. Is that it? Well, that's quite understandable. New recruits often worry about the dangers of space travel, but you'll get used to it, McCoy. After a while you'll simply put it out of your mind."
Leonard bristled. "That's not the issue. I'm not afraid of flying. The problem is that I specialize in emergency medicine and trauma. The best place for me to contribute to Starfleet is at a major medical center like this hospital!"
"I'm well aware of your professional qualifications." Puri seemed irritated, as if Leonard's skills and experience were more of a burden than an asset. "However, I'm responsible for your overall training as a Starfleet officer—"
"I don't see why that means I need to practice medicine on a ship that carries only a few hundred crewmen!"
"-which means," Puri said, raising his voice, "making sure you are properly prepared to serve on a starship when you graduate. Starfleet has its own needs, Cadet McCoy, independent of your preferences."
Leonard knew well enough what Puri meant. Now that the huge Constitution-class starships were coming off the production line, Starfleet was hard-pressed to find enough qualified medical officers who were willing to commit five years of their lives to deep space exploration. Most of the new medical recruits were headed for the stars, whether they wanted to go or not.
It was beginning to dawn on him that he, too, might have signed away more freedom than he'd bargained for.
"Starfleet will still need some good doctors on the ground." He gave Puri a pointed look. "You yourself have made a career here at Starfleet Medical."
"The best doctors will be serving on the starships," Puri told him flatly, without a trace of apology. "That's policy now. The political climate is changing. Starfleet wants its best and brightest officers on those ships, and it wants them to receive the most advanced medical care possible. That's more than likely where you'll end up serving, whether you like it or not."
Goddamn, arrogant paper-pusher. His grip on his temper slipped. "Well, I don't like it one bit, and it's sure as hell not the reason I signed on with Starfleet!" he bit out, before he could stop himself.
Puri's eyes darkened. "Watch your tone, McCoy. I might remind you that Starfleet is a military organization and though we're colleagues in this hospital, I outrank you, and you are coming dangerously close to insubordination. Starfleet is not an employment agency. You'll go where you're needed."
Reeling his temper in with an effort, Leonard made one more attempt to delay the inevitable. "Yes… sir," he said, awkwardly using the formal military address. "I understand that the needs of Starfleet come first. But… I was planning to attend the conference in Emerging Infectious Diseases at the CDC in late July." He was also hoping to combine the visit to Atlanta with a quick trip to visit his mother. He hadn't been back to see her in almost a year, and she was getting on in years.
"The shipboard training will be better for your professional development. There'll always be another conference. And not to worry, you'll be back for the start of the fall semester. That's all, McCoy."
Leonard began his shift minutes later in a foul mood. The interns gave him a wide berth as he stalked by, eyeing him uneasily and keeping out of his way. Which was fine with him.
Starfleet is a military organization, not an employment agency. That was a low blow, and truer than Puri probably knew. Leonard had made no secret of the fact that he hadn't enlisted for ideological reasons. There was no military tradition in his family, and he had no interest in exploring new worlds. Fact was, there just weren't many options at the time that got him what he wanted, which was a new start after his marriage went downhill. And if enlisting in Starfleet pissed Jocelyn off, that was an added bonus.
But making a career change was one thing. Spending the next few years of his life in deep space was something else altogether.
Frustrated, he eyed the large doors at the ER entrance. It wasn't that he was hoping for a disaster, but hell, a multi-injury trauma—or, at the very least, a compound fracture—would help take his mind off his own problems... Granted, this wasn't Atlanta General, where a shift in the emergency department was nonstop, adrenaline-pumping chaos. But even Starfleet Medical got its fair share of local traffic accidents, not to mention the occasional shuttle crash or, a few months ago, a chemical explosion in the Academy's bio labs.
In some ways, coming to Starfleet felt like a step down. The work had its challenges, particularly in xenotreatment and space medicine, which he'd rarely encountered in Atlanta. His diagnostic skills had improved since coming to San Francisco, no doubt about it, and he had access to the most advanced medical technology. But in the meantime, he was doing a lot less surgery, and he worried about his skills getting rusty.
"Priority One referral from the Academy clinic," the head nurse told him, pointing toward one of the small examining rooms that lined the main hall. "I'm sending you the chart now." His PADD buzzed in his chest pocket, and he fished it out without enthusiasm. Clinic referrals were rarely very interesting
This one proved to be no exception. The patient, a 24-year-old male, had presented with sudden severe headache, fever, nuchal rigidity with Kernig and Brudzinski signs. Suspected meningitis, thrilling. He saw that the ER nurse had already done a preliminary assessment and taken a blood sample, although the results weren't back yet.
The name at the top of the chart- Kirk, James T.—seemed vaguely familiar. Not a patient, he thought, but maybe it was someone in one of his courses. No one he knew well.
As he got closer to the examining room, he could hear the cadet's voice clearly. “Don't see why the hell I need this IV. Where's the doctor?"
"You need the fluids because you're slightly dehydrated," a nurse was saying, sounding exasperated. "And refusing to cooperate won't make the doctor come any faster."
"Look, I need to get back to class, okay?" The voice seemed to ring a bell, but he still couldn't place it. "And it's bad enough that you're making me wear this goddamn gown, but it’s freezing in here!"
Leonard had no patience for this today. He strode into the room, fixing the man with a cold glare. "I guess nobody ever told you that it's rude to raise your voice to people who are trying to help you, cadet."
Whoever he was, he clearly looked ill. He was sitting stiffly on the biobed, posture tense. His face was pale with splotches of red high on his cheeks. When he looked up at Leonard, his eyes were bright and slightly watery. They were also a startling shade of blue, and the memory clicked. "You're that kid from the shuttle. Jim Kirk."
"Hey… Bones!" Jim flashed him a quick smile, looking relieved. Leonard grimaced and rolled his eyes. The scruffy kid had insisted on calling him by the ridiculous nickname for the whole flight, after he'd made an offhand comment about being stripped to the bones by the divorce settlement… or something like that.
"You can address me properly," Leonard said, annoyed. "It's Doctor McCoy."
Kirk seemed undisturbed by Leonard's frosty response, or maybe he was feeling too sick to be aware of the nuances in his tone. "Hey, how've you been? Is this where you work?"
Kirk's brow was furrowed. "Right, it's just… You disappeared after registration, and it's a pretty small campus…"
"I'm a doctor in the officers' training program. I don't have much contact with the regular cadets." Scanning through the developmental history, he noted that Kirk was born prematurely at thirty weeks and treated for neonatal exposure to subspace radiation at the age of two weeks. No developmental problems were recorded. Aside from that one incident, the rest of his medical history was fairly normal, although the chart became sketchy after he reached adolescence. The physical workup he received when he entered the Academy—at age 22, a little older than usual—was normal.
"Actually, I thought you might've washed out. You know, the aviophobia thing." Kirk looked at him curiously. "Did you get over that?"
Distracted from what he was reading, Leonard looked up at the cadet. "What?" For a moment, he couldn't figure out what he was talking about, and then remembered spouting some nonsense at the hard-assed young lieutenant who'd insisted on ejecting him from the shuttle bathroom. I suffer from aviophobia, he'd announced, hoping to intimidate her into leaving him alone so he could be miserable in peace. It hadn't worked.
He shook his head. "I'm not really scared of flying, kid. Don't believe everything you hear. And lie down."
A lab icon flashed on the chart, signaling that the results of the blood work had arrived. There was nothing surprising there, other than elevated leukocytes, indicating some kind of infection or inflammation.
"Wait, you mean you were lying?" Moving slowly, Kirk lowered himself onto his side, and then rolled onto his back, keeping his head as straight as possible. "Then why'd you say you might throw up on me?"
Leonard snorted. "I was hung over. So were you, from what I can recall." Turning to the nurse, he said quietly, "I need a setup for a lumbar puncture." She nodded and left.
"But you kept talking about all the ways we could die on the shuttle… which, by the way, nobody likes to hear while they're actually on the shuttle. Just so you know."
He raised an eyebrow, taken aback. Kirk seemed to remember their conversation in detail, and it sounded like he'd actually looked for him after they arrived. The truth was that Leonard had forgotten about his seat partner almost immediately. The kid had been entertaining enough during the short flight, with his ridiculous stories about bar fights and childhood pranks at the Riverside shipyards, but after the shuttle ride was over, that was that.
Once Leonard had sobered up, he met with Dr. Puri. Between his work at the hospital and his classes at the med school, he'd barely set foot on the main campus since then. In fact, he realized now, his life at the Academy was so far removed from the kind of experience the other recruits shared that he'd just about convinced himself that he was in control of his own fate.
(Starfleet? Sure, he'd enlisted and maybe he had to wear a uniform, but basically he was just working at the hospital in San Francisco and taking some courses in xenopathology… right?)
Wrong. Clearly he'd been living in denial for way too long.
"Doc, you gotta understand, I can't get sick now." Kirk was looking up at him, imploring. "I don't have time for this. I'm going to Axanar in three days."
"The Federation diplomatic conference? What business do you have there?" He wasn't really paying attention. The biobed screen was painting a worrisome diagnostic picture.
"Official business." The corner of Kirk's mouth crooked up in a wry smile. "Sort of. The Academy's sending all the command-track cadets. We've been training for weeks, and the Farragut leaves on Friday. I have to be on it."
"Why, so you can take notes and serve coffee to the real delegates?" Kirk's temperature was high, 38.9 degrees, even though he'd been given an antipyretic at the clinic twenty minutes ago. His meninges were clearly inflamed, his respirations uneven. He had borderline hypertension and bradycardia. Bingo: increased intracranial pressure.
It was obviously meningitis; analysis of the spinal fluid would clarify if it was viral or bacterial. Potentially dangerous, but easily treatable at this stage.
"It's history in the making," Kirk said, sounding defensive. "Look, this is going to be my first shipboard training. The Farragut's a Constitution-class starship! You have to fix me up quick."
Didn't this kid realize how sick he was? "I don't have to do anything. And telling me to hurry isn't going to get you out of here any faster."
Kirk rubbed his eyes, then sighed. "Look, it's just that this has already taken a lot longer than I thought it would. Can you just give me a shot or whatever, and I'll get out of here?" He blinked several times, squinting up at Leonard.
"Are the lights bothering you?"
"It's not that. My eyes are tired. Things are a little blurry."
Leonard frowned. It was probably nothing, just photosensitivity, a common enough symptom of meningitis. Still…
He fished a small light out of his pocket and shined it in Kirk's eyes, making him swear and jerk back. "Hold still now," Leonard said, scanning and magnifying the layer of blood vessels and connective tissue in front of the retina.
"Turn that light off," Kirk gritted out. "Fuck, I think I'm gonna puke…"
I'll be damned. He'd never actually seen a case before, but there it was, unmistakably: the inflamed choroid. And if he was showing that symptom… This was no ordinary meningitis.
"Show me your hands," Leonard said, unable to prevent a note of urgency in his tone. He looked closely at Kirk's palms, the back of his hands, and his arms, but the skin was clear. Nothing on his legs, either. He pulled up the blanket at the foot of the bed, covering the man to the waist, and then raised the gown off his abdomen.
There was a faint pink rash, like patches of pinpricks, on his belly and chest. They were smooth, and didn't fade when his finger pressed against them.
A chill travelled down the length of his spine. Holy hell, this kid was in a lot more trouble than he realized. It was a petechial rash: toxins were circulating in his bloodstream, causing the capillaries to become damaged and leak. This was a very bad sign, and it changed the clinical picture entirely.
As if on cue, the nurse returned with the equipment. "All right, Kirk," Leonard said calmly, keeping the worry out of his voice, "I need you to lie on your side with your legs curled up. I'm going to do a lumbar puncture—"
"A spinal tap?" Kirk looked appalled. "Stick a needle in my spine? That's fucking barbaric! Can't you just run a scan or something?""
He was surprised Jim even knew what a lumbar puncture involved; cellular imaging technology had made such invasive procedures increasingly rare. Kid's smarter than I thought.
"Not for this, no. We need to test the spinal fluid." He softened his voice slightly in the face of Jim's obvious disgust. "It's not as bad as it sounds, and it'll be over quickly."
"I hate doctors," Kirk muttered, turning carefully onto his side. "I hate hospitals. All I wanted was a damn painkiller."
Leonard rolled his eyes, taking advantage of the fact that the kid couldn't see him. God, these young cadets were all alike, always thinking they could tough their way through anything. "Good thing you have a small sense of self-preservation. You're not well, even if that doesn't fit into your plans."
Kirk sighed, sounding resigned, or maybe just exhausted. "Yeah, I get that."
With the nurse's help, Leonard set up a sterile field and completed the procedure efficiently, ignoring Kirk's complaints ("Fuck that burns! How long is this going to take?"). He sent the fluid off for analysis, then turned back to his patient, now lying on his back.
Kirk was massaging his temples. "Are we done here? My head's killing me."
"It'll pass in a few minutes," he said, a little more sharply than he'd intended. Kirk's shoulders stiffened slightly and Leonard could hear his muttered curse.
Dammit. Puri should know better than to inflict him on a starship crew, he thought with renewed resentment. He'd never put much effort into developing a good bedside manner. For that matter, Jocelyn had made it clear that she thought he was insensitive and arrogant. Well, the way she put it was you're an unfeeling, egotistical shit who doesn't care about anything but his career, but he got the picture.
Leonard looked him over again. Kirk looked miserable, sweaty and pale, his brows furrowed. Hardly the Starfleet poster boy. "The results will be back soon," Leonard added in a softer tone. "Just rest there for a while."
The lab results arrived within minutes, just as he was finishing updating the cadet's chart. He felt a small thrill of satisfaction at the confirmation of his clinical instincts. After all, this was a rare disease, and he'd never actually encountered it before. "All right, Kirk, you've got—"
"Meningitis. I know, big surprise."
Leonard gave him an irritated look. "Kid, believe me, it is a surprise. This isn't just meningitis, it's Vegan choriomeningitis. You have a bacterial infection of the membrane surrounding the brain. That's causing the headache and fever. But you also have chorioretinitis, which is why your vision is blurry and the light hurts your eyes."
"Vegan choriomeningitis?" The shock was evident in his voice. "Like, from the Vega colony? How the hell could I get that?"
A generation or two ago, VCM had been a frightening epidemic, notoriously difficult to treat and often fatal. But the vaccine had been available for over thirty years, and there was a genetically engineered antibiotic that was proven effective. The kid was in for an unpleasant day or two, but the disease was no longer considered life-threatening.
Timing was the main thing. As long as the medication was administered within a few hours of the appearance of the petechial rash, it was almost always effective.
"The microbe has been on earth for over seventy years. A lot of people are carriers, even if they don't know it. But the thing is, most people are vaccinated these days."
Picking up the PADD again, he scanned through the report of Kirk's medical history. His early childhood immunization schedule was complete, but when he clicked on the later medical history, the links were nonresponsive. He scowled at the device—probably a technical glitch of some sort—and looked back up at Jim. "Says here you got the initial vaccination, but there's no record of the booster. Most kids get it at thirteen."
Kirk looked away. "Oh, well," he said in a low voice. "Guess that explains it."
That didn't explain anything, as far as Leonard was concerned, but it wasn't important now. "Well, damned if I know how you picked it up. You're just lucky that we caught it in time. If you'd waited even a few more hours, you'd be in real trouble. I'm going to start you on the standard treatment, and you should be back on your feet in a day or so."
Kirk perked up a bit. "I guess it's better that I caught it today and not two days from now, right? I can still make the transport."
Leonard snorted. "Yeah, lucky you."
He set up the antibiotic drip through the IV, and added another antipyretic. "We'll keep you under observation for the next twenty-four hours. One of the orderlies will take you up to the ward. I'll check on you in a few hours."
Kirk's eyes were already closing. "Thanks. I hate being sick," he said groggily. "Just get me out of here as soon as you can, okay?"
"We'll see how it goes."
Leonard shook his head. Kid couldn't wait to get to the stars. His first instincts had been right; they had nothing in common. It was just as well they'd parted ways.
Jim Kirk was just the type the recruiters were always looking for: young, idealistic, and picture-perfect, with those striking blue eyes and even white teeth. It only brought home how unsuited he was for work on a starship. He was too old, too set in his ways, and too cynical to go gallivanting around the stars, surrounded by bright-eyed kids like this.
Surly guy, Jim thought. Just as well they never met up with each other again until now.
He almost hadn't recognized the doctor—Bones, as he still thought of him—when he first walked in the exam room. Clean shaven, hair parted neatly to the side, looking aloof and composed, he was a far cry from the disheveled, wild-eyed passenger Jim had met on the shuttle.
Back then, Jim had felt that he'd met a kindred spirit, whose anger and bitterness leaked from every pore, who'd enlisted because he had nothing left to hold him back. Someone like him.
They'd shared a flask and laughed together about some of Jim's war stories, but then Bones had disappeared into medical registration and Jim had been swept up into six weeks of basic training. By the time he got back to the Academy, thinner and stronger but feeling no less out of place, the scruffy doctor was nowhere to be found.
Two years later, it was obvious that the man—not Bones anymore, but Doctor McCoy from the goddamn medical officers' training program—barely remembered Jim. Honestly, it was a little insulting. Maybe he only associated with other doctors. Or maybe he just didn't like Jim.
That wouldn't surprise him. Lots of people didn't like him. Hell, he couldn't even stand himself sometimes. He knew he came off as brash, cocky, even argumentative in class. But what was he supposed to do, hide his intellect? His brain just remembered things, soaked them up without trying, and he had a knack of being able to put things together in different ways, of seeing different angles. So he was great at tactics, engineering, and military history, but not so terrific at military discipline and kissing up to instructors.
He was so tired, even though he'd gotten plenty of sleep last night. And then today, having to be examined twice, first at the clinic and then at the hospital, and all those damn tests… He really felt like shit, achy and sick. He wanted to be in his own bed in his dorm, where he could get some real sleep, not in a hospital biobed.
The orderly pushed the anti-grav bed smoothly through the corridors. Jim felt a little dizzy, watching the ceiling move past. He was flat on his back, unable to judge where he was going. Definitely his least favorite way to go anywhere. And the doctor was right; his vision was blurry and had been all day. It hurt to look up at the lights.
There was a funny tingling in his belly, a growing sense of warmth that seemed to be spreading through his limbs. Maybe it was the effect of the drugs. He hoped they would be fast-acting. His headache was fading already, which was a relief.
But he was starting to feel hot, with a strange prickly sensation in his hands and feet. He raised his hand up to look at it, and he could see patches of red, raised skin all over his arms. And they itched.
Really itched, in fact. By the time his biobed was pushed into position in a small room on the General Medicine ward, he couldn't help scratching, just a little. Now his chest was itching too, even his back, and he couldn't reach it.
"A nurse will be along in a few minutes to check on you," the orderly told him, turning to leave.
Shit, now his stomach was cramping up. "Wait," Jim called. He tried to roll over onto his side, wanting to sit up, but his neck was stiff as a board, making his movements slow and awkward. "Help me up," he managed to grit out.
"You're not supposed to move yet. You just had a lumbar puncture."
"I'm going to—" He gagged, and the orderly, who at least was quick on the uptake, pushed him onto his side and snatched a bowl off the bedside table just as he started vomiting. He was gasping for air as his stomach emptied itself. The retching jarred his neck, shooting a spike of pain up into his head.
"Can you get me some water?" he asked, or tried to. It came out as more of a croak. His throat seemed to be swelling up. He coughed, trying to clear it. It felt like the itch on his skin was moving up his throat. He took a deep breath, but couldn't seem to get much air through his windpipe.
Something was very wrong. It was really getting harder to breathe, like his chest was tightening and his throat was closing up. Panic started creeping in as it became harder to draw a breath.
"Cadet Kirk?" the orderly asked, looking at him in concern. "Are you all right?"
"No," he wheezed. Wasn't that obvious?
An alarm began wailing from the biobed and a calm, computerized voice announced, "Code blue, respiratory distress." Distantly, he could hear the orderly calling for assistance.
"Can't breathe," Jim choked out, to no one in particular. He was hardly getting any air at all. Fuck, what the hell was happening to him? He grabbed at his throat, frantic, his heart pounding faster in his ears as his lungs burned.
Suddenly Jim's bed was surrounded by people, yelling out instructions, pushing him back down onto his back, and that was fine with him because he was getting really dizzy—
"Kirk!" McCoy was there, looming over him, looking very upset. "You're having an allergic reaction. Just stay calm. Damn it!"
Get me some air and I'll stay calm, he wanted to say, but he couldn't get any sound to come out of his throat.
He heard McCoy calling for epinephrine and tri-ox. Someone was placing a mask over his nose and mouth, and ouch, there was the hiss of a hypospray on his left thigh followed by an unpleasant burn. He could feel a slight tug on the IV as someone injected something into the line. He felt confused and overwhelmed, desperate for air, unable to make any sense out of the shouts around him.
And then, finally, his throat seemed to unclench and he was able to suck a little more air into his lungs. The panicky feeling began to subside, little by little, as he managed to draw regular breaths. He was still dizzy, like he was about to pass out, and couldn't really focus on what was being said around him.
One thing, though, he understood perfectly. As his eyes closed, he could hear McCoy's grumbling voice. "Well, that's a goddamn wrench in the works."
For a long, long time after that, Jim's world narrowed to the agony in his head.
He lay in the bed, alternately shivering and sweating, his muscles aching. If he moved at all, the pain would radiate out from his neck into his lower back and shoulders. But the nausea was almost more unbearable than the headache. His room was kept dark, and he tried to keep his eyes closed as much as possible. Even the slightest light or movement would cause the bile to rise in his throat. Vomiting with a headache like this was like a special torture thought up by a god who really, really hated him. So he had to lie there, unmoving, his headache an inescapable torment.
He drifted in and out. Occasionally, he was aware of other people in his room, talking in low voices that never really penetrated his haze of semi-consciousness.
Sometimes he felt someone laying a large, cool hand on his forehead, on the side of his neck, or on his arm. It was soothing, a comforting reminder that someone was there with him. Sometimes he felt the pinch-hiss of a hypospray. But nothing really helped.
Gradually, he came back to himself, knew where he was and why he was there. What he didn't know was how much time had passed, but he was pretty sure that it was more than a day or two.
He was seized by a churning anxiety. The Farragut… He had to get up, get back into action, but his head was still pounding and he could tell that if he tried to move, he'd regret it.
"Kirk, are you awake?" It was McCoy.
Jim grunted softly. Obviously the doctor knew that he was. The biobed showed everything on the screen above his head.
"Open your eyes."
"No," he mumbled. "If I do I'll puke."
"The lights are almost off. You'll be okay. I need to ask you something."
With a groan, Jim cracked his eyes open. He was in a small room by himself, a different one from where he'd been taken the first day. McCoy was sitting in a chair next to his bed, leaning forward, hands clasped loosely between his knees. In the dim light, the doctor looked disheveled and tired, with a shadow of beard lining his jaw.
It reminded Jim of the way he'd looked on the shuttle flight, and it made him smile a little, despite everything. He looked like Bones, who made Jim feel that maybe he hadn't made a mistake in enlisting because there were some cadets like him, older and rougher and cynical. But then Bones had hurried off to transform himself into a clean-cut Starfleet doctor who clearly wanted nothing to do with him, and Jim was left on his own.
"How're you feeling?"
Like someone's smashing my head with a hammer, he wanted to say, but couldn't muster the energy. "Like shit," he said instead. His voice was scratchy and his throat felt dry.
"Yeah, I know." McCoy’s tone was openly sympathetic, and that worried Jim. From what he'd seen on the shuttle and in the exam, grumpy was the doctor’s default operating mode. Jim must really be in a bad way if he was developing a bedside manner.
McCoy's next words only confirmed that theory. "Look, is there anyone I can call for you? Your Academy file lists your mother as your only family, but she's away."
Things were pretty dire if they were trying to locate his next of kin. And it wouldn't do any good, anyway. His mom was serving on a long-range mission on the John Glenn and wouldn't be back for over a year.
Jim tried to imagine how she'd react if she got an emergency call from Starfleet Medical that her son was deathly ill. God, please not that again. Once was enough for both of them.
"Don't tell my mom," he implored, looking up at McCoy's blurry face. "I don't want her to worry." Even if she left right away and found a convenient transport—not likely—she couldn't get back for months.
She probably wouldn't come, anyway. Not that he'd blame her. What would be the point of leaving her ship and trying to get back? His mother was nothing if not pragmatic. If he recovered, he wouldn't need her here, and she'd have travelled all that way for nothing. And if he died, she'd mourn him—he was reasonably sure of that—but she'd want to continue her mission. What else would she have in her life?
"Well, is there anyone else who could come? Another relative?"
Jim closed his eyes and sighed. No point in explaining about his brother, who'd left home when Jim was twelve, unable to tolerate the cold silence of the big farmhouse or Uncle Frank's old-fashioned methods of "discipline."
"Just me and my mom." Just Winona and Jim against the world… except that it was more like his mother and her career and her losses and her needs, and Jim as an afterthought.
"A good friend, maybe? Somebody who can sit here with you for a while…" McCoy trailed off as Jim exhaled loudly, wishing this conversation were over. It was a reasonable question, he supposed. Patients who were deathly ill should have families and close friends who could provide emotional support, sit with them and hold their hands, or something… He wasn't sure exactly, since he'd never experienced it.
"There's nobody," he said. The doctor looked troubled, which was just great. It wasn't bad enough that he had to lay here suffering, but he also had to admit that he was practically alone in the world. No, it was worse, because he had to say it to someone he'd originally seen as a potential friend. Humiliating.
"What about your roommate?"
"Hell no." He wasn't close enough to Dan Corrigan to want him at his bedside, not when he was feeling this bad. And his classmates…
Shit! "What day is it?"
"It's Sunday. You've been here five days."
Fuck, fuck, fuck…
The Farragut had left two days ago. Even if he'd wanted to see any of his classmates, they were all on their way to Axanar. Without him.
"Five days," he repeated bitterly. He couldn't quite believe it. How the hell had his life turned upside down so quickly? "What happened? I thought you said--"
"You had a severe allergic reaction to the antibiotics. You've been… really sick. We've been trying to keep your temperature stable and treat the infection with other medications, but they're not nearly as effective. Choriomeningitis is a tricky disease, and it's been one step forward, two steps back. But it looks like you've turned the corner. Your fever's down, and the bacterial infection seems to be—"
"I missed the Farragut," he said, as much to himself as to McCoy. He'd missed the shipboard training and the conference.
"Are you listening to me, kid? There'll be other ships. You're lucky to be alive." His tone implied that Jim should be grateful.
Well, fuck him, then. Lucky? Sure, this was just another example of the famous Kirk luck. His dad had had it, too… right up until he had to blow himself up just after Jim was born.
McCoy was still talking, explaining about his treatment—yeah, complicated, blah blah blah—and expected side effects (continued nausea and intestinal upset, wonderful) but Jim couldn't really concentrate on what he was saying. Didn't really care, either.
"My head's killing me," he said, interrupting the doctor mid-lecture. He was tired, so tired. "Go away."
Two days later, Jim was able to sit up in the bed without feeling like his head was exploding. The muscle aches were mostly gone and his vision was getting sharper, but the recovery was slow. He still couldn't eat much, and the farthest he'd managed to move from his bed on his own power was down the hall and back. Pathetic.
From his bed he could see down part of the corridor toward the nurse's station. He kept an eye on it because he liked to have a few seconds' warning before one of the medical staff came in. When he caught a glimpse of Captain Pike striding toward his room later that afternoon, he quickly pushed himself straighter in the bed and pulled the sheet up to his waist. He was uncomfortably aware that he was about to meet his advisor—who also happened to be the commandant of cadet training—in a hospital gown. Shit, his hair must be sticking up in all directions, but he didn't want to look even more ridiculous by trying to smooth it back.
He'd known that Pike would be along to see him sooner or later. Most other cadets had little contact with their academic advisors except for a perfunctory review of their class schedule once a semester. But Pike was different. He liked to call Jim in several times over the course of the year for no particular reason. They discussed what he was learning in his seminars, chatted about his extracurricular activities, even debated current events. Jim wasn't sure whether Pike did this for all the cadets he advised—did he even have other cadets to advise?—or because of Jim's family situation, but he didn't mind. After the first few times, he even began to enjoy their meetings. Pike was a brilliant commander who'd played a major role in the border skirmishes with the Klingon Empire in '48 and '49, and he knew how to tell a good story.
But this talk was clearly going to be different, and Jim felt his stomach clenching nervously as the captain approached.
"It's good to see you sitting up, Jim," Pike told him as he walked in, stopping at the end of the bed. He was smiling, but Jim thought he saw more than a hint of concern in his expression. "You're looking a lot better."
"Hello, sir. You mean… you were here before? I don't really remember…" Jim could feel the heat creeping up his cheeks. Great, that meant Pike had seen him moaning in pain and partly delirious. Just the sort of image he wanted his advisor to have.
"I was here twice, but I'm not surprised you don't remember. You were pretty sick. I was given daily updates on your condition."
Jim didn't really know what to reply to that. It hadn't really occurred to him that Pike—or anyone, for that matter—would care enough to come to see him. That wasn't usually the way things worked for him. "I appreciate that," he said awkwardly. "I'm feeling better."
"I understand that you're still suffering from headaches and dizziness."
"The headaches aren't as bad as they were. And I can move around some." Downplaying his symptoms was almost a reflex for him. He didn't like the idea of Pike thinking he was physically weak, and besides, he'd never been comfortable with open displays of sympathy. When he was growing up, the fine line between sympathy and pity had been crossed too many times for him to count.
So he launched into the topic that was, he knew, the real object of Pike's visit. "I know I missed the Farragut, sir. What happens now?"
"Actually, I'm glad you brought that up. I wanted to talk to you about it." Pike came around the bed, pulled up the chair, and sat down heavily. He's got bad news, Jim thought with a sinking feeling.
His mind flashed back to their first meeting, in the bar in Riverside. Pike had sat across from him, stern and composed in his charcoal-grey uniform, giving Jim an assessing look that seemed to pierce right through him, past his bloody nose, his black eye, and his sarcasm, directly to some hidden part of him that desperately wanted to be noticed. That instinct to leap without looking… Your aptitude tests are off the charts… If you're half the man your father was, Jim, Starfleet could use you.
He had a wild hope that the same thing would happen now, that Pike would have some miraculous plan in his back pocket, some alternative that would make everything all right. Pike was his advisor; he knew how desperately Jim wanted to succeed. He'd spent hours talking with him. He'd recruited him—dared him, whatever—because he sensed some special quality of leadership in him… didn't he?
"I'll be able to travel in about a week, I think," Jim said with as much confidence as he could muster. "Is there a transport I can catch?"
"I'm afraid you're going to have to change your plans, son," Pike told him, with a gentle tone that made Jim cringe inwardly. "I wish things had gone differently. But you picked the wrong time to get sick. You missed the shipboard training with your classmates, and even if there was a transport available, you'd arrive too late for the Axanar conference. So you won't be able to take part in any of the summer training for the command program." He shifted forward, looking Jim straight in the eye. "I've had to re-evaluate your entire program of studies."
Jim had been half-expecting it, but still, to hear Pike say the words was a crushing blow. He knew, beyond a doubt, that his Starfleet career had just derailed.
He cleared his throat, not wanting to ask, but unable to stop himself. "Does that mean I have to switch programs?"
"I'm sorry, I really am," Pike said, sounding like he genuinely regretted it, "but that's the easiest step for you at this point. I realize this is going to be a big change, but you have to be open to other options. I know you wanted command, but you've got aptitude in engineering and communications. Security's a good choice too. Choose another focus, take a few extra courses, and you can still graduate with your classmates in two years."
Choose another focus. As simple as that.
(Four years? I'll do it in three, he'd told Pike as he boarded the shuttle. Arrogant idiot… Why'd he have to open his big fucking mouth and ask for trouble?)
"Please," he heard himself saying, feeling remote and hollow, "isn't there something else I can do this summer, some alternate assignment?"
Pike glanced up at the readout on the biobed monitor above his head. Jim knew his pulse was racing, and Pike could obviously see the signs of his rising stress on the screen. "Let's wait until you're feeling a little better to discuss your next assignment. You're still recovering. There's plenty of time to—"
"No." He tried to keep the turmoil he was feeling out of his expression, but a muscle was jumping in his jaw. "Sir, I want to discuss it now. Whatever they're learning on the Farragut and at Axanar, I can make it up! Why should I be punished for something that's not my fault?"
Pike sighed. "You're looking at this the wrong way. You're not being punished, and I know it's not your fault that you got sick. But think for a minute. Suppose I let you rejoin your classmates in the fall, finish out the command track program even though you've missed a crucial segment. Let's say I send you on some extra training sims, and you add a course or two…"
"I'll do it! Whatever you say, I swear. Just let me stay…" Jim's voice died off as he saw the finality in Pike's eyes.
"I'm going to tell you something now, Jim, not as your advisor, but as head of cadet training." His voice was low and calm, and his gaze was firm. "The point of your field training this summer was to see how you function under stress, in less than optimal conditions, in the various roles you'd experience. No simulator can substitute for a real-life shipboard experience. As a commander, I can tell you that I'd be doubtful of taking on an untried cadet – and that'll hurt you further in your field training next summer. You won't get the best placements, maybe not even the second-best ones."
"I don't care," Jim insisted, but he was beginning to feel less certain.
"I care, and so should you. By the time you graduate, you'll be in the bottom half of the class, no matter how good your grades are. In the end, I wouldn't be doing you any favor by waiving this requirement. I'd be sinking your career."
He couldn't even look at Pike, not wanting him to see how devastated he felt. All his hard work, wasted. His dream gone. And all because no one noticed that he’d missed a stupid vaccination when he was thirteen.
As if everything else that happened that year wasn't enough.
"It's not fair," he mumbled.
"It's not a question of fairness. Starfleet is a military organization, and you're a resource. You may think that it's command or nothing, but Starfleet can use an officer of your talents in a variety of positions." Pike smiled slightly, obviously trying to be encouraging. "I want you to really try to understand this. We try to take your desires into account, but at the end of the day, you'll go where Starfleet needs you. And after you get used to the idea, you'll see that there are many ways to have a meaningful service."
"But I want to command," Jim said helplessly, knowing that he must sound petulant. "I have top grades in all my classes…"
Pike nodded. "I'm aware of that. You have tremendous potential, Jim, and it's not limited to one field. If you retrain in a different specialty, you can get yourself onto one of the Constitution-class starships with an exploratory mission. Better that than to find yourself third-in-command on a cargo ship carrying supplies to the colonies."
Supplies to the colonies… Gooseflesh prickled up his arms, and he fought to keep his face expressionless. Pike clearly didn't attach any special meaning to that innocuous phrase, but he was too frustrated and upset to rein in his reaction. "For the people on the colonies," he said, unable to keep the resentment out of his voice, "getting the supplies there on time is pretty important. Sir."
Pike sighed. "That's not what I meant. That's not the kind of vessel you want, and you know it. I'm just pointing out that there are other ways to achieve your goals. And in my opinion, at this point, you'll be able to contribute more to Starfleet in another capacity."
"Isn't there something you can find for me, Captain, that would let me stay in the command program?" He tried to keep his voice level, so it wouldn't seem like he was begging. But he was.
"You don't have to transfer out of command. There's another option, although I don't advise you to take it." Pike was clearly reluctant. "You can take a medical leave. It's not really warranted in your case, but I won't fight you on it if that's what you decide. You'd have to delay your training for a full year. Come back next summer and join the next round of third-year cadets for their summer training, and you can pick up again where you left off."
Leave for a year, and go… where, exactly? To Riverside and the empty farmhouse, with his tail between his legs? Be the town fuck-up again, spend his nights getting drunk and fighting, and listen to his Uncle Frank tell him what a waste of air he was? Or he could find a job - a legal one this time - and count the hours until he could come back to the Academy. Maybe go on some pointless trek to South America or the Himalayas, looking for an adrenaline high that would tide him over. Then come back a year later, just in time to see his friends getting ready for their final postings, while he'd be trying to compete with a new, younger set of classmates, even more of an outsider than he was before.
He was honest enough to admit it to himself: if he left Starfleet now, he'd never find his way back. "No," he said, in a tone of defeat. "I'm not leaving."
"Good man." After a pause, Pike said, "Security's heading out for their summer field training on Vulcan in two weeks. Anti-grav maneuvers, desert survival skills. I'll send you out with them, if you want."
He tried it out in his mind: Jim Kirk, security officer. His uncle would find that pretty ironic, with his arrest record. You're heading for a lifetime lockup, Jim, and don't count on me to bail you out.
For a moment, he envisioned hiking through a stark desert landscape, lying for hours on the hot red dirt with a phaser rifle trained on a distant target. A glorified security guard, that's what he would be. His Academy experience would narrow to weapons training, surveillance, Federation law enforcement, self-defense, tactics…
He swallowed, feeling disconnected from himself and the whole situation."Not security. I'll take engineering, I guess." He was good at math and mechanics, understood machines and electronics. It would be more of an intellectual challenge than security, at least.
Pike nodded in approval. "That's a good choice for you and a valuable career path. Believe me, there's plenty of room for advancement as an engineer, and it's a vital position on a ship. Engineers have saved my life and the lives of my crew more times than I can count."
Jim just nodded, not trusting his voice. Pike was trying to be kind, but there was nothing he could really say to make this better.
Stuck in the bowels of the ship from now on. What a fucking appropriate metaphor.
"In that case… look, Jim, I know it's not much, but there's a ship going out to Starbase 11 and back, leaving in about ten days. You should be cleared for duty by then. I'll put you on the roster. You can join the engineering crew."
"Yes, sir," he said woodenly.
A line from a poem he'd read once, from a very old book, popped into his head: "All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost."
Perfect. Now his subconscious was quoting Tolkien. Maybe it was trying to make sure he got the message: no command gold for you, buddy. He'd be a redshirt from now on.
"Get some practical experience on the Atlantis," Pike said. "It's a small cruiser used for personnel transport. Clear out of here for the summer. It'll do you good."
Jim could only nod in miserable agreement, feeling bone-deep weary. Bad timing, bad luck, and bad choices. Story of his life.
An engineer. Goddamn it all to hell.
Ducking his head through the low doorway of the shuttle, a small travel case in his hand and his field medkit slung over his shoulder, Leonard couldn't help feeling a sense of déjà vu. And not in a good way.
On the surface, at least, things had changed since he'd climbed onto the recruiting shuttle in Iowa. Then he'd been drunk and bitter, his wounds from the divorce still raw, his personal hygiene reflecting his general state of apathy at the time. Now, he looked the part of a proud Starfleet cadet, in the hideous red uniform, hair cut to the standard length and his jaw freshly shaved.
But some things hadn't changed. He still felt the same visceral gnawing in the pit of his gut that he'd felt two years before, the same feeling that his life was being pushed in a direction that he didn't want by forces beyond his control. Then he'd been hung over and still half drunk, with his hip flask at the ready… the same flask that was safely tucked away into the side compartment of his travel case, within easy reach.
His life had come full circle, all right, just enough to bite him in the ass. Two years ago, the shuttle ride had been a short cross-country hop to San Francisco, where he could delude himself that he was just changing jobs and undergoing a little professional retraining. Now he was boarding a shuttle that would take him up to an interstellar cruiser, where he'd spend the next two months learning about the joys of space food and artificial gravity.
Fuck my life.
The Atlantis, he knew, would be carrying forty-five men and women to their new posts, in addition to the regular crew complement of thirty-six. Some of the passengers—all Starfleet officers—would be travelling only as far as the Deneva colony, while the rest would continue on to Starbase 11. At that point the Atlantis would head out to Proxima and Centauri VII to pick up more Starfleet personnel before finally returning to earth. Seven weeks in all. Leonard's job would be to join the medical staff – another doctor and two nurses – in whatever capacity would be necessary over the duration of the trip.
The shuttle was small and crowded. There was just one seat left, toward the back. Stepping down the narrow aisle, Leonard could see that the cadet sitting next to the empty seat was turned away, staring out the window. As he got closer, the man turned forward and their eyes met.
"I don't believe it," Leonard muttered to himself, dropping into the seat. "Kirk, what the hell are you doing here?"
Kirk looked at least as surprised as he was. "Doc! You're headed up to the Atlantis too?"
Leonard pushed his travel case awkwardly into the small space in front of his legs. Why were these shuttles so damn cramped? "Well, I'm not here for the view," he grumbled.
"Right, I guessed that." Kirk's initial smile of greeting had faded, and Leonard felt a stab of guilt. Be nice, for God's sake, he told himself. He wasn't in a social mood, but he did feel a certain kinship with the man, after everything that had happened.
"This is my summer placement," Leonard offered. "Not my first choice, is all."
"Yeah, I hear you," Kirk said. "Pretty ironic, huh? The two of us?"
Leonard snorted. "Just like old times. Except this time we're going in the opposite direction. What about you—trying to get to Axanar?" Kirk might be able to catch a transport at Starbase 11, but he'd be making a big detour.
Kirk gave a bitter laugh. "No. I'm doing field training on the Atlantis."
"Me, too. Working in the sickbay." Leonard rolled his eyes. "Caring for eighty healthy Starfleet officers. Should be a real challenge."
"You don't sound too excited about it."
Leonard scowled. "Never said I wanted to serve on a starship. But you don't look very happy to be here, either. You're on a ship, going to see the stars. Wasn't that what you wanted, Mr. Command Track?"
A shadow seemed to cross Kirk's face, and he turned again toward the window. "Yeah," he said, sounding bleak. "It was."
He didn't seem inclined to elaborate, so Leonard let it go. Who knew, maybe the bout with an alien microbe had made him less eager to leave his home planet.
It was a short flight up to the ship, held in orbit in Starfleet's enormous docking bay. Kirk seemed fascinated by the view from the window.
Despite his own sour mood, Leonard found himself trying to engage Kirk in conversation. "I have to admit that you spiced up my routine at the hospital, kid. Spent so many hours worrying about you these past few weeks, I'm ready for a little vacation." That was true enough, although what he really needed was a relaxing vacation on some beach, not a boring clinic job on a deep-space cruiser. "I gotta say, you scared us all. It was touch and go for a while."
Kirk's expression was grim. "It wasn't much of a picnic for me, either."
That was surely the understatement of the year. Leonard wasn't his primary physician—infectious diseases weren't his area of expertise—but he felt a responsibility to check on the Kirk's progress as often as he could. The cadet had turned out to be allergic not only to the accepted treatment for Vegan choriomeningitis, but upon testing, they found that he was also hypersensitive to three major classes of antibiotics. Managing his symptoms was a frustrating process of trial and error.
The medical staff was eventually able to find a combination that was moderately effective against the infection and the fever, but Kirk's system was too overloaded to handle a high level of analgesia. Which meant, unfortunately, that he suffered the full brunt of the disease, and there'd been nothing much his doctors could do to alleviate it.
Leonard could still see him, in his mind's eye, huddled under the blanket on his side, eyes half-open in the dim light of the hospital room. He was in so much pain from the bacterial infection that even Leonard, who was not usually affected by patients voicing their discomfort, could hardly stand to watch him. Kirk would lie still as death for hours, moaning softly to himself, fingers clenched in the sheets.
It hurt just to be in the same room as him, but Leonard was drawn there, stopping by for a few minutes during his lunch breaks and sitting with him for an hour at the end of his shifts. He seemed to have no one else. As far as he knew, Kirk received no visitors at all. The nurses were too busy to sit with him for very long, and Leonard couldn't bear to think of him lying there alone in such distress.
He wasn't sure why the kid's situation had such an effect on him. He didn't usually get emotionally involved with his patients. He was a surgeon, after all, mostly concerned with patients' urgent physical needs, and that was it. He really didn't know Kirk. He was just a patient, and they weren't friends.
Maybe it had something to do with Kirk's defiant insistence that he had nobody close enough to call on when he was so ill. He didn't completely buy it, but it made him think about his own situation.
If it were him instead of Kirk, who, really, would be willing to sit with him? He had his mother, of course, but she was getting on in years, and the last thing he'd want would be for her to get a comm in the middle of the night saying that he was on his deathbed. There was his cousin Michael and his aunt and uncle, but they'd gone to live in Nigeria when he was nine and he barely knew them anymore. As for Joss—well, that was out of the question now. And out of all his former classmates and colleagues, there wasn't one who was that kind of friend.
If it were him, he'd want somebody there with him, someone who cared whether he lived or died. So he'd taken on that role for the cadet, even though he didn't think the kid even knew he was there, most of the time.
For that matter, he didn't know if Kirk really understood how close he'd been to dying, and Leonard wasn't going to tell him. But it was a huge relief to look at him here, back in his cadet uniform, still a little pale but basically healthy. Seeing him discharged and rated fit for duty was almost as satisfying as performing a complicated surgery.
"Guess I should thank you, actually," Leonard said. Kirk looked back at him in surprise. "Never saw a case of Vegan choriomeningitis before. I'm a trauma surgeon, but you really gave me a refresher course in allergies and infectious diseases."
Kirk gave a cynical laugh. "Well, glad to be of help. At least one of us got something out of it."
Leonard couldn't believe it. "What the hell is that supposed to mean? You're alive, and you made a complete recovery! No vision problems, no loss of motor function, no cognitive impairment! You got your life back."
"Not really. I missed the Farragut. I didn't go to Axanar…"
"Well, that's just too bad"—you ungrateful, spoiled kid!—"but so what? You're here, you're in training, and you can hear all about the damn conference when you get back."
Kirk didn't say anything, just nodded. A glint of liquid flashed in the corner of his eye, and he brushed it away angrily.
Leonard looked away, giving Jim some time to collect himself. Might be post-illness depression, he thought, making a note to monitor it. Come to think of it, Kirk had seemed subdued and introverted in his last few days in the hospital—actually, uncommunicative was more like it—but Leonard hadn't paid much attention at the time, assuming that he was irritable because of the lingering headache. Maybe he should have asked for a psychiatric consult…
Once they got onboard, he could check whether Kirk's psych profile showed an untreated mood disorder. A few rounds of noraxtine or fluoventil would probably take care of that.
The shuttle was already decelerating, sliding smoothly into the docking port of the Atlantis. Leonard sighed. Time to get on with it. He gathered his bag and his medkit, then turned back to Kirk.
Whatever had been bothering him before, it didn't show now on his face. The bleak look was gone. Kirk's eyes were clear and his expression was calm, although it seemed a little… lifeless. "See you on board," he told Leonard, reaching out a hand. "Good luck."
"Sure. You too." He hesitated, then clasped Kirk's hand firmly. "Come by sickbay if you need anything." He turned and headed down the aisle as everyone disembarked, aware of Kirk's footfalls behind him.
Truthfully, he hoped Kirk wouldn't take that as a social invitation. He was a patient, not a friend, and anyway, Leonard had no real desire to spend his off-hours trying to cheer the kid up or listening to his spoiled complaints about missing Axanar.
To Leonard's relief, Kirk stayed away. They saw each other occasionally at meals, where Kirk sat with a group of engineers, but he never approached Leonard. From what he could see, Kirk seemed relaxed and engaged, talking with the crewmen and gesturing animatedly. To reassure himself, he checked Kirk's psych profile, but there was no predisposition toward depression or mood disorders. Leonard stopped worrying.
The sickbay routine kept him fairly busy working long shifts. The first week, more than half of the passengers needed to be treated for adjustment difficulties, mostly digestive problems and headaches as they got used to shipboard food and recycled air. An engineer broke his leg falling off a walkway, and another needed to be treated for chemical burns. The officers who would be stationed on Deneva needed up-to-date physicals and vaccinations.
It was exactly what he'd expected the work to be: tedious and routine. Any general practitioner—hell, any resident—could handle it. But if he had to do it for more than a few weeks, he was sure that his skills would atrophy and he'd die of boredom.
He spent most evenings on his own, reading in the officers' lounge or in his quarters, which he shared with a junior lieutenant from the astrolab. They were rarely off duty during the same shifts, so for the most part, he had the room to himself. That suited him fine. He wasn't an outgoing type, even in the best of circumstances, and he didn't see the need to put in the energy to make friends when he was only going to be on the ship for a few weeks.
Puri would surely disapprove. "A shipboard physician needs to get to know the crew outside of the sickbay," he'd told Leonard. "Observe the way they interact, let them see you as someone approachable."
"I'll keep that in mind," he'd said, thinking that Puri probably got that little pearl of wisdom out of some Starfleet memo on how to be a successful CMO. Hell, he'd probably written the memo himself…
After they left Deneva, dropping off twenty-five of their passengers, there was a lull in the work, and Leonard belatedly remembered his intention to check up on Kirk. He scheduled an appointment for him during his next duty shift, sending the message to the cadet's comm.
Kirk showed up in sickbay as ordered, looking harried and impatient. "What's this about, doc? I'm in the middle of my shift."
"Just a post-illness checkup," Leonard said. "And it's convenient for me, so we're doing it now."
The exam itself was quick. The bioscans showed that Kirk's meninges were clear, and his movements were unrestricted, although his arm and leg muscles showed evidence of microtrauma to the muscle fibers and the beginnings of inflammation. "Been doing a lot of exercising?"
"Sure, most evenings for an hour or two."
"You need to take it easy."
"Gotta build myself back up." He gave a self-deprecating laugh. "Even engineers need to keep in shape."
Leonard frowned. "Wasn't looking for an argument. You've got some signs of overexertion."
Kirk's jaw tightened, and he looked away. "Fine," he muttered.
Leonard examined his eyes, and was glad to see that the choroid and retina showed no residual inflammation. "I've been meaning to ask you, why is it that you never got the vaccine booster?"
"How the hell should I--" Kirk caught himself, and lowered his tone. "I don't know. I was just a kid."
"It's usually done in school, as part of the health program."
Kirk's eyes darkened. "Guess I was absent that day."
Leonard wasn't sure what to make of Kirk's attitude. Maybe the sickbay was an uncomfortable reminder of his hospital stay. He changed the subject, hoping to get a better assessment of his mood and psychosocial functioning. "How's the field training going?"
Kirk shrugged. "It's fine. I don't mind the job. I've always liked machines, taking them apart and seeing how they work. It's actually kind of fun to work on a ship like this, because it's a little older and things tend to break down. So we have lots to do."
"I've seen you with the engineering crew. You guys seem to have hit it off."
Kirk laughed. "They're all right. They think I'm a little green, and maybe I am, but I'm learning. And anyway, I don't know anybody else on board." He said it without guile, then paused, as if realizing that Leonard was, in fact, someone he knew.
Covering up the awkward moment, Leonard asked, "Why've they stuck you in engineering? I thought you'd be doing bridge rotations, helm, communications, all that stuff."
Kirk's face fell. "It's an engineering assignment. That's all."
Leonard raised an eyebrow. "Thought you command types needed to know about all the different ship functions."
Kirk looked away briefly, then looked back at Leonard, straightening his shoulders. "I'm not in command track anymore."
Leonard was shocked. "What?"
"I had to transfer to engineering because I missed the summer training." Kirk's voice caught slightly, and he paused. When he continued, his voice still held traces of tension. "This trip is just to give me something to do. I have to take some remedial courses in the fall."
"They kicked you out of the command program? But it's not your fault you were sick. There must be something you can do, some other assignment! You can't just give up."
It came out almost like an accusation, and Jim's lips tightened. "That's not the way it works."
Shit, no wonder Kirk had looked so depressed on the shuttle. Leonard cringed inwardly, remembering his sarcastic words (You're on a ship, going to see the stars. Isn't that what you wanted, Mr. Command Track?), how he told Kirk that he could "hear all about the conference" from the other cadets when he got back.
God, the kid must think he was an insensitive ass.
"Where's Captain Pike in all this? He's head of cadet training. You should try to contact him, ask him to—"
"Pike's my advisor. He explained it to me himself, back when I was in the hospital. Believe me, there's nothing I can do." Leonard recalled, with another jolt of guilt, how quiet and moody Kirk had suddenly become in the last few days of his hospitalization. He must have known then that he was being booted from the program, although he hadn't said anything.
And to be honest, why should he? Leonard certainly hadn't encouraged any kind of personal relationship. It irked him that he'd ignored a patient's blatant signals of distress, especially one who didn't seem to have anyone else to talk to.
"Tell Pike you want… I don't know, a hearing, or something…"
"The only option I have, if I want to stay in command, is to take medical leave for a year. And I'm not going to do that. There's nothing for me to go back to in Iowa." Leonard gave him a questioning look, but didn't say anything. "Pike said something to me," Jim said quietly, "and he's right. Starfleet has the final say in where I go and what I do. I knew that when I enlisted."
"You have to fight this."
"I can't. I missed a critical part of command training." Kirk shrugged. "It's not what I wanted, not at all, but I've accepted it." He seemed to sense Leonard's skepticism, because he said determinedly, "Look, I have to make the best of it. I need to do some catching up, but I like engineering. It's challenging and I like the physical aspect. I'm not the kind of guy who can sit behind a desk all day."
So, not a spoiled kid after all, but someone who was trying to put the best face he could on what had to be a crushing disappointment.
"Well, that's a tough break," Leonard said. "But you've got the right attitude."
Kirk gave a short, bitter laugh. "Ad astra per aspera, and all that."
To the stars through hardships… the Starfleet motto. There was a pause while Leonard thought it over. He'd never paid much attention to it before, but now the phrase took on a new meaning. Kirk's words were pulling at the cold knot of fury that had been twisting in his gut since his talk with Puri… loosening it, just a bit. His anger at Puri was beginning to seem juvenile. What did he really think would happen when he joined the military? If there was anyone to blame here, it was himself… and what good would it do to keep beating himself up over it? They were going to send him where they wanted, whether he liked it or not. Might as well face up to the fact.
"Guess you're right about that," he conceded. "Starfleet seems pretty set on sending me to the stars, and I'm not going to have much say in it. I've been doing my best to land a planetside position, but my advisor doesn't seem to think my plans are very relevant. I'm on the Atlantis to get some experience as a shipboard medical officer."
Kirk just shook his head, then laughed. "Maybe you should have told your advisor that you have aviophobia."
"Probably wouldn't have helped," he said, although not without a twinge of regret. "Aviophobia's treatable."
"Oh, I don't know about that…" Kirk grinned. "I could probably give you some pointers on not following the doctor's orders. That's sort of a specialty of mine."
"Why does that not surprise me." Leonard rolled his eyes. "But I think it's a little late for that, anyway."
"Probably right, doc. So, can I go now?" Kirk hopped down from the biobed. "Gotta get back to the job. Transporter coil's on the fritz again."
"Hang on." Leonard busied himself updating Kirk's chart, observing him surreptitiously. Kirk was leaning against the bed, his fingers tapping an impatient rhythm against it.
"Physically you're doing as well as I'd expect, but you've been exercising too much. Stay out of the gym for the next two days, and then come back gradually, three times a week at the most, and not more than an hour at a time. You're still recovering from a major illness."
"Come on, you can't take away my one and only social outlet. There's nothing to do on this ship after shift besides hit the gym and watch old vids!"
Hoping he wasn't going to regret it, Leonard said, "Why don't you come by my quarters tonight. I've got a good bottle of Woodford Reserve and I've been waiting for an excuse to break it out."
Kirk looked at him hesitantly, as if he wasn't sure Leonard meant it. "You're inviting me over for a drink?"
"Guess I am."
A slow smile spread across his face, the first genuine smile Leonard had seen from him. "Took you long enough… Bones."
Jim noticed things. Most people seemed to take one look at him and decide he was completely wrapped up in himself—he wasn't sure why, whether it was his looks, his swagger, or his reputation—but the truth was, he was observant, and he paid attention to details.
Bones, he saw, drank his bourbon straight. No ice, no frills, just authentic Kentucky whiskey that he served to Jim in a set of real glasses that he took out of a velvet-lined leather case. Jim liked the feel and weight of the antique glass in his hand, with its pinched waist and tapering neck, so unlike the cheaper polycryll glasses that he was used to. Bones sipped slowly, taking the time to savor the aroma, twisting the glass in his hand to catch the dim room lighting.
Maybe this was a southern thing, Jim thought. Or maybe Bones just had an affinity for sensual pleasures and old traditions. He obviously liked things his way, and was willing to spend money on the things that mattered to him. It was a far cry from Jim's own unsophisticated drinking habits, which, he hated to admit, he'd picked up from his uncle. Jim drank beer when he wanted to relax and straight shots of Jack Daniels when he wanted to get drunk fast.
He stared down at the drink in his hands, uncomfortably aware of the silence between them and feeling the need to fill it somehow. He wasn't nervous, exactly, but still… it was a little awkward. He really didn't know McCoy—Bones—beyond the brief interaction with him on the shuttle, and then later as a grumpy-but-concerned doctor. Why should it matter to him if they became friends? But he couldn't shake the first feeling he'd had two years ago, that Bones was a kindred soul, someone he could connect with. Someone who, like him, had left behind something dark in his past to come to Starfleet.
Trouble was, Jim didn't have much experience in making real friends. He had no problem finding drinking buddies or hooking up with someone for the night, but he didn't really know how to go about making acquaintances into friends. He had the feeling that friendship with Bones would involve some mutual, honest revelations about who they were and what they'd both been through. He wasn't sure he was ready to do that.
"So, how's the work in sickbay?" Jim asked, trying to sound casual. "As boring as you thought it would be?"
Bones snorted. "Boring? Hell yes. I spend every shift administering vaccinations and hoping someone will wander in with a hangnail."
Jim grinned. "I guess giving me a physical was the highlight of your day, then."
"Don't flatter yourself, it wasn't that exciting. Most of what I'm doing, I could do in my sleep. Or one of the nurses could do it."
"So, take it easy for a few weeks," Jim suggested, but Bones, it seemed, was just getting started on his rant.
"I joined Starfleet to have access to best medical facilities and opportunities for research. But this? The osteostim equipment is ten years out of date. The med labs are the size of this cabin and about as sanitary. God forbid I should actually have to perform microsurgery on this boat, because the facilities are nonexistent! And don't even get me started on the state of the auxiliary sickbay." He glared at Jim, as if challenging him to bring up the topic.
Jim nodded and plastered a sympathetic look on his face while he took a sip of his drink. The doctor seemed undaunted by Jim's lack of response and went on for another few minutes about the skills of his co-workers, which he seemed to think were abysmal. Finally, casting a dark look in Jim's direction, he added, "And don't even get me started on the digestive problems! Every other crewman on this goddamn boat is so backed up, it's a wonder they can sit through a full shift. I swear, I've treated so many cases of constipation from all this soy-based protein, I've been thinking of programming a dose of laxative into the food synthesizer. It'll save time."
"Wait, what did you say?" Jim stared at Bones' scowling expression, unsure how to read it. He personally had no desire for a case of the runs, even if the ship's doctor thought that it was medically advisable. "Seriously?"
Bones rolled his eyes. "No, of course not seriously. Do I look like a sociopath to you? I'm a doctor!"
Good one, Jim. "Just making sure," he said. "Uh, obviously you weren't serious." Bones grunted and slumped back in his chair, tipping his glass back.
Swirling the amber liquid around in his own glass, Jim found himself caught up in the logistics of Bones' bogus plan. A laxative in the food synthesizers… It would be a great prank, actually. The mechanical aspects presented an interesting problem, and his hacking instincts were intrigued. "You know," he said slowly, "technically speaking, it wouldn't really be very hard. For an engineer, that is." He'd need to do a little research to find a chemical compound that could be administered safely in small doses…
"What are you talking about?"
"Laxatives in the food," Jim said absently, caught up in the problem. "Food processing technology isn't too reliable, you know. Something that tastes a little off won't necessarily raise questions. On this ship, it wouldn't be too hard to bypass the security system on the main engineering computer. You couldn't get near it in engineering, but there's a backup system on the auxiliary bridge. That's usually off limits, but there's an access tube there you could use, and I know somebody in computer maintenance. I could probably get him to… " His voice trailed off, as he realized that Bones was giving him a strange look, partly amused and partly appalled. "I mean, I'm just speaking hypothetically," Jim said hastily. "I wouldn't really do it."
"Right." Bones sounded skeptical. "Sounds like you have experience in this sort of activity."
Jim felt his cheeks flush. "No! Well," he amended, "not exactly, it's just… I may or may not have done something similar in my misspent youth." He paused. "Possibly."
Bones frowned. "You may or may not have done it? Make up your mind, kid."
"Well, it was a long time ago," he hedged. "And it didn't involve a laxative." Actually, he'd hacked into the cafeteria processors in the Iowa Juvenile Detention Center, and it involved non-toxic food coloring, but he didn't think Bones needed to know the details. He probably was already convinced that Jim was some kind of petty criminal.
"Jim," Bones said sharply, "I was only joking. Don't get any crazy ideas."
"Relax, Bones. I like an intellectual challenge, that's all. Besides, I'm an engineer now, gotta look for the weaknesses in the system."
Bones rolled his eyes. "Go anywhere near the food processors, and you'll be feeling some weakness in your own digestive system, believe me. Don't even get me started on the bowel problems you can cause with a laxative overdose."
"I'll keep that in mind." Jim sipped the amber liquid, enjoying the pleasant burn. "Anyway, you're the one who brought it up."
"It's called sarcasm."
"Never heard of it."
"Better get used to it, kid. It's the southern dialect."
Jim shrugged. "I'm from Iowa, remember? These nuances are lost on me."
"Right, I keep forgetting that you hail from that intellectual paradise."
Jim smirked, raising his glass in a mock toast. "Damn straight. So anyway, I get it that you're a little bored. But it's kind of exciting anyway, don't you think? We're out here in deep space. Anything could happen."
"That's exactly the point. I don't want to be out here whenever anything comes along. I can practice medicine just fine in San Francisco, in safety and comfort."
"Hey, where's your sense of adventure? You could find a new deadly virus." Jim thought that might appeal to a doctor, but Bones looked horrified at the prospect. "Or a new alien life form."
The corners of Bones' mouth turned down into a scowl. "Damn it, stop spouting drivel like a recruitment officer. Believe me, I got plenty of excitement at work right there on the ground at Starfleet Medical. You know, it's not all about treating dumb cadets who didn't have the sense to get themselves vaccinated."
"That wasn't my fault!"
Bones waved a hand in dismissal. "Shut up. The point is, I'm a trauma surgeon. I treat life-threatening injuries. I save lives on a daily basis. I'm not looking for another kind of thrill."
Jim rocked his chair back, balancing it precariously against the wall. "Okay, you're a superhero in scrubs. Must be annoying when you swoop down to save a dumb cadet and he turns out to be allergic to the only available treatment."
"That was my kind of intellectual challenge, kid. You only became annoying when you regained consciousness and started griping."
Jim ignored the barb. "Fine, I get it. You hate space travel, your talents are wasted. What the hell are you doing in Starfleet, then?"
Bones was quiet for a minute, sipping his drink. "I wanted a fresh start, that's all. My father died two years ago, after a hard illness. My wife miscarried around the same time… We started to fight, and eventually got a divorce." He shook his head. "It wasn't a good situation. I was alone, started drinking in the evenings… I just didn't like where I was headed. So I took a leave of absence."
"And joined the service?"
"Well… not right away. My daddy had been a country doctor with a small community practice. I thought I could do that. Less hassle, no more hospital politics. I took a job in a small practice near Kalona—"
Jim blinked. "Kalona, Iowa? You moved to Iowa on purpose to try out small-town living?"
Bones looked offended. "What's wrong with that?"
"Nothing," he said, trying to keep the cynicism out of his voice. "The grass is always greener, right?" Maybe the doctor was looking for peace and quiet and clean air, but in his experience, rural towns were conservative backwaters where gossip and ignorance were the local produce.
"I needed a change," Bones said, sounding embarrassed. "I didn't really think it through."
"Well, you're here, so I'm guessing you got fed up with Amish home remedies and dumb hicks who managed to get themselves mangled in the farm equipment."
Bones' laugh was tinged with bitterness. "Let's just say that between the tornadoes and the blizzards and the debt I was racking up after the divorce settlement, I was ready to leave by the time Captain Pike swung by. He was convincing and the conditions seemed good, so I signed the papers." Bones swirled the remains of his drink in the glass. "But I don't remember putting my signature on anything that said I had to do it on a flying sardine can."
Jim laughed, then gestured at the small room, with its single bed, tiny desk, and chair. "You think this is bad? Believe me, you've got first class accommodations. You should see where they put me and the other engineering grunts. Six to a room, but just two beds. We hot bunk."
Bones shuddered. "That's damned unsanitary and a potential breeding ground for infectious diseases." He cocked his head to the side, looking at Jim curiously. "So what were you doing before you enlisted?"
"Getting into trouble, mostly." Shit, he thought, that was a little too honest. Maybe Bones' bourbon was stronger than he was used to. He laughed to show he wasn't serious. "Uh, nothing major, just a few arrests…" Bones' eyebrows flew up but he didn't say anything, so Jim stumbled on. "A few drunk and disorderlies, that sort of thing."
"And some hacking and security breaches, I'm guessing."
"Never got caught for that," he said, straight-faced. "Not that I'm admitting anything. But I grew up in Riverside. My mom has a farm there. It's been in the family for generations."
"A working farm? I saw a few of those in Kalona… Must have been hard for your mother, as a single mom."
Jim nodded. "My uncle lived with us. Still does. He's the one who's kept it going all these years." Leonard was looking at him quizzically, and Jim remembered, with a jolt of unease, that he'd told the doctor that he had no relatives besides his mother. Please, don't ask, he thought.
But Bones was apparently terrible at mind-reading. "Your uncle," he repeated, as if considering the information. "I take it your father was never in the picture…?"
"You're kidding, right?" Bones' blank look seemed genuine. "Come on, you read my medical file."
"I don't remember reading anything about your father in your file."
"The Kelvin," Jim prodded. Bones couldn't be that uninformed. Everybody knew about his father and the Kelvin… didn't they?
"What does the Kelvin have to do with…" Bones looked at him sharply, brows furrowed. "Wait, you were treated for radiation exposure as an infant. I remember reading that in your medical history, but I didn't really think much of it… Was your father on the ship when it was attacked?"
"Bones," Jim said patiently, "my father captained the ship. He was—"
"Wait, I heard about this…" Bones' brow was furrowed, as if he were trying to remember something. "The acting captain took over when his commander was killed on the enemy ship, and then his wife gave birth while he—" He gave Jim a questioning glance.
--while he crashed the ship and blew himself to pieces, Jim finished in his mind. The doctor must think it would be indelicate to say it out loud. "That's right. Lieutenant George Kirk. I was born on one of the escape shuttles. You really didn't know?"
Bones looked embarrassed. "Well, I've heard of the ship, most people have, but I never knew the name of the captain."
It was true that his mother had avoided the press and never gave interviews. Still, he'd assumed that Bones had known who he was, like everybody else in his life. Everyone in Riverside knew his story, of course. And at Starfleet, the name Kirk was well-known. Some of his instructors had gone to school with his father or his mother, but beyond that, the Kelvin incident was taught in the military history course all cadets were required to take.
Maybe doctors in the officers' retraining course didn't have to take military history.
He'd always hated being a minor celebrity, because once people knew, they could never treat him normally. Some people were morbidly fascinated by the circumstances of his birth and wanted to get to know him just so they could ask him questions about what happened on the Kelvin, not that he could answer them. Some seemed to want or expect more of him because he was the son of a hero, and worst of all were the ones who secretly wanted him to fail so they could remind him that he was nothing special.
He tensed, waiting to see which of these things would happen, but Bones only asked, "So what are you doing in Starfleet? Following in your dad's footsteps?"
"A suicide mission? Not my first choice." It came out more harshly than he'd intended.
"That's not what I was suggesting, Jim."
"I just wanted to do something important with my life. Something meaningful." God, he sounded so fucking naïve. But it was true.
Bones gave an ironic laugh. "Plenty of ways to do that on the ground."
"Not for me. I wanted to explore, maybe have a ship of my own. Pike told me he thought I could do it when he recruited me. That's why I signed up." He sighed. "Rewiring a console and fixing a damaged warp coil isn't the way I thought I'd be spending my career."
"Engineers save lives, too, Jim. It's not as heroic, but there are times when you need them as much as the captain. You can make a difference."
"Yeah, but it's just not as much fun." He exhaled sharply, trying to shake off the morose mood that had settled over him again. "Although, I gotta admit, engineers have a wicked sense of humor. You wouldn't believe where they can transport things."
"I'm beggin' you, don't tell me."
"And they have a still, Bones, an honest-to-God contraption like something out of a museum."
"And you drink that poison?"
Jim considered. "Well, it's a little rough, maybe…"
"I don't know why I'm wasting my good bourbon on you," Leonard grumbled. "If you can drink that homemade brew, your taste buds are obviously fried. And don't come looking for a hangover remedy from me after that stuff eats through your brain."
Despite the rough start, the conversation flowed easily. To Jim's surprise, Bones didn't seem to treat him any differently, even after finding out about his famous father. When Jim finally left, pleasantly buzzed and slightly dizzy, he realized that for the first time in weeks, ever since his talk with Captain Pike, he was actually feeling optimistic.
Maybe his first instincts about Bones had been right after all.
Three nights later, Jim was awakened out of deep sleep to the sound of red alert sirens and a shudder that rocked the ship so badly that he almost tumbled out of bed.
Just a drill, or for real? None of his roommates were in the room, so there was no one to ask.
Throwing on his uniform, he ran into the corridor, joining the other off-duty crewmen who were racing to their emergency posts. His post was in the main engineering bay, so he headed toward the nearest turbolift. As he ran, he could feel an ominous rumbling under his feet, as if the entire ship was vibrating.
A sudden explosion ripped him off his feet, sending him crashing into the wall.
Stunned, he looked in the direction of the explosion toward the far end of the corridor. For a split second, he had a glimpse of horrible destruction in front of him. Streaks of brilliant white light erupted into huge flames, extinguished quickly as the vacuum of space swallowed the oxygen, revealing what seemed to be a gaping hole in the hull. Immediately, a heavy duranium barrier dropped from the ceiling as the corridor began sealing itself automatically, closing off the breached area.
The emergency wall slammed down with a terrifying finality, leaving the screams of terrified crewmen trapped on the other side ringing in Jim's ears.
Disoriented and shaken, he stood up. "There's a Jeffries tube back this way! Get to your posts!" someone was shouting. Jeffries tubes—the maintenance conduits—were a web of narrow tunnels that threaded through the ship, providing access to the ship's main systems. Jim had been in them two or three times, working on circuitry. He followed the officer, sprinting down the hallway.
This was obviously no drill.
A chill of horror ripped through him. We're out here in deep space. Anything could happen. His words to Bones came back to him, now devoid of all humor.
This was real. They were being attacked. A small passenger cruiser, with flimsy shields and a weak phaser artillery, no torpedoes, dozens of light years from the nearest starbase.
He felt the flush of rising panic. Concentrate on the job, he told himself angrily, trying to push thoughts of disaster from his mind. Get to your post. Keep it together.
Swinging himself into the Jeffries tube, he took the rungs on the ladder three at a time, trying not to let his sweaty palms loosen his grip. It was a four-level drop down to the engineering bay. He could hear muffled sounds of other crewmen in the tubes as he started his descent, and at one point, another sickening vibration shook the ship, accompanied by the sounds of an explosion.
The scene in engineering was so chaotic that at first, Jim could barely take in what was happening. Part of the bay was sealed off here as well, and Jim could only give a quick internal shudder at the thought of the men and women who must have been caught on the other side during the attack. Exposed wires, some still sparking wildly, were scattered everywhere from floor to ceiling. The air was smoky, and he could smell the sharp, acrid odor of burnt plastic and ozone.
A few crewmen were clustered around the main weapons console, which seemed to have shorted out. He could hear Patterson, the chief engineer, shouting into the comm: "Warp drive's been knocked out and the aft impulse engine's been destroyed!"
Captain Garcia's voice came over the comm, sounding stressed. "We need power! They've locked weapons on us again, Pat!"
Oh God, oh God. They were defenseless, with weapons offline and no mobility. "Who's attacking us?" he asked the engineer pulling on the beam next to him. "What do they want?"
"No fucking idea," one of the engineers told him. "We need to get shields and weaponry back up. We're dead in the water."
"Give us a hand, Kirk!" someone yelled. A large metal beam had collapsed on top of some equipment, trapping one of the engineers. Jim grabbed an edge, pushing and straining to lift the heavy metal along with the others, trying not to look at the mangled leg of the engineer beneath, who was moaning in agony.
"Where are the medics?" Jim asked, raising his voice to be heard over the din. "He needs a doctor, maybe we should—"
"We called Medical. They can't spare anyone." It was Flynn, an ensign who'd been working with Jim on the transporter coil. His expression was grim. "We've got to try to get him out and then carry him up ourselves."
For the next twenty minutes, Jim went where he was needed, feeling a desperate frustration at the lack of information… and a cold fear. The Atlantis was badly damaged. The attacks seemed to have ceased, but there was an ominous silence from the bridge. Maybe Captain Garcia was negotiating, or playing for time. He had no idea whether the communications array was still intact, or whether the Atlantis had had time to send a distress signal. They'd left Deneva a week ago, and were still six days out from Starbase Eleven. It would be a miracle if there was a ship within hailing distance.
A sudden tremor rocked the ship. Jim looked up from the open panel he was working on to see the other engineers trading looks of concern. Not far from where he stood, Jim could see Chief Patterson curse, then say something into his comm. Jim couldn't really hear most of what he was saying above the shouts of the other engineers, but one phrase was easy enough to make out.
They were being taken. It was all happening so fast that Jim couldn't quite believe it was real.
The amplified voice of Captain Garcia resounded suddenly from the ship-wide speakers. "Attention, please. This is the captain." The crew quieted and stood still. Looking up at the vid screens placed at intervals around the engineering bay, Jim could see the exhausted face of the captain. Wisps of her graying hair had slipped out of her usual neat braid. Behind her, the bridge was smoky, the lights dim.
"Approximately thirty-five minutes ago the Atlantis detonated an undetected ion mine. The mine was deliberately placed in order to cripple our ship and leave us vulnerable to attack. The blast disrupted our sensors and damaged our shields. We were then fired on by three heavily-armed Orion vessels."
Orions, holy fuck. Jim felt a cold shiver run down his spine.
He'd heard occasional rumors of ships mysteriously disappearing in the Beta quadrant over the past few years. A Risian ship had gone missing, and a Tellarite cruiser, and some private transports had lost contact; seven or eight ships altogether. The news feeds called it "the Bermuda Triangle of the Beta quadrant," and there were speculations about black holes and alternate universes. Jim had always thought that there must be a rational, if unpleasant, explanation for it all. But the bottom line was, ships and crew simply vanished, and no one really knew what happened to them.
Mystery solved. Orion pirates.
Garcia continued, her calm voice now quivering with repressed anger. "This attack was totally unprovoked and they made no attempt to communicate with us before they fired. The Atlantis has been severely damaged and we have suffered many casualties. Our communications are out. In effect, we're stranded, and we no longer have the means to resist. The Orions are demanding our dilithium crystals and the possession of our ship." She paused.
Just say it, Jim thought. He could read the failure in her eyes.
"I have agreed to surrender the Atlantis. In return, they guarantee our personal safety. Given our circumstances, I believe this is our best option."
"No," Jim murmured under his breath. Behind him, he could hear someone saying in a tone of disbelief, "She can't just hand us over to them. They'll kill us."
"I myself hold little hope that this guarantee will be upheld. But I expect each of you to uphold your obligations under the Starfleet Code of Conduct. I hope that some of us may return home somehow"—her voice caught, but she controlled it—"and get the word out to Starfleet about what happened. Thank you for your valiant efforts. It has been a privilege serving with you. Good luck to us all."
The transmission cut off. The crew stood for a moment in stunned silence, and then the room was filled with a roar of furious shouting. In pairs and small groups, crewmen were talking and arguing, some gesturing wildly at the doors of the engineering bay. Others were standing quietly, looking stunned.
Jim looked around him frantically. There was no way they were going down without a fight, and the captain's words were ambiguous enough that he wasn't going against her orders. The Starfleet Code of Conduct said that they should resist, if at all possible… But they needed weapons, real weapons.
He felt the instinctive need to grab something—that jagged-edged metal bar, maybe, or the coiled steel cable lying next to the warp console—but he knew how ridiculously inadequate it would be. What could he do, throw the cable over one of the Orions like a lasso? He'd be shot down before the cable even left his hand.
He looked toward the back wall where the hull had been breached. The only available weapons were locked behind a duranium partition and a shimmering force field, forever out of their reach.
Shit, shit, shit, he thought with rising desperation. What the hell are we supposed to do now? Who's in charge?
"Listen up, everyone!" Chief Patterson roared, loud enough to be heard over the frantic shouting. The men quieted so quickly that Jim could hear an echo of their shouts reverberate off the walls of the engineering bay. "We're going to be boarded. Castille, get electromag and mechanical locks on the doors and disable voice commands! We've got three hand phasers," he said. Jim could see the small weapon grasped firmly in the engineer's hand. "Valin, you take one, get up near the doors. Del'Aq, take the other one and get behind the intermix shaft. The rest of you, three layers of support, be ready to move! We're not going down without a—"
There was a flash of light and the noise of an explosion, and the doors to the bay blew apart. Jim heard the high-pitched whine of an alien energy weapon and instinctively dove behind the weapons console. He could hear the answering phaser fire amid the shouting of the Atlantis men and cries of agony from the men who'd been hit.
His heart hammering—Stay low, keep out of sight!—Jim crept forward on his hands and knees. An energy blast ricocheted off the console above him, and he folded his arms over his head as sparks and slivers of hot metal showered down onto him. Cautiously, he peeked around the corner of the console, just in time to see Lieutenant Valin, crouched near the ruined doors, pivot on his heel and shoot a beam of directed energy at one of the Orions off to Jim's left. Another pirate was standing not two meters in front of the weapons console, aiming his weapon toward something Jim couldn't see.
It galvanized him into action. Surging forward, he reached out with one hand to deflect the weapon, using his palm to push it down and away from himself. At the same time, he struck out with his free hand, aiming for the Orion's throat. Disarm him, he thought desperately, get control of the weapon…
Something flickered to his left, but before he could react, his head exploded with pain and he dropped to his knees. For a moment he was too dazed to understand what had happened. He cradled his head in his hands, feeling warm blood seeping between his fingers.
"Get up, Federati," he heard, and something prodded at his back—a weapon, he realized, the same one the Orion must have just used to smash into the side of Jim's head.
Staggering to his feet unsteadily, feeling dizzy and sick, he could see that the aborted rebellion had been useless. Patterson and four others were lying unmoving on the floor.
It was over, then, just like that.
The nine remaining engineers were pushed together into the center of the bay. Seven Orions were moving among them, cuffing their hands together behind their backs. Jim was shoved in with them, barely managing to keep his feet as he tripped over some debris on the floor. One of the pirates grabbed him roughly by the arms, twisting them behind him and snapping the cuffs onto his wrists.
To the side, another Orion was talking into a wrist communicator, too rapidly for Jim to catch any of the words. He made a sound of satisfaction and turned to the captive engineers. "This ship is ours," he told them, in accented Standard. "You will come with us. Resist again and we will shoot you all."
Shaking and dizzy, Jim found himself being pushed forward along with the others. He set his jaw against the humiliation, forcing his fists to uncurl and keeping his eyes down. It seemed unreal, but it was happening. They were surrendering. He'd rather die than be taken prisoner… but could he take the risk of causing the deaths of all the others? The Orions were fully armed and, from what he'd heard, merciless. They had no chance.
They were being marched through the corridors of a ship that was once theirs, under guard, toward a bleak future.
He was hit by a sudden, horrible feeling of déjà vu. He'd been herded forward with the others, back then, just like this. There was the same feeling of helplessness and disorientation, of events spiraling out of his control. He recalled walking forward, feeling detached and numb, surrounded by hundreds of other frightened colonists. Then the panic started. The air had been hot with crackling energy of discharged weapons, and people were screaming. He'd almost been dragged under during the stampede, but somehow he'd broken away-
Don't think about it. The memories were a distraction that he couldn't afford right now. He concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, keeping his gaze lowered, not wanting to see the smug arrogance on the pirates' faces.
When Jim was finally brought in with the other engineers, Leonard felt a rush of relief. He only got a glimpse of Jim's distinctive bronze-colored hair, but it was him, all right, his shoulders hunched, his posture defensive.
They were in some kind of cargo bay in the Orion ship. Leonard had been brought in with the first group off the Atlantis, and had been sitting on the floor in silence for more than an hour, under the watchful gaze of their captors. There hadn't been much to do but ponder their fate and wait for the others to come in. Leonard had been ticking off people in his mind, trying to recall as many of the crew and passengers as he could and figure out who was missing. He didn't know everybody, and had actually had more contact with the passengers than with the crew, but it was obvious that the numbers were low.
With the arrival of engineering crew, thirty-four men and women had made it off the Atlantis. Some of them were injured, with burns, lacerations, or broken bones which had been hastily treated in sickbay. Altogether, twenty-two people were dead or missing, including Captain Garcia.
The Orions moved among them with brazen confidence, raising their weapons threateningly whenever someone made a move or whispered. Leonard didn't bother trying to talk to anyone.
He'd been in the sickbay when the attack began, along with Atalia Gold, his nurse. At first, neither of them could identify the odd trembling that shook the ship, but the red alert klaxon had made it clear enough. "Prepare for incoming casualties," he instructed her, hoping he would be wrong. The Atlantis sickbay was a small facility, with two surgical beds and five regular biobeds. In a pinch, the medical laboratory could be converted into an additional four-bed ward.
The wounded began arriving almost within minutes. Sickbay was relatively protected, located in the center of the ship. Those who'd had the bad fortune to be in the more exposed areas—in the corridors around the edges of the hull, or in the bowels of engineering—were brought in by their comrades, along with eyewitness accounts of devastating damage to the ship. Whole areas had been sealed off by the ship's automatic defenses after the hull was breached. When Dr. Goren and the second nurse failed to arrive and couldn't be raised on the comm system, Leonard understood that they'd been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
He'd worked frantically, triaging, stabilizing, directing the efforts of Gold and two other crewmen that he'd commandeered to help. He had no idea how much time had passed when Captain Garcia broadcast her chilling announcement. He listened, understanding on some level that their lives were forfeit, but then closed off the part of him that wanted to panic. He was a doctor. These people needed him, and he'd keep doing his job until someone forced him to stop.
Seeing the Orions in his sickbay made it all real. Leonard had no real thought of resistance, since they were outnumbered and he had no weapon anyway. The ambulatory patients were gathered together and moved out into the corridor.
As he was leaving, he tried surreptitiously to sling a medkit over his shoulder. One of the Orion guards jabbed him in the ribs with his weapon, almost knocking the kit from his hand. "Take nothing."
"Wait," Leonard said, turning to face him. "I'm a doctor. People are injured. They'll need medicine."
The Orion just glared at him impassively, making a threatening gesture with his weapon.
Leonard felt a cold sweat break out on his skin. "Doctor," he said again, pointing at himself. Maybe this alien didn't understand him. "I'm a healer. I need to treat these people."
The Orion placed the weapon at his chest, the unspoken message clear. Leonard let the medkit go.
The five remaining patients had been left behind, unconscious. They weren’t brought over to the Orion ship and Leonard had no doubt they'd been killed or left to die.
He felt numb. It was the adrenaline, he knew, holding his terror at bay. It had all happened so fast: the battle, the carnage in sickbay, and the capture. He was trying to process the information, but it was too much to deal with. One thing was clear: even if he survived whatever plans these pirates held for him, his life, as he knew it, was over.
He sat with the others in dazed silence, his hands bound behind him, watching the Orions strut among them. He wondered if anyone would ever know what happened to them. Ship disappearances were a fact of life that Starfleet didn't try to hide. Leonard had attended two Remembrance Day ceremonies at the Academy, and he recalled now the chilling words: "in memory of those whose resting place is unknown."
The thought of his mother having to attend one of those ceremonies was unbearable. And Jocelyn… would she even care?
There was a commotion at the other end of the room. Leonard saw that the prisoners—no, they were captives, weren't they?—were being hauled onto their feet, one by one, and then pushed into two separate groups. All of the women and most of the older men—and all of the ambulatory patients who'd been treated in sickbay, he noticed—were put into one group, while a smaller number of men were held apart.
Leonard was pushed to join the smaller group. Instinctively, he felt relieved to be grouped with the healthier men, although he was well aware of the fact that he had no idea what the selection really meant. Forced labor, probably. Maybe prostitution? His gut repulsed at the thought.
Stop! Don't think about it. He couldn't afford a panic attack at this stage.
Altogether, they were nine men, all relatively young. Jim was there as well, standing slightly behind him and off to the right. The hair on the left side of his head was covered with matted blood, as if he'd received a blow from a blunt object. Damn it.
The volume of blood didn't really worry him, because even minor cuts near the scalp tended to bleed heavily because of all the blood vessels lying so close to the skin, but any blow to the head was potentially serious. Jim might have a concussion or skull fracture, or even a brain bleed… and there would be no way to help him here. He looked alert and wary and was standing steadily on his feet, which hopefully meant that he wasn't experiencing dizziness or weakness.
Leonard mouthed: Are you okay?
Jim shrugged, but then began shifting his position forward, slowly and subtly, so that he was closer to Leonard, almost touching him. Leonard wasn't sure if it was a protective gesture—futile, since neither of them could move their hands—or just a desire on Jim's part to be closer to someone he knew. Either way, Leonard found himself doing the same, making small shifts of weight and tiny steps backward to bring them into contact.
"They're slavers," Jim whispered, his mouth almost up against Leonard's ear.
Holy God. The word brought up gruesome associations in Leonard's mind. They'd be sold to the highest bidder. His twitchy imagination helpfully supplied images of whips and chains and auction blocks, and he could feel a cold sweat start to trickle down his back.
The doors to the cargo bay slid open, and three men walked in. Leonard's eyebrows flew up in surprise. They were human, and all three were armed. Obviously not prisoners; they walked with the confidence of equals. They wore simple work clothes and boots, with no identifiable insignia.
Leonard had a moment of ridiculous hope, thinking that these men, whoever they were, would realize that they'd been abducted and negotiate for their freedom.
The leader, a balding man with deeply tanned skin and a hard glint in his eye, walked up to one of the Orions. "Are these my men?" he asked, gesturing at Leonard's group.
"Nine, as promised." The Orion's Standard was accented but clear enough.
"Perfect. That mine works like a charm, every time. Easy pickings." The man grinned broadly, and Leonard understood, with crushing finality, that this man wasn't there to rescue them.
"Yes. It was effective."
Again, Jim's voice came in his ear. "Fucking bastard! He set us up…"
"Bastard" didn't seem to cover it. One of their own, a human like them, had sold them out to the Orions. Leonard pulled helplessly against the plastic binding around his wrists, clenching his fists in mute fury.
Jim pressed up against him. "Stay calm," he whispered. Leonard could feel him breathing against his neck, controlled and tense. It helped, despite everything, giving him something to focus on. Automatically, the same soothing phrases that he used with his nervous patients came to his mind: Don't panic. Deep, steady breaths. In and out, that's it.
The balding man stepped closer to the group, looking over each man with a cold, assessing gaze. Leonard forced himself not to flinch when the man's eyes swept over him, but he felt humiliated, like a piece of meat.
"All right, bring 'em along," the man called to the other two. Leonard's group was prodded forward toward the doors of the cargo bay, Jim right behind him.
The Atlantis survivors in the second group watched them depart. Some of the women were crying silently. As he passed them, Leonard tried to commit to memory their faces and names, wondering if he would ever see them again.
End of Part One