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We Two Alone

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Title: We Two Alone

Come, let's away to prison;

We two alone will sing

- William Shakespeare

Part One

Starfleet Academy, Summer 2257

Jim

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…

"Yes, sir?"

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.

 

Leonard

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."

Well, shit.

 

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?"

"Obviously."

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.

 

Jim

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.

Shitnow 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.

 

Leonard

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

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.

Tractor beam.

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.

We're fucked.

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.

 

Leonard

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

 

Chapter Text

Part Two

Leonard

"Let's get right to business," the balding man informed them. "I'm Ben Childress. You're going to work for me."

He was speaking to them from behind a force field that kept them locked in a small holding cell. The energy barrier shimmering between them made Childress look blurry and vaguely unreal, and distorted his voice, making it sound as if they were hearing him from a distance.

From what Leonard could see, Childress looked ordinary enough, a man in his late thirties, no more menacing than his mother's gardener back in Atlanta. He had deep-set eyes, narrow and sharp, and his skin was ruddy and dry, as if he spent most of his time outdoors in the sun and wind. To complete the illusion, he was wearing simple work clothes, not a uniform. He wasn't smiling.

As a doctor, Leonard prided himself on his ability to read body language and pick up on subtle cues, but that skill was failing him here. All he could get from Childress were the most obvious things that had been clear from the minute he walked into the room. He was a hard man, the uncompromising type who didn't like to be crossed. He carried himself with an easy confidence, but maybe that was because there was an armed guard standing next to him, keeping his weapon trained on them the whole time.

What in God's name was he doing here, in a situation like this? He was a doctor, not a soldier, no matter what his uniform said. Every instinct told him to keep quiet and not draw attention to himself. Looking around, he could see that a few of the other men seemed to have the same idea, shifting subtly back toward the wall, although most of the men were holding themselves straight, glaring back at Childress. Some of them looked familiar, but he really didn't know any of them well besides Jim.

A dark-haired man with the stocky build of a football player, wearing the stripes of a lieutenant commander, moved forward until he was standing directly opposite Childress. "I'm Lieutenant Commander John Andrews, service number 392-alpha-48-delta, and that's all you're getting, you piece of scum." His deep voice and forceful demeanor jogged a memory, and Leonard recognized him as the helmsman who'd come down to sickbay complaining of a headache the week before. "We're Starfleet officers, and your criminal and barbaric actions have caused the deaths of over twenty men and women. I demand that you release us and allow us to contact Starfleet!"

Andrews' words grounded him, lessening his panic just a little. Thank God for officers' training, Leonard thought. At least he knows what to say.

The other men seemed to take courage as well. "You tell him, Commander!" one man shouted, nodding in agreement. There was a growing clamor from all sides. "Goddamn pirate, who the hell do you think you are?" "—never cooperate with the likes of you!" "How the hell could you work with those—"

"Shut the fuck up!" Childress yelled. "Keep your mouths shut or I'll start knocking you out one by one." He flicked his eyes to the guard, who stepped forward and pointed his weapon directly at the Andrews. "Starting with you, Lieutenant Commander." There was enough of a threat in his voice that the storm of protest quickly died down, to Leonard's relief. A stun blast at point-blank range was no joke, and the weapon was definitely not a Starfleet-issue phaser, so who knew what would happen. What could he do, with no drugs and no equipment, if someone was hurt in here?

"As I was saying," Childress continued almost pleasantly, seeming unperturbed, "I'm a businessman, a miner and a building contractor, and you're my new workers. It's hard to find good labor out here and I've been forced to use unorthodox methods."

"Unorthodox?" one of the men called out bitterly. "Is that what you call exploding a mine and then firing on a defenseless ship?"

Childress gave him a cold, unapologetic look. "I didn't set that mine or fire on your ship, the Orions did. I don't expect you to believe me, but I told them to keep the casualties to a minimum. But they're pirates. They have no respect for life."

"I was in the sickbay during the attack," Leonard said, finding his voice at last. "There were injured men there who never made it to the Orion ship. They need immediate medical attention."

"Orions don't believe in coddling the weak," Childress said with a shrug. "That's a cultural thing, and there's nothing I can do about that." His words chilled Leonard's blood.

"What about the others?" Andrews asked, voice tight. "There were twenty-five other survivors taken off our ship. Why weren't they brought over here with us? And where's the captain and the first officer? I was on the bridge during the attack. I know they were alive!"

Childress pursed his lips and didn't reply. The silence was answer enough.

"I'm sorry for your comrades," he said after a pause. "The Orions didn't share their plans with me, and they're long gone. I negotiated with them for a group of workers, and that's you. And you're the lucky ones. I'm not a slaver and I will release you, in the end. All I need from you is three years of hard work till my project is completed."

"Three years!" a shocked voice came from the back of the room, echoing Leonard's own thoughts.

"What the hell does 'hard work' mean?" Andrews asked.

"It means three years working on my construction crews, and then I'll provide you with the means to return to your lives. And," Childress said with a dramatic pause, an almost-smile flickering across his face, "you'll be paid well." There was another burst of angry mutters at this.

Leonard felt the sickening words three years of hard work warring inside him with the golden phrase return to your lives. It was all happening too fast, making his stomach clench. Bile rose in his throat and he swallowed, taking a deep breath. In his worst nightmares he hadn't imagined a scenario like this, and he felt out of his depth, unable to grasp what was really happening.

He tried to think. Childress was at the very least a criminal and an accomplice to murder, that much was certain. He was planning to hold them against their wills for three years of labor in God-knew-what kind of conditions. Nothing that came out of his mouth was worth listening to.

But he also had an air of credibility that was so tempting to give in to… Three years wasn't so bad compared to the alternatives, was it? It would set him back, that was certain. He'd be thirty-four when he got away, but that was still young enough to take up surgery again, to rebuild his life. In the end, this whole episode could be just a minor detour in his career.

If Childress was telling the truth.

He stole a look at Jim, wondering if he would be cursing with the other men or mulling over this crumb of hope, but Jim was silent and stony-faced. He was standing in the back of the room, arms crossed over his chest, watching Childress closely.

Childress seemed to be losing his patience with the complaints and swearing. "That's enough! Quiet, before I start stunning the lot of you!" The noise died down again. "I run a duranium mining operation and a construction project on Rigel Twelve. The Alpheus Colony—maybe you've heard of it."

"Yeah, I have," one of the men, wearing science blues, said quietly, a note of confusion in his tone. "It's a private colony, Federation protectorate. My sister applied about a year ago. The planet's Class M but the weather's harsh. They've got a huge pressure dome for the colonists, a controlled environment."

Childress nodded. "That's right. It's a cushy little jewel of a colony, and they're expanding. I've got a contract to build two more domes." He smiled, but there was no warmth to it. "Congratulations. You're going to be part of my labor force. You'll work for me for three years, and then I'll let you go. You'll each get 90,000 credits and you'll be transported to a Federation colony. You can signal Starfleet from there."

Leonard saw the men exchanging meaningful glances. He could read it in their eyes: they were considering it. Ninety thousand credits was a significant sum; as a cadet in the medical officers' training program, his stipend was only a little over two thousand a month. But it wouldn't be nearly enough to compensate for three lost years, not to mention what the conditions on the planet would do to their health. He was willing to bet that Childress didn't have an air-conditioned pressure dome waiting for his so-called laborers.

"How do we know you'll keep your word?" Andrews asked, to a general nodding of heads around the room.

"Your word means nothing!" someone spat out from the back of the group.

"Enough of that!" Childress said, his voice suddenly cold and angry. "I don't tolerate disrespect in my workers. Don't try to cross me, because you won't like the consequences." He glared for a moment, then seemed to relent. "I expect discipline, but I'm not cruel. Not a murderer, either. You'll work hard, but if you cooperate, you won't be mistreated."

Childress glanced around the room, looking each man in the eye. "I don't abuse my labor force. I'm an entrepreneur with a job to do. I need workers, or I won't finish my contracts. That's your guarantee."

Leonard felt the knot in his belly loosening a little at the words. It might be indentured servitude… but at least it wasn't slavery. Not prostitution, not death. Three years, and he could go home, pick up his life again. Some of the men looked skeptical, others were nodding, but the furious mood in the room had abated somewhat.

He glanced back again at Jim. His expression was unreadable, icy, as if Childress' words hadn't touched him at all. There was a slow trickle of blood still running down the side of his head. Jim wiped it away absently, his eyes never leaving Childress.

Much as he didn't want to draw attention to himself, the sight of blood prompted Leonard to action. He stepped forward. "I'm a doctor," he said, trying to keep his voice calm and unthreatening. "Some of these men are injured. If you want a healthy work force, I'll need a medkit."

Childress nodded. "I'll get you something from our sickbay."

"We need food and water," Leonard pressed. "And somewhere to relieve ourselves."

"You'll get it," Childress said, and left, gesturing to the guard to follow.

There was a collective sigh around the room the minute they were left alone. "What the hell do we do now, Commander?" someone said, breaking the silence.

"We think about this as calmly as we can," Andrews said. "We don't panic, and we try to gather whatever information is available." He turned to the pale, lean scientist who'd spoken earlier. "Tell us more about this colony, Fredericks."

Fredericks seemed uncomfortable at the sudden focus of attention. "Uh… I don't know much. My sister showed me some vids a year ago. She was all excited about Alpheus. She's the adventurous type, always wanted to try living off-planet. The air on Rigel's breathable, and the dome gives them extra protection from the environment."

"Why do they need a dome?" Andrews asked.

"Too windy outside for the colonists, lots of dust storms, or something like that. Inside, they've got about 3,000 people, good education, modern facilities. It's expensive as hell, but my sister and her husband are looking for a new community, somewhere clean and uncrowded to raise a family."

"It's an elite community for the rich," scoffed a dark-skinned lieutenant with a light Indian accent. "Don't they wonder who's building their little paradise?"

"Who cares if they have money, Raj?" another man said. "What's important is that there are other people on that planet. We've got to find a way to contact them, let them know what happened to us!"

A stocky Asian officer wearing engineering reds—Martin Cho, Leonard recalled, who came in for chemical burns during his first week aboard the Atlantis—nodded in agreement. "Maybe we can find a way to get a message out to them. In the meantime, I say we cooperate, keep ourselves alive. Worst comes to worst, we stick it out for three years, take the money, and find our way back."

"Three fucking years!" came a furious voice from the corner of the room. "That's a long time, Cho. I can't wait that long! I've got two kids waiting for me at home!"

Cho reddened. "Goddamn it, Aquino, you think want to waste three years of my life? My partner's on the Yeager and I've got plans. But what fucking choice do we have?"

"Better this than what's waiting for those other poor bastards we left behind." Andrews sent a sour glance around the room. "Auctioned off to the highest bidder. Or killed."

Fredericks shuddered. "I'd rather be three years older than dead."

"He's lying," Jim said suddenly. Heads turned to look at him. Arms still crossed over his chest, he spoke from the back of the room with quiet authority. "He'll say anything to get us to cooperate. He's already proven that he'd betray his own people, sell them into slavery, for money. Why are you so damn quick to believe his promises? He's not going to pay us off and he's sure as hell not going to let us contact Starfleet. Think about it for a minute! If he's so willing to pay for the labor, why can't he get volunteers to come out here, real construction workers?"

"He's a criminal," Cho said, "but that doesn't mean he's going to kill us."

Jim kept his voice pitched low and calm. "Yes it does. He's given us too much information. We've seen him, talked to him, learned where we are. He won't let us go. Why would he?"

Leonard felt a roll of nausea at the truth in Jim's words. For a minute there, he'd been able to convince himself that they'd be all right—after three years of hard labor, for the love of God—but he couldn't ignore Jim's bitter analysis. Now that he thought about it, why would Childress take the chance of one of them identifying him? It didn't make sense… unless Jim was right.

Cho walked over until he was standing face to face with Jim. "You don't know that, Kirk. You're guessing, same as the rest of us. And even if you're right, what do you suggest we do?"

"Use any opportunity to fight back. Escape, as soon as we can—"

"You're going to get us killed," Fredericks hissed in a harsh whisper.

"They've got weapons and we've got nothing!" Cho's voice was rising.

A babble of angry voices joined in. "Let's see what the conditions are like on the planet…" "Hard labor isn't going to kill us, Kirk." "It's suicide!" Jim was arguing right back with them, and although Leonard couldn't make out what he was saying, his body language was eloquent enough: defensive and antagonistic. Their objections only made him dig in deeper, as if he were spoiling for a fight.

Andrews raised his voice to be heard above them. "Keep your voices down, all of you. Kirk, keep your ideas to yourself for now unless you've got something practical to suggest. Right now the priority is to survive and help each other."

"He's a lowlife pirate." Jim spat out the word with such conviction that Leonard felt a shudder of fear roll through him. "And he's a good liar, I'll admit it. But you're all so desperate to believe that you'll—"

"Quiet!" one of the men hissed. The doors were opening.

Childress appeared again, accompanied by the guard, a medkit in his hands. He set it on the floor and pushed it smoothly through the force field. "Here you go, doctor. Take care of any injuries. My men will start taking you to the head one at a time, and we'll bring you a meal after that. We'll be in orbit around the planet in another thirty-eight hours."

Childress walked back out, and Leonard picked up the kit. He did a quick inventory of its contents: it was nothing more than a simple first aid kid, the kind available on the commercial market. There was a small medical scanner, a spray bandage, basic antibiotics and analgesics, but that was all.

Still, better than nothing, and at least it gave him something productive to do.

He walked over to Jim. "C'mere, kid. Let me take care of that bump on your head."

Angry blue eyes met his. Jim shook his head and turned away. "Leave it."

"Don't be a stubborn ass. It's still bleeding. Sit down." He pushed on Jim's shoulder until he relented and sank down to the floor, back against the wall.

Leonard knelt beside him, scanning him quickly. The scanner was almost useless, capable of reading only basic vital signs. All it could tell him was that Jim's heart rate was accelerated and his blood pressure was elevated… which was probably what it would show for any man in the room right now, considering how stressed they all were.

He tossed the scanner back into the kit, disgusted. He never trusted the blasted devices anyway. A hands-on exam and a standard neuro check would tell him most of what he needed to know.

"That's a pretty ugly bump on your head, Jim. What the hell happened to you?" His immediate concern was an epidural hematoma, even though Jim seemed stable right now. He was obviously functioning well enough to give them all an explanation for Childress' behavior that made a frightening amount of sense, and hold his own in an argument. But if the blow had fractured his temporal bone and damaged any of the vital structures in the area, Jim could already be in serious trouble, even if he wasn't showing any obvious symptoms yet.

"I was in the engineering bay." Jim winced and flinched away as Leonard started probing his skull carefully with his fingers.

"Sorry… keep talking."

Jim's temple was furrowed in discomfort, but he continued, "When we were boarded, the chief engineer was hiding a hand phaser. He shot one of the Orions as they were walking us out, and—Ow, that hurts!—I tried to fight, but one of them smashed me over the head with his weapon." Jim's voice caught, and he paused for a moment. Leonard could feel him trembling under his fingers. "By the time I got back on my feet, they'd killed Chief Patterson and four other officers. They rounded the rest of us up, and that was it."

"You're lucky they didn't shoot you, too," Leonard said gruffly. Christ, Jim had been right in the middle of the very worst of the battle. Up close, he could see that Jim was pale and he seemed restless and tense. He was likely suffering from some degree of combat stress, in addition to the head wound. He made a mental note to assess the others for psychological trauma as well. One of the men, a young Japanese engineer, looked withdrawn and pale, and hadn't said a word since they'd arrived; he'd talk to him when he finished with Jim.

The temporal bone seemed to be intact. Thank goodness for small favors. "Did you lose consciousness afterwards? Vomit? Any problems with your vision?"

"No. Got dizzy and felt like I was going to be sick, but I didn't throw up."

Jim's story was coherent and he wasn't slurring his words. He seemed oriented and in control of his emotions, another good sign. "All right. Look up at me now and follow my finger." It was hard to see in this lighting, but his pupils seemed to be reacting evenly, no anisocoria or nystagmus. His eyes were red and irritated—not surprising, since the engineering bay had taken the brunt of the damage, and Jim had undoubtedly been exposed to smoke from the chemical fires—which only seemed to emphasize the startling blue of his irises.

He'd need to keep a close watch on Jim's motor functioning and mental status over the next day or two. Head injuries could be unpredictable. Jim wasn't showing any particularly worrisome symptoms at this point, although that was no guarantee that he didn't have a slow venous bleed which might show up in a few hours. God, let that not happen.

"How bad's the headache, on a scale of one to ten?" He didn't bother asking whether the kid had a headache, because he was likely to deny it.

"I dunno… A five, I guess." More like six or seven, Leonard translated. The medkit had nothing but non-steroidal anti-inflammatory meds, which wouldn't put much of a dent in Jim's pain. On the other hand, even if he had a stronger painkiller, he wouldn't be happy administering it to a head trauma patient unless he could be carefully monitored.

"Swallow these," he said, offering Jim two pills.

Jim made no move to take the medicine. "It's fine, I don't need anything." He flicked his eyes to the other men, gathered in small groups and talking quietly. "They're fooling themselves, Bones. You know that, right? We can't wait around for three years."

Leonard wasn't sure what to think. He had to agree with Jim that Childress was probably a criminal whose word meant nothing, but Jim didn't seem to have a viable alternative. "I don't really know," he said carefully, not wanting Jim to feel even more isolated and defensive than he already did. "I hope to hell you're wrong. We can't do anything right now anyway. And take the damn pills!"

Jim scowled. "I don't need them."

Oh, for heaven's sake. "That wasn't a suggestion, it was a medical order," Leonard said, his voice sharp with impatience. "You're at risk for complications from the head injury, and I have very little to treat you with. These pills aren't very strong, and they won't cloud your judgment or make you sleepy. But if the headache gets worse," he said quickly when Jim opened his mouth to object, "it'll sap your strength and by that point, they won't be able to help. And you're not my only patient, so stop wasting my time and take 'em now!"

Jim just stared at him stonily, then laughed. "Your bedside manner is really awful, Dr. McCoy." He popped the pills into his mouth, swallowing them dry.

"Didn't ask for your opinion," Leonard muttered. He took an antiseptic wipe out of the medkit and dabbed at the cut above Jim's ear.

Jim didn't even react to the sting. He gave Leonard a small smile. "You know, turns out you were right. Space travel is dangerous. You should have stayed in San Francisco."

"Don't remind me. I'm gonna give my advisor a piece of my mind when we get back."

Jim laughed. "To think I practically begged Pike to put me on a ship." Then he groaned. "Fuck, I turned down security training on Vulcan for this."

Leonard smiled grimly. "Vulcan's too damn hot for a Midwestern boy like you, Jim."

They were quiet for a minute. Leonard sprayed the cut with a plastiseal bandage.

Jim gave him a look of sympathy. "I know this is bad, Bones. You're a doctor and you're not trained for something like this—"

"And you are?" Leonard bristled. "I'm a surgeon. Don't worry, I can handle myself in a crisis."

"That's not what I meant."

Leonard looked at him, waiting for clarification, but Jim just shrugged. "Stick with me, okay?" he said, looking as serious as Leonard had ever seen him. "I'm going to get us out of here, somehow, or…"

He hesitated, and Leonard finished the sentence in his mind: …or die trying.

"…or at least keep us safe," Jim finished. "I promise."

Leonard was touched by Jim's words, despite the veiled implication that he needed protecting. He was older than Jim, a doctor, trained to keep his head in an emergency. Between the two of them, it seemed clear that Jim—stubborn, hotheaded, and young—was the one who needed to be looked after, even if the kid didn't want to admit it. It was Leonard's responsibility to keep him safe, if he could.

So he squeezed Jim's shoulder, and checked his bandage one more time. "Just keep your head down for now, kid, and concentrate on surviving."

 

Jim

On Tarsus, Jim had learned a few basic rules about survival. The first one was simple… but it was also the most brutally difficult: don't hide in denial. Face facts. Admit that you're really in trouble and don't believe that anyone's coming to save you.

Jim understood almost immediately that Childress didn't intend for them to come out of this alive. He wanted them for slave labor and profit, but he didn't give a shit about their welfare. Anyone cold-blooded enough to work with Orion pirates was a liar, so Jim didn't waste time believing his ridiculous promises.

Another thing he'd learned was to trust his instincts and to make quick decisions. Sometimes you had to go against the consensus in order to survive, and if that meant that you didn't make many friends, well, so be it. He knew that some of the men resented him for saying aloud what they were desperately trying to shove into the back of their minds: that Childress was never going to let them go, and that if they wanted to live, they'd have to find a way to escape. But they needed to hear it.

Keep your head down, Bones had told him. But Jim knew that in a situation like this, staying in the background wouldn't necessarily keep him safe.

His head was still pounding, even an hour after taking those pills. Bones had been right about the headache getting worse. Tough guys from Iowa don't need meds, he used to think. Maybe it was time to ditch that belief, since he'd already discovered one major exception—coming down with a killer microbial infection—and he was beginning to consider getting bludgeoned over the head as exception number two.

One of Childress' men came back into the room, dumping a pile of orange-colored clothes on the floor and pushing them through the force field with his foot. "Put these on," he told the men, and when no one moved, he snapped, "Do it now!"

Jim had been expecting it, but even so, he felt a flush of humiliation. Naturally, they wouldn't be allowed to keep their uniforms.

Andrews, the burly helmsman, stepped forward. Glaring at the guard, he picked something off the top of the pile and shook it out so they could see it: a nondescript orange jumpsuit made of sturdy, rough material. Ugly as hell, and about as inconspicuous as a red alert signal.

Prisoner clothes, one size fits all. He felt his ears heat with fury. No way was he going to put that on without a fight.

It was their duty to resist, he knew that. And there was power in numbers. They could take a stand right here and now, insist on keeping their own clothes as Starfleet officers. It was worth a shot. What would happen if they simply refused, all nine of them? Would Childress really tell his guards to start firing on them, and risk damaging his work force before they'd even set foot on the planet? And even if he did stun a few of them… it would be worth it, for the sake of their self-respect.

If they gave in so easily on such minor issues, how would they muster the guts to rebel when it really mattered?

Jim tried to catch the others' eyes, but they weren't looking in his direction at all. Some of them were trading nervous glances, but most of them were looking to Andrews for direction.

Andrews seemed to hesitate for a moment—Don't do it, Jim pleaded inwardly, tell them to go fuck themselves—and then gestured at the rest of the pile.

"All right, men," he said, casting a wary glance at the phaser aimed steadily in their direction. He glanced around with a look that clearly said This is not worth getting shot over. "Time for a fashion show. Step up."

That was it, opportunity lost. One by one, the men took the clothes Andrews handed them and began to undress in silence, trading looks of mute anger. The guard was gawking at them, eyeing them in obvious enjoyment as they stripped down to their underwear. God, was this how it was going to be from now on? Every last shred of dignity taken from them?

He was itching to do something, to yell out some insults, to punch someone, to throw himself at the force field… anything but stand here watching that guard laughing at them. Andrews was in command, but he hadn't actually given a direct order to put on the jumpsuit, he thought. It was more of an implied suggestion, really…

Jim hung back until the others had all taken the ugly jumpsuits from the pile. He grabbed the last one, then stepped up to the force field.

"Excuse me," he said pleasantly to the guard, fixing him with his best fuck-you smirk. "Orange isn't really my color. Got anything else?"

The guard turned a cold gaze on him, raising the weapon to point directly at Jim. "Don't give me any trouble, 'Fleeter."

Jim made a show of examining the words emblazoned in black on the back of the jumpsuit. "Tantalus Penal Colony," he read slowly, then gave the guard a bright smile. "Hey, that's awesome, always wondered what they wear there. Is that where you and your pal Childress met?"

"Shut up and put it on!" the guard snarled, his fingers twitching on the weapon.

"What do you think you're doing?" Bones was suddenly by his side, unceremoniously grabbing him by the sleeve and pulling him back, away from the guard.

"Let go of me!" Jim whispered furiously, trying to shrug off the contact, but the doctor held firm, dragging him backward until they were at the back of the room. "I'm just making a point!"

"Make it from over here." Bones shoved him into the corner and stood in front of him. "What the hell are you trying to prove?"

"That we're not sheep!" he hissed. "Why are you so quick to do what they say?"

"Because I don't want to get shot, that's why. Do you?"

"We can't just cooperate! Don't you understand why they want us to wear these clothes?"

Bones fixed him with an angry glare. "Do you think everybody here is an idiot except you? Damn it, of course I know why they want us to wear them! It's degrading, but compared to everything else that's happened today, it's not that big of a deal, kid." His voice softened. "Just roll with it."

"It's more than that," Jim fumed in frustration. "Why do you think it's bright orange and says Tantalus Penal Colony all over it? It's to make sure the colonists won't go anywhere near us if we escape! Childress probably tells them his labor force is made up of violent criminals. Who in their right mind would help a dangerous prisoner on the run?"

Bones looked like he wanted to shake Jim. "You won't be able to run anywhere if they kill you before you even get there. He's got a phaser and you don't. Now put the damn jumpsuit on." He stood back, arms crossed, with a look of expectation.

"We need to make a stand!" Jim said, voice rising. He knew he was taking this too far, but he couldn't seem to stop himself. "We can't just—"

"Kirk, that's enough!" Andrews was suddenly standing in front of him, blocking Jim from the guard's view. "Put it on and that's an order."

Military discipline kicked in. He was out of line, no two ways about it. Jim swallowed his anger down and gave a grudging nod. "Yes, sir." He managed to control his voice, but his hands were trembling with pent-up adrenaline.

He stripped off his red uniform shirt, keenly aware of the way the other men were watching him with barely veiled antagonism. Andrews kept his eyes trained on him, and Bones wore a matching expression of irritated impatience.

Great, he thought, heart pounding in agitation. Public enemy number one, and I'm not even the guy holding the phaser.

He was reaching for the clasp of his pants when he felt Andrews' large hand grasping his shoulder. "It's just work clothes, Kirk," the commander said, his voice surprisingly gentle. "Save your strength for the real battles." Up close, Jim could tell see that Andrews was older than he first thought, with streaks of grey in his thinning hair and lines around his eyes and mouth.

"Sir," Jim said, quietly enough so that only Andrews could hear, "we need to show them that we won't give in so easily. They're not going to kill us over a pair of pants."

Andrews managed to look both sympathetic and stern. "Let's not test that theory just yet, cadet." He regarded Jim for a minute, then added, "I don't trust these pieces of scum any more than you do, but for now, we need to play our cards carefully. Let's wait for a time when the odds are a little more in our favor. Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," he managed, his throat constricted. Andrews gave Jim's shoulder a slap that, he supposed, was meant to be supportive—or maybe a warning—and walked back to the others.

Jim sighed and stepped out of his pants, feeling the fight drain out of him. He was furious, suddenly, at himself. He shouldn't have lost control like that, not in front of the guards, and certainly not in front of the other men. Andrews was right, and hell, Bones too. The others might be scared, but they weren't stupid or naïve, and he wasn't helping matters any trying to force a confrontation when they were weaponless and completely unable to fight back.

Defeated, he picked up his uniform from where he'd let it fall on the floor. The shirt was filthy and stained from the battle, but he smoothed the creases on the shirt front, letting his fingers linger over the Starfleet insignia. It seemed important to fold the sleeves back symmetrically and line up the seams of the pant legs with careful precision before pressing them flat.

The sight of the other gold, red, and blue shirts stacked in a neat pile on the floor tugged at his guts. Who knew if any of them would have the chance to wear the uniform again?

The jumpsuit was shapeless, baggy, and a little too big on his slim frame. The rugged material felt heavy and uncomfortable against his skin. He looked around at the others; already, they seemed smaller, less defiant, unsure of themselves in these garish costumes.

Bones was leaning back against the way, watching Jim out of the corner of his eye. He felt a need to apologize, or at least explain, but he wasn't sure he completely understood himself. He shuffled quietly up to the doctor and said in a low voice, "You know what I think, Bones?"

Bones glanced at the guard, who seemed occupied at the other side of the room, and whispered back, "I'm sure you're gonna tell me, whether I ask or not."

"I'm serious. I think that if there's a God up there, he's laughing his ass off at me. The last thing I wanted to be was a redshirt, and now look at me."

Bones gave him a gloomy once-over, then turned back to face the guard. The corner of his mouth twitched. "You were right. Orange is definitely not your color, kid." After a pause, he asked, "How's your head? You feeling all right?"

"I just can't stand doing nothing, Bones," he admitted, aware that he was answering a question that Bones hadn't really asked. "I don't want them to feel like they have all the control."

Bones nodded, his expression pained. "Well, for now, it looks like they're calling all the shots. We just have to sit tight and wait, and that's hard."

Jim gave a low laugh. "I guess I suck at waiting."

"Among other things," Bones agreed.

 

Twenty hours cooped up in a small room was enough to make Jim long for some open spaces, and a few hours' sleep snatched on the floor hadn't done anything to improve his mood. His head ached miserably. The food they'd been given was nothing but protein drinks and ration bars, unappetizing and not particularly filling. Even so, the men lined up quickly for their shares, eager for something to break up the boredom. And to top it off, the room smelled: the air recyclers on the ship didn't seem able to handle the output of acrid sweat from nine anxious men, and the stench was a constant irritation.

He had no outlet for his nervous energy. The cell was too small to really move around much, and when he started pacing, the others immediately yelled at him to settle down. Jim envied Bones, the only one who had anything useful to do. The doctor moved methodically among the men, checking them over one by one with the med scanner and talking to them quietly. Jim noticed that he returned every few hours to Akira Yoshida, who was sitting withdrawn in a corner, encouraging him to interact and eat.

Jim kept to himself, burdened by a restless fury that made him poor company. No one seemed particularly interested in striking up a conversation with him anyway. He figured that he'd already been tagged as a troublemaker.

The other men huddled together in a group against the far wall, engrossed in tense conversation. Jim could hear bits of it occasionally, when someone's voice would rise before being quickly shushed by the others.

"—come looking for us, you'll see!"

"…promised my daughter I'd be there for her birthday! Who's going to tell her what happened?"

"…building a utopia for pampered colonists who only care about themselves."

"—not a frickin' construction worker, and if they think I'm going to…"

"Shut up, Collins, nobody wants to hear your damn predictions!"

Jim tried to tune it out, but the room was too small and his senses were hyper-aware.

He sighed and crossed the room, dropping down quietly on the floor beside the still form of his roommate. Jim didn't know Yoshida well. He was an introvert, so shy that even when they'd shared a meal together with the other engineering grunts, he'd barely looked up from his plate or his PADD. Since they'd been taken aboard Childress' ship, Yoshida had hardly budged from his perch in the corner. He kept his thoughts to himself during the noisy argument when they'd first arrived, changed clothes without protest, and spent most of his time staring blankly ahead. Jim was pretty sure he was in some sort of psychic shock. That was understandable, but Childress didn't look like the patient type, and they'd be on Rigel by the end of the day. Everybody would need to be functioning and alert by then.

"Hey, Yoshi. How're you doing?" Yoshida made a noncommittal grunt but didn't look at him. Jim had tried to talk to him twice already, but he seemed just as uncommunicative this time as he'd been before.

"Never liked sleeping on the floor," Jim confided, rolling his neck back and forth in an awkward stretch. Yoshida sighed but otherwise made no comment. "Really makes you appreciate the beds on the ship, huh? Even if we had to hot bunk."

Jim plodded on despite Yoshida's silence. "But who could sleep anyway with Collins snoring so loud over there, right? And everybody whispering and arguing in the corner all night… I don't have the patience for it. You neither, huh?" He waited, then went on, "I figure we'll know soon enough what the conditions are on the planet. What's the point in arguing about it now?"

Jim paused again, but there was no response. "So, uh… you're probably doing the smart thing, resting like this. I can't sit still, but I think if I start pacing again one of the guys is gonna deck me…" He felt somewhat ridiculous but continued his rambling monologue, hoping that he was somehow normalizing the experience for Yoshi, making it safer. He wondered if the man even heard him, or was so deep in his own mind that Jim's voice was nothing more than an irritating buzz, like a mosquito.

"Something bad happened to me, Yoshi, a long time ago," he found himself saying quietly, almost to himself. "Something I don't talk about, ever. Not like this, exactly, but… everything just changed in my life overnight. I saw things…" He swallowed. "I had to do things I never thought I'd need to do, things I didn't know how to do, things I wasn't ready for. I was scared, all the time. A lot of people were depending on me, and sometimes I let them down."

He glanced over at Yoshida, surprised to see that he seemed to be listening, looking directly at Jim for the first time. Taking a deep breath, Jim continued, "It was hard, and it changed me, but… one of the things I learned was that people are stronger than you might think. You can get through some pretty bad places if you're determined and smart. That's really the key. You probably think you don't have what it takes, but you're wrong."

Yoshida finally spoke up. "I'm not in the mood for conversation, Kirk," he said in a hollow voice. "But thanks, anyway."

Jim nodded awkwardly and stood up. Well, that was a response, if not the one he was hoping for... but there didn't seem to be anything else he could do for Yoshi right now.

He sat back down at the edge of the group, arms clasped loosely around his knees. He leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes for a minute. Fuck, the waiting was killing him. They had fifteen more hours, if Childress was telling the truth.

"If they need a pressure dome for the colonists," Martin Cho was saying in a low voice, "how the hell are we supposed to breathe?"

"Oxygen's not the problem," Fredericks said. "The air's breathable, but it's too windy, or something. Grit and dust everywhere."

"What kind of problems is that going to cause, McCoy?" Andrews cast a worried glance at the doctor, who, like Jim, was sitting quietly on the periphery of the group.

Bones looked distinctly unenthusiastic. "Hard to say, till we see how bad it is. But… respiratory problems, obviously. Asthma attacks and allergic reactions. Eye irritation. If there's a bad storm, we'll need to try to keep our noses and mouths covered as much as possible."

"Doesn't sound all that bad." Raji Sengupta sounded hopeful. "A little dust? We can manage."

"Speak for yourself," Fredericks said nervously. "I had asthma when I was a kid." Jim saw the corners of Bones' mouth tighten into a frown.

"They wouldn't put up a protective dome just for a little dust," another man put in. "It's a huge expense and a real drain on energy resources. If they need a dome, we should assume the environment's unlivable without one."

"I did desert survival training in the Sahara while I was at the Academy," Cho said. "We got caught in a sand storm at one point. I couldn't see two meters in front of me. My team had to wait out the storm in a tent for a day and a half."

"But Rigel's not a desert planet," Fredericks said. "It's not the same."

"Even so, I'd like to know what else you learned in that course," Andrews said, sounding intrigued. "We're going to need all the information we can get."

Cho nodded. "Yes, sir. It was like a wall of dirt, as high as you could see, engulfing everything. We couldn't breathe without air masks…"

Jim scowled to himself. Rigel wasn't the Sahara, and none of them were equipped with standard Starfleet-issue survival packs, complete with triethylene blankets and laser flares. Cho obviously loved the attention, but who the hell cared how his team managed to keep their insulated tent anchored in the roaring winds? Most of what he was saying was irrelevant, but he was acting like it was vital information.

"The densest concentration of sand is near the ground," Cho finished, looking around to make sure he had the others' attention. "So—this is important to remember—the best thing you can do is get to higher ground."

This was too much. "You're talking out of your ass, Cho," he snapped.

Heads turned toward him, and Andrews frowned. "Watch your tongue, Kirk. And what would you know about it?"

"He's wrong and it'll get someone killed," Jim said, aware that all eyes were now fixed on him. "In a dust storm—or a sand storm—you have to try and keep low. The biggest particles of dust will be near the ground, but they're not as dangerous. The wind stirs the finer particles up higher, and those are the ones that'll choke you."

"That's not what they taught us." Cho was clearly annoyed. "And I got top marks in that course."

"So I guess they taught you wrong. And you got lucky."

"Desert survival's a fourth-year elective," Fredericks said, giving him a skeptical look. "You're just a third-year cadet."

Fuck you, asshole. "I read a lot," Jim said.

"Probably saw it in a picture book for kids," Collins said in a stage whisper, and the others laughed. "You don't know what you're talking about, Kirk, so why don't you keep your inexperienced mouth shut?"

"Actually, he's right." Everyone turned to look at the doctor, who'd been sitting quietly in the corner. "From a medical standpoint, suffocation, dehydration, and blindness are the biggest concerns in a dust storm, and it's the smaller particles that are the real danger. If you don't have shelter, your best bet is to stay low to the ground with your back to the wind, and cover your airway with some kind of cloth."

Jim felt somewhat mollified, although Cho was looking decidedly displeased. "But," Bones continued, "it's a moot point, because if there's a storm that bad, it would be suicide to go out in it without protective equipment."

There was a long silence as the men digested that remark.

"We're not going to argue about it now," said Andrews, with a note of finality. "Try to get some rest, men."

The doctor came to his side a few minutes later. "I want to look you over again," he said. He ran his fingers over the bandage, checking the seal.

"Leave it alone, Bones, I'm fine."

"You're not the doctor, are you?" Bones looked angry, although Jim wasn't sure why. He was glaring at Jim while he checked him with the scanner and then ran through the same list of symptoms that he'd asked about before: dizziness, nausea, blurry vision.

"Rate your headache pain," Bones told him. "You goddamn jackass."

"Why the fuck are you mad at me?" Jim asked. "I was trying to make sure people don't die in a dust storm! And the headache's a three."

"You've never heard of something called tact, have you, kid," Bones said in a tight whisper.

"Cho's an ass," Jim said sullenly. "A few days of survival training doesn't make him an expert."

"Reading a few nature manuals sure as hell doesn't make you one, either."

Jim looked away, his angry retort dying in his throat. There was nothing he could say to that, nothing that Bones could understand, anyway.

"I know," he said finally. "You're right. I'm sorry." It was easier to apologize than to explain, and he didn't want to alienate the one friend he had.

He cooperated without protest through the rest of Bones' instructions: squeeze my hands, close your eyes and extend your arms, follow my finger with your eyes.

"No signs of complications," Bones said finally. "Because you're a hard-headed idiot."

He sighed. "So I've been told."

Bones' expression softened. "Get some sleep, if you can," he said, rising to his feet. "I'm going to sit with Yoshida for a bit."

 

As the men quieted and the whispers died away, Jim tried to sleep, but he couldn't seem to block out the sounds of the unfamiliar ship. He could hear the engines making an odd hum. They were probably traveling fast, maybe warp four or five, but he couldn't really tell.

The fear he'd been holding at bay since their capture began to settle over him, sending his heart racing and drenching him in a cold sweat. This was going to be bad, very bad. He was really and truly scared. It wasn't a fear of the conditions on the planet, or even of the hard labor that obviously awaited them.

It was more of a chilling dread—a bone-deep horror—that his story was simply over, that he would never have a chance to do anything meaningful or worth remembering, that he would rot in some hellhole on a backwater planet and no one would ever know.

 

Rigel XII

Leonard

They arrived at the labor camp just after sunset. Leonard couldn't see much through the dusty gloom aside from a collection of heavy equipment and a number of solid-looking buildings. He got a glimpse of an armed guard in a watchtower near where they were standing, and another further along the perimeter of the camp.

The wind blew in ferocious gusts. The men were forced to trudge with their heads down, squinting against the swirling dirt. Leonard realized that the sturdy jumpsuits had an advantage; the orange material was stiff and thick, but at least it protected them and provided some warmth. His face was stinging from the grit and dirt that was whipped about by the wind.

He couldn't quite grasp the fact that this primitive, gloomy place was where he'd be living for the next three years. Or maybe for the rest of his life.

Lord Almighty.

The guards led them into a long, low-lying building, slamming the metal door behind them with a clang. The sudden disappearance of the wind left his ears ringing. Inside it was warm—stuffy, even—well-lit, and crowded. Leonard felt his mouth open in shock at the sight of more than a hundred other men, all wearing the same ugly orange jumpsuits, sitting or lying on the bunks, looking at them in sullen silence. Glancing around, Leonard could see a few humanoids with the pronounced facial ridges that marked them as Denobulans, some bearded Tellarites, Risians, and even a couple of blue-skinned Andorians. Humans, though, were by far the largest group.

Childress pointed the Atlantis men to a group of narrow two-tiered duraplast slabs near the door. "These are your bunks. You get two blankets each and another set of clothes, and you wash 'em yourselves. Showers and latrine are at the far end." His voice was matter-of-fact. "Get some rest and meet your bunkmates. Wake up call's at sunup, and you'll be assigned to work teams."

Andrews met Childress' hard look with one of his own. "What about food? My men are hungry."

Childress, on the other hand, seemed less than impressed. "You get three meals a day," he said flatly, "and the next one's in the morning." He left with his men, closing the door behind them with another loud metallic bang.

As soon as Childress left, the other prisoners resumed talking in subdued conversations. Some were looking at the Atlantis men with curiosity, some with suspicion.

"Well, we're dressed right for the party," Raji said. "But looks like somebody forgot to invite the girls." Some of the men responded with a nervous laugh.

"Cut the jokes, Raj," Aquino said impatiently. "Do you think these guys are all hijacked crews? There's over a hundred and thirty here…"

"I'm starving," Collins said. "Did that bastard say no food until tomorrow?"

"Never mind that right now." Andrews looked troubled, but his voice was controlled. "We need to understand what's going on here. Then we'll make some kind of plan of action. We'll split up and talk to the others. Yoshida, you're with me." Good call, Leonard thought, as Yoshida looked up and straightened automatically. He had a growing respect for the quiet, unassuming helmsman; Andrews was a natural leader. "The rest of you, move out, but don't go alone."

There was a grudging chorus of "Yes, sirs." Aquino nodded to Raji, and they headed toward the nearest workers.

"You heard the man, Freddy," Cho said to Fredericks, whose mouth had twisted into an unhappy frown the minute Andrews had given the order. "I'll do the talking, don't worry. You coming, Collins?" Leonard saw him flick his eyes at Jim, and Collins nodded in understanding. The three of them walked off.

That left Jim with him. No surprise there, he thought. The other knew that they were friends, of a sort, and Jim had certainly done everything he could to piss off the rest of the group while they were on the ship.

He'd seen Jim angry and belligerent before, when he'd first gotten sick, but then, at least, he'd been willing to listen to Leonard, even when he didn't like what he was hearing. But for the last two days Jim had seemed unreachable, filled with a kind of fury that outstripped his good sense. Jim was intelligent and far from naïve, but he had an absolute faith in his own viewpoint, and he didn't seem to care who knew it. The only one he seemed to be listening to was Andrews, and even then it was a close call.

The one person who seemed to penetrate his armor was Yoshida. He'd seen Jim talking to him more than once, his voice low and gentle. It was an odd counterpoint to the hostility he'd shown in almost every other interaction.

He wondered if Jim even realized how the others saw him. Leonard had overheard a conversation between some of the men while Jim was sleeping. He’d been lying on his side, facing away from the others and trying to shut out their voices, when Fredericks' voice had caught his attention.

"Andrews seems to know what he's doing. I'm glad we've got a bridge officer here."

"I've known him for years. He's a smart man." Leonard easily recognized Raji's accent. "But… did any of you try to talk to Yoshida? I hardly know him, but it seems like he's not doing very well."

"Good thing we've got a doctor with us."

"Yoshi'll come out of it," Cho said. "He's a dependable engineer, keeps his head under pressure."

"It's Kirk that's got me worried." Collins' voice was low, and Leonard had to strain to hear it. "He's got a short fuse, and that self-righteous attitude… Did you see how he practically disobeyed Andrews' order?"

The others murmured their assent, and he heard Cho say, "I was about to do something when the doc got there first. The guard was getting ready to shoot."

"Let's keep in mind that Kirk's still a cadet, and this is his first onboard training assignment," Aquino put in. "Andrews talked to him already, and I think he'll settle down, but we're going to need to keep an eye on him."

"I don't trust him," someone said, but Leonard wasn't sure who.

Even now, Jim didn't seem to notice the way the other men had left him behind by mutual agreement, or maybe he just ignored the snub.

"Guess that leaves you and me, Bones," he said with a wry half-smile. "Come on, let's make some friends."

Leonard wasn't a sociable man under the best of circumstances, and a round of introductions with this crowd of mistrustful thugs was about the last thing he was in the mood for. "In a minute. I want to check out the latrines, see what kind of deadly bacteria's waiting to jump us in the showers."

"Oh, is that what doctors do for fun?" Jim asked. Leonard gave him a sour look. "We can do that later, anyway. The germs aren't going anywhere. You come with me to meet our new bunkmates, and then I'll go with you to the latrines. Right now we need information."

Leonard felt suddenly exhausted. What I need, he thought, is a few moments alone. Since this whole mess had started, he hadn't been able to step out of his professional role—the doctor, the caretaker—but the fact was, he was as scared as the rest of them. Despair was knocking at the edge of his awareness, and he felt a growing need to be comforted himself. The only one who'd really tried to reassure him, ironically, was Jim… but considering the source, that wasn't much help.

He followed Jim reluctantly as he made his way through the barracks, letting him take the lead. "I'm Jim Kirk, from the U. S. S. Atlantis. Who's been here the longest?" he asked the first man he saw. They were directed to a group of unkempt men in the far corner, close to the showers.

"Figures," Jim told him in a low voice, as they walked toward the back. "They have the most seniority here, so they've got the best location for their bunks. We're the new guys, stuck by the door where it's drafty and noisy."

It was a surprisingly astute observation. "And you know this because…?"

"It just makes sense." At Leonard's raised eyebrow, Jim laughed. "OK, you caught me, I like watching vintage action movies about prison breakouts. You never know when the information might come in handy."

Leonard just shook his head. He knew Jim was trying to distract him, but he didn't have the energy to rise to the bait.

Jim took one of the men aside for a quiet conversation. Greg Parker was a navigator from the Aries who'd been stuck on Rigel for over two and a half years. Leonard listened to his explanations about the work crews, meal distributions, and shower schedules, only half attentive. Mostly, he was looking at Parker, trying to envision the clean-cut scientist that he used to be. It was an ominous glimpse into the future. This was what the rest of them would look like in a few months: a scruffy beard and a ragged haircut, skin tanned from the wind, and a rough, hardened look in their eyes.

"Has anyone escaped, during the time you've been here?" Jim asked.

"Sure." Parker shrugged. "Every time Childress brings in a new load of workers, one of them always tries to run. If you don't get shot, you can make it past the camp limits, but what's the point? Nobody can survive out there unprotected for very long, with all that wind and dust."

Jim's lips tightened; obviously, that wasn't the answer he'd been hoping to hear. "Do you have any idea if they ever made it to the colony?"

"Who knows?" Parker gave a harsh laugh. "Alpheus is a good hundred kilometers from here, and this area's mostly a barren wilderness. No edible plants, not much water. How would they survive?"

"It's possible, though. Somebody must have…" At Parker's look of doubt, Jim's voice trailed off in uncertainty.

"And even if they did reach it, what then? It's a controlled environment, locked and sealed. You can't get in. And nobody's gonna open the gates for you dressed like this." He gestured at his own orange jumpsuit, and shook his head. "All I know is, the cavalry never came back for us."

Parker sighed, and something softened in his expression. "Look, I'm telling you this for your own good. Escape's not an option. You need to accept the fact that this is where you're going to stay until they decide to let you go."

 

By the time the men from the Atlantis regrouped, Leonard had already grasped the broad outlines of their bleak new life as Childress' labor force. The new information from the others just filled in the miserable pieces.

"I talked to men from the Eagle, the Corona, and the Aries," reported Andrews, rubbing a hand over his face. He looked worn out. "Their ships were ambushed just like we were."

Cho made a sound of agreement. "The Normandy, too. That's a civilian transport. And a Risian ship."

"I counted a hundred and thirty-eight workers," Yoshida offered, speaking up for the first time.

"Prisoners," Jim corrected grimly. "You can say the word, Yoshi. That's what we are."

Collins shot Jim a warning look. "Leave him alone, Kirk. Why do you always have to push?"

"He's right, for once," Cho said angrily. "We're locked into this barracks and there are armed guards outside! I'd say that makes us prisoners."

"Let's get back to the information," Andrews prodded, stilling the others with a glance. "What else did you learn?"

Fredericks leaned forward, his voice trembling slightly. "There are five work crews. Anyone who's sick or injured stays back for meal preparation and maintenance. The others go out on construction or work in the factories. One goes down into the mines, and that's the one to avoid." His mouth tightened. "They don't care much about safety conditions."

"Course not, that would cut into the profits," Jim said, shrugging his shoulders. "They can always go out and get a few more workers if something happens to us."

"That's enough, Kirk," Andrews said sharply, and Jim reddened. "McCoy, I saw you looking at the showers. What's the situation there?"

Like something out of a museum. He'd never actually seen a chemical toilet before, and the odor had made him gag, but there was no point in going into details. The men would find out themselves soon enough. "It's a bit primitive," he said as casually as he could, "and it'll take a little getting used to, but… it's relatively clean. Even so, we'll have to be careful. Wash your hands before eating. They said everyone gets a canteen, so drink as much as possible. With all this wind, it'll be easy to get dehydrated."

"They told me the mine workers get filthy so they use the water showers." Raji looked faintly disgusted. "Everybody else uses sonics, but they don't work all that well."

"I've heard some stories about the dust storms," Collins said with a slight shudder. "They can last for days and they keep the workers shut up in here until it's over."

"There's another thing," Leonard said reluctantly. "I talked to the medic from the Normandy. Anyone who gets seriously hurt or sick doesn't have much of a chance. The medical supplies are pretty nonexistent. They've got an ancient medical tricorder, a 30-year-old set of laser scalpels, some antibiotics, basic meds. Most of the tools are just--" He grimaced in revulsion. Nobody needed to hear about the suturing set… or the woefully meager supply of gauze bandages. The medical supplies were restocked occasionally, he'd learned, but not according to any regular schedule. Right now, they were low on almost everything. "Never mind, you don't want to know."

"Security's pretty tight," Aquino offered, after a tense silence. "I asked around. The guards have some kind of projectile weapons. Some phasers too. There are six watchtowers around the perimeter of the camp, and we need to watch our step. The guards are a little trigger-happy, from what I hear."

Jim perked up, a hint of a smile on his lips. "Only six guards? We're almost a hundred and forty men! We'll have to keep an eye on the guards, see if there's anywhere along the perimeter where there's a breach…"

"Let's not plan a mass break-out just yet," Andrews said, giving Jim a pointed look. "Ensign Aquino, you're our only trained security officer, so I'm putting you in charge of reconnaissance. Find out as much as you can about the guards' weaponry and movements. But our first order of business is getting our bearings, learning the ropes, seeing how the camp is run."

"Good idea," Fredericks said, nodding. "We need to play it safe."

"Last thing," Andrews said. "Did anyone find out more about the colony?"

"Yeah, I did," Cho said. "But not much. It's over a hundred klicks away, and none of the labor crews get near it. Nobody's actually come in contact with any of the colonists."

Andrews nodded. "So Fredericks probably knows more about Alpheus than anybody here. That may give us an advantage. What else do you remember, Lieutenant?"

"I don't know anything else besides what I told you, sir," Fredericks protested. "There's a dome with a controlled environment. That's really all I know."

"Let's go over it again," Jim said. "Any little detail might be important, even if you don't think it's relevant."

"I already told you everything I remember."

"Well, do you remember when your sister was supposed to arrive? Maybe there's a new batch of colonists coming. There must be a gate, or some kind of way to get in—"

"I told you that I don't know!" There was a look of panic in Fredericks' eyes, and Leonard frowned. "I wasn't really even paying attention when my sister showed me the vids!"

"We don't need to talk about it tonight," Cho said quickly. "It's okay, Freddy."

"I'm a physicist. I'll never last three years in this hellhole, let alone three months…"

"Calm down," Leonard said, dropping a hand onto Fredericks' thin shoulder. "The conditions aren't optimal, but they're livable. We'll just take it one step at a time." Turning to Jim, he mouthed "Back off!" with an accompanying glare for emphasis.

Jim spread his hands, mouthing back "What did I do?" But he took a few steps back, gazing glumly around the barracks. Most of the other men were already in their bunks.

"We should get some sleep," said Andrews, his voice hoarse from fatigue. "We'll need our strength for tomorrow."

 

Two hours later, lying on his bunk, Leonard flipped yet again from his back onto his side. Duraplast was cold and hard as hell, and the thin blanket he was lying on didn't do much to soften it. The blanket itself was covered with a fine film of dust, scratchy against his cheek. The wind whistled through small cracks in the construction, and he could hear the ripple of sand as it scattered and beat along the walls in gusts. And sleeping in close quarters with so many other grown men was noisy. They snored, muttered, grunted in their sleep, and got up to use the latrine. Every time he was about to nod off, something else woke him.

There was a soft thump on the floor next to him. Leonard's eyes snapped open to find someone crouched by the side of his bed, having dropped down from the upper-tier bunk over his head. "Can't sleep, Bones?" Jim, of course.

"How the hell did you—"

"Been hearing you tossing for hours." Jim settled himself on the edge of the bed, pushing at Leonard until he moved over to make room. "Me too. Not exactly a high quality mattress, huh?"

"For God's sake, Jim," he whispered angrily, "that's not the problem."

"You could always try jerking off," Jim suggested lightly. "I'm pretty sure Collins did, and listen to him snoring now." As if in response, Collins twitched in his bunk across from them, mumbling something incoherent.

Leonard exhaled a loud breath in irritation. "Thanks for the suggestion, you ass, but I'm too damn hungry to think about that."

Jim looked down at him for a minute, then reached a hand slowly into the waistband of his own jumpsuit. He leaned back slightly, fumbling for something in his briefs.

Oh, for the love of… "Knock it off, kid!" The last thing he wanted right now was some kind of mutual wank.

Jim pulled out something wrapped in crinkling plastic. "What's the matter?" he asked innocently, then began to laugh quietly, his white teeth gleaming in the dim light. "Did you really think I was gonna whip it out right here?"

Leonard's lips quirked in embarrassment. "Well, I wouldn't put it past you. What've you got there?"

Jim held the object he'd retrieved firmly in both hands, broke it in two with a quick, sharp movement, then handed one half to Leonard. It was part of a protein bar they'd been given on Childress' ship, he saw in astonishment. The small piece he gave Leonard contained about two hundred calories.

"You've had this in your underwear for the past twelve hours?" he asked. It seemed incredible that Jim had chosen to forego a large part of his last meal—he couldn't have known that Childress wouldn't give them anything to eat when they arrived—and then kept it hidden for the past ten hours.

"Well, where else was I supposed to put it?" He could hear the humor in Jim's low voice. "These jumpsuits don't have pockets."

"You're more resourceful than I thought."

"You shouldn't underestimate me, Bones." Jim popped his half into his mouth. It wasn't much more than a bite. "Tasteless but filling. It'll help you sleep."

Even in his foul mood, Jim's generosity touched him. "That's very thoughtful, but I can't take your food, Jim. I already had mine back on the ship."

"Eat it, Bones. I'm going to try to sleep a little." Without giving Leonard any further opportunity for argument, Jim got to his feet and pulled himself up smoothly to the upper bunk. Leonard could hear him shifting around, arranging himself on the blankets.

It's a gift. Don't be a stubborn ass.

Sighing, he began nibbling on the corner of the bar. It was surprisingly comforting, like a late-night snack. It settled his stomach and calmed him, and he was finally able to drift off.

 

Jim

Sore and sleep-deprived, Jim was rousted out of bed at dawn by a loud electronic whistle, blasting through the camp. There was a collection of groans and curses from the nearby bunks. Dim bluish light filtered into the barracks from a series of windows high up on the walls. The placement was obvious: the windows let in the light but were too high for the men to see out of.

"Only got to sleep about three hours ago," Bones muttered from the bunk below. "Never slept on a slab of metal before."

Sleeping on the open ground wasn't much better, Jim knew, although he'd give anything to be able to do that now. He jumped down lightly from his bunk, twisting his neck from side to side and rolling his shoulders. "I thought doctors were in favor of sleeping on a hard surface," he said. "I never could understand why."

Bones grunted in annoyance. "Kid, I'm a surgeon, not a chiropractor. I like a nice soft mattress and a couple of firm pillows." Remembering the velvet-lined case with the tapered antique glasses, Jim felt a twinge of sympathy. Bones was a man who enjoyed his comforts and his privacy, both of which were going to be in short supply on Rigel.

Aquino eyed the latrine area, already crowded with the other prisoners. "Looks like we might have to wait to get in."

"They have a schedule," Raj said. "They go by ships. First come first served, so don't rush down there. We'll be last."

Fredericks was sitting up on his bed, looking around the barracks. "I can't believe this is happening." He seemed dazed. "Yesterday I was a Starfleet scientist, and today I'm supposed to be… what, a construction worker?"

"You're still a Starfleet scientist," Bones said sharply. "Being here doesn't change who you are."

Didn't it? Jim wondered. If they ever made it out of here, none of them would be the same. Already, he could feel how he was shutting his feelings down, closing off, trying not to think about the life he'd left behind. He supposed he should be fighting harder to hold on to who he was, like Bones was saying. But every time he reminded himself that he was James Kirk, future Starfleet engineer, it just rang false.

The problem was, it was hard to cling to an identity that was so new… especially when he had other, stronger parts of his past rising up to claim him. Maybe this was his true self: colder, angrier, stripped down to bare essentials. The result wasn't very pretty or very likable, but it was the only way he knew to protect himself and have a chance of surviving.

Even so, he wasn't completely unsympathetic to Fredericks. He was used to the predictable environment of the laboratory; he probably had no idea which was the business end of a hammer or how to use an autodrill. Fredericks was like Yoshi, still in a kind of shock. Not everybody could make the transition so easily.

"You know, I worked in construction for a while," Jim told him. It wasn't really a lie; his uncle gave him enough chores to do around the farm that he'd become a pretty fair handyman by his early teens. "You'll learn on the job. Nothing to it."

Fredericks gave him a dubious look. "Not for me. I've never been good with tools."

"Well, if they're mining duranium, they probably have a plant where they melt the ore and process it, right? Maybe you can work there." Fredericks nodded, looking a little relieved, although Jim had no idea whether they'd be given any choice about the work teams.

"Let's get in line," Andrews told them. "Looks like they're handing out some kind of breakfast."

Jim took a place at the end of the line, which stretched halfway down the barracks. He had time enough while he waited to get a good look at the other prisoners. They were all thin, he saw, and some of them downright gaunt. That was bad news. They didn't speak, just stood quietly waiting their turn, and he eventually realized why: one of Childress' men was standing at the head of the line, weapon drawn.

There must be a second door to the barracks at that end, he realized. It would give the guards more control over the prisoners, make their comings and goings less predictable. It meant that Childress wasn't taking chances with them. More bad news.

He took his portion of the food—a smallish loaf of synthesized bread, a protein cube, and a canteen of water—and, like the others, went back to their area of the barracks to eat. It was a quiet, tense meal, as if the men were totally focused on building up their strength for the coming day.

His bunk was on the upper tier, so he sat down next to Bones on his bed. He knew the doctor would probably prefer to eat alone, sunk in his own morose thoughts, but Jim didn't feel like climbing back up onto his bed.

Before he began, he ripped off a third of the dry, crumbly bread and stuck it down his jumpsuit, tucking it carefully inside the elastic of his briefs. It would get a little sweaty, but, he reasoned, the salt and the humidity might actually make it more palatable. "Guys, don't eat all the bread," he said, pointing to the small bulge against his right hip. "Save some for later."

"Doesn't look very sanitary, Kirk," Cho said, eyeing the lump in Jim's jumpsuit skeptically, "considering what else is in those briefs."

"I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm starving," Aquino said, wolfing the last of his share down. "We didn't get anything to eat last night."

"Me, too. I'm not good at skipping meals," Fredericks said nervously.

"That's exactly why you put some aside," Jim said. "For when you get hungry later."

"Why?" Andrews asked. "The medic said we'll get three meals a day. If you know something else, Kirk, you need to tell us."

Jim knew how important that extra bread could be. It was a small trick he'd learned. Having something tangible to look forward to, even if it was just a few bites of bread, gave you a small sense of control in a crazy situation. It could keep you going when you were at the end of your strength, knowing that you had a little something extra hidden away. But now wasn't the time to explain how he knew that.

"No, I don't have any other information, sir… I just think it's a good idea to save a little to eat later. For a snack."

Bones shot him a questioning look, but, Jim noted, he tore off the end of his bread and hid it away. After a minute, Fredericks and Andrews followed suit.

 

Outside the barracks, under the watchful gaze of the guards, the rest of the prisoners divided themselves efficiently into their assigned work crews, leaving the nine men from the Atlantis huddled behind in a tense group. The wind seemed to have died down somewhat, leaving behind a chill in the early morning air. In the distance there was a mountainous range.

There was no sign of the Alpheus dome anywhere that he could see. A hundred kilometers away was just too far. He'd been nursing a vague hope that the colonists would notice something out of the ordinary in the camp—maybe they'd be able to rig up some kind of SOS signal—and come investigate, but at this distance, they wouldn’t be able to see the camp at all.

He twisted around, trying to get a better sense of where they were. Inside the guarded perimeter of the camp, there were a number of large, interconnected buildings in addition to the barracks—the duranium processing plant, he guessed, or some kind of factory—and in one area, there was a collection of heavy-duty construction vehicles. Just outside the camp in one direction he could see a gigantic pit, obviously the duranium mine, stretching out almost to the horizon; the gleaming copper-colored ore was visible in places. On the edge of the pit were several enormous pieces of terraforming equipment, excavators and soil movers and other things Jim couldn't identify.

Outside the camp, for as far as he could see, there was nothing but sparsely wooded scrubland.

He turned his attention back to the camp. Childress was striding toward them quickly, accompanied by two of his men, all armed.

Bones leaned toward him, whispering, "Probably safest to work in one of the factories. Stick with me, okay?"

"But we should try to get on a team that leaves the camp," Jim protested. "Might be easier to get away."

"Might be easier to get shot, you mean." Bones gave him a warning look. "Don't do anything stupid, kid."

It irked him that Bones seemed to think he was some kind of impulsive child who needed to be watched, but before he could reply, Childress was standing before them. "All right," he said, as serious and unsmiling as ever, "I'm going to divide you up into work teams. Don't give me any trouble about it, either."

"Why don't you tell me how many workers you need for each crew, and I'll divide up the men," Andrews said quickly. "I know their skills and where they'll work best."

Childress looked at him for a minute, then shrugged. "It's all the same to me, doesn't matter who goes where. I need five to work on construction."

Andrews nodded, and then considered, looking over the group. "Cho and Collins," he said, and they nodded. "Raj, Aquino, and… " He paused.

"Sir, choose me," Jim said in a low voice, giving him the most persuasive look that he could. Construction was the best he could hope for. He could find out know how the domes were built, what materials were used, what points were most vulnerable. Maybe he could swipe a tool, improvise a weapon. Better yet, there must be vehicles used to transport the workers and the materials. Maybe he could take out a guard, steal a vehicle somehow…

Andrews met his gaze, but then glanced at the rest of the group—Bones, Yoshida, and Fredericks—and shook his head. "And me," he finished firmly. Jim fought to keep his disappointment out of his face.

"Fine," Childress said. "I need one worker for the mines, and the rest of you can work in the duranium plant. Any of you got experience using tovex or corinite?"

Explosives, Jim thought. Good enough.

"I do." Jim stepped forward, or tried to, but Bones' hand on his arm yanked him back.

"No, he doesn't." Bones called out, then glowered at him. "You don't."

"He volunteered," Childress said with a shrug, looking indifferent. "All of you on the construction teams, come with me."

"Are you crazy?" Bones snapped, as the others walked away. "Why would you volunteer for that?"

"I know a little about explosives," Jim protested. He'd done some reading, and anyway, how complicated could it be? "I'm an engineer."

"You've been an engineer for two weeks!" Bones whispered furiously.

"So? Pike told me I have aptitude."

Bones seemed incensed by his flippant response. "They'll put you in the mines, you idiot!"

"Exactly," Jim whispered back. "I'll bet the security is pretty lax there. Maybe I could smuggle something out. We need weapons, Bones, don't you see? And besides, one of us has to go. Who would you rather send, Yoshi? Fredericks? You?"

"Yes, me!" Bones said. "At least I'm not a fool with a death wish!"

Jim shrugged off Bones' arm. "I'll see you tonight," he said. "Keep an eye on the others."

 

"You got experience in controlled blasting, right?" the foreman asked him, handing him a hard hat and a pair of gloves. "Know how to work with corinite?"

"Never worked on a duranium mine before," Jim said, figuring it was better to dodge the questions than give a straight answer. "But show me what to do. I'm a quick learner."

"You'd better be," the other man said shortly. "Or you won't last long."

It was only when he realized what was involved in setting up the blast that he began to regret his impulsive decision. He was put to work on a team that drilled and prepared the blast holes for most of the morning. Corinite, an impact-sensitive material, was the primary explosive and needed to be placed carefully in the holes. The blast itself would be initiated by a brief phaser burst on the first hole, which would start a chain reaction as each hole detonated, one after the other, igniting the tovex—the secondary explosive—and setting off a much more powerful explosion to break up the rock and expose the duranium ore.

"Set them down at the bottom of the holes, over the tovex," the foreman told him with a grim smile, pointing at the bars of corinite. "Try not to drop them or you might lose a foot."

"Thanks for the advice," he said, feeling his palms starting to sweat. He wiped them on the orange jumpsuit and took a deep breath, trying to calm his nerves.

Bones would probably be able to do this easily enough, Jim thought. He was a surgeon, so he must have steady hands… although on second thought, he wouldn't want to see the doctor anywhere near the mine.

The bigger danger, Jim learned later that day, wasn't from the explosive materials themselves, but from the rock that flew in all directions after the detonation. He managed to avoid getting injured himself, but one of the other laborers was struck by a stray piece of rock that left a deep cut in his left thigh. No one seemed particularly concerned, and the injured Risian just grabbed a strip of cloth and bound the bleeding wound tightly while Jim stared in horror.

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

He really needed to get to the Emerald City. As soon as fucking possible.

After the explosion, the excavation began, and Jim learned why working in the mines was considered such an unpopular job. It was hard, dirty physical labor in the hot sun and the stinging wind. The duranium ore had to be separated from the waste rock and excess dirt, then hauled away to be processed. The entire area was thick with a coarse dust from the explosions and the equipment. It made him cough, even with a piece of cloth tied around his nose and mouth, and by the end of the day his throat felt grainy and sore.

And it was noisy. Between the drilling, the blasting, the cutting, the crushing, the conveying, and the shouting, Jim soon found himself partially deaf, with a persistent ringing in his ears. Even worse was the constant, palpable tremor from the heavy drilling equipment. The vibration echoed off the walls of the pit and set his teeth on edge.

By the time they finally broke for a midday meal, he was exhausted. He focused on his food, too tired to even try to talk to the other workers. Childress' men sat a short distance apart. Only the foreman was armed, but there was no question of escape from the enormous pit. The rest of the camp wasn't even visible from his low vantage point. All he could see were the angled walls of the mine, sloping down like an enormous bowl, and the steel-grey sky above.

God, I hope Bones showed better sense than me, he thought. I hope they all did.

 

The doctor was waiting to ambush him as he emerged from the shower in the barracks that night. "You're an impetuous fool," he growled, shoving a bowl of soup, a spoon, and a sandwich into Jim's hands.

Jim chose to ignore the barbed greeting. Foregoing the spoon, he tilted the bowl toward his mouth, letting the warm liquid soothe his sore throat. It wasn't exactly delicious, but it was filling and tasty enough. "Thanks. How was your day, dear?"

"Never mind me," Bones said, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring as if Jim had committed some sort of personal affront against him. "What the hell happened to you? You came out of that mine looking like you'd spent the day rolling around in the dirt."

"What was that?" Jim asked, making a show of rubbing at his ear. "Can't hear very well. Too much noise at the mine."

"Oh, is that so? Then read my lips, hotshot," Bones said, turning to face him full on. Raising his voice, he enunciated each word with exaggerated clarity. "It'll be your own damn fault if you go deaf!" he yelled. Heads turned their way. "It's not enough that you volunteer to put yourself in a situation that might blast you to pieces, you're gonna give yourself acoustic trauma too!"

"Thanks for pointing that out," Jim said sourly, uncomfortably aware of the way the other men were watching. "I'll make sure to wear my ear plugs next time. And stop shouting, I can hear you well enough."

Bones lowered his voice, but still sounded furious. "I saw what happened to that Risian who was with you. He's lucky it didn't nick the artery!"

Jim sighed. Bones was closer to the truth than he knew, but Jim didn't have the patience for this now. His muscles ached and his throat itched from the dust, and he just wanted to collapse on his bunk. "He got caught by a rock in the blast."

"There's not much I can do for him, with the supplies we've got here," Bones muttered, looking grim. "If he develops an infection, I don't have the right kind of antibiotics for his physiology." He gave Jim a disgusted look. "That could've been you."

"What do you want, Bones? You think I don't know that explosives are dangerous?"

"I think you volunteered for the worst job here on a vague hunch that maybe somebody would hand you some explosives and a detonator and you'd waltz out of here without a second thought for your own safety."

Jim blew out an exasperated breath. "Fine! Yes, that's what I thought. Something like that, anyway."

Bones made a noise of grumpy satisfaction. "At least you admit it. Jackass."

"It's not as bad as all that," Jim grumbled. "I can handle it."

Why did Bones care that much? Jim had never had anyone in his life who was so concerned with what he did and how he behaved. Even his uncle had pretty much left him alone when he was a kid, as long as he did his chores on time and came home by nightfall.

Maybe this was just Bones' way of dealing with stress. He did look calmer, as if scolding Jim into submission had helped him blow off some steam. Well, he could rant all he wanted. It wouldn't change anything.

Jim started on the sandwich as they walked back to their bunks, forcing himself to take small bites. Eat slowly to make it last, he reminded himself. Save some for later.

"So… are you going to tell me about your day, or do I have to guess?" Jim asked. He nodded a greeting at the other Atlantis men, then sprawled out on Bones' slab of duraplast. The hard, flat surface actually felt good against his aching muscles. "I hope it went better than mine."

"I'm a goddamn metal worker," Bones said in a tone of disgust, sitting down beside him. "Spent the day tending the reactor where they mix the duranium alloys. It's better than where you are, I grant you that, but it's no picnic, either…"

Jim glanced over at the other men, only half-listening to Bones' sour descriptions of the stifling heat and dangerous conditions in the duranium plant. Cho and Fredericks, joined at the hip as always, were sitting side by side on one of the bunks. Fredericks was staring glumly at the floor and Cho seemed to be trying to encourage him, speaking intently in his ear. Yoshida was lying in his bunk, either asleep or pretending to be; Jim couldn't tell. Andrews, Collins, and Aquino were conferring quietly together in a corner. Raj was still chewing on the last bit of his sandwich, concentrating on it like it was his last meal.

Most of them were still in shock, he knew, still reeling from the appalling chain of events that had led them here. The reality of their new life here—the meager food, the hard labor, the primitive barracks, and the lack of control over almost every detail of their lives—was just beginning to sink in. This was Day One out of a thousand, if Childress was telling the truth. Which he wasn't.

They needed to find a way out, sooner rather than later. They desperately needed more information about the terrain, the climate, and Alpheus itself, but Fredericks hardly seemed able to remember his own name, let alone the particulars of a video brochure he'd glanced at months ago.

Lately, Jim seemed to be having the opposite problem. Memories that he'd managed to push out of his mind for years kept shoving their way into his consciousness. In the past, when that happened, he just shut them out, deliberately forgetting them again. When that failed, he'd fall back on one of his favorite techniques: a fast ride on his antique motorbike, a couple of shots of whiskey, a hard fuck or a good brawl, often in combination.

But here, in this new hellhole, memories were ambushing him, and he didn't seem to be able to block them.

"Jim, we need to get out of here," his friend Tom Leighton was whispering urgently, pulling at his arm. "We can't stick around."

"I'm coming…" he said, but didn't move. They were crouched in a ditch just behind the main square, barely hidden by some straggly thorn bushes. Tom was right, they shouldn't be here, but he couldn't take his eyes away from the crowd. There was his Aunt Middy, clutching Gavin in front of her, with Kaye wrapped in a blanket in her arms. She kept twisting around, looking left and right, obviously searching for his uncle or maybe even for him.

He didn't dare raise his head much, with the soldiers pacing back and forth right in front of him. But everyone was milling around nervously, and people he recognized kept popping into his line of vision: one of his teachers, a couple of kids who lived a few houses away, even old Mr. Duncan from the farmers' co-op.

Tom was still tugging at him, but he felt paralyzed, like he couldn't move even if he wanted to. The soldiers kept walking back and forth, their weapons pointed toward the crowd and glinting in the midday sun. It felt unreal, like he was in some sort of trance-

A trance. Holy shit.

He sat up with a sudden burst of energy. "Bones," he said, "do you know anything about hypnosis?"

"Hypnosis?" Bones snorted. "Do I look like a stage performer? You're talking nonsense, kid. Get some sleep. And hop up to your own bed, I want to lay down."

"I'm serious," Jim said, flicking his gaze toward Fredericks, who was curled up in his bunk now with his back toward them. "I read about it in an old book once. They used to do it to help people remember things they forgot."

"I know what it is," Bones said, stretching himself out on the blanket with a tired groan. "And don't believe everything you read. It doesn't work. If I were back on the Atlantis, there are any number of psychotropics I could give him to help retrieve the memory, but we don't have any of them here."

"But we need information about Alpheus, and Fredericks can't remember. He's so uptight, he won't even talk about it. If you hypnotize him he might be able to—"

"No." Bones shook his head, eyes still closed. "Whatever he says under hypnosis is likely to be completely inaccurate, Jim. Hypnosis was abandoned as a therapeutic technique hundreds of years ago, and with good reason. People claimed that they remembered things that never happened. It's unreliable."

"But it might work," Jim insisted. "What do we have to lose? Look, this doesn't have to stand up in court, we just need to know more about the colony."

"Well, hypnosis isn't going to turn back the clock and make him concentrate." Bones opened his eyes with a sigh, then turned onto his side, gazing at Fredericks thoughtfully, "But you're right about one thing. He's too tense to be able to recall any new information. Stress and anxiety affect cognitive skills. He might remember more if he were in a state of relaxation, if he felt safer… At the very least, it might help him focus better."

Jim smiled drowsily. "Now you're talking, Bones."

"I'll talk to Andrews about it when I get a chance, but don't get your hopes up, kid. I know a little about relaxation techniques, but they're not magic. Fredericks might not cooperate. And even if he remembers something new, it might not be what we're looking for. Maybe his sister just showed him the floor plans of the house she wanted to buy and the local swimming pool. Anyway," he sighed, "we're not doing it tonight."

"Good, 'cause I'm gonna fall asleep."

"Damn it, I have to get up." Bones hauled himself back upright and swung his legs off the bed. "I want to talk to the Normandy's medic again tonight. Don't fall asleep in my bed," he said, with a warning glare. "I mean it."

 

Much too soon, the morning siren was blaring in his ear again. At least the hard bunk hadn't bothered him, Jim thought; he'd slept like the dead.

In the lower bunk. Oops.

Bones' feet hit the floor heavily. He was scowling, with his hair mussed and a hint of a beard on his jaw. "I told you not to fall asleep in my bed," he said, rubbing a hand over his face.

"Yeah, I remember you telling me that," Jim said sheepishly. "Just don't remember the falling asleep part. Sorry."

"Never mind," he said, pushing two small, rubbery objects into Jim's hand. They were irregularly shaped and somewhat… squishy.

Jim gave the doctor a wary look. "What are these, vitamins? They look disgusting."

Bones rolled his eyes. "They're ear plugs, you nitwit. I used a laser scalpel to butcher the lining of the Normandy's medkit. It's the only source of polyurethane padding I could find."

Jim blinked. "Ear plugs? You made them for me?" It was the last thing he'd expected. He was touched—Who would have thought that the doctor's coming down on him like the wrath of God was a prelude to this?—but at the same time, he felt a cold finger of apprehension down his back. This wasn't how it was supposed to work. Nobody needed to take care of him. It was always the other way around, especially in a situation like this.

His consternation must have been obvious because Bones' face lit up with the first genuine smile Jim had seen from him. "You're welcome," he told Jim, sounding smugly satisfied. "Try 'em out, kid."

Jim pushed the small plugs into his ear. Immediately, the ambient noise around him dampened considerably. "They won't shut out all the noise," Bones said, his voice sounding distant and thin, "but they should help."

Not trusting his voice, Jim could only nod.

 

Leonard

After a week at the camp, Leonard had developed a workable evening routine. He washed up and ate, checked in quickly with the others, and then collapsed on his bunk and didn't talk to anybody. The others left him alone, for the most part, only bothering him if they had a medical concern or question. Even Jim kept to himself, too exhausted from the work at the mines to do anything but crash on his bed when he got back.

He ignored the evening gripe sessions that the others seemed to need. If they wanted to moan and groan, that was fine, as long as they didn't involve him. And as long as they didn't get too loud.

"God, I'm thirsty," Collins complained, sprawled on his upper tier bunk. "The wind's picking up and my throat's dry as a bone from all that dust."

"So stop talking already," Cho told him. Good idea, Leonard thought. Collins never shut up.

"I need a drink and I'm too fucking tired to move."

"I'll comm room service for you," Raj offered. "You have to pay more but it's worth the expense. Plus the delivery boy's cute."

"Order me a pizza while you're at it," Aquino laughed. "Extra cheese. As long as you're paying."

"You can both go to hell," Collins told them, but the others were already chiming in: "Forget the pizza, I need a cold beer." "—take even Klingon bloodwine…" "I'd kill for an honest-to-God sandwich, this synthetic food is disgusting."

"Pipe down, all of you!" Andrews said sharply from his bed further down, and Leonard grunted in agreement. "Some of us are trying to rest, here."

"Yeah, shut up and stop complaining," Aquino agreed, lowering his tone only slightly. "And get me some water while you're up, Collins."

"I'm not going anywhere. Hey, Kirk! Get down out of that bunk," Collins called. He was looking over at Jim, who was lying quietly on his bed above Leonard. "Go get me and Aquino some water."

"Fuck off, Collins," Leonard heard him say. From his exhaustion in his voice, it was clear that the last thing Jim intended to do was get up. "I've been hauling rocks in the mines all day."

Collins' face reddened. "That's Lieutenant Collins to you. Sit up when I'm talking to you. And watch your language around me."

Leonard heard muffled sounds of movement from the bed overhead as Jim sat up. There was a pause, and when Jim spoke again, his voice was lower, with an angry, contemptuous note that made Leonard wince inwardly. "Get your own damn water, and don't pull rank with me here. This isn't the Atlantis."

Jim's words seemed to hang in the air as the others quieted suddenly and Collins stood up. "I don't care if this is Wrigley's Pleasure Planet. You're a cadet and I'm your superior officer, and I've just given you an order, so move your lazy ass!"

"What are you going to do, write me up for insubordination?" Leonard could almost see the sneer.

"First of all," Collins said slowly, as if he was measuring every word, "get on your feet, mister."

After a tense moment, Jim dropped to the floor in front of Leonard, and a look of satisfaction flashed across Collins' hard expression. "That's better," he said. "Now get me the water, and I'd better not hear another argument."

"No sir," Jim bit out, making a sarcastic mockery of the word.

"What the hell's going on over there?" Andrews growled.

"It's okay, I've got it under control," Collins called back. "Kirk, I'm telling you for the last time."

Cho got to his feet. "You're ignoring an order from an officer, Kirk."

"I'm nobody's servant," Jim snapped, "and I'm just as tired as you are!"

Oh, hell. This was going nowhere good. Leonard got quickly to his feet, placing himself between them. "Shut up, all of you! We can't start fighting among ourselves."

"Stay out of this, doc," Collins said with a warning look. "It's none of your business. It's between me and that insolent cadet over there."

"Listen, you overbearing fool, I'll decide what's my business and what's not!"

"That's enough!" Andrews boomed, sounding furious and determined. The men all turned to face him, surprised. He was standing with his hands on his waist, emanating an unmistakable air of authority. "That's it! Form up! Get your asses in a line!"

"What, now?" Cho asked in a tone of disbelief. "Seriously, John?"

Andrews raised his voice, looking directly at Cho. "I said fall in! Eyes front, and keep your mouths shut!"

In the sudden silence, the rest of the men rose quickly and dropped down from the upper bunks, assembling themselves into a straight line against the bunks. Leonard stood quietly at attention with the others, feeling slightly ridiculous.

"Just look at yourselves," Andrews said, sweeping his gaze over the line. "Bickering and arguing like a bunch of teenagers. Seven days in this hellhole, and you've already forgotten where you came from and who the hell you are!"

"We were just joking around, letting off a little steam," Raji told him, and heads nodded in agreement down the line.

"Don't give me that crap," Andrews said flatly, looking as angry as Leonard had seen him when they'd first been taken to Childress' ship. "I heard the whole conversation, and now I want all of you to listen to me. There are a hundred and forty other prisoners here, all from civilian ships. We have the dubious honor of being the first representatives of Starfleet to land in this hellhole. Every one of you has attended the Academy, every one of you took an oath to the service, and some of you are seasoned officers with years of experience behind you. But from what I can see, most of you have memories that are embarrassingly short." He shook his head in disgust. "So I'm going to give you a little reminder."

Leonard shifted uncomfortably. As much as he appreciated Andrews' stopping the argument—because both Collins and Jim were obviously too stubborn to know how to back down—he wasn't sure what the point of this was. Military discipline, here in this godforsaken labor camp? It would be like spraying an adhesive bandage on a patient who was bleeding out. Decorative but useless.

"We are Starfleet," Andrews said slowly, letting the word hang in the air.

There was something in the way he said it, with such emphasis and meaning, that despite himself, Leonard felt goose bumps break out along his arms. He'd sat through plenty of speeches and ceremonies during his time at the Academy, but he'd never had such a visceral, emotional reaction to the word.

Starfleet, like it wasn't just a vocation, not just a military organization. Like it was something more.

"We are Starfleet," he repeated, "and that doesn't change whether we're on the Atlantis, at the Academy, on Wrigley's fucking Pleasure Planet, or here in a goddamn labor camp. I don't care if you're wearing an orange jumpsuit and someone's pointing a phaser at you. Being a member of Starfleet means showing self-control and strength of character at all times, even if you're in danger and even if you've been captured."

Collins took a deep breath. "Sir, I completely agree with you. We need to—"

"Shut up!" Andrews barked. "I'm the senior officer here, and you don't tell me what we need to do! When I want your opinion I'll ask for it." Leonard was startled; up until now, Andrews had seemed relatively quiet, rarely speaking up and not really exerting his authority, although the men seemed to respect him. This was the first time he'd heard the helmsman raise his voice… and from the surreptitious glances the others were exchanging, they were just as surprised as he was.

"We're in deep trouble here and I know it's hard. None of you signed up for this. None of you ever expected to find yourselves in a place like this. But here we are, and we need to hang tough. This whole camp is designed to break our spirits and strip us of every last shred of dignity we have, but goddamn it, we don't have to do their work for them! Listening to you assholes complain and tear into each other… I'm fed up with it already, and it's only been seven days!"

Andrews walked down the line until he was facing Jim. "And for your information, Cadet Kirk, rank means something, even here. Starfleet doesn't hand out promotions like candy, and every man here has earned his rank through hard work and proven performance. When you finish your training at the Academy, you'll understand what's involved. Until then, you'll show the officers the respect they deserve."

"Yes, sir," Jim said. Leonard heard the catch in his voice, but didn't dare turn in his direction. He felt a swell of admiration for Andrews. He'd just put Jim in his place… but at the same time, implied that he needed to think of his future in the service. The not-so-subtle message was that there was a future waiting for him, that this wasn't the end of the line.

Andrews began pacing in front of them, walking up and down the line, looking each of them in the eye. "We're going to need some rules, but discipline isn't just about rules. It's about doing your duty to the best of your abilities and placing the welfare of the team above your personal welfare. It doesn't mean ordering each other around like plebes at the Academy," he said, stopping directly in front of Collins. "Everyone pulls his own weight and if someone can't, then the rest of us help him out. Do you understand that, Lieutenant Collins?"

Collins' tone was sulky. "Sir, I do, and that's why when Cadet Kirk refused to—"

Andrews cut him off. "Don't try to make this about him. I'm talking about you! If I see you pulling a stunt like that again, we're going to have a very serious discussion about what abuse of authority means. Keep it up, and I'll recommend that you be busted down a grade when we get back."

Collins was silent for a moment. To Leonard, it seemed like an empty threat, but Collins' "I understand, sir" seemed genuinely contrite.

Andrews nodded, folding his arms across his chest. "I don't care if you're friends or if you hate each other's guts. From now on, that is irrelevant. We are going to start looking out for each other. From this moment on your first responsibility is to the men you're standing with, shoulder to shoulder—all of them! They are your brothers," he said, with chilling emphasis. "If someone is too tired to take care of himself, then whoever is able-bodied will take up the slack. If someone gets sick, the rest of us will give up a portion of our food to make sure he eats well. We are only as strong as our weakest member. Do I make myself clear?"

Andrews waited to hear a chorus of assent, then continued, "Good. They took away our uniforms, but they can't take away who we are." He took a breath. "Unless we let them. And we will not let them. If even one of us makes it out of here, he will tell our story, and I want it to say that the men of the Atlantis behaved with the dignity, courage and loyalty of Starfleet officers."

Amen, Leonard thought.

"Sir," Raj said tentatively, after a pause, "I understand what you're saying, and you're a hundred per cent right. We need to help each other and cooperate. But… what do you think we should do? Try to escape and make it to Alpheus, or wait it out for three years and hope for the best?" Heads were nodding; Raj had said aloud what they were all thinking.

"The answer to that is clear," Andrews said quietly. "It's called the Starfleet Code of Conduct. At ease, men." Then he seemed to reconsider, sighed, and said, "Actually… just sit down. We're all tired."

He gestured to the bunk behind them, and the men rearranged themselves so they were sitting across from him, four on the bed and the others on the floor in a semi-circle. Yoshida, Leonard noticed, looked alert and more animated than he'd been for days. Jim was sitting on the floor, hands wrapped around his knees, and Leonard took a place beside him.

"As I was saying… we all know the Code, sir," Raj said. Even Leonard, in his shortened basic training course, had taken the mandatory seminar, although he hadn't really been paid attention. The idea that he might be captured in battle by some unknown enemy in deep space had seemed absurd back then.

"Why don't you refresh our memories," Andrews suggested.

Raji shrugged. "The relevant part says, 'If I am taken prisoner or captured, I will use all available means to resist my captors and do everything in my power to escape when possible.' That's not a very clear instruction manual."

"Escape's going to be pretty difficult, from what I can see," Aquino said. "We're locked in here at night. The guards are always armed and there are sentries all around the perimeter."

"We can't give up," Jim said, but without his usual belligerence. "We just have keep looking, keep checking for weaknesses in the security."

"We should find out as much as we can about Alpheus," Leonard put in. Jim gave him a brief smile, nodding in agreement.

"I hate to be a pessimist, but…" Collins shook his head. "We need to be realistic. Nobody could cross that wilderness without equipment and supplies. I've been out there for a week now with the construction crew. Believe me, it's uninhabitable, just a barren wasteland, with clumps of trees here and there. You'd starve or die of exposure within days. And then there’s that mountain range…"

"Actually, Kirk's right, I think," Cho said, and Jim looked at him in surprise. "I know it looks pretty bleak, but we have a responsibility to look for a way, and the situation might change. We need to be open to opportunities."

"What about 'use all available means to resist'… Does that mean we should refuse to go out on the work crews?" Fredericks asked. "But they'll shoot us."

"I don't think Starfleet means for us to commit suicide," Yoshida said, speaking up for the first time. "We need to use our judgment."

"We do," Andrews confirmed. "You'll do your best to resist where you can and escape if at all possible, but use your good sense. Until that time, we help each other to survive."

Sound advice, Leonard thought. Andrews was a good man. Maybe they'd be all right, after all.

 

The dust storm came up the next day with no warning. A siren blew through the camp, startling Leonard in his protected booth near the duranium reactor. His first, terrified thought was that someone had made a run for it, and he could only hope that it wasn't Jim. Leonard knew that Jim, for all his bravado, was more vulnerable than he let on, and a hell of a lot more impulsive than he should be.

The men were hustled toward the exit of the plant, and it was only when they stepped outside that Leonard had any idea what was wrong. The wind was gusting and the air was so full of dust particles that it was hard to keep his eyes open to see where he was going. He staggered behind Yoshida, Fredericks, and the other workers heading toward the barracks, keeping his hand planted over his mouth and nose as a makeshift filter. Fredericks was bent over and coughing as he moved forward.

Just before they entered the barracks, he felt a belated flash of worry for the others. Collins and Cho were out on construction, Jim was in the mines, and Aquino was with Andrews and Raj in the relatively unprotected maintenance sheds. Were they still out there? He turned back in the direction of the mines, squinting into the distance. He could just make out the edges of the pit a few hundred meters away, partially obscured by the swirling dust, but couldn't see any of the mine workers.

Beyond the mine, rising up into the sky, was an enormous wall of dust, billowing up like a massive tidal wave. It looked gargantuan and terrifying, and holy God, it was headed their way.

Heart thumping wildly, he followed the others into the barracks. The guard hurried back out, slamming the door. "That's the last of them," he heard him call from outside as the electronic lock clicked.

Even inside, the air was heavy with dust, casting a gloomy aura over everything. Fredericks was still coughing. He'd had asthma as a child, Leonard remembered. Damn it, all this dust…

"We're all here, doc," Andrews told him. "Christ, that came up fast."

He looked around. Instead of the dark anxiety he'd expected, the other workers seemed to be in good spirits. The Risian group was crowded around some kind of makeshift board game, and here and there he heard spirited talking… even laughing.

"These storms take two days, minimum," Raji said with a grin, following his gaze. "Looks like we've got a holiday."

"Two days off work, and nowhere to go," Jim said, giving him a meaningful look. "I know just what we can do."

 

"I'm willing to give this a try, doc," Fredericks said nervously, sitting awkwardly on his bunk with his back against the wall. "I'll do anything to help us get out of here, but I don't think it's going to work." For want of a better place, Leonard was sitting at the foot of the bed, and they'd set up blankets to hang down from the upper bunk. It gave an illusion of solitude. Jim had put himself in charge of making sure the Atlantis men gave them at least an hour's privacy, but there wasn't much they could do to shut out the constant chatter of the others around them.

"We'll just be using a guided imagery technique, that's all," Leonard said, keeping his voice low and calm. "Nothing complicated. At the very least, you'll have a nice rest."

"That's what I'm afraid of. I haven't been able to get a good night's sleep since we got here. I'll probably just fall asleep. Maybe I shouldn't lie down…" He coughed, then took a deep breath. "God, the air's full of dust."

"Don't lie down," Leonard said quickly. "Just lean against the wall and get as comfortable as you can." Fredericks already seemed to be having occasional breathing difficulties; lying prone would exacerbate them. "I'll get you some water before we start—"

Fredericks put a hand on Leonard's arm to stop him. "Nah, it's okay." He sighed. "I keep thinking about my sister Kathy, how excited she was about this place. She loved the idea of joining a new colony, being part of a new community. For all I know, she's on her way here now... I swear, doc, she had no idea of what was going on. She was just looking for somewhere safe to raise her family."

"Of course she was, Fredericks," Leonard told him, with as much sincerity as he could muster. It was hard not to feel resentment toward the wealthy citizens of Alpheus, blithely going about their business while he labored in this hell, but the last thing the kid needed right now was the added anxiety of guilt. "She's not responsible for this. And nobody blames you."

"I told her I'd come visit her out here if I could get leave. Ironic, huh?"

"I suppose." He clearly wanted some kind of reassurance, or maybe just acceptance, but all Leonard could muster was a half-smile. "Jim's going to keep everybody away for an hour, so let's get started. Just lean back against the wall, get as comfortable as you can, and close your eyes. Listen to my voice, that's all. We're going to focus on breathing…"

Leonard led him gently through some deep breathing exercises. In the semi-quiet of their cocooned space, he could hear a slight wheezing every time Fredericks inhaled, and his respiration rate seemed elevated. "Just breathe," he said soothingly, his mouth slipping into a frown.

Definitely asthma. It wasn't acute yet, but if it developed, it could go downhill fast. The most effective treatment would be to remove the environmental trigger, but short of waving a magic wand, he couldn't get rid of the dust. There was nothing in their meager medical supplies that could be used as a bronchodilator, no corticosteroids, not even intubation equipment…

"Doc?" Fredericks asked, eyes still closed. "You still there?"

Leonard realized, to his chagrin, that he'd stopped speaking. "In…out. In… out," he said, forcing himself back to the present. Worrying about a worst-case scenario wasn't going to do either of them any good. "Now begin to create a picture in your mind of a place where you can completely relax…"

He hadn't used the relaxation technique much since his psychiatric rotation back when he was an intern, but he'd done it so often back then that the memorized script came back to him almost effortlessly. He slowed his speech down and kept his tone low and calm. As he spoke, he felt his drawl become more pronounced, as if the cadences of his childhood were unconsciously associated, in his mind, with a more relaxing, slower time of his life. He let his thoughts drift, and the words of an old song his mother used to sing came back to him.

Oh, Georgia, no peace I find

Just an old sweet song

Keeps Georgia on my mind

The tune filled him with such melancholy that it literally caused a pain in his chest. God, his poor mother, alone in Atlanta… What had they told her? Images of his mother weeping quietly in her room, staring out the window, filled his mind.

He couldn't do this, couldn't keep thinking about her. He wrenched himself harshly out of his reverie and forced his attention back to Fredericks. He needed to focus on his patient and on the job he was supposed to be doing, which might give them a key to getting back home.

If they were very, very lucky.


Fredericks lay quietly for several minutes after they finished, eyes half-open, looking relaxed and calm. Leonard let him be, enjoying the relative peace and quiet as long as it lasted. From just outside their little tent, he could hear two Tellarites arguing in their harsh-sounding language, with its guttural glottals and whistling sibilants. Closer by, Aquino and Cho were laughing about something, and then quickly hushed by some of the others.

Fredericks blinked and seemed to shake himself, then sat up. "You know, I actually remembered something," he said, looking pensive. "A couple of things, in fact… Maybe you'd better—" He coughed, then continued, "It's probably nothing important, I don't know how it could help us… but still. It's not something I remembered before." He coughed again. "It's a little stuffy in here, doc. Maybe we should go out and talk to the guys."

His breaths were coming faster, and the faint wheeze, which had disappeared during the relaxation exercises, was back again. "Sure," Leonard said gently. "I'll get you some water now, and we'll call the others."

 

"—these amazing hydroponics labs, I remember," Fredericks told the others with a touch of enthusiasm. "The soil's not very fertile… so they're using cutting-edge controlled environmental systems… doing some interesting research." He paused for breath.

"It's not surprising you'd remember that," Andrews said. "Sounds like your field of interest."

Fredericks was sitting on the bunk, with the rest of the Atlantis men hanging close. Leonard kept close to Fredericks, listening more to his breathing than to what he was saying.

He wasn't doing well. Already, he had a pronounced wheeze and his breathing was more labored, signs of bronchoconstriction. The dusty haze that floated in the air around them was irritating his breathing passages, inflaming and narrowing them. Unless the storm let up within the next few hours, Fredericks' hyper-reactive airways would eventually become clogged with mucus and his muscles would become too constricted to breathe effectively.

Hypoxemia, hypercapnia, acidosis… There would be no stopping it.

Fredericks was nodding, unaware of Leonard's gloomy thoughts. "Botany and environmental science." Wheeze. "The dome's got some pretty amazing technology." Another breath.

"Did you remember anything else?"

"Well, I looked at the UV protection in the dome, radiation shielding… the pressurization system, things like that." Some of the men exchanged glances, and he went on a little defensively, "Kathy asked me to look at the technical specs. To make sure the dome was safe."

"Great," Raj said, shaking his head. "Now we know that the colonists are healthy and well-fed in their little high-tech dome. That takes a load off my mind."

Aquino spoke up. "What do you remember about the layout of the colony? Where's the main entrance?" Fredericks shrugged, looking blank. "Well, when's the next transport of colonists due? Did your sister tell you?"

"I don't know… She was supposed to leave pretty soon. I don't know exactly when."

"Anything else, Lieutenant?" Andrews' voice was steady, but he wasn't able to keep the frustration off his face.

"Just random things… They've got some sort of natural water source, a river that flows under and through the dome." Fredericks took a deep breath, with an audible wheeze that made Leonard grimace. "And there's a system of huge particulate air filters… to keep the dust out. Some kind of… carbonized microfiber layers…"

Cho shook his head. "Freddy, if we get ever get out of here, you've got to get a new hobby. Who the hell cares about the air filters?"

"We do," Jim said suddenly. "Don't you get it? Air filters mean air vents. Vents to the outside."

Aquino bolted to his feet, giving Jim a sidewise grin. "That's it! That's our way into the colony."

"We need to know where the vents are exactly," Andrews said. "And how high off the ground they are, what the filters are made of. But it's a possibility. Good call, Kirk."

"That's if we can somehow escape in the first place," Collins said. "And make it to Alpheus alive."

"And convince the colonists not to turn us in as escaped convicts," Raj added.

Fredericks seemed pleased with himself, answering their questions as well as he could. When Leonard remembered that later, he could only think, At least he felt he contributed something. At least he knew that he helped.

 

When the attack began in its full fury almost seven hours later, the deterioration was rapid and severe. Fredericks had been talking quietly with Cho and Collins, not three meters away from where Leonard had been resting on his bunk, listening to the wind gusting outside the barracks. The dust storm was still going full force.

"Doctor McCoy! Quick!" Cho yelled, the fear in his voice palpable. Within seconds Leonard was at Fredericks' side, supporting him as he hunched over, his neck muscles straining as if he was trying to force air into his lungs. He was breathing rapidly, the wheezing audible and almost constant, but didn't seem to be getting much air at all.

Status asthmaticus.

"Do something!" Cho said frantically.

But he couldn't. He knew exactly what was happening and how to treat it, but without medicine and without equipment, there was nothing he could do, other than support the man and try to keep him as calm as possible. He instructed the others to lower him gently to his bunk and keep him in a sitting position, but Fredericks was already gasping for air and his lips and fingernails were turning blue.

Leonard sat beside him, feeling him shake and listening to his coarse wheezing as he suffocated. He could only wrap his arms around him and whisper helplessly in his ear, "It's all right. It'll be all right."

It was over in minutes.

 

Jim

Jim looked over the blast design on the foreman's PADD and nodded. Eight holes to be drilled, standard depth and blast sequence. Routine and almost habit, after fifty-six days.

Almost two months… It occurred to him, suddenly, that the fall session at the Academy had begun over three weeks ago. But the Academy seemed impossibly far away and increasingly irrelevant. Even if he was somehow able to get back, too much had happened. He tried to imagine himself sitting in a classroom again, getting his room ready for inspection, or saluting an officer as he walked along the pristine lawns… It seemed so remote that he almost laughed.

He picked up eight sticks of corinite and a carrier belt from the explosives shed, under the sharp eye of the guard. By now, the foreman trusted him to do his job, but that didn't mean that they cut him any slack. There was always a weapon trained on him, never a moment when he wasn't being watched.

His stupid half-baked idea of snatching up some explosives and making a quick escape from the camp—with dramatic music playing in the background, like it did in the old action vids his uncle used to watch—had turned out to be nothing more than a fool's dream. His dad might be a hero, but Jim was clearly nothing but an idiot, as Bones liked to tell him every other day when he stumbled back to the barracks, exhausted from carting around rocks in the hot sun and biting wind.

He tied the belt around his waist, placing each corinite stick smoothly into its padded pouch. At least his hands no longer trembled when he handled the explosives. Corinite was unstable, but he knew by now that it wasn't set off by regular handling. Dropping it might be a bad idea, but at least now he could set the sticks in the drilled holes without his palms sweating so much that there was a fair chance they'd just slip through his fingers. The tovex, while a much more powerful explosive, was even safer to handle, since it couldn't be detonated by anything less than a blast.

It was cool in the shed and he took his time gathering the rest of the equipment. He moved more slowly nowadays anyway. He was always hungry, always tired. But after a few minutes the guard started getting impatient, so he set out for the blast site.

It was always the same grinding work, day after day. Sure, his muscles had adapted to the hard labor, and he was no longer scared the corinite would explode in his hands, but what kind of comfort was that? They were no closer to escape now than they'd been when they'd first arrived. Fredericks' information had been no help at all. What did they care about the hydroponics labs and the state-of-the-art UV protection the damned colonists were getting?

Fredericks' death had been a harsh wake up call to the reality of their situation, and there was no doubt that they were all getting thinner and weaker. Andrews was doing his best to keep morale up, giving them pep talks every few days and making sure they watched out for each other, but it wasn't enough. The men were losing hope.

And Bones… He'd taken Fredericks' death hard. The doctor seemed to be shrinking into himself day by day, becoming more apathetic and morose. Jim supposed that a doctor was used to doing things, helping people and saving lives, and to realize that all his skill and experience meant nothing here must be devastating. Bones couldn't stand feeling helpless.

Fifty-six days… He knew that they'd have contacted his mother by now. Missing and presumed dead, they'd say. How long would it be before she gave up hope?

He'd set the explosives in the first hole and had started on the second when he heard sudden shouts and a loud rumble. He looked over in time to see a cloud of dust billowing up from the entrance to one of the underground shafts on the fire side of the mine. "Mine collapse!" the foreman shouted. "Quick, the rest of you, get over there and help!" The nearby workers dropped their drill tools and other equipment and began racing in the direction of the emergency.

Jim started to climb out of the blast hole, but the remaining guard stopped him. "You, with the explosives!" he yelled. "Stay here."

"I'll finish it later," Jim argued, his eyes glued to the mine entrance. Even at this distance, he could hear the frantic shouting of the workers.

"Once you start setting the blast, you have to finish it," the guard told him. "No exceptions."

"But they're trapped, they need help!"

"Get back to work, Fleet scum. Finish your job!" Something in Jim's expression must have tipped him off, because he took a step toward Jim and raised his weapon.

Jim turned back to the blast hole, trembling with helpless fury and frustration. He knew what his job was, all right: make sure the work proceeds on schedule, and to hell with any workers trapped under a pile of rock. Jim was the fucking employee of the month.

It took only a few minutes to finish with the second hole. By the time he climbed out to start on the next one, he could that most of the other workers were gathered at the mine entrance. From where he stood, he could see the foreman directing the activity around the collapsed mine shaft and guiding in the heavy equipment. He grabbed his canteen took a long swig of water.

Damn Childress and his whole fucking labor camp, where safety regulations were unheard of and an injured worker only meant a cut in the profit margin.

And to hell with the Starfleet Code of Fucking Conduct, too. If he ever found the idiot who wrote I will use all available means to resist my captors, he was going to kick his useless ass out the nearest airlock. How was he supposed to resist when someone was holding a weapon on him, every minute of every goddamn day? Andrews had made it clear that they weren't expected to get themselves shot just to prove a point… but that didn't stop his self-disgust from threatening to drown him.

And while he was at it, fuck Pike and his stupid suggestions—Clear out of here for the summer, it'll do you good—and fuck him for his own stubborn pride, volunteering for the worst job in the camp. Look what it got him, working like a dog with sticks of corinite strapped to his waist, and—

--and the guard wasn't watching him.

Left with one worker, the guard was gazing toward the collapsed entrance, squinting against the sun hanging low in the sky.

Jim's heart started thudding in his chest.

He didn't have much time, maybe only a matter of seconds, before the guard glanced his way. Moving slowly, he clipped his canteen back onto his jumpsuit. He kept his eyes trained on the guard as he reached into the pouch over his right hip and curled his fingers around the stick of corinite.

Kneeling over the drill hole with his back to the guard, he unfastened his jumpsuit with one smooth movement and slipped the corinite inside, placing it carefully down the front of his briefs and then sealing the jumpsuit again.

He straightened back up, feeling sweat breaking out over his forehead. The explosive felt cold against his skin. It was an awkward, tight fit inside his underwear with the bit of bread from breakfast and the essential equipment that was already in there. When he looked down, he could see a definite bulge, like a hard-on with bad timing. For once, he was grateful for the baggy cut of the jumpsuit.

Moving as smoothly and deliberately as he could, feeling almost light-headed with adrenaline, he set up the rest of the explosives in the other holes.

This was it. He'd done it, taken an explosive just like he'd always planned. And now…

And now what? His plan had a fatal flaw. Without the corinite to ignite it, the tovex wouldn't detonate. The blast holes were designed to explode one after the other in a chain reaction, so anyone watching would know immediately that something hadn't been set right. If they examined the holes, they'd discover the unexploded material. They'd put two and two together, and the answer was going to lead them straight back to him.

If he made a run for it while he was still in the mine, he wouldn't get far. He was hundreds of meters from the edge of the mine, there were guards everywhere, and he had nowhere to hide. He'd be shot for sure, and then it would all have been for nothing. The only chance he had was to wait until he got back into the camp… if he wasn't discovered until then.

He could almost hear an exasperated Bones-voice in his head saying in a tone of disgust, Didn't think this through at all, did you, kid?

Shit, if this went wrong, Bones was going to kill him… if the guards didn't get to him first.

He could still change his mind. It wasn't too late to put the corinite back. He could tell the guard he needed to go back and check one of the holes again. It would be hard to slip the corinite out of his jumpsuit, since the guard would surely be staring right at him if he did that… but it was possible. He could wait for another chance, wait until the guards trusted him more and were willing to leave him without supervision… which might take months, or even years. Or might never happen.

No. He was done waiting. Better to go out with his self-respect intact than to waste away here, watching his comrades get thinner and sicker, choked with doubt and helplessness.

He called over to the guard, "I'm done here. What next?"

"Go help the others at the shaft."

He glanced up at the sun: they had two more hours, at least, before sunset. The trapped miners were still in the mine shaft, and tons of rock still needed to be cleared, most of it by hand. With luck, they'd delay the blast until tomorrow morning. Until then, he'd have to walk around with explosive material in his briefs without drawing attention to himself. Or blowing himself up.

He walked as quickly as he could, feeling the weight of the corinite stick pressing against his balls, chanting a heartfelt plea with every step: don't explode, don't explode, don't explode.

 

His luck held. The evening whistle sounded while everyone was still working on the mine shaft, and he was marched back to the camp with the others, along with three injured workers on stretchers.

He knew that he'd have to use the explosive before the next morning. If he waited, he'd be discovered and likely killed; Childress would no doubt make an example of him. His course was set. It was just a question of when and where.

Corinite wasn't a particularly destructive explosive, nothing like the tovex. Unless it exploded right next to someone, it probably wouldn't do much damage. But it was all he had, and it would be enough to create a commotion, distracting the guards while he made a run for it.

As the mining crew approached the camp, Jim fought to keep his expression as calm as he could, even as his thoughts churned. He scanned the area, trying to decide what to do. Security was more lax at dinner time—everyone was tired and hungry, including the guards—and that was a point that would work in his favor. All the work crews finished at about the same time, so there was usually a crowd waiting to get into the barracks. The door was narrow, and they had to file in one at a time. He could see two guards standing at the side of the barracks as usual, weapons holstered as they surveyed the exhausted laborers heading back.

If he could manage to get away, he wouldn't have far to run, maybe two hundred meters, to the camp limits. The guards would be firing, but he could dash over to the equipment shed, or take cover next to the generator. It could work… maybe. People had escaped before.

But he remembered the crewman from the Aries telling them, that first night, that there was no point in running because no one could survive in the wilderness unprotected. Collins had said the same thing: It's just a barren wasteland. You'd starve or die of exposure within days.

Well, he was already committed, for better or for worse, but he'd go alone. He didn't need to drag anybody else down with him. He felt a pang of regret that he had no chance to explain anything to the other men, but what would he say? "I've got a stick of explosive, get ready to run"? The whole idea was crazy.

As he approached the barracks, he could just make out the back of Collins' head, disappearing into the doorway, with Cho right behind him. The construction crews must have arrived first. Raj and Aquino were slightly behind them, followed by Andrews. Good; they'd be safely in the barracks by the time he got there. That left Yoshida and Bones, who were probably somewhere in the back of the group. He slowed down his steps, hoping they wouldn't see him.

But then he heard Bones calling his name. He was standing near the back of the crowd of workers, wearing his usual sour expression, obviously waiting for Jim. "Goddamn reactor went off-line first thing this morning," he announced as Jim approached. "They had me working at the waste plant all day. Most unsanitary environment I've ever been in—"

Bones sounded like he was starting on a rant, and that was the last thing Jim wanted to hear right now. "Bones, I'm really beat," Jim interrupted. "I need a shower and something to eat. Tell me about it later, okay?" Much later. After we're light years away from this planet.

Bones was hardly listening. "—got a bitch of a headache from the smell, let me tell you, and the foreman there's an idiot… What's wrong with you?" he asked suddenly, giving him a sharp look. "You're sweating and your face is all flushed."

When did the doctor get so good at reading him? "Really, I'm just tired. One of the mine shafts collapsed and we've been running around for hours, trying to clear it. Don't worry about me." He nodded reassuringly.

"You say that even when you're half-dead with a fever or dripping blood from a head wound."

"I'm fine," he said, putting as much conviction into his voice as he could. "You go on inside. I'll be there in a minute."

"Why?" Bones sounded suspicious. "Are you waiting for someone else?"

Shit. They were getting closer to the door as more workers made their way inside, and there wasn't much time left. "I just want a little more fresh air before they lock us down for the night."

"You're gonna be last in the dinner line," Bones pointed out. He knew as well as Jim did that there often wasn't enough food for everyone, and the last ones in line were stuck with the dregs of the soup and the last remains of the bread. "What's the matter, are you feeling sick?"

Jim threw a quick glance at the guards. They were speaking together quietly, laughing about something. They looked relaxed and not particularly alert: perfect, except for the fact that Bones wouldn't leave him alone. "I'll tell you later, I swear. Just go ahead. Please, Bones."

"Hell no. You're a bad liar, Jim. Tell me what's going on." The doctor was giving him a stubborn, worried look that said I'm staying with you.

Oh, fuck. This wasn't going the way he'd planned, but then, nothing ever did. They were almost at the barracks door, and he had to do something now.

"Bones," he said in a low voice, "Do you trust me?"

"That depends on you, kid."

"No!" He grabbed Bones by the elbow, pulling him closer. "You have to trust me now," he said, speaking directly into Bones' ear. "Understand? Just do what I tell you. Please."

Bones looked dubious, but nodded, and that was enough for Jim. With one hand, he unfastened his jumpsuit, turning slightly toward Bones to cover the movement. Slipping his hand into his briefs, he palmed the stick of corinite and took it out slowly.

Bones' eyes went wide at the sight of the explosive. "Are you crazy?" he whispered furiously. "What the hell are you going to do with that?"

"What do you think I'm going to do with it? We're getting out of here, Bones. Right now!"

"Wait, Jim, you can't just—"

Jim lobbed the stick high into the air. It arched over the heads of the prisoners and exploded on the roof of the barracks in a blast of light, following by a loud boom. Immediately, he could hear the panicked cries of the prisoners inside mingling with the shouts of the guards and the men near the door.

"My God," Bones breathed, then launched himself forward toward the barracks door.

"No!" Jim grabbed Bones' arm, pulling him away from the barracks. "We've got to run! This way!"

People were pushing in every direction, men outside the barracks trying to force their way in, and the men inside desperate to get out. Bones allowed himself to be dragged along for a few steps, then balked. "No, I can't! People may be injured and I need to help—"

"They'll be all right! We need to run!" He had to raise his voice to make himself heard over the shouts of the others. "Come on, we can't wait!"

"Damn it, Jim, stop pulling me!" A high-pitched screech of energy whizzed to their left, and then another, followed by a pained scream.

"They're firing!" Jim yelled, tugging harder. "Let's go, Bones, or we're gonna get hit!"

Bones hesitated another moment, looking toward the barracks, but then seemed to make up his mind and sped after Jim. They zigzagged toward the edge of the camp in a flat-out sprint, ducking behind the equipment shed. Energy weapons were discharging all around them. They weren't the only prisoners making a break for it—the more quick-thinking ones had made the most of the opportunity Jim had given them—and he hoped desperately that the guards would have too many targets to focus on.

"Stay where you are!" he heard Ben Childress' amplified voice booming from unseen speakers around the camp. "Nobody move! If you run you will be shot!" From the sound of things, his warnings were largely being ignored. Guards were racing toward the barracks from all directions, firing their weapons as they ran.

Jim ran as fast as he could, not daring to look behind, but he could hear Bones keeping pace with him. Jim aimed straight between the guards posted along the perimeter, hoping they'd decide to ignore him and Bones and concentrate on the near-riot he'd initiated at the barracks. A glancing shot that hit the ground just to his right was enough to tell him that he wasn't going to be that lucky, and he weaved in the opposite direction, Bones following not far behind. The perimeter wasn't far… 150 meters, and now 100…

There was no fence or other marker at the edge of the camp, but Jim knew the second they reached it. Instead of hard-packed ground cleared of all vegetation and debris, they suddenly found themselves running on uneven, rockier terrain. Their feet caught on the tangled grasses and gnarly-looking shrubs, making them slow down. The shouts from the camp grew steadily softer as they ran, until eventually, all Jim could hear were Bones' heaving breaths together with his own, and the sound of their boots pounding along the ground.

Ten minutes went by without a shot being fired in their direction, and Jim decided it was safe to stop. No one, it seemed, was chasing them.

This was it. They'd escaped.

He was breathing fast, the sweat pouring down his forehead and dripping down the back of his neck. Bones came to a shuddering stop next to him, leaning over with his hands braced on his knees, gasping for breath.

"They're not following us," Jim huffed, peering back toward the camp in the dimming light. "I think we're safe."

"Define safe," Bones choked out, still doubled over.

"We're out, and we're alive—"

"—for now—"

"—and we just need to get to Alpheus," Jim finished, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt.

Bones nodded and sank down onto the ground, leaning back against a thin tree and still breathing hard. Jim dropped down next to him. They were on the edge of a dense thicket of shrubs and low trees. Good place to hole up for the night, Jim thought, if they could build a shelter. The wind was whistling through the trees, making the dust swirl up in small gusts.

For a minute, neither of them spoke. "All right," Bones finally said. "Got my breath back."

Jim ran a tired hand across his forehead. The sun was getting low. "Good, because we should put a little more distance between us and the camp, and we need to build some kind of shelter. We could probably—"

"Are you out of your goddamn mind?" Bones exploded.

Jim gaped at him, cut off in mid-thought. "What?"

"What the hell were you thinking, you self-destructive moron? You can't just decide to run like this! How are we going to make it out here? We have nothing, no food, no water…"

Jim swallowed. "Well, we have canteens, and we can—"

"They're empty! We've got no weapons and no map. We're out here on our own in the middle of a fucking alien planet with no protection. You haven't got the slightest idea of what lies between here and Alpheus. The guards aren't following us because they know we're going to die, you fool!"

Jim had to admit that Bones was making a number of reasonable points, but what did that help? "We're not going to die," he said, climbing to his feet. "We can figure this out. At least we're out of that hellhole and now we have a fighting chance." He stuck his hand out for Bones to grab onto and pull himself up.

Bones batted away the hand with an angry gesture. Still sitting firmly on the ground, he gave Jim a murderous glare. "You can tell your overinflated ego to shove it, kid. This isn't a fighting chance, it's a recipe for disaster!"

"It's not going to be a disaster, this is our chance to get away!" he said, a little resentfully. In all his fantasies about escape, he never imagined having to defend the decision to run in the first place. But maybe Bones just needed a little time to get used to the idea. "Look, let's not argue about it now. Lower your voice, okay? They might still be coming after us."

"Don't try to change the subject. You threw a bomb right at our barracks!" Bones roared, and Jim flinched. "At our own men! They might be injured and who's going to treat them? That idiotic medic from the Normandy who wouldn't recognize an antibiotic if someone hypoed him with it in the jugular! Damn it, Jim, you may very well have killed somebody! Did you even think about that?"

Jim combed his fingers through his sweaty hair, pushing it back from his forehead. "Corinite isn't a bomb," he said reasonably, "and it's not even all that powerful. All it does, mostly, is burst into flame and create a little shock wave to ignite the serious stuff. I only had one stick, that's all, and I needed a diversion. I threw it at the roof, not at the men!"

Bones rolled his eyes, looking disgusted. "Well, I guess that's okay, then."

He pushed the guilt down. He could only hope that Bones was wrong about killing one of his own men, but it was too late to do anything about it. They had to focus on other things right now. "Look," he said more forcefully, "I had an opportunity to swipe it at the mine—just a minute when nobody was watching me, for once—so I took it, and I'm not sorry. Damn it, it's our duty to escape!"

"Weren't you listening to Andrews? It's your duty to use your judgment!"

"I did. I've said it from the beginning. Childress is never going to let us go, and the only way we're getting out of that camp alive is to escape."

Bones' glare was hard and unforgiving. "You don't know that."

After all this time, Bones was still hoping for a rescue, still clinging to illusions. Jim sighed. "Maybe I don't, but I had to make a decision. There wasn't time to consult with Andrews or you or anybody else. Now get up, Bones, it'll be pitch dark out here in less than an hour!"

Bones still made no move to rise. "You could have thrown the corinite at the guards. They were standing right there. You could have at least taken one or two of them out—"

Jim's patience was worn thin. There was a time for explanations, and this wasn't it. He grabbed Bones' arm and yanked him up, not trying to be gentle. "Enough! Get on your feet," he snarled, fighting Bones' attempt to shrug him off. "I get it, all right? It's my fault if someone got hurt."

"Damn right it is."

"It's my fault we're out here, and it'll be my own damn fault if anything happens to us too. I made the decision on my own. It might have been stupid and suicidal, but fuck it, we're here and we're on our own! So move it already," he said, putting all his authority into his voice, "because I don't intend to die out here. NOW!"

"Fine!" Bones yelled, pushing away from him, but at least standing on his feet. "Well," he spit out, as if he was unable to resist one last jibe, "I guess you got what you wanted, kid. You're in command... for as long as we last out here."

The words settled into the space between them, unchallenged.

"Follow me, then," Jim said after a pause. And thanks for the fucking vote of confidence. He led the way further into the brush.

End of Part Two

 

Chapter Text

Leonard

"We should build a fire first." Leonard didn't have any experience with such things, but on an instinctive level, fire meant warmth and security.

"No." Jim was gathering armfuls of fallen leaves and grass, and didn't even bother turning around. "Sun's going down."

"That's exactly my point," Leonard said, grabbing a long branch off the ground. It wasn't hard to find the branches—strong and straight, Jim had told him—but they were awkward to hold and carry. "It's getting dark. A fire would at least give us some light to see by."

"Shelter's more important. If it gets too windy, we'll need it more than we'll need a fire." Jim dumped the debris by the tree he'd chosen as their home for the night. This one, he'd said with a look of relief. It's perfect. To Leonard, it looked exactly like all the other trees, except for the fact that it had a low-lying branch that was half-snapped off near the ground. Jim had twisted the branch down so that it made a sort of upside-down V against the tree trunk, then dragged a long branch to rest at the crux, making a crude lean-to. Not a bad idea, Leonard had to admit.

Now, Jim was spreading the leaves over the ground underneath the longer branch. "What's that supposed to be, a mattress?" Leonard asked.

"Something like that," Jim said. He flashed a quick grin. "You said that you like to sleep with comfy pillows. We aim to please."

Leonard's eyes rolled reflexively. "This wasn't exactly what I had in mind. Fine, we'll finish the shelter. I'll bet you don't have the faintest clue how to start a fire, anyway."

Jim sat back on his haunches, looking annoyed. "Give me those branches and go get some more. Focus on finding longer, heavier ones. And I know how to build a fire."

"Good, because I sure as hell don't," Leonard muttered. Jim probably read about it in a Space Scouts manual when he was a kid… and now here they were, completely dependent on his so-called knowledge.

The dust was picking up as it often did in the evenings, swirling around and getting in his eyes. He blinked several times, trying to relieve the sting. Jim was right, they'd need a good shelter from the wind, but a caveman's lean-to than something that would hardly protect them. He went searching a little farther away, hoping to find a better source of branches. Without a knife, he could only collect fallen branches, and there weren't too many suitable ones.

By the time he returned with another armload of branches, Jim had managed to put together the frame of the lean-to. He leaned the branches against the longer one he'd set as the backbone, propping rocks at the base to steady them on the ground. The second time he returned, Leonard had to reluctantly admit that he was impressed; within minutes, Jim had fashioned a low-lying sort of cave, just big enough for the two of them to lie side by side… if they were friendly.

Ha.

They worked in silence for the next few minutes, piling leaves, bark, and twigs on top of the frame in a thick cover, adding another layer of thin branches across that, and packing the inside of the shelter with a dense padding of leaves.

"You finish up here," Jim told him. "I'll get supplies for the fire."

Leonard watched him out of the corner of his eye as he moved around, gathering dry grasses and more branches. He stripped the bark off the branches with his fingernails and broke the twigs off the branches. His fingernails and palms were getting scraped and torn, making Leonard wince, but Jim didn't seem to notice or even hesitate.

He's done this before, Leonard thought. More than once, from the looks of it.

With just the final rays of sunlight left, Jim settled himself near the entrance to the shelter. "Get in," he said, gesturing at the lean-to. "I'll get the fire going."

The shelter provided a surprisingly effective wind break, he discovered. It was far from comfortable, with the leaves crunching under him and the uneven ground underneath, but it felt like a luxury just to lay down.

For the first time since they'd run, he had time to really think about what they were facing. No matter how he tried to look at it, they were in deep trouble. They had no water, and if they didn't find any within a very few days, they'd die. In ideal conditions, humans could live for three to five days without water. But they'd be hiking through the wilderness and exerting themselves, and the wind would only speed up their fluid loss. If they wanted to have any chance at all, they'd need to find something to drink tomorrow, or they'd be too depleted to continue.

Hunger, of course, was just the icing on the cake. With nothing to eat, they wouldn't have the energy to go very far. And if the wind picked up into a full-blown dust storm, they'd suffocate within hours. It had been stupid to run, a split-second decision in the heat of the moment, and he'd probably just signed his own death warrant.

He could hardly see Jim in the dim light, kneeling over his little pile of tinder, spinning a long branch between his hands, over and over. Lighting the fire had seemed so important a few minutes ago, but now it just seemed like a pitiful attempt to delay the inevitable. Jim certainly seemed focused on it, but maybe that was just because he wanted to accomplish something tangible.

Jim let out a muffled curse as his hands slipped yet again, sending the branch skidding off the base, but he didn't even look in Leonard's direction, just realigned it and started again.

"Never mind, Jim," Leonard said. "Get in, out of the wind. We don't have anything to cook anyway."

"It's gonna work," Jim huffed.

"It's been twenty minutes."

"The wood's dry, just gotta get enough friction…"

"Your hands are getting all cut up, and you're just wasting your energy. Leave it, kid."

"Shut up, Bones." Leonard couldn't see his face, but he could imagine his expression, stubborn and pissed off. "Give me another minute."

It took another five. A faint odor of smoke caught him by surprise. "There it is!" Jim breathed. He dropped the stick and bent down, blowing gently. Leonard could see a spark, followed by more and more smoke, until finally it burst into flame. "Got it!" Jim crowed, quickly placing the burning ember on the bundle of grass and bark he'd prepared. Leonard could finally see him in the flickering light, feeding the small fire with little twigs and small sticks, grinning widely.

"C'mon out, Bones, time to warm up!"

Bet he'll be insufferable now. "Fine," he said, crawling awkwardly out of the shelter. "Need to pee anyway."

Jim stopped abruptly. "Shit, almost forgot… Piss in the canteen."

It took a second for him to understand what Jim was really saying. "You gotta be kidding me."

"You're a doctor, right? It's safe enough." Jim went back to shoring up the fire, his back turned away. "And while you're at it, better take off your undershirt and your briefs. Fuck, it's getting windy out here."

"What for? Aw hell, never mind, tell me later." Unhooking his empty canteen from the jumpsuit, he moved around a few meters away and then carefully urinated into it. Jim was right, he knew. Urine was sterile and contained about ninety-five percent water. They couldn't sustain themselves on it indefinitely—the waste products would become too concentrated and put too much of a strain on their kidneys—but it would buy them an extra day or two.

Nice thinking, he admitted grudgingly.

By the time he got back, he saw that Jim was busy refastening his own jumpsuit, canteen in hand. "Got any food, Bones?" Jim held up an unappetizing-looking piece of bread, obviously rescued from his underwear, which he'd tossed on the ground near the fire. "This is all I have."

He grinned when Leonard held up a matching hunk of squashed bread. "It's not much. This isn't going to keep us going very long."

"We'll find something to eat tomorrow," Jim said. "I hope. Anyway, drink first. At least you'll have something to put in your mouth to get rid of the taste."

Leonard opened the canteen. He knew Jim was right, but the acrid odor of the urine nearly made him gag. "You first," he said.

"Uh… no problem." Jim gave him an unconvincing smile and held his canteen to his lips, making a face at the smell. Then he closed his eyes and took a long swallow. "God, that's vile," he said with a grimace. But he tilted his head back and didn't stop drinking until the canteen was empty.

Jim wiped his mouth and shuddered. "Disgusting. Your turn now."

"Don't rush me, kid." Damn it, he should have gone first; now that he'd seen Jim's reaction, it was even worse. He sighed and put the canteen to his lips tentatively. The urine tasted just like he expected: warm, salty, and slightly bitter. But it quenched his thirst.

He finished the canteen and shoved the bread into his mouth, grateful to have something to chew on. Then he huddled closer to the fire. "It's getting cold," he complained. "What was the point of taking off our underwear? We need the protection of extra layers."

Jim pushed the last bit of his own bread into his mouth and reached for his discarded clothes. "Filter for the dust," he said, lifting up his black briefs in one hand, "and a makeshift hat. We can't afford to lose any extra body heat or water." Leonard lifted his eyebrows in surprise as Jim pulled one leg hole of the briefs over his head, fitting the elastic snugly over the bridge of his nose, and then stretched the neck of the t-shirt upside down over his head like a hood. "If the dust gets worse, we can use the shirt for an extra filter."

A minute later, Leonard was breathing through his own—not particularly fresh—underwear, with the shirt wrapped around his head. They probably looked like a pair of nomad misfits, but hell, Jim was right. They needed to protect their airways and keep warm.

The wind was blowing now in earnest. They sat as close to the fire as they dared, but it didn't seem to be giving out much heat. "Shit, it's freezing," Jim said in frustration. "And the fire's going out."

"It's too windy."

"No kidding. Good thing you're here to tell me these things," Jim said testily. "Fuck! Took me half an hour to light it, but we'd better put it out before one of these sparks sets the whole area on fire." He climbed to his feet and stamped on the remains of the fire with his boots, leaving them in near total darkness. Rigel had no moon, and the only light came from the blanket of stars above them… mostly obscured by the cover of dust.

They crawled into their shelter backwards, feet first. It made for a snug fit with the two of them. No matter how they shifted around, their legs or arms seemed to bump together. Leonard was cold and uncomfortable, but he wasn't about to suggest spooning. Even so, they were lying so closely together that he could feel the heat radiating off Jim's body and hear his soft regular breathing.

Jim fell asleep almost immediately. After a day in the mines—with an explosive tucked in next to his balls, for God's sake—and then their frantic run out of the camp, not to mention building the shelter and making a fire from scratch, Jim was understandably exhausted. Leonard was tired, too, but he couldn't sleep.

The wind rattled and whistled around their shelter, and he lay there wide-eyed in the dark, wondering how long it would take for the branches to collapse. One bad gust, and they'd be completely exposed to the elements. He took a long, deep breath through the fabric of his briefs, trying to ignore the smell of sweat and dried urine. His empty stomach growled and churned. He'd never had an easy time going without food. Even the food back at the camp, badly prepared and barely nutritious, was at least provided three times a day on schedule. Thank God he'd at least had that scrap of bread hidden away…

It's a good idea to save a little, he remembered Jim telling Fredericks. Trust me, you're going to want it later.

There was a lot about the kid that didn't make sense, starting with how the hell he knew so much about hiding scraps of bread and lighting fires from scratch. He'd put together the shelter like it was second nature. Like he'd done it before a dozen times.

Leonard shoved his hands inside the jumpsuit, close to his body, and tried to sleep.

 

Nothing like a good, steaming cup of piss to wake you up in the morning. It was a little easier the second time around, mainly because he was more used to the idea. The taste was as revolting as before, or maybe even worse, because the urine was more concentrated and saltier. And there was nothing to eat to get the taste out of his mouth. It left him in a foul mood, which wasn't made better by the bite of the wind and the empty feeling in the pit of his stomach.

In the first rays of the early morning light, he could get a better look at their surroundings. They were in a wilderness of gnarly trees, bushes, low shrubs, and thick grasses, for as far as he could see, which wasn't very far at all. Their little lean-to shelter was looking a lot worse for wear, missing some branches and with large patches where the debris had blown away.

They weren't far from the camp, he knew, maybe two kilometers at the most. He couldn't hear anything from that direction yet, but it was early yet, just after dawn.

It wasn't too late. He could go back.

He could tell Childress that he changed his mind, that he didn't want to die in the wilderness. He could say that Jim forced him to run and he didn't have a choice. Childress would punish him—send him to the mines instead of Jim, maybe, or reduce his rations—but he probably wouldn't kill him. Why should he? Leonard would be a walking advertisement against escape.

Jim would have a better chance without him, anyway. Leonard knew nothing about survival in the wilderness. He'd never even been camping except for school trips when he was a kid, hated hiking, never cooked over an open fire in his life. Not that they had anything to cook.

They were going to die out here. It was only a question of how. They'd have to watch each other suffer the agonies of dehydration—cramps, nausea, hallucinations, and seizures, he catalogued automatically—or, if by some miracle they found water, they'd have the slower, more prolonged decline of starvation: catabolysis, muscle atrophy, growing fatigue and apathy. Horrible and painful, either way.

"The wind's died down," Jim said. "Makes it a little easier. I don't think we need an air filter right now." He pushed his briefs down off his face onto his neck. "Man, I should've washed those more often," he said, crinkling his nose. "They stink."

Too much information, definitely. "I did not need to know that. And I told you to watch your hygiene."

Jim laughed. "Like yours are so clean, you big hypocrite." He twisted his torso from side to side and cycled his arms up and around, groaning. "Never much liked sleeping on the ground, but I haven't slept that well since we got to this damn planet. Now, where's the breakfast line?"

There was something deeply wrong with this kid, joking around even now. "Cut the crap, Jim. I'm not in the mood."

Jim seemed to find his grouchiness amusing. "Hey, look on the bright side. We don't have to wait for everybody else to finish hogging the latrines in the morning. And I don't know about you, but I'm not crying over a missed day in the mines." He gave a mock sigh. "It's going to spoil the foreman's whole day when he sees how I screwed up the blast, he's going to have to—"

"Why the hell are you so fucking chipper?" It came out harsher than he'd intended, but damn it, Jim was prancing around like they were on a camping trip. But it wiped that insipid smile off Jim's face, and for that, he wasn't sorry.

"Maybe I like the fresh air," Jim said, with a darker look. "Or maybe I'm just enjoying the fact that there isn't a whistle blowing me half out of my bed to wake me up in the morning. I thought you might appreciate that fact too."

"Well, by all means, get the most out of your vacation," Leonard shot back. "Don't forget to piss in your canteen while you admire the view. Take a deep breath of that dust-filled air and if the storm picks up, no worries, we can just breathe through our goddamn underwear!"

"Hey, that was a good idea," Jim protested.

"Yeah, you're a fucking genius," Leonard said, enjoying the way the sarcasm rolled off his tongue and the hurt look that flickered over Jim's face. "I'm sure you can improvise us some food and water out of our socks and boots, too."

"I'll find us something to eat."

"How? Gonna conjure us up a feast with your magic wand?"

Jim's mouth was set in a hard line. "I'll get us to Alpheus. It's not that far away."

"Well, I wouldn't want to spoil your party by pointing out that even if we somehow manage to reach the dome, you don't have a clue how to get inside!"

It wasn't anything worse than what he said before, and Leonard expected Jim to shrug it off, but he took an angry step forward, planting himself solidly inside Leonard's personal space. "What fucking animal crawled up your ass and died?"

Well, if Jim wanted a confrontation, that's what he'd get. "You did, you hotheaded fool! You think that because you know how to rub two sticks together and make a lean-to out of branches, you can keep us alive out here?"

Jim's lips tightened. "What makes you think I can't?"

"Because I'm a doctor, that's why!" he said, exasperation in every syllable. Jim scowled, as if he didn't want a reminder, and it made Leonard want to shake him. "I know what happens to the human body when you don't feed it and you don't give it any fresh water to drink. You want me to tell you the symptoms of renal failure or dehydration, Jim? They're not pretty. And even assuming we find some water and last more than a few days, starvation's no picnic, either."

Jim blinked and turned away, and when he glanced back up at Leonard, his expression was locked and distant. "I know that," he said quietly.

He's finally realizing what he's done, Leonard thought. Now that it's too late. Feeling a hollow victory, he pressed, "I bet you never even paused to consider that when you tossed the explosive. You know what happens when the body goes into starvation mode, kid? It starts literally consuming its own lean tissues, wasting away. It's a painful, ugly process, and we're both about to get a front-row ticket."

"Enough, you made your point," Jim started, but all of Leonard's pent-up fear and frustration were desperate to find release.

"It's not enough," he said, wanting more than anything just to walk away from this disastrous situation and knowing, furiously, that he couldn't. The next best thing, it seemed, was cutting at Jim. "Nobody can survive out here, and if you were so determined to go on a suicide run, why the hell did you drag me along with you?"

"I didn't-- You didn't give me any choice!" Jim spluttered. "I wanted to do it alone and I told you to go inside, but you went into that stubborn doctor mode and wouldn't leave me alone…"

"How could I know that you were gonna make a run for it? You didn't say anything! And then you threw that explosive at the barracks. I told you I wanted to stay and help our men!"

"Then why the hell didn't you?" Jim yelled. "You could've stayed behind!" Jim seemed to catch himself, and lowered his voice to something resembling calm, although Leonard could sense the anger and resentment behind it. "I told you to run because the guards were firing on us, but you could have decided to run back to the barracks. If that's what you really wanted, I couldn't have stopped you. I wouldn't have, either. You came with me, Bones, and that's your own decision."

It wasn't what he wanted to hear. But it stopped him cold, because it was the truth.

Jim had turned away from him, looking out in the direction of the camp, but his posture was eloquent enough: defensive and pained. A guilty ache setlled in Leonard's chest. This isn't his fault, he thought. I can't pin this on him, much as I'd like to.

"You're right," Leonard said heavily. Jim didn't turn around. "I could have stayed behind. I wanted to, at first, once I realized what you were doing. But you couldn't have pulled me along if I hadn't agreed to it, Jim. So it's my responsibility, too."

"I'm sorry, I really am." Jim was still staring off into the tangle of wilderness around them. "I wasn't going to take anybody with me. You didn't know what I was planning. Hell, I didn't even know myself that morning. I just had a few minutes when they weren't watching me, and I stole the stick of corinite. I knew I had to use it before they realized that I'd taken it, and that meant I had to run right away." He turned back to Leonard, apology in his eyes. "Believe me, this isn't the way I was hoping to escape, with no planning and no supplies. But I could have pushed you away. I could have made sure I was only risking myself."

"Jim, this isn't your fault," Leonard said quietly. The raw honesty in Jim's eyes made it impossible for him to keep lying to himself. "It's true, I didn't have much warning, but I understood what was at stake when I ran. When you threw the explosive, my first instinct was to run in and help. I'm a doctor, and I have a duty—I took an oath—to treat injuries and help the sick."

"I know that."

"But I couldn't really do that in the camp. Oh, I could stitch a wound"—Jim's lip curled in distaste—"or slap a gauze bandage on it, but if anyone was seriously hurt in that explosion, there probably wasn't much I could do except hold their hand. Like… like I did for Fredericks."

It's all right. It'll be all right, he heard himself saying, as Fredericks wheezed and clung to him in panic.

"I made a selfish decision. It was probably the wrong one, and I know I'm going to pay for it. But it was my choice to come."

They were both silent for a minute, and then Jim gave him a pained smile that was more of a grimace. "Well, you're not wrong, either, what you said to me. It's true, I wanted you to come. I could have waited until you were in the barracks, I could have pushed you away and told you to stay. I didn't want to leave you behind, Bones, and that part's on me."

As if on cue, they heard a high, steady whistle floating toward them over the wind. It broke the fragile connection that had settled over them, and Leonard suddenly recalled, with an unpleasant start, that all they were, in fact, in imminent danger in a nearly-hopeless situation.

"That's the morning wake-up call," Jim said, all businesslike. "We'd better get moving. We're going to have to skirt around the camp, stay out of sight. These jumpsuits don't blend in too well with the scenery."

"Jim—" He wasn't sure what he wanted to say. I can't stand the thought of you dying in my arms, maybe, but that was too brutally truthful. "We're in this together, I guess."

Jim looked at him quizzically, then smirked. "You're not going to go all sensitive on me, are you, Bones? We need to go."

Leonard rolled his eyes. "Well, then, lay on, MacDuff."

"And damned be him who first cries 'Hold, enough!'" Jim grinned. "Now you're talking, Bones."

Leonard looked at him in surprise. "Didn't expect you'd know the rest of the quote."

"I told you. I read a lot and I remember things. Let's go." He started walking, and Leonard followed.

"Is that where you learned how to make a shelter like that?" Leonard asked. "And the fire? From a book?"

"Nah, camping," Jim said, not looking back at him. "I used to go camping a lot when I was a kid."

 

Jim

This wasn't going the way he had planned at all.

In the first place, he was fairly sure they were going in the wrong direction. Well, not completely wrong, of course, because he had a general idea of where Alpheus was. But it was much too far away for them to catch a glimpse of the dome, so it was all up to his sense of direction… which apparently wasn’t very good.

It was midday, and they'd been walking for hours. At first, it had been easy enough to keep their course as they skirted the camp. He could use the rising sun as a sort of compass to keep them on track. But then the wind had picked up again, slowing them down and sapping their energy. And for all that he tried to keep plowing head on into it, he knew there was a natural tendency to veer off. And even if they headed just slightly in the wrong direction, they'd be adding distance to their journey that they couldn't afford.

As if he could hear Jim's thoughts, Bones called out to him from behind, "I think we're going the wrong way." His voice was muffled behind his briefs, and almost drowned out by the wind, but Jim could still sense the accusation in it.

"No, we're not," Jim said, automatically defensive, and then amended, "Uh, probably not."

Bones reached out a hand, clamping on Jim's shoulder and spinning him around. "Probably not? What the hell does that mean? All these shrubs look the same to me. We could be going around in circles. We should go back and reorient ourselves with a view of the camp, then make sure we're headed right toward Alpheus."

It was a reasonable suggestion, except that the last time they'd had a decent view of the camp was about two hours' walk back. He tried to think. It was a toss-up; on the one hand, if they retraced their steps—assuming they could do that without getting off track, which wasn't at all certain—they might save themselves some extra walking in the long run. And the wind would be at their backs, so they'd make good time. But the idea of going backward was so demoralizing that he couldn't bring himself to agree.

They needed water more than they needed to find Alpheus, anyway. And there was no water here. They were in a barren scrubland, almost empty of vegetation, with only the occasional low-lying bush or clump of grasses as a landmark.

"We have to keep going. See that outcropping over there?" Jim pointed to a spot in the distance, at the beginning of a rocky range that spread out on the horizon. "It's higher ground. We can climb up, get a good look at where we are."

All he could see of Bones above the mask of black cloth were his red-rimmed eyes, but they were clue enough to how he was feeling: exasperated and exhausted. "Well, how far away is that?"

Jim squinted at the rock. "An hour or so away," he said, halving his estimate for the sake of optimism. "Maybe less. Let's take a break."

Bones nodded tiredly and dropped down onto the ground before Jim could tell him not to. It was always harder to get up afterwards, after the muscles had a chance to freeze up from inactivity. But he didn't have the energy to try to convince him to get back up.

God, he was thirsty. His lips felt chapped and dry and his muscles were shaking. It wasn't that it was so tiring to hike through the brush—for the last few hours, the ground had been mostly flat and empty except for the occasional scrub or patch of grasses-but the lack of food and water was starting to catch up with him. His stomach had been cramping up, on and off, for most of the day.

"We should slow down a little," Jim said, more to himself than to Bones, since he was the one setting the pace, after all. The doctor was just following after him, always a step or two behind. Jim wondered whether Bones was aware of the fact that he was using Jim as a wind block… which meant that Jim was working a lot harder than he was. But Bones was relying on him to navigate, so he had to take the lead. "We're sweating too much, working too hard."

"No, Jim, we need to stop." Bones' gaze was steely. "We can't keep going in this wind. We have to make another shelter, hole up here for the night."

Jim shook his head. "We can't stop here. There's nothing we can use to build a shelter with. Look around, Bones, there are hardly any trees. Where are we going to get branches for a lean-to?"

"All the more reason to go back. There were trees there, bushes and leaves, everything we need. We can cross this area again tomorrow, if it's not so windy."

By tomorrow, with no water, they'd be too sick to walk out. Didn't Bones realize that? "We have to keep going, get to the beginnings of that mountain range over there."

"What's the point?" Bones sounded sullen and angry. "By the time we get there, we'll be too dehydrated to climb them! We need to rest and get up our strength."

"We'll be able to find water there. Trust me." He gave Bones a reassuring look. There had been a cloudburst a few days before, so water might have collected in the rocks. If they were lucky.

If not, well… he didn't finish the thought.

Bones rolled his eyes—not exactly an expression of blind trust, or even confidence—but didn't argue anymore, which was good enough for now.

Jim took out his canteen and took a slug. The urine was so viscous and salty that it seemed to make his thirst worse, but he forced himself to down the rest. Bones followed his lead, tipping back his own canteen without complaint. At least Jim didn't have to fight with him on that. He was a doctor—you'd think he'd want that phrase tattooed on his forehead, he was so in love with it—so obviously he knew how dangerously close they were to dehydration.

"Give me your hand," Bones said suddenly.

Whoa. "Uh, I'm not really the hand-holding type." If Bones thought he needed some encouragement, this wasn't the way to do it…

"I don't want to romance you, dimwit!" Bones grumbled. "Gimme your hand, I want to see something."

He held it out gingerly—maybe Bones wanted to take his pulse?—and was surprised when the doctor flipped it over and pinched the skin on the back of his hand, tenting it up between his fingers. When he let go, the skin kept its position for a few seconds, before slowly sagging down.

"So… I'm guessing that's not really good," Jim said, pinching the skin on the back of his other hand experimentally. It was weird, watching the skin bunch up and then droop back into place.

"No, it's not. Means you're moderately dehydrated." Bones was giving him a look that said, clear as day, I'm a doctor, and you're two steps away from death's door.

Fuck that. It wasn't like he didn't already know he was dry as a bone. He hadn't been able to pee the last time he tried, except for a pungent dribble that probably wasn't more than a mouthful. "Thanks for solving that medical mystery," he said, hauling himself up. "Let's go."

They pushed forward, heads down against the wind. Bones didn't say anything at all, content to simmer in a resentful funk, which was fine with Jim. Speaking would have been too much effort, when he was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, and besides, his tongue seemed to be drying out inside his mouth. His head was starting to ache insistently, and there was nothing he wanted to do, really, other than sit down and not move again.

But he wouldn't. He couldn't give up, not when Bones was relying on him—or following him, at any rate—and he was certain that if they could just make it to the rocks, they'd have a chance.

The craggy outcropping in the distance got incrementally larger, and he began to make out more detail. The level floor of open scrubland they'd been traveling through ended in a rocky range of low reddish mountains, which would be a bitch to cross. But as they got closer he could see, with a jolt of excitement, that the ground was covered in heavier, denser vegetation, weird-looking alien bushes and trees. That meant water.

 

After what seemed like endless hours of walking, they hit the edge of the range. Jim scrambled up the rocky slope, scanning the ground. "Look for water!" he called back. "In the crevices, maybe in a hole…" Bones gave a weary nod and moved off to his right.

It took more than a few frustrating minutes, but Bones finally let out a strangled "Jim!" and collapsed down onto his hands and knees, crouching under a little shaded outcropping. He whipped the briefs off his face and lowered his head down to the rocks.

Water. Thank God.

Jim nearly fell in his rush to get to Bones' side. There was a small rocky crevice where he was kneeling, and within it… a bit of pooled rainwater. Jim lapped up the precious, cool liquid with his tongue, letting it soothe his parched throat.

There wasn't much, not more than a cupful, and it was gone much too soon. "We need more," Jim said, pushing himself into a sitting position. He felt only marginally better, still dizzy and nauseous.

Bones laid a shaky hand on his arm. "Best not to drink too much at once," he croaked out. "Let it settle." He lay back on the rocky ground with a satisfied sigh. "Hell, that was almost as good as my mama's mint lemonade."

They were able to find three more small crevices with pooled water, enough to get them back on their feet. His brain, which seemed to have been working on standby settings for the past few hours, suddenly clicked into gear. With a start, he realized that the sun was setting again. Had they really been walking all day?

They needed to build another shelter, quick. The wind was calmer, which was a big plus, but he could already feel the temperature plunging. He could hardly imagine where he'd get the energy to make another fire, with his muscles so shaky from the lack of food.

Bones was looking up at the rocky slope above them. "That's a lot steeper than it looked from far off. Gonna be hell to climb."

"We'll deal with it in the morning," Jim said. Maybe they'd have more energy after they slept, although he knew from experience that he'd be lucky to sleep well on an empty stomach. "We need to start gathering some branches to make another shelter, and—"

He blinked. Something was moving in the dirt nearby. He took a careful step forward, peering closely in the dimming light. It moved again, kicking up a little streak of dust, darting for the safety of a nearby rock. Jim reached back and snapped a branch off the bush next to him, then poked it between the rocks.

A pale brown creature—it looked like a cross between a spider and a scorpion—scuttled out, moving faster on its six legs than Jim had expected. It was the first native life form he'd seen on Rigel, which was another good sign, because where there were living things, there was a good supply of water.

He jabbed at it with the end of the branch. It took several tries but he finally got it pinned, and bent down to take a closer look at it. It was about the size of his finger. It had what looked like tiny pincers, and it was clearly mad as hell, if the way it was waving its legs spasmodically was anything to go by.

"What are you doing, Jim?" Bones was looking on, his lips curled in disgust. "Stop playing around and let the poor critter go. We need to start gathering branches and things."

"I'm gonna kill it. Hand me another branch, something with a sharp end."

"Just watch out for those pincers."

Jim maneuvered the creature carefully onto its side, and there! He pressed down with the second branch, neatly chopping off one of the pincers, then the other one. Then he cut off the head, for good measure. The thing gave one more fitful jerk, then stilled.

He turned slightly away from Bones. He'd only put up a stormy objection to this part, so there was no point in letting him see, just yet. Picking up the dead creature with his fingers, he brought it to his mouth, rubbing the dripping end on the skin of his arm, and then cautiously over his lips. It tasted and smelled like moldy cheese, but being picky was the last thing he could afford at this point.

He set it down carefully on a rock. "Let's set started, then. You go get some good branches and I'll find a place for us to spend the night."

 

Twenty minutes later, Jim had fashioned a reasonably protected shelter, propping the branches Bones brought him against a low rock outcropping. The process was quicker this time, since Bones knew what materials to collect and the ledge served as a makeshift roof. Even the materials for the fire—the tinder and the wood for the spindle—were easy enough to find.

He licked his lips, considering. No numbness, no itching. The skin on his arm, where he'd dripped the juices of the dead animal, was clear. Good.

He retrieved the beheaded scorpion—if that's what it was—and carried it back to their shelter, where Bones was shoring up the branches with rocks at the base.

Bones eyed the creature with distaste. "Leave that damn thing alone, Jim, it's dead already."

"That's the idea, Bones," Jim said, then popped it into his mouth without giving himself time to change his mind. Ugh, it was disgusting, crunchy and slimy.

"Are you crazy?" Bones yelled, eyes wide. "Spit it back out! Quick!"

He gave himself a minute for his stomach to settle, then straightened back up. "It's protein."

"It's alien protein, which you have no idea whether your system can tolerate!"

Jim sighed. Great, now Bones was going to have another of his shit-fits and they really, really didn't have time for this. "Well, we could try waiting around for a steak dinner to show up, but in the meantime, grab yourself a branch and let's see how many others we can catch."

"Dammit, Jim, this isn't a joke!"

"Do I look like I'm kidding?" His stomach was rumbling uncomfortably; the little taste of food was an uncomfortable reminder of how hungry he was.

"You can't just pop that thing in your mouth like it's a marshmallow on a camping trip. It could be toxic!"

"Don't worry, I did a skin test and tasted it twenty minutes ago, and I feel fine, no numbness or skin reactions."

"You what?" Bones looked flabbergasted. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because there was no point in both of us doing it, in case there were any problems." And because you would have tried to stop me. "Anyway, these things are all we've got, and we need food if we're going to get set up for the night and climb those hills in the morning."

Bones looked like he wanted to take Jim by the shoulders and shake him. "I don't know where you get your information, but damn it, Jim, twenty minutes isn't enough time! Testing food for poisons takes a lot longer than that. If you want to taste it, take a tiny bite and then wait for at least a day!"

"We don't have a day," Jim shot back. Bones ought to write a book: The Doctor's Manual for Wilderness Survival in Optimal Conditions. (Chapter 5: Be as cautious as possible and always wear a safety helmet.)

"Why the hell not?" Bones demanded, spreading his hands to indicate the mountains around them. "There's water here, and we can lie around here tomorrow and rest up!"

"Every day that we're out here is dangerous," Jim argued. "What if a dust storm comes up over that plain? What if one of us gets injured on these rocks? Alpheus could be just over the ridge. We could be there tomorrow."

"What if you get food poisoning, you impulsive idiot?"

"For God's sake, Bones," he fumed, "we have to take some risks! Time isn't on our side here. If we don't eat, we're not going to have the energy to climb out of here."

"Well, I'm not eating that thing," Bones said furiously, "and if you have any self-preservation at all, you'll stop too! Why the hell would you risk dying in agony for a measly fifty calories of protein? Do you even know what food poisoning can do to you? Cramps, diarrhea, vomiting..."

Jim scowled and looked away. "That's not going to happen."

"Why, because you said so?" Bones made an exasperated noise. "It might kill you right away, but it's more likely it would incapacitate you or leave you so debilitated you couldn't keep going."

Bones always needed to push; he went just one step too far. "I know all about food poisoning, so stop lecturing me. Shut up already and help me find some more of these things!"

Bones grabbed an armful of branches and turned back to the shelter. "Find the damn things yourself, if you're so determined."

Fine.

 

The light was almost completely gone by the time Jim got back to the outcropping. He dumped the five scorpions he'd found in a dripping mess on a flat rock

Bones was watching him, sitting at the entrance to the shelter. "You're a stubborn ass," he said, his voice tinged with frustration. "And you're not thinking straight. For the last time, those things may be toxic."

"I'm eating them," Jim said wearily, "and then I'm going to build the fire."

Bones' angry mask cracked just a little bit, and his eyes softened. "Look, Jim, I know you're tired. Let me make the fire this time. I saw how you do it."

Jim shook his head in irritation. "It's not as easy as it looks. I'll do it."

Bones stood to face him, looking grim in the fading light. "Go take a break. You've done enough for one day."

"Sit down, Bones, before I make you."

Bones laughed harshly. "Don't try it, kid. I weigh more than you and I know where all the pressure points are."

"Right," he snapped, "because you're a goddamn doctor, I forgot. Do you think that's going to save you out here, Bones? How the hell are you going to climb up with me tomorrow, with no food in your stomach? If you think I'm carrying you, think again!"

"Is that what you think, that I'm a burden on you?" Bones looked furious, but he could tell that there was a layer of hurt underneath. "Well, fuck you, Jim! You may know a few handy camping tricks, but don't think you can tell me what to do. I'll use my own judgment about what to eat and when."

"You do that, then." It was a weak response, but the argument had exhausted what little powers of concentration he had.

He sat down shakily. He was going to keel over in a minute if he didn't eat something, whether or not Bones did. He grabbed one of the scorpions and stuck it in his mouth, not even caring about the bitter taste. He was so damn hungry. He needed to eat before he lost his footing and fell… or before he said something he'd regret.

He knew Bones had a point. Eating raw sand insects was disgusting and yes, potentially deadly. It was also true that Jim was rushing the testing process, and he probably should wait until tomorrow before eating anything else. But waiting was becoming a trade-off, considering how weak they were. Anyway, in his experience, if something was going to go wrong, he'd know by now.

The bottom line was, Bones just didn't trust him, and hadn't since they'd started out. He popped another scorpion in his mouth, nearly gagging this time.

"Well now," Bones said, sarcasm dripping off his words, "bet you feel better now, with something in your stomach, don't you?" Jim ignored him. He had to make an effort to swallow down the food with his dry mouth. "You just can't stand it when somebody won't listen to you, isn't that right, Jim? Gotta command at all costs, even if you don't know what the hell you're doing!"

"That's not what this is about." Shut up, he thought furiously.

"You think I don't know that we're lost?" Bones continued, as if he was determined to needle him into a reaction. "You don't have a plan. You've got us out here in the middle of nowhere, and you're still trying to tell me what to do! It's unbelievable. You always have to be the one who calls the shots, even if it's just the two of us in the fucking wilderness. You don't care what anybody else says, you're going to do it your own damn way, even if you get us both killed in the process!"

"It's not like that," Jim said tightly. He was beginning to feel that he'd like to punch Bones, if he only had the energy.

"No, it's exactly like that!"

Bones, apparently, was happy to channel all his remaining energy into telling Jim what a fuck-up he was. But they had to stop tearing into each other. He made a final attempt to salvage the situation. "We're not lost," Jim said, as calmly as he could manage. "We may be a little off track, but we'll get ourselves pointed toward Alpheus in the morning, and then—"

"—and then you're gonna start listening to me, you arrogant fool!"

Enough.

Jim wiped his mouth and stood. "Not when your suggestions are bad," he snarled. "Not when the only advice you have is to go back or give up! That's what you always do, isn't it? It's why you joined Starfleet in the first place. When things get tough, you run in the opposite direction!"

Bones waved a dismissive hand, but he was hurt, Jim could tell. Good: anything to get the man to stop talking. "If we'd stopped before, like you said, we'd never have found any water. I was right to make us push on. You don't know how to survive out here, and I do, so like it or not, I'm the one in charge!"

"Based on what? Because you went camping in Iowa when you were a kid and read a few articles on the nets?"

Goddamn him. "No, you sanctimonious asshole, because I've done this before!"

Bones gave him a skeptical glare. "Oh really, you've done it before, have you? Found your way in a wilderness? Eaten poisonous insects? Starved?"

"Yes, yes, and yes!" he yelled. "All of it! So shut the hell up, Bones, because I know what I'm fucking doing, okay?"

Trembling, he sat down on the edge of the outcropping, grabbing the branches he'd picked out to start the fire. Shit, shit, he hadn't meant to say that.

He set up the spindle and started rubbing the stick between his hands, staring down blankly. He was glad it was too dark for Bones to see his face, glad that he was still too dehydrated for any unwanted wetness to spill out of the corner of his eyes.

He spun the branch fast between his palms, again and again. The wood started heating in his hands, scraping his skin. Good, the stinging pain would help him focus.

"Jim." Bones' voice was quiet but steady. "Are you going to explain that?"

"Not now," he said shortly. He was breathing heavily from the effort, and his heart was beating so fast he could feel it thumping in his chest.

"I'll wait, then." Bones' tone said, clearer than words, this isn't over.

The fire started more quickly than he'd have liked. He fed the little spark carefully, then built up the flame into a strong fire. Wordlessly, Bones handed him twigs and branches, until the fire was jumping and crackling between them, warm and cheerful.

Jim sat back. He could see, now, that Bones was watching him, his expression composed, not giving away what he was thinking. He didn't look angry anymore; he was just waiting.

"Go ahead," Jim said with a sigh. "Ask."

 

Leonard

Sometimes Leonard hated the fact that he was a doctor. It wasn't just knowing all too well what might happen to them out here—he could fill in the blanks in excruciating detail—which prevented him from burying himself in denial the way Jim seemed to be doing. Right now, it was his psychological training that he wished he could ignore, because it would be so much easier just to fling his fury back at Jim: I don't give a shit about starting the stupid fire, you're gonna tell me right now what's got you so wrapped up in knots, and by the way, fuck you! What the hell do you know about me anyway?

But no. That shattered look in the kid's eyes and the chilling words he'd snarled out—Yes, yes, and yes, all of it!—had flipped a switch inside Leonard and changed the rules of the game in a way that he couldn't disregard. It meant that he had to put on his professional mask, take a step out of the situation because it wasn't about him anymore, it was about Jim and whatever demons had been driving him so hard. And so help him, he knew that when someone had a secret that they were about to spill, the most important thing was to project acceptance. Calm. A no-judgment attitude coupled with a hefty helping of I've-heard-it-all-before-so-nothing-surprises-me.

So he calmed himself down with an effort and waited, giving Jim the space he needed, watching him spin the branch furiously in his hands. He was focusing on the task as if his life depended on it, not once glancing away. The branch slipped off the bottom piece more than once, making Jim hiss in frustration. Even in the semi-darkness, Leonard could see that his movements were jerky and uncoordinated. He seemed to be holding himself together by a thread, closer to a breakdown than Leonard had ever seen him.

For that matter, Leonard felt close to the edge himself. Now that they'd stopped moving, the hunger had ratcheted up to a constant whine in his gut, and he felt so weak that all he wanted to do was sprawl on the ground and close his eyes. But he knew he had to put his own needs aside right now, because he was first and foremost a caretaker. And it was crystal clear to him that Jim needed him alert and there.

It occurred to him that since they'd been captured, Jim had been operating in two modes only. For the most part, he'd been in control, protective and determined, even cocky. The other men had all had a hard adjustment, and Leonard had spent more than one evening trying to help one or another of them cope with the shock and despair. Jim, on the other hand, seemed to skip right over that phase. From the first, he'd been almost obsessively focused on escape, but despite the hopelessness of their predicament, Leonard had never seen him slip into depression.

Leonard had seen him angry plenty of times, too, lashing out at Childress, at Cho, at Collins, at the other prisoners… even at Leonard himself, like he'd just done. But it never lasted long, and he almost seemed to be able to collect himself and move on. It was as if he couldn't bring himself to show any weakness.

Jim didn't show his vulnerable side very often, but it was there, Leonard knew. He remembered Jim wistfully talking about how he'd joined Starfleet to do something meaningful, and how he'd been trying to cope with being transferred to engineering. That was when he'd decided that he really liked the kid, and that there was more to him than met the eye.

But this version of Jim, uncommunicative and just barely clinging to control, a glint of wetness in his eye… He'd only seen that once before, on the shuttle ride to the Atlantis when Leonard needled him about missing the Farragut. This was Jim at his rawest and most honest, when he was pushed to his limits.

You're an asshole, Leonard told himself. They were both shaky with fatigue and under stress, but that was no excuse for the things he'd said. He'd been aiming to hurt, trying to get a rise out of Jim that would pay him back for the misery he was feeling. On a rational level, he didn't blame Jim, and if he'd gotten them lost it was hardly intentional, but it was easier to let his fear and misery boil over into resentment. And then Jim had returned the favor, stabbing right at his weakest spot with unerring intuition. It was true that he was a coward, and damn it, Jocelyn had said it often enough toward the end… and then he couldn't think of anything but hurting Jim back.

Whatever he'd said, it had Jim teetering on the edge of his self-control.

It was clear now that Jim had a secret weighing on him, something that was driving him into an uncommunicative funk, winding him up so tight that he was becoming almost unreasonable. Maybe Jim wanted to tell him, but couldn't find any other way to let it out—couldn't let himself seem vulnerable, couldn't ask for help—other than provoking Leonard into an angry exchange like they'd had, until it was nearly forced out of him.

So when Jim finally finished with the fire and gave Leonard his half-hearted permission to ask him about it, Leonard started with a question that was relatively benign. Easy to answer, for now.

"How old were you?"

"Thirteen."

Leonard had been expecting it. Something had gone down that year, when Jim had missed a critical vaccination booster. Something he hadn't wanted to explain.

Jim was looking at him expectantly, his expression composed, so Leonard headed straight for the question that had been at the front of his mind for the last half hour. "Where were you?"

"Off planet," he said. "It was a colony. My mom sent me there for a while, to live with some relatives." He took a breath. "Tarsus IV."

Oh, no.

"You know what happened there, right?" Jim asked, staring into the fire. "It was in the news."

"I know there was problem with the food supply, but I don't really know the details," Leonard said carefully. In fact, the Tarsus famine had been all over the news—Catastrophe in the Tarsus Colony, he remembered reading, ten or eleven years ago. He hadn't followed the reports closely, but he recalled some kind of political mess that had interfered with the food distribution. A lot of colonists died, but he couldn't really remember why. They hadn't starved, he was fairly sure of that, but there had been some kind of violence, or maybe an uprising. The fact that Jim had been there at all was a shock. As a child… "Tell me what happened, Jim."

The dancing flames and the comforting crackling of the fire provided a harsh contrast to Jim's bleak expression. "There was a blight. The crops failed… some kind of fungus, they said. It got into the food supply, destroyed everything practically overnight. The governor laid down some emergency measures until the supply ships could arrive. There wasn't much to eat, but we were alright for a few weeks. That's what we thought, anyway." He paused, and when he continued, his voice was strained. "Then there was a rebellion. One morning we woke up and there were armed guards in the streets."

"That must have been pretty frightening," Leonard said, trying to imagine what that might look like to a thirteen-year-old boy, walking outside and trying to make sense of a world turned chaotic. "What were they trying to achieve?"

Jim shrugged. "I was just a kid, and I didn't pay much attention to colony politics. My aunt was on the governing board, and sometimes I used to hear her complaining to my uncle about council meetings. I didn't really understand at first, but I got it later. They didn't agree with the way the council was distributing the food, had their own ideas about how to do it." His tone was bitter. "Next thing we knew, they were calling everybody out to the main assembly hall town to get 'processed.'" He shook his head. "We were so naïve. We thought it meant we were going to get more rations."

"I take it you didn't."

"Not by a long shot," Jim said with a harsh laugh. "They separated us into two groups. Half went home, and the rest of us were taken to the town square. Me, too, I was with my aunt and her two kids, and I…" He grimaced as if in memory of it. "It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm. They marched us all down the street, pushed together like prisoners. There were soldiers with phasers everywhere telling us to hurry, hurry, there wasn't time. Time for what, everybody kept asking, but nobody would explain."

Please, don't say what I think you're going to say, Leonard thought. But there was no mistaking the haunted look in Jim's eyes and the ominous tone in his voice.

Jim cleared his throat. "Should've found more water before we made the shelter," he said. "My throat's dry. Got a bad taste in my mouth from those bug things."

"We'll find some in the morning." It was obvious that thirst wasn't really the problem, but Leonard played along. "And serves you right for eating those alien slugs in the first place." When Jim didn't say anything else, he prodded, "Well, go on, kid. Get it out."

"Sure you want to hear this?" Jim asked, his lips twitching up into a half-smile that didn't reach his eyes. "Not very pretty from here on in."

"I'll take my chances," Leonard said, with a certainty he didn't feel. It was going to be bad, but there was no way he was going to let Jim stop now.

Jim gave him a don't-say-I-didn't-warn-you look, his heavy brows furrowed. After a moment, he continued, "I don't know how it started, but suddenly everybody was shouting and trying to get away, and the soldiers were firing at us. Right next to me, I saw my neighbors cut down… little kids getting shot… People were panicking, and everybody was trying to run. I managed to get away. A bunch of us kids did, and we scattered into the woods. But later… we came back, my friend Tom and I. Our families were still there, in the town square, and we wanted to… I don't know what we thought we could do, but we came back, anyway."

Leonard could see him in his mind's eye, a wiry teenager, scared and angry. It wasn't hard to imagine that he'd be resourceful and protective, even then, taking on too much responsibility.

He watched Jim place a few more sticks on the fire, until the flames burned higher again. "Somebody was giving a speech. We hid behind some bushes near the square, and we could hear it. 'The revolution is successful," Jim intoned in a deep, measured voice, as if he was mimicking a voice in his head. "But survival depends on drastic measures. Your continued existence represents a threat to the well-being of society.'" He looked up at Leonard. "It was Raslan Kodos, one of the council members. I recognized him. He said that there was a revolution and that he was the new governor of Tarsus. He told the people there that they'd been sentenced to death so that there would be enough food for everybody else, and then he gave the order to his soldiers, and… they started taking groups into the woods, fifty at a time. We could hear the phaser blasts and the screaming."

"They shot them," Leonard said, quietly horrified. He'd been expecting something like this, but… "Wait, you're not saying that you actually witnessed it…?"

Jim nodded. "It took half the night. Four thousand people… that takes a long time."

Christ. "Jim… why didn't you run?"

Jim shrugged. "Tom and I were too scared to move from where we were hiding. We watched it all. My aunt and her kids, I saw that myself. My teachers, my neighbors. Group after group." His voice was so low, Leonard could hardly hear it. "Kodos was there, too. He kept saying that their deaths would have meaning because the better half of the colony," he spat out the words in disgust, "the ones he'd selected, would live. He meant that they'd get the food rations instead of us."

Leonard tried to process what he was saying. Jim was a witness—at thirteen—to one of the most horrendous crimes in modern history, and he'd been carrying this around inside for years like an abscess.

Because the better half of the colony would live. The words finally penetrated… Jim had been on the wrong list. He'd been told, at thirteen, that he wasn't fit to live.

The whole conversation was beginning to feel unreal. "My God," Leonard bit out. "How… how did you get away?"

"We waited until they all left, and then we ran," Jim said, his voice a pained whisper. "We got as far away into the woods as we could, and then we just… tried to stay alive. There were twelve of us, at first, mostly kids younger than me who managed to get away in that first panic. But not everybody made it."

"What did you have to eat?" he asked, knowing the answer.

"Not much. At first we tried to eat the plants. Some of them had the fungus, and we knew to stay away from them, but… it was kind of trial and error. Sometimes we guessed wrong," he said, with an angry twist of his lips. "So yeah, Bones, I learned how to test for edible food and I know exactly what food poisoning can do."

"I'll bet."

Shit, he thought, hearing his own cutting words. Do you even know what food poisoning can do to you?

"We ate a lot of insects, whatever we could catch. Bugs and grubs and things. Some plants that we knew were safe."

"Hell, Jim, that's…" His voice trailed off. A bunch of children foraging for food in the woods, barely able to find enough food to sustain them while they slowly starved. It was inconceivable that this had happened to Jim. "I can't begin to imagine what that must have been like. How long were you…?"

"Two and a half months," Jim said, and Leonard couldn't stop a gasp from escaping, imagining the emaciated group of ragtag children they must have been. "Seventy-nine days before the supply ships arrived. There were nine of us left by then."

"My God, Jim how did—"

Jim broke in before he could complete the question. "Don't ask me anything else now, please, Bones." His voice was gruff, almost hoarse.

Leonard could only nod. "Nothing else, kid," he said. His throat felt tight with pent-up emotion. He wanted to express his outrage, or at least his sympathy, but one look at Jim's face told him that the words would be wasted.

The silence drew out between them, awkward and heavy, interrupted only by the intermittent crackling of the fire.

"I think I'll turn in," Jim said with an air of casual normalcy, as if he hadn't just laid a bomb in Leonard's lap. "I'm really beat." He pushed himself away from the fire, deliberately avoiding Leonard's gaze, and shimmied his legs under the ledge of their shelter. He turned on his side so that he was facing away, pillowing his head on his arms.

Leonard stayed where he was, listening to the occasional crackling of the fire and Jim's even breaths. It all made so much sense, now. God, he'd been blind. Memories were swirling around in his head, jumping out at him in a series of accusations.

You're a doctor and you're not trained for this, Jim had said when they were first captured. He remembered his own disparaging response: And you are?

Yeah, apparently he was. But until now it had all seemed like arrogance and overconfidence, and maybe that was the point, he thought. For whatever reason, Jim kept his experiences on Tarsus a secret. He probably didn't want to be perceived as a victim, or didn't want the extra attention, on top of what he already got as the son of the Kelvin hero. Come to think of it, Jim had been downright evasive every time they came near the subject.

I read a lot.

Guess I was absent that day.

No, I don't have any other information, sir… I just think it's a good idea to save a little to eat later.

He heard his own mocking voice. You think that because you know how to rub two sticks together and make a lean-to out of branches, you can keep us alive out here?

What makes you think I can't? Jim had said.

He had too many questions, and none of them would get answered tonight. Sighing, he left the warmth of the still-burning embers of the fire and crawled into the shelter. Jim was lying on his side with his knees drawn up. Leonard lay down next to him, not touching him, but close enough to feel the heat of his body and Jim's warm breath on the back of his neck.

 

Jim woke him early the next morning, kneeing him accidentally in the back as he crawled out of their shelter. "Rise and shine," he said in answer to Leonard's annoyed grunt. "Got a little mountain to climb."

"No law saying we have to get such an early start," he muttered. His muscles were aching, and the empty hole in his stomach was a nauseating reminder that he hadn't eaten in nearly forty hours. He rubbed his hands over his face, grimacing at the scratchy feel of two days of stubble.

Jim was already on his feet, stretching. "Morning's the best time of day for hiking, Bones. The air's nice and cool."

He wasn't surprised that Jim seemed a lot more energetic this morning. He'd eaten a little last night, and gotten something off his chest that must have been weighing him down. Leonard, on the other hand, felt like just standing up and peeing into his canteen—at least there was something to pee this morning—was about all he was going to manage for the next hour or so. Hiking wasn't an option, and for that matter, neither was standing, with his legs feeling like jelly.

Jim was observing him with a half-amused frown. "So, Bones, you might have noticed that I'm still alive and kicking, so I think we can assume that the scorpions are a go." He smirked and pointed to the mess of congealed remains on the rock just outside the outcropping. "How about some breakfast?"

Leonard sighed. "You win," he said with a reluctant nod. "Catch me some fresh ones, at least. And find us some more water. Those things look like they need to be washed down."

Jim came back fifteen minutes later, carrying his shirt bunched in one hand like a basket of goodies. "Got a bunch of those scorpions, and some other… uh, bug things," he said, laying his shirt on the ground with a proud flourish. "We can test them today, and see if they're edible. And I found more water."

When he finally got up the courage to try one of the creatures, it was just as revolting as he'd feared, but he was so hungry that he didn't really care. He found himself reaching for another without hesitation, his reluctance shoved aside by the relentless rumbling of his stomach. It's just protein, he told himself. Insects aren't even sentient. Nothing but a cultural taboo stopping us from eating them.

He was still ravenously hungry after the third, and the sip of water Jim had found wasn't enough to quench his thirst. Still, he had to admit that he felt better. For the first time, he was beginning to think that maybe they might not die out here, at least not of dehydration. There was a cool breeze and even a hint of humidity in the air in this mountainous area, and the wind and dust weren't nearly so prevalent. All in all, much better than where they'd been yesterday.

With a few calories and some water chugging through his system, climbing the rocky incline didn't seem nearly as daunting as it had the night before. Even so, it took them more than an hour to reach a spot that provided a view into the distance. Jim made no attempt to reopen the discussion from the night before while they climbed, and Leonard took his cue gratefully. He was breathing hard enough as they struggled up the hill, and he didn't think he'd be able to carry on any sort of conversation. Except for the occasional "Need a break?" or "Watch your step," they didn't talk at all. But at least they weren't bickering.

Jim reached the top first, and immediately started scanning the horizon. "There!" he crowed, just as Leonard reached the summit. He looked where Jim was pointing. The Alpheus dome was just barely visible from where they stood, looking like a shiny bubble on the ground. "I knew it! See, we're not so far off course after all."

"Don't get cocky, kid. It still looks pretty small from here." Leonard glanced around at the landscape surrounding them. "And how the hell are we supposed to get from here to there?" From the crest where they were standing, the range spread out before them in a discouraging chain of low, brush-covered mountains. Everywhere he looked, there were steep, rocky inclines and valleys. It would take days to cross this terrain, if they could even find a passage through it.

"Piece of cake, Bones," Jim said, although his voice held a tremor of uncertainty. "Might, uh, take us a little longer than I thought, but we can do it."

"Sure we can," Leonard said agreeably. "Hang on, let me just get my carabiners. You grab the rope."

Jim squinted back at him. "Uh, that was sarcasm, right?"

"Now you're catchin' on, farm boy."

 

Without the taste of dust and urine in his mouth, and without the shakes and the dizziness, the hike was almost pleasant. They had to backtrack more than once when their way was blocked, but they made more or less steady progress.

"So, Jim…" Leonard said as they picked their way carefully up another endless incline, "you do have an idea of how we're going to get into Alpheus, right?"

"Sure, I was thinking we could knock on the gate and tell them we're looking for work. Maybe we should take these jumpsuits off first, though."

Leonard rolled his eyes, a wasted gesture since Jim was two steps ahead of him. "Seriously, you have a plan, right?"

"Course I do," Jim said after a pause.

God damn it, he knew it. "You don't, do you?"

Jim stopped and turned around, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. At least they were hydrated enough to sweat again. "I have two plans," he said, with an air of resentment. "Plan A is that we find those huge air filters Fredericks told us about, and slip inside through them."

"Find the filters and slip inside? That's it?" There were a handful of reasons why that might not work, starting with the fact that the filters might be impenetrable without the proper equipment, or too high for them to reach, or might not even be visible from the outside of the dome.

"We don't actually know too much about them," Jim admitted. "We'll have to improvise when we see them."

I might have known. "Well, what's Plan B?"

Jim gave him a tired grin. "Plan B is that we find another way in."

Perfect.

"C'mon, Bones," Jim said, giving his shoulder a friendly slap, "Let's worry about it later. I'm getting hungry."

Leonard left Jim to the business of catching more of the scorpions, while he hunted for water in the shadier areas. He found some in a hole in one of the rocks, too deep for them to drink from, so he pushed the sleeve of his shirt inside, letting it soak up the water. They could suck the water out of the cloth, at least.

Further along he saw a large depression in the side of the slope, almost a little cave. He stuck his head cautiously inside, tensing when he got a whiff of an unpleasant, acrid odor. When he caught a glimpse of orange fabric, his blood ran cold.

A body… one that had been here for a long time, from the smell of it.

"Jim," he called out, "there's something here you should see." He waited for Jim's answering shout before leaning further into the cave, making sure not to breathe through his nose.

Jim was beside him in seconds, asking anxiously, "What's the matter—Shit!"

Together, they pulled the body out into the light. Jim took one look, turned ashen, and dropped to his knees, gagging.

It wasn't the first time Leonard had seen a body in a state of advanced decomposition, so his shock was easier to manage. He looked it over carefully. It had been a human male, tall and broad, the bone structure easily discernible under the leathery remains of tendons and ligaments. The orange jumpsuit was still mostly intact.

"How long's he been dead?" Jim gasped out. He was still hunched over, taking in big gulps of air.

"Well, considering the state of decomposition and the arid environment…" He figured Jim didn't need to hear the medical details. "The body's pretty dried out, so I'd say three or four months. But I could be off."

"Poor guy," Jim said, with a sad shake of his head. He kneeled next to Leonard to take a closer look at the body. "They told us that other prisoners had run off. Nobody ever knew what happened to them… How did he die? Can you tell?"

Leonard was already examining the corpse, professional mode kicking in to override his revulsion. There was nothing immediately apparent that he could see. The skull was intact. He patted down the body, feeling for any obvious damage. When he reached the lower left leg he felt an odd protrusion, and pulled the pants leg up.

Ouch, he thought. "Here's the probable cause of death. Broken leg. See that?" He pointed. "Displaced fracture of the tibial shaft. He must've fallen, then couldn't walk."

Jim looked up at the rocky incline above them. "Wouldn't be hard to slip and take a bad fall," he muttered. "So he just crawled in here to die… after he made it this far?"

Leonard sighed. "He wouldn't have had much choice. The tibia's the weight-bearing bone in the leg, Jim. There's no way he could have climbed out with a break like that." It was a downright tragic way to go, he thought: slowly dying of thirst or starvation, alone and in pain, without even a name or a burial.

"We should cover him, or… put him back, or something." Jim looked spooked, unable to take his eyes from the corpse.

Leonard nodded. "We'll make a marker." It seemed like a futile gesture—who knew if they'd even make it out alive themselves, let alone be able to come back and try to reclaim the body—but he felt like the man deserved some sort of recognition, a small bit of dignity that they could give him.

They worked with hardly a word between them. Leonard tore a strip off the jumpsuit before they moved the man back, and then helped Jim seal the entrance to the cave with piled rocks. The strip of orange fabric was secured between the stones, flapping out slightly in the breeze.

"One of the kids I lost…" Jim said when they'd finished, his words clear and sharp in the dry air, "it was right near the end. She wasn't sick, or at least no sicker than the rest of us. We'd figured out a lot of things by then, how to build a good shelter and keep ourselves warm, how to find things to eat, and I thought we were going to be okay. And then… she just got really weak and died, for no reason. After two months."

"She was starving, Jim," Leonard said gently. "It could have been any number of things. Electrolyte imbalance, heart failure, shock…"

"The supply ships came a week later." Jim stared at the rocks they'd piled in front of the cave. "She almost made it."

"Sometimes people just give up. You don't know why."

"She was only ten." Jim's eyes were wide and pained. He looked ten years younger, and Leonard's heart clenched.

"Come on, kid. We need to keep going. We've given our friend a decent resting place, and that's something."

Jim nodded and pushed himself up, wiping his hands on the fabric of his jumpsuit. "That's not going to happen to us," he said, giving Leonard a stubborn look. "What happened to that guy. Dying like that."

Leonard sighed. He'd never been someone who believed in the power of positive thinking. Realities had to be faced. "You don't know that, Jim. We could fall and injure ourselves. It's a possibility."

"That's not what I meant," Jim said with an impatient shake of his head. "I'm not an idiot, Bones. I know our chances are still pretty slim. I know we're in a bad situation, and a thousand things could still go wrong. But there are two of us, so… neither of us is going to have to die all alone like he did. Understand?" He gave Leonard a fierce look, as if he could will him to agree. "You're not going to end up in a cave, alone, waiting for the end, and neither am I. That's not going to happen."

The cynical response Leonard had been about to make died on his lips. For the first time, he got a glimpse of the commander Jim had the potential to be: determined and strong, someone who could be trusted to bring them through a crisis by the force of his own willpower and ingenuity, no matter what dangers lay ahead. Leonard's breath caught, and for a moment, he couldn't respond. "Okay, kid," he said finally. "Nobody's dying alone. That's a pact."

"Good," Jim said, sounding satisfied. "Let's go, then. Just… watch your step, all right?"

"You, too."

 

It was two days later before they heard it, both of them at the same time: an odd rushing sound.

"Bones, did you hear—"

"Jim, I could swear that sounds like—"

Jim's face was haggard, his eyes sunken and red, but his lips were quirked in a half-smile as he listened intently. "Definitely," he said. "I can smell it, Bones, can't you?"

Running water.

When they found it, it was breathtakingly ordinary: a stream—really not much more than a shallow brook—at the bottom of the canyon they'd been climbing down for the past two hours. It was flowing over a rock bed, glinting in the late-day sun. Leonard thought he'd never seen something so inviting.

Jim let out an enthusiastic whoop and plunged his face into the water, and after a moment's hesitation—the last thing either of them needed was to cut himself on the sharp edge of a rock or twist an ankle—Leonard did the same. The water was cool and delicious, and for the first time in four days, he was able to drink his fill.

Not far from that point, they found an area where the water ran knee-deep. Leonard stripped off his grimy jumpsuit and dunked his entire body in the water, grateful to finally clean off the accumulated filth. They washed out their clothes, setting them aside on the rocks to drip.

God, it felt good to splash.

"You know what this means, don't you?" Jim asked. He was lying on his back with his eyes closed, floating in the shallow water.

"Yeah, it means we can finally stop pissing into our canteens."

Jim sat up and kicked, sending a wave of spray in his direction. "Very funny. I'm serious. Remember what Fredericks said? There's a river that flows under the dome. All we have to do is follow this stream until it joins up with the river, and we'll reach the colony! It can't be far from here. This is the home stretch, Bones! We're almost there."

For a minute, he let himself believe that it really was going to be that easy.

 

Jim

Hiking through the gully the next day wasn't as much of a picnic as he'd thought it would be. Sure, it was beautiful, and the fresh drinking water was a definite plus, but the advantages ended there. The banks of the stream were strewn with rocks, slippery and thick with underbrush. In some areas, the banks narrowed to nothing, and they were forced to slog their way through the stream—knee-deep in places, meaning that Jim's boots and socks were waterlogged—and test their footing with each step.

More worrisome, the further they went, the steeper the walls of the canyon became, until they were completely hemmed in on both sides. That meant that they had to go wherever the stream led. If their way was blocked at some point, they'd have a hard time climbing out. And if he was wrong and this stream didn't join up with the river that led to Alpheus, they'd be forced to backtrack, wasting precious time.

Then, in late afternoon, a low rumbling sound began to reach their ears over the pleasant flow of the lazy stream. "What the hell is that?" Bones asked, looking around warily.

Jim peered further down the canyon, his eyes narrowing. "This isn't good."

After a minute, the rumble became louder and clearer, and as they approached, Jim recognized it as the unmistakable rush of falling water. Just ahead of them, the stream ended abruptly in a sudden drop of more than eight meters—a waterfall.

"Fuck!" Jim yelled. His shout echoed off the canyon walls. "Why can't we ever get a goddamn break?"

"There's no way we're going to be able to climb down that." Bones was on his hands and knees in the water, peeking cautiously over the edge. "And before you suggest it, we're not jumping, either. Look at those rocks at the bottom."

"Hell no, I wasn't going to suggest it," Jim protested. "I'm just looking for a way down." Even so, he examined the drop as closely as he dared, hoping for a conveniently-placed ledge they could cling to, but Bones was right. There was nothing but a sheer drop that ended in a churning whirlpool, complete with deadly-looking boulders. "We're going to have to find a way down the bank."

Bones gave him a look that clearly said you're insane, but followed him over to the edge.

Jim sloshed through the water to the narrow bank at the side of the canyon and looked over the ledge. At first glance, that option didn't look any more promising. There was no way they'd be able to climb down the near-vertical, muddy slope. Even if they tried to grip the little scrubs and tufts of grass covering the incline, the angle was simply too steep. A fall from this height could kill them or leave them too injured to continue.

He suddenly realized that a potential answer was staring him right in the face. A group of tall, coniferous trees lined the bank, protected from the harsh winds by the cliffside. Their tops were covered with dense, spiky leaves pushing out of the canyon… and there was one within arm's reach of where they were standing. The trunk and branches were thin at the top, where they were, but it looked like they got thicker toward the bottom. "It looks like those branches go all the way down to the bottom," he said, peering down. "I think we could climb down this tree."

Bones gave him a doubtful look. "Based on what, Tarzan? Got any experience climbing trees?"

"I've climbed trees before," he scoffed. "Lots of times."

"You're a bad liar, Jim."

"It's true!" he said defensively. It was true, more or less, although it had actually only been one particular tree—a big, old sugar maple on their farm—and he'd stopped climbing it after his uncle caught him at it when he was eight.

"Trees like this one?" Bones reached out to grasp the trunk, which bent easily toward them. Its diameter was no larger than the span of his hand. He let go, and the tree swung back out like a pendulum, making Jim's stomach clench. "The trunk's too damn flexible and we don't know what the root system's like."

Seeing the way the tree was bending and swaying made him a little nauseous. The fact was, it didn't look particularly steady or easy to climb down. "Maybe you're right," Jim muttered. He glanced back down the stream bed they'd just come from. Their only other option was to retrace their steps, find a way to climb back out of the canyon and follow along its edge, keeping the stream in sight below. It would be a serious setback, a waste of time they couldn't afford.

There was one other thing they could try: making a rope. Theoretically, he knew the technique. They'd have to find a large supply of fibrous plants or strips of the inner bark of fallen branches, then splice and weave the strands together into a thick cord. He'd never actually done it himself, and even if they could find enough material, they had no knife. It would be an all-day job and they'd probably tear up their hands in the process. But what choice did they have?

"Look, Bones, maybe we should try to make a rope," he said reluctantly, turning back around, "and then we could—Hey!" he yelled, realizing with a start that the doctor was no longer standing by his side. Bones was clinging to the trunk of the tree as it swayed under his weight, hands and feet using the branches like a ladder. He was making his way down it with surprising agility.

Holy shit. "What are you doing?" The tree was tilting away from him in a terrifying arc. "We don't even know if it can bear our weight!"

"Well, now we'll find out," Bones called up. "Good thing we're both on a diet."

"I'm not kidding!" he yelled. Did Bones think this was funny? "You said the trunk was too flexible, and what about the fucking root systems?" Bones grunted something unintelligible in reply. He gave an inward sigh of relief as the tree bent back toward the cliff, but it was still shaking and swaying ominously.

"Damn it, you can't just do something like this without telling me!" This time there was no reply at all, only the rustling of branches as Bones moved down the tree.

Jim hissed in impotent frustration. This wasn't right. He didn't mind taking risks himself if there was no other way, but he always went first. If something was going to go wrong, better for it to happen to him than to anyone he was responsible for. He was in the lead, so he should face the danger first, head-on. That was how it worked.

Bones had apparently missed that memo.

Jim watched him disappear into the thick foliage, hardly daring to breathe. Damn, he was fast. Already, it was hard to hear what he was saying over the roar of the waterfall. Jim could only catch bits and pieces of his blow-by-blow narration: "These branches are pretty close together, so you should… But—shit!—gotta watch for the thorns… your footing before you step, some of these branches are nothing but dead wood… Gonna need to stretch a bit here…" His voice faded into the noise of the falling water, until Jim finally heard a "There!" and Bones stepped into sight, further out on the bank.

"Nothing to it!" Bones yelled, cupping a hand around his mouth so his voice would carry. "Your turn!"

The first thing he'd do when he got down, he decided—if he lived, that is—was punch the doctor in the face.

He pulled the trunk toward him and took a careful step onto the first branch. Holy shit, this is high up, he thought. His heart nearly jumped out of his body when the trunk swung back in the other direction, bending in a terrifying arc above the waterfall before swinging gently back toward center.

Calm down, calm down. He took a deep breath, closing his eyes for a few seconds as he waited for his heart to stop pounding. He'd never been good with heights, not since he was twelve and took the Corvette for a joy ride that ended with him dangling off the edge of a cliff. In the shitfest that had followed, Jim had found himself saddled with his first juvenile offense, a one-way ticket to his aunt and uncle on Tarsus… and a sincere desire to keep his feet on solid ground whenever possible.

"C'mon, Jim," he heard Bones calling up. "… like climbing down a ladder, you can…"

"Fuck off," he growled, and then repeated it as a mantra under his breath—fuckoff fuckoff fuckoff—while he forced his thighs to unclench themselves, picked his left foot off the branch and moved it to the next lower branch. It held, and he took another step down, and then another. After a minute, he realized that Bones was right: the branches were spaced close enough apart to provide a sort of spiral ladder.

It would be almost easy, if the damn tree would only stop moving.

Bones called up advice as he made his way down. "Don't put your full weight on it. Test it first."

"I've got it," Jim grumbled. "Shut up, Bones, I know how to—" The branch cracked and broke off under his foot, making him cling to the trunk while he scrambled for a steadier purchase.

"I said, be careful!"

As he descended, the branches became thicker, and he felt a little less panicked. Still, by the time he jumped the final two meters onto solid ground, his muscles were aching with tension and he was covered in sweat. He stumbled closer to the edge of the bank, letting the cold spray from the waterfall wash over his face.

"You okay?" Bones asked, resting a hand on his shoulder.

"What the hell, Bones!" he gasped out, shrugging off the touch angrily. "We weren't done discussing it!"

Bones grinned, looking supremely pleased with himself. "What's the matter, kid? Did you want to hike back out of the canyon and go around?"

"I was going to suggest that we make a rope and climb down safely!" His heart was still hammering in his chest, as if his brain hadn't caught up to the realization that he was standing on solid ground.

Bones looked annoyingly relaxed. "Never been much good with arts and crafts. Anyway, you made it down okay, even if you took your own sweet time about it. You're a bit of a wuss with heights, hotshot."

"Shut the fuck up!" he growled. "Wasn't that a little out of character, Mr. Let's-Go-Back-and-Try-Again-Tomorrow? You could have at least said something before you launched yourself over the edge!"

"I thought about it, but I decided you'd just argue," Bones said, without a trace of apology. "Besides, the look on your face was worth it. And I knew what I was doing.""

"How was I supposed to know that?"

"Kid, you need a geography lesson. Two-thirds of my home state is forested. Tree-climbing's in my blood, right up there with barbecue and peach cobbler."

Jim was taken aback, never having really considered the possibility that Bones had been a boy who liked to climb trees, a rough-and-tumble kid who seemed to have more courage in this area than he did. Come to think of it, he knew next to nothing about Bones' boyhood or his family. He'd been assuming he was a city-boy born and bred, that his cautious ways were a knee-jerk reaction to every incipient danger.

Maybe Bones was a little more adventurous than he'd given him credit for.

"Fine," he said finally, realizing that there was no winning this argument, and the bottom line was that they were both safe at the bottom of the waterfall. "At least let me know in advance if you have any other, uh… hidden life-saving talents. And please, don't talk about food."

Bones smiled. "Barbecue isn't food, kid, it's a southern experience. An all-day event. You're a poor culturally-deprived Hawkeye, so let me tell you all about it. My mama's got a recipe for a special barbecue sauce that's been in the family for generations…"

"Fuck off," he said, giving Bones a dark look, but he was cheerfully oblivious.

 

"Feels like it's gonna rain," Bones said, poking the fire with a branch that evening. "That'd be a nice change from all this dry weather."

Jim frowned, taking a worried sniff. Bones was right, there was a hint of humidity on the air. "Let's hope it holds off a bit."

"Why? It would cool down the air."

"Take a look around, Bones." He pointed at the sides of the canyon. "This area gets flooded a lot. See those bushes up there? Look at the way they've been bent over. That's how high the water gets. If there's a flash flood, we're in big trouble. We'll never be able to get up the canyon walls fast enough."

Bones glanced around at the canyon, eyes widening. He was clearly seeing the dangers for the first time. "You're right… I hadn't even been thinking about that."

"Better stop praying for rain, then."

Bones gave him a quizzical look. "But I don't get it, Jim. You said you were hiding in the woods when on Tarsus, so it makes sense that you learned to make a fire, build a shelter, and find food. But you never said you were near a canyon like this."

"We weren't." Good thing, too. A canyon would have been far too exposed. For all its dangers, the woods had kept them hidden.

"But you just happen to know the signs of a flash flood? You knew all about dust storms, too. I remember you arguing with Cho about it."

"I told you. I read about them. It's kind of a hobby," he said, as casually as he could.

Bones gave him an odd look. "Most people choose a lighter kind of reading material to relax." Jim grunted in acknowledgment.

"Jim," Bones prodded.

He sighed, wondering how he could explain this so he didn't sound too damaged, too fucked up. "Back on Tarsus, I didn't know what I was doing, and some kids paid the price. They paid for my mistakes with their lives, Bones. I swore to myself that if we got rescued, I'd never let myself be so unprepared again."

Bones nodded slowly. "I see. So you taught yourself survival skills."

"I watched every vid I could find, read every article, found some experts and learned everything I could from them. I could tell you how to survive on an ice planet and how to make a raft to get yourself off a deserted island." He couldn't help a flash of pride at the words, but they were true. "If there were fish in this stream, I know three different techniques to catch them with my bare hands." He gave an uncomfortable laugh. "Probably sounds a little crazy."

Bones shrugged, looking more than a little impressed. "Actually, it makes a certain amount of sense, after what you'd been through."

"Well, that's a nice way to put it. My therapist called it post-traumatic anxiety with obsessive-compulsive features," he said with a grimace. The doctor hadn't actually said it to his face, but he'd stolen a look at his chart in the hospital, and after that, he'd hated her with a passion.

"It's just a label, Jim. Don't take it too hard. You were doing what you could to heal." There was no ridicule in his tone, just acceptance and understanding, and it loosened the knot in his chest a little.

"Well, she had a point, I guess," Jim admitted with a wry grin. "I might have gone a little overboard with the research for a while there. And I didn't exactly cooperate with the therapy regimen."

Bones gave a low chuckle. "I can just imagine." Then he sobered. "Listen, Jim, I've been wanting to ask you something else about Tarsus, actually. Do you mind?"

"Go ahead," he said. The warmth of the fire was pleasant, and he felt more comfortable with Bones than he had with anyone, for a long time. "It's not exactly a bedtime story, but no, I don't mind."

"After you were rescued," Bones said quietly, "you must have been in pretty bad shape. I'm guessing malnutrition, dehydration, hormonal imbalances, minor injuries…"

Jim nodded in confirmation, feeling his face heat. Great. He should have known that Bones would naturally want to know more about his physical condition, but he hated thinking of himself as he was then: pathetically thin and weak, attached to tubes and monitors, stuck on a biobed displaying his vital signs to everyone who walked past. "All of that," he mumbled. "A few other things too."

Bones nodded. "So… you must have been hospitalized for a while."

Obviously. Why was Bones asking about things he already knew, or could guess? "They treated me on the ship, on the way back to earth. It took a few weeks. I didn't even leave the sickbay for most of it. Uh, it wasn't that bad," he said nervously, uncomfortable under the doctor's penetrating gaze. "A few IVs and some antibiotics and shit. By the time we got back, I was pretty much fine. Didn't need to be hospitalized."

The doctor frowned. "Jim, I wasn't trying to… Don't get defensive, kid. I'm not trying to embarrass you."

"I'm not embarrassed," he said, hoping Bones wouldn't notice that his ears were flaming red. "I'm just saying, it didn't take me that long to get over it. What else did you want to know?"

"Relax, Jim," Bones told him, and he realized that he'd clenched his hand into a fist and was rubbing it with his other hand. "You don't have to give me any of the details. But why isn't any of that in your file?"

Oh. Too late, he realized where Bones had been leading with his questions. "Uh, it isn't?" he stalled.

"No, kid, you know it's not. Even what you just mentioned, that psychological diagnosis… It should be in your records. But there's nothing there at all in your medical history, not about your hospitalization or any of it. Can you explain that?"

He felt sucker-punched, just when he'd let down his guard a little. He'd been prepared for questions about their months of hiding, about the rescue, even about his relatives. But he should have known that Bones would want to know about his medical records, first and foremost.

"It's not—I mean, there's no problem with my records," he stumbled. "Starfleet knows. Pike knows. I'm not hiding anything."

"Don't give me that bullshit, Jim."

"Look, some things were… uh, omitted from my records so I wouldn't have to answer too many questions." Bones raised an eyebrow, looking doubtful. "You know, so I wouldn't have to talk about Tarsus every time I went to the clinic. Too awkward."

"What?" Bones was giving him a disbelieving look, and damn it, he really must be a bad liar… or maybe Bones had just learned to read him too well.

Jim shrugged. "It was my therapist's recommendation. I guess she had her reasons."

"That's ridiculous," Bones snapped. "Any doctor treating you would need to have your full medical history."

"Why? I recovered, gained all the weight back, no problem. I'm fine now!"

"No, you're not."

Bones was beginning to really piss him off. Why couldn't he just take Jim's answers at face value? "You gave me a physical yourself, back on the Atlantis, remember? There's no lasting damage, or you'd have noticed something. But you didn't. So just drop it, okay?"

Bones' mouth was set in a tight line. "There's something you're not telling me."

Fuck yeah, there's a lot I'm not telling you. But there was no law that said he had to spill his guts about every last thing that had happened back then. Some things were best left buried, whatever that idiotic therapist might have thought.

He blew out a breath in frustration. This conversation was going nowhere. "Whatever. You don't have to believe me. Listen, we should get started on the shelter. It's getting dark."

He pushed forward from the rock he'd been reclining against, but Bones yanked down on his arm, pinning him in place. "Stay right there and don't change the subject," he said sharply. "You're damn right I don't believe you. In the first place, no medical professional would agree to something like that. It would be completely unethical, not to mention dangerous for you! A period of starvation in childhood can have effects on your health for decades. You're at risk for developing heart disease, diabetes, and problems with your metabolism, to name a few. You need to be monitored by a physician who has access to all pertinent information."

"Back off," he said tightly. He could feel a muscle twitching in his jaw. "Why don't we see if we get out of here alive before we start worrying about heart disease? For God's sake, Bones, we're not sure if we're going to make it into next week, let alone thirty years down the line!"

Bones looked at him steadily. "That's not the point. I just want you to be honest with me. Stop hiding behind your half-truths and your evasions for once! Tell me the truth, and I swear I'll understand. But I need to know, Jim."

Jim swallowed, staring into the fire. Bones wasn't going to let this go, he knew. "Look, it's not what you're thinking," he said finally.

"What I'm thinking is that you hacked into your own medical records and erased them. Did you?"'

Jim snorted in exasperation. "I can't believe this is so fucking important to you."

"Answer the question." The doctor's voice was low, but Jim could sense the anger behind it. "Did you or didn't you?"

He took a breath, then looked Bones in the eye. "Yeah, I did, okay? I changed my records." He let the words hang between them, as Bones' expression darkened. He felt his heart clench in self-hatred, but pressed on. "You have to understand. I didn't want anybody to know about Tarsus. I've got enough to deal with my father and the Kelvin. I just didn't want to be treated like some kind of freak." He gave a cynical laugh. "Poor, tragic Jim Kirk. Always in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Bones was silent for a long moment, regarding him pensively. "I'm sorry," Jim added uncomfortably. "I didn't think it was going to cause any problems."

"Well, you got part of that right, at least. You didn't think." Bones looked disgusted.

"I'm sorry," Jim said again, raising his hands in a what-can-I-do gesture. "Look, what does it really matter? It's water under the bridge, and you've made your point. If we ever get out of here, I'll change them back, okay?"

"No." Bones' jaw tightened. He seemed, if anything, even angrier. "You're lying again, kid."

"Fuck, Bones!" Jim said, exasperated. "I said I'd change them back."

"That's not what you're lying about."

He felt his heart start racing in his chest. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. "I don't care if you don't believe me, I'm telling the—"

"No you're not," Bones said flatly, and Jim looked away. Damn it. "I should have realized something was wrong back when you first came to the clinic. You said that you never got the booster for Vegan choriomeningitis when you were thirteen, and I wondered about that, but then I was too busy treating you to worry about it."

"I was on Tarsus, Bones, trying to stay alive," he hissed angrily. "Sorry if I didn't get my regular physical that year."

"Of course you were. It's not your fault. But if the booster wasn't in your records, it should have been administered when you enlisted. That's standard policy. If there's no record of a vaccination, the cadet gets it during his admitting physical, just to be on the safe side. I've done plenty of those physicals myself, and the regulations are very clear."

Jim gave him a sullen glare. "Maybe the doctor just overlooked it."

"No, Jim. All your missing medical records should have raised some suspicions, but you just sailed through your physical. That was in your records. You passed with flying colors and were immediately cleared for duty with no restrictions."

"So?"

"So you didn't have the standard admitting physical, and I'm willing to bet that the jackass that examined you didn't ask too many questions about your missing medical records."

Part of him wanted to keep denying and arguing. But he felt the fight going out of him, all at once. Who was he still keeping secrets for, in the middle of a canyon on a godforsaken planet? It was such an ingrained habit, after all these years, that he'd almost forgotten how to stop.

He owed Bones an explanation, at least, for deceiving him and lying to him, over and over. And he couldn't stand seeing that flash of disappointment—again—in Bones' eyes, as if whatever connection they'd managed to build between them was nothing more than a flimsy pretense. After all they'd been through together, it hurt that Bones didn't trust him, but there was no one to blame for that but himself.

No more lies, then.

"Pike set the physical up for me when I got to the Academy," he admitted quietly, fighting the urge to stand, to pace, to distance himself from Bones' steady gaze. "I didn't go to the clinic with the other cadets, I had an appointment at Starfleet Medical. I don't know what he told the doctor, but he didn't ask any questions, just gave me a quick once-over and cleared me for duty."

"I knew it," Bones muttered, but he didn't look victorious. "Hacking into medical records is a lot more complicated than most laymen know. I've never actually heard of a case where it was successful. The medical community's pretty obsessive about protecting patients' privacy."

"Yeah, you're a bunch of paranoid bastards."

"No, we're bound by a strict ethical code, kid. Anyway, you don't have the kind of skills and resources it would take to change your records and make it stick, Jim. That's just a fact. It's not the kind of thing you can do from your PADD at home."

"Shouldn't underestimate me, Bones," he tried, but the attempt at humor fell flat.

"Believe me, if there's one thing I've learned out here, kid, it's that you're full of surprises. But I know that this wasn't your doing. Someone altered your records, and it wasn't you. Was it Starfleet?"

Jim shook his head reluctantly. "No. Not Starfleet. It wasn't a cover-up, if that's what you think."

"You can tell me, kid. It's just the two of us and a couple of scorpions out here. Nobody's listening."

He wanted to share the secret with Bones. He really did, but still he hesitated, having fought against the impulse for so many years. "It's not that easy," he said, shaking his head. "I can't… I'm not supposed to…"

"If it makes you feel any better," Bones said softly, "I'll treat whatever you tell me as confidential."

"It was a court order from the Federation Ministry of Justice," Jim said finally, feeling a twinge of fear at revealing what he'd been told never, never, to tell anybody, and at the same time, an enormous relief at being able to stop lying for once in his life. "It's for my own protection, Bones. They don't want anything in my file that could give me away."

Bones was frowning in confusion. "Why? Tarsus is a matter of record. I admit, I never heard the details about the massacre in the woods, but everybody knows there was a problem with the food supply and some kind of political unrest."

"I was a witness," Jim said. "I heard the speech Kodos gave in the square, and I can identify him. I saw what happened in the square and I watched the killings in the woods. All nine of us did."

"So?" Bones looked confused. "Isn't Kodos dead?"

"No one knows for sure. There was an explosion in the council building just before the supply ships arrived. They never found a body. If he's alive and they find him, there'll be a trial, and I'll be one of the key witnesses for the prosecution."

"That still doesn't really explain—"

"It's not just Kodos," Jim said, a little impatiently. "He wasn't working alone. I saw everything, and I remember it all, Bones. I can identify his guards, too. I know who was holding the lists, and I remember who fired on my friends and family."

"You were just thirteen." Bones was looking at him sadly. "That's a lot of responsibility to put on a kid who just came through hell."

"I want to testify," Jim bit out, feeling the gut-wrenching honesty of his own words. "If they ever find him, I'll be the first in line on the witness stand."

They were quiet together for a few minutes, and then Bones sighed. "I'm sorry, Jim. I shouldn't have pushed you. Believe me, that was the last answer I was expecting."

"No, it's all right." Jim smiled tiredly. "The fact is, nobody's ever questioned it before. You're just more observant than most."

"That's my job," he said, looking pleased. "Noticing little clues, trying to put together parts of a puzzle, asking questions. I'm a doctor."

Jim snorted. "Yeah, you might have mentioned that once or twice."

"So… if we get back, I guess I'm not supposed to let on that I know any of this."

"Yeah, I was about to say something about that…" He shrugged, giving Bones an apologetic look. "I hate to break it to you, but I'm probably going to have to shoot you. Soon as I can get my hands on a phaser, that is."

He'd been hoping for a chuckle to lighten the oppressive mood, but Bones barely cracked a smile. "Jim," he said. "Don't lie to me anymore. Okay? You can trust me."

"I know," he said, feeling a wave of exhaustion wash over him. "For what it's worth, I do know that."

 

The weather stayed clear for the next day. The canyon gradually widened as they walked, and the stream was joined by other small tributaries that flowed into it from both sides, running faster and deeper until it seemed more like a river. Alpheus, he knew, couldn't be far away.

They finally caught sight of the dome on the morning of the third day in the canyon, through a break in the rocks ahead that allowed them to see well into the distance. It looked like a shiny, translucent tent, glinting in the sun. "That can't be far off," he breathed. "Bones, we're going to make it!"

Bones gave a cautious nod. "Don't get cocky," he said, but Jim could sense the smile underneath. "For all we know, that's the back end of the dome and the filters are on the other side. Let's concentrate on getting there in one piece."

They continued along the bank of the river. This part of the canyon was filled with huge boulders and large rocks, as if some torrential flood had dumped them there haphazardly as it roared through. The river was flowing fast over the rocks in turbulent eddies and waves. The rocks slowed them down and blocked their way, making them climb up and over the boulders and squeeze between them. At one point, he saw Bones slip and catch himself at the last second before he fell in, and his heart skipped a beat.

Maybe now was a good time to tell Bones that he was a piss-poor swimmer. In the spirit of full disclosure.

After a stressful few hours, they finally reached the mouth of the canyon, and Jim sighed in relief. The weather had been clouding over all morning, and a flash flood was still a real threat. But at least they were no longer trapped in a narrow canyon. Here, the river became wider and deeper, and the walls of the canyon smoothed out into easier inclines.

Their view of Alpheus was still blocked by the twist of the river bed, but Jim caught glimpses of the top of the dome here and there, just above the tree line. They had a fairly level path along the bank, and Jim could feel his excitement growing. This was it, the home stretch. Another hour or so and they'd be there.

He knew that they'd be able to find a way into the dome, if they had enough time. If they had to, they could walk completely around it until they found an entrance, a shuttle bay, or an air filter that they could get through. No building was impenetrable; it was just a matter of finding the weak spot in the structure.

His real concern was what would be waiting for them inside the dome. For all he knew, Childress was an honored guest, the upstanding contractor who built their luxury living environment. The colonists might not be inclined to listen to their story at all; worse, they might have a standing agreement to send for Childress if any "escaped convicts" came knocking at their door.

Maybe that was the reason why none of the other escapees ever made it back, he thought suddenly. He'd been assuming they'd never made it to Alpheus—and the gruesome discovery of the dead prisoner in the cave had reinforced that theory—but, he realized now, that wasn't necessarily true. What if they'd made it, found their way into the dome somehow, and then… simply been handed back to Childress?

A chill went through him. Childress wouldn't hesitate to have them murdered, he had no doubt.

They'd need to get rid of the jumpsuits long before they came within sight of the colony… and they'd need a better cover story, something that didn't involve running away from Childress' camp. Something that would buy them the time they needed to contact Starfleet.

Maybe a mixture of truth and fiction… They could tell them about the attack on the Atlantis, and claim that they'd been drifting for months in an escape shuttle, without navigational control or communications. They could tell a story about a crash landing, something that would explain their battered condition. They could say they'd been wandering for days in the wilderness, weaving in details of their journey to make it believable.

It could work.

He glanced dubiously at Bones. They'd need to get their story straight between them and make sure they were clear about the details. Bones was probably a terrible liar; every little nuance of emotion always showed right away on his face. And Bones had told him more than once that he couldn't lie convincingly to save his life.

Crap.

"Hey, Bones," he said, glancing back, "We need to talk about what we're gonna tell the colonists when we—Shit!" His right boot skidded off some loose rocks and he slipped, turning his foot to the side and landing awkwardly on his hip.

At the same time, he felt an unmistakable crack in his ankle, followed by a sharp pain. A numb, frozen feeling swept up his lower leg.

Oh God, oh God. This can't be happening now.

He'd just broken a bone. He knew it.

A cold sweat broke out on his forehead. He felt a wave of panic shudder through him. Alpheus was still a good three or four kilometers away.

"Jim! Are you okay?" Bones was at his side. "Did you hurt yourself?"

"Uh… let's see," he hedged. Please, let it be okay, he thought desperately. His ankle felt oddly heavy and detached. He tried moving his toes and gently twisting his ankle from side to side, and to his relief, everything seemed to work, more or less. It didn't hurt all that badly, but the weird numbness felt wrong, as if the nerves were in shock.

Maybe it was just a sprain. That crack was a bad sign, but it might just mean a stretched muscle or a torn ligament. Carefully, he climbed back on his feet, using Bones' outstretched hand for support. He balanced awkwardly on his left leg for a few seconds, then gingerly transferred some of his weight to the right.

It held. There was an uncomfortable ache in his ankle, but he could step on it.

"No. It's nothing," he said, with a flush of relief. "Just wasn't really paying attention. I'm all right."

"Good," Bones said shortly. "The last thing we need right now is for one of us to get injured."

"I'm aware of that," he said testily. He took a careful step forward, and then another. It wasn't bad. The path they were on was relatively flat, and he found that if he made sure his foot was straight, he felt nothing more than an unpleasant twinge in his ankle.

"I'll take the lead for a while," Bones offered. "I think you're a little distracted, kid."

Jim nodded shakily. With Bones ahead of him, it would be easier to hide whatever was wrong with his ankle. The last thing he needed was Bones swooping down on him in full anxious-doctor mode. Injured or not, he was going to keep going until they reached Alpheus, even if he had to hobble or crawl.

"So… we need to talk about what we're going to say when they find us," he said, making an effort to keep the tension out of his voice. "We have to figure that Childress has already warned them about escaped workers."

"Obviously, but…" Bones glanced back at him, and then frowned. "Are you sure you're all right? You're limping a little."

Damn it. "Just being careful." He walked a little faster, putting more weight on his right foot. Not bad. The strange tingling sensation that was still enveloping his ankle and lower leg which was obviously not just normal swelling, but he ignored it. What was the point in drawing attention to it, anyway?

"Want me to check it?"

He gave Bones a wry look. "That's a rhetorical question, right? This is me, remember?"

Bones shook his head and turned forward again. "Right, I forgot I was talking to the man who invented noncompliant. Just watch your- Would you look at that," he breathed, and Jim followed his gaze forward.

Alpheus.

The canyon mouth had opened up before them, and the shining dome was suddenly visible, fully revealed to them for the first time. It was huge, bigger than he'd imagined it would be, elevated above them so that it looked almost majestic. He felt his throat swell. The dome was glimmering, beautiful, framed by the mountains in the background.

"You were right, Jim," Bones said quietly as Jim caught up to him. He draped an arm over his shoulder, and they stood side by side, gazing up at the dome. "I never really believed you could get us here, but you did."

His throat swelled at Bones' open display of confidence. Instead of pride, he felt only guilt—guilt that he was lying to Bones yet again, guilt that his physical condition was endangering their plans, and guilt that he might be leading him into a terrible trap. "We still have to find a way in," he managed, shrugging away from Bones' arm, moving to the side as if he wanted to get a better look at the dome. "And convince the colonists that we need to contact Starfleet."

"We will," Bones said, oblivious to Jim's unease. "We haven't come this far just to give up now. We're going to get out of here, I'm sure of it."

"Careful, Bones, you're gonna lose that sarcastic edge." He grinned, hoping Bones wouldn't notice that he wasn't meeting his eyes. "But it's nice to finally be appreciated."

Bones gave him his trademark eye roll. "Don't start inflatin' your ego just yet, kid. We need to pick up the pace a little or we're going to be stuck eating bugs for dinner again, and I'm still holding out for a meal with real food."

Jim laughed. "At this point I'd take some of that synthesized sludge they called soup at the camp and a hunk of dry bread."

"Kid, if that's your fantasy meal after a week of practically starving, you've got a poor imagination." He grimaced. "Although honestly, our next meal's probably going to be a glucose drip. Come on, we'd better climb out of this river bed. We're going to need to get on higher ground. That colony's sitting up on a hillside."

But the minute Jim took his first step on the incline, a sharp twinge shot through his ankle, making him flinch back with an involuntary hiss of pain.

Shit. That was not good.

"Jim?" he heard Bones ask in concern, but he waved his hand in dismissal. He could do this, it was just a matter of finding the right technique. He tried again, this time setting his foot down on a flatter patch of ground. It ached, but he could step on it. He found himself zigzagging his way up the incline, trying to keep his right foot on even ground and using his left foot to do the climbing. Bones moved quickly ahead of him, while Jim slowed down further. When he looked up, Bones was already near the top of the incline which, holy shit, was getting steeper.

Mid-way up, he was forced to place his right foot on a steeper patch of ground. It hurt a bit, but when he tried to put his weight on it and push up, he felt a white-hot stab of pain that made him cry out. His leg collapsed under him, bringing him to his knees.

"Jim!" Bones yelled from above him. "What happened?"

"I need help," he grit out. No more lies, he thought again. "Fuck, Bones, something's really wrong."

 

Leonard

"Damn it!" Leonard skidded back down the slope while Jim pushed himself back up onto one shaky knee, breathing fast. "I knew I shouldn't have listened to you when you said you were fine. No, don't get up," he said, placing a restraining hand on Jim's shoulder. "Let me see what's wrong. Let's take off that boot."

He knelt down in the dirt beside Jim and placed his hands gently on the boot, but Jim pushed his hands away, shaking his head. "No, we can't. It's swelling up, I can tell. If you take the boot off, I'll never get it back on."

Leonard caught a glimpse of real fear in Jim's eyes, which told him that injury was probably worse that he was letting on. It only reinforced his decision: whatever it was, he needed to see it. "Kid," he said, injecting more than a hint of his medical authority into his voice, "you may know everything there is to know about survival in the wilderness, but you don't know shit about emergency medicine, and I do."

"I can move my toes, and I was walking on it fine before," Jim said stubbornly.

"That doesn't mean it's not broken."

"It's a sprain, Bones. I need you to help me up this slope and then make me a splint or something."

Leonard sighed. Knowing what he now knew about Jim's history—and some of his health issues—he could understand why Jim was so skittish. He'd trained himself to be absolutely self-reliant, and he hated giving up control, even when he obviously needed help. And Leonard wasn't surprised that he was trying to downplay this injury, which could have devastating consequences for them in this situation.

But that was just too bad, because he was the one calling the shots here. "Jim, you collapsed in pain, so obviously it isn't all right," he said emphatically. "And you've already proven to me, more than once, that your word isn't worth much when it comes to injuries, so excuse me if I want to see for myself."

"I won't be able to walk without the boot," Jim argued, a faintly desperate look in his eyes. "Just… I don't know, find me some pieces of wood to stick down the sides and we'll tie them together into a splint."

"Oh, for the love of… If it's swelling up, the boot needs to come off now, before it cuts off the blood supply or damages the nerves!" he said sharply. He felt a grim satisfaction when Jim flinched back a little, and leaned in closer to press his point. "We don't have a knife, and I'd rather not have to try to cut the damn boot off with my teeth. Now stop being a stubborn fool and help me take it off."

Jim scowled, but seemed to accept that the boot was a lost cause. He let Leonard work it off his foot, letting out a harsh grunt of pain when he pulled on the heel. Jim reached for his sock, still wet from the dip in the stream that morning, and peeled it off carefully.

Leonard stifled a curse when he got a look at the ankle joint, which was bruised and obviously swollen. The skin felt a little cool as he pressed on it gently, but that was probably because of the wet sock. The pedal and tibial pulses were strong, and there were no noticeable circulatory problems.

"Wiggle your toes," he said, and was relieved to see that Jim hadn't been lying about that, at least. "Can you twist the ankle around, from side to side?"

"A little," Jim said, demonstrating with a grimace. "I can walk on it, pretty much, as long as I don't—Ow!" He gave a yelp as Leonard's fingers pressed on both side of the ankle.

"There's some swelling, but I can't feel any obvious displacement," Leonard said, as much to himself as to Jim. The site around the malleolus was obviously tender. "How did it feel when you first fell?"

"I heard a sort of pop," Jim admitted. "More like a crack. And the whole area went numb. It still feels kind of weird."

Oh, damn. There was no obvious paralysis, but paresthesia could indicate neurovascular compromise… which wasn't something they could even attempt to deal with. "Where, exactly, does it feel numb?"

Jim indicated the area between his lower calf and the ankle joint. "The crack felt like it was here," he said, pointing to the outside of his foot, just behind the bump of the medial malleolus.

Leonard probed the area more carefully. The swelling, tenderness, and tingling seemed consistent with a break. From what he'd seen, Jim had turned his foot out as he fell, and the bone had probably cracked under the pressure. Most likely an oblique fracture of the lateral malleolus, if he had to make a guess. It was a common hiking injury, and easy to treat… if they were anywhere near a medical clinic.

Here in the wild, far from civilization, it was potentially fatal.

He turned away from Jim, glancing down the river toward Alpheus. The last thing he wanted to do was let Jim see how frustrated, how helpless, he was feeling. This was the situation with Fredericks all over again. He knew exactly what was wrong with Jim and how to treat it, but none of the knowledge was worth anything, because there was nothing he could do.

Alpheus loomed above them, impossibly high and more remote than ever. With an injury like this, Jim would never be able to manage a climb. The optimism they'd both been feeling not an hour ago, when they'd first caught sight of the dome, seemed laughable now.

When he turned back, Jim was looking at him calmly. "So, we're fucked, right?" he asked, giving Leonard a shadow of a smile. The edge of panic and denial Leonard had glimpsed before was gone, replaced by something steadier: a renewed determination, or maybe just a philosophical acceptance of something that couldn't be changed.

"It's bad, Jim," he said, wishing for both their sakes that he could lie, or at least leave them a little room for hope. "I'm pretty sure you've got a fracture, probably a vertical crack in the bone, which is why you were able to walk on it at first. If it was a horizontal break, you wouldn't be able to put any weight on it at all."

"I can still walk on it," Jim said quickly. "I just need a little help getting up this incline."

"You shouldn't be walking on it at all," Leonard said grimly. There was no point in belaboring that point. Jim would have to walk on the leg as long as he could, because the only alternative was for Leonard to carry him. "All right, we'll deal with this the best we can. I'm going to improvise a splint. It'll provide a little support and help keep the joint stable. But walking on it's still gonna be a bitch."

"Maybe the boot—"

"No, Jim." He wasn't happy about leaving the boot off, since it was made of sturdy material that would protect Jim's foot as they walked. But the ankle was visibly more swollen than it had been when he first examined it. They might not be able to get the boot back on at all, and even if they did, they'd have to keep taking it off periodically to check the swelling and circulation. In the end, it would be more of a hindrance than a help. "We'll make a splint, like you said."

He slipped his jumpsuit off his shoulders and rolled it down to his waist, then used his teeth to tear at the shoulder seam until he was able to rip the sleeve off. He stretched it between his hands, scowling, while Jim watched him impassively. The orange cloth was thick and rough, with no elasticity. It wasn't really long enough to make a good brace by itself, so he ripped off his other sleeve and tied the two together as tightly as he could while Jim watched him glumly.

A low rumbling in the distance made them exchange a worried glance. "Did that sound like thunder to you?" Jim asked. A flash of light off to their right was answer enough.

"Aw, hell," Bones muttered under his breath as a light rain began falling. Perfect timing.

He braced the material under Jim's heel, crossed the ends in front of his ankle and once more behind it, and then back again. Finally, he tied off the ends while Jim set his jaw against the pulling and jerking of his foot.

He didn't know how long it would hold, especially if the rain picked up. The material was already getting damp, and sloshing through the mud would probably unravel the knot before long. But it was better than nothing. He patted Jim's leg, then stood up, slipping the now-sleeveless jumpsuit over his shoulders. It felt odd to have his arms bare, exposed to the light wind and rain. "Let's get you up to the top of this slope and then think about what we're going to do."

"No problem," Jim agreed, looking doubtfully up the slope. It wasn't as steep as the canyon had been earlier, but it was still a rough climb. Leonard helped him stand up, keeping a steady grasp on his right arm.

The minute Jim tried putting weight on the foot again, he jerked and recoiled with a grunt, tilting off balance so that Leonard had to steady him before he went tumbling in the other direction. "Whoa! Take it slow," he cautioned.

Jim gave him a rueful glance. "That was slow. It's worse than before."

"It probably stiffened up while we were sitting there. Try again."

Jim nodded. He placed his right foot more carefully this time, gradually letting his injured limb bear more of his weight. He seemed to be able to manage that well enough, but again, the second he tried to lift his left foot—which meant all of his weight fell on the broken ankle—he let out a strangled moan and fell back, grabbing onto Leonard's arm. "Can't," he bit out. "Fuck, I can't step on it at all!"

The look he gave Leonard was almost a plea: Do something.

"Okay, okay…" Leonard said hastily. "Don't worry. Let's try this another way." He used his free hand to wipe his damp forehead. He looked at the angle of the slope, trying to visualize the mechanics involved. "Maybe… use me as a crutch, and hop on the other foot. Don't put your right foot down at all."

Jim nodded. Leonard braced himself, standing slightly higher than Jim on the incline with his legs planted solidly apart. Jim draped his right arm around his shoulders and hopped up on his left foot, as Leonard struggled to stand motionless under his weight, balancing awkwardly. Jim took a breath, and then hopped again. They managed a slow ascent like that, with Leonard first setting his stance, followed by Jim grabbing onto his shoulder and hopping.

"This'll work," Jim huffed, breathing heavily as if he were running a sprint. The physical effort was clearly taxing his reserves, but they didn't have much farther to go.

"Good, because you're just about breaking my shoulder, kid."

"Fuck you," Jim said, but he was grinning now, and his steps—hops—were more coordinated. "Once we get up top, I can—"

Jim's left foot slipped as he landed, skidding on the slippery ground, throwing him off balance. "Watch it!" Leonard yelled, but it was too late. Jim put his splinted foot down automatically to stop his fall, letting out a harsh cry of pain as Leonard grabbed at him and pulled him back upright.

"Shit! Oh, fuck, fuck, that hurts, Bones, I think I broke it again…"

"Settle down, Jim, let me check it," Leonard said as calmly as he could, helping Jim down into a sitting position on the slope. He felt around the area of the fracture. The swelling seemed more pronounced, and as he pressing gently on the bone, Jim gasped. "That's worse, isn't it?"

"Just… give me a minute." Jim's teeth were clenched and his face was damp, and Leonard wasn't sure how much of that was sweat and how much was the rain, still coming down in gentle sheets. After a minute, his expression relaxed a little, and he nodded at Leonard. "Okay. Let's try again."

Leonard shook his head. "Look, Jim, this slope is too steep and too rocky to hop up." They still had a good five meters to go, and he could only pray that the ground would level off once they reached the top. "Just pull yourself up on your butt. You can't risk another spill like that."

Jim nodded wearily, his expression unreadable. He began moving slowly up the incline, pushing off with his good leg and his arms, his backside lodged in the muddy dirt.

Leonard heard him mumble "Fucking undignified" under his breath, and he couldn't stop his lips from twitching at that. Even out here in the middle of nowhere, with no one around to see but him, Jim was vain enough to worry about how he looked.

"Don't worry, darlin'," he called up. "You're still the prettiest princess at the ball."

"Fuck off," Jim growled. "You're no prince charming from this angle, either."

When they finally reached the top of the slope, Leonard sighed in relief. In the distance, Alpheus stretched out across the horizon. The ground here was relatively flat with sparse vegetation, like the area they'd crossed after leaving the camp: mostly grasses and straggly shrubs, with the occasional clump of low trees. In other circumstances, it would be an easy stroll of an hour or less.

"You'll be able to walk here, I think, Jim," he said, hoping it was true. Walking on a fracture would be painful, but if Jim had to hop the rest of the way, he'd collapse from exhaustion. Lesser of two evils, he thought.

"Sure, piece of cake," Jim said, then added sourly, "I wouldn't mind stopping until the storm passes, but there's not much we can use around here for a shelter."

"We'll keep going, then. Maybe we'll find something further along." There had been plenty of trees growing along the river bank, though, and he realized belatedly that they needed the trees for more than shelter. Jim would some kind of walking stick. "Stay here, I'll be right back," Leonard told him, and skidded back down the slope.

The rain was still coming down in a steady drizzle, and the river already seemed higher and faster than it had half an hour ago, making him wonder if the rain was stronger upstream. The way their luck was running, a flash flood was a distinct possibility. He needed to hurry.

It didn't take him long to find what he was looking for: a long, sturdy branch from one of the trees that lined the river bank. A walking stick would help Jim keep his balance and take the strain off his foot. He'd still need to take some of his weight on the fractured joint, but he might be able to hobble along well enough… for a while.

They probably should stop and rest. Jim was already exhausted, chilled and in pain, and probably getting hungry, too. It made sense to wait until the storm passed, at least, before trying to breach the citadel. He was fairly sure he could put together a lean-to, although there wasn't much to work with and everything was wet.

As for food… his heart started pounding as he realized he had no idea how to manage without Jim's help. Jim was the one who caught all their food, the scorpions, river bugs, and little worms. He had all the survival knowledge and the experience. Could he still manage to build a fire, sitting down, unable to kneel? Leonard had watched him a few times, but—

Shit, all the wood was saturated with water now. A fire was out of the question. How were they going to keep warm? The rain was leeching the heat from the bodies and weakening them. If they spent the night like that, cold and wet and hungry… what kind of condition would they be in when they reached the dome?

If they reached the dome. As close as they were, it was no longer a foregone conclusion.

He froze, suddenly struck by a dozen unanswerable questions. His heart was hammering, and his breath was coming faster.

How would they ever be able to get into Alpheus with Jim injured like this? All of Jim's half-baked plans were based on mobility and agility: scouting around the dome, climbing up to the air vents, slipping in through a shuttle bay or a hatch. Even assuming they could find a point of entry, the dome was enormous; walking around it would be impossible for Jim.

Christ, the dome was perched on a hill. Now that he'd seen what it took out of Jim to make it up that slope, how in God's name would he be able to climb it? He'd have to go up like he'd just done, scuttling backwards, or crawling on his hands and knees. They'd be completely vulnerable.

Every anxious thought seemed to ratchet his heart rate up, until he felt his breath coming in short bursts, as if he couldn't fully inflate his lungs. Even in chill of the rain, his skin felt tight and hot, and he couldn't seem to slow down his breathing.

Stop panicking, he told himself furiously, while at the same time, a voice inside him insisted: if ever there was a situation that justified a panic attack, this was it. He couldn't seem to stop the images rolling through his mind, one disastrous scenario after the next.

"Damn it!" he yelled aloud, or tried to. It came out like more of a wheeze. He sat down shakily on the slope. Leaning forward, he put his head between his knees, concentrating on taking slow, steady breaths.

Enough. Get hold of yourself, idiot. Jim was waiting for him, needed him.

He took a few more deep breaths to calm himself, stood up, and hiked back up the slope, Jim's walking stick clutched tightly in his hand like a lifeline.

 

An hour later, they'd covered nearly a kilometer, as far as Leonard could tell. The ground was fairly even, and Jim was able to manage better with the walking stick, but he was clearly hurting. "It aches a little" was all he'd admit, but for the past twenty minutes or so Leonard had heard him trying to stifle little grunts of choked-off pain every time he put any weight on his right leg.

Neither of them had much to say. All Leonard could think was that they were in real trouble now, and he was too worried to say anything more than the occasional "Take it slow," or "You're doing fine." Jim didn't seem to have much breath to spare, anyway. He was utterly focused on the physical effort, eyes fixed on the ground in front of him, breathing hard. But he was tiring, slowing down, his breaths coming faster. There was a cool breeze blowing off the river making them both shiver, and the rain was making everything harder.

Every time he heard one of Jim's bit-off moans, Leonard had to fight the impulse to put a stop to this hopeless trek. With every step, he knew, Jim could be doing irreparable damage to his leg. But the only thing he could do was push aside his guilt and encourage him to keep going. He could only hope that they'd make it to the dome before Jim collapsed… because it was going to happen, sooner or later. Jim was strong and determined, but a fracture was a fracture, and he'd eventually reach the point where he couldn't keep going.

In the light sheen of rain, Alpheus didn't seem like the same glorious construction he'd seen before. When he looked at it now, all he could see was a modern fortress, built to keep out enemies: wind, UV radiation, and desperate escaped prisoners. Who knew, maybe inside it was a model community, a haven of mutual respect and clean living, where all of the neighbors were polite and all the children well-behaved. He supposed there had to be something that attracted families out here, some kind of high-tech pioneering ethos, but for the life of him, he couldn't see it.

There was more vegetation as they drew closer to the dome, and Leonard was a little more hopeful that they could build a shelter. Everything was wet, though, and he wasn't looking forward to lying down on a bed of waterlogged leaves.

"We should take a break," Jim said suddenly. They were nearing a copse of low, gnarled trees that provided a little protection from the rain, and Leonard nodded. It was as good a place as any to rest. As they reached the first tree, Jim handed him the walking stick and used Leonard's arm to lower himself to the ground. Leonard could feel him shaking with exhaustion. Jim leaned his back against the trunk and closed his eyes, breathing heavily. He looked spent, his eyes sunken with fatigue.

Seeing Jim's pallor and the lines of tension in his face, Leonard was suddenly furious with himself. He'd been so preoccupied with trying to move them on towards Alpheus—and worrying about what would happen if they couldn't reach it—that he'd ignored what was right next to him. Jim looked like he'd drained his last reserves, as if he'd been moving forward on guts and obstinacy for much too long.

"God, I'm sorry, Jim," Leonard said, looking at him apologetically. "Let me check that ankle again."

He knelt down on the wet ground beside him, but Jim pushed his hand away. "Leave it, Bones. I'm just a little tired." He brought his canteen to his mouth with a shaky hand, draining the remains in one long swallow.

"Let me re-tie the splint, at least." Jim shrugged, and Leonard rewrapped it as best he could, although the orange material was so muddy and slippery by now that he could barely bring the ends together. "That's not going to hold for much longer," he said, frowning at it, "but we can use the sleeves from your jumpsuit when it falls apart."

Jim didn't reply. He was gazing out at the dome, his expression masked.

"I could try to find us something to eat," Leonard suggested, although even as the words left his mouth, he was hoping that Jim wouldn't take him up on his offer. He knew that worms and other insects often came up after a rain and shouldn't be too hard to find, but he still felt squeamish about the whole matter. Jim had perfected a method of capturing the scorpions with two sharp sticks, but Leonard hadn't really paid much attention, and he doubted that he could do it himself.

To his relief, Jim shook his head. "Not right now. We have more important things to do. The rain's slowing down, and we've got about two hours of daylight left."

"Think we should keep going, or set up camp here for the night?" Leonard looked around uncertainly. There were a few thin branches scattered on the ground, but not enough to make a decent shelter. "Maybe we could try to build a lean-to..."

"There's not much here that we can use," Jim said, a little impatiently, his gaze still fixed on Alpheus. "Listen, I need you to do something for me. For us."

"Anything you need, kid."

Jim turned back to look at him. There was something in Jim's sad smile that sent a cold chill through him. "I need you to leave me here for a while, and go check out that dome."

"What?" Leonard blinked, then began shaking his head as the implications of what Jim was suggesting filtered through his brain. "No! What are you talking about? I can't leave you here, Jim, that's insane! I'm not going on by myself!"

"Relax, this isn't goodbye forever," Jim said, the calm authority in his voice an irritating counterpoint to Leonard's rising alarm. "I'm not telling you to break into the dome alone. Just go over there and scout out the best place for us to enter, then come back and get me."

"Just scout out the best place…" Leonard repeated incredulously, mimicking Jim's matter-of-fact tone. "Are you serious? How the hell am I supposed to do that, just walk over there and start looking for an open window or a welcome mat?"

Jim laughed. "Well, not exactly, no. But it's not that complicated. Look for a ventilation outlet, a maintenance port, a hatch, a door, anything that looks like it might be a way in."

"Jim, I'm not an engineer, and I'm sure as hell not a soldier. I wouldn't have any idea how to make that kind of decision myself! You have to come with me." His gaze fell on Jim's leg, stretched out before him with its messy splint. "Uh, look, I know your ankle's hurting, but damn it, kid, I can't just leave you here…"

"You're going to have to try to stay low," Jim said, ignoring Leonard's words completely. "Move slowly, try not to draw any attention to yourself. I don't think we should announce that we're here unless we absolutely have to. If Childress has warned them about us, the colonists might assume that we're dangerous." His mouth tightened into a grimace. "They might not be inclined to help us, even if we make it inside."

"Oh, that's very persuasive. So you're saying they might have a shoot-on-sight policy."

Jim blew out a breath in exasperation. "We need to get a closer look, have an idea of what we're dealing with. We don't know what material the dome is made of, we don't know where the air filters are, we don't know where anything is. We can't make a plan without some decent intelligence. I can't do it, obviously," he said with a wry smile. "But you can."

"I'm not leaving you here!" Leonard snapped. It infuriated him that Jim thought he would even consider it. "You're injured, and if something happens, you won't be able to get very far on your own. I'm not leaving you alone."

"Bones…"

"No, kid. You need to rest, and that's fine. We'll spend the night here, and then walk over to the dome in the morning!"

Jim shook his head. "We can't just stroll over there without knowing what we're facing."

"Damn it, Jim, you're an injured patient in my care, and I have to do what I think is in your best interest. And that doesn't include leaving you sitting here in the mud, shivering your ass off, while I go off by myself!"

"Bones, I can't!" Jim hissed, slamming a fist onto the wet ground. "Don't you get it? I can't walk—" His voice caught and he looked away, but not before Leonard spotted a wet glint in the corner of his eye. Jim was silent for a minute, trying to regain control, a muscle twitching in his jaw while Leonard looked on helplessly.

Finally, Jim looked back up. "My ankle's screwed, Bones. I can hardly walk. It's getting worse, a lot worse."

Leonard looked at him in dismay. "But… you told me that it was just a dull ache. I thought you were managing okay."

"I was, at first. But towards the end, every fucking step hurt like hell. I could feel something crunching, like pieces of bone grinding together…"

Crepitus. Leonard winced inwardly. The ends of the fractured bone were rubbing together now, and the pain had increased, which might indicate a displaced fracture fragment. "For God's sake, kid… why didn't you tell me it was this bad?"

"What fucking good would that have done?" Jim bit out. "We have to keep going. I have to keep walking. There's no other way."

As much as Leonard wanted to disagree, he knew it was true. He nodded unhappily.

Jim's voice was rough, as if his throat was too constricted to let the words out. "All I could think about for the last half hour was that the dome's sitting on a fucking hill, and climbing it's going to be almost impossible. I barely made it this far, just walking on level ground."

Leonard felt suddenly exhausted. He wanted nothing more than to lie down and rest, to let his mind stay blank so that he didn't have to think anymore about how hopeless their situation was. All he knew was that he couldn't take much more of this misery.

"So what are you proposing?" he asked finally, not sure he had the energy to care anymore. "You can't just stay here, and I'm not going to go on by myself and leave you."

"Bones," Jim said quietly. "I can make one more push. Whatever it takes, I'll do it. I'll make it up that hill. I'll crawl if I have to, and I'll get us inside, I swear. It'll hurt, it'll be hard, but I'll be able to make myself do it… if I know exactly how far I have to go. But I can't waste any energy walking around the dome and backtracking. You've got to find our point of entry and lead us straight there."

He understood what Jim was saying; of course he did. It made sense. As long as Jim had a clear goal, as long as he knew that his suffering would have a limit and that he'd been accomplishing something by the end of it, he could make himself keep going. He'd seen that kind of determination, sometimes, in terminally ill patients, who'd kept themselves alive far beyond their doctors' predictions, through the strength of their determination alone. He had no doubt that Jim had that kind of strength and force of will. He wouldn't give up, no matter what it cost him… as long as he had a target to aim for.

Still, he felt completely out of his depth. "Jim, I don't… I'm not trained to do recon. What if I screw it up? I'll get caught, and then you'll be left out here alone, and—"

For a moment, a shadow darkened Jim's expression, and Leonard instantly regretted what he'd said. Jim didn't need any reminders of what might happen if he didn't come back. He remembered how spooked Jim had been after they discovered the dead prisoner, and how they'd made a pact: Nobody's dying alone. Jim was terrified of being left behind, injured and helpless… and yet that was exactly what might happen, if Leonard didn't come back.

I can't do that to you, he wanted to say, but he couldn't make the words leave his lips. If he said it out loud, it would just make this harder.

"You can do it." Jim's mouth twisted into an approximation of a smile, although his eyes were deadly serious. "And… for what it's worth, that's an order."

Leonard almost laughed at the incongruity. "You can't order me to do anything, kid. You're a cadet, same as me."

"Can't argue with that," Jim agreed. "But in a situation like this, one of us has to take the lead, make the tough decisions, and that's me. I might not be in the command track anymore, but I've studied tactics, and I've done more than a few training sims that involved infiltrating enemy territory. You haven't." He dropped the smile, but kept his gaze steadily on Leonard. "So it's my responsibility, and I'm making it an order." His eyes were hard, and Leonard felt his mouth run dry. "If anything goes wrong, I'm the one to blame."

That wasn't entirely true, because there was always an element of choice. It had been his choice to run from the camp, his choice to follow Jim's lead as they made their way through the wilderness… and now, he was going to choose to follow Jim's order and leave him behind.

I guess you got what you wanted, kid, he remembered himself saying when they'd started out. You're in command, for as long as we last out here.

"Fine." Leonard sighed. "You win. I'll go."

Jim just gave him a brief nod, as if Leonard's capitulation wasn't a potential death sentence for either of them. "Good. Keep low and stay behind cover as much as you can. And take off that damn jumpsuit before you go. You've got about two hours or so before it gets dark, so you'd better hurry."

Not trusting his voice, Leonard simply stood and stripped off the tattered remains of the jumpsuit, leaving him shivering in his damp black t-shirt and boxers. He handed the jumpsuit to Jim. "Put this under you, kid. It'll give you a little protection from the rain."

"Don't worry about me," Jim said, reaching for the jumpsuit. "Now go."

Still, Leonard hesitated. "Don't worry," he said, giving Jim's shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "I'll be back."

Jim nodded, closing his eyes. "I know you will. I'll be waiting right here."

 

The rain stopped not long after Leonard set out, leaving a deadly quiet in its place.

The adrenaline seemed to be sharpening his senses, making him hyperaware of background sounds. Instead of blending together, each one seemed to jump out at him separately, demanding his attention: the gurgling of the river off to his right, the slap of his boots on the wet ground, the rush of the wind as it ruffled through the grass and flapped against his shirt, and the wheeze of his own heavy breathing. As he drew closer to Alpheus, he began to hear an odd noise emanating from the dome, an annoying low-frequency hum that set his teeth on edge.

Alpheus was no more than two hundred meters away. He could make out details now. The dome stretched out in front of him to his left and right, with the river running right through the middle. He could see now why the dome always seemed to be glittering in the sun; it was covered in some kind of reflective material, like shiny, smooth metal. He couldn't see inside, although he assumed that the colonists could probably see out.

His skin prickled as if he was being watched, but he didn't know whether that was some kind of uncanny intuition or just plain fear.

His thigh muscles were starting to cramp. Jim had told him to stay low, so he'd been staying in a near-constant crouch, moving forward on the balls of his feet, weaving a roundabout path between trees and bushes that provided a semblance of cover. Jim had also told him to move slowly, but that was proving nearly impossible. The second he left the relative safety of whatever straggly tree he'd been hiding behind, his heart started thudding in his chest and all he could think of was how exposed he must be to anyone inside the dome who happened to be looking in his direction. All his best intentions to move slowly faded under the desperate instinct to dash over to the next tree trunk or shrub. Lucky Jim couldn't see him; he'd probably be shaking his head in disgust, or maybe laughing his head off at Leonard's ridiculous zigzagging sprints.

Shit, of course Jim wouldn't be laughing. He was sitting on the cold ground, wet and in pain, probably wondering if he was going to be left behind in the dirt.

The thought sobered him. Focus, he told himself fiercely. Hell, he might not be a soldier, but he was a surgeon. What was the matter with him, dashing from tree to tree like a chicken without a head? He had a job to do.

He squinted over at the dome, trying to make out more details. There had to be a way in, but from where he stood, there were no obvious vents or shuttle bays. The dome wasn't completely smooth, though, and there seemed to be some rougher patches—

Wait. There was definitely an odd circular patch on the upper part of the dome, off to his left. He scanned further down, and he was fairly sure there was another one, off toward the end.

He needed to move closer, but the vegetation here was sparser. Fewer trees meant less cover.

His stomach churned suddenly as it occurred to him that he was going about this all wrong. If he wanted to avoid drawing attention to himself, zigzagging from tree to tree wasn't the way to do it at all; it was like waving a flag emblazoned "Here I am, come and get me!" From the point of view of the colonists, if he walked in a straight line, he'd present a much smaller target. All he needed to do was keep low and move slowly, just as Jim had told him.

God, he was really a horrible soldier.

Bending as low as his aching muscles would allow, he stepped out from behind the tree and moved straight toward the dome. Slowly… slowly, he reminded himself. It was getting darker, and the sun was at his back. Maybe that would work in his favor.

He moved another fifty meters closer, then flattened himself in the grass. The cool dampness from the still-wet ground seeped immediately into his clothes, and he had to restrain the urge to push himself right back up. Great, now he was covered in mud from head to toe. Perfect complement to the over-long hair, the week-old beard, the sunken eyes, and the gaunt face. Just the kind of visitor the colonists would want to welcome into their pristine environmentally-controlled dome.

He stared up at the dome, now towering over him, at least twenty meters high. There was definitely a large circular area on the upper half of the dome, made of a different material. It wasn't shiny or solidly reflective… In fact, he realized with a touch of excitement, it seemed lit from behind, as if the lights from the colony were visible through it.

An air filter. It had to be. He could see now that there were more, placed at distant intervals around the dome.

But it was hopelessly out of their reach, he realized immediately. It was too far up on the dome. Even if one of them stood on the other's shoulders—a practical impossibility at this point, with Jim's injury—it was simply too high.

Well, so much for Jim's Plan A.

He felt numb. At some level, he knew that this was a crushing blow, but he felt so battered by their unending string of disappointments and disasters that all he felt was apathy. He was on a fool's errand, and it was no surprise that he'd be returning empty-handed.

As a surgeon, he knew, there were times when you had to give up, let the patient go, call the time of death. Surgical skill and modern techniques could only do so much. As much as he hated it, he accepted the fact that giving up was sometimes inevitable. Sometimes it was the only humane option.

Maybe this was the point, he thought, when they had to stop fighting. Any reasonable person would agree that they'd tried their best. They'd made it this far, against tremendous odds.

But he couldn't quite bring himself to give up. As tempting as it was just to lay there and let the exhaustion and despair claim him, he couldn't. At the very least, he had to make it back to Jim. They'd face the end together, just like he'd promised.

He tried to imagine going back to Jim and telling him that there was no way in. He felt nauseous at the idea of destroying his last remnant of hope. He'd been in the awful position before of telling a terminal patient that the last hope for treatment had failed… but he'd never had to do it to a friend, and he knew, with sudden certainty, that he couldn't do it to Jim. At least… not yet.

There was still time before sunset. He could explore a little more.

He could almost hear Jim's voice in his head: C'mon, Bones, try something else. That's an order.

He needed to get back up. Lying on the ground, even if it was uncomfortably damp, still made it too tempting to close his eyes and rest. Gathering his reserves, he pushed himself back up into his low crouch, grunting as his stiff muscles protested.

Looking over the dome, he could see that the hill leading up to the dome was steeper in some places than in others. From what he could see, the easiest point of approach was near the river, where the slope of the hill was gentler. From this distance, he couldn't see any irregularities in the dome there, but it was a goal, something else to try.

He backtracked, moving away from the dome in a straight line, keeping low. It would be faster just to head straight toward the river, but then he'd be completely exposed. Retracing his steps was safer.

It took him almost twenty minutes to swing back around to the river bank. He could see Jim again—or at least, he could make out an orange speck against one of the trees behind him—but decided not to run back to check on him. The light was fading. If Jim was still watching him, he'd figure out what Leonard was doing on his own.

With a silent prayer, he began following the river bank back toward the dome. In the dimming light, he allowed himself to straighten up slightly and move faster. He'd need to take some chances. There wasn't much time left.

He kept near the edge of the river bank, where the vegetation was thicker and there were clumps of trees that provided some cover. The bank jutted out, hanging over the water. When he peered down, he was startled to see the river rushing past, swollen and muddy from the rain, almost directly below his feet. One slip here could be deadly, and he took a hasty step away from the edge.

The sun was almost down, and he had to strain to see. There was something… an odd projection on the dome, near the ground… maybe. He crept forward as close as he dared, staring up at the metallic surface, trying to make it out.

His breath caught. There was some kind of opening, just where the river cut through the dome. A maintenance hatch, maybe?

And the incline there was manageable… Jim could climb it, with a little help. It was possible.

He felt a rush of excitement. This was it… their one chance, their Plan B.

He might not be a soldier, but he'd completed his first recon mission successfully, and the knowledge thrilled him. He'd stayed out of sight, figured out what to do on his own, and found a point of entry. Hell, who'd have believed that Leonard Horatio McCoy, city boy born and bred, half-starved and scared out of his wits, would be able to accomplish this?

He was grinning, almost giddy. He'd done it. Jim would be proud of him.

He turned around and began making his way back. It was nearly dark and already cold, but his blood was humming.

It was about time they got a break, he thought. Maybe this story was going to have a happy ending after all.

 

Jim

He kept his eyes closed until he couldn't hear Bones' footsteps anymore.

It was easier this way. He'd argued and explained and finally ordered Bones away, leaving him no choice but to go on alone without him. But he couldn't make himself watch.

He was almost nauseous with guilt and worry. He knew that it was more than likely that he'd just sent his best friend on a suicide mission. Bones was untrained and scared, and there was practically nowhere to hide. It would be a miracle if he made it up to the dome without being seen, much less found an entry point and made it back unscathed.

Damn it, he was such a coward. He owed it to his friend to keep an eye on him, to follow his progress as long as he could. But he just couldn't make himself do it.

He leaned back against the tree, squirming a bit to find a comfortable position. It felt good to rest. The pain in his ankle had diminished to nothing more than a steady ache, and he was bone-tired. That last push, hobbling along for over an hour, trying to keep his misery from showing too obviously, had taken more out of him than he'd been willing to admit.

The exhaustion pulled at him, and when he finally blinked his eyes open, Bones was nowhere to be seen. Shit, he'd actually dozed off… How long had he been asleep? From the nearly-unchanged position of the sun, he guessed that it hadn't been more than a few minutes.

But now Bones was gone, and he was alone.

Left behind, again. It was an all-too-familiar ache.

Hell, it was the story of his fucking life. Like a curse that some evil witch had given him at birth. One way or another, it always came back to this: people left him, abandoned him, discarded him by the wayside while they pursued other, more important things. It was a lesson he'd learned early in life.

Nobody sticks around for very long. Not for me.

It wasn't always intentional, but there was no denying the facts. The people who were closest to him eventually ran away, followed their careers, got themselves blown up heroically, or were massacred by power-hungry crazies spouting eugenics theories… Sure, there was plenty of variety, but the end result was always the same. Jim Kirk was left to fend for himself, and usually, that didn't work out so well for him.

He wasn't surprised that it was happening again. He'd had a bad feeling that it would end like this, ever since they'd found that dead prisoner. He hadn't been able to get the images out of his head afterwards, couldn't stop thinking about what it must have been like for him, injured and alone. He'd known, at some level, that the Jim Kirk Curse was circling him like a vulture, waiting for an opportune moment.

But he and Bones had made a fucking pact, hadn't they? Nobody dies alone.

Pathetic. As if loyalty between friends would carry any weight against the hand of fate. He should know by now that circumstances always screwed him over. It was fucking inevitable.

It had happened to many times to be coincidence: first his father, then his mother, then Sam, then his aunt and uncle on Tarsus... even Uncle Frank. He wondered, not for the first time, if it was something about him, some hidden characteristic or personality flaw, that drove people away.

Ironic, that's what it was. Maybe he was suffering from some deep-seated psychopathology that made him engineer events subconsciously so that he'd have to be left behind. He was probably way overdue for some serious therapy.

He had to fight the sudden urge to laugh out loud. He felt giddy, almost light-headed. It was probably just the hunger, gnawing away insidiously at his rationality, making everything seem a little less real. But it was funny, wasn't it? After all, he'd been the one who sent Bones away. He'd brought about the whole situation himself, first by breaking his own ankle—God, that was stupid—and then insisting that Bones had to go on alone.

If it was his fault, that was at least easier to accept than believing that he was the victim of some predestined fate that always led to the same sorry conclusion, no matter what he tried. But either way, the end result was the same.

He shivered. It was getting windier, and the cold was seeping into his muscles. His clothes were damp and muddy; when he let himself think about it, he was really damned uncomfortable. He needed to move, get his circulation going. He was probably sinking into shock, or hypothermia, or something. Bones would probably be able to give him an exact diagnosis, complete with scowls and a this-is-all-your-fault glare… if he came back.

Please, Bones, come back. Don't leave me here alone.

He stretched, twisting his torso and bending his limbs until they warmed up a little and stopped tingling. Then, steeling himself, he felt along his lower leg. The swelling went halfway up his calf. When he squeezed the joint carefully between his fingertips, the skin felt hot and tight, and the slightest pressure resulted in a sharp twinge. Walking on it was going to be a joy.

He glanced back up at the dome and realized, with an unpleasant start, that Bones was heading back.

His heart began pounding. Shit, it was too soon. He'd expected Bones to explore the dome for at least another hour. There was still plenty of daylight left. That meant one of two things: either they'd been lucky and Bones had found a convenient way in almost immediately—ha ha, that would be a shocker—or something had gone badly wrong. Maybe he'd been spotted, and was trying to hightail it back to Jim so they could hide, or something equally hopeless. It could be that he just wanted to confer with Jim, or make sure he was alright.

Still, he couldn't help the flash of relief that shuddered through him. Bones was coming back. It might be good news or bad news, but at least he was coming back. He straightened up against the tree, wondering if he should push himself up to a standing position and get ready to move.

But then Bones suddenly changed direction and started heading toward the river.

It made no sense. Jim could only watch, frustrated, as Bones reached the river and then began walking back toward Alpheus, this time following the edge of the river bank.

Going away again. Fuck. He hadn't been coming back to Jim at all.

He rubbed his hands over his face, covering his eyes. There was no rule that said he had to watch his friend walk away from him for the second time.

He sat there, curled in on himself, for a minute, listening to his own heavy breathing.

And then, slowly, he drew his right hand back… and delivered a resounding slap to his own cheek. And another one, harder this time. The third time left his hand stinging, and there was a satisfying ache on the side of his jaw.

Fool.

He was suddenly furious with himself. Disgusted. Look at him, drowning in self-pity, connecting all the dots in his pathetic life and coming up with "everybody leaves me."

Well, fuck that.

Bones hadn't left him. He had gone off against all his better instincts, because Jim had ordered him to go, and because there was no other way. He was the true hero here, not Jim.

Bones had gone off with no thought to his own safety… like Jim's father. Jim cringed inwardly at the thought that his dad could see him down here, sense him giving up and giving in, throwing away his heroic legacy as if it didn't mean a thing. His dad had died for Jim and his mother. He hadn't abandoned them, he'd saved them. Jim knew that, had heard it over and over from everyone since he was old enough to understand his father's sacrifice.

His eyes suddenly watered, and he rubbed at them angrily. Suddenly, all he wanted was for his father to be able to look down on him with pride.

Was he watching him, right now? A little self-consciously, he straightened up against the tree, combed his fingers through his wet hair to bring it into a semblance of order.

Had George Kirk watched him before, on Tarsus? Jim was ashamed of so many things that had happened there—so many mistakes he made, so many things he should have done differently—but for the first time, he wondered if his dad was proud of him, too. He'd been just a kid, then, just thirteen, and he'd survived. He'd kept most of the other kids alive, learning how to survive through trial and error, and refusing to give up.

And they'd never have been able to survive here, on Rigel, without the skills he'd learned on Tarsus. Maybe those were the dots he should be connecting.

Dad, if you're watching, I hope you know how hard I've tried. I got us out of the prison camp, I found us food and water, I brought us all the way here, and we're almost there. We just need a little help, dad. We just need a little break.

Please.

He felt just a little ridiculous, pleading for his dead father to help them. But no one else had to know, and hell, it couldn't hurt. He had to keep believing that they'd find a way in.

We're almost there, dad. Bones is out there, all alone. Just nudge him in the right direction… okay?

 

When he opened his eyes—What was wrong with him, had he really nodded off again?—Bones was kneeling beside him, shaking him gently. "Wake up, kid," he said, and Jim realized belatedly that he'd been saying it for a while. Naptime's over, Jim. Come on, now, open your eyes.

"Bones!" he yelped, heart thudding so fast in his chest that he was sure Bones must be able to hear it, too. It was almost completely dark, and Jim reached out instinctively to grab him by the shoulders, wanting concrete proof. Bones was strong and solid beneath his hands.

"Relax, everything's fine, Jim," he said calmly. "Let me check you out."

The doctor's large hand felt along his forehead and the back of his neck, then captured his wrist. Jim grimaced, wondering what the doctor would make of his racing pulse. "You startled me," he grunted, injecting a measure of irritation into his voice. "Just fell asleep." Judging by the dark surroundings and the weak starlight that was beginning to peek out from behind the clouds, he'd been sleeping for at least an hour. He must be in worse shape than he'd thought.

"You needed the rest," Bones told him, sounding more than a little concerned. "You're freezing, Jim. You need to get up and move around a little. I don't want you sitting on this wet ground anymore."

Underneath the worry, Bones seemed pumped, as though there was a current of energy running through him. "Wait, you… you found something, didn't you? Bones?"

Even in the dim starlight, Jim could make out the wide grin spilling over Bones' features. "Hell, yeah, I did. Took a while, but I think there's something we can use, up where the dome meets the river. Come on, Jim, let's get you standing up."

"I saw you double back here, not long after you started out. Oww, shit," he groaned as Bones pulled him upright and his stiff muscles let loose a round of complaints. "God, I could use a warm shower."

"You could use a couple of rounds of osteostim therapy and a good meal," Bones told him, looking unhappy. "I hate to be making you move anywhere on that leg, Jim."

"I'm not looking forward to it either, believe me." He was clutching the thin tree trunk like a crutch, keeping his right leg bent above the ground. Just the idea of stepping on it was making him nauseous. "Tell me what you found."

"Well, I looked for the air filters at first, Jim. They were there, just like Fredericks said, big round vents all around the dome. But they're way too high." He knelt down at Jim's feet and began probing the ankle joint gently. "There's no way we'd be able to climb up there, and the hill was too steep at that point anyway. The hill looked a little easier to climb near the river, so I decided to check it out."

"That's why you came back," Jim said, realization dawning. "You moved back in a straight line back this way until you were out of sight, then moved across to the river. That was good thinking, Bones. I'm impressed."

"Well, no thanks to you and your minimalist advice," Bones said grumpily. He stood up with a glare. "Stay low? Try not to draw attention to myself? Did it occur to you that I might need instructions that were a little more specific than that?"

Jim shrugged. "You did fine. You made it back, didn't you?"

"Well, I'm sure you saw me zigzagging there like an idiot for a while!" Bones gave him an embarrassed look, and then his eyes narrowed. "You weren't even watching, were you?"

"Bones," Jim said, holding out his free hand in a gesture of protest, "I was tired. I nodded off for a minute or two. Hopping on one leg is harder than it looks."

Now that his eyes had adjusted to the dim light, he could see Bones' eye roll clearly. "Never mind, kid. I worked it out for myself. Let's just say that I never want to have you for a field tactics instructor."

"You're a doctor. You don't have to take those classes, remember? This was just a taste of the good stuff. And I knew you had it in you." Underneath the teasing, Jim felt a surge of optimism. This was the first time either of them had alluded to the Academy in weeks. Bones must be pretty sure he'd found a way in, if he was allowing himself to hint at a return to their normal lives.

"Anyway," Bones continued, "it was the right decision to go back, because I found some kind of opening in the dome, right where the river intersects it. I didn't want to get too close, but I'm sure it's there. Could be a maintenance hatch."

"That makes sense," Jim said with a rush of excitement. "Maybe they have a water purification system or an access tube..."

"I don't care if their kids use it to sneak out and go skinny dipping with their girlfriends. It's a way in, Jim. It's the only way in that I can see, and the slope right there is nice and gentle."

"That's our cue, then, Bones," Jim said, slapping him on the back for good measure. "You did great."

"Surprised you, didn't I?" Bones asked, giving him a sardonic grin.

"Not for a minute. Now hop down to the river and fill up our canteens. We're going in tonight."

 

Left foot. Walking stick. Right foot holy fuck. Left foot. Stick. Shit.

Not much farther, not much more, you can do this. Son of a fucking bitch.

One more step. God it hurts.

"Lean on me," Bones told him quietly. "I'll help you. Put all your weight on me."

Jim was breathing hard, and could barely wheeze out a response. "Just a broken leg… I c'n make it… shouldn't be this hard, damn it!"

"Cut yourself some slack, kid." Bones sighed, looking at him worriedly. "I don't know how you're on your feet at all. Anyway, we're halfway there. Let's rest here for a bit."

The closer they came to that domed monstrosity, the more Jim's stomach churned. He could see the lights of the colony shining through the circular air filters near the top of the dome. Bones had been right, they were completely inaccessible. The rest of it looked like a smooth, impenetrable wall… except for a small area near the bottom of the dome, near the river. The maintenance hatch. If that's what it really was.

"It's not natural," Bones grumbled.

"What's not natural?" Jim's voice came out in a quick breath.

"That damn dome. Who the hell would want to live cooped up in an aquarium like this, where you can never go outside?" He shook his head in disgust.

"People are always going to explore," Jim huffed. "Pushing the limits is in our blood."

"Well, they should think with their heads, not with their DNA," Bones said with distaste. "Children should be able to run around, have a little freedom. Climb some trees, for God's sake."

"Tarsus was like that," he blurted out without thinking, and Bones looked at him curiously. "Uh, open and clean, I mean. Untainted. Lots of open spaces and freedom." It had been so long since he'd thought of those first few months on the colony, when he felt like he'd been given a second chance at a happy childhood. He'd been a normal twelve-year-old kid, helping out his aunt and uncle on the farm, running around with his friends after school.

"But it wasn't able to sustain human life in the end," Bones pointed out. "There was a fungus, you said."

"They'll probably try to colonize it again eventually," Jim said grimly. "It's a beautiful planet, breathable air, the works. But I have to admit… I've lost my taste for off-world living."

Bones laughed softly. "Not gonna argue with you there, kid."

They hobbled on, making slow but steady progress for another few minutes, and then he heard it: a low, droning hum, coming from somewhere off to their left. He stopped, cocking his head to the side, listening. "Did you hear that?" he asked quietly.

Bones nodded, brows furrowed. "That's not coming from the dome. Thunder, maybe?"

Jim shook his head slowly, still listening intently. "I don't think so… It's getting louder."

The hum was becoming more of a low rumble, with a hint of a whine. It sounded like something mechanical, and Jim felt a cold shiver rush down his spine. "A transport," he whispered.

Bones nodded, eyes widening. "Childress… God damn it! The colonists must have seen us—"

"—and sent for him," Jim finished. Oh, hell. He looked around them frantically, although he knew it was useless. They were completely exposed. Hiding behind a tree or a few dry-looking shrubs wasn't going to help.

"What do we do, Jim? They're coming for us!" There was a high pitch of hysteria in Bones' voice. The rumbling was getting louder by the second, and now he could clearly recognize the sound of the all-terrain vehicle Childress used around the camp.

"I don't know…" he said, and then suddenly he did know. He grabbed Bones' arm, spinning him around to face him. "Listen, Bones, you have to make a run for it! Head for that clump of trees. I'll hold them off here as long as I can." It was a long shot, since they'd both obviously been seen, but maybe-

"I'm not leaving you here!" Bones growled. He grabbed Jim's arm, obviously intending to pull Jim along with him.

"Yes you are, Bones," Jim said, leaning on his walking stick and using his other hand to push off Bones' grasp. "This is as far as we're going together."

Bones had to leave now. He could see the lights of Childress' vehicle, heading directly toward them. This was it. The end. His story ended here.

The only important thing now was to make sure that Bones had a chance.

Dad, if you're watching, hell yes, I understand now…

But damn it, Bones wasn't cooperating. He grabbed Jim again, harder this time, and started dragging him, heedless of Jim's efforts to stay in place. "Stop it! Bones, we don't have time to argue about this! You know I can't make a run for it. You can. Go!"

"No!" Bones yelled. "Cut the self-sacrificing bullshit, Jim, I'm not leaving without you!"

They were trapped in a tug-of-war, Bones pulling on his arm and Jim trying frantically to break his grip. "They're coming, Bones. Please! You can hide, you can save yourself… but not with me!" Out of the corner of his eye he could see the lights of the vehicle coming toward them, still far enough away to be a mere speck in the distance, but it was coming closer… and aiming straight for them.

"Damn it!" Bones growled. He ducked under Jim's right arm and grabbed him around the waist, and then began pulling and half-carrying him toward the river. "This way, then!" he roared in Jim's ear. "The river's right under us. We'll jump!"

"Son of a—" Jim gritted out as his right foot touched down in a burst of white flame. The sharp pain made him cry out and crumple to his knees, and Bones seemed to take this as agreement with his plan. He grabbed Jim around the waist and began dragging him to the river bank, no more than five meters away. With every step, his ankle thumped against the ground, unleashing a new burst of agony. It was all he could do to push along with his left foot and try to keep upright.

"Faster!" Bones ground out, and Jim nodded. Every time his foot landed he gave out a strangled grunt of pain.

Five steps away… now three… Childress was gaining on him. He could hear the roar of the engine, louder and louder.

The river was right under them now. The bank jutted out over it, and he could hear the water rushing by, far below. It occurred to him that he'd never mentioned to Bones that he wasn't exactly a decent swimmer, more of a flounderer, but what did it matter now, anyway? If they didn't jump, they were doomed.

There was no time to think. "Jump!" Bones yelled, wrapping his arm tighter around his waist and pushing away from the bank as far as he could.

And then they were in the air and falling. Jim slipped from his grip mid-air, his right hand still clutching the walking stick, and then they were underwater.

The impact of his ankle against the water drove a spike of agony through him, and he let out an involuntary cry. Cold water rushed into his mouth, making him sputter and choke. He flailed his arms out wide, trying to get his bearings, but the dark and the shock of the water left him disoriented. He managed to get his head out of water, but the churning, muddy froth kept slapping over him, making him gasp for breath. He couldn't see Bones anywhere.

"Bo—" he tried to call out, and was rewarded with another mouthful of water. He began spitting and coughing, trying to clear his airways and stay above the water.

Calm down, calm down!

He could hear faint cries coming from just ahead. Bones was looking for him. The thought steadied him.

He realized that he was still holding onto the walking stick with one hand. Wood floats, idiot, he thought with sudden realization. He brought the stick inward and twisted his body so that he was draped over it, giving him more buoyancy and stability. He bent his knees, pulling up his ankle toward his body protectively, hoping to avoid a rock. He was finally able to catch his breath and look around.

"Jim!" he heard Bones calling. "Over here!" He could just make him out, a vague dark shape splashing in the water, slightly ahead. A few seconds more, and then Bones was there, slinging one arm around Jim's waist. Bones was holding onto a thick branch of his own, something he must have picked out of the river after they jumped.

"It's okay, I've got you now," he heard Bones' soothing voice in his ear. "We'll just float along here for a while, see where we end up." It wasn't as if they had much choice about it, anyway. There was a strong current pushing them along, straight to the dome… and, he realized, right into the colony.

"Bones, you're a genius." Jim said with an exhausted grin. Shit, the water was cold. "You found a way in."

"We were just lucky the bank jutted out over the river right there. And you should've told me you can't swim."

"I can swim," Jim protested weakly, ignoring Bones' snort of disdain. "Just not very well. And not when my ankle's trying to disconnect itself from the rest of my leg."

"Well, thank God you knew enough to hold onto that stick. This current's pretty rough. But at least," he smiled faintly, "it does seem to be taking us in the right direction."

Jim twisted back. He couldn't see the lights of Childress' vehicle along the bank. "Childress is g-gone," he said, turning back to give Bones a dark look. His teeth were chattering fiercely, and the cold was making his limbs feel heavy and sluggish. "This isn't over."

They were quiet, letting the current carry them. They'd bought themselves some time, but that was all.

 

A minute later, they were inside the dome. It was suddenly quieter, without the wind whistling in their ears, and low, artificial lighting gleamed from the river bank. They were coming up on a dock that extended into the water, and Bones paddled them toward it until Jim was able to grab onto the edge.

By the time they were able to pull themselves out of the water and take in their surroundings, Jim wasn't surprised to find Childress and two of his guards waiting for them on the dock, looking down at them grimly, weapons raised. Standing on the bank were a number of men and women that he didn't recognize. "These are the two," Childress was saying, sounding satisfied. "Ran off from the camp two weeks ago."

Jim tried to push himself up, say something intelligent, but he couldn't seem to catch his breath. He was shivering badly, and his muscles felt sluggish and heavy, as if he wasn't fully in control of them. Before he could really react, one of the guards was already kneeling over him, shackling his wrists behind his back as he lay panting and trembling on the dock. The other was busy tying Bones' hands. Bones looked furious… and defeated.

"Thanks for calling me in," Childress said. "I'll take it from here."

 

Leonard

"Get 'em on their feet," Leonard heard, and a second later felt himself grabbed roughly by the shoulders and jerked backward onto his knees.

In all the scenarios he'd had playing through his mind of what would happen when they finally made it into Alpheus, Leonard had never imagined they'd have mere seconds to get their story out. And he never thought they'd have to do it with Childress standing right there, pointing his phaser in their faces.

He expected Jim to be yelling out something about who they were and what Childress had done, but what he saw when he glanced over made his heart drop down to his boots. Jim looked flat-out exhausted, as if all of the adrenaline that had been keeping him going had drained out of him all at once. He was drenched from the river and shivering badly. He was moving his lips as if he was trying to say something, but Leonard was too far away to hear.

Damn it. Hypothermia, probably. Jim had been chilled from the rain even before they started out, and the long walk on that ankle had been an added stress on his system, to say nothing of their frantic jump into the river. In Jim's already-depleted state, the cold water must have been too much for him. He looked like he was slipping into shock. And his timing was about as bad as it could be, because if they didn't do something right now to stop this, it was all over. All their desperate efforts would have been for nothing.

He knew it was up to him to make the colonists listen. He had to say something quick and incisive that would convince them. This was it, their one chance.

But it was all happening too fast, and for the life of him, he couldn't come up with anything.

"Wait just a minute," he stalled, trying to get his brain to function faster. "You're making a mistake! We're not—"

"Keep your damn mouth shut, Davis," Childress burst out, drowning out his words in a furious outburst. "Everyone here knows exactly who you are. I've spent the last two weeks looking all over the woods for you and Richardson. I knew you'd show up here sooner or later. You're coming back with me now, and tomorrow morning I'm putting you on a transport straight back to Tantalus."

The hell you will. "My name is Leonard McCoy," he began heatedly. He saw two of the colonists exchange knowing looks, and realized that he'd just stepped into the trap Childress had set for him. The minute he used his real name, they had him pegged as a liar. "I'm a Starfleet physician, and you've been holding us against our will in that mining camp!"

Childress gave a cold laugh. "Save your lies for the judge. You'll spend the rest of your life in a secure facility, asshole. You just wasted your one chance at a decent work contract."

"Work contract!" Leonard sputtered. "Slave labor, you mean! Our ship was attacked—"

Childress spoke right over him, turning back to one of the colonists, a thickset man in his mid-forties, who was observing the proceedings with a grim look, keeping a hand phaser trained on Leonard. "Good thing you and your men saw 'em coming, Warren. I knew they'd turn up here eventually."

Warren nodded. "Well, you told us what to watch for. We've kept a pretty tight watch, and these two weren't exactly subtle. We saw them coming, plain as day." Despite himself, Leonard felt just a little bit insulted. Maybe his recon job wasn't as good as he'd thought it was.

"Good work, then. We'll be out of your hair in a minute or two."

"No!" Leonard began struggling against the guard holding him from behind, but his arms were pinned and he was pulled unceremoniously onto his feet. He could hear Jim, still down on the ground, breathing heavily. He was muttering something indistinct, but Leonard couldn't make it out. The guard was keeping one hand firmly on the back of Jim's head, pressing his face into the dock and effectively muffling him. "We're not from Tantalus, for God's sake, the mining operation is illegal, we're Starfleet cadets!"

Childress raised his phaser. "Shut up! One more word out of you, Davis, and I'll stun the both of you." He gestured to his men. "Haul those two over to the Rover and we'll—"

At that moment, Jim let out a full-throated howl of agony as the guard holding him jerked him to his feet. Leonard looked over to see Jim crumpled in on himself, groaning and gasping, his teeth buried in his lower lip. The guard shook him by the shoulders, snarling at him to stand straight, but Jim seemed completely unable to cooperate. His right leg was bent at the knee, holding his ankle off the ground, and he was listing to the side. In the dim artificial light, he looked sickly pale, almost grey, his lips tight with pain.

He's about to pass out, Leonard thought frantically.

It was enough to unfreeze the odd paralysis that had been holding his brain hostage, and the words began pouring out of him. "This man is injured and needs urgent medical attention!" he roared at the top of his lungs, ignoring Childress and focusing his gaze on the startled colonists standing on the bank. "He's hypothermic and dehydrated, and he's going into hypovolemic shock! He's got an aggravated ankle fracture and he can't stand up." Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Childress giving him a wary look. "Look at him! This can't wait. He needs a hospital, right now!"

"We'll take him to the clinic back at the camp," Childress said calmly. "You'll be there in a few minutes. There's no reason to treat him here."

"No, God damn it!" Leonard yelled, standing as straight as his captor would allow. "I'm Doctor Leonard McCoy, a trauma specialist, and I'm telling you that this man is in serious trouble!"

"You're a convicted murderer, is what you are, and a pathological liar! We'll get him to a real doctor back at the camp as soon as you two start cooperating. Now let's move out!"

"Ah, shit…" Jim gritted out, as the guard began dragging him forward toward Childress' vehicle, parked on the river bank. Leonard could see that he was trying his best to resist passively, making the guard support his full weight. "Wait, wait… we're Starfleet…"

"Move it, Richardson!" the guard snarled, struggling to keep Jim upright.

"I'm not Rich—" Jim let out a hoarse cry as the guard shifted him and his right leg impacted the ground. "Fucking hell, stop, stop… I'm Cadet… James Tiberius…"

"Careful with that leg, there," Childress told the guard, who was struggling to keep Jim upright.

Like you care, Leonard thought furiously.

"…Kirk, dammit, SC9…"

The man holding Leonard grabbed his arm and started dragging him along the dock toward the river bank. Leonard tried kicking backward with his legs, but the man seemed unmoved, just tightened his grip and pulled Leonard along harder, ignoring his angry protests. "I told you, he's suffering from hypothermia and he's going into shock! He needs fluids and he needs to be warmed up, not dragged along like a piece of meat!"

"That man clearly needs medical care." A middle-aged woman on the bank was looking at Jim in concern.

"We've got a fully equipped clinic and a doctor on call back at the camp, Governor Haskin, and that's good enough for him," Childress told her. "Our facility is secure, and we're used to dealing with prisoners. Don't worry, he's not dying, just a little banged up. He can wait until we get him back to the camp." Jim was still talking, but his words were inaudible above Childress' response—which, Leonard realized, was exactly the point. Whatever Jim was trying to say, Childress didn't want it to be heard.

"There's no clinic at the camp, damn it! Childress is lying! He's been holding us against our wills for slave labor!"

"Cadet S-second Class..." Jim gasped out weakly. He was half bent over and shaking, barely able to get enough breath to make his words audible even to Leonard, just a few meters away. He doubted that any of the colonists on the bank could hear him over the rush of the river. "S-service number SC9…" He looked up and locked eyes with Leonard.

Name, rank, service number… Leonard looked back out toward the river bank, at the men and women gathered there who were staring at him, some with looks of stony revulsion, others with fear.

"Listen to me, all of you!" he snapped out. "I'm Dr. Leonard McCoy, Starfleet Cadet Second Class, service number SM831-3840CER, captured from the starship Atlantis on Stardate 2257.197." He put all of his authority and remaining strength into his voice, using the tone that struck fear in the hearts of sloppy interns and rebellious patients. "This is Cadet Second Class James Kirk—"

"Cut the crap," Childress interrupted, raising his voice to be heard over Leonard's shouts, "Get 'em off the dock already, we need to move out!"

"…Cadet James Kirk," Leonard said, as forcefully as he could, "also of the Atlantis. We were captured on a training mission after our ship was attacked by Orion pirates. Childress has been using us at the mining camp as slave labor. There are over a hundred and thirty other workers there, all from captured ships! I demand that you contact Starfleet for us immediately!"

To his right, he could hear Jim, hoarse and breathless, wheezing out, "Cadet James Kirk… SC937…0176CEC… captured… the Atlantis… we're Starfleet…"

Childress shook his head in disgust and lifted his phaser to point directly at Leonard. "Stand aside," he told the guard holding Leonard's arm. "You asked for this, Davis, you lying bastard."

"No!" Leonard yelled, casting a pleading look at the men and women gathered on the river bank. A point-blank stun would leave them both helpless… and in Jim's case, a blast of focused energy was likely to send him into cardiac arrest.

"Hold your fire!" The woman Childress had called governor stepped forward. Everyone, including Childress, turned to look at her. She was frowning at Jim. "Did you say Kirk? Your name is James Kirk?"

Jim nodded. "Cadet Second Class… J-James T-Tiberius Kirk." He was shivering visibly, holding his head up with an effort, struggling to maintain eye contact with her.

The woman's eyes narrowed, as she stared at Jim. "There was something in the news packet a few months back," she said, looking carefully at Jim as if she was trying to remember something. "I remember it because the mother was interviewed. She'd lost her husband—he was the hero of the Kelvin incident—and then her son enlisted in Starfleet, but they lost contact with his ship…"

Leonard could see a muscle twitching in Jim's jaw. "My m-mom?" he said, his voice barely above a whisper. He glanced at Leonard, eyes wide with such an honest look of vulnerability and pain Leonard was sure that even the governor could see it.

"I've seen pictures of the father," one of the colonists said, shaking his head. "This kid doesn't look much like him."

"I don't know," someone else said doubtfully. "Maybe without the beard…"

"This is Harry Richardson," Childress said coolly. "Don't be fooled. He and his partner Donald Davis were convicted of a series of violent crimes on Deneva. Both of them are serving life sentences on Tantalus. They're back in my custody now, Governor, and I'm bringing them to my camp." He raised his weapon again, taking aim. Leonard stiffened and pulled back involuntarily.

"I said hold your fire!" the governor said again, taking a step forward toward Childress. Warren mirrored her movements. "As long as you are within the borders of this colony," she told Childress firmly, "you will respect my authority! Put your weapon down. I haven't made a decision yet."

Childress' eyes darkened. "There's no decision to be made here. These men are escaped convicts and it's taken me almost two weeks to track them down. Legally, I'm responsible for them."

"Wait a minute, Governor," one of the colonists interrupted, walking forward quickly until he reached the dock. "Someone was talking to me about the Atlantis, just the other day. It's true that the ship was lost in this sector, a few months ago. One of the new colonists had a relative who was lost. What was her name…"

"Fredericks," Leonard said quickly, almost in unison with Jim. There was a sudden, shocked silence. Leonard saw the Haskin and Warren exchange a quick look.

"It was Kathy Fredericks, wasn't it?" Leonard asked, grateful that the name popped up in his mind so quickly. "Her brother served with us. He told us she was settling here."

"Fredericks, that's right," the man said, looking at them both with a mixture of suspicion and surprise.

"He was in the camp with us too. He, uh..." Leonard paused, not wanting to reveal too much. "He was a lieutenant on the Atlantis," he finished awkwardly.

"There's no one named Fredericks in the camp," Childress said, sounding outraged. He turned back to the assembled colonists. Leonard could tell that some of them were beginning to question Childress, but others were still staring back at them stonily. "Can't you see, these two are manipulating you? They're deviants, convicted criminals from one of the highest-security penal colonies in the Federation. This punk isn't the son of a hero, he's a lowlife murderer. And for that matter, the disappearance of the Atlantis is no secret. It's public knowledge, and if these two got wind of it, that doesn't prove anything."

"The Atlantis didn't disappear, it was attacked by Orions," Leonard yelled. "You were there, Childress, you know that. You're nothing but a cold-blooded slaver. We're Starfleet cadets and we can prove it!"

"Shut up! Governor, it's late and we're all tired. I'm taking them back with me now, and if you've got a problem with that, I'll have someone from Tantalus contact you in the morning."

"Just let me make the call to Starfleet," Leonard said desperately, directing his words to Governor Haskin. "They'll confirm our story, Governor, I swear. I'll take any test you want to verify who we are. Retinal scan, DNA testing, fingerprints… Hell, I'll give you my mama's maiden name if it'll help, damn it, but let me talk to them!" He took a breath. "Please. And Cadet Kirk needs medical attention. Believe me, it can't wait."

"No…" Jim said, glaring at Leonard. "We s-stay together." His words were weak, almost slurred, and Leonard frowned at him. Even in the dim light, he could see that Jim was still shivering—moderate hypothermia, he thought, definitely—and his lips were almost colorless.

Jim's croaking insistence seemed to settle something in the governor's mind. "All right," she said slowly. "Warren, call in a medical team and escort this man to the clinic. See that he's given treatment but keep him under restraint with a guard. And I'll need a security team to go with us to the comm center."

Warren nodded and stepped aside. Leonard saw him speaking quickly into a wrist communicator, while Childress looked on, a furious expression on his face.

Well, fuck you, Leonard thought, feeling almost light-headed with relief. Jim was still shivering, looking as if he was holding onto consciousness with an effort, but Leonard could see that he'd relaxed a little.

"Officer Warren is the colony's chief of security," Haskin said, speaking directly to Leonard for the first time. She was unsmiling and stern, but he felt—or maybe it was just wishful thinking—that there was an underlying tone of concern. "You're both going to be kept under custody until we can confirm or disprove your story. Don't try anything foolish, young man. Alpheus isn't a military colony, but we'll protect ourselves if necessary."

"Ma'am," Leonard told her, with as much sincerity as he could, "the last thing we want to do is escape from here, trust me. We went to an awful lot of trouble to get in."

Leonard heard Jim give a pained, choked-off moan. The guard holding him had apparently decided he'd had enough of trying to hold him up, and pushed him down into a kneeling position. Leonard winced in sympathy. Jim was bent over nearly double and leaning to the left, trying to relieve the pressure on his fractured ankle. His chest was heaving in quick, shallow breaths. His deathly pallor was ringing warning bells in Leonard's mind, and the med team was still nowhere in sight.

"Governor Haskin," Leonard said quickly, "Cadet Kirk needs to lie down, right now. I'd lay odds that he's going into shock. His blood pressure is crashing." Haskin still looked undecided, and Leonard raised his voice. "For the love of God, get those restraints off him and let him lie down, please. He—"

"Shut your fucking trap, Davis!" Childress' voice was low and menacing.

"Stop calling me Davis, it's Dr. McCoy, you miserable sack of shit!" he growled. "I'm a certified trauma surgeon and a specialist in emergency medicine and critical care, and you're nothin' but a pathetic excuse for a human being who should be—"

"Quiet, both of you!" Warren yelled, stopping Leonard mid-tirade. "Security and med teams are on their way, Governor."

"Good," Haskin said. "Lie this man down on the dock, on his side. Leave the cuffs on for now. Whoever he is, he looks like he's going to pass out."

"'m not gonna pass out," Jim mumbled, sounding embarrassed. Childress' guard shoved him roughly onto his side, causing a grunt of discomfort. "Shit, don' push me!"

"Ma'am," Leonard said, "his legs should be elevated and he's got to be warmed up. Put a jacket on him, something…"

The governor was saved from responding by the arrival of the med transport, a low-altitude vehicle that maneuvered easily right up onto the dock near Jim, following Warren's directions and gestures. Two uniformed medics, a man and a woman, hopped out and knelt beside Jim. The man already had a scanner out, while the woman seemed to be doing a quick hands-on check: airway, breathing, and circulation.

"Core body temperature is down to 31.5 degrees," the male medic said, peering down at the scanner. "BP is 78 over 50 and falling."

"We need to get these wet clothes off him," the woman said. "And these restraints need to come off now." She glanced up at Warren and Haskin expectantly, and then turned back to Jim. "What is your name, sir? Can you tell me where we are?"

Warren shook his head. "It's not a good idea. He's an escaped criminal." In the background, Leonard could hear Jim, shivering and stuttering: Cadet J-James Kirk… Alpheus… Rigel T-Twelve…

"Governor, we can't treat him with his wrists bound like this," the female medic pressed. She was unfolding a portable stretcher with one hand. Her partner got up and began removing equipment from the med transport.

"Security team's here, Governor," Warren interrupted. Leonard looked up to see a second flitter, sleek and quiet, pulled up next to them on the dock.

"Take off the cuffs, Childress," Haskin said, as two security officers hopped out of the vehicle and moved quickly to Warren. "Warren, have your men keep a weapon trained on him. I don't want to take any chances."

Childress looked scandalized. "This is just a ruse. This man is dangerous. Besides, he's my prisoner. Leave 'em on."

Leonard gave Childress a withering look. "He's a Starfleet cadet suffering from dehydration, near-starvation, exposure, and hypothermia, you ass! He's got a displaced fracture of the lateral malleolus. D'ya think he's faking that?"

"…signs of severe electrolyte depletion and dehydration. He's in shock. And that guy was right… it's a displaced fracture of the lateral malleolus." The medic shot a puzzled glance at Leonard, and the governor's eyes narrowed.

"How did you know that?" she asked.

"I told you. I'm a trauma surgeon and a—"

"Oh, come off it!" Childress interrupted. "He's a smart guy and he has some paramedic training, Governor. He tried to pull that back at the camp, too. Treated one of the prisoners who was sick, and the man died right under his hands." He gave Leonard a cold, knowing look. "Don't try to deny that. You know it's true."

It hit him like a punch to the gut. "I had nothing to treat him with," he said softly. He could feel Haskin' eyes fixed on him, an unreadable expression on her face. "The man had an asthma attack during a dust storm. He couldn't breathe, and we had no medication. Childress locked us in the barracks and he suffocated. There was nothing I could do…"

Childress shook his head. "You're a lying piece of trash, Davis. You're coming back with me and you're never going to—"

"Enough," Haskin said with quiet authority. The hesitation she'd shown before was gone. "Childress, take off the cuffs, now."

Childress gave an exaggerated sigh. "Whatever you say, Governor." He took a small device out of his pocket, aimed it at Jim's wrists, and the handcuffs popped open.

"I don't think he's a danger to anybody in this condition," the male medic said, squatting back down beside Jim, a folded blanket and what looked like a leg brace in his arms. "He's only half-conscious."

"Use restraints if he starts becoming more alert." Haskin frowned. "Warren, I'd like a word with you in private."

Leonard watched as Jim's wet clothes were efficiently cut away and he was covered with a blanket. The ragged strips of orange cloth wrapped around his ankle were tossed aside and his leg was carefully stabilized. He had to restrain himself from criticizing their efforts—heated IV fluids, good, but he needs another damn blanket and where's the humidified oxygen?—while keeping one eye on the governor and her security officer.

After a minute, he noticed, Childress turned away and began speaking urgently into a wrist communicator. Probably giving the guards back at the camp a head's up that things are about to go ballistic, Leonard thought.

His heart skipped a beat as the implications hit him. For all that Childress was putting up a convincing show, with his accusations of Davis-and-Richardson, con-artists-slash-deranged-criminals, he must know that the tables were about to turn on him. The governor was going to contact Starfleet. His operation was about to be shut down. And like any cornered animal, he was twice as dangerous now… and unpredictable.

"Mr. Childress," Warren spoke up suddenly, "I'm going to have to ask you for your communicator, and your weapon. Same goes for your men."

"What?" Childress cried, echoed by protests from his two guards. Warren and his two security officers were already moving forward, patting down the men and taking their equipment. "Governor, you have no right to do this! I'm not the criminal here!"

"Then I expect you to cooperate. If this man is really a Tantalus inmate, you'll be released with our apologies for your inconvenience. If he's a Starfleet cadet like he claims… well," she said with a tight-lipped smile, "things will go differently."

Warren exchanged a few quick words with the two armed officers, then gestured to Leonard with his phaser. "Davis, you're coming with us. You too, Childress. Your men will stay here under guard."

"It's McCoy," Leonard said, but no one was paying any attention. He was pushed roughly forward, his hands still cuffed behind his back. His wet clothes clung to his skin and water was slowly dripping into his eyes from his still-wet hair. It annoyed him that he couldn't even straighten his clothes or wipe the water out of his eyes, but he held onto the thought that the situation was temporary. Just a few more minutes, and he'd be able to prove who he was. And Childress would be arrested

As he stepped past the medics, he looked down at Jim. He was being strapped onto the stretcher. There was an oxygen mask—finally—over his nose and mouth, and his eyes were half-closed. He didn't seem to notice that Leonard was standing over him and about to leave.

Leonard paused, and then said quietly, "He's allergic to penicillins, macrolides, and heptasporin antibiotics. And you should probably check for intestinal parasites and toxins. No telling what's gotten into his system from the things we've been eating." The male medic gave him a curious look, but nodded.

"Take good care of him," Leonard added, and followed Warren and the others to the river bank.

 

The flitter took them smoothly to the other end of the dome, stopping beside a modern, two-story building labeled Alpheus Government and Communications Center. It was still dark, but as they got out, Leonard could make out clean walkways and modern, low-lying buildings.

He felt completely out of place in this pristine, dust-free environment. Dripping wet, bearded and filthy, in his tattered black boxers and scruffy boots… It would be easy enough to believe that he was an escaped criminal. For that matter, it was tempting to think that the manicured paths and spotless buildings meant that the colonists were living some kind of optimal lifestyle. But they were blind to what was happening in their own backyard.

Inside, the building seemed mostly deserted, although Leonard could see a women seated at a desk near the entrance. "We'll be in my office, Matty," Haskin told her as they swept past. Leonard could feel the woman's eyes on him, curious and horrified and a little fearful.

He straightened his posture and walked with as much dignity as he could muster. Let the colonists stare at him and enjoy their little moment of superiority. He hoped that his boots were leaving mudprints all over their sparkling floor.

Leonard was led into a small, sparsely furnished room . It was some kind of waiting room, with a few chairs clustered around a small table. "Wait here," Governor Haskin told him. "You too, Childress. Warren, you come with me. We'll place a subspace call to Starbase Eleven. I know Commodore Moltese. He's the highest-ranking 'Fleet officer on the base."

Warren nodded. "I've met him, too." He looked at the security officer who'd accompanied them. "Schaeffer, stay here. Keep both of them under constant watch."

Leonard sat down awkwardly in one of the chairs, annoyed that he couldn't lean back, but his cuffed wrists forced him to lean forward slightly. His wet clothes slid unpleasantly on the plastic seat. It had been so long since he'd been able to sit in an honest-to-goodness chair, in an air-conditioned room without the constant whistle of wind in his ears, that the whole situation felt almost unreal.

The air was chilly, and he realized that he'd been shivering for quite a while. "Uh, could I get a blanket while I wait? Or a towel?"

"We don't have anything like that here." Haskin gave him an assessing look, not without pity. "But I can see that you weren't exactly dressed for a dip in the river. Computer, raise ambient temperature five degrees."

"Thank you," he murmured.

"We'll know in a few minutes if you are who you say you are," Haskin said, carefully avoiding calling him by name, he noticed.

"That's what I'm counting on, Ma'am," he said tiredly.

"No, that's what I'm counting on, Davis." Childress rolled his eyes, looking disgusted.

He's a good actor, Leonard thought. Almost too good. He must know that he was about to be exposed as a liar and a slaver, but he seemed cool and under control.

The governor turned on her heel and disappeared into her office, followed closely by Warren.

Leonard gave Childress a wary glance. He was standing stiffly against the wall, looking irritated and impatient. Schaeffer, the security officer, was watching them both impassively, his hand resting lightly on his holstered phaser.

He tried to relax. Childress won't try anything with the guard standing right there, he told himself reassuringly. It's over and he's lost.

"I'm beat," Childress said sourly. "These things always happen in the middle of the damn night, eh, Schaeffer?" The security officer gave him a noncommittal grunt.

"So, Davis, you had yourself a nice hiking trip, didn't you?" Childress gave him a taunting smirk. "Bet you're looking forward to a good night's sleep on a duraplast bed. Tonight you'll be sleeping in the barracks."

Leonard ignored him. He was still shivering, although the room seemed marginally warmer.

Now that he finally had a chance to rest for a minute, he was able to focus on his physical condition. He wasn't as bad off as Jim, but his muscles ached, and his stomach was churning. A wave of dizziness washed through him, and he let his eyes close for a minute.

God, I'm tired. And really, really hungry.

"You might not know it, but there was explosion in the mines just before you boys ran off," Childress said in a conversational tone.

Leonard's eyes snapped open. Childress was still leaning casually against the wall, but the look in his eyes was almost… feral. "Yeah," he said slowly. "I heard about it."

Childress nodded. "A collapse at one of the mine entrances. A couple of workers were pretty badly injured." Leonard said nothing, watching him guardedly. "We had to replace them. And Richardson ran off with you, so we needed somebody to fill in for him, too. I made some changes with the work assignments, switched things around. We put six new workers in the mines."

OhOh, no.

"Which six?" he asked, knowing the answer already.

"Well, you might know some of them. We took a few off the construction crews. That older guy, Andrews," Childress said, counting off on his fingers. "Collins. Cho. Aquino. An Indian guy, Raji something, and that Asian runt who was with you in the factory… can't remember his name. Yokita?"

"Yoshida," he said softly, feeling suddenly nauseous with guilt. All of the Atlantis men had been sent into the mines after they ran off, and it was all their fault, his and Jim's.

He remembered how Jim had come back from the mines those first few days, covered in dust, bent over with exhaustion from the backbreaking labor, half-deaf from the explosions. He couldn't imagine someone as fragile as Yoshi surviving in such an environment, especially not after two months in the camp, when he was already weak and thin.

"Mine work's dangerous, can't lie about that," Childress continued, as if he were telling an interesting anecdote. "Accidents happen all the time, workers get injured." He gave Leonard a direct, meaningful look. "All those explosives… I sure wouldn't want anything to happen to your friends."

He could feel his heart rate skyrocketing, and when he spoke, there was a tremor in his voice that he couldn't stop. "It's over, Childress. You're finished. They're going to arrest you in about five minutes and there's nothing you can do to stop that."

"Oh, I don't know about that. I had a talk with my men while I was standing there on the dock, watching you and Richardson pull your little Starfleet stunt."

"They took away your communicator," Leonard said, hearing the note of uncertainty in his own voice. "You didn't have time to plan anything."

"I didn't have to plan anything," Childress said, glancing briefly at the security officer, who was following their conversation with a look of confusion on his face. "I just told them I was delayed and they should follow my standing orders for that kind of situation." There was something sinister in the way he emphasized the words. "They're well-trained. If they don't hear from me within two hours, they know exactly what to do."

Leonard gaped at him. "You wouldn't…" His voice trailed off, as he realized that he really didn't know what Childress would or wouldn't do.

"I need this contract," Childress said. "And I'll do what it takes to protect it. But like I said… accidents happen."

"What do you want?" he asked helplessly.

"I want you to tell them who you really are, Davis," he said pointedly. "Tell them that you're a liar. You're not a Starfleet cadet, you're Donald Davis and you're an escaped convict from Tantalus. Tell them that, and come back with me where you belong."

And if you don't, I'll have your shipmates killed, was the unspoken message

"No," he whispered, appalled.

"You shouldn't have left your friends behind."

Leonard stared back at Childress' cold, unsmiling face, feeling like the walls were suddenly closing in on him. He looked instinctively up at the security officer, but the man seemed unconcerned. Childress hadn't made a threatening move, and he'd phrased his words carefully enough that an outsider might not understand. But the implied threat was crystal clear to Leonard, and he didn't think Childress was bluffing.

The door opened suddenly, and Warren was there, gesturing at him with his phaser. "We're ready," he said to Leonard. "Schaeffer, Childress stays here with you."

 

Leonard stood on unsteady legs, his thoughts jumbled and frantic. He crossed the threshold into the large inner office, where Haskin was waiting beside a console with a large screen, blank except for the Starfleet insignia.

He sat down numbly in the chair facing the screen, trying desperately to think. If he allowed himself to be identified as missing-in-action Starfleet Cadet Leonard McCoy, Childress would be arrested… and back at the camp, the other Atlantis men would be killed. It would be dawn in another hour or so; in two hours, the workers would be in the mines. It would be easy enough for the guards to arrange an explosion that looked like an accident.

He couldn't let that happen. He was a doctor, sworn to save lives, not take them away.

There was another option. He could do what Childress wanted, say that he was Donald Davis, escaped convict. He'd be taken back to the camp… or, more likely, killed somewhere along the way.

It was an impossible, inescapable dilemma, and there was no time to decide, no time to protest.

Jim would know what to do, he thought. Surely there must be a secret Starfleet code that Jim had learned in one of his tactics classes, something along the lines of I'm-being-forced-to-lie, ignore-what-I'm-about-to-say-and-send-in-the-troops. Jim would do something calm and brilliant and utterly unexpected, and there would be a happy ending to this horrible tale. But Jim was unconscious, and he had to make the decision for both of them.

How could he face Jim and tell him that he'd blown their one and only chance to contact Starfleet? The scene flashed through his mind: Jim would wake up, strapped to a biobed in some unfamiliar clinic, revived and warmed up… only to be told that he was being sent back with Childress. The thought gutted him. Jim would never forgive him. The only comfort he could find was that he wouldn't have to live with it for very long, since they'd both probably be killed before they ever got back to the camp.

I can't be responsible for the deaths of six innocent men. Not even to save myself.

God help me, not even to save Jim.

"Look directly at the screen," Haskin told him.

"Retina scan in process," a pleasant computerized voice informed him. A magnified image of his eye appeared onscreen. He watched as the unique pattern of retinal capillaries was mapped out and processed. "Identify yourself," the computer prompted.

When Leonard said nothing, paralyzed with helpless indecision, Warren took a step forward. "Speak up. State your name and rank."

"D-Davis," Leonard stammered. "Donald Davis." Please, Jim, don't hate me.

Haskin gave him a look of incredulity. "What?"

"Repeat identification," the computerized voice said, as if it hadn't heard right.

"Donald Davis," Leonard said, more firmly this time. "From the Tantalus Penal Colony."

"You're not a doctor?"

"I was lying, Ma'am," he said quietly. A tremor ran through him, and he clasped his cuffed hands together behind his back to steady himself. "I, uh… I'm sorry. I'm not a Starfleet cadet."

"I don't understand," she said angrily. "What were you trying to accomplish? You asked us to contact Starfleet…"

"He's a criminal," Warren told her, shaking his head in disgust. "And a liar. Maybe he thought it'd be fun to see if we'd believe him."

"That's not it," Leonard said heavily, letting his shoulders slump forward. He couldn't look them in the eye. God, let this nightmare just be over already. "I was just trying to stall. But I have a responsibility to my friends at the camp. I can't… I mean, I have to go back."

Haskin exchanged an angry look with Warren, and then shrugged. "I'll admit, you almost had me fooled, Davis," she said. "We're not used to dealing with people like you here. I guess I'm still a little naïve."

Warren was eyeing him as if he were a piece of trash. "You've got a responsibility to your fellow inmates, do you? That's heart-warming, it really is. This has been a waste of time, Governor, so I'll just take Davis back to Childress and give him back his communicator and his phaser. If Richardson's come around, I'll send them all on their way, and we can—"

The slightly-unfocused image of an olive-skinned, bearded man in a charcoal grey uniform suddenly filled the screen. "Cadet McCoy!" he said sternly. Leonard straightened involuntarily at the tone of authority, looking up to meet the commander's eyes. "I was going to say welcome home, son, but right now I'd like to know—what the devil is going on there?"

Leonard swallowed. "Sir?" he asked. Haskin's eyes were wide.

"Well, are you McCoy, or aren't you?"

"Uh…" He sighed, but at this point there was no point in continuing the lie. "Yes, sir. Doctor Leonard McCoy, Cadet Second Class, service number SM831—"

"I don't understand," Haskin interrupted. "Commodore Moltese, this man identified himself as Donald Davis. He's an escaped convict from the Tantalus Penal Colony."

"No, he's not," Moltese said, never taking his uncompromising gave off Leonard. "I don't care what he told you. Retinal scans are unique, Governor. He is our missing cadet. The voiceprint ID was authenticated as well, but indicated high levels of stress and anxiety."

"You were lying?" she asked Leonard, looking outraged. "Why would you throw away your chance at freedom?"

"It's not that simple…" he began. In fact, it seemed overwhelmingly complicated to explain.

Moltese was watching him with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. "What the hell are you doing on Rigel, McCoy, and where's the rest of the Atlantis crew?"

"Sir," Leonard said quickly, "I'll explain all that in just a minute, but…" He turned to Haskin. "Governor, I have six shipmates back at the camp. Childress put them to work in the mines after we escaped to punish them. If I don't go back to the camp with him now, he told me that he'll have them killed. He says he's already given the order to his men, and I believe him." Haskin's eyes widened in understanding.

"Who the hell is Childress?" Moltese asked, leaning forward. "And are these men from the Atlantis?"

"He's the contractor building the other controlled-environment domes for the colony," Haskin told him. "He's got a camp of laborers from Tantalus Penal Colony… or at least, that's what he told us. He's waiting in my outer office. Warren, I need you to-"

"I'm on it," he told her, heading toward the door, phaser raised.

"Wait!" Leonard yelled, and Warren stopped in his tracks. "Childress told me that if he doesn't contact his men within two hours, they'll carry out his orders. You can't arrest him. Please, maybe you could just… I don't know, delay him somehow, tell him you believe him, that I'm not a Starfleet cadet… Give him his communicator so he can rescind the order!"

"No," Warren said. "If what you're saying is true, he's the real criminal here, and I want him in custody."

"I agree. Arrest him," Moltese ordered. "At the very least, he's threatened Starfleet personnel with death or bodily harm." Warren nodded and left.

"But sir," Leonard protested, "the other men…"

"McCoy, which of your shipmates is at this camp?" Moltese asked.

"Lieutenant Commander John Andrews," Leonard began. "Lieutenant Martin Cho. Lieutenant Raji Sengupta. Ensign Jorge Aquino. Lieutenant Randall Collins." He flinched at the sound of a phaser whine from the other side of the door. "Uh… and Ensign Akira Yoshida."

Haskin touched an intercom switch on her desk. "Warren, what's going on there?"

"Is that all?" the commodore pressed. "Only seven of you?"

"There were nine of us at first." Leonard tried to focus. His heart seemed to be fluttering in his chest, pounding fiercely. "Lieutenant Tom Fredericks died in the camp after an asthma attack, about two months ago. And Cadet James Kirk—"

The door opened suddenly, and Warren was there, red-faced and disheveled. "Everything's under control now, Governor. Childress tried to resist arrest and I had to stun him. The other two are already detained."

"What about Kirk?" Moltese rapped out from the screen. "McCoy, eyes front!"

"Sorry, sir." He turned back around to face Moltese. "Cadet Kirk is here with me, in Alpheus. He's the reason we escaped and stayed alive out there. He's in the clinic right now… he was injured, and he went into shock…"

"I'll check on his condition," Haskin said, raising her communicator. "Warren, get those cuffs off Dr. McCoy. This is unbelievable… Six Starfleet officers in that camp, I can't believe it," she murmured, shaking her head. "It must have been horrifying, being thrown in with dangerous criminals. I'm so sorry."

"What? We weren't… That's not what I'm saying," Leonard stammered. "You don't understand."

"Where's the rest of the Atlantis crew?" Moltese asked. "And you haven't told me what you're doing on Rigel Twelve in the first place."

"I don't know where the others were taken," he told the commodore, wishing that the two of them would stop talking and just let him explain. "After the ship was attacked, Childress made some kind of deal with the Orions for the nine of us to work in his mining camp…"

"Orions? What are you talking about?" Moltese seemed to be losing patience. "Cadet McCoy, I realize that you've been through some sort of ordeal, but pull yourself together and make a clear report!"

Stop making an ass of yourself. It wasn't like him to give into nerves, and as a trauma physician, he was used to reporting and assimilating complex information quickly.

He felt another tremor run through him. He was cold and still sitting in his wet clothes. He was probably mildly hypothermic himself, not to mention hypoglycemic and malnourished. Maybe he should ask for a cup of tea, to warm him up and help him get his thoughts together… although, he realized, he wouldn't be able to drink it because his hands were still cuffed.

As if on cue, he heard a faint click, and his wrists were suddenly released. He looked up to see Warren holding the small device Childress had used earlier to unlock Jim's restraints.

"Thank you," he said, grateful to be able to bring his hands forward and lean back against the seat. He folded his arms across his body, trying to warm them up, and took a deep breath. "Let me start from the beginning, sir, and I'll try to make it clearer."

"We just pulled Dr. McCoy and the other cadet out of the river," Haskin added, her face pinched. "I think he's in need of medical treatment himself."

Moltese's expression softened, and he nodded encouragingly. "Go ahead, son. I'm waiting."

Go back to the beginning, he thought. "The Atlantis detonated an ion mine while we were on route to Starbase Eleven. It crippled the ship, and then we were ambushed by Orion pirates. They boarded us and beamed thirty-four of us onto the Orion ship. Then Childress came onboard. He had some kind of pre-arranged deal with the Orions, and nine of us were transferred to his own ship. I don't know what happened to the others… but we never saw them again. Childress told the nine of us that we were going to work for him for three years in his mining operation and then we'd be paid and sent on our way. But it was slavery, sir, plain and simple."

He knew he must be leaving out crucial information, but to his relief, Moltese let him continue without interruption. "There are over a hundred and thirty prisoners in that camp. Every single one of them is there against his will, taken off a captured ship. There were men from the Aries, the Normandy, the Corona, the Eagle, and more… mostly human, but some Risians, Denobulans… Some of them have been there for almost three years in deplorable conditions."

Leonard heard Haskin draw in a breath sharply. He glanced at her; she looked shocked. "We were under constant guard, but eleven days ago Cadet Kirk saw an opportunity to make an escape, and he took me with him. We had no choice but to leave the others behind while we tried to find our way to Alpheus and contact Starfleet. But the ones we left behind… they're all in danger right now. Commodore, you've got to do something. Childress has already put some sort of plan in motion and we don't have much time."

"All right, Mr. McCoy," Moltese said, holding up a hand. "That's enough for me for now. Don't worry, we'll get those men out. Stand by, Governor. I need to make some calls." The screen switched back to the Starfleet insignia, and Leonard wiped a shaky hand across his forehead.

"I'm so sorry," Haskin said quietly. She looked stricken. "We had no idea what was going on in the camp, believe me. We thought the workers were Tantalus prisoners. That's what Childress said, and the only workers we saw were wearing those jumpsuits…"

She looked so honestly remorseful that he pushed aside his resentment and said only, "Appearances can be deceiving, Governor. I'm sure you realize that now."

She nodded sadly. "We've had a few cases of workers running away over the years, you know. Childress usually warns us ahead of time, and if one of his workers makes it here, we just call him and he takes them back. You're the first ones who've actually made it into the colony, though, the first ones we've spoken to." She looked at him curiously. "None of the others thought to come in through the river. The dome is very secure, and the river's really the only way in. Did the others tell you that?"

"What others?"

"The other workers who escaped and were sent back to the camp."

Leonard gave her a dark look. "Nobody ever came back. How many other workers made it to the dome?"

"Five," she answered, her voice hollow. "The last one was about three months ago… Are you telling me that no one ever returned?" Leonard shook his head, and she put a hand to her mouth. "Oh, God, Childress must have…" She didn't need to complete the sentence. "We almost sent the two of you back with him as well…"

Warren looked almost as horrified. "I speak to Childress a few times a week, even been down to the camp a few times. Nothing ever looked out of the ordinary. The workers looked pretty rough, a little thin, but I just thought that was because of the hard labor."

Leonard snorted. "A little rough? Did you ever take a look at the barracks, or ask what kind of medical treatment was available? Did you ever wonder how we survived the dust storms without an air-conditioned dome over our heads?"

"No, I never did," Warren said, meeting his eyes evenly, "so I guess I'm accountable for that. But I'm responsible for security within the colony, and Childress was running a private operation."

Leonard sighed. Warren was a convenient target, but he really wasn't to blame for what was happening within the camp. Or at least, not for most of it. At the same time, it wasn't up to him to absolve them. If they were feeling ashamed of their part in this fiasco, they'd have to deal with their own consciences.

"I know it's not much," the governor added, "but we've got a small security force here, and we'll do whatever we can to help."

Too little, too late.

"Well, that's something, then," Leonard said grudgingly

"You must be exhausted," Haskin said, looking at him critically. "When was the last time you had a decent meal? And you're shivering. You should probably be in the clinic with your friend, Doctor."

"I just need a little something to eat and a good night's sleep," he said with a tired shrug. "I'd like to look in on Jim, though, as soon as we're finished here."

The Commodore was back onscreen. "All right, Governor. There's a ship in your sector, the Vanguard, and I've just spoken with Captain Barnes. They're on their way, maximum warp, and they'll be there within an hour. And we're lucky: it's a light cruiser, which means it's armed and there's a full security complement. We'll need to draw up a plan, and we'll have to do it fast. I want this camp secured, and I'm taking my men out of there."

Haskin nodded. "This is Tyler Warren, our security officer. He can provide you with information about the camp, and our security team is at your disposal."

"I appreciate your cooperation, Governor."

Moltese turned back to Leonard. "Mr. McCoy, we'll take it from here. You did well, son, and you can rest now. Go see to your own needs. We'll talk again after the rest of the men are safe."

Leonard nodded and pushed himself onto his feet. "Yes, sir." He swayed slightly, and gripped the edge of the desk to steady himself.

"One more thing," Moltese said. "Let me say this again, properly. Starfleet welcomes you back, Cadet McCoy. From the little I've heard, it seems that you've shown tremendous courage and determination in order to escape the camp and make it to Alpheus, and your loyalty to your shipmates is… well, it's impressive. I'm grateful. Don't worry, we're going to do everything possible to rescue your friends, and we'll have you home as soon as possible."

Leonard blinked quickly and swallowed. "Thank you, sir."

Home. It had been months since he'd allowed himself even to think the word, in the privacy of his mind.

He shoved the emotion down before it overwhelmed him. It was time to check on Jim.

 

The clinic was small, just four biobeds and two adjacent treatment rooms, and Jim was currently the only occupant. He was covered by a heated blanket, with just his wrists and feet peeking out. He seemed to be stirring awake as Leonard walked in behind Haskin, and, from the scowl on his face, he wasn't pleased. The reason was immediately apparent. He was tugging irritably at the restraints in place on his wrists and his left foot. An osteostim unit was fixed on his right ankle, and an IV catheter was strapped to the back of his right hand. A young man—presumably the doctor—was scanning the ankle as they approached, attended by the female medic who'd been working on Jim at the dock.

"Don' need to be strapped down," Jim was complaining to the doctor, his voice muffled by the oxygen mask strapped over his mouth and nose. "Not gonna run anywhere."

"Sir, I'm sorry, but these are for security purposes."

"You can release him, Ben," Haskin said, striding toward Jim's bed. "We've confirmed their story with Starfleet. This is Cadet James Kirk."

"Bet y'r ass it is," Jim slurred, and Leonard grinned. Jim was still flying high on whatever they'd given him. He glanced quickly at the biostats on the monitor above the bed. Core temperature was up to 34.3, BP and respirations were normalizing, and cardiac rhythms were stable.

"Guess you're feeling better, huh, Jim?" he asked.

Jim blinked and focused on him. "Bones, y'look like shit." The doctor, busy releasing the restraints, raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Haskin looked mildly amused.

"I haven't been lying around in bed like you, kid."

Jim lifted his just-freed hand to push the oxygen mask away, making a face of distaste. "C'n breathe just fine."

Leonard yanked his hand back down before the doctor could react. "Stop that! It's helping to warm you up, so lie there quietly and breathe it in."

The doctor fixed Leonard with a pointed stare. "I'm Doctor Craig. You must be the other escaped prisoner."

"I'm not a prisoner, damn it, and neither is he," Leonard said, annoyed. "I'm Dr. Leonard McCoy, a Starfleet physician and yes, we escaped from that hellhole of a mining camp. Let me see Jim's chart."

"Have a seat over here, then, Dr. McCoy," Craig said, gesturing to the adjacent bed. "I'd like to look you over as well."

Another wave of dizziness passed through him, and he grabbed the edge of Jim's biobed surreptitiously. "In a minute. I want to see the ankle scans first."

"I need to get back to my office," Haskin said, already heading toward the door. "I'll let you know what's happening at the camp as soon as I can."

"What's she mean, at the camp?" Jim asked, his face pinched in confusion, struggling to sit up. The medic immediately put a restraining hand on his shoulders, keeping him prone. "Where's Childr'ss? Did you contact Starfleet?"

"Relax, Jim," he said. "Lie back down. The cavalry's on its way. I talked to Commodore Moltese at Starbase Eleven." There was no point in informing Jim of Childress' threats and the impending rescue operation, not when he was still recuperating. There was nothing he could do right now anyway, besides wait. This fight was out of their hands.

"Dr. McCoy, you need to get out of those wet clothes," Craig said. He was taking readings off a hand scanner and frowning. "Your biostats are pretty underwhelming, to say the least."

After a significant amount of arguing and mutual glaring, Leonard wound up on the biobed in a hospital gown, warmed IV fluids dripping into a vein on the back of his hand… and Jim's chart in his hand. He surrendered the chart after giving his grudging approval to Jim's treatment so far—the ankle realignment looked good, intravascular volume and urinary output were gradually increasing, his electrolytes were being monitored—and reluctantly turned his attention to back to Craig.

"You're not in much better shape than your friend," Craig told him, shaking his head. "Discounting the ankle, of course. You're mildly hypothermic, but what concerns me more is that you're dangerously dehydrated. Have you been feeling any dizziness? Weakness or fatigue?"

Leonard sighed. "Of course I've been feeling weak and dizzy. I just spent the last eleven days hiking in the wilderness, eating worms and insects, and breathing in more dust than air."

"The dizziness might just be from the hypoglycemia, but your electrolytes are severely diminished, which is causing some cardiac irregularities that we'll need to monitor."

"Lovely," he grumbled.

"What exactly have the two of you been eating?" Craig asked, lips pursed. "There's evidence of some alien enzymes in Mr. Kirk's bloodstream and digestive system, and, I'm guessing, yours as well."

"Trust me, you don't wanna know. Really." Craig folded his arms over his chest and looked at him expectantly, until Leonard let out a breath in exasperation. "I don't even know what they're called. Insects, mostly. Bugs and scorpions. The occasional river worm. Nasty things, all of 'em."

Craig smiled sympathetically. "Well, they kept you alive, and I suppose they were a good source of protein. But there are some signs of gastrointestinal irritation, and I'm going to have to run some tests before we allow you solid foods." Leonard scowled, although he hadn't really expected anything different. "You've got a few other minor injuries—scratches and bruises, mostly, and some patches of sunburn—but all in all, you'll be fine, once we get you rehydrated and warmed up."

"I want to keep an eye on Jim," he said, glancing over at other biobed, but Jim had slipped back into sleep. "And I'm waiting to hear from the governor. There's a rescue operation in progress back at the mining camp."

"Get some rest, Dr. McCoy. Your friend's not going anywhere for the time being, and neither are you. Someone will wake you if Governor Haskin comes back."

He could feel himself relaxing, and he wondered whether Craig had slipped him something in the IV. The thin biobed mattress felt deliciously soft, the blanket was warm, and the pillow under his head seemed like a decadent luxury.

It wouldn't kill him to sleep for an hour or so, he decided.

 

When he woke up, Jim was lying on his side facing him, his bad ankle propped on a pillow. He was still covered with a warming blanket, but the oxygen mask was gone. "Bones," he was calling softly. "Wake up already. Bones."

"Jim. Shut the fuck up." He kept his eyes closed, hoping Jim would get the message. His muscles seemed to have melted into the mattress, and he was more comfortable than he'd been in months, warm and relaxed.

"Bones, don't try pretending you're asleep," Jim said more sharply. "Rise and shine. Morning's here."

"Morning…" he repeated, then pushed himself up into a sitting position. "What time is it?"

Jim shrugged. "I don't know exactly… What does it matter? It's light."

Morning. Damn it. He was suddenly, instantly alert, his mind racing with unanswered questions. Were the others still alive, back at the camp? Had the Vanguard arrived, and had they managed to rescue anyone? "Has the governor been back here?"

Jim shook his head. "Just that doctor, Craig. His bedside manner's even worse than yours, Bones. He keeps jabbing me with hypos and then tells me to go back to sleep."

"Probably just didn't need you jabberin' in his ear all night," he told Jim, but his heart wasn't in the teasing. Haskin had promised to let him know what was happening as soon as possible, and if she was delayed… that wasn't good.

"Fill me in, Bones," Jim said quietly. "Something's up. You're jumpy and worried about something."

Leonard sighed. Jim needed to know, but he hated to be the one to tell him. "Childress didn't go quietly."

"I figured as much… What happened after the medics got there?"

"You passed out," Leonard told him, and Jim's cheeks reddened. "Not exactly your finest moment, kid."

Jim waved an arm in a gesture of what-can-I-say, heedless of the IV line snaking out of the back of his hand. "It was your idea to take a dip in the river. Not my fault it turned me into a fucking ice cube."

He was genuinely embarrassed, Leonard realized, and he dropped the teasing tone. "You were hypothermic and you went into shock, Jim. I'm not blaming you."

Jim grimaced. "Just can't believe I missed the big moment. I'd have killed to see Childress' face when they arrested him. They did arrest him, didn't they?"

Leonard nodded. "Yeah, I spoke to the commodore on Starbase Eleven, and Childress is in custody. But there's something else you need to know."

When Leonard finished explaining, Jim didn't say anything. The clinic was quiet except for the almost-inaudible beeping of their monitors. A nurse was sitting at a desk on the other side of the clinic, making notes in a PADD.

Leonard sighed. "Say something, Jim."

A muscle twitched in Jim's jaw, and his voice was tight. "Childress is an evil son of a bitch, Bones, but he was probably bluffing."

"You don't know that," he said defensively. "I couldn't know that."

Jim shook his head. "What would he stand to gain by killing off his workers? He's a businessman. He was desperate, and maybe he thought he could convince you to come back with him somehow, but I don't really think he'd just kill the other guys."

"You weren't there. He seemed so cold, so confident. From what I could see, the man's a textbook psychopath. Amoral, sets his own rules, no empathy, manipulative… there's no telling what he might do. He said he'd put the others in the mines—God, Jim, can you see Yoshida hauling rocks?—and you know as well as I do that there are plenty of explosives there. He said he'd make it look like an accident."

"So you told Starfleet you were lying." Jim sounded disgusted. "You said your name was Donald fucking Davis."

"Yes." He looked away, wishing fervently that the nurse would notice his stress levels increasing and come over to investigate. Anything to interrupt this conversation.

"You'd have gone back with him." It wasn't a question. Jim's mouth was set in a hard line. "After all we'd been through. You'd have tossed it all away and gone right back to the camp with Childress."

"I can't choose to save myself at the expense of an innocent life, Jim," he said quietly.

"What the fuck, Bones, you should have told the fucking truth and let Starfleet handle it!"

"I had to make a decision," Leonard hissed. "And anyway, that's what happened in the end, because the retinal scan ID'd me and they arrested Childress anyway."

"But that's beside the point," Jim said, chin jutting out stubbornly. "What would have happened if they hadn't done the scan, Bones? If you'd claimed to be Davis two seconds earlier, they wouldn't have scanned you and you'd be back at the camp right now."

"I know, Jim. What do you want from me? Of course I understand that!"

"You'd have sent us both back," Jim said, his voice hollow. "Holy shit, Bones. You know he'd have killed us, right?"

"The thought crossed my mind."

"Well, where's your fucking sense of self-preservation, then?" he snapped, glaring at Leonard furiously. "Childress isn't a psychopath, he's a goddamn bully, that's all, Bones! Warren took away his communicator and his phaser, he was powerless and about to be squashed flat, and you just gave in, damn it! Why didn't you start yelling bloody murder in front of the security guard, who heard the whole thing? Or tell the governor what he said?"

"I did."

"Only after that commodore practically forced you to admit who you were, Bones!" Jim's voice cracked, tight with emotion. "Did you ever stop to think that maybe there was another way out of the mess? We're the only hope any of those men have of getting out of that camp alive, Bones, don't you realize that?"

"You weren't there, kid!" His fists were clenched in frustration. Jim was right and he knew it; it had been a colossal mistake. He'd been saved from throwing his life away—and Jim's—at the last minute, and in retrospect, he'd been hopelessly foolish. "Look, I had about two seconds to decide what to do. I was tired and dizzy and maybe I wasn't thinking straight… I didn't know what else to say."

Jim was silent, and finally let out a harsh laugh. "Next time we get captured and escape and have to contact Starfleet, I'm the one making the call."

"Well, be my fucking guest," he said bitterly.

"Bones," Jim sighed, "I know you meant well. You've got more courage than I do, because if the situation were reversed, there's no way in hell I'd have considered going back with Childress, even if I knew I was putting the others in danger."

"I'm a naïve fool, is what you're saying."

"No, that's not it. You're a good man, and you're just not used to thinking like Childress, that's all. It's not your fault."

"I can't change who I am. I'm just not cut out to handle a situation like this, I guess."

Jim paused, then finally met his eyes. "Bones, you're a lot stronger than you think you are. I don't buy that 'I'm just a doctor who likes a soft mattress' bullshit you love to toss around. I mean, you're a tree-climbing, river-jumping, scorpion-eating badass when you have to be."

Leonard smiled, slightly mollified. "Given the choice, I'd rather not do any of that."

"That's not the point. When you decide to do something, there's no stopping you."

"I could say that about you, kid."

Jim shrugged. "Childress was trying to intimidate you. I've met a lot of bullies in my life, and I know a thing or two about them. They love to threaten people, and sometimes," he paused, "sometimes they can really hurt you, but you can't forget that they're cowards at heart and they're used to getting their own way without trying too hard. They don't have the guts to really stand up and fight. That's why they're so good at threatening and manipulating people. But if you stand up to them, you can beat them."

Leonard nodded. "I'll try to remember that."

Neither of them spoke for a moment, and then Jim said quietly, "It'll be all right, Bones. They're going to crumple like paper soldiers."

 

It was another hour before Governor Haskin came to the clinic. Leonard wasn't surprised to see Warren at her side, both of them looking red-eyed and tired. Warren's clothes and hair were sprinkled with a light covering of dust, and he had a bruise high on one cheekbone. But they looked satisfied, and Leonard relaxed.

"It's over," Haskin announced. Leonard saw Jim make a quick fist pump, and grinned. "The Vanguard did the hard work at the camp, with a few well-placed torpedoes and phaser strikes. Once Childress' men saw what they were up against, the guards didn't even put up much of a fight." Jim gave Bones a significant look.

"What about our shipmates?" Leonard asked quickly.

"All safe on the Vanguard now… but it was close," Warren said. "Childress apparently gave the order to evacuate when he contacted his men. They'd gathered the workers together and were getting ready to transport them all to their ship, in orbit over Rigel."

"The Vanguard disabled the ship and we managed to get them all out safely," Haskin continued. "One hundred and thirty-two men. The Vanguard will be a little crowded for now, but it's a short hop to Starbase Eleven."

Jim nodded. "That's good news, but… what about Childress?"

"That's what took us so long," Haskin said, her smile fading. "He disappeared from our detention center about an hour after we placed him there. We knew he wasn't here anymore, because we have pretty sophisticated sensors built into the dome, and his bioprint wasn't showing up anywhere in the colony. Then we thought he might have smuggled himself out somehow and was hiding at the camp. Our security force had to do a building-to-building search…"

Warren nodded. "Nothing we couldn't handle, for the most part."

"In the end, it turned out that he had himself fitted with a transponder chip and beamed up to his ship."

"He was planning to make a run for it." Jim looked disgusted, but unsurprised. "I knew it. He left his men to stay and fight, and he was going to save his own skin by taking the workers and running off."

"Well, he didn't get very far. He's on the brig of the Vanguard, and they'll turn him over to the Federation Justice System at Starbase Eleven."

"It's all over, then?" Leonard asked. "Really?" It seemed almost too easy.

"Well, I might be glossing over some of the hairier parts." Haskin laughed, although her eyes were somber. "But yes, as far as you're concerned, it's over. Childress is in custody, the camp's been shut down, and all of you are going home."

Leonard blew out a long breath of relief.

"Bones… my mom," Jim blurted. He looked at Leonard and swallowed nervously. "She thinks I'm… I, uh, have to call her…"

The governor put a hand on Jim's arm, and when he blinked up at her, some of his frantic anxiety seemed to lessen. She was about his mother's age, Leonard thought. "Commodore Moltese has already contacted your relatives, from what I understand. But I'd imagine you'll be able to comm them from the Starbase." Jim nodded.

"And," she added, "your friends from the Atlantis have been asking about you."

"Please, tell me that you didn't say I passed out on the dock." Jim looked up at Haskin pleadingly, and Leonard laughed.

"If she didn't say it, I will," he told Jim. "For God's sake, Jim, stop being such a vain jackass."

Jim shot him a venomous glance. "Say one word, and the Donald Davis incident's going to be all over Starbase Eleven."

"I'm sure you have a fascinating story to tell," Haskin said quickly, exchanging a wry look with Warren, "but I'm afraid we won't have time to hear it. We have a lot of work ahead of us after last night… and the two of you need to be transported over to the Vanguard."

"I'm ready to leave now." Jim sat up a little straighter on the bed, poking at the osteostim equipment that was fixed to his ankle. "Maybe I can take this thing off…?"

"Don't touch it," Leonard said, giving Jim a look of exasperation. "You're worse than a two-year-old. We'll go when it finishes this cycle."

"Good luck to you both, then, gentlemen," Haskin said, and walked out, Warren following closely behind.

They were quiet for a minute. Leonard stretched, and then hopped down from the biobed. No dizziness, but his muscles were stiff and sore. And he was definitely ready for a good meal.

He glanced over Jim's stats on the biomonitor. Nothing unexpected there, either. Jim would probably need a brace on the ankle for a week or two, but all in all, they'd both made it through their ordeal in relatively good shape.

"It'll be good to see the others," Jim said finally. "Even Collins and Cho."

"I'd like to see Yoshi," Bones agreed. "And all of them, really. They've been working in the mines, you know."

"It's just…" Jim was frowning, his brow furrowed. "I'm sure they'll have lots of questions, you know, and we'll have to explain everything that happened. Maybe we should have waited, tried to get more of our people out, you know? It all happened so fast. I've been kind of wondering if Andrews is pissed that we just ran off like that, with no warning…"

He wondered if Jim had been worrying about this all along, or if he was suddenly getting cold feet at the idea that he'd have to make a full report of everything they'd done. Jim seemed unaware of how heroic his part in all of this had been. He knew, beyond a doubt, that if it weren't for Jim's courage, his determination, and his ability to make on-the-spot decisions—to steal the explosive, to throw it and then run—they'd never have been able to escape.

"I'm sure he's not, Jim," he said, as forcefully as he could. "We followed the Code of Conduct, just like he said. I will use all available means to resist my captors and do everything in my power to escape when possible. Remember? That's exactly what we did." He paused, and then added, "Jim, you should be proud of everything you did here. You saved my life, more than once. You're the one who kept us alive and found the way here, kid. Give yourself a little credit."

Jim shrugged, a slow smile spreading over his face. "I guess we did pretty well, for a couple of cadets."

"I never really believed we'd make it, not really," Leonard said quietly. "I still can't believe it's over."

"Well, the odds were stacked against us, I'll admit. No food, no water, no knife, no map, and no way in."

"Don't forget the dust storms, your broken ankle, the rain, and being chased by Childress right into the river." Leonard shook his head. "People are going to think we're making this up when we tell them what happened."

Jim was silent, poking at the osteostim equipment again. "Maybe," he said hesitantly, "maybe we had somebody up there looking out for us. Even out here, in the middle of nowhere. Did you ever think about that? Maybe we had a little help."

Leonard raised an eyebrow, surprised. Jim had never mentioned anything about faith in God or anything else, and even now, he seemed uncomfortable, keeping his eyes locked on his ankle and blushing. "Could be," he agreed. "The point is, we made it here. We found a way in and got the word out."

"Well, you almost screwed that part up," Jim laughed, "but yeah, we rescued all those people. We can go back to our lives now. That's… pretty amazing, actually."

"We did it." Leonard suddenly found himself grinning from ear to ear. "We really, really did."

End of Part Three

 

Chapter Text

Epilogue: Starfleet Academy, Fall 2257

Jim

When the shuttle broke through the cloud cover over San Francisco Bay, it was raining.

Heavy drops of water splashed across the small viewing ports, obscuring Jim's view, and the sky was still mostly dark. It was October 6th, 0530 local time. He kept his eyes glued to the window as the shuttle looped smoothly over the Golden Gate Bridge and pulled into the shuttle dock adjacent Starfleet Command. In the dim, early morning light, the buildings looked almost unfamiliar, as if something indefinable had changed while he'd been away. It had only been three months, but it felt like years.

He felt out of sync, and not just because he'd been away for so long. After ten days on the Salk, the medical transport that had taken them from Starbase Eleven back to earth, his biorhythms were attuned to the ship. For him, it was early afternoon.

He glanced over at Bones, who was deep in a low-voiced conversation with Raj. He hadn't actually seen that much of the doctor after they'd left Rigel, and that, too, felt odd. The two-day stay at Starbase Eleven had passed in an endless series of debriefings that left him exhausted, interspersed with medical exams and quick reunions with the men from the camp. Things were less hectic for him on the Salk, but Bones had thrown himself back into work from the first day, insisting on taking responsibility for the medical treatment of the Atlantis men and helping care for the 86 civilian captives who were returning with them back to earth.

"So, Kirk, you feeling about ready for a good home-cooked meal?"

Jim turned back from the port—the shuttle was already docking, and there was nothing much to look at anyway—to look at Andrews, seated next to him. The commander's face still looked a little pinched and thin, but he seemed relaxed. "Anything, as long as it's not synthesized or crawling," Jim said, with a small laugh. "I just hope it won't send my stomach into shock."

Andrews gave him an understanding nod. They'd shared a number of meals on the Salk on the way back, and he knew, of course, that Jim was on a severely restricted diet. Jim could only hope that he wasn't aware of some of the other medical complications that he was still dealing with, including "impaired gastrointestinal tract function," as Bones put it bluntly.

In fact, Bones had become entirely too familiar with Jim's digestive experience. Jim couldn't help feeling a little resentful at how quickly the doctor had bounced back from the scorpion-and-worm diet, while he was stuck with gastric emptying scans, nutritional supplements, and intrusive inquiries into his bowel habits. Bones apparently didn't care if he found it embarrassing or not.

"Why isn't this happening to you?" he'd whined, bent double on the biobed after yet another unsuccessful attempt at solid foods. "We ate the same bugs, drank the same water…"

"Your immune system was compromised to begin with," Bones told him, looking surprisingly sympathetic. "You were still recovering from the choriomeningitis when we landed in the camp. Combine that with hard labor at the mines and a few months of malnutrition, and you weren't exactly the picture of health when we escaped." Then he'd gone on to explain, in excruciating detail, about intestinal parasites and diarrheal infections, while Jim groaned and tried to remember that having a friend who was a doctor could actually come in handy. Sometimes.

"My wife and son are meeting us here," Andrews confided now, a small smile on his face. "The minute we finish with the official greetings, I'm taking them out to the Social Club. Ever had their scones?"

"Uh, no, sir." Jim had heard of the famous restaurant, one of San Francisco's oldest—and most expensive—dining spots. He'd never been able to afford a meal there on a cadet's salary, and at the moment, the very thought of heavy baked goods was making him nauseous. "So," he said vaguely, hoping to change the subject, "what're your plans? Gonna stay earthside for a while?"

Andrews shook his head. "I'll be heading back out, as soon as I can find a position on a good ship. I've never had the patience for domestic life." The shuttle settled onto the ground with a slight shudder, and Jim felt his heartbeat ratchet up. This was it, they were landing. "But a month or so with my family sounds good right now. You and McCoy'll be heading straight back into classes at the Academy, I suppose."

Jim nodded. "No time to lose." He tried to inject some confidence and enthusiasm into his words, but the truth was, he'd been avoiding thinking about it. Pike had already told him, before he left, that he'd need to take some remedial engineering courses. Now he'd already missed over a month of classes and training, and he had no idea how he was going to make up the extra work.

"Don't worry so much," Andrews said, as if he could read his thoughts. "Captain Pike's a good commander, and I'm sure by now he's gotten a report of what happened on Rigel. He won't expect you to do the impossible. Just take it one step at a time, get yourself back into your routine, and you'll be up to speed before you know it."

That was Andrews: supportive and compassionate, tough but fair. He was the first commander, besides Pike, that Jim had gotten to know well. He was exactly the kind of officer Jim wanted to be.

Someday.

"It's been a pleasure to know you, sir," he said quietly. "I… uh, I've learned a lot from you, more than you know. You kept us together back in the camp when we were starting to tear each other apart, and made us remember who we were and what we represented." He could still hear Andrews telling them all, We are Starfleet… and from this moment on your first responsibility is to the men you're standing with, shoulder to shoulder. "I want you to know that you made a big impression on me. I know I was a little hotheaded at first—"

Andrews laughed. "You were a stubborn cadet who thought he knew more than everybody else, and you don't put your trust in authority figures very easily. And you were angry as hell, with good reason." Then he sobered. "I saw your determination and courage from the start, Kirk, but you weren't using good judgment or listening to anybody else, and that's why the others had trouble with you."

"I know." It was easy enough to admit now, although he hadn't been able to see it at all back then.

"You matured a lot during those two months at the camp, Kirk. I saw it. A real leader earns the respect of his men by listening to advice and then making the best decision he can, after weighing all the options, and that's what you learned to do on Rigel." There was another vibration under their feet, and the shuttle began moving forward slowly, maneuvering into place within the docking bay. "You escaped when you had the chance, and thank God you did. Taking McCoy with you was a good call as well. And from what I've heard, the two of you worked as a flawless team."

Jim flashed him a wry grin. "Not exactly flawless." More like a pair of bickering fools. "We had a lot of disagreements."

"Well, you must have done something right," Andrews shrugged, "or McCoy wouldn't be singing your praises so loudly."

Jim blinked in surprise, wondering just what rumors Bones had been spreading. "He's probably exaggerating." And downplaying his own role, he thought. "And I couldn't have done it without him, sir. We'd be dead if it weren't for his quick thinking."

"That's just exactly what he said about you." Andrews gave him an amused glance. "One thing is for sure, Kirk. None of us would be here, back at Starfleet, if it weren't for the two of you." He placed a hand on Jim's arm, squeezing it lightly. "I want you to remember this. You've made a huge difference in people's lives... in my life. Childress never intended to pay us off and let us go. I'm sure now that you were right about that. I don't know how you sensed it from the start, but you obviously picked up on something that the rest of us didn't want to see."

Andrews seemed to be waiting for some sort of response, but all Jim said was, "I'm not happy that I was right about it."

"Well, you saved over a hundred and thirty people, mostly innocent civilians, from years of suffering. Whatever else you accomplish in your career in Starfleet, you can always be proud of that."

"Yes, sir," he said uncomfortably, wishing that Andrews would talk about something else. He didn't need, or want, to be thanked.

The shuttle had come to a stop, and the men around them were already standing and moving toward the exit. Andrews stood up, and so did Jim. "I told you once that Starfleet rewards hard work and proven performance, Kirk," he said, holding out his hand. "You'll make a fine officer one day, and I'd be proud to serve with you again."

"Thank you, sir. That means a lot to me." Jim said. Andrews' hand felt warm and solid in his grasp, and he shook it firmly. "It's been an honor."

 

When he poked his head out of the shuttle exit, he saw that they weren't in the crowded, main Starfleet docking bay. Most space traffic came and went from that enormous station adjacent to Starfleet Headquarters, but he saw that they'd been diverted to a smaller, private area. An honor guard was standing at attention just in front of the shuttle, along with an admiral and another officer that he didn't recognize. A mid-sized air transport with Starfleet insignia hovered a few meters away.

Jim stood at attention with the other men, his expression carefully controlled as the admiral made his welcoming remarks. The admiral's words were warm and sincere—polished phrases about courage and tenacity in extraordinary circumstances and upholding Starfleet's highest values—but the high-flown words left Jim feeling uncomfortable, as if he were talking about somebody else.

He was aware of Bones, standing at his shoulder and fidgeting. Jim could almost hear him thinking, clear as day: Enough of the bullshit, already. Jim felt a grin tugging at his mouth.

"You've all earned our respect and gratitude," the admiral finished. "And I know you're probably itching to see your families and friends"—he glanced at the transport behind him, signaling to an officer waiting beside it—"so I'll keep this short. Welcome home, gentlemen."

The transport ride was so short that Jim barely had a chance to get his bearings. He stared out the side window, but it was still raining and mostly dark. He could just make out the outlines of Starfleet Headquarters with its distinctive tower looming over the enormous office complex. The transport swooped between buildings and over manicured lawns, finally gliding to a smooth stop just inside a large hanger.

He wasn't familiar enough with the main Starfleet complex to recognize where they were, but Bones obviously was. "Damn it," Bones muttered from the seat next to him, scowling out the window. "I should have known."

"What do you—"

"Starfleet Medical," he told Jim, sighing. "Probably want a baseline physical or something. Let's go."

The other men were already standing up and heading out. "Wait, I just spent a week on a medical transport, for fuck's sake!" Jim hissed in Bones' ear. He didn't want the others to hear him whine, but really, the last thing he wanted to be doing right now was another round of tests from another set of doctors with too many questions. "Can't they just send the results over?"

"Relax, kid," Bones told him, edging between the seats toward the transport exit. "It's just a formality, for the most part. Anyway, people are waiting for us. Let's go see who's out there."

"Yeah, you're right," he said quickly, with a bland smile that he hoped looked genuine. "Let's go see." He was fairly sure nobody would be waiting for him, but he wasn't going to say that to Bones.

They joined the others in the hanger, where a small crowd of people in civilian dress were standing off to one side. Some of them were cheering and waving; others were craning their heads to see. Jim felt his throat swell and his hands start to sweat.

A small boy broke out from the group and raced toward them. Jim saw Andrews reach down and swing him up onto his shoulders, a broad grin stretching across his face. As if that was a signal, the others surged forward. He heard a jumble of jubilant voices calling "Jorge!" "God, it's good to see you…" "John, put him down, he's a big boy, let me—" They were enveloped by the crowd, and Jim had a glimpse of Yoshi being embraced by his parents, Cho being kissed by a burly young man wearing science blues, and Raj swept up in a bear hug by his relatives.

"Len!" he heard, and Bones' face lit up. A dark-haired man in his thirties was making his way toward them, accompanied by another woman who looked like she might be the man's mother.

"Over here, Michael!" he yelled, waving a hand. "It's my cousin and my aunt," he told Jim, smiling broadly. "And my—" His voice faltered, but he didn't need to complete the sentence. An older woman with a gentler version of Bones' strong features was hurrying toward them, hands outstretched.

His mother, clearly. There was a tight, empty feeling in Jim's stomach at the sight. A moment later, all three of them were hugging Bones for all he was worth. In fact, he realized, all of the Atlantis men were being embraced, back slapped, smiled at, and kissed. Everyone except for him.

He stood still for a minute in helpless mortification, hoping nobody would notice that he was alone and unclaimed.

He kept a smile glued to his face, boxing his emotions into a tiny, locked part of himself with a well-practiced shove. Don't start with the self-pity, he told himself fiercely. He'd received a short-but-heartfelt subspace message from his mother while they were on the Salk, and he didn't really expect his brother Sam to show up after all these years. Just because he'd returned from being presumed dead didn't mean that anyone cared particularly.

Still, he thought. Some fucking welcoming ceremony.

And: I need to get out of hereRight now.

He could handle this just fine if only he wasn't right in the goddamn middle of all the hugging. He started extricating himself from the crowd, edging past Collins and around Andrews and his family. He could stand right over there on the side, near the door, and nobody would—

"Jim!" someone called, and he looked up, startled.

Chris Pike was suddenly there, striding toward him. He looked as calm and composed as ever, in his charcoal grey uniform, but he was giving Jim one of his rare smiles.

"Captain Pike," he said, straightening up automatically and saluting, hoping the anxiety of the moment before wasn't still written all over his face. He wasn't sure if Pike was there in his official role as the Commandant of Cadet Training or as Jim's advisor and mentor, but he didn't really care as long as he saved him from the humiliation of having nobody there to welcome him back.

Pike returned the salute with careful precision, and then stepped forward, hand outstretched. But instead of shaking Jim's hand, he pulled him in close into a strong embrace. Jim hadn't been hugged this way in years: tight and warm, without holding back.

Like a father would hug a long-lost son… and fuck, that thought alone nearly made his knees buckle.

"It's good to see you, Jim," Pike said quietly in Jim's ear. "Welcome back."

"Thank you, sir," he said, pulling back just slightly, not wanting the captain to feel how much he wanted, needed, the embrace.

 

Having his advisor hug the shit out of him only made him feel, in the end, disconnected and lonely. It was nice, but also really awkward, and it underscored the fact that everybody else had somebody there for him—a friend or a relative—and he didn't.

Pike made a little small talk with him, mostly things like "You look like hell" and "You've lost weight," and asking him about what he'd done on Starbase Eleven, but he kept it light. Jim had no doubt that Pike had read all the debriefing reports and he wouldn't let Jim off so easily, but for now, all the captain said was, "Come see me later, when you've had time to settle in. I'd like to hear what exactly happened on Rigel. And… we have to discuss your class schedule."

"Absolutely," he said. There was no other possible answer.

The feeling of estrangement stayed with him all that morning. All of the Atlantis men were sent off to be examined at Starfleet Medical, but only Jim found himself stuck there for over an hour, waiting for a doctor to finish what became an endless series of tests and scans. None of his protests that he'd already been evaluated up the wazoo for the last week on the Salk had done any good at all.

"Any Starfleet officer returning from an extended planetary mission needs a physical exam," the doctor told him. "And you've still got a number of medical issues that require treatment."

By the time the exam was finished ("Not cleared for full duty yet," the doctor told him with irritating calm, "but you can attend classes while your ankle finishes healing and your digestive system recovers.") the other men had left. Jim hadn't really expected any of the Starfleet officers to stick around, but he'd thought that Bones at least would wait for him, and they could…

They could what, dumbass?

Go out for a drink at seven in the fucking morning? Grab a meal at the Academy cafeteria and talk about old times on Rigel? Bones obviously had things of his own to do. The doctor needed to talk to his own advisor, get settled back into his routine, maybe find out about his hospital shifts. They'd probably meet up again in a week or so, see each other occasionally on campus, get together for the memorial ceremony for the Atlantis crew once a year. That was going to be the normal way of things. They'd gotten close, very close, but the fact that they'd spent the last few months living in each other's personal space didn't mean that they should keep doing it.

He perked up a bit when a nurse came running after him, just as he was about to leave the clinic, saying that Captain Pike had left something for him. There was a cadet uniform and a new comm waiting for him at the main desk, and Jim was ridiculously grateful. Pike must have known how much he needed the uniform right now, how much he needed to feel like he belonged. And he appreciated Pike's thoughtfulness; he must have known that Jim had lost his old comm on the Atlantis.

When he clicked on the comm he saw that he had two messages: one from Chris Pike's office, informing him of an appointment with the Commandant of Cadets that afternoon at 15:30, and another from the Housing Authority. His new dorm assignment was Yeager 245.

Why the hell did they have to change my room assignment? Didn't they think I was coming back?

He was annoyed. Of course it made sense that they'd reassign his room to another cadet, and they really hadn't known he was coming back. What did he really expect them to do, keep his things there like a shrine? The semester had begun, and he wasn't there. Life at the Academy had moved on. But that didn't mean he had to like it.

He changed back into the new set of cadet reds, which felt stiff and still carried the crease from the packaging, then stepped out of Starfleet Medical into the gloomy, wet morning. A light fog was rolling in, and he felt the chill air wash over him.

What next? Obviously he needed to get back to the Academy, but from there, things were vague. He was getting hungry, and it would be nice to get something to eat that wasn't pre-chosen for him by a nutritional expert. Afterwards… maybe he should check out his new accommodations, meet his new roommate.

He decided to walk, even though he knew it would take him over an hour to get back to campus. He was in no hurry. The walk over the bridge would help him to process everything, and keep him from arriving back on campus too fast. He needed to clear his head, get used to the idea that he was supposed to be Cadet James Kirk, Second Class again.

Future Starfleet engineer.

The bridge was nearly empty of pedestrians. There wasn't much of a view, with the fog obscuring the majestic steel beams that arched overhead. It was chilly and windy, still drizzling lightly. Typical October weather… but, he realized after a while, not the best weather for a stroll on the bridge.

His mind flashed, unwillingly, to the all-weather orange jumpsuit and the winds of Rigel, and he shook his head to clear it. Put it behind you, he told himself firmly. You're back, and that's all that matters.

Still, it was cold and not particularly pleasant. He found himself wishing for his thermal Academy jacket, which he'd left back in his dorm room with all his other things.

Where's my stuff? he thought suddenly, followed closely by the more disturbing Who packed up all my things?

Obviously they wouldn't have left everything in his old dorm room, so someone would have had to gather up his effects. He supposed it could have been his roommate, Dan Corrigan. He gave an inward cringe at the idea of someone, even Corrigan, sorting through his clothes, his few keepsakes and paper books, his toiletries. It felt, in retrospect, like a massive invasion of privacy.

How long had they waited, he wondered, before they'd packed away his personal effects? And where had they put them? His mother couldn't have claimed them, since she wasn't due back for almost nine months. Maybe she'd had everything shipped back to Riverside.

 

He felt a little better as he came down off the bridge and entered the Academy campus. The familiar sight of Archer Hall, with its cream-colored pillars and cadets scurrying up and down the wide steps, brought a small smile to his lips. The walkways were as immaculate as ever, and here and there, one of the sleek Academy hovercrafts zipped by with a low hum. A few rays of sun were poking through the cloud cover, burning away the fog.

It all looked unchanged. Routine. He blended in easily; nobody gave him a second glance.

He wandered aimlessly around the campus for about half an hour, enjoying the quiet and the anonymity. It was nearly nine o'clock, so most of the cadets were in the middle of their first class or lab session, and the grounds were fairly deserted. He didn't run into anyone he knew, which was both a relief and a disappointment.

He was getting hungry, so he made his way over to the cafeteria. The first class period was nearly over, and he figured it would be a good idea to get his food now, before the crunch of cadets started pouring in. The cafeteria food was nothing special, but at least they'd have fresh fruit and real coffee, and—

He stopped short. There was an enormous sign—no, it was a cloth banner, of all things—just to the right of the cafeteria entrance, where nobody could miss it. A homemade banner, flapping in the wind, looking a little wet and bedraggled, but still legible.

Starfleet Academy welcomes back Cadets James Kirk and Leonard McCoy and congratulates them on their heroic actions on Rigel XII.

Holy shit. He stood transfixed with his heart pounding, staring at the banner, surprised and embarrassed. He felt a flash of warmth—hell, it was a nice gesture, and it meant that somebody on campus knew what had happened and wanted to show their respect—but beyond that, he was struck again by that same feeling of estrangement. Heroic actions on Rigel XII… What did that even mean? Why couldn't they have just said welcome back, and left it there?

Ignoring the banner, he set his eyes resolutely forward and stepped up to the cafeteria entrance, swiping his hand quickly over the scanner. But the device beeped unexpectedly, and the door stayed closed. He had to stop himself from barreling forward right into it. A pleasant computerized voice told him, "Identification not accepted. Please state your name and rank."

"James Kirk," he said. Another cadet had come up behind him, and was looking at him curiously. "Uh, Cadet Second Class."

"Voiceprint confirmed," the scanner announced. Jim felt vaguely relieved; at least the computer agreed that he was who he said he was. But then it continued, still in that same pleasant tone, "Your Academy account has been terminated. Food and beverages are available for guests in the cafeteria in Archer Hall."

"Fuck," Jim muttered. The cadet behind him flicked his eyes over to the banner, then looked back at him, open-mouthed. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."

 

"I'm terribly sorry, Cadet Kirk," the clerk told him at the Academy registrar's office. "Your account was inactive for over ninety days, and it's our policy—"

I don't care what your damn policy is. "Well, you need to reactivate it," Jim said, trying to rein in his temper. "I'm here now."

"It's been reactivated," the man explained with a touch of impatience, "as I've explained for the third time. The cafeteria system was undergoing maintenance procedures this morning, and hasn't come fully back online. If you go back now, it will accept your identification with no problem."

"Thank you," Jim said, holding onto the appearance of military courtesy to cover his anger. It might be childish, but he couldn't help seeing the bureaucratic glitch as yet one more misstep in this back-to-school farce. Even the goddamn computer thought that he didn't really belong anymore.

"Your effects have already been transferred to your new housing assignment," the clerk offered, looking apologetic. "We weren't able to place you in the usual cadet housing because of your late registration, but Yeager is one of the—"

Jim let out an exasperated huff of breath. "I didn't register late. I was on a training assignment and the ship was attacked. We just got back."

"I'm well aware of the incident, Mr. Kirk, believe me." The clerk's tone was respectful, with a touch of exaggerated patience, and Jim reminded himself to keep his emotions in check. Rudeness toward officers and staff wasn't tolerated at the Academy, no matter how justified he might think it was. "Everyone here heard about the Atlantis, and we're very, very glad to have you back at the Academy. But that doesn't change the fact that by the time Captain Pike informed us that you were coming back, housing assignments had already been made. Yeager is a new facility, and it's actually nicer than the usual cadet accommodations. We use it for married cadets and for cadets with special needs."

I don't have special needs, he wanted to say, but hell, the man was only doing his job. "Fine," he sighed, letting his stiff posture slacken, just a little. "Can you at least make sure that I won't have any trouble with my ID when I try to get into Yeager?"

"There won't be a problem," the clerk reassured him. "We've updated your account details."

Jim forced himself to nod and smile, and thanked the man for his help.

He felt suddenly tired. He was still on shipboard time, and his body was telling him it was evening. Maybe he should just go find his new dorm room and take a nap. He needed to be alert for his meeting with Pike.

 

Yeager Hall was on the south side of campus, not far from the gym. The day had cleared, and the paths were full of cadets and instructors walking in all directions, chatting in small groups, or hurrying on alone, full of purpose. Tomorrow, he'd be back here with the others, just one more cadet out of thousands, nothing special about him. He'd be making his way to the engineering quad, coffee cup in hand—his stomach would just have to learn to tolerate it, no matter what the nutritional expert recommended—and his PADD shoved into a bag slung over his shoulder. Back to student life: doing homework, taking notes, learning theoretical models, and taking tests. It seemed almost too mundane, after what he'd been through. At the same time, he longed to return to the structure and the routine, to the normalcy of everyday Academy life.

He found room 245 quickly enough, and as promised, the door slid open smoothly when he swiped his fingers along the pad. It was a double—a suite, really, with two tiny bedrooms and a bathroom set off a common living area. Not bad, he thought, mollified. In fact, it was a significant upgrade from the cramped room he'd shared with Corrigan. Maybe late registry came with a few perks after all.

Just inside the door, he found a large, sealed box, labeled Property of Lt. Cmdr. Winona Kirk. He stared at it for a minute, feeling a cold shudder run through him. One box was all he'd left behind: some clothes, a few holos, his PADD… He wondered what his mother would have done with his things when she got back, if he’d stayed missing. Left them in the box, probably, in the basement of the old farmhouse in Riverside. She wasn't a sentimental person. But then again, neither was he.

He decided to take a real, honest-to-God hot water shower, and then unpack. A little voice in the back of his mind, sounding suspiciously like Bones, told him that he'd better go back and try the cafeteria again, get some food inside him before his meeting with Pike.

Great, he’d internalized Bones’ nagging. What a handy souvenir from Rigel XII.

 

When he arrived at Pike's office at 1530 on the dot, he found that he wasn't alone. Bones was already there, dressed in his cadet reds and seated in front of Pike's large desk.

Jim blinked at him, surprised and relieved. Bones looked out of place and uncomfortable, but for the first time that day, Jim felt anchored. He'd assumed the meeting was for him alone, and had been worrying for the past hour how he'd manage to tell the story right, all by himself. But with Bones there as well, he felt more confident they could make Pike understand. And he really wanted Pike to get what happened, what the labor camp had done to them and why he'd had to try to escape. They'd been desperate, not heroic. And they only started "upholding Starfleet's highest values" after Andrews reamed them out and knocked some sense into them.

Pike didn't waste time, after the initial greetings. "Tell me what happened, starting on the Atlantis," he said simply. "Both of you. I've read the reports and the debriefings, but I'd like to hear what you experienced, from the moment of the attack."

Jim glanced at Bones, who shrugged. "You start," Bones said. "You were right in the middle of the action, in engineering. I was just in the sickbay."

"I was asleep, sir," Jim began awkwardly, his mouth suddenly dry. "It was in the middle of gamma shift, uh…"

"0230," Bones supplied.

"Right." Jim nodded. "Anyway, I was awakened by the red alert. I got to my post in the main engineering bay, and helped with damage control and rescue efforts. About twenty minutes after the attack started we were taken by tractor beam, and—"

"Hold on, Jim," Pike interrupted, looking pained. "This isn't a formal report. I just want to know what you experienced, what it was like for you. Don't tell it to me like you think I want to hear it. The ship was attacked, and I know what that's like. Chaos and explosions, scary as hell, especially for two green cadets on their first deep space assignment. I know it was messy. Just… tell me what happened, son."

Part of him wanted to do exactly that, after holding himself in control for so long: just let it out, and not worry about how it sounded. But he knew that the minute he started, it would all come back to him: the terror of the attack, the gut-wrenching frustration and uncertainty, and the horror of the labor camp. He wasn't used to talking about things like that. Even on Rigel, he'd never have mentioned Tarsus if Bones hadn't practically forced it out of him.

But Pike was regarding him with a level gaze, waiting calmly, so he took a deep breath and began.

"I ran out into the corridor, and the first thing I saw was a gaping hole in the hull," he said, shuddering with the memory. "People were screaming… and then the emergency barrier dropped down a second later, and they were trapped on the other side..." He swallowed, remembered the way the screaming had suddenly stopped, leaving nothing by a horrifying echo in its wake. "Engineering was ripped apart. Half the systems were down. Consoles were on fire and there were beams trapping people underneath. It was… God. It was hopeless, right from the start. We did what we could, but… I knew we were fucked. We all did."

The words poured out of him. Pike didn't say much, mostly nodding, occasionally asking a question. Bones added his own story of the frantic triage efforts and the desperate medical situation. "When the Orions were marching us out, I tried to sneak a medkit out," he said. His voice was controlled, but a muscle jumped in his cheek. "Damn pirate aimed his weapon right at me… I had to leave it."

Jim's eyes narrowed. He never told me about this, he thought guiltily. Bones had never told anyone, as far as he knew, and Jim had never asked. In fact, they'd never talked about the attack, not even in the camp.

"What happened to the men who were too injured to walk?" Pike asked, looking as if he already knew the answer.

"We had to leave them behind." He sounded furious, and Jim's stomach twisted. "They were still alive when I saw them last, but they weren't brought over with us, and I don't know what the hell happened to them."

"God rest their souls," Pike said, as if confirming the unspoken conclusion. "I'm sorry. Now tell me what happened on the Orion ship."

It went on like that, with Jim and Bones telling their story haltingly, and Pike prodding them on.

"…I didn't want to wear the damn jumpsuit, sir. I thought it was degrading and we needed to show them that we weren't sheep, and—"

Bones glared at him. "And I pulled him back before he got his fool head blown off. Damn it, Jim, that guard had his phaser pointed straight at you, but you were acting like a reckless idiot!"

"…Plenty of men had run away, but nobody ever heard from them again. That's what they told us. Nobody knew if any of them had made it to Alpheus, but nothing ever changed at the camp."

"…I knew exactly what was going to happen to the man, and how to stop it, too, if I'd only had some equipment, some proper medication!" Bones' voice cracked on the last word, and Jim felt tears prickling at the corners of his eyes. Shit, poor Fredericks. "He was suffocating, and there was nothing I could do. He died in my arms…"

"…No sir, there wasn't time. It was just one explosive, and not even a strong one. It could create a diversion, maybe, but that was it. But it was all I had, and… I hadn't really thought it through. I knew they'd figure out what I'd done when they tried to set off the blast the next morning, so it was now or never. But McCoy got suspicious when I asked him to go in ahead of me, and he wouldn't leave me alone. And we were getting near the barracks, so I just told him to trust me, and I tossed it up onto the roof and made a run for it…"

"…We were lost. I was sure of it. We weren't going to make it, and I thought the only thing we could do was go back, try to find shelter, wait till the storm passed… Jim insisted that we had to go on, that if we stopped we'd never make it out. I thought he was wrong, but I was too worn out to argue with him anymore…"

"…I, uh, knew a lot about survival in the wild. You know why, sir, but Bones didn't. Not at that point. And I had to eat something. Bones thought I was, I don't know…"

"I thought you were an arrogant idiot, Jim, and that you'd just ingested an alien bug that was potentially poisonous!" He shook his head. "I told him that I'd never eat that scorpion, and… I'm not proud to say it, but the truth is, sir, that I started hassling him. I said that I knew he didn't have a plan, and the only thing he cared about was telling me what to do. And Jim yelled right back that he did know what he was doing, because he'd done it all before…"

"…and I heard this crack, like something had popped inside, and the whole area just went numb. That's when I knew we were screwed."

"I didn't have a clue what to do… but Jim did. He was mumbling something from the first, but I couldn't hear it. Then they pulled him to his feet, and he let out this scream—Don't give me that look, Jim, you should've heard yourself—and I started yelling about getting him medical treatment. Didn't do any good, though. Childress just lied without batting an eyelash, said that we'd get treated at the so-called clinic back at the camp. And Jim… He was so hypothermic and shocky he could hardly speak at all by that point, but I finally heard what he was trying to say. Name, rank, and service number…"

"I, uh, passed out, sir. The next thing I knew, I woke up in this clinic, and…"

"I thought… I guess I wasn't thinking straight. God, of course the retinal scan would ID me, I knew that, but I couldn't be responsible for the deaths of innocent men. I didn't really think about what it would mean to Jim, either… It was stupid."

"It was brave!" Jim shot him a defiant look, and then relented. "But, yeah, stupid, Bones."

"Not stupid," Pike objected. "An error of judgment. Cadet McCoy, you couldn't have stopped the ID process and at that point, your job was to tell your superiors what happened and let them handle the situation. I understand why you did it, considering the stress you were under and the fact that you haven't undergone the standard cadet training, but it's important that you understand that Starfleet is a military organization. Your superior officers need to have all the information in order to make the right decision. It wasn't your call to hold this back."

Bones looked away, his expression tightening into a grimace. "I understand, sir."

"But that's not the main point, doctor." Bones met his eyes again, and Pike leaned forward. "Your performance, up to that point, was exceptional. Both of you have shown extraordinary determination and courage, and for a pair of cadets, that's damned impressive. I read the reports, but hearing the story in your own words… Hell, I can see it now, through your eyes. The fact that you got yourselves out of the camp, that you survived that trek, that you managed to get away from Childress in the end… It's almost incredible. I'm proud, very proud, of both of you."

"Thank you, sir," Bones said. "But it was really Jim who got us there. It wasn't a fifty-fifty split."

"Oh, come off it, Bones!" Jim shot Bones an irritated look. "You were the one who got us down the waterfall. You did the recon, figured out how to get into Alpheus, you found that maintenance hatch—"

"Which we didn't use, in the end!"

"And you chucked us into the river, which I didn't even think of. You got the governor to listen to us!"

"Only after you told me what to say. I wasn't very convincing up to that point…"

Pike looked amused. "Did you two argue like this the whole damn way?"

Bones gave a long-suffering sigh. "Believe me, it was a lot worse," he said darkly. "Two stubborn jackasses."

"I was right most of the time, Bones."

 

After the doctor left, Pike handed Jim a PADD and sat back quietly, waiting.

Jim frowned, looking over the information on the screen. "Sir, there's a mistake here. A few mistakes, actually… Introductory Warp Theory, fine, and Fundamentals of Engineering, okay. But Special Tactics Advanced Skills Training, uh, that's not really my specialty…" He cleared his throat and looked back up at his advisor. "There are a bunch of courses that don't… I mean, I'm not supposed to…"

"There's no mistake," Pike told him. "I've made some adjustments in your program. After reviewing your performance on your summer field training, that is."

Jim felt suddenly short of breath. He can't mean… "Sir, I don't understand. You know that I didn't actually do my summer training. And you said that I couldn't continue in command track. You told me-"

Pike sat back, folding his arms over his chest. "For God's sake, Jim, I'd say that what you did this summer qualifies as pretty rigorous field training. And you came through it with flying colors."

"But… I missed the peace mission!" Hell, I don't even know what happened on Axanar. He really needed to get caught up on the news.

Pike sighed, as if Jim was a little slow on the uptake. "You weren't going to Axanar as diplomats, but as observers. The main segment of the training was on the Farragut, where you would have been exposed to shipboard life, learning more about how a starship functions. But the most important aspect was seeing how you function under stress, how adaptable you are, whether you're capable of showing judgment and initiative." He gave Jim a meaningful look. "Don't you think that what you did proved what kind of a leader you are? Don't you think that you needed to make snap judgments, work as a team, deal with less-than-optimal conditions?"

Hell yeah, that was true. Drinking their own urine, building fires from scratch, eating bugs, hiking on a broken ankle… Less than optimal was putting it mildly. "I guess I did."

"Well, then." Pike leaned back, gesturing around him at the tastefully-decorated office and the large Starfleet insignia on the back wall. "I'm the Commandant of Cadets, Jim, and they pay me to use my judgment. And I'm reinstating you in command track, with sub-specialties in ground tactics and engineering."

Jim's throat choked up, and he found himself blinking back—Damn it!—a tear or two. He gave a soft, constricted laugh to try to cover it. "Thank you, sir.” He swallowed. “I was actually starting to enjoy the engineering work, you know, before everything went south."

Pike nodded. "You won't be able to take much time to get back up to speed. You've already missed a month of classes, but I'm sure you'll catch up quickly."

"Yes, sir," Jim said, relieved that his voice wasn't wavering, although he couldn't do anything about the wetness in his eyes. "I'll make up the work, don't worry."

"I'm sure you will. I wouldn't expect anything less from you." Pike told him, pushing his chair back and rising in what was clearly a dismissal. "And son… go get yourself a decent meal. You need to fill out that uniform again."

Jim grinned. "I'll consider it an order."

 

Bones was waiting for him, leaning against the wall just outside Pike's office.

"Well, kid?" he asked. "What did he want to talk to you about?"

"I'm reinstated in the command track," Jim told him, hardly able to believe it. "I go back to class tomorrow."

Bones just nodded, a smug I-knew-it grin plastered over his features. "Well, you deserve it, Jim. After all you did…"

"Come on, Bones, it wasn't just me."

Bones started walking him in the direction of the exit. "Well, that's true, and don't you ever forget it, but... it was you who kicked the whole thing off, Jim. You had the guts to do it. I don't think I would have."

"You would've, Bones," Jim said quietly. "You'd have escaped eventually. You'd have found a way."

"Maybe. I'd like to think so, but…" He shook his head, his eyes averted. "I don't know."

It was getting dark, he realized with a start, as they stepped outside. "Where's your mom?" Jim asked, suddenly recalling that Bones had visitors. "And your cousin and aunt?"

"They went back," Bones said matter-of-factly. "I spent the morning with them, went out for lunch, took them around campus a bit."

The petty, jealous part of him settled down. He was happy for Bones that his mother and his relatives had come to see him, but right now what he wanted was someone to celebrate with. Bones.

"So… how's the new dorm room?" Bones asked. "And where is it, exactly?"

"Huh? My new dorm? It's nice, actually. A lot nicer than the room I had last year, even if it's a little farther away from the quad. I haven't seen my roommate yet, but—"

"Yes, you have." Bones was looking at him, as if there was something he should be getting, but was too dim to grasp. Jim gave him a confused look. "Your roommate is me."

"You… what? Are you sure?" Jim shook his head. "But you're in the medical retraining program, Bones, and they don't bunk with regular cadets…"

Bones shrugged. "Well, when they come back a month after the start of the semester, they have to bunk somewhere. My old room was already taken, and Pike… Well," he said with an embarrassed grin, "he asked me, back at Starfleet Medical, if I'd like to share with you. Just for this year, since they don't have too many options for late-registry cadets."

"And you said…?"

"I said that I doubted there'd be room for two people in the room, what with you and your king-sized ego."

"Fuck you," Jim shot back, but he was grinning. Bones wanted to room with him. As for Jim, there wasn't anybody else he thought he'd feel as comfortable with, not after what they'd been through. Chris Pike was a hell of an advisor, he thought; somehow, he'd known that this would be what Jim needed.

"I'll be honest with you," Bones added, sobering suddenly. "I've lived alone before, and I like it, but after what we've been through… I don't really think a single would be the best thing for me right now. It's going to take a while to readjust, and I tend to pull away from people when I'm under stress. So I told Captain Pike that after living in close quarters with you for so long, I wouldn't mind continuing. Hell, I've pretty much gotten up close and personal with all your negative qualities, so there shouldn't be too many surprises waiting for me."

Jim put on a mock scowl. "What negative qualities are we talking about?"

"You're kidding, right?" Bones held up a finger, as if he were counting. "Anger management issues--"

"Oh come on, Bones, that's an exaggeration."

Another finger. "Problems dealing with authority, recklessness and impulsivity…"

Jim flinched. "Damn it, Bones, you didn't say any of this to Captain Pike, did you?" After all this time, he still wasn't sure when Bones was teasing him or just being a straight-spoken ass. The doctor was probably a hell of a poker player.

"Let's just say that he wasn't exactly surprised by any of it."

"Hang on, nobody asked me whether I wanted you as a roommate."

Bones laughed. "I got the distinct impression, Jim, that your feelings on the issue weren't going to be consulted. You're just a regular cadet, remember?"

"Fine," he muttered, leading them down the path back to Yeager. "Just keep in mind that I've been keeping a list of your negative qualities too."

There it was, the patented eye roll. "You know what the difference is between you and me, kid? I don't give a shit. Deal with ‘em."

Jim grunted and dropped the subject, since it was clear he wasn't going to win. "Well, I chose the best bed already and you can just… Where is your stuff, by the way?"

"Back in the med dorm. You can help me lug it back later."

Jim found himself smiling, more relaxed than he'd been in… well, in months, it seemed. "Forget the dorm room for now, Bones. Let's go get a drink."

Bones looked scandalized. "Are you insane? Your stomach can barely tolerate plain toast and juice!"

"One little drink," he pressed. "C'mon, Bones. We need to celebrate. We made it out and we're back."

"Fine," Bones relented, after a pause. "One drink. And you're right… we deserve it. Tomorrow it's back to the grind."

The end.