Megel III used to be a favorite shore leave spot of Jim's. It was one of those well-kept secrets of recreation areas, where the taverns were never too busy and the visitors were welcome; this was mostly because of the occasional rock storms that made it too dangerous to get a lot of traffic, but it was also one of the prettiest places imaginable, and hell if Starfleet members minded the risks.
Here, it hosts a yearly "quadrant's fair" where you can buy conceivably anything from under many different suns. The only thing he likes about it this time is that it's busy.
"Do you have that map yet?" he's saying into a comm as he tries to keep his hat from blowing off in a gasp of wind.
Scotty's voice comes back. "Got it, I think you...passed it actually, shoulda been off to the east of that fountain?"
Jim makes a blunt noise of annoyance. "I don't understand how I could just miss it. Wait, there's the other fountain, with this, uh, pelican-looking thing..."
"Well, I forgot to download the map that describes the garden decorations, Jimmy."
"I don't need your excuses, Aramis," Jim says, reminding Scotty they should probably be using call signs. "And don't be funny." Last time Scotty got slap-happy on the comm was when they were both under the kind of nervous duress that made them a bad combination talking together, and that surly cargo handler that thought Jim was laughing at him for dropping a wine barrel almost tore his arm off.
"I'm very sorry. I'm sure that some day you're going to get arrested for your bad sense of humor and we'll all end up hanged."
Jim's wince would come off like a squint against the breeze."...Well that isn't fucking funny at all."
"Just obeying orders."
"Oh, hey, I think I found it now."
Jim flips the comm unit shut.
Apparently Andorians are popular here, as it's ninety percent of what he sees, sparsely spaced out by the occasional Orion or Klingon. There are so many different sellers, and Jim has never been able to piece out what the process of elimination is. He can only wonder what kind of advertising must be done to win someone over when there are hundreds of servants to pick from in one place.
What always impresses Jim about the masses of people waiting to be sold is the way they so thoroughly withhold themselves from being responsive, or distinctive or emotional enough to stand out of a crowd; they never make any kind of eye contact, as if it is brutally important to make the colors of the horizon or the details on the paper lanterns hung around the squares seem more important than their desperation. Sometimes they talk to each other in what, even when Jim understands the language, never is about anything grave but feels laced with some kind of code.
It makes him remember back home when these were just foreign and unpredictable individuals, fascinating and with a touch of warning in their reputations; somehow this makes him understand that this consistent and casual dread has become their cultures instead. The fact that they are accustomed to it so much that no amount of suffering given to them could come as any surprise is a crystal-clear warning of what they are capable of. The only thing they tend to be unprepared for is somebody like Jim, and this makes the process of being decent quite a bit more complicated than being cruel.
He doesn't have much of a system at all, of course, besides going for them young when he can. He finds the seller in the least bustling area of the clearing, close to the edge of a large courtyard.
"Stand by for a lock," he comms up.
Jim approaches a teenager whose expression goes to stone; but when he looks up he mutters in some derisive Andorian something to a neighbor that is obviously about him, and Jim—never wanting to make arbitrary judgments but unable to get along without them—thinks there's definitely something about this one.
This small time before the seller notices him is usually his only chance to be frank. He's considered many times just saying outright the reason he's there, but aside from the clenching feeling he has about any of the other ones overhearing, there is always a very real possibility they'll think it's some kind of trick. He really hates this part, the moment when he steps up to them, and he sees in their eyes the hunted instinct that's telling them they're about to be sold.
"Do you have any family here?" is what he asks. He can ask again in Andorian if the kid doesn't understand; he's made sure he knows how to ask this question in a multitude of languages. But this one understands. His eyes squint in indecision, in examination. He doesn't say anything.
There is nothing generous about the average somebody that would ask. Many owners are willing to ensure families are intact for the sake of "morale"; no one likes to deal with the saddest they come. Some of the slavers even charge more if you want to buy relatives, but in most cases they don't keep track.
And some of the servants, Jim has learned, don't give it up. Even if they have somebody there, they measure up and decide to take their sister or brother or child's chances with somebody else. Jim scans a few other faces close to the boy, seeking out any unusual reaction. Nothing makes him sure.
"Sure you don't want to tell me?" He speaks in Andorian this time, but somehow this only seems to make the boy more suspicious.
The seller isn't talkative. Jim goes over to initiate the trade, gives him a set of credit codes with his fingers crossed that he doesn't have one of the systems that detects counterfeit accounts, and then breathes in relief as he gets handed the small disposable transponder that corresponds to the harness attached to the purchase.
These harnesses are the reason it's difficult, except for in the rare times when they're financially equipped, to pick up more than one at a time at these markets: In order to be sure people can't just snatch a servant by the elbow and transport away, there are blocking devices on the harnesses that ensure they'll stay firmly grounded unless you have the right transponder to unlock it. That is, the best-case scenario is that the person stays grounded: The devices are effective enough to prevent theft but in the actual case of somebody attempting to pull away with somebody wearing one of them, it can be all kinds of dangerous for the servants if something goes wrong.
He just barely yanks on the lead attached to the harness, enough to get the kid's attention, when he returns to collect him. "Let's go."
They're at the edge of the long line of servants, most of whom watch them going only numbly. And then there's a girl: She flings out of the crowd toward the boy, face pinched in pain. Jim thinks he saw her standing behind the boy before as she throws her arms around him and he lets out some woeful urgent protest.
"Who is she?" Jim asks.
The girl talks right to him: "I'm his sister. We should have the same transponder code because we came in at the same time, we're not supposed to tell, but a lot of them are the same—"
"Ehrin," the boy wails, and then Jim picks up in Andorian, "Easier to escape from traders than from him!..."
"Hey!" the seller is hollering. "Back in form!"
Jim tugs on the harness to start leading them farther away, letting the boy think he's not interested. He waits a few seconds to hope no human eyes are interested anymore, reaches his other arm behind his back and waves the girl forward, looking back to intently catch her eyes.
He can see the second when she's too afraid of him. Then the second when she isn't. She starts running, Jim curves his arm around the boy to make sure he isn't about to put up a fight and snatches the transponder off of his harness, uses it to deactivate the girl's and he sternly says, "Now" into his comm just as he's noticed, getting launched with angry shouts.
The boy is thrashing so hard in protest that they all begin a tripped topple to the pavement; they all fall onto the surface of the transporter pad.
"Christ, your arm," Jim is grunting as he untangles himself from the painful-sounding impact he made on top of the girl. "Bones!"
"On his way," Scotty says, nearing the pad to help.
Nyota's voice comes over the open comm. "Moving on our planned course at warp seven and not picking up any sign of pursuit. Scotty, get your ass back up here."
Bones enters the transporter room, tricorder at the ready.
"Nice timing, I think I broke her arm," Jim mumbles in grumpy hyperbole, and the doctor gives an incredulous shake of his head as he goes to look at the girl.
"What's your name, hon?" Bones asks. "Tell me he didn't really break it."
"...No." The girl is barely able to say it, gaping at him and then at Jim, chest swelling as if she's trying to suppress some reaction.
"You bruised it a bit. She'll be fine," Bones concludes in a moment to Jim, who's scooting a small distance away from the two kids.
"My name's Jim. Nobody's gonna hurt you," he says, noticing that she seems to be giving the medical device a nervous look, then decides to get on with the usual lines. "Welcome to the good ship Ulysses. You will not be told to do anything by anyone on board; if you are asked to do anything you will not be punished for refusing to do it. You are being transported to a colony where at least for a time you will be provided with food, clothing and shelter and until we get there you can ask for anything you need and we will do our best to provide it."
The boy is absolutely reeling.
"How come you were trying to leave your sister?" Jim quietly asks him.
"I thought there was still hope one of the rebels might buy her." His sister is moving in next to him, and he wraps her in an arm.
Jim exchanges a look with Bones and laughs ruefully. "And I don't look like a rebel?"
"I don't know," the boy says weakly, still stunned. The forced bravado that had been there when he saw Jim as an enemy has disappeared. "Maybe if you had looked more afraid..."
"More afraid next time," Bones advises blandly, giving a wink.
"I'm Addo," the boy says. "My sister is Ehrin."
Nyota appears, leaning into the frame after the door slides open and greeting the newcomers. "Deleyah. Is anyone hungry?"
"I'll take 'em," Bones offers.
"Oh, wait, that stuff you said you were running low on..." Jim pulls a handful of hyposprays out of his pocket. "Anceropro—?"
"Ancepropol?" Bones is already reaching to look at one of them, amazed and dubious. "Did you pay for these?"
Jim turns away suppressing a grin.
"Seriously, man. You have got to quit it with the Robin Hood routine. When the hell did you learn to be such a pickpocket anyway?"
"Never underestimate the boredom of young genius, Bones."
With a roll of his eyes, Bones waves the Andorians along with him into the hall.
"Hey," Nyota says in teasing assertiveness, blocking him back into the room as he gets close to the door, "'young genius.'"
Jim smiles and leans and meets an eager kiss, Nyota tugging him down by his jacket. "Hey yourself," he mutters just as he gets her stepping backwards until her back collides into the nearest wall.
"Took you long enough."
He scoffs warmly into her ear, kissing down her jaw and lifting his hands up under her shirt. "Been waiting all day to jump me?"
"Oh, you know. Never underestimate boredom." She makes a small relieved note as he glides a leg hard between her thighs and the returned pressure makes his head melt, and it's too much for only a few minutes but neither of them are able to stop.
"Whatever. You know you're all turned on by 'the Robin Hood thing.'" He quotes Bones with a hammy drawl, the deeper tone humming at her throat as he grazes teeth and lips there.
"Oh my God." She chooses that moment to shove him off, her smile cringed in exasperation. She tries even harder than Bones does to get him to stop the side theft.
"Come on, you like it." Half-laughing as he handles her back around by the hipbones, and he kisses her just so, just enough.
"I don't. Jim, just...mmmfuckoff," she mumbles even as she's pulling him in again, like she can't stand him and can't stop kissing him. He's kissing at her ear when she says, "I love it. I love you. Shut up."
She is smiling in a kind of excited embarrassment when he looks and then he's grinning too but it's falling to something else as he pushes her up to the wall again.
He kisses her more feelingly, his motions against her body going stuttering with all the gravity after anxious separation. In the minute getting stretched to a hot fog he hears her helplessly say, "God, but I get worried every time. Feels like you're gone for days, every time..."
He never tells her it's going to be okay or that they're all fine, or that he loves her as if it's a substitute for either of those. He says the one little spark of her name, as if it's a secret, and it has to feel like enough.
Addo and Ehrin are administering the lovely protein stew of the week into their empty stomachs while Bones pays witness to the news program on the small broadcast screen over the kitchen stove, a distracted distaste already set into his shoulders.
His knuckles are absently stroking over Hosanna, a stray Maine Coon he took a grudging responsibility for very shortly before they left Earth. He acts annoyed with the animal most of the time, constantly berating her for getting up on his medical equipment or for other vaguer injustices when he's very stressed, but he's affectionate when he thinks no one is looking. Jim knocks him on the shoulder as he comes by, and he lets the cat go loose.
Jim pulls up a chair to sit on backwards with his arms hung over the back. Rubbing at one of his eyes, he says to the kids, "I'm sure you've got questions for me."
"Can my sister have another bowl?" Addo quietly asks.
"Hey, you can both have a dozen bowls. Please."
Andorians usually have a good sense for exaggeration, and Addo crooks up a hint of a smile. "Where are we going?"
"That's actually partly up to you. Ideally we would be headed to a couple stops first, but if you want to go straight to the safehouse colony we're headed to, we'll go. Anyone who's on the ship has input, so if we picked up somebody else, we'd also hear them out and possibly go to a third stop, but that's not very likely to happen where we're going next."
"But if we were willing to wait, you would be able to help somebody else."
"That's the idea. Oh, and you have a night at least to think this over. Any other questions?"
"Yes." The boy calmly asks, "Is that you?"
Jim follows the kid's gaze to the screen where he now realizes the anchor is rambling off about him at fine-print speed, reminding the world that he is wanted alive and this is what the bastard looks like, tune in for Ludo Nicolitus in five and all hail the Terran Empire.
Jim turns back. "That's somebody else's ID picture, if you want the pedantics. But that is my name and they want me on a spike."
"And your tag's gone up," Bones points out somberly.
"Only that much?" Jim replies with a tone of disappointment.
Bones grumbles something at that, keeping it under his breath. The LUDO! logo is coming on screen with the usual rollicking music of the opening; he glares at the screen as he presses the button to mute the sound.
Jim continues some work evaluating whether he thinks they should drop into the middle of the gang activity on Daleron to see if they could plant some informant contacts. There are a handful of races that Starfleet is only regularly presiding over for the sake of doing trading with them, but with a planet that sells a lot of weaponry it would be valuable to keep an eye on where and when the battle fodder is being moved.
Every stop they consider making involves at least a day of risk assessment. First they check if there are any kind of shields around that disable beaming functions; if they're even variably present, it's out of the question, which usually makes bringing assistance to domestic rather than economic areas impossible. If there aren't any shields, there's usually a reason why. The level of other types of security has to be looked up and evaluated, probed for any patterns of neglect or poorly protected areas. Risk factors are considered differently if there are already rescued passengers on board. When possible, those individuals are asked for their input on the degree of risk they feel it's acceptable to take and may even be involved in the planning.
The hardest figure to calculate is the chance that they'll be recognized. This is the factor that sends them usually searching for the small colonies that aren't densely populated, mostly exist for recreational or trading use and don't have many actual humans that reside there. Wherever they can find the people who practically live in space and don't make many visits to Earth, the farther they get away from the people who have heard much of anything about Kirk's traitorous band of ex-Imperial thieves.
Nine times out of then, they don't do it.
Only lately they've been suddenly aware of a new problem, which they know hardly enough about to even figure into their logic.
"You're not worried about the bounty hunters?" Bones mutters with put-upon dread, aware that this point is redundant to Jim.
Jim looks over. Scotty is emerging from his nap at the same time Nyota slides into the chair next to Jim and helps herself to a spoonful of his dinner. He gives Bones a sigh. "Possibly. It depends."
"On what?" he asks dubiously.
"I'm just reminding you we don't know jackshit about them. You could say that about any planet at this point," he says. "We've only known about this organization for a couple months. These people could be scattered anywhere, it's not like anyone who's looking for us doesn't know we could be just about anywhere. Thankfully we're not the only people out there that are worth anything."
"I heard the old commander's worth a fortune," Scotty puts in, shrugging. None of them ever refer to that Spock by name. "He's almost worth more than any of us and he didn't even do anything except disappear."
"I'm sure he's doing something," Bones says. "I don't really like to think about it, if it's true that he instigated that ministry bombing."
"The one by the Klingons?" Nyota asks. "They're saying he was involved in that?"
"I think he was," Jim says with a limp shrug.
Scotty cocks his brow at him.
"If he's really out there satisfying his curiosity by starting a resistance, and I gotta admit I don't see any other reason he would have given up having power in Starfleet, especially being a Vulcan..." Jim sighs. "He'll be trying to build numbers, and there are a lot of people who would need something as big as a demonstration of terrorism to believe his side is really capable of anything."
"I hate to say it," Nyota says after considering that for a moment, "but I have a feeling he's a little bit safer than we are."
She and Jim lock on each other with rueful expressions. "I guess he would always do the safer thing," he says. "And that's why his bounty is so huge, after all."
"There was something else, last night," Scotty says with his crooked cheeriness, gesturing with the spoon he just picked up. "In the news release there was an investigator finally confirming it really could have been James Kirk who dropped in on his own cabin house just to burn the place down."
"Really?" Jim's mouth crawls into a smirk. He's been waiting a very long time for someone to put that on the news; the house was a hideout Kirk had acquired under a false name during his fugitive days, and there was initial conjecture that some kids who may or may not have been the arsonists had just put the name on the mailbox to rile things up. "I wonder how they figured out it was his."
"Maybe Pap fessed up," Bones says.
"Or Winona knew about it," Jim says, something in his voice dropping. He shifts up suddenly, looking at the chronometer and then the viewscreen. "How many minutes left on Ludo? Shit—"
Four faces turn attentively as he takes the sound off mute, then puts out a hand, Wait for it, while Ludo Nicolitus is wrapping up.
Ludo is a famous personality who has a cloying shtick of boyish appearance despite the long face and the darkly sophisticated eyes. On every episode he wears the same black and jolly-red jacket that looks militaristic but also like the type of outfit that a four-story family would force onto their little boy for Christmas dinner or Sunday croquet; this seems to be the notion of the gimmick, as it looks to be one or two sizes too small for him and he takes to frequently pulling at the collar like it's giving him a neck rash. He swamps the week's news in mispronunciations and malapropisms and nervously adjusts the plastic school room chronometer on the corner of his desk instead of looking behind the camera for the time. The overall effect is supposed to be deliciously unpredictable, with the occasional serious gravity of his expression somehow challenging whatever looks into them, betraying some harder madness underneath the candy store personality. It is generally known that he once bribed his way out of a few years in prison.
"Pop back on tomorrow for the Edition, when we'll have two special guests who were recently apprehended by a Justin Boone. We'll talk to Boone for a bit and then get to the good part." Ludo spreads his hands and claps them back together like an enthusiastic hostess. "And for the tipline this week, we have—!"
He cues into a canned sound effect: the disappointed wah-wah lilt.
"Nothing, lovelies, no sweets, no treats. Sorry, folks, but Cathal Davy and his Myriad Band have got plenty of beats; I'll leave you tonight with this little rockabilly rendition of—"
After muting it again, Jim turns to rest his elbows heavily on the table. "No catch. I don't think it's gonna happen."
A few weeks back they asked a couple Terran allies to try to plant some rumors about their whereabouts based on a falsified sighting close to a Reman mining station. Scotty says, "Just because it's not on Ludo doesn't mean it's not running about. The hunters don't seem to rely on him."
"Yeah. Anyway," Nyota says in a sigh, "hearing nothing is better than them having a tip on where we've actually been. With any luck no one from today will suspect you were anybody important."
"I think the hair color's actually helping," Bones commented, sipping something from a mug. "Who would have thought."
Much later, after Ehrin and Addo have been set up in the biggest bed where Jim and Nyota usually sleep, the two of them are settling onto the camp mattress that has a few sheets drawn around it and occasionally is employed as a general medical bed. Jim is fixing a few of the stray curtain rings while they play at one of their usual topics: Nyota has taken to rereading a few memorable books with the grim curiosity of seeing how the texts are different in this universe, but sometimes she needs a refresher of how they ended before.
"I cannot believe that is one of your favorite books," Jim is saying emphatically.
"You don't like it?"
"Egh. I like how he handles the political themes. Ignorance was better, though barely anyone knows that one anymore—he's all about the Homeric references there. Anyway, I just had no patience for the main character in this one."
She leans up to rest her elbows on her knees, grinning. "Are you kidding?"
He cocks an eyebrow, knowing what's coming and playfully protesting, "Don't."
"The incorrigible philanderer with the desire to explore every woman he meets. You couldn't relate at all."
"He was an incorrigible adulterer. And then that damn ending. When they have to move out to some island just so that he'll stop sleeping around..."
"I think it's just out in the country."
"Right, whatever. And like, it's supposed to be this devoted gesture of his love for her that he has to cut himself off of the company of other women entirely...How does this version end?"
"He sleeps with a milkmaid," she says plainly. "She has a jealous rage and tries to poison him."
Jim pauses to give her a slightly appalled look. "And she doesn't succeed?"
"No. The dog gets to the food."
Jim lets out a sigh. "...The dog."
"It's not that I would find it so understandable from a real person...but you have to remember the womanizing is sort of caricatured. It's all a philosophical device; you can't take it too literally." Her eyes follow him for a moment. "And okay, I do think it means something that he was willing to go away with her. That he's willing to make his world so much smaller in order to give her everything she wants."
A quiet moment passes like Jim has nothing to say to that, and then there's something tired but firm in his expression after he slides the sheets closed behind him and is dipping into bed. "The world should not have to be small for anybody," he says with his own finality, and lays over her body, kissing her neck.
The ship is dim and humming around them, silent except for the shifts of fabric and their sounds rising as they kiss a slow goodnight, sighs ebbing into gasps. She hugs his hips hard between her legs and grows restless under the pressure of him, groans.
"I want you," she complains against his mouth.
He plants her a firm and then soft kiss, letting out a half-chuckle. "Don't sign me up for the next justice movement."
Her head falls back from his a little, the quiet starting to curl up as they can feel each other smirking.
"Not a condom to be had in the revolution," he states gruffly, and she's sniggering low until his head falls into her neck and they're both losing the mood.
It's a fact; the last time Nyota saw a contraceptive hypo for humans they were still on Terra, and ever since her last expiration it's proven impossible to find any other form of that security, where the humans are mostly stocked for more urgent medical attention. They have latex guards at the colony, but she wouldn't feel right even buying one from there. The problem occurred on Leonard's radar enough for him to have asked once with half-drunk concern what they were "doing about it," so that he was told tersely that they both knew better, and never brought it up again. Over time they have risen to the problem in any way that comes up in the spur of the moment when there is even the right amount of time and energy for it to matter.
By the time she rucks his shirt up to hold at his ribs and then down to grab low, Jim is no longer laughing. They're kissing again, blind and hard and smudging, Jim rocking down over her until he reaches for her wrist, pulls both of her hands down to her sides and presses against her, relishing her, mumbling, "You want it, mm?"
This time her annoyance with him has something husky to it. "Oh my god, Kirk, I'm not some back-scratcher for your tremendous ego," she teases, but her voice is low and thin.
"How much?" he's whispering into her mouth.
"So predictable," she stalls.
"Talk to me, huh?" He lets one of her wrists go to move his hand down along the dip of her hipbone, sliding into warmer skin until she feels all soft and sinking and his voice is a heady rumble of near-desperation. "Come on. Talk to me."
She slips and presses her hand back down below his waistband; they're both gasping and moving in tandem. "Want you," she relents in a thoughtless whine. "It's always good but God, I want you to have me, and have me till you know how to make me go crazy, I want to feel like you'll never have to leave me. Jim—"
He's making a noise, some small gasp of shock and he's mouthing along her neck and jaw, his breath heavy through the shape of a word that could be honey. They've gotten submerged in some unexpected and precarious emotion and the motions are tighter and heavier now, Jim kissing a rush down all over her skin and breathing a nervous sigh on her hip, and she can barely hear the reverent mutter that he loves her, he loves her, he'll make it good.
After they have lunch the next day she touches up his roots with the last of the dark brown hair dye, Jim scrunching up his nose as the sour smell fills the hall just outside of the lavatory.
"I'm beginning to forget what you look like blond," she says, smudging in a last couple drops with rushing fingers.
He gives her his best smirk.
"I wasn't saying I missed it," she says with a smile, and removes her plastic gloves. "Rinse up in five minutes. Use the stuff in the blue bottle when you wash your hair, for once."
Leonard walks by from the kitchen end of the hall and cocks an eyebrow. "You ready for the parade tonight?"
Nyota is stalled for a second before she remembers the Ludo announcement. "I forgot," she says with a frown.
Jim's hand tugs at one of her back jean pockets. "It's not like you have to watch."
She shakes her head absently. "But you know we all should."
Jim insists on watching the specials. He never suggested that anyone else needed to, but they follow suit anyhow. That evening on an almost formal schedule they all move wordlessly into the kitchen to line up four of the chairs in a neat row in front of the viewscreen. They check that with luck there probably won't be anything to tend to at the front of the ship, and anyhow the kids are willing to camp up there with the game they've been playing so that they can be alerted to anything unusual.
When the four of them tune in, Ludo Nicolitus is shaking hands with the opening musical guest and just getting down to business. Behind him and a bit to the right, a red velvety curtain hangs to the floor, hugging around its mystery. He tells a few jokes and meanwhile, gradually, the scene is encapsulated eerily by the sound of somebody's uneven breath; the sound crew has turned up the other microphones.
"And so, tried and found guilty for multiple counts of political disobedience and slave theft, our two guests have come all the way from Sweden to be on our show tonight. Let's meet Hanna Andersson and Pia Ramser!"
The motion under the curtain is revealed in the slow yawn of its rising: The uneven legs of two cheap wooden chairs are slightly trembling against the floor, and then the human legs, clothed in black jeans and tall boots, come into view, followed by the finished forms of one tall and one medium-height woman with their hands tied tight behind their backs.
Sometimes they dress them up in something expensive, sometimes not: Pia and Hanna are most likely wearing the rags they were arrested in, sturdy work clothes that at first glance make them look under-dressed to the scarves of satiny thick rope around the necks. Nyota always thinks of some demonic horse's slick black tail when she sees those nooses.
They are gagged, of course, but there's that whimpering wind of air seething in and out of their noses. Not very harshly; the two are brave. Across the chairs, over the shrill red of the set background, their hands are connected.
The last words, which apparently are collected "backstage," are written down and slipped into black envelopes which are presented to Ludo by a woman in a vibrant gown who never frowns. Ludo reads and mocks them with flourish. Nyota used to pay attention to his words, but over time he's become little more than a moving mouth.
Hanna Andersson said only a name, "Kristian," when she was asked. Ludo sweeps out her chair first, after the audience has cheered to do the two separately. Pia lets go of her hand, dimly moaning and slowly soaking the gag in her mouth. But when Ludo comes to caress the back of her chair, she doesn't sob. Her eyes move up from the despaired look at her own feet, at the audience, and her glare is hot and dark until the wood is pulled away from under her boots.
Pia Ramser's last words were, Thank you for having me, Ludo. Some day we'll have you.
They don't speak a word to each other until an hour or so later, when the gradual reanimation seats them around the table and Jim puts down a faded card deck along with a heavy glass bottle.
None of them remembers how exactly the no-drinking pact got dropped for the tradition of only drinking with each other. The stuff is Andorian, a grain liquor you slowly sip at like good tequila (or not, when you have their kind of intentions for the evening). They proceed to drink and drink as if they're throwing their own wake.
At one point Jim, loud and grinning fire, tells a story he has to stand up to tell, about Leonard attempting to play basketball because of a bet placed by some cocky command track students, until Leonard is covering his face with his hands and Nyota is hugging at his shoulders to wrap him up in laughter. A quiet comes after their fit relaxes, and then when Scotty is searching for a forgotten word for something Hosanna mews an inquisitive-sounding noise from the floor that sends them back into giggles. The rowdy clap of voices wakes up Addo and Ehrin who look more unimpressed than annoyed when they come upon the party; Addo accepts a finger of the booze himself.
When Jim gets up to go check the bridge, Nyota's socks slip her shortly across the floor until take-off as he hoists her up in his arms, then carries her down the length of the ship with her giddy shrieks scattering along the dark bronze walls. The panorama of stars blurs as he spins her around once or twice and then they're backing and falling together into the helm chair, catching their breath from laughing. Later the dizziness wanes, Nyota has fallen half-asleep against his shoulder, and he carries her up to bed.
She wakes up in the middle of the night, or whatever stretch of quiet on the ship is being prescribed as nighttime. Her feet whisper down the length of the ship's hallway as she carries a PADD under one arm before sliding down to sit on the floor. She flits through the part of the recording they watched earlier and starts where they stopped.
The top suspects and fugitives are sensationalized by the program long before they're ever caught. For the sake of positive showmanship Ludo speaks as if taking for granted they'll be "guests" on the show one day, and fans are invited to give input on what method of execution they would like to see for the celebrity offenders. She's made it into these segments a couple times. Jim almost always does. When she was voted on it was determined she had a face people wanted to see suffocated in a plastic bag. Kirk, in all his fame, has gotten only a loose majority of the multitude of complicated and expensive execution methods, but chances are they'd put him in the electric fence maiden on too low a voltage for it to be the final cut, wait for that to get boring and then drown him, still hot and zapping, in the dunk tank.
A man named Pierce got the electric maiden last month. The name of the method conjures an image of something that actually looks like an iron maiden, but it's really just a tube platform with something around it that looks like technologically fancy chicken wire. They stand them on something that's hard to keep a balance on, sometimes nothing more than stilts, and the electric cage comes up from the floor to engulf them. The orchestra plays a popular tune if it takes a while, but sooner or later everyone slips.
Jim is sleeping hard on the mattress when she goes back to bed. She runs her fingers through the rich brown of his hair, again and again, remembering the other color and the way a much brighter ship's lights used to catch the briefest embers in it. She makes herself turn back in and close her eyes before she can think of safety, just another old friend that isn't coming back.
Addo shows an impressive maturity when he's given some details about their next stop, which he's been told could be either quick and relatively easy or quite a bit more risky, depending on how much he's willing to bet with his and his sister's safety.
"This planet is heavily occupied, but it's not enslaved. We already have one contact there who is expecting us to drop off a few things for him, but if we're willing to risk a long stay, we may have someone in one of the camps who's able to give us somewhere to hide out while we try to set up the technology for direct communication to the colony."
Ehrin nudges restlessly at her brother while he studies the notes Jim had his PADD translate for him. Jim smiled when Addo asked to look at them; it's always good to see how often the slaves have found one way or another to learn how to read, even if it's building on the most cursory work on an alphabet they learned as small children.
By the time they're only a couple hours away from the planet, Addo has given the go-ahead on helping in every way they can. Nyota expresses their gratitude, a little surprised by his answer. A lot of the passengers are willing to wait longer to get to safety, but they don't always expect it from the ones who are so young.
"Is there anything we can do to help?" Addo asks. "While you are on planet?"
"Just try not to worry about anything. It'll just be me and Nyota planetside. If you need something, just ask the doctor here, and I'm sure he and Scotty will be willing to ask if they need any of your help."
Addo nods and finally squeezes his sister's shoulders in close to walk her out of the kitchen as the four sit down with their cups of stale coffee for a thorough recitation of the details.
The Bahlethi home planet was once, but is no more, a safe spot for several types of refugees who simply needed shelter and to work for their food. The weather and crop variety was friendly to several different types of humanoid species, and the natives were indifferent to the occasional colonization, as long as newcomers had something to offer besides phaser fire. Empirical intelligence ordered the fleet to start monitoring the planet less than a decade ago, and the natives have since been pushed into concentrated areas where their everyday lives are constantly jostled by inspections and other interruptions.
As of now, the number of Terran soldiers on the planet makes it more of an unofficial Starfleet base, but the environment is different from most areas under Terran authority in that slavery is only the suggested threat, just enough to keep relations looking peaceful on the surface. Some entire families belonging to the military have been living there long enough to call it home, and the laxness of rarely disputed cohabitation has given many of the Bahlethi a front row to some of the fleet's basic plans in ways Jim initially found extremely surprising. Their most constant native contact is a man named Kartim who has been having an irregular sexual affair with an Imperial commander for almost four years now and, as he puts it in his fluent standard, "She talks in her sleep."
Kartim first spotted them a few months ago when Jim and Scotty were attempting to steal Starfleet uniforms from that commander's office. He ended up getting them a couple passwords they needed for the security mainframe by the end of the day. He consistently claims he's no political rebel, but Jim isn't fooled. The type of soldiers he spends time around might get far with euphemisms but their efforts obviously aren't about anything nice, and it's possible he just doesn't want to ponder the complexities of the Empire's iron fist but has no problem with something more defiant from people who actually have the organization to do something about it.
Nyota and Jim have their ISF costumes on. Even in the recreational areas, civilian Terrans don't exactly blend in here: Bahlethi have a pronounced alien appearance of hair that stiffly shines like grass reeds and a low halo of freckles around the forehead, and most of the people seen on the planet who aren't natives are human officers. The outfits give them enough confidence to beam right into the back alley coordinates they've taken down beforehand.
They meld right into the throng of people at a large food and craft market that looks to be part of some traveling Terran carnival that makes rounds to a lot of outposts. It's attracting enough civilians to make Jim think they could have done away with the uniforms for today, but the occasional fleet officer is seen picking up something for the spouse or kids.
They have no way of warning Kartim of their impending arrival except by giving him a likely time frame of a few days, but he isn't the only local who knows them and usually word gets to him in one way or another. Nyota and Jim split up, relying on the small communicators attached to their wristbands to check in with each other, and go about the impossible task of trying to be noticed by the natives while being invisible to anyone else.
Jim stalls around down the edge of the market for a while, letting Nyota's head keep at the spark of his peripheral vision. After having no luck spotting Kartim at his usual pharmacy stand across the way, he ends up loosely following Nyota at a gradually closing distance. Forty-five minutes or so go by; as was planned beforehand, they decide to take their chances at the bar where Kartim frequently makes deliveries.
As she's idling on the way there, Jim is only a couple yards behind her when her attention hovers over a spread of jewelry on sale. One of the displays has an array of rings made out of lachtin, an unusual metal produced on this side of the planet with a brown sheen to it that reminds Jim more of polished wood than bronze. Cocking a brow, Nyota picks up a simple thin band and brushes her finger over the surface before setting it back down. Standing off next to the cloth dealers and pretending not to know her, Jim can't help a smile.
She makes it into the pub a little far ahead of him. The place has mostly outdoor seating with a makeshift sports bar atmosphere. Most of the company is Imperial, with their uniform shirts unbuttoned and heavy with sweat after long days in the sun. With any luck, they're too drunk to notice anything odd about Nyota.
When the whole clamor gets started, Jim doesn't think anything of it at first. The big stained billboard-style viewscreen outside turns on but the speakers are drowned out by the crowds, and he notes that it's the Ludo logo coming up during the couple seconds he gives it a glance. He notices the jewelry seller being grabbed lightly by the arm by his neighbor who pulls him into some rushed talk, just before he pinches the ring and snakes his arm back into his pants pocket. Several people are rushing to get closer to the viewscreen, and he's scrutinizing a motion of officers rising quickly from their chairs up at the bar, but doesn't quicken his pace until his comm vibrates.
"Jim, are you seeing this?"
Then a separate line patches down from the Ulysses. "What is it?" Jim asks, more worried.
"Are they getting that down there?" Scotty is asking. "It's on every frequency."
"What..." Somebody has cranked up the speakers now, and then Jim's first thought is that there wasn't supposed to be an execution, no, they would have announced it, because he hears that quick panic wind of heavy breathing. Instead of looking back at the large screen, he picks up into a run for the bar patio, wrenches his way between a shocked tangle of people until he can see one of the sets above the bottle racks.
The production of the scene is more simplistic than usual, the camera only framing from the foot to the head against the wallpaper of red in the backdrop, and there is no music, no other sound but Ludo Nicolitus, strapped up, gagged with satin, noosed with dark cloth and popping out of his sockets with dread.
Both of his feet are propped on one of the thicker stilts and his hands are bound with something in a bright braided green, his entire body wilting back and forth in the frantic struggle to stay in balance. His usual red jacket looks sweatier and woollier with the frays and rips; between the thick lines of rope his neck shows sashes of angry red from the collar, or the rope, or something else. Jim looks again at the basic background and realizes that the crimson color is only a mocking imitation of his own studio.
Minutes and more minutes seem to go by until, in an automatic cascade, he finds Nyota's head up close to the bathroom corridor and in only a matter of seconds her eyes flit around and find his. They are looking at each other, stunned, when Nicolitus trips off of the stilt.
It's hard to say when the silent shock that has waved over the audience turns into trouble. The officers are commanded to convene somewhere for an emergency meeting, maybe misunderstanding that the transmission interference was much more powerful than something meant to interrupt only local frequencies, and the attempts to round up and shut in the natives for an early curfew is met, somewhere, with a fight. Crowds swerve in and out, blocking views and paths. Around the moment Jim wonders if he's actually going to have to take part in crowd control tactics in order to keep blending in is when he suddenly knows he and Nyota should have kept together.
A seed of panic appears in his mind as it's getting too loud. Even if it would do any good to shout out her name, hers is too uncommon to take the risk.
A few of the locals are taking the chance in the chaos to wreck the bar, breaking windows and dumping over cans of garbage, and the riot control spreads thinner, letting out rowdy spills of people who knock over vendor tables. Almost in a visible crack across all the uniforms to be spotted, authorities get pulled thin by the need to intercept the angrier crowds. Jim's eyes flit over the masses again and again and he yells for standby in his communicator, unable to hear anything Scotty could be saying back.
Their emergency spot is the drinking fountain out behind the grains storage, but there's no way either of them could get there now. Jim forces himself to keep a level head and just keep looking.
Finally, when he's stopping to pant and look around against the increasingly dusky sky, he spots the sliver of red flowing in the wind, tied up around the middle of a pole attached to one of the lookout platforms: the scarf she wore mostly tucked under her uniform, just enough of it bordering her collar to cover up her neck scar. He's already closing the distance towards the platform in the shove of zig-zagging through the sea of people, heart hammering until he picks out her thin form facing away, looking out for him in the direction of the bar. Before she can even react to his arm closing tight around hers he's punched the beacon button on his wrist.
Back in the transporter room they've barely gotten their bearings when Bones is skidding around the corner soon enough for Jim to say, "We're getting out of here, we can't do any good."
"Scotty's already plotted to go as soon as you're aboard," he replies, and sure enough the ship makes its knocking clench into adjusting the dampeners, bobs and cracks into higher speed. Next to Jim Nyota shakily sighs, slowly releasing his hand from hers, and is the first to hop off of the transporter pad.
Once they're far enough to finally relax a bit, Jim sits down in the helm chair and the other three lean against the console, their looks all grim and amazed.
"So who did it?" Leonard finally asks.
Jim tosses his hands apart, shakes his head. "It had to be one of the commander's. Who else? Scotty, can you try to find out how widespread the transmission block was?"
"Already on it. The computer took a scan of all the transmission waves while we were still in orbit, I'll have to have a closer look at it in the morning."
"What happened down there?" Leonard is looking at Nyota and Jim. He meets her eyes and they both shake their heads in shared incredulity.
"I have a feeling somebody might be in big trouble for not cutting off that transmission," she says. "I'd love to know how it went over everywhere else."
"First of all, Scotty," Jim says, pointing, "we need another beacon unit like I've said before. Nyota and I were split up, the crowds were deafening. If I hadn't been able to find her..."
"I know, Jim," Scotty says ruefully. "I've been checking the markets up and down. I'll ask around next time we're at the colony..."
"Speaking of which," Jim says, "I think we should start heading there now."
Leonard looks over with a curious brow. "I thought you wanted to stop at H-9?"
"I don't like it. That place was in a riot...Nicolitus was a rich patriot darling and anyone who's much of a Terranist is going to feel like they just got kicked in the jewels. Everybody's eyes are open. I don't want any of us touching an occupied planet for at least a week."
"Right," Scotty acknowledges. After a moment he says, "I'm hitting the head."
Among the remaining three, a thoughtful silence fills the air, the mood barely softened by the far-off sound of Ehrin laughing at a children's program on the screen. When Nyota says it, the realization is sudden but obvious.
"Everyone is going to think we had something to do with this."
Jim says, "Sure thing."
"God help us all," Leonard says, bending over with a frown to pick up the cat. "Anyone up for another drink?"