Arriving at the colony is usually a complicated affair, requiring a lot of scans to find a patch of where Ortwin IV's unusual miasma of radiation would give them enough cover from any nearby ships who might be curious about catching a blip of a ship dropping down on a supposedly unoccupied planet. Then on account of the same radiation they have to let the ship get pulled in on its own pace instead of taking for granted the controls won't get wonky. It's also pleasant, though, watching the blindingly sunny surfaces coming into view in a sandy halo all around the windows. The surface is unforgiving and sweltering where it isn't covered in grey swamps and bigger boiling oceans. This matters little for the colony, as it's under the water.
Ulysses is left to float like a boat in their usual spot, a large narrow crevice between two rocky cliffs where, very occasionally, some other ship will also be covertly docked. There's a supply of emergency rafts buried under a wispy tree on the beach, but they usually have their own. Jim and Leonard are pulling the release and spreading the quickly inflating boat over the waves as they wait for Scotty to make some final checks on the ship's energy systems. Nyota lets one of her feet sink into the rocky sand, brushing the sweat off her forehead with her oversized shirt, smiling at Addo's reaction when his sister puts sand down the back of his clothes. The boy can't stop checking around them, as if he's never seen a place so quiet before.
Scotty whistles seemingly in jovial response to Leonard's complaints as they're paddling the half-mile, and Jim feels Nyota's laughter as her forehead rests into his shoulder blade. At the head, Bones grumbles loudly back at him as he struggles with Hosanna wriggling against her harness, but he's good-natured in his mocking of Scotty's light mood; they all know why he's excited to get down to the colony.
If not for the perfect stillness of the narrow white structure, it could be mistaken for an earthly sea buoy, but then one goes closer and sees the size of it and then sees the door. There are only a couple feet of flooring bordering the round entrance for them to stand on while hugging the curved wall after one of them yanks down the bell switch, waiting in silence as way down someone is receiving a yammering alert call.
They once waited up here for almost an hour, while the sun was going down and the waves churned darker. It's better to arrive more announced. But this time it's only five or so minutes before Scotty, his ear resting on the industrial door, says, "Ah, I hear someone."
A couple minutes after they hear a primitive bump of the lift coming to a stop and the metal door slides open to reveal a man with a rugged work vest and stained pants. He nods, recognizing them, and they drag the still-deflating boat after them into the lift.
The man who's let them on appears to be half-Klingon, but unable to speak standard, or so Jim judges from how he gives them expressions loaded with curiosity but never says anything.
It's a long drop. One time they brought somebody down who had a big claustrophobia problem but was thankfully able to get over it within a day or two. Most of the refugees are only fascinated, especially when out of the lift they see the lengthy line of windows in the bridge tunnel. On days when the illumination is on, it's a good place to watch for sea life; even when it's not, the occasional speckle of bioluminescent fish goes by.
The history of this entire huge water bunker is only half-known, but it's one built on the sheer luck of the right people being the ones to find it first. Some mystery species, understood to not belong originally to the planet, built it here for refuge, presumably during a war. The right people in this case were a ragtag mixed group who had been transported on a slave ship until they managed with some cunning teamwork to take over the vessel and dump their former owners onto some ice planet. Originally when they discovered this place, there was also a small derelict military base above ground; when it was understood that no one was coming back for it, they immediately got to work tearing down every last trace of civilization that wasn't hidden underwater. The chances of Imperial Starfleet or anyone else poking around down here aren't quite remote, but if they did, they'd have to look hard to suspect there was sentient life nearby. Jim often worries about it, but then reminds himself that the Starfleet here has little in common with the one he loved: Exploring has no sake of its own.
At the end of the tunnel, Addo and Ehrin are talking freely and excitedly with each other, then going quiet with too many thoughts to keep up with once the large metal doors open.
The bunker is roughly a dome shape, measuring a circumference of about 200 yards and towering high up with balcony levels lining along the border. The place echoes like an indoor stadium, most of the noise coming from the bottom level where hundreds of little homes sectioned off by flimsy walls or in cloth canopies surround the middle floor which has a makeshift sports court, tables for trading, and a stage-like platform.
Jim is scanning for any changes that may have been made since they last saw the place. Next to him Scotty says, "Hey. We'll get the kids checked in with Gene."
He means him and Nyota, who have fallen into the routine of this because Scotty seems to be the best at finding people here and because nearly every alien they come across takes well to Nyota. Jim nods, and feels a nudge from Bones. "I think I see Jill's light on," he asks. "You want to drop by?" It means a trek through half of the crowd, but Jim doesn't mind.
Jill's shop is a structure built high up and hugging one of the metal pillars close to the walls, lofted much like a beach house with stairs leading up and a neat little balcony porch off to one side. On the walk over, Jim can see a couple figures heading up the steps and going in. When they finally get to the stairs and enter around the side through the narrow balcony door, their entrance gets no notice from the couple customers or from Jill. She's mostly turned away, but her arms are crossed in what Jim picks up on as irritation.
The two men are surly-looking Klingons, one of whom Jim thinks he's seen making trouble bickering around before. "I asked you for this gun weeks and weeks ago—with these exact specifications—"
"Oh, I'm not denying that this was your gun," Jill interrupts evenly. "It's my gun now, unless you want to give my friend an apology, and I'm talking some serious ass-kissing because there is no way I'm gonna sell you a weapon at all, much less one it took me over two months to finish, knowing that you've got that big a problem—"
"You can't afford not to sell it, cunning little romulusngan, and I'm not one to take pleasure in bartering. I'll give you ten raters more than what we decided, that's all."
Still for all purposes unnoticed by any of the three, Bones and Jim exchange a look that makes Bones smirk and shake his head from where he's taken a few steps along the back wall to look at some of the new cases she has hanging up.
"And I'll keep the gun, with or without your money," she's saying hotly. "You want a weapon, you'll have to go buy a knife. Pistol shop's closed, and if you want to try to keep this discussion going I'll have to remind you that there are nineteen handguns in this case and none on you."
The brief silence is a sudden thud of displeasure. "They're not loaded," the customer's friend scoffs.
Jim shrugs and intercepts, "Mine is."
Jill finally turns her head to see the two of them, and the surprise blows all the anger away from her features. "I thought you guys were still out for a couple more weeks..."
"Small change of plans," Bones says, then backs up a startled step: Jill seems unusually happy to see them, so happy in fact that she immediately goes up and slings Bones into a hug. Bewildered by this, he manages after a couple seconds to give an easygoing huff and mutter, "Bless your heart" as he squeezes an arm around her shoulders. Jim is glancing a warning at the guests, who finally take their resigned exit out the main door.
"Hey, cap," Jill says, in her only slightly mocking tone she uses to insinuate his macho status, bumping a fist into his arm as she passes by. "Where's my engineer?"
"Wherever Gene is, probably."
"Gene's at security. Ah shit, I gotta get my comm from downstairs..." She's out slamming the main door behind her, and Bones finds the padlock on one of the hooks next to the door so they can lock up for her.
They catch up later, straying several yards behind Jill when she spots Scotty and Nyota close to the tactical shed. It's half lost in the echoes and the distance, but she whoops some teasing greeting with a tilt of her head as she comes up to where Scotty's sitting on a short stool. There's an aloof comeback as Scotty's standing, and Jim's attention has strayed back to hear something Bones is saying when he hears the happy little shriek, turns up a half-smile at the sight of Jill's legs kicking high in a circle from where Scotty has her in a spinning hug.
Jim finally picks out Gene standing in the water line later. When the young man turns a look on him while pulling cheerily from a sport bottle Jim says, "Woah" and wipes his hand briefly over the jarhead-buzzed bristle where he's used to seeing a thick hang of dreadlocks. Losing all the hair changes his appearance dramatically, no longer softening the arch of his eyebrows but somehow making the pointed shape of his ears flow handsomely with his other long angles.
"Why does everybody have to run their hands on it?" Gene says, squinting and scratching his palm up over Jim's locks, thoroughly enough to leave it a mopped-up mess for a moment. "How do you like it, huh?"
"Trying to mess up all my handiwork," Nyota says blandly, as a greeting.
"None of that, honey," he says in teasing misinterpretation, "he's not my type."
"Sure he isn't," Scotty mumbles in a reflexive dig that doesn't really mean anything.
Gene hits into a chair close to them and flippantly mutters to the air, "Didn't miss that asshole," which pops a long good-natured laugh out of Scotty. Next to Scotty, Jill snaps her gum between a smile and turns the page of a paperback, browsing to find the bit she had a question for him about.
"Did you miss me when you were trying to fix up that lift?" Scotty swings a finger towards one of the less sturdy turbolifts that goes to the balcony levels. "I noticed it's still not working."
"Ha-ha, old man," Gene grunts. "I don't need you messing with anything, not after that four-wheeler cut out when we were hauling ass on...Fergus Beta Alpha Blip Nine Five. Wherever."
"It would have worked fine if you weren't fighting me all the way on the power connecters."
Inflamed with the oft-visited argument, Gene loudly says, "Which you were trying to get to run on carbonium fuel."
"It's ten times the mileage!"
"When it works. I have never seen anything that big run on—"
"I have," Scotty says with innocent dismay. "It was for my first-year project when I was—"
"Maybe." Gene's laughing, mocking but bright. "Maybe back where you're from fairies sneeze into a fuel tank and it runs. That doesn't mean I'm gonna get dropped down onto a damn freezing rock on the backside of nowhere on a ride full of the stuff because some match'k tells me it'll be just fine. What's wrong, Maddi? You remember Jim and everybody?"
Madda's slight figure is now thatched with so much voluminous light brown hair she appears like a dandelion in peripheral vision, and she's been shyly materializing closer to Gene. She stopped to stare mildly at Nyota and Jim—he's never sure whether she actually remembers them as the people who stole her into freedom—and Gene smiles and waves his hand over her face. The spell broken, she clasps her hand around his wrist and mumbles, "Stop" in small annoyance.
"Where's that bouncy thing you had earlier?" Gene asks.
She says something that sounds like, "Shinnibong."
"Whatever it's called. Did you lose it?"
She worries her lips together. "The girls and Jabvo took it."
Jill scowls. "You should give Jabvo a good punch to the face."
Gene says, "Don't listen to Jill. Are you going to remind them that I'm your big brother?" In response to her reluctant expression, he says, "I know you don't want to stand around and watch me fight with people all day. If you come back here again in five minutes I'm not gonna be happy."
"Labalo..." She whines the endearment, tugging at his sleeve.
"Go back to the court and stick up for yourself." He absently runs a hand through a few of her waves before he turns her shoulders around. "Go on, babe."
After she's gone back the way she came, Jill gives Gene a wry look. "Bet you five raters she's just gonna go back to the bunks and look through her pictures."
"Nah, she won't," Gene says.
"Sweet girl," Scotty says. "If she stays that quiet she'll turn out to be quite the little ninja."
Bones scoffs. "I don't know; give it a couple years. From my experience you're lucky if they stay quiet."
A small silence descends; Jill holds the place in her book with a finger and is frowning at Bones. "You had a kid?" she asks quietly.
Fidgeting to find himself under the serious attention, Bones takes a second to nod. "Yeah, I've...I've got a girl."
Jill looks down, shrugging in a sad attempt at nonchalance. "...You never told me that."
This flounders Bones a little and Scotty champions in, "I guess it just never came up. Practically all we ever do is talk work, you know."
She gives a little snicker that's slightly too sour. "Yeah. Isn't that the truth."
Somewhat proving this point, Gene snaps and points a finger at the group, remembering something. "Hey. Ludo Nicolitus."
Jim is already shaking his head.
"You know anything about it?"
"Nothing," Jim says.
"You should have him talk to that woman," Jill says to Gene, and several eyes go up.
"What woman?" Nyota asks.
"I told you to leave it for now," Gene is saying to Jill. A few troubled looks go around, though Scotty settles for a teasingly suspicious one.
"Bossy fucker," Jill mumbles.
"I asked you to leave it for now." Gene is about to sit back when he notices Madda, who has returned with a wobbling little frown. Angrily he asks, "What happened?"
Madda bites her lip.
"What did they say?"
She mutters, "They said that if I was your sister I wouldn't be green."
Something goes softer and more resolute at once in Gene's demeanor. "Come here."
When Madda comes walking over he tugs the girl closer to him.
"You know, I'm just as green as you," he says, quietly conspiratorial. "It's just that I'm green on the inside."
A barb of laughter jumps through her sulk, but she still itches at her own arm in anxiety.
"Anyway, look at me and Jill. We're both Romulans, see, but my skin's darker? And isn't she my sister when it counts? They want you to think that stuff matters, but you're smarter than that. Right?" There's a short mumble, and he says, "What? Didn't hear you, string bean."
"That's my girl."
Madda smiles again, letting him rock her into a hug. Next to them Jill makes a noise of surprise at the sudden motion of Scotty pulling her in to plant a kiss on her shoulder, and they all laugh.
Later they play a card game, using a large weapons chest as a table, while a heavy scuffle breaks out a few yards away. The fight, as far as Nyota can tell, has something to do with a torn boot lace and somebody's drink getting spilled, and what her ears pick up has her as convinced as ever that insulting somebody's mother is equally antagonizing in almost all cultures.
Casting a look at the first hard shove of the Klingon into the Romulan, Bones slides his eyes over to Gene and spreads his hand toward the brawl as if he were motioning that they've just opened the buffet. Barely looking up from his hand enough to notice the gesture, Gene says, "It's my night off."
"You don't get nights off." That's from Alel who makes this remark with his still traceable hitch of a Romulan accent, just now quickly taking a seat next to Gene. The extent of his friendly greeting to the rest is an acknowledging nod before he snoops at Gene's cards. Nyota thinks he looks even less boy and more man than the last time they saw him. His growth spurt has called for collecting the same rag mix of multi-cultural clothing they're used to seeing on the Terranized ex-slaves, but he'll probably always be several inches shorter than Gene.
"Morning, prince," Gene sings wryly. "How's your head?"
"Better," Alel says. "Did they kill Ludo?"
People don't give Alel's sense of humor enough credit. Nyota sniggers and gives an answer in Romulan and they exchange a couple bits of banter while Gene pouts from outside the language barrier, Alel absently rubbing a hand at the back of his neck as his way of retreating into politeness takes over and he asks about their progress.
Scotty is returning from getting some snacks with Jill and as he sits down he says, "Doin' alright, Al?" He gets a shrug and a half-smile.
Later on some mix of rock and reggae music is playing from someone's data box, and Jill takes to contentedly looking at Madda doing a bobbing little dance without a trace of self-consciousness a few steps off, while the game finishes over slow conversation. Then with a more serious lean forward, Gene thinks to ask all of them what they were doing when Ludo's assassination was aired. After they tell the story, Nyota is surprised to hear that they got wind of the news all the way from Terra. The colony has a complicated message tree that bounces through several planets and then makes it to one of the food couriers who circles by once every couple weeks; she's surprised that whatever Earth contact filed away the rumor for them didn't assume they'd already heard.
After she makes a comment about this, Jim shrugs while pouring himself a short knock of whatever clear gut polish Gene started drinking a few minutes ago. "Brighton is always pretty thorough."
Alel's frown gives away a bit more than the hesitation in Gene before he says, "No, it didn't come from Brighton. Has nobody told you?"
Scotty's antennae goes up, and he looks away from the two-player game he and Jill were trying to figure out. Jim evenly asks, "Told me what?"
"We haven't heard from him since..." Gene shakes his head. "Since that time he contacted us from Sweden, actually."
They all exchange looks, all except for Jim who still looks intently at Gene. Leonard says, "That's gotta be at least three months now."
"I just thought Jill would've let you know, but forget it, okay. It doesn't necessarily mean anything. He was never too eager about it, maybe he just got squirrely."
"He'd let us know if he got squirrely, I think," Leonard says.
"He does things on the dot or he doesn't do them at all," Jim agrees. They sit there for a long moment. Then he goes into a flinch and has to get up to pace. "Shit."
Jill says, "There's no point in stewing about it unless you just want to make yourself sick. That's why I didn't—"
"Not now, Jill," Jim says in a whining demand, reeling about a couple steps. "It's not right. There's no way in hell they know that he's in contact with us, and it's not like he's some internal informant. Most of what he ever did was give us a ship. He didn't even give it to us, he sold it to us."
"You don't think that's enough to get him in it?" Scotty asks.
"How would they know he knew anything?"
"Maybe they don't," Nyota says, "but who's to say they didn't go after everyone in the Knot? Particularly the people who may have noticed anything about us?"
"...So what then?" Jim says, low and bitter. "What? He's dead? Or we'll see him next week on the broadcast when they find a show host who's even better than Ludo?"
"If something happened to him," Nyota slowly says, "you can't say we're to blame. The situation is more complicated than that. Terra is so paranoid right now, he would have been in trouble sooner or later."
Alel asks, "Does he know where—?"
"No." Jim shakes his head, certain it's that question even if he seems almost dismayed to be asked. "He has no idea where this place is, unless Gene told him and you know he didn't."
Gene looks at Jill sidelong, then reluctantly asks, "But is there any way he could have figured it out, if he needed to? If he somehow traced the messages beyond his direct contact, and asked them—?"
"I doubt it," Scotty says, raising a brow, "but anyway, why would he?"
Jim nudges up to Nyota's side, his hands resting on the edge of the table as he leans down, giving Gene a speculative look. After a moment he asks, "What's got you all worrying about the security of the colony?"
"Aren't we always worried about that?" Gene asks, after a fractional pause.
Nyota notices Jim trying a look at Jill instead. She just gives him a blinking wall, and he looks away.
After a moment Jim sits back down. He says, "Scotty, cut the Terran deck. Poker."
Some time after the tone has lightened back into quick conversation, Gene leaps halfway off-topic to say to Jill, "Hey, did you show him?"
Taking a second to realize what he's talking about, Jill looks up from her hand with a slow little grin. "Oh, I forgot."
"Come on, get them."
Jill's modesty has turned into a prouder edge when she returns with a duffel bag that has a whole lot of something clacking inside of it that sounds like tin cans. Dumping a few of them on the table, she presents the phasers that are so tiny and light that they look like toys.
"No shit, you figured these out already?" Jim exclaims as he's testing the feel of one.
"Watch it: that tab on the end? Pull it out. Just—yeah. Hear that little whirring?" It's a very small whining noise he has to put the gun right up to his ear to pick up on. "That's the charge. It takes about thirty seconds, and when the charging's done you should get at least two, maybe three or four shots before it dies. It's no big firepower, but the point is that they're light and a slave could hide them in their panties for about as long as they need."
"And you've tried shooting them?" Scotty asks.
"Yeah. Every once in a while one will come up a dud, but they're mostly good."
Rising out of his chair to meet Jill's stance with a grin, Scotty stretches out his arm to give Jill's hand a silly jiggling shake. "Congratulations, Jill. You've invented the world's first disposable phaser." She puts up her bottom lip in a serious pout, feigning the same businesslike air.
Alel ends up being a fan of poker, staying even after Gene has gone off to bed, but only for the half hour before he has to go show up for a shift helping out in the medical tent. Bones folds and calls it a night and Nyota follows to help set up their bunk area shortly after. Jill and Scotty remain Jim's entertainment for an hour or so.
Jill has scrounged up these irresistible pastries that seem to always materialize on recreation nights at the colony, and a Romulan Jim vaguely recognizes comes by to swipe one. She tilts off some harmlessly irritated comment as he's already walking away and he looks back with his pointer knuckle wrenched between his teeth. The gesture is a vulgar insult, but being one that Jim eventually learned comes uniquely from the Knot, there is always an exchange of commonality in using it now.
"Do you bite your knuckle at us, sir?" Jim absently mutters.
Without looking up Scotty chuckles and quotes, "Is the law of our side if I say ay?"
Jill may well recognize Shakespeare, but she interjects, "The law better not be on your side. No sir."
Scotty raises a brow. "Everybody needs a couple laws. We're just breaking somebody else's."
"You're right. I for one have exactly sixty-seven laws." She says this with an emphatic nod, landing her fist on the table. The two of them are in a state, buzzed on that humor that strikes when it's time to hit the cots.
Scotty says, "That's right, what's the sixty-sixth law, I can't remember?"
"The law that you gotta go find me a beer when Jim quotes Shakespeare. But only when you're wearing..." She draws it out, giving him a speculating look, "Black underwear."
"She's good for a guess, this one." He gets up, Jim smiling tiredly after him.
Jill is starting to undo her braid for the night, making a face as the tie snags. After a moment Jim asks, "That guy who just came by...I seem to remember Alel doesn't like him much."
Jill gives a considering look. "That's Rai. He's been a real load in the past, but he's one of the good ones. The thing is, he used to be really awful to us spays. He would badmouth the League all the time because of Tom. He didn't like the idea of a lab nape being in charge of protecting everyone. But then..."
He frowns, already feeling the air begin to stir into something sadder.
"He was different, after the Knot was attacked. He must have lost somebody...hell, we all did, it did a number on everyone, but...He came to the memorial when Tom's ashes were buried. He didn't say anything, but he was there. I remember on Ulysses he pretty much kept to himself; you probably barely remember him from then. I'd never seen him like that. In a way it was kind of a relief when he started taking digs at people again, but it's never like it was before. And you should see the way he walks on eggshells around Alel even though he's bigger than him." She chuckles shortly. "I heard Alel socked him once. If it was anybody other than Rai I wouldn't believe it."
"Alel..." Jim says the name in a speculative drawl. "I always thought he had more fire than he let on. He is more traditionally Romulan than the rest of you, after all."
In an amused rueful way, not sure if she's being teased, she says, "Being Romulan is no excuse."
"Huh." He leans back. "I don't think you would have said that a year ago."
"Eh, you might be right. But I have a stupid optimism about forcing people to suck it up and get along. Maybe...I don't know, maybe it's because Tom and I used to wipe the floor with each other, back when we were still kids." She shakes her head, eyes going a little still and distant. "If you'd seen the two of us you wouldn't have been able to believe we could ever be close friends."
Jim feels a sad smile cross his face. "You'd be surprised."
Jill has spoken to him about Tom on several occasions, but he never needed to be told what it was between the two of them, having understood from the only time he ever met the man that he was her brother in every way that mattered. There are times he looks from a distance on the mutating stages of her mourning and is afraid of it, almost in the same way he was afraid of her when she passed comments on their naive understandings of the world around them back when they were all on Terra and she had no inkling of where they came from. But then even when Jim sees her darker moments of being reminded of her old friend in a sudden bitter stab, there's a strange emotion in him that perversely, passionately envies her for that particular pain; for the age of it, for how far-reaching and gradually overturning the roots rumbled under their lives before the whole of it was severed away for good.
He has to remind himself surprisingly often not to compare distance to death, even when enough bad days and booze makes it feel exactly the same. Jill would give anything for Tom to be alive somewhere, in some safer place, never mind if she couldn't ever see him again. Jim lets her have the last pastry.
When Scotty returns with a couple drinks, he takes in the frowns. He attempts, "Not to worry, now, there's always a dance at the end."
Jill ignites with soft giggles. "What are you talking about now, you weird bastard?"
Jim doesn't have to wonder about "the woman" for much longer. He is introduced shortly after dinnertime the next day.
"All the way back to Earth's pretty risky, I know," Scotty is saying. "But if we could trust one of the allies to make a drop of those disposables..."
"Problem is contacting Terra involves so many runarounds and codes as it is, we'd never be able to reach someone again if the rendezvous point was compromised," Jill says.
"You thinking of going back up with us for a while?"
Charlie has come up with her clipboard and bends in to say to Alel, "You wanted the sign-up schedule for medical."
"Thank you," Alel says, taking it. "Why does your hair look so sweaty?"
"It's wet," she explains with the same near-curtness. "The shellfish."
"What?" Gene asks.
"You ate them."
"You helped the fishers catch us dinner?" Scotty cheerily asks; her lack of response doesn't seem to show any understanding of the point of flattery here, but he goes on, teasing the others, "Nevermind the Genes and Alels, Charlie, a pair of you could run this place."
"The—" Bones sniggers in the middle. "They don't have the genes and alleles for it—the—" he stammers as Jim kicks him.
Alel blinks at him. "No, I thought you know it's pronounced—"
Jim is groaning, "The old dad jokes have started."
Nyota shakes her head and starts to say something, then trails off, cut off by something Bones says but making a gesture to shush him. "Gene, is that your terminal comm?"
Gene's already snapping it up, having heard the voice crackling through on the security frequency; when he holds it up to his ear, Jim is just next to him and happens to catch the code that means an inmate has escaped. Jim ignores the exclamation point in his mind at not knowing they even had any kind of prisoner and is already standing up quick and going for the phaser in the duffel he happened to decide to carry his reading in today. Gene is barking a question into the comm and getting some answer that makes him launch in one direction, and Jim pursues, both of them pulling their firearms up in unison.
"Kirk, requesting sitrep," he manages to yell into his own comm. "Describe target."
He gets no answer. Gene takes a sudden left into the narrow gap between the platform and the lighting consoles. Jim decides to run straight and maybe catch somebody out on the other side, even though he won't know who to look for. This ends up getting him separated from the action; anyone who was behind there, including Gene, must have taken another left between the consoles.
"Kirk!" Gene's voice startles him on his personal comm. "Get out in the open!"
He squints and shakes his head in confusion, circling around and idling into an opening away from the sparse market crowds. "What—"
"Just do it, alright?"
He stays right where he is and for the moment only tries to be useful by scanning for anyone who looks suspicious. No one even appears to be alone, much less like they're trying to blend in. Then he sees her, and is thrown just a bit off his guard by the fact that she's looking right at him and seems to have been walking up to him, too willing. She's only several feet away, her eyes searching him, and so composed that his warning bells almost miss it. Nothing else about her snags at him quite like the eyes, big and dark: He thinks he's seen them before.
He's barely gotten tossed into this suspension of sense before the world reels back into fast motion: Nyota, having made a run for them after borrowing an extra comm, is slowing up at Jim's side; just then the woman is cracked out of the streaks she profiled into the air by Gene blowing down from out of the crowds and folding her arms behind her back.
Even allowing the motion to bring her to her knees, her bearing seems to coil in only when she lets it, and she's still looking at Jim as the cuffs wrap and click behind her back. She smiles.
"Let's go," Gene says to her, the words almost a familiar exasperation. He helps her stand, giving a pointed look at Jim as if trying to read something there, and then he marches her off. Jim can feel Nyota looking at him, and after a moment finally meets her eyes.
She reads him and eventually prompts, "You know her?"
"...I've seen her before," Jim says, shaking his head, "but I can't remember where."
Next to the brig compartment is a sturdy enclosed cabin that tends to collect confiscated objects and smaller weapons that don't belong with the regular security stuff. Everyone is there, eventually even Charlie who seems relatively less chafed than everybody else, as is her M.O. She stands close by the door surveying the conversation with crossed arms; Jim and Gene mostly take turns pacing in restless orbit while the rest are uncomfortably perched around the narrow table, some on a set of chipping-off bar stools.
Gene is saying, "So you recognize her."
"Like I said, I don't know who she is, but...I think I've met her before, yeah. Of course who knows if it was her or—"
"Right." Gene takes a moment to frown at the floor. "I gotta admit most of the reason we didn't tell you everything sooner is that I was really hoping you wouldn't say that, but then I kind of needed you as bait out there. It was that, and wondering if we might be able to catch her in a lie if we got more out of her before you came along."
Jim stops pacing, holding up a hand. "So she was looking for me."
"Yeah. She claims up and down she's here for a good reason, but won't tell us anything until it goes through you first."
"So you're not just worried she's Starfleet," Nyota says heavily. "You know that she is."
"We don't have a name, she just gave us a fucking initial. So we have no way of looking her up, but she claims she was once an Imperial officer, and is now one of Spock's."
"How convenient," Bones says.
"Yeah. And how are we supposed to take her word for it when she came in possessing Starfleet-issue goods and didn't try to explain herself until she got caught?"
"Okay. I'm sure we're all officially freaking out," Jim says, "but let's keep in mind that if there was general knowledge on the part of Starfleet about where this place is, she would not be the only one here. Right?"
Jill lets out an aggravated noise. "What if she isn't the only one? What if she's the recon and they're just trying to see if they can pick up anything else before they come in and drown the whole colony?"
"And they'd send her in with suspicious military equipment?" Jim shakes his head. "I don't think so. What, did you have her tagged from the first day she showed up? It would be way too sloppy."
"Then why the hell can't she throw us a hint if she's such a good little freedom fighter?" Gene demands. "We tried everything and all she does is ask—"
"Hold up?" Bones levels at Gene, "What's 'everything'?"
Jim sees the hammered nail of Gene's jaw clenching tight; in front of him, Nyota's eyes widen a fraction before he mutters, "No, I didn't...torture her. Not exactly."
"What the hell does 'not exactly' mean?"
Gene seems to almost answer straight, then just retorts, "Don't look at me like that."
Bones looks to Scotty, who remains civilly silent but can't help a fall of disapproval in his look that Gene hardly misses.
"You know what, fuck all of you," Gene says. "The colony is all we've got. I've got a family here. What would you have done if you thought somebody was about to blow it all away and the only person who could tell you whether it was true wouldn't open her fucking mouth? I'm not saying I liked it, hell, Tom isn't here anymore to tell me—"
"I'm just telling you you didn't have to—" Leonard's protest is interrupted by some tug of his attention from Jill, who maybe nudged at him under the table with a kick; she shakes her head and somehow conveys something that makes him relent with a sigh.
"What was the initial?" Jim asks.
Gene shoves his hands in his pockets. "'M.'"
"Give me the most detailed Starfleet roster you have, I'll see if anything rings a bell."
Bones scoffs in disbelief. "That could take all night."
"We've already checked all the pictures under 'M' surnames, but our rosters are mostly outpost crews," Gene says. "Still, you could look."
"Whatever her reason is for wanting to talk to me, I think her plan is to make me curious enough to get the chance," Jim says, then shrugs. "And it's working. But I want to have at least something on her."
Later when he's being piled with the two rosters, he looks up long enough to get Nyota's attention. "Did you think maybe you've ever seen her before?"
She takes a seat next to him, hesitating in thought. "I'm not as sure as you are, but I thought...maybe I had. What's strange is I couldn't tell you where or when I would have seen her on the ship or anywhere else, but I'm picturing her in science. Well, maybe not science, but—"
"I kinda thought that too. In which case I don't think this will help; outposts are relatively low on blues personnel."
"...You think her name actually does begin with 'M'?"
Jim is staring forward in consideration, itching his knuckles over his chin. "Gene. She didn't let on anything about what kind of relationship she may have had with Kirk at some point?"
"...Well." Next to him Alel gives something like a cough. "It came up. She was getting into a freaky amount of trivia about you, and since it's not exactly state secret I indulged, just to try to weed out more about her, though I could only, you know...operate on assumptions."
Jim shifts his position, doing a mild double take. "Trivia?...You have assumptions about me?"
"Eh, only that you're obviously some notorious flirt with a dirty little secret penchant for," Gene takes a dramatic breath, "monogamy."
Alel starts to lean into Nyota's direction, and she bends in to whisper a translation of the word. Jill's dark mood finally breaks into a helpless snigger.
"This isn't helping," Jim says.
"Molly," Bones says. "Millie, Mia, Maura, Michelle."
"Madelyn?" Nyota chimes in.
"Monogamy," Alel mutters reflectively, which throws Gene into a snicker.
"You two," Jill scolds, then can't resist herself. "Minnie?..."
"Really?" Gene rags. "An assassin named Minnie?"
"Oh, she's an assassin now."
All of them flinch in some small surprise at Charlie joining in to keep them on task: "McCoy, MacDonald. Melville..."
Scotty comes out of a yawn. "Morrison, Mendes, Montoya..."
"Marlena," Jim says, at the end of an exhale.
Sensing the color of certainty in his tone, they all lock their glances on him.
"It's Marlena Moreau." He nods and gets up out of his chair. "I'll explain later."
The harsh door alarm complains for a couple seconds before Gene punches in the code, accompanied by Jim just behind him.
"How did she get out, anyway?" Jim mutters just loudly enough for Gene to hear him.
"She managed to get up into where the chamber connects to the vents somehow. That's why we switched her into the other cell."
Jim examines the dark abyss of the ceiling. "But that's gotta be twenty feet up."
Gene shrugs broadly, then gives some gesture as if to say, Have fun with her.
The one light in the brig cabin is a cheap lamp hanging up high in one of the corners; Moreau is stored in one of the two cagey compartments, her profile swerving under the twitch of fluorescence as she turns calmly to greet them. Gene, after his final hesitation, snaps the key card through the lock and opens the compartment to let in Jim, who steps inside with as cavalier a presence as he can muster, hands in pockets.
She's sitting in a wooden chair and, he notices now, wearing a neutral-colored trench coat that probably used to make her look expensive but now wears a good amount of dirt and some deep brown stains down the front. Her black hair is tied back in a scarf but looks like it hasn't been combed in a while. Despite all this she doesn't look like a prisoner; she has an air of contained pleasure, which seems only somewhat more improbable than the vigorous beauty of her. Above her half-smile the cheekbones are shaped to catch patches of shadow in a not quite sharp way, affecting some demureness that's contrary to a blush, and the dark slopes of her eyebrows draw into something effortlessly sly.
"Hello, James," she says.
His hand is absently grasping to pull the other chair over. He says, "I don't really go by that," as he sits down.
"Ah." Her eyes float along the floor in what looks like faint disappointment. "Do you remember me?"
"Unfortunately I'm not here for small talk, Moreau," Jim says. "What do you want with the colony?"
"How do you suppose it's something I want with the colony and not just you?" Her voice is soft and high, almost musical, but it cracks at the air with a deliberate press of diction. She barely reacted to him knowing her name.
"Everybody wants something with me, so I figured we'd get the less obvious business out of the way."
She allows a hollow laugh. "Looks like you do know how to cut to the chase."
"I guess I should back up, though, and ask it this way: What does Spock want with this place?"
Her mind pinpoints the small trap immediately. "And who says Spock wants anything with the place?"
"Are you pulling strings for him or not?"
"Then how did you find the hideout? Why did you go through all the trouble of looking for it? You realize the location is worth a bounty ten times as big as my head, and you just came waltzing in?"
"Calm down, sweetheart. If you found the place without a map, why can't I? I came here by way of the underground just like anyone else; I did enough of what you've been doing to get myself in enough trouble for somebody to give me the same heads up they've been giving the factory slaves...I just..." She puts her hands up. "I just did all of that with the goal of getting here so I could talk to you because nobody knows where you are at any time except that maybe you'd end up here."
Jim rubs the heel of his hand along his forehead, hesitating for a moment. "Does Spock know?" he asks gruffly.
"Know what?" she returns.
Agitated, he says, "The colony. Does he know where it is?"
"No." She blinks at him. "I don't imagine my word is enough, but it's true, I've been unable to communicate with him ever since I confirmed the coordinates. Why does it make a difference?"
"This place," Jim says slowly, "is a home. It is a refuge and it has to be untouched. It is not a place for you to come looking to recruit anybody. Are you going to deny that that's what you're doing?"
She considers him, not answering.
"You came here looking for me. If you're really working with Spock, who as far as I can tell is trying to make things better but seems to be doing so by instigating a full-on war, I can only conclude you have gotten the idea in your head that I will lend my leadership to one of your efforts. The answer is fuck no." He looks straight at her, growing on edge by how unfazed she looks by his initial refusal. "But anyway you've been in here for a while and you haven't had the best of months, so I will at least entertain what you have to say."
Moreau has her arms crossed now, and she thinks for a long moment before speaking. "What is it that makes you think we're on different sides?"
"I don't think we are, actually, but I...do not trust Spock and nothing that I suspect he is responsible for is the type of action I am willing to take in order to run this world over. I don't know if it can be run over, but if this tension only escalates, it gets harder for me to help anyone. I may be trying to be a lot of things right now but I haven't exactly been a soldier in a while."
Moreau looks at him in now confused speculation. "You put your trust in severely anti-Terran ex-napes, you're willing to sit here and have this conversation with a former ISF member...but you outright refuse to place any trust in Spock, who is someone you knew pretty well in your dimension."
"One thing at a time." Jim gives her a mock-polite smile. "We're not talking about my first officer and we're not going to talk about him. But I knew that one well enough to think that this Spock has something pretty rough in him that he might not be handling with care. How do I know that he somehow decided this whole thing is the ethical, rational choice, that he's not just acting on some jealous illogical rage that Earth survived Nero and his planet didn't?"
"Would it matter, so long as the results are the same?"
"Yes," Jim says carefully. "Is he doing it for himself or for everyone else? Did I help show him it should be done or just that it can be done? He's too hard to figure out. He bombs this legislation building here, and then hangs a show host there, and I'm not sure whether that's a man who's after the statement it makes or just the bloody result."
"Oh." Some grim impression of modesty: "Who says the show host was all him?"
He stares her down as she leans farther back and lets out a sigh through a gritty smile. His expression should get across the question he wants to ask.
"...Okay, here's your unlucky celebrity host. Nicolitus was born Ludovic Lambert," she begins to list off in a show of boredom. "He was adopted after his parents gave him up at the age of two; he later experienced a stint of heavy alcoholism during his teenage years but was not a delinquent and he had a generally healthy psychological profile. He participated in running a brothel and was still doing this when he started taking jobs in theater and a whole lot of pretentious performance art gigs. He gained a lot of popularity doing the latter and was approached for a talk show host position after his twenty-second birthday. It started as a more mildly sadistic carnival—dropping criminals in dunk tanks full of water laced with skin irritants, things like that...But then when the world started to change, the stakes changed. The new execution format was his idea."
She waits for him to get the point. He thinks he does.
"You really are different from him. When James would lie down next to me, and he'd look so...well, it doesn't matter, but he'd say, 'I need you to get rid of somebody for me, babe.' I could usually get it done very fast, but I wasn't the type who didn't want to know my target. He was never wrong, but I never took his word for it on anyone."
"How could Ludo be your target, with you stuck in here?"
"I set the thing in motion a couple months ago. Just arranging the place and time is most of the work; I wish I could have been there though. The whole idea was to make it a terrible little parody, but from what I hear they didn't quite dress it up enough."
Jim swallows, probably being immensely predictable for asking after a moment: "What kind of people did Kirk always ask you to kill?"
"All kinds. They only had to have one thing in common."
"They wanted him dead."
"Any particular reason he had so many enemies?" he asks sarcastically.
"You can hardly talk about having enemies, Jimbo."
"Are you actually making that comparison?"
"I'm not trying to say his reasons were ever like yours, but where do you get this idea that he was the definition of tyranny? He built himself out of the situations he was in—"
"He was a very high-ranking leader in the steamroller. What the fuck do you expect me to think of him?"
"It was either ISF or go to prison. He had no intentions to enlist before he got arrested. As for the definition of 'leader,' I met plenty of people in positions like that who settled for keeping their heads down as much as possible. You would call that cowardice, but then I wonder, what would you have done to keep your people alive if Spock hadn't helped you escape from the fleet?"
"He chose to get into the situation. I would have taken prison."
Now she leans forward, resting her hands on her legs and looking at him. After a moment she says, "Yeah. I guess you would have. But maybe you should talk to Gene some time about what most of the prisons are like here."
That comment makes a jarring landing as Jim blinks at it: He can't think of any single reason why Gene would have told her about his time being worked in a jail, but it's not like she could have found out any other way.
She goes on: "And consider for a second that Terrans are nearly as enslaved by the Empire as anyone else."
"No," he says, shaking his head slowly. "They're not. It's not like I don't know what you mean, I'm not an idiot, but where does it end? Some captain or admiral who's 'forced' to do the wrong thing because he might get thrown to the dogs if he doesn't? The advisors who know they'll get their heads delivered to the empress if they speak out of turn and she's having a bad day? She's the top of the ladder but she's only one person; they allow her that power, either because they don't care, or because it's just this...selfish pants-pissing reverence for the status quo."
"Okay, not enslaved, but you acknowledge that the power held over Terrans is very real. And in case you haven't noticed, there's a little bit of civil conflict going on over on Earth right now and has been ever since that law infuriated so many people."
"You're talking about Mazel's amendment." His mind immediately flinches with dark memories of the attacks, putting him a bit more on his guard.
"Yes. But what is your idea of why that law got passed in the first place, Kirk? I mean, what did you objectively think of it, when you weren't scared about what it meant for you?"
"What did I..." Jim has to pause to turn over some things he only half-considered before. "Alright. The thing is, it was a politically insane move. Before, they had very small bands of rebels allowing ex-slaves to shelter up in their back yards; and then, they decide to make it okay to treat their own supposedly superior species as slaves themselves simply because they sympathize with them? Not only that, but with the type of intense paranoia that makes it okay to inform on your human neighbor simply because they have done something suspicious, and no warrants needed to search their homes or even bring them into custody based on any of that, no legal protection for them against other crimes once they've been listed on suspicion. Of course things got messy as hell, of course it blew up in the government's face when people were enraged to see their family members hauled off by slavers. But you can't expect a lot of sense in those things."
"There is sense enough," Moreau points out, "if somebody who was behind the votes wants the Empirical order to fail."
The idea snags with intrigue, too tantalizing and also, considering how badly the Knot paid for it, too horrifying to feel like a real possibility. "Are you telling me Spock's nudging someone in the counsel?" he demands, a small dark laugh escaping him.
"Well, he doesn't share everything with me. I'm only suggesting. It would be a difficult operation to swing; after all, the votes are often only symbolic except in cases when the advisers are unanimous, and even then...But I'm sure you can imagine that with enough credits any of them can be bought, and the empress does feel some personal loyalty to some of them."
"So just so I'm not lost: Are you telling me this is what happened?" It feels like she's been tiptoeing around hers or the commander's responsibility for anything so far in this conversation, and Jim feels vaguely like a kid falling for an uncle's cheesy pranks, grabbing for the candy bar just before it gets repeatedly snatched out of reach. She gives him a mockingly patient smile and he shifts in annoyance.
"I'm making a point that it very well could have happened. What I can tell you for sure is that Spock intends to divide Terra against itself in every way possible so that they'll be weak in the face of the real conflict. And if the Empire is under the impression that he is doing something quite a bit louder from the start, in the meantime, he thinks that's a perfect distraction from settling affairs between their own."
If he thinks about it, Jim is sure that Spock's "louder" actions—the assassination, the couple ambiguous bombings—are just the right amount to mostly serve as some ominously vague threat. Beforehand, he had a hunch that the commander was after starting a war but not really being a part of it; now everything is stacking up towards a very deliberate attack on what will supposedly be a less unified enemy. All in a short moment, he has realized how big the numbers must actually be. "How many people are on his side?"
"It's difficult to say; we have more alliances with entire species than we have armies we can actually count."
"Many of the Klingons we were able to gather, for one; they're the muscle, obviously. For other operations we have a strong association with the Nyroks. Have you heard of them?"
"Sure, they recently staged a successful uprising against one of the Terran-occupied continents on their home world...Aren't they telepathic in some way?"
"In a way," she says, but doesn't elaborate.
Gene comes back into the cabin now, carrying a plastic pitcher of water and a couple stacked cups. He sets them down with an affected bland expression towards Moreau and a more curious look in Jim's direction; Moreau looks mock-graciously at him and Jim finds it incredibly hard to believe this woman was recently tortured in some way. Instead of leaving this time, Gene leans into one of the corners with his arms crossed.
"I'm a little embarrassed to make it obvious that we haven't exactly gotten to the point," Jim mumbles to him, and Gene makes a tired, unsurprised noise. To Moreau he asks: "What does Spock want with us?"
She fills up her cup and takes a neat gulp before setting it down with a clack onto the floor next to a chair leg. Then she explains.