I make a habit of coming on the bridge a good fifteen minutes before alpha shift begins, if I can help it. The shift change can get chaotic so easily – it's really nothing more than my duty as captain to reduce that disorder as much as possible. This day, I only managed to get there five minutes early, but given our current mission, I didn't think it would matter much.
The turbolift opened, and I could hear the familiar sounds of a crew hard at work – quiet conversations over headsets in the back where Communications stations are, electronic chirps from telemetry programs on Science consoles to either side of the bridge, new course and position information being read aloud by the crewmen stationed at Tactical and Navigation in the very front.
One of them glanced back at the captain's chair and, seeing me, called out the one phrase I am never going to get tired of hearing: "Captain on the bridge!"
At once, chiefs of staff stood up from their stations and approached me with summaries of the events of gamma shift. Mostly nothing had happened, which wasn't surprising; we'd only just arrived at the location for our latest mission an hour ago, after all. I was a little surprised to see Carol Marcus still on duty, since a higher ranked science officer had been the one to request that the Enterprise accept this mission. I'd figured he'd be on the bridge the second we arrived.
The quiet relay of information from my officers was interrupted momentarily by the pneumatic hiss of the turbolift doors opening. I didn't even have to look to know who it was.
"Think of the devil," I muttered as Spock approached.
Spock paused mid-step, having apparently overheard the comment. "Captain?"
I held back a grin. "Never mind, Spock. Let Lieutenant Marcus fill you in on the events of the night, and then you can get to the astronomical telemetry you've been waiting all month to do."
"It has not been a month – "
I stopped holding back that grin. "Hyperbole, Spock."
Spock, after a moment's hesitation, nodded. "Of course, Captain." He and Carol talked briefly before he relieved her of duty. Tired and grateful, she smiled at me before heading off the bridge. She'd had two straight shifts of bridgework, if I remembered yesterday's schedule correctly. That could be exhausting even when nothing was happening – and that was assuming she'd come to the bridge well-rested. Knowing her, she'd been messing around in her lab for a few hours before her shift.
Spock was usually the same way, but I had a feeling he'd come here straight from the mess hall, and from his quarters before that. Something about the way his hair looked made it seem recently cleaned, though it was dry, shiny, and lying as flat and neat on his head as ever.
What could have kept him from his labs?
A glance back at the primary Communications station showed Uhura settling in. She looked up for a moment, nodding slightly in greeting before putting in her headset and turning away, allowing all of her people downstairs to fill her in on the night's events. Her hair was still a little wet at the base of her ponytail.
Well, that answered that question. And... that was good! Spock might be stronger and more resilient than an ordinary human, but he was just as bad as humans at knowing when he needed to take a break. Uhura was good for him like that, the way she forced him to acknowledge his human side and human needs.
Today, though, would be all about the scientist's needs. Already he was crouched over a console, reading over the more detailed reports of the Enterprise's preliminary scans of the anomaly we'd come out here to study. To anyone else, Spock might look indifferent to the numbers, but I knew him well enough at this point to recognize the eager, almost excited glint in his eyes. Whatever this thing was, he was loving the data he was getting about it.
"So," I said once the chiefs of staff had returned to their stations and order settled over the bridge. "Tell me about this spatial anomaly of yours, Spock. In layman's terms, if you don't mind," I added as Spock approached my chair. "It's too early in the day for the full quantum-level details."
"I will endeavor to keep the details on the superatomic level, then," Spock said, folding his arms behind his back and staring over my shoulder at the viewscreen. I followed his gaze, but found nothing to see except distant, unfamiliar stars. "In point of fact, the anomaly appears to be more temporal than spatial in nature, Captain. I would go into details, but as they involve subatomic particles they are not relevant to this summation." I ducked my head to hide a grin; should've known Spock would turn that request around on me. "Suffice it to say, the particles being emitted are of great interest to Starfleet, and to myself personally."
"I'll take your word for it. What else do we know?"
"As should be evident even to yourself, the anomaly has emitted no wavelengths of light in the visible spectrum. It does, however, continue to emit other, shorter wavelengths of light, which over the last hour have steadily grown in length."
"There is a possibility that the anomaly will shift into the visible light spectrum while we are monitoring it."
Interesting. "What kind of time frame are we talking about?"
Spock glanced over a PADD he'd been handed by an ensign in science blues. "If the wavelength is increasing geometrically, days. Exponentially, hours, perhaps less."
"Wouldn't that be something to see," I said. I spread a hand out, imagining where the anomaly would appear on the viewscreen. "Violet light, appearing out of nowhere, stretching..." My gesture faltered as I realized I didn't know how to end that sentence. I looked back at Spock. "How far would it stretch, exactly?"
Spock hesitated. "I... cannot say with certainty, Captain. We know the anomaly is several thousand miles across, and one or two hundred wide. It is difficult to get a precise measure, since the phenomenon is widely dispersed, and determining where the very outer edges are is beyond these initial scans' capabilities."
"Meaning for the moment we know the most about the area towards the center where it's the most compact, right?" Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Spock nod slightly. "So what about that, what's it like in there?"
"In a word, dense. It has yet to cause any gravimetric difficulties for the ship, but should its density increase much further that could become a concern."
I frowned. We've had more than our fair share of problems with gravity on this ship, between black holes and free-fall and spatial anomalies. "Long distance scanners up to monitoring this thing, if need be?"
Spock tilted his head to one side, considering the question. "For most measurements, yes. There are some which would have to be fine-tuned before they could be used for accurate readings, but if it should come to that I believe we could manage."
"Good. Have some people work on fine-tuning them, then. Just in case."
Spock nodded and returned to his station, sending a command to his staff in the lower decks. "It will be done before the end of shift, Captain."
I grinned. "That's what I like to hear," I said, sitting back. "How's our position, Ensign?"
The navigation officer – Darwin? yeah, that was it – didn't even have to check her console. "The Enterprise is maintaining its distance from the anomaly, sir," she reported. "No signs of being affected by its gravimetric energies."
"Good." A yeoman approached me with a small stack of PADDs, each with a lengthy report to read through and sign off on. I resisted the urge to sigh; this wasn't my favorite part of being a starship captain, but it was undoubtedly a necessary part. I'd just started getting into a report on Scotty's latest improvements to the antimatter injector coils when a hushed silence fell over the bridge. I looked up in time to see the last edge of the anomaly shift into the visible light spectrum – not the pure violet I'd expected, but a violet-tinged white light, ribbon shaped, flexing and shifting even as I watched.
It was beautiful.
Then the alarms started going off.
The stillness vanished instantly as crewmen returned their attention to their stations. Under our feet, the ship began to tremble.
"Status report!" I demanded, shoving the PADDs back into the yeoman's hands.
"Gravimetric distortions have increased nearly five hundred percent," Darwin reported.
"Emissions on all previously established wavelengths have increased to a similar degree," Spock announced, eyes flicking between three different screens. "The anomaly is growing stronger in all respects at a rate much higher than anticipated."
"Darwin, McKenna, get us out of range of those distortions," I ordered. "Spock, how much stronger can this thing get?"
"Unknown, Captain," Spock said automatically, before returning to the hushed, frantic discussion he was having with several of the bridge's science officers about the anomaly's potential capabilities.
"Reverse impulse on my mark," McKenna said. Darwin nodded, and at his firm shout of "Mark!" their hands began to move in a long-practiced, coordinated motion, urging the Enterprise to listen to them and retreat to a safe distance. I watched the anomaly slowly shrink on the viewscreen, a knot in my gut loosening as a handful of alarms went silent and the floor stopped shaking.
But Spock seemed to have discovered something worrying. Rather than announce it to the entire bridge, he approached the captain's chair and spoke in an undertone. "Captain," he said, "while it is true that all emissions have increased, and are continuing to increase faster than expected, a certain type of subatomic particle is being emitted at a rate far higher than anything else."
"A 'certain type' of subatomic particle?" I repeated, taking a cue from Spock and keeping my voice low as well. "This the kind of particle that made you think this was a temporal anomaly, Spock?"
"The very same."
"So this temporal anomaly is getting stronger in every way, but especially in temporally active ways. What does that mean?"
"I cannot speak with certainty – "
"Spock," I snapped. We didn't have time for this. "Nine times out of ten your suspicions are as close to fact as we ever get! Now tell me what you think!"
Spock's posture stiffened, the only outward sign he would give of being reluctant to share bad news. At normal volume, he said, "The sharp spike in chronitons, along with the general increase in emissions, leads me to believe that something physical is about to be expelled from the anomaly. Something not of this time."
The bridge fell into a horrified silence. No one needed to say aloud what that sounded like: Nero, the grief-crazed Romulan who, upon being thrown a century back in time, wiped out four dozen Klingon warbirds, six Federation heavy cruisers, and created the black hole that destroyed Vulcan.
Who knew what another time traveler could bring?
"Yellow alert," I decided, starting a whole new set of klaxons blaring and lights flashing. "I want every available officer at their stations; we have no idea what might be coming through, and we need to be prepared for anything. Anything," I repeated, giving Spock a significant look.
Nodding, Spock returned to his station, barely avoiding being knocked over by Chekov as he rushed onto the bridge, Sulu at his heels. They took over for Darwin and McKenna, who in turn took over the auxiliary piloting stations at the rear of the bridge. I immediately felt safer. No offense to Darwin and McKenna – they're good, but they're not my best helm team.
"Gravimetric distortions continuing to increase, Captain," Sulu reported. "Should we continue to distance ourselves from its effects?"
Sulu glanced over at Chekov. "On my mark..." Chekov nodded, but before he could say another word the anomaly flared, pure white light almost blinding the bridge, and like an explosion in reverse a ship collapsed into existence.
The bridge flooded with noise, a dozen voices calling out what the latest readings were showing.
"Scans indicate approximately three hundred life-signs, all humanoid – "
" – transport ship of unknown design – "
" – Federation registry – "
" – engines smaller, but more advanced – "
"Captain!" Uhura called out, one hand to her headset. "They're broadcasting a message on all standard Federation channels."
"The message?" I asked. Crewmen stopped talking when Uhura began playing the message over the bridge's comm system.
"This is Captain Rafaela Carvalho of the SS Robert Fox, requesting urgent assistance," a female voice said in Standard.
A Federation registry, and the captain spoke Standard. Tension loosened slightly in my chest, and I began to breath easier. It seemed like this wasn't the kind of time traveler I'd fear to meet. I nodded to Uhura and spoke aloud, knowing she would already be transmitting to the other ship. "Captain Carvalho, this is Captain James Kirk of the USS Enterprise, willing and able to help." Silence. "Captain Carvalho?"
"They're requesting visual communications, Captain."
"Allow it," I said, and waited for the signal to connect. The anomaly disappeared from the viewscreen, replaced by video of the Robert Fox's bridge. A black woman stood in the center of the bridge, a cut on her cheek bleeding sluggishly. "Captain Carvalho, I presume?"
"Captain Kirk," she acknowledged after a moment's consideration. "You'll forgive me for requesting the visual, but I was sure I misheard you; not ten minutes ago the USS Enterprise-B was the ship coming to our rescue."
Spock shifted closer to my chair, now in frame for the video transmission to the Robert Fox. "Are you aware, Captain, that your ship has traveled in time?"
"I am now, thank you, Commander," she replied, calm despite looking a little stunned.
"Now that we've settled that," I said, "what kind of assistance do you need?"
Carvalho shifted automatically into a more formal military posture as she returned to business. "I have two hundred and sixty five El-Aurian refugees aboard, many in need of medical care, and our ship has taken severe hull damage from the Nexus."
The Nexus? I exchanged a brief look with Spock. Must be a name given to the anomaly by a non-Federation society; the UFP preferred registry numbers to descriptive titles. "How severe are we talking?" I asked. "Can the ship be stabilized if we get it away from the Nexus?"
Carvalho glanced out of frame, getting an answer from one of her crewmen that the video transmission didn't relay. "Yes, but we can't get the ship far enough away in time on our own."
"Got it." I turned my attention to my own crew. "Mr. Chekov, can we tow them out of range with a tractor beam?"
Shifting his navigational readouts off to one side, Chekov pulled up a new set of equations on his console and quickly worked through them. "If the tractor beam is made strong enough," he concluded. "Otherwise the gravitons will destabilize their hull as quickly as the anomaly would."
"Get it done," I ordered, unsurprised when Chekov dashed off the bridge and Darwin took his seat at Navigation. "Once your ship is stabilized, we can have medical teams and equipment beamed over. If there are any serious emergencies, you can send them over to our medbay now."
Carvalho smiled. "Thank you, captain, but that won't be necessary. There is one other thing, though – ours wasn't the only ship caught up in the gravimetric field. It's possible that the SS Lakul will come through as well."
"We'll keep that in mind, captain." I signaled to Uhura, and the transmission ended. The need for composure gone, I rested my head against a fist and sighed, momentarily overwhelmed. One ship through, another to go, and who knew what else might follow that.
I wanted to punch something. This was supposed to be a scientific exploration mission, damn it! Something interesting, mentally stimulating but not actively dangerous. We'd had enough of danger for the time being, hadn't we?
"Forgo that yellow alert," I muttered. Obediently, the flashing lights and alarms shut off. "Helm, prepare for another surge of gravimetric forces; we have to assume that Captain Carvalho is right, and another ship is coming through. And we can't assume it's in any better condition than the Robert Fox, so make sure we've got a tractor beam ready to go."
"Aye sir," Darwin said, establishing a comm link with Chekov and his team down on the lower decks to convey the order to them.
Swiveling around in my chair to face Communications, I wondered, "Lieutenant Uhura, does "El-Aurian" sound familiar to you?"
She frowned, concerned. "No, Captain. I don't think they've made contact with the Federation yet."
"Me either, but see if anyone in your department's heard of the species anyway. If we're lucky, someone from our ship will be able to translate for the medical teams, or the Robert Fox's translators will work for us. If not..."
"I can bring over and modify a universal translator, if need be," Uhura said.
"Thank you, Lieutenant," I responded automatically, having mentally moved on to other topics. "And somebody look into the term "Nexus". See if we can find reference to it in our databases somewhere; any information that could help us in studying it or defending ourselves from it." A low, artificial voice – Lieutenant 0718, at a guess – acknowledged the order from my five o'clock. Moving on again, I opened up a channel to medbay. "Bones! Got a couple hundred patients waiting for you. Good news is none of their injuries are near-fatal. Bad news is they're from an entirely unfamiliar species. And the future."
"Oh good," McCoy replied, voice dry. "Wouldn't want to make things too easy on me, now would we." For a moment he spoke too quietly to be picked up by the comms – probably to Nurse Chapel – and then said, "I'll have medical teams standing by."
Grinning, I ended the transmission. I'd barely done so before a familiar voice echoed through the comms: "Chekov to bridge!"
"Kirk here. What have you got for us, Chekov?"
"Ready to activate the adjusted tractor beam, sir."
I glanced over at Communications. "Inform the Robert Fox." Uhura did so, quietly announcing the confirmation they sent back a moment later. "Fire it up, Chekov. Helm, get ready to back us up a bit."
"Yes sir," three voices chimed. The tractor beam, an insubstantial eerie bluish glow, streaked across the open space between the Enterprise and the Robert Fox. Against the light show the Nexus gave off, it was almost invisible. And yet, when the Enterprise's impulse engines activated, the tractor beam had no trouble bringing the Robert Fox along with her. Slowly, steadily, the two ships drifted away from the deadly, alluring ripple of temporal energy.
"The Robert Fox reports it is out of range of the Nexus's gravimetric field," Uhura announced with a smile. "And its hull remains stable."
I laughed with relief. "Tell them that that is fantastic news," I said, "and that medical teams will be beaming over within the next five minutes." A group of muscles in my shoulders relaxed at this success, and for a moment I let himself hope that this was it, this was all.
"Captain," Spock said, his tone equal parts requesting attention and indicating warning. The alarms that had gone off when the Nexus's gravimetric field spiked before started chiming again. "I believe the Lakul may be coming through now."
We never can catch a break. I leaned forward, ready to start barking out orders again. "Helm, be ready to move us back again if necessary."
The bridge crew watched with bated breath as the Nexus grew brighter, the tint of its light edging more and more towards red. The floor under our feet trembled briefly, but a quick nudge at the impulse engines stopped that. This was still a strange experience, but no longer an unfamiliar one; the crew of the Enterprise could handle it.
Sure enough, when a minute later a more damaged ship of the same design suddenly shuddered into being, the crew's response was so smooth it almost felt like they'd done it a hundred times before. I hardly had to do a thing to coordinate their efforts.
And that felt good.
Two shifts later found me chewing at the inside of my cheek, watching the floors flicker by.
According to Chekov and Sulu's calculations, unless a third ship came through the Enterprise was now at a safe distance from the gravimetric field of the Nexus for the next week or more, so nothing to worry about there. With the Robert Fox stabilized and all the passengers off the Lakul, there was nothing left to do but make sure the refugees and crewmen now aboard the Enterprise were being cared for.
A hundred fifty people from an unknown alien species, most wounded and none of whom spoke Standard, was a stress on the ship's medical officers and supplies, but at McCoy's last report they'd been handling it. Uhura was in communication with the remaining ship, so she'd be able to cobble together a translation program soon enough, which would make the doctors' jobs a lot easier.
Now that the panic and chaos from when we'd first detected the anomaly had passed, there was frustratingly little for me to do, barring reports on the situation to Starfleet, so I'd jumped at the chance to head down to medbay when Bones called up and said he needed me to see something.
With Spock busy coordinating analysis of the anomaly with his underlings and Uhura working on her translations, leaving the conn to Sulu was the obvious choice. He wouldn't have much to do either, so long as the distance they needed to keep from the anomaly remained constant. And he was a good officer, if one still new to the conn. I trust him implicitly, always have.
So it probably wasn't abandoning the captain's chair that was making me so antsy.
No, I decided as the turbolift came to a stop, that was probably caused by McCoy's request. In all the time I've been captain, getting called down because one of my officers thought I should "see this right away" had never ended well. Most of the time it was Scotty or Spock alerting me to a danger on or off the ship, but sometimes it was worse than that. Like McCoy needing to share the bad news of a crewman's passing in person.
Steeling myself for the worst, I walked in to medbay and nearly crashed into a nurse or refugee three times before I finally spotted Bones. Medbay was packed; it seemed like every off-duty nurse and doctor had been called in to help. And half of the medical professionals weren't even here, but on the Robert Fox providing more immediate assistance with help of the thankfully still-functioning Universal Translators provided by the seventeen-person crew – most of whom had left behind their UTs so they could assist with the manual translation effort aboard the Enterprise. Between the two small ships were a crew of nearly forty, very few of which could actually speak both Standard and El-Aurian without the assistance of a UT, but every bit of help counted.
Even though the patients with the greatest need had already been beamed aboard the Enterprise, I knew that if Bones could've managed it, he would've been out on the Robert Fox too. Hell, if he could've managed to be on both ships at once he'd probably do it, to make sure he reached as many patients as possible. McCoy can get overzealous about his work that way.
I carefully edged my way around a green-scaled crewman taking a refugee's pulse manually and finally made it to the good doctor's side. "Bones," I said, intending to ask what it was I'd been asked down to see, but at the sound of his name McCoy jumped to his feet like he'd been electrocuted. I backed up a bit, wary. "Bones?"
"Jim!" McCoy turned to face me, and the expression on his face was alarmingly manic. "Good, you're here!"
"...are you okay, buddy?"
"Oh, I'm fine," McCoy reassured me, clapping a hand against my shoulder. "I've been working for twenty hours straight, in surgery for maybe half of that time, and just took more stimulants than are legally recommended so I can keep doing this for another ten hours, that's all."
"Well if that's all," I muttered, giving McCoy's hand on my shoulder an uneasy look. He wasn't trembling or anything, too well trained a surgeon for that, but there was a thrum of energy in there that unnerved me. Stimulants would explain that, especially if Chapel was off on the Robert Fox and unable to prevent McCoy from taking them. "What did you want me to see, anyway?"
"Hm? Oh, right, come over here." McCoy said this in an undertone as he brought me to the farthest corner of the medbay, where a bed had been cut off from the rest of the space by curtains. And that was strange, because I was pretty sure McCoy's last report on the state of things in medbay had mentioned needing all the beds for patients being actively treated. Recovering patients had been given beds in spare quarters, or lined up in the empty rec rooms of the lower decks.
"Bones, what – ?" I started to ask, but McCoy shushed me.
"Here," he said, pulling back the curtain and jerking his head inward. Confused, I ducked under his arm and stepped into the cramped space between the curtains and the bed. McCoy followed me in, pulling the curtain shut behind him, and the space got that much more cramped. He turned on a light, which threw the bed's occupant into sharp relief. He appeared to be an older humanoid man, pale skinned with short, dark curly hair and just the slightest bit of a paunch.
I didn't see what it was about him that required my presence. "Who's this, one of the El-Aurians?"
McCoy grinned. "No, actually, tests show he's human."
" Well, that's a relief, I guess," I said thoughtfully, looking at the man more carefully. Something about him seemed almost... but that couldn't be right. "That makes it easier for you to treat him, doesn't it?"
"You would think," McCoy said cryptically. He grabbed a PADD from the man's bedside and tapped at its screen a few times before handing it over to me. "Trouble is, I recognized his DNA, and tried to treat him accordingly. But there's a few small differences between him and the man I thought he was. Different eye color, bone structure's ever so slightly off, and his endocrine system is much healthier. No allergies I could detect, except for one to a medication used to treat failing eyesight."
I stared at a pair of DNA samples, which the PADD listed as sharing ninety-nine point nine percent of standard mapping alleles. One of the samples was labeled Patient 3. The other was labeled Kirk, James T.
"In other words," McCoy said, retrieving the PADD from my numb fingers, "the kind of physiology I would have expected you to have, if you hadn't been born prematurely."
As McCoy went on to explain, once he had confirmed the test results, he immediately pulled all the incriminating evidence from the ship's computer. No need to force the whole Federation's attention on the poor man while he was still unconscious; if he wanted Starfleet to know who he was and that he was around, he'd have to say so himself once he woke up.
Not, McCoy spent some time bemoaning, that that was going to happen any time soon. This older Kirk, as well as several dozen El-Aurians, was having the strangest trouble regaining consciousness. Oh, the standard medication worked – for a little while. When they were awake, they spoke nonsense, and didn't or couldn't respond to questions. One man had spent ten minutes weeping and begging for his family to come back, while they were weeping at his bedside. That had been awful for McCoy to watch; he could only imagine how terrible it was for all of them.
On the other hand, he'd nearly cracked a rib holding back laughter when a woman Chekov was leading down to the spare quarters cooed at him and said she liked his hair better curly.
That woman had been the most responsive of the symptomatic patients, and even she had lost consciousness again within half an hour. Not even Dr. M'Benga, with his extensive experience treating telepaths and empaths, could offer any suggestions as to why this was happening – or why it had gotten worse as the day went on.
He went on about the mysterious symptoms and worsening conditions for a good long while – not that I took any of it in, at the time. I was a bit occupied staring down at – shit, at myself. My head was spinning. "Bones," I burst out, interrupting McCoy just as he was getting into a really good screed, "do you know what this means?"
"Yeah." Grim faced, McCoy pulled back the curtain and looked out at his packed medbay. "It means none of these people we're treating are from our own damn universe. We have no way of knowing that they even exist here; some of the Starfleet officers almost definitely don't. Or won't," he restated, considering. "How far in the future did Carvalho say they were from?"
"A little over thirty years."
"Damn," McCoy swore. "There are definitely crewmen on those ships younger than that. With all the lives lost lately among Starfleet personnel..."
"Yeah," I sighed, "that doesn't sound good." But I was more concerned about... what was it? I frowned, and squeezed my eyes shut so I could concentrate. Sometimes I remember things that aren't really mine to remember. Usually they slip away before I can give them a second thought, but this one, I was sure, this one was important. Something to do with... I couldn't remember what.
Better to trust my gut on this. I slipped out of the curtained-off area and found a wall comm. "Kirk to Communications."
A moment later, the comm chimed, and a slightly irritated voice responded. "Uhura here, captain."
"I know most of your people are tied up translating for the El-Aurians and figuring out what Starfleet already knows about them, but can you spare someone to get a connection hooked up to New Vulcan? I need to speak to Mr. Spock."
Silence for a moment. Then, quick and to the point: "I'll get someone on it, sir."
"Thanks. Kirk out." Suspecting she'd already cut the transmission off – when she was busy Uhura got clipped and abrupt like that – I turned back to face McCoy's concerned frown. "What, Bones?"
"You sure we need to get him involved in this, Jim?" he asked. "If your double there disappeared from his universe thirty years from now, Spock's double lived for a century after he was gone."
"And, do you really think presenting the old Vulcan busybody with his long-lost friend is the right thing to do?" Before I could answer, McCoy added, "Because God knows it's not the kind thing to do."
"I know it's not kind!" I snapped. "It's the cruelest thing I can imagine doing to that Spock. But I think it might be the right thing." Raising a hand to my temple and rubbing at it absently, I explained, "Sometimes I remember things from the meld back then. Bits and pieces, mostly. Fragments. But something about this was important to Spock, not long before then. It must've been, or it wouldn't have been on his mind when we melded."
"Jim..." Uh-oh, Bones sounded worried. "I'm no expert, but if a meld is still affecting you years later, I think you might want to – "
"It's not affecting me," I insisted. "It was just information – things he saw, heard, things he felt – but a lot of it. He gave it to me all at once, and... you know how Spock likes to talk about human and Vulcan brains processing things differently? I think that definitely applies here."
McCoy hmmed noncommittally, giving me a look. Feeling certain that I would be seeing increased numbers of in-depth medical examinations in my future, I sighed and ran a hand through my hair. How could I explain this in a way he would accept?
"It's just... I think I owe it to him to tell him," I said, a firm resolution to my words. "Spock and me here might not be much to each other besides captain and first officer, but those two... they were life-long friends, Bones. Well..." Glancing back at the curtained-off bed, I revised my statement. "Jim Kirk's life long, anyway."
McCoy shook his head, but there was a curl to his mouth that I knew meant I'd won. "Far be it from me to debate the wisdom of your orders," he said sardonically, before getting called over to a patient's bedside to inspect their latest test results.
For a moment, I just watched his medical officers at work, easily transitioning between professional debates over what new symptoms could mean, a gentle (or vicious, in McCoy's case) bedside manner when patients had questions, and barked commands to the lower-ranked officers and enlisted personnel running errands and taking care of less important tasks.
Times like these, when the most was required of them, was when it struck me hardest how amazing my crew was.
The wall comm chimed suddenly, bringing me back to reality. I didn't like it much; reality was heavy eyelids and a gnawing pit in my stomach. "Bridge to Captain Kirk."
I slapped a hand to the comm. "Kirk here."
"Captain," Sulu said, "the captains of the Robert Fox and the Lakul have arrived in Transporter Room Three. You offered to have a meeting with them earlier?"
"When did I do that?" I wondered under my breath, rubbing at my eyes. Sleep would have to wait, it seemed. Louder, I said, "Have them meet me and Mr. Spock in Rec Room Three in ten minutes. And have one of those Universal Translators Lieutenant Uhura's modified for use with El-Aurians sent up."
"Is that all?"
"Ye – ah, no. One last thing." There was a small clicking sound, as Sulu transferred primary communications to someone else. "Hannity here, sir. I've made contact with New Vulcan, but was told by Ambassador Sarek that Mr. Spock is not available at this time."
I sighed, running a hand over my face. "Terrific."
"Ask that Sarek pass on our request for contact as soon as possible," I said, rubbing tiredly at my eyes. "Emphasize the urgency of our request."
With that, Sulu cut off the transmission – leaving me with no time for food, and barely enough time to gather information about the ships' statuses, as well as the statuses of their crew and passengers, and have it transferred to PADDs. On second thought, I added the recent history of this timeline to two of them, and my counterpart's medical data to the third.
The task might have gone faster if I'd taken advantage of a yeoman or two, but most of them were busy with their normal duties, or assisting medical officers, and anyway I was pretty sure a lot of the information was above their clearance level. Some of it was probably supposed to be above mine, for that matter.
When I arrived, it was to find the Universal Translator sitting abandoned outside the door. Bemused, I picked it up and brought it in.
Inside, Spock was already discussing the anomaly – the Nexus, as Carvalho and any number of El-Aurians called it – with the captains. Well, with Captain Carvalho, anyway. I nearly didn't recognize her voice, thickened as it was by an accent I immediately recognized as South American. Why – oh, of course. She must have been using her ship's Universal Translator to talk to us earlier. With no Universal Translator in the room, she had been forced to switch to a language she was less fluent in.
Neither Carvalho nor the Lakul's captain wore Starfleet uniforms – or, at least, not the current uniform. I looked them over briefly, but didn't see any sign of the typical insignia or rank markings, and took that to mean neither of them were Starfleet. I groaned internally. Civilian commanders. Why didn't I notice that earlier? How much of the information on these PADDs was cleared for civilian eyes?
Then, remembering that these people were from the future – an alternate future at that – I decided I didn't much care what clearance levels they might or might not have.
Carvalho spotted me in the doorway and immediately got to her feet, back stiff and shoulders straight. The other officer – a younger woman with skin not quite as dark as Carvalho’s – was a little slower to rise, and clearly didn't know what gesture to use to recognize him.
"At ease," I said, hoping the laughter I was fighting didn't come through in my voice. The younger woman was definitely a civilian, but I was getting an ex-Starfleet vibe off Carvalho that gave me hope of this meeting going not too terribly. I pulled up a chair and set the Universal Translator down on the table, switching it on. "I hope the modifications our communications officers have made to the Universal Translator are allowing you to understand us," I began.
The Lakul's captain smiled, saying something the UT took a moment to translate as, "Even now beginning to be not unable to be understanding Standard."
I blinked twice, trying to parse that sentence. "So much for those modifications," I muttered.
"I believe the El-Aurian language contains several tenses Standard does not have equivalents to," Spock suggested. "The program is doing all that it can."
If I didn't know better, I'd think Spock was defending his girlfriend's besmirched honor. Not that it was besmirched, or that she needed defending – Uhura was the best communications officer in our graduating class, if not the whole damn fleet, so I knew if she couldn't get this language translated in a day, no one could.
"First Offi – that is, Captain Orlan understands some Standard," Carvalho said. "She doesn't speak it, but maybe another language...?"
I exchanged a glance with Spock. He cocked an eyebrow at me, I turned off the UT, and the two of us began suggesting languages to Orlan.
"Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton?"
"Yana ra Yakana ro futisha ta."
"tlhIngan Hol Dajatlh’a’?"
Her eyes lit up at this one. "HISlaH!"
Klingon it was, then. Turning the Universal Translator back on, I said, "Lucky for you, Klingon's a pretty well known language around here. So long as the conversation doesn't get too technical, we should understand you fine."
Orlan grinned and spoke. "Then let us hope my Klingon vocabulary fulfills all our needs this day," the UT spat out almost immediately.
"Alright!" That settled, I handed out the PADDs. "I figured the first thing you two would want to know about is how your ships and people are doing. The first two folders there contain everything I can tell you about that – the repair updates from the Robert Fox and the salvage reports from the Lakul, various medical reports for those injured or ill among your crew and passengers." They began pouring over the information, allowing me to turn my attention to my first officer. "Spock, while they're looking at that, there's something I want you to see on here."
If Spock was confused by being offered a PADD instead of being forced to listen to me inaccurately paraphrase and summarize the issue, he didn't show it. Within thirty seconds of receiving the PADD, his eyes widened and his mouth dropped open just the slightest bit. That small gesture was all I needed to know Spock had found the relevant document.
That he didn't immediately request an explanation proved he understood what I was implying by offering the PADD. Instead, when he asked, "Captain, is this...?" he trailed off meaningfully, allowing me to respond without giving anything away to our guests.
"By all appearances, yes. Dr. McCoy informed me just half an hour ago of that situation." I glanced cautiously at the other captains, but they appeared absorbed in their reading. "Do you agree with his conclusions?"
"With only this data to go by... yes." Spock put the PADD aside and shot me an inscrutable look. "Have you considered contacting – ?"
"Hannity already attempted to set up contact; so far, no luck," I replied smoothly. After a moment's pause, I said, "You see why I wanted you at this meeting."
"There was no doubt in my mind that my presence was required for an important reason," Spock said.
I barely hid a smirk. In other words, of course I doubted you, studying this anomaly should be more important than talking to the commanding officers of the ships we just rescued.
If only things were that simple.
"Yes, Captain Carvalho?"
"I'm confused by these dates." She held out her PADD and gestured to the stardate listed at the top of a report. "When I was in the Academy, the Enterprise-A was just coming back from her first five-year mission. The original Enterprise's mission logs had been used as teaching tools for years. I remember those stardates well – had to memorize a couple of them for exams. These are much too early. I know how it must sound when I say this, but you shouldn't be captain of the Enterprise yet."
Damn, she was fast. I nodded understandingly. "I thought this might come up. That third folder on your PADD contains a brief history of the Federation during the last few decades." Orlan immediately dove into the new reading, but Carvalho balked at first. Before she could protest aloud, I held up a hand and said, "I'm not doubting your knowledge, Captain, or your memory for detail. All I'm saying is that it might benefit you to see what our recent history is like."
The slight emphasis I put on the word 'our' seemed to confuse her, but she opened the folder and began skimming the files I had stuck in there last minute. Most of it was based off my personal reports, which I'd been editing together as part of a comprehensive report on the timeline's divergence that Spock and I had thought of putting together last year. I wished the project had been approved back then, so I'd have more than poorly transcribed logs to present to these people. Hopefully after this the admiralty would admit that the idea had its merits.
"Cross-universal travel," Orlan breathed. "That might explain why some of the passengers were so strongly affected by the Nexus, and remain ill!" She looked up, expression bright, and explained, "There are many among the El-Aurians sensitive not only to emotions, but also to the flow of space-time. Perhaps our sudden shift has put them in shock."
Could that be true? I turned to Spock for an answer.
"It seems possible," Spock allowed, "but as I have no training in medicine, no knowledge of how such a sensitivity would work, and an as yet insufficient understanding of the anomaly you traveled through, I would hardly give my personal opinion much weight. Perhaps someone among your crew would know better than I?"
"Yeah, don't suppose you've got any El-Aurian doctors or astrophysicists among your passengers and crew?" Carvalho shook her head; Orlan, saddened, revealed that her ship's doctor had been lost – along with the Lakul's original captain – before the Nexus had taken the ship. I sighed. "Couldn't hurt to ask."
"We will pass along your theory to our medical teams," Spock told Orlan. She thanked him – as best one could in Klingon, anyway – and returned her attention to one of the medical files. Carvalho's attention was still occupied by the history of their divergent timeline.
"This makes reference to a traveler from the original timeline – one other than the Romulans – but does not give a name. Did the traveler perish, or...?"
I shot a speculative glance at Spock. Sure, I'd excised all reference to Spock's counterpart from my reports, but that was because that information was going back to Starfleet. If they knew a Vulcan was living out there on that new colony full of potential future knowledge, he'd never get a minute's peace. Did we need to extend that wary treatment to these captains, though?
Spock seemed to have already made the decision, as he promptly explained, "The traveler survived his encounters with the Romulans, and is, in fact, myself."
Carvalho sat back, taking that in. "So, he would have knowledge of events taking place in our timeline over the next century... including our disappearance into the Nexus?"
"I believe so," I said. "We're trying to get in contact with him, but the New Vulcan colony is a distance from here, and construction of the communications satellites is still in-progress."
"Assuming that he is unable or unwilling to divulge his knowledge of the events, which has happened before – "
"Trelane," I muttered bitterly.
" – we must consider your options," Spock continued as if I hadn't spoken. Typical. "The Federation is, of course, willing to take in any refugees who wish to relocate. There are numerous colonies they could choose from, or perhaps a Federation member planet would be more to their liking? Many are open to immigrants..." Spock started to pull up information on a couple planets, but when Orlan shook her head he paused, fingertip hovering an inch over his PADD. "Captain?"
"That your Federation has honorable intentions is not in question," the Universal Translator offered up – obviously a more Klingon turn of phrase than Orlan would have used otherwise, "but there is a more preferable option you are not considering."
I felt nearly as confused as Spock looked. Well, he looked confused for a Vulcan, which by human standards was mildly puzzled at best. "And what would that be?"
"El-Auria, of course." Silence fell over the room as Orlan looked between us, not seeming to understand why we weren't as happy about her solution as she was. I exchanged a look with Carvalho, disappointed by her lack of surprise. It figured that policy would still be in place in thirty years.
When it didn't look like Carvalho was going to share the bad news, I reluctantly said, "I don't know if that's such a good idea..."
"Why not?" Orlan demanded, rising to her feet. "Our planet still exists – our people still exist – yet untouched by the Borg! We can warn them, help them, maybe even save them – "
"It's not that they don't want to help, Orlan," Carvalho explained in an undertone. "The Federation has these guidelines... non-interference policies..."
"We are not Federation!" She turned suspicious eyes on me. "Or did I unknowingly sign my ship's occupants up for membership by accepting your aid?"
"No, nothing like that," I insisted. "You're free to do whatever you like. It's just that... if you intend to interfere in your planet's past like that, we can't help you."
Orlan frowned. "I... do not understand."
"We can render you no assistance," Spock clarified, expression very purposefully blank. "No ships, no supplies... no medical aid."
Stunned, Orlan sat down slowly and covered her eyes. "So, if I go through with my intentions of returning home to alert my people to the massacre that awaits them in thirty years, anyone who comes with me will have no food, no medicine, and will be living in cramped quarters on the damaged SS Robert Fox."
I averted my eyes. Of all the things I have to do as a captain, saying I can't help is by far the worst. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry."
Orlan's shoulders trembled for a moment, but when she stood her face was clear. "Do not trouble yourself, Captain. Orders are orders." She strode out of the room without another word, shoulders held high.
Once she was out of earshot I cursed, slamming a fist against the table. "I hate that damned policy."
"Captain," Spock chastised me. Carvalho was still in the room, sitting opposite him.
She tilted her head back to reveal a small grin on her face. "Oh, don't hold back on my account, Captain," she said. "That 'damned policy' is why I left the 'Fleet." She stood up, stretched, and sighed. "I should probably go after her. We'll get back to you later with a couple alternatives. Say, nine hundred hours, ship's time?" She paused on her way out the door and leaned back to say, "I presume that crew from the Federation are going to be asked to keep away from their home planets? Since there's a chance we could influence our own histories."
I briefly considered telling her about McCoy's theory that most of Carvalho's crew wouldn't exist here, thanks to the deaths Nero and Khan had caused. "That... would probably be for the best," I said instead. She nodded and left.
I picked a different direction at random and started walking. "That went well," I muttered bitterly, knowing without looking that Spock was pacing his own steps to remain at my right shoulder.
"On the contrary, Captain," Spock began to say.
"Sarcasm, Spock," I cut him off automatically and changed the subject. "Get back to your research on this Nexus thing. And coordinate with Dr. McCoy, see if maybe you can figure out if it really is the cause of that weird illness affecting El-Aurians and the other me."
I glanced back to see Spock's eyebrows narrow, and the corner of his mouth tighten slightly – the only outward signs he would give that being ordered to work with McCoy bothered him. "Yes, sir," he said, and at the next intersection we went separate ways.
I sighed. Alone at last.
My stomach took this opportunity to groan piteously, reminding me that I really had better things to do than stand around in empty corridors feeling worn out and directionless.
Down in the mess, the remnants of a cold chicken sandwich and coffee on my plate, I leaned my elbows against the table, rubbed the meat of my palms against my eyes, and sighed heavily. "What a mess," I groaned. "Just this once, why can't I ignore that damn rule?" Anyone who heard what the El-Aurians had to say about the Borg would want to help. Something that terrifying, that strong, that came out of nowhere and caught such a kind and intelligent people completely off-guard – it was a familiar story to anyone in Starfleet. Of course you'd want to try to save them. Who wouldn't?
The admiralty, that's who.
It hadn't used to be so bad. But now Pike was gone. He'd been my one supportive force in the admiralty, and that still hadn't been enough to save me once or twice. Without him, there was no way I could get away with rule-bending. Especially not that rule, formerly my favorite one to break.
Admirals have no heart left in them, I thought bitterly, not for the first time. Sitting behind a desk all day makes them forget why we're out here in the first place. If they ever try to promote me, I'll –
...shit, was that really the time? I jumped out of my seat and barely remembered to return my tray before leaving, late for alpha shift.
The Jim Kirk that walked onto the bridge this day was almost a different person from the man who'd been there just twenty-four hours previously. No longer fresh and refreshed, I was tired, still a little hungry, and all but gritting my teeth with frustration.
"Captain on the bridge," someone announced with about as much pep as I felt.
I sank gratefully into my chair. "Talk to me, people. What's going on?"
Uhura approached first. "Our research has turned up nothing on either "El-Aurian" or "Nexus" as concepts known by the Federation, but while working on the Universal Translators I managed to hold a few interviews with the crew of the Lakul. Most of what they knew about the Nexus was incomplete or hyperbolic, but I've passed on the information about the El-Aurians to Dr. McCoy."
"You managed to get a workable translation matrix for the Universal Translator?" I asked, amazed. When had she had the time? The UT I'd used last night to talk to Orlan had spat out a jumbled and practically useless Standard translation of her El-Aurian, and that had only been six hours ago.
"Using one of the Robert Fox's own as a reference, yes. It's not perfect, but – "
"No one else could have done better," I assured her needlessly, impressed. "Any word from New Vulcan?"
"Yes, but it's not good. It turns out Spock isn't just not available, he's not on the planet."
I groaned. "You're joking."
"Afraid not, sir. No one knows where he is; they didn't tell us at first because it's not news they want getting out."
"Well that's great." Turning my attention to medical personnel, I nearly pulled a double take. "Chapel? Where's Bones?"
"Sleeping off the stimulants he nearly overdosed on yesterday," she said with a pleasant smile. (Chapel scares me sometimes, and not because of the awkward post-one night stand nature of our professional relationship. She bosses McCoy around on a regular basis; that's inherently terrifying.) "The most severe cases on the Robert Fox have been treated here and are recovering well; those with minor injuries chose to remain on the Robert Fox to reduce the strain on the transporters, and have yet to be properly treated. With the exception of forty-eight patients with strange comatose symptoms, all of the passengers and crew of the Lakul have been treated and are also recovering."
"Still no sign of a cause for those symptoms?" I glanced at my first officer. "Spock?"
He looked like he hadn't slept either, deep green-tinged shadows under his eyes. "We have studied the Nexus as thoroughly as possible in the last day," he said flatly. "I have seen no evidence to suggest that this anomaly could induce so much as a headache, let alone such extensive lifelessness."
Chapel nodded. "The theory sounds nice, but it simply doesn't make sense when you look at the facts. According to friends and family, not all of these patients display the space-time sensitivity Captain Orlan spoke of. And one of the patients isn't even El-Aurian!" She blinked wide eyes faux-thoughtfully. "But you already knew that, of course."
"So, we've still got no clue," I summed up flatly. I listened with one ear as engineering and security officers made their reports, not sure if I was more depressed or angry at the news. Those people were stable for now, but how long would that last? A week? A month? Longer? And where would they go? Not back to El-Auria, not with the SS Robert Fox's complete dearth of medical facilities.
To Earth? Would their families even want them there?
"...and with the supplies on hand, we really cannot do anything more for the Robert Fox," Scotty concluded, shaking his head sadly. "I've called in orders for parts of a similar size to be sent to the nearest space station, but this is a ship from the future. We don't exactly have tons of spare parts lying around for ships that haven't even been designed yet, now do we?"
Could things get much worse?
At the helm, McKenna perked up. "Approaching ship, Captain."
Practically tingling with sudden alertness, I cursed myself. Why had I even thought that? "Enemy vessel, Lieutenant?"
"Er... no, sir. It's a very small ship. If I didn't know better, I'd call it a shuttlecraft. One life sign, no weapons, limited shields. Vulcan registry."
A Vulcan shuttle? It couldn't be... "Has the occupant identified themself?"
"Identifying now, sir," Uhura announced, one hand pressed to her earpiece. Her shoulders sagged with relief. "It's Mr. Spock. He's asked permission to come aboard, to speak with you."
Spock. I felt like laughing, or collapsing; lacking the energy to do either, I fell back in my chair and chuckled. "Grant it. I'll meet him on the flight deck. Spock, you have the conn."
"Your timing's getting better and better, old man," I muttered once I was in the turbolift. Hopefully the Vulcan time traveler had lost the qualms he'd held the last time I had asked him for future knowledge.
The last time I had spoken to Spock's counterpart, it was to tell him I'd come back from the dead. So, not without reason, the old Vulcan had looked worried and tired, but above all relieved. And not in a way I would have to rephrase to explain to anyone unused to Vulcan expression of emotions – Spock had actually looked relieved. His comparatively open expression had been a comfort to me early on in my captaincy – reassurance that someday, somehow Spock would get a little bit human – but once I got used to how my own Spock worked it became a little off-putting.
It was weird, even now, waiting for Spock to exit his ship, to think of how the corner of Spock's mouth might turn up in a smile at the sight of me, or how much more the effort of rebuilding Vulcan from fragments of its people and culture would show in the weary lines of his brow, the heaviness of his stride. That kind of expressiveness... it just wasn't Spock.
Well, not Spock now. Give him another century, and maybe even the Spock I had come to call a friend would find it in him to laugh. The mental image of a wizened and gray old Spock bent over at the waist, howling with laughter almost made me want to laugh myself. It was almost too ridiculous to imagine – but not so far a stretch for the Spock from that other universe. Still a bit hard to believe, but the idea of an older Spock from an alternate universe was itself a bit hard to believe, so it balanced out.
After a lengthy disembarkation, Spock left his ship and approached me with the blankest, most Vulcan expression on his face that I had ever seen.
Something was up.
"Mr. Spock," I said, raising one hand in the ta'al gesture. Spock returned it with a greeting of his own. "I take it Sarek got hold of you?"
"Sarek?" One of Spock's eyebrows went up. "I last spoke to my father two weeks ago. I was about to begin work in an isolated part of the New Vulcan colony, and he intended to return to Earth. You made contact with him recently?"
"We were looking for you," I said. "Something we ran into on this mission – "
"Jim," Spock started to interrupt me, sounding tired.
I held up a hand. "I know, I know, our destiny is not the same as yours, we have to make our own choices, but this is different. I know you'll make an exception for this." Giving Spock a critical look, I said, "And I think you know it too. If you didn't receive our communication, why are you here?"
Spock hesitated to answer me, but a determined Kirk's stare cannot be beat. His head falling forward in defeat, Spock sighed.
"As sharp as ever, Captain. Twenty-five hours ago, I felt a presence in this universe I had not felt in twe... in years. An impossible presence. Yours... but not." Now it was Spock's turn to set a determined look on me. "He is here, is he not?"
I grinned. "I'll take you to him. Come on," I said, leading Spock to the turbolift. "Medbay," I ordered the computer, and with a low hum we were off. "New Vulcan's what, a tenth of a lightyear away?"
"Zero point zero seven four lightyears, in fact," Spock corrected me. I fought back a laugh. In some ways, it's blindingly obvious that they're the same man.
"And you sensed him from that far off? That's incredible."
"We were bonded. T'hy'la." I gave Spock a curious look, but he didn't define the term, didn't elaborate, didn't glance over my way, didn't even take his eyes off the top of the turbolift door. Only when it slowed, and finally came to a stop, did his gaze lower slightly, to about biobed height.
He really can sense exactly where my counterpart is, I marveled.
The turbolift doors opened on a much subdued scene. There were no more patients awaiting surgery, no bruised and bleeding refugees being cared for by nurses every two feet, hardly any nurses left at all. Just the normal number of medical staff observing the three dozen patients that remained in medbay.
"He's back through here," I said, pointing Spock towards the curtained-off bed in the far back corner, but he was already headed towards it. His face was blank, his hands linked behind his back, his pace slow and steady.
Watching his fingers clench and tremble, I wondered at the old man's restraint.
Eventually, finally, Spock arrived at Kirk's bedside, and stared down at him. His impassive expression wavered, but held. "I believed you to be lost," he said in a low, private voice, "but once again you appear to have cheated death, my friend."
One of the nurses brought a chair around, and Spock gratefully took a seat. He reached out a hand to trace Kirk's brow, relaxed in sleep, fingertips hovering a scant inch above his skin.
Standing a few feet away, I was suddenly struck with a sense memory of Spock doing the same to me, and shivered.
"He does not wake?" Spock asked, not looking away from Kirk.
"None of these people do," the nurse explained. "We give them intravenous stimulants, and they regain consciousness for a few minutes, but even then they aren't really there."
"No," Spock said softly, "I suppose they are not." Then, gently, he lifted his hand to his Kirk's cheek, stretching his fingertips from temple to chin. "My mind to your mind..."
After a moment of stillness, Kirk's eyes fluttered open, and he murmured along with Spock, "My thoughts to your thoughts."
"Jim," Spock whispered, breathless, disbelieving even now.
"Spock?" My counterpart sounded lost, confused. Almost afraid.
"Yes, Jim," Spock reassured him. "It's me. I've found you."
"Spock," Kirk repeated, plaintively. "Spock, it was so – "
"I know. Hush, I know."
From off in another part of medbay came a clatter and a curse as a drowsy McCoy entered the room and spotted them. He stormed over, muttering what I was certain were very unkind things under his breath, until he got close enough to see what was really going on. "Jim," he hissed, "what the hell are you letting that old hobgoblin do in my medbay?"
"Spock thinks he can reach him."
"And you believe him?"
I shrugged. "Spock knew he was here before we sent out that call to New Vulcan. He knew where he was on the ship, even in this room, without me telling him. I think if anyone can break through this block, or shock, or whatever it is, it'll be Spock."
McCoy looked unconvinced. "Get me a medical scanner," he barked at the on-duty nurse. "I want to be sure my patient isn't being killed right in front of me." She rushed off, leaving me and McCoy to watch Spock continue to meld with the older Kirk.
"This is really weird to see from the outside," I said thoughtfully as Spock added his other hand.
"Where are you, Jim?"
"Here, Spock," the other Kirk insisted, twisting against Spock's hands. His voice trembled. "I'm here!"
"You are... and yet you are not," Spock said, hands shifting, fingers searching out... something. "Where were you? What was the last thing you saw?"
"The last...?" Kirk went lax, and his voice grew soft and dreamy. "I was... there was... ground. Sky. Trees."
"You were on a planet," Spock prompted. His voice was as soft as Kirk's, but a focused intensity had come upon him once Kirk started answering.
McCoy settled down across the bed from Spock and started inspecting Kirk's readings. He frowned, utterly intent on the scanner. "So far so good. Or, at least, no worse than he was before," he muttered sourly.
"Yes," Kirk breathed. "I was on a planet... I had a job to do..."
"What job was that?"
"I..." Kirk's brow furrowed. "I don't..."
"Careful," McCoy cautioned, "I'm getting some weird spikes in his brain waves."
"Please, Jim, tell me. What job did you have to do?"
"I... I had to... chop wood."
An expression washed over Spock's face that was gone too fast for me to identify.
"Whatever you're doing, you'd better find a way to undo it," McCoy warned Spock. But Kirk's readings quickly returned to their previous levels; Spock had already pulled out of the meld. He had already pulled away entirely, out of his chair and two feet away from the bed, hands once again linked behind his back.
His face was as empty as it had been before he entered it – or maybe emptier. Yes, definitely emptier. Before, there had been something there, a small tremor of emotion underneath the facade. Something Spock couldn't keep from feeling. Now, there was nothing.
"I knew," he said quietly, "but I did not realize."
"Didn't realize what?" I asked.
Spock's eyes flicked up to him, almost surprised, as if this was the first bit of outside sound he'd taken in since he saw his Kirk. "It is... not relevant."
I wasn't sure I bought it, but I didn't have it in me to accuse the old man of lying. (Even though he'd definitely done that before.) Not after all he'd done for me, and for the Enterprise.
"Captain Kirk?" It was the nurse on duty, calling to me from the entryway to medbay. Behind her stood Carvalho and Orlan. "These officers were looking for you."
"Captain Carvalho, Captain Orlan," I greeted them, stepping forward. "My apologies, I don't think we have a Universal Translator down here in medbay..." I trailed off as Orlan grinned, holding up a UT. "I stand corrected."
"We went looking for you on the bridge," she explained. "Lieutenant Uhura thought it would be of greater use to me than her, and I cannot say I disagree." Rubbing the side of the device fondly, she said, "It's nice to be able to hear more of the nuances of Standard again."
McCoy coughed pointedly, giving me a look when he got my attention.
"Ah, how could I forget, introductions." I put on a smile and put a bit of flair into a hand waved at McCoy. "Captains, Dr. Leonard McCoy. Bones, Captain Carvalho of the SS Robert Fox and Captain Orlan, formerly of the SS Lakul."
"Ladies," McCoy said, smiling with intent. Carvalho smiled back, the same intent in her eyes. Orlan muttered a greeting and looked away, a little embarrassed.
Sensing curious eyes on the back of my neck, I stepped aside to reveal the last conscious man in the room. "And this is – "
"Captain Spock," Carvalho said, eyes lighting up. Noticing odd glances from Bones and I, she corrected herself. "I mean, Ambassador Spock. It's good to see you again. You probably don't remember, it must be over a century ago to you..."
"Vulcans do not forget a face," Spock said, looking at her carefully. "Rafaela Carvalho... you took several of my astrophysics courses. More of them than was necessary for command track, and you did quite well, as I recall."
She smiled sheepishly. "Yes, sir."
"You taught at the Academy?" When he was ranked a captain? Why bother teaching, when he could be on a ship?
"I've lived a very long time, Captain. You'll find there are few things I haven't done."
The corner of Spock's mouth turned up, but he gave no other sign of hearing the man. He turned his gaze on Orlan. "And you... the captain said your name was Orlan?" She nodded. "I have heard your name before, I think." His brow furrowed slightly as he tried to remember. "Yes... an El-Aurian woman I worked with for a time spoke of you often. Qeedan."
"Qeedan?" Orlan's mouth fell open. "She – then, you mean, she will – " She glanced briefly at one of the room's occupied beds. A pale El-Aurian woman lay there, insensate.
Spock, having noticed her look, walked over to the bed and stared down at the woman. An expression passed over his face, not unlike one I'd briefly seen on it earlier, but again it was gone too fast to identify. He lifted a hand to hover over her face, but before he could do anything McCoy was at his side, growling threats about risking patient lives. He backed away from McCoy, hand held up to show he meant no harm, and turned to Orlan.
"I think, Captain, there is a conversation we need to have." Giving me a considering glance, he added, "Privately." Orlan agreed, and they walked off. I didn't bother telling them where they could have a conversation away from human or computer ears; knowing Spock, he still remembered where to go from when this was his Enterprise.
Knowing that the conversation I needed to have with the other captain would also be better held in private, I gave McCoy a look and a jerk of my head towards the door. He frowned, but left medbay without comment. "You've come to a decision, then?" I asked Carvalho.
"The crews are willing to go wherever the Federation recommends, so long as there's work," she explained. "I beamed back over to the Robert Fox; most of them would like to go to Earth, at least for now, to see what their options are. Those from the Lakul who were awake said the same."
She was avoiding mentioning something. "'Most'?" I parroted.
Carvalho sighed. "There are some... who would rather go to El-Auria, despite the risks. Captain Orlan remains one of them."
Damn, and I'd hoped she would change her mind. "If she wanted to do that, would you allow her to take the Robert Fox from you?" When Carvalho gave me a strange look, I explained, "It's the only ship around these parts that isn't Federation-aligned."
"I... don't know," she said. She wandered over to one of the patients, stared at the spiky pattern his heartbeat was marking on the wall above his bed. "Maybe. Eso es gilipollez" she muttered with a snort, "definitely. It's an El-Aurian ship, originally; I'm just the woman who had spent ten more years commanding a ship than the next most experienced person we managed to save."
I couldn't quite understand where she was coming from, myself, but I'd only ever captained one ship. I could never abandon the Enterprise – but she was no borrowed three hundred-person transport ship. She was something special.
"So, how many people want to come back with us, exactly?"
Carvalho gave me a flat look. "Like I said," she said, a little defensively, "most of them. I'm not one to fudge my numbers just to make a situation look better, Captain."
"I never accused you of that, Captain," I replied evenly. "But I need exact numbers; if it really is most of your people who'll be coming with us, and they've got no ship of their own to stay on, I need to make sure we've got the room and supplies to care for all of them."
Realization lit up her eyes. "Of course." She averted her eyes, embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I presumed – "
I smiled, just the littlest bit. Most of the time she acted like the experienced captain she was, but once in a while... "It's okay. I've been read the riot act more than once about women in command being mistreated and prejudged. Believe me when I say that that's not me."
"I do. I did, before, I just – you're different from yourself."
"So I'm told."
"Imagine that." The corners of her eyes crinkled up and my smile grew. "So, do you have those numbers, or should I let you go make a tally?"
Carvalho took a moment to mentally add up the numbers. "We're looking at about three hundred and fifty wanting to go to the Federation, nearly forty of them crew."
"How many are family, or legally considered patient advocates for the people in comas?"
Her brow furrowed slightly. "I'm not as familiar with the people on the Lakul, so I can't say for sure. Maybe half? And El-Auria was a big place; some of the passengers were total strangers to each other."
"We'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it," I decided. "For now, I'll make sure quarters are set aside. I'd suggest trying to get some of the civilians off the Robert Fox now, so there isn't a rush later if they need to evacuate so Captain Orlan can leave."
Carvalho saluted me, deadly serious but for a teasing glint in her eye. "Aye, sir."
I bit down on laughter. "Dismissed." After she left, I borrowed one of the medbay's computer consoles to look into quarters and supplies. Three hundred and fifty would be a lot, but provided most of them were healthy they wouldn't be nearly as much of a strain on the ship as the Lakul's passengers had been on medbay earlier. If people doubled or tripled up in rooms, the bedridden patients in spare quarters wouldn't even have to be moved. Food shouldn't be a problem unless the refugees remained on the Enterprise for more than a few weeks. In the same way, so long as they didn't need much, clothing and other personal goods could be made with no real strain to the replicators.
Long story short: it was doable. Hell, even for the full complement of passengers and crew it was doable. The Enterprise would be a bit crowded, sure, a little cramped, but we would manage.
More importantly, the El-Aurians would have a choice of where to go. I hated to think what might have happened if there hadn't been room for everyone.
I only realized how long I'd been sitting at the console when the hydraulic hiss of medbay doors opening caught my attention and my neck protested the fast swivel I tried to pull on it. Rubbing at the sore muscle, I stood up to greet Captain Orlan, who bowed slightly in turn.
"Captain Carvalho already explained the situation to me," I said. "We should be able to take in any El-Aurians who want to accept asylum from the Federation."
Orlan nodded absently, attention already on the patient she'd identified as Qeedan earlier. She made a beeline to her bedside and stared down at her with wide, wet eyes.
...okay, so giving me the full story was obviously not her purpose in returning to medbay. Hesitating only for a moment, I joined Orlan at Qeedan's bedside and looked down at her. Out of respect for El-Aurian custom, sterile hats had been replicated for women of marrying age; the bright blue of the fabric made Qeedan look washed out and fragile, veins standing out starkly against the pale pink of her skin. Orlan traced a hand over the contours of her face, as Spock had nearly done earlier, before taking Qeedan's hand and lacing their fingers together.
"Family?" The sharp contrast of their skin tones, raw umber against pearl, made that look unlikely, but I wasn't surprised when Orlan nodded.
I closed my eyes, sighing as I realized why Orlan had been so stricken when Spock had revealed we could offer no medical aid if she went to El-Auria. If she tried to save her people, she would have to leave her wife behind, or risk losing her on the trip. "I'm sorry," I said, and it felt as utterly inadequate as it ever did.
"It's alright," she lied quietly, rubbing her thumb over the back of Qeedan's hand. Sensing that I'd overstayed my welcome, I stepped back, thoughts already turning to enlisted personnel I could assign to fixing up empty quarters with extra linens and mattresses. Orlan spoke up just as I was about to leave, asking, "What would you do, in my place? If you were trying to save your people and the person you loved more than anything, but to save both you would have to leave one behind?"
The idea of abandoning the Enterprise suddenly came to mind. I shuddered. To only be able to save my ship by leaving it? "I don't envy your situation, Captain," I said. "Any choice you make is going to be a hard one. But knowing which one is the right one? That's not hard."
She sighed and murmured, "I know," as I left.
Spock could probably do with being relieved of the conn. And then I could get Yeoman Rand on the job of delegating the quarters assignments. She'd love all the administrata that came with a job like that.
As it turned out, "love" was a strong word for how Rand felt about the assignment. But she took to it with sheer determination in a way I just didn't have the energy to do, and from the reports I'd received her mission was going to be a success. The refugees would probably have to share quarters, but at least they wouldn't have to share beds.
Spock, for his part, had definitely welcomed the conn relief. He'd intended to return to their original mission, studying the Nexus, but a brief conversation with Sulu revealed that after McCoy had left medbay, he'd come up here and lectured everyone who hadn't returned to their quarters in more than fifteen hours. McCoy hadn't been able to order Spock to hand over the conn and get some rest, not when Vulcans could go longer than humans without sleep, but the desire had definitely been there.
Now that I was back on the bridge, Spock had no excuse. He left, reluctantly, leaving study of the Nexus to 0718 for the day.
I watched him go longingly, and wondered if I should've asked one of the nurses for a stimulant while I was in medbay. That I felt almost jealous of Spock going off shift, seemed like a glowing neon sign that I was approaching worrying levels of sleep deprivation.
After my eighth muffled yawn of the shift, I knew I wasn't tired. I was beyond tired, I was exhausted. I should've never let it get this bad. I should've taken a stimulant, or just given in and gone off shift, something – before I could castigate myself further, a transmission came in from the Robert Fox. I accepted the request for video with a lazy wave of my hand at Hannity.
"Yes, captain?" I asked once Carvalho's face appeared on screen.
"Civilians are ready to start beaming over, captain," she said. "Do you have quarters prepared yet?"
"Uh..." I quickly skimmed Rand's last report. "Some, but not nearly enough. We can direct the rest to medbay and rec rooms to wait until quarters are available. I'll inform our transporter rooms of the incoming groups; your people can start beaming over on my signal." Carvalho nodded, and the video was disconnected.
Tapping at my chair's controls absently, I opened up a link with the transporter chief and gave her the bad news.
"Three hundred people? In groups of six?"
"What can I say, Chief? If we had a faster way of doing it, we'd do it."
"Yes sir," she grumbled good-naturedly. "We're ready when they are."
I nodded to Hannity, and the signal was sent. And that, I decided suddenly, was that. I stood up, announced, "Sulu, you have the conn," and was in the turbolift before anyone could ask what I was doing.
Not that they probably needed to; try as I might, I knew there was no way I'd successfully hidden how tired I was from my crew.
The ride down to my quarters felt like it took hours, but it was probably less than five minutes before I was in my quarters and collapsing onto the bed, still in uniform. I was asleep before I could even give thought to how uncomfortable it would be to wake up with my boots still on.
I woke up, uncomfortable, to the sound of someone knocking on my door. Despite the protests of what felt like every joint in my body, I was up and ready for anything in ten seconds flat. You don't live as dangerous a life as mine without learning to wake up when loud noises happened, after all.
At the door was McCoy. "Jim! I'm just about to check on one of the more responsive El-Aurians. Care to join me?"
"What do you need me there for?" I slurred blearily. (I know, I know, slurred speech right after saying I was up and ready to go. It's a 'flesh is willing, vocal cords are weak' thing.)
"I don't," he said bluntly. "But I thought you might like to see an example of the mysterious illness that's affecting fifty people in your care, you among them."
When he put it like that... "Alright, Bones," I grumbled, running a hand through my hair. "But give me a minute to make myself presentable, alright? I thought this was gonna be something urgent." Back in my quarters, I refreshed myself and found a clean uniform to change into.
McCoy stepped inside, allowing the door to close behind him. "What could be urgent at this point?" he asked, loitering in the doorway. "That yeoman of yours has got all of the healthy El-Aurians in quarters – and I know they're healthy because I checked most of them over myself – the sick ones have shown no change or worsening of conditions in nearly a day, which I don't expect to have changed in the last four hours, and that green-blooded first officer of yours is having the time of his life studying the mysterious glowing whatsit known as the Nexus. The status of which has also not changed in nearly a day."
"This isn't exactly the mission we thought we were taking when we entered this sector of space," I said, rubbing at my chin. The stubble wasn't so bad that it needed a shave right this instant, but it wouldn't hurt. With a sonic depilatory it doesn't take more than thirty seconds to do, so I shaved. "We have no idea if things can go right, never mind what could go wrong."
"I'm not used to you being the Negative Nancy of the two of us," McCoy said, leading me to the spare quarters a few levels down. "It's downright unsettling." He stopped in front of a door in the middle of the corridor and tried to open it, but the computer wouldn't allow it. He checked his PADD to see that he had the right room and tried again, and again nothing. Finally he used his CMO override, and the door opened on a pair of male El-Aurians lying on the beds. One glanced up at us sleepily; his roommate was still out of it. Neither of us made a move, and the door slid shut without a sound.
I leaned closer to Bones. "You sure we got the right room here?"
McCoy's scowl was back in place as he looked over his PADD again. "My records say Ensign Chekov settled her down in here, and the kid may be young but I don't think he's the person to get his numbers switched around on this ship. Do you?"
"Not Chekov," I said, puzzled. "Is there any chance she started wandering, and Rand found the abandoned quarters and assigned them to someone else?"
Bones shook his head. "Doubtful. She may have been the most responsive of the patients, but even she couldn't stay conscious for more than half an hour at a time with medical assistance, and Rand was finished assigning quarters to the El-Aurian refugees hours ago."
"Then, maybe Chapel...?" I wondered.
"She would've told me, damn it!" Bones snapped, marching down the hall.
I followed, running until I had matched his pace. "Well, I'm running out of ideas here! What do you think happened?"
"I don't know!" McCoy flicked through a few screens on his PADD, then stopped in his tracks. "But this might help." He used his CMO override to open another door; a mother and two children were asleep inside. Another room, more El-Aurians. Another, and another, each revealing more and more, and his expression got grimmer and grimmer. "There should be patients in all of these rooms," he hissed at me after the ninth.
"How did nobody notice they were gone?"
"I don't know," McCoy said grimly, "but I know where we're checking next."
We spent the turbolift ride down to medbay in tense silence. The thought that four dozen of McCoy's patients might have been stolen from under his – and my – nose was horrifying. There was a guilty part of me that hoped it was just the patients who'd been placed in spare quarters who'd been lost, that Rand or someone she'd delegated to had misunderstood the assignment and taken those patients back down to medbay to make room for the refugees. At least then there would be an explanation that I could stand – incompetence was preferable to insubordination, or treason.
When the doors to medbay opened, they revealed a scene that made my jaw drop. Medbay was empty – completely empty, no patients in bed or nurses on duty. No one.
McCoy and I both headed for the ced-off bed in the back corner. "Who was supposed to be on duty this shift, besides you?"
"Just Chapel," he replied absently. "With everyone we pulled on duty the other day... now that the rush was over, we were giving them a break." He pulled back the curtain and grimaced. Chapel was lying on the bed, unconscious. "Maybe I shouldn't have."
While I called down a security team, he grabbed a syringe of medicine to wake her up – hopefully not the stimulants he'd misused the other day. Whatever it was, it worked fast; she was already up and looking guilty by the time the team got down to medbay. McCoy held a medical scanner to her temple and spent a minute dividing his attention between the results and her eyes. Just before the security team and I got tired of waiting for the okay, he reluctantly lowered the scanner. "Well, it doesn't look like you've got a concussion... what happened, Chapel?""
She averted her eyes. "I'm sorry, doctor... Spock, the older one, he used that Vulcan nerve pinch on me."
"Christine, that's nothing you need to apologize for – "
"Trust me, it is!" When McCoy fell into an open-mouthed silence, she went on to explain, "I helped him sneak the patients out. With all the transporters distracted beaming hundreds of people around, it was easy to do. When it was done, he knocked me out so I wouldn't be held responsible, but I can't let him do that. I chose to help him. After what he told me, what I realized, I knew we couldn't keep those patients here."
"What the hell – " McCoy started to demand, furious, but I cut him off.
"What did he tell you?"
A haunted look on her face, Chapel said, "Those patients... they aren't really here. He showed me..." She held a hand to her face, a half-formed gesture I recognized as the prelude to a mind meld. "They all lived full lives after this, in the other universe. He even spent a few years studying the Nexus with one of them – Captain Orlan's wife, Qeedan."
"Chapel, you're not making any sense," McCoy said, rubbing tiredly at the bridge of his nose. "If they didn't get sucked into the Nexus, how are they here?"
"The way Spock explained it, they'd been almost completely taken by the Nexus when the Enterprise-B beamed them out. For a minute, they were in the Nexus, and something of them came through, to our universe."
I frowned. "That something being...?"
"Their bodies. Their minds are back in that other universe, barely maintaining the connection to their bodies. That's why they're so out of it, even when we medically induce consciousness – their ability to sense and respond to sensory input is delayed by the distance, and it's only gotten worse the farther we take them from the Nexus! If we keep them here much longer..."
She didn't need to finish the sentence. If they stayed here, they would die, and who knew how the universe Spock was from would change without their presence? Hell, who knew how our universe would change because of their absence?
McCoy sighed. "Damn it, Chapel, what were you thinking? Why didn't you just tell me? I would've understood. Going behind my back – "
"I wish I could have, doctor," she said quietly, "but there wasn't time. They had to get back to the Nexus as soon as possible, and the Enterprise can't get close enough without being destabilized." She looked up at me now, regret all over her face. "Neither of you would have approved of the other option."
"What other option?" I started to ask, but then it clicked. Spock's ship was a shuttlecraft; it probably couldn't fit five people, let alone fifty. There was only one other ship around he could possibly be using.
"Captain?" An enlisted officer stood in the doorway to medbay. "Captain Carvalho to see you, sir."
She stepped out from behind the officer's back and nodded at me. I returned the nod, unsurprised by her expression: carefully controlled, professionally detached and empty of emotion. "Captain Kirk, Captain Orlan has officially declared her intent to return to El-Auria. I've given over command of the Robert Fox accordingly, and all members of your crew are off the ship."
"How many on the ship?" I gritted my teeth against the answer I knew was coming.
"Including the captain, fifty."
Chapel gasped and lifted a hand to her mouth. "But she's not – "
"Yeah," I sighed. "And neither is Spock, but I'd bet anything he's there too."
Carvalho frowned. "What are you talking about? And where..." She looked around medbay, as if only noticing how empty it was now. "Where are the passengers of the Lakul you were treating?"
She figured out the truth before anyone could explain, and started cursing extensively in Spanish. "¡Maldito sea!" she concluded angrily, "they tricked me good. Everyone was walking around and talking about going home. They were so happy, so alive – I didn't even recognize them as the same people."
"Come on," I ordered her, already in the turbolift. "We might be able to stop them before it's too late." She and Bones joined me. Chapel stayed in medbay, and the pained, conflicted look on her face stayed with me the whole too-long trip up to the bridge.
The three of us interrupted a strained silence when we walked onto the bridge. A lower-ranked officer barely remembered to announce that the captain was present before I was kicking Spock out of the captain's chair and insisting that somebody stop that ship.
Spock objected, of course. "Captain, I understand your concern, but we cannot interfere with the Robert Fox now that they have declared their intent to go to El-Auria."
"If that was his concern I'd agree with you, Spock," McCoy barked, glaring at Spock over my head, "but he's more concerned about the fact that that ship is full of my patients, and they're not going to El-Auria."
That got a few confused looks our way.
"Dr. McCoy is correct," 0718 announced from the rear of the bridge. "Trajectory calculations indicate the SS Robert Fox is slowly entering the Nexus!"
"Any chance we can stop them?" I asked, hoping against hope. Science officers all over the bridge started doing the math. After the first few faces fell, I didn't really need an answer. "Can we at least make contact?"
Uhura had a video transmission set up in under twenty seconds.
The bridge of the SS Robert Fox was all but empty. Three people were doing the work of ten, dashing from station to station, so occupied with what they were doing that it took nearly thirty seconds for the first person to notice.
"Well, would you look at that?" Jim Kirk said, staring up at us, awestruck. "You really weren't kidding about how young they all are, were you?"
"Have you ever known me to kid, Jim?"
"Oh, I remember a time or two," Kirk said wryly, smiling at someone working off screen, presumably Spock. "Ah, Captain? I believe you're needed here." He looked me in the eye for a long moment, nodded once, then stepped out of Orlan's way.
"Captain Kirk," she said, taking up work at the navigational stations.
"Captain Orlan," I returned evenly. "Any chance I can convince you to stop this?"
"You know you can't," she replied. "We're too close to the Nexus now. If you try to pull us out while we resist, it'll tear the ship apart. And you don't really want to stop me, anyway. You need these people to survive. If they don't, your entire universe could be erased from existence." I didn't say anything, and when she looked up at me I simply stared, letting her extrapolate from my expression more creative threats than I could ever come up with myself. Her confidence started to shake apart from her own self-doubts. "Please," she begged, "please, if I can't save all of my people, at least let me save these few. Let me save my wife."
"You're right," I sighed, "I can't stop you. And I shouldn't stop you. But you won't go back through with them, Orlan."
"I know," she said, voice shaking. "I'm prepared to do that, for their sake."
"But it's not necessary!" I clenched a fist, resisting the urge to hit something. "You're going to die a needless death!"
A shrill beep distracted Orlan from responding. "The hull is destabilizing," she announced. "It won't be long before the Nexus takes the ship."
"Then we are almost done here," Spock said, suddenly right next to her. She jumped back, alarmed, but couldn't get away before he'd pinched a nerve in her neck, knocking her out. An arm already around her shoulders to prevent a fall, he lowered her gently to the floor. Kirk took over her consoles with barely a second glance at her. It might have seemed callous to someone else, but he was probably more used to Spock doing stuff like that than I was, and I'd barely reacted either.
"We were never going to let her die here," Kirk said. "A needless death is the worst kind I can imagine."
I cocked my head to one side and smirked. "I guess we're not so different, then."
He beamed at me. "How could we be? You're captain of the Enterprise."
"Spock?" Kirk glanced down at the console briefly, then back up at Spock. "There's not much time left."
"No, there is not." Spock rested a hand on his shoulder. "T'hy'la."
Uhura lifted a hand to her mouth and let out this tiny little sigh of comprehension. Spock – my Spock – looked like he'd been slapped.
Kirk didn't notice; he turned with smiling eyes to his friend. "Yes?"
"I'm sorry." Spock's hand shifted, pinching, and with a moan Kirk collapsed. Spock gathered his unconscious body close, and lifted a hand to his face. Fingertips falling easily into position – one he'd taken hundreds of times before, though not for years and years – he melded with Kirk and whispered one last thing to him. One word. One painful word.
Both bridges were silent. I felt like I couldn't even dare to breath, for fear of disturbing this, this... whatever it was. It almost felt like a wake.
In the end, McCoy was the one who broke the silence. "Guess I was wrong, Jim," he said to me. I stared at him, not understanding. "There was something crueler than telling the old busybody that his Jim was here."
Spock, laying Kirk down, quietly said, "It had to be done. If he is to escape the Nexus, as he must, he cannot have these memories tying him to that place."
"You didn't have to steal them from him!"
"Bones, don't," I said.
"Don't you “Bones, don't” me," he snapped. "You could have told him what was going to happen, let him have some dignity! Kept the last time you'd ever see him from being a betrayal of trust."
Spock laughed. It wasn't anywhere near as funny as I had imagined. "You're right, doctor." Again, my Spock looked like he'd been slapped. McCoy looked like he'd been force-fed a lemon. "I could have done that. Very easily. But it was easier still for me to... not."
"I do not understand."
Spock looked at Spock. "I have lived with the absence of Jim for three times longer than I knew him. I have known the grief of not having him more intimately than the joy of his presence. And I have been almost given him back three times now, and each is harder to live with than the last. I could prolong it no more."
Spock nodded, slowly, but I could tell he didn't quite get it.
To be honest, I wasn't sure I did either. It hasn't even been two years since I died, and we're still navigating our way through this friendship. I feel like I barely know him, but that doesn't stop the idea of losing him from being as unimaginable as losing the Enterprise. If I lost either of them, and had the chance to get them back, I'd take it, no question. So would Spock. And older Spock had definitely been glad to meet me, back on that first mission, and I was hardly anything like the Jim Kirk he'd known. Surely the real thing would be better than me.
The transmission started to get shaky. Barely looking up from the consoles, he raised his voice loud enough to be heard clearly across the bridge of the Enterprise. "I have misled you and your crew, captain, and I could claim that it was necessary, but it was not. I am a selfish old man, hurting others to reduce my own grief, and for that I apologize. I do not ask that you forgive me; I do not deserve it.
"But Captain Orlan was only trying to save her wife, and that is an act that does not deserve punishment." Hitting a few last keys decisively, he leaned down and picked Orlan up, slinging one of her arms over his shoulder. The swirling shimmer of a transporter came over them, and the bridge of the Robert Fox was empty.
"Two life signatures down in Transporter Room Three," someone reported.
Five seconds later the transmission failed, and the Robert Fox disappeared in a fiery explosion.
Over the next half hour, the Nexus dimmed, dulled, and eventually dropped out of visible sight altogether.
Orlan was found unconscious in medbay, lying in the bed that had been curtained off for my counterpart. She woke up, saw where she was, and couldn't stop crying for an hour or more. She'd saved her wife, but like we'd both known beforehand, it wasn't an easy choice to make. When she was ready to discuss the idea, she expressed interest in being left behind at the nearest starbase. So did a handful of El-Aurians, ones whose families had been on neither the Robert Fox nor the Lakul.
I don't know where exactly they went from there, but I imagine there's a factionless transport ship out there somewhere, flying into unfamiliar space on the word of a brave, hopeful woman, out to save her people. I don't know if she'll manage it. I just wish we could have helped.
Spock had left on his little ship before any of us thought to look for him. Uhura got a connection set up, briefly, but I didn't have much of anything to say. Spock said, "T'hy'la?" to him in a way that nearly sounded insulted to my ears. Disbelieving, at least. His counterpart only said, "Our destinies are not the same," which isn't much of an answer, if you ask me. He went to warp before Spock could demand a less vague response, and ever since he's been working in isolated regions of New Vulcan. Poor connection, no time to spare, et cetera, et cetera.
The way I see it, when he said he couldn't prolong losing Jim Kirk anymore, he wasn't just talking about that old me. I don't think we'll be getting any more advice out of him.
I've been thinking about that too, about what he said. The only person I ever lost so long ago that I remember their absence more than their presence is my dad. I never knew him, though I know well enough of him. I know he's missed. I know he's a good man. If he could be brought back, then shouldn't he be? Even if I was the only person alive in the universe who mattered to him?
That said... I don't know if I'd want to. He's a weight I'd feel whether he was here or not, a hole in me that's long since scabbed up and scarred over. And he's been gone so long... what good would it do? What good would it do anyone?
Well, if he's as good as everyone always said, a lot. But I doubt it'd do me much good.
A selfish old man, he called himself. There's definitely some truth to that.
Where's Bones gotten to? I need some of that medicinal liquor of his.
...oh, right. Computer, end captain's personal log.