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PROLOGUE

Red Alert.

Red Alert.

Floor. Feet. Feet on floor, right, and the right way around, good, good; he's vertical, mostly, and he's pulling on clothes before his eyelids manage to unstick themselves. He casts an absent, bleary look around to confirm - his room, his clothes, no one else here unless they're lurking under the pile of laundry, check check check - and makes for the door.

Spock's door slides open at the exact same time as his own. They spare only a second to nod at one another before walking briskly, in tandem, to the turbolift. The nod tells Jim what he needs to know: Spock has yet to learn the cause of the alert, had been similarly woken up by the alarm, and even superior Vulcan physiology gets a bit strained by week after week of seemingly endless tasks and missions.

It's a time-saving nod.

The route back to the bridge is so familiar, he doesn't have to think about it. Turns out to be a good thing when various muscle groups are protesting the sudden switch from rest to full movement; there's an odd sense-memory of not-so-old injuries, from that mission with the rock-spitting plants. Faint spots of tension, like his nerves still expect pain at a particular stretch of ligament or pull of skin, though everything but the most superficial bruising have been healed: his body is clearly a bit suspicious of the Medbay-assisted return to full health.

When they step into the bridge, Kirk sees that Sulu has already taken the helm from his gamma shift relief. The rest of the alpha bridge crew show up within minutes - with the addition of Bones, to the utter surprise of no one. In fact, the Chief Medical Officer looks better-rested than most of them. Jim tries to look less like the Captain's chair is all that's keeping him sitting upright.

He clears his throat. "Report."

"We were shot by an unidentified vessel, sir," answers Lieutenant Pierce, who'd had the chair during gamma. "It'd been hiding behind GT-7112's moon."

"Did you fire back?"

"Only a warning shot, sir." Pierce shifts nervously, but holds Jim's gaze steadily enough. "The ship's size and armaments do not pose a significant threat to a Constitution-class starship; their phaser fire barely registered on our shields. We tried hailing them, but there was no response."

"Captain, the bogey's running," says Sulu.

"This area was recently flagged by the Tellarites as a possible hot zone for illegal trade activity." There was a time when Spock appearing suddenly by the side of the Captain's chair would have startled Jim, but now he just swings slightly to one side so he can look at his First Officer without risking a crick to his neck. Or - he winces - make the existing one worse, at any rate.

"Slavers," guesses Jim.

It's not a question, but Spock nods. Jim wants to think, optimistically, that human habits are slowly rubbing off on Spock, but he suspects that his friend is simply tired enough to take the path of least resistance over acting the model Vulcan.

"Pursue the ship, Mr. Sulu," says Kirk. "But maintain regular scanning of the immediate area - this ship may be bait of some kind." They've been having that kind of a week.

He has a faint hope that they would catch up to the slaver ship quickly. It takes half a minute for his brain to come up with a model that matches what he can see on the enhanced view and the readings from the scans. No wonder - the model is almost ten years old. Capable of warp, but doesn't seem to be using it, for some indeterminable reason; the Enterprise has the advantage in every way.

But five minutes into the chase, weeks of successively more strenuous missions finally take their toll: something major malfunctions in Engineering, causing them to lose speed, and by the time Scotty pulls off one of his patch jobs, the slaver ship has disappeared.

"Don't beat yourselves up over it," Kirk tells his crew, keeping the line down to Engineering open. He's already ended the Red Alert. "Everyone's tired, including our old girl; these things happen. Sulu - no, it's Darwin right now, isn't it? Return us to our previous trajectory and resume course as normal."

"Yes, Captain."

"Alpha crew, return your stations to your gamma relief and go back to bed."

"I presume you will be following your own orders, Captain?" says Spock, giving him a pointed look.

Jim plasters on a smile. "Only if you do, Mr. Spock."

Spock's eyebrow twitches. "Of course, Captain."

~ * ~

"Oh, this is such a coincidence, that I happen to walk into this here rec room, same as all you good people," Jim says the moment the door starts to slide open, "and right in time for a movie to start, too!" He prods at Sulu's outstretched leg with his foot. "Budge up."

"Stop trying to sound like a cowboy. You can sit by the Doc," says Sulu, not turning away from the screen. A hand is thrust up, palm open. "Entrance fee, first."

Jim rolls his eyes but drops the packet of chocolate malt balls into Sulu's greedy, exorbitant fingers. There is, indeed, a clear space right next to Bones, on the second row of oversized pillows that form a slanting line across the middle of the room. Jim suspects said space had been bigger before Bones had fallen asleep and slumped sideways into it. He shifts his insensate CMO enough to sit down, murmuring a quiet, "it's just me, Bones," when the familiar furrows appear on his friend's brow, and nobly allows Bones to use his shoulder as a pillow once he's comfortable.

He makes a point of not looking around the room, which is dark except for the impressively large screen in the front. He thinks he counts two or three bodies more than the last time they'd done this, and not all of the crew are necessarily comfortable with interacting with their Captain off-shift, though most relax once they get used to him.

"Now that Himself is here, can we start?" Uhura calls from a different part of the room. "There's one and a half hours left until alpha shift."

"I believe only two of the films on the shortlist will fit within that timeframe." The voice, not to mention the tone, is unmistakable, even if its proximity to Uhura's isn't enough of a clue. Jim tries to contain his grin; Spock doesn't show up very often, usually choosing to meditate in his quarters during the unpredictable periods of downtime. Maybe the Vulcan had gotten some proper shut-eye earlier - does that lessen the time needed for meditation? All Jim knows is that meditation doesn't replace real sleep, even if Vulcans need less than others.

"Nyet, Mr. Spock. There are three films - the running times include the end credits, which we do not have to watch," says Chekov.

"Executive decision: I am making it," announces Sulu. He does... something, Jim has no idea what, and the titles of the three options suddenly fly out of the selection menu on the screen and bounce around the room.

"I did not know our entertainment modules could do that," notes Scotty, from the back row of pillows directly behind Jim's.

"Me neither," admits Jim.

"Hannity played around with the graphics on this console last week." One of Sulu's hands snaps out and grabs one of the titles as it zooms past him. "The Last Unicorn it is."

"I was hoping it would be that one!" cheers Chekov. Jim sees his fist pump into the air. "I have heard many good things about it."

Oh, God. Jim's going to need a bit of fortification for this. "Pass me the popcorn, I can smell the caramel from here," he demands, reaching blindly behind him with the arm that Bones is not cutting off circulation to. Keenser grumbles something indecipherable but shoves the bucket at him. "Thanks."

I mislike the feel of these woods. Creatures that live in the unicorns' forests learn a little magic of their own in time. Mainly concerned with disappearing.


CHAPTER ONE

A five-year mission, to take them beyond the bounds of known space. Unfortunately, getting there requires the Enterprise to travel through light years and light years of known space, first; Starfleet Command, to the surprise of no one, seizes the opportunity to give them various assignments in the areas they are passing through.

A previous exploratory mission on TC-895 had noted that the local people, whose civilization is pre-industrial enough to allow for the fiction that 'Starfleet' is another tribe from a particularly distant island, adhere to very strict social roles, most of which were divided along gender lines. Young boys learn to hunt as soon as they can hold a spear; young girls learn to cook as soon as they can start a fire on their own; weapons can only be used by men; medicine can only be practiced by women.

"Wow, use of bold, italics, and underline," says Jim, tilting his PADD to show the report to Spock. "Seems like Commander Kim wanted to make sure we didn't miss it. I feel like there's a story there."

"I am looking at the same report, Captain," replies Spock, without even looking up. He's probably almost done reading. Jim's pretty sure Spock hadn't so much as read ahead as memorized the entire year's curriculum on the first week of school. Not that he knows much about Vulcan schools - maybe they run things differently.

The actual accounting of the mission is fairly dry, at least until Kim and a couple of Ensigns discovered unidentified technology sitting smack dab out in the middle of the forest, and then her background in engineering practically leaps out in the form of rough schematics and energy readings and investigative pressing-buttons-to-see-what-happens.

An unexpected diplomatic incident had called Kim’s ship and crew away before they could come to any conclusions about the nature of the technology. This had been six years ago; the standard post-mission review from Starfleet Operations had stamped the whole thing a Low Priority. There's a certain artistry in the wording of comments that Jim's slowly learning to read, word choices that position the report in question along the spectrum of relevance to pervading Starfleet interests; this one falls in the band of Not Important Enough To Send A Ship Out But If One Happens To Pass Nearby Get Them To Have A Look.

Sulu parks the Enterprise in orbit and scans the surface. The readings they get match the readings included in Commander Kim's report. "Nothing much seems to have changed in the last six years, unless they've found a way to hide all evidence of technological advancement. No noticeable pollutants in the atmosphere, which is consistent with a pre-industrial society at the populations estimated by the previous expedition."

The forest is too dense for them to get any useful readings at such a distance. Jim spends a moment considering the away team. He elects himself as a matter of course and elects Spock on threat of Vulcan eyebrow. He takes one last look at Commander Kim’s schematics and has a thought.

"Bridge to Doctor Marcus."

"Captain."

"I'd like you to be on the away team to TC-895; I think we may have need of your expertise."

"Of course, Captain. I'll head to the transporter room."

"Very good. Kirk out." He bounces up to standing. Despite the tiredness that's taken up permanent residence in his bones, the prospect of exploration (new world! possible mystery!) never fails to stir up excitement. He nods to the bridge crew. He notices, out of the corner of his eye, that there's a message on his PADD, and it's not in his official Starfleet inbox. "Mr. Sulu, you have the-"

[ PRIVATE MESSAGE ]
TO: Kirk
FROM: Spock
MESSAGE: Mr. Sulu has a keen interest in exotic flora.

"-actually, scratch that, you're coming with us." And yeah, there's a reason Jim knows better than to play poker with the man; Sulu's pleased look ghosts by in less than an eyeblink before he's standing and nodding like a dignified helmsman. "Chekov, you have the conn."

"Aye aye, sir."

Halfway to the transporter room, Jim calls in Scotty as well, in case the mystery technology is more than just weaponry.

~ * ~

"The healers I spoke to say that there had been a strong earthquake in this region several years ago," reports Carol, emerging from one of the solid wood-and-leather structures. "It's possible that the platforms had been buried and preserved from the worst of the elements until the earthquake unearthed it."

Unfortunately, they discover that Commander Kim had not been exaggerating how seriously the locals – who call themselves The Good People, how’s that for originality – take their prescribed gender roles.

"We seek only to protect that which is most precious!" the headman exclaims fervently. "Females should not be exposed to these instruments of death - their sweet minds will wilt before such gruesome brutality."

Jim remembers the healing-house they’d peeked into during the tour of the village-town; he thinks that the surgery in progress at the time, along the theme of keeping a man's intestines inside his body, had looked plenty gruesome.

“And we men, with our more savage nature, cannot truly bring healing, any more than the sun can prevent itself from burning our eyes when we look too long upon it.”

Jim sighs inwardly. “Perhaps if Mister Scott is the one who opens up the weapons platforms? Doctor Marcus will remain close, ah, in case he injures himself.”

“Ah, she is a healer! Why did you not simply say so?”

Bones prods him warningly. “Come on, Jim, before you say something stupid that you’ll regret.”

 

"This is a completely unfamiliar design," says Carol. Her voice and face and general body language all appear calm, her impatience coming through in faint frowns and brief twitches of tension over the arms, shoulders. Control, Jim thinks. Rigid and wholesale, unlike the camouflage-casual of Sulu or the deliberate precision of Spock. Jim doesn't know her well enough to guess if it's got anything to do with having Admiral Marcus for a father.

Scotty hadn't looked at all happy to be the one standing between her and the object of her furious study, and had scarpered the moment he got the panel open.

"Abandoned prototype?" asks Jim.

"I considered that, but see here." She points to the edges of the control panel. Jim had initially assumed, at a glance, that the black markings trailing around the side are just decorative marks, perhaps guidelines for the assembly of the device. Upon closer inspection, he realizes that it's some kind of writing, tiny blocks of circles and lines that must have been laid down by a very precise tool.

"I've never seen that script before," says Jim, whistling.

"Neither have I," says Carol. "I'm going to have Lieutenant Uhura look at it, of course, and she will send a sample to Starfleet in case anybody has seen something like it."

Jim hums. "You think these were built by a civilization we haven't met before, don't you?"

"It's the most likely explanation," says Carol. "I'm fairly sure these are from a space-faring vessel, or at least transported here by one, and there are only so many worlds capable of building this level of technology, especially if you factor in the weapons' age. I've made a point of familiarizing myself with their primary writing modes, enough to identify them on sight even if I cannot read them. Perhaps if we can initialize-"

An unearthly screeching echoes through the forest, loud enough that nearby trees lose a few leaves.

“Ah!” says their guide from the village. “It seems that the Krgolsjk have awaken early!”

“The what?” asks Jim.

Their communicators chirp. “Kirk.”

“Captain!” exclaims Chekov. “Many, many life forms, heading for you!”

Spock and Bones come running into the forest. “Captain, there appears to be a swarm of carnivorous bats heading this way.” He glances at the weapons platform. “It occurs to me that they may have been the reason these devices were installed here.”

“Of course,” says Jim. He turns to the guide. “Do these creatures attack often?”

“Every few days!” answers the guide. Jim is starting to find his enthusiasm somewhat grating. “Our warriors are skilled in defending the village against them!”

“Why don’t you just build defensive structures?” asks Carol. “Some kind of net will probably keep most of them out.”

The guide looks confused. “But how will the warriors prove themselves men?”

“Why did I know you were going to say that?” grumbles Bones.

Jim can hear the screeching now. He takes out his phaser. “Bats incoming!”

 

 

"Oh, damn, that hurts,” says Sulu through gritted teeth. “Okay, okay, just do it.”

"You will allow him to treat you?" gasps the guide, who looks as bitten bloody as the rest of them. "But this is against the natural order!"

"Listen," says Jim, "We will respect your tribes' traditions insofar as having female nurses and doctors treat your people. But I will not let one of our own bleed out to death when our best doctor is standing right there."

Bones is ignoring them, holding up a length of metal while Carol carefully heats it up with her phaser. Jim and Spock hold Sulu steady. Then Bones is pressing the glowing metal to the heavily-bleeding wound on Sulu’s leg. Sulu bucks and screams; the smell of cooking meat makes Jim wonder if Spock doesn’t have the right idea about eating only vegetables.

There’s a faint humming from the direction of the weapons platform, partially visible through the trees. Scotty jogs over, sees what’s happening, and looks like he’s about to be sick.

“Mister Scott?” prompts Jim.

“I’ve got the weapons platform online, sir,” reports Scotty unsteadily. “But the weapons themselves are not responding – I think there’s a subroutine that needs to be initialized.”

“Good job, Mister Scott,” says Jim. Bones seems to be done, and Sulu looks on his way to passing out. “Carol?”

“On it, Captain!” she says, sprinting off. Scotty follows close behind her.

They’ve revived Sulu some by feeding him water, and Spock is updating the Enterprise with the situation – after confirming that they are, indeed, in a part of the forest where the canopy is too thick to be beamed up through – when their guide jumps to his feet.

“The Krgolsjk are returning!”

Jim wants to punch the kid for sounding so happy.

There is a loud rumble, like a thousand angry wings slapping over the tops of trees. "Carol!"

"Give me five more seconds!" shouts Carol. She really is solid under pressure, Jim can't help but admire. Three seconds later, a much louder whine sounds, and a turret emerges creakily from the top of the platform. "Weapons online, Captain!"

Jim pulls Sulu up to standing and slings one of the man's arms over his shoulder. "Automatic targeting. Continuous fire for," he tries to remember how long the last pass of the bat swarm had lasted, “three minutes.”

"Done," says Carol, "though I can't guarantee it won't overload before then. These weapons have been sitting here for a very long time."

"Understood."

~ * ~

"Screw excitement," Jim groans from the depths of couch in Observation Deck 2, "never thought I'd see the day when I'm desperately hoping the next orders are for a good few light years' worth of star charting - but lo, it has come."

Spock, the only other person in the room, sits down at a nearby table with a steaming cup of tea. The faint aroma is unlike anything Jim's ever come across on Earth. "As we have finally exited the most densely populated areas of Alpha Quadrant, I predict that the volume of assignments from Starfleet will, at the very least, begin to decrease within the week."

"Unless that war with the Klingons breaks out."

"The general sentiment on both sides, according to the most recent accounts on the Federation diplomatic channels, remain in favor of peace," says Spock.

It's a good thing that Jim's face is currently smashed into the back of the musty-smelling couch; he's so used to thinking of Spock as First Officer and Commander that he tends to forget the part where Spock's the son of an Ambassador. Also the younger, reality-native version another Ambassador.

Jim is going to pretend that the stiff splotch of fabric next to his cheek is due spilled coffee. Yeah.

"Of course," adds Spock, a moment later, "neither side is willing to believe that the other isn't stockpiling armaments and reinforcing defenses. But the talks continue."

Jim sighs, disturbing the colonies of crumb-mutations between the cushions. "All it takes is just one person to mess it all up." A lesson they'd learned well; a shadow of it still hangs over the crew, in the way Bones seems reluctant to let Jim out of his sight and Spock has forgotten he'd ever had personal space issues, at least when it comes to Jim, and Uhura kicks his ass harder than usual during sparring.

"Such a risk is present for any venture," concedes Spock. "However, if one were to take a more... poetic view, it follows that one person can also provide the solution, or at least correct any disruptions."

"Balance things out, you mean?" Jim's not sure he can see that. It's a lot easier to break things down than to put them together again. Gritty particles nearly make him sneeze, probably the crumbs launching an assault, and he abruptly remembers: you had napkins hanging out of your nose.

"...following the laws of universal entropy. However, from a purely qualitative, phenomenological perspective, it is not without value."

Jim closes his eyes. "Sounds like you've been doing a bit of reading."

If Spock is aware of the diversion, he doesn't call Jim out on it. Jim doesn't ask what had driven Spock to 22nd-century philosophy. "Indeed, Unknown Immortality was quite informative on the topic of legacies and the significance of singular actions within the context of an unknowable history, but it was Thomas’ anthropological work on the worldly-life of mythological figures that I found particularly relevant to my own observations about-"

They're taking the Enterprise away from you.

Jim wakes up to an empty room with a large blanket thrown over him. Not standard-issue, either, but warm and spun out of a rough thread, the weave allowing air to circulate through the fabric. Naturally, it makes him think of deserts - one in particular, though he'd known the air and winds and sky of it more than the sands he'd never set foot on.

He carefully doesn't think about how soft the blanket feels, the gentle whisper of cloth that's seen years and years of careful washing, irregularities that hint at inexpert but dedicated workmanship; the care inherent, when the world it'd come from would have had little need for blankets.

 

 

Fencemaster: bored. someone bring me books. no porn.
Overlord: did those bat things bite your dick or something
Fencemaster: i was thinking i didn't want to subject myself or Doc to any awkward situations, but then i remembered Doc used to live with you.
Dr.Horrible: No porn in the medbay.

 

 

The atmosphere of TR-14-I reveals itself to be remarkably humid, likely due to a large percentage of the planet surface being water and the lush coverage of rainforest over most of the single main continent. It is enough to make Spock uncomfortable; he had noted the atmospheric conditions before beaming down with the away team, of course, but he had thought himself prepared for it after his years in San Francisco Bay. This is nothing at all the like, in the same way that a wind of 18km/h felt distinctly different in the Mojave Desert than it had in the Forge, even when most other environmental conditions were comparable.

Ignoring discomfort has become second-nature, despite an odd, primitive wariness at the presence of so much moisture - as if the desert-creature in his genetics is convinced it is enough to drown in. An understandable but entirely unhelpful instinct. Spock pays for his momentary distraction: he has lost sight of the Captain.

Fortunately, locating Kirk is a simple matter of listening out for Doctor McCoy's distinctive and agitated tone, then following it to its source. He finds his Captain and Chief Medical Officer standing at the edge of small pond. If it can be classified a pond: the liquid is a deep purple and highly viscous. As Spock watches, a bump rises up in the center, slowly increasing in size until it is unmistakably a bubble, and eventually pops with a thick blorp.

His sense of smell, sharper than the humans', picks up a faint hint of ammonia. His eyes, equally keen, notes the telling splash of liquid at the tip of Kirk's right shoe.

"Captain," he says, "it was extremely unwise to make physical contact with an unknown substance before myself or one of the other science officers has properly analyzed its composition. Furthermore, it is illogical to then try to hide evidence of the act." He pauses. "I would commend your foresight in having Doctor McCoy nearby in case of a medical reaction, but I am able to infer that he, in fact, followed you despite your wishes."

"The Captain appreciates the concern of the Chief Medical Officer and the First Officer," says Jim; his voice is heavy with that human staple, sarcasm. "However, the Captain would like to be allowed to do his damn job without members of his crew acting like overprotective parents."

The choice of words is entirely a coincidence; nevertheless, Spock ends up thinking of his most conversation with his father, less than 24 standard hours previous - a holovid conference lasting 15.4 minutes, wherein both sides provided concise and informative accounts of their recent ventures and passed on any details that might be of interest to the other. These communications do not have a set schedule, owing to the unpredictable nature of their respective duties, but Spock has not gone longer than a Standard month without at least exchanging messages with Sarek.

It has not escaped his notice that he has been interacting with his father, albeit at a distance, with far greater regularity now than he ever had as a child.

His father, at present, is back on New Vulcan. Perhaps it is a product of working with humans over an extended period of time, with their capacity for conveying as much information through non-verbal cues and cultural references as they do in direct communication. His father's calm, precise report on the fresh influx of Vulcans from numerous off-world postings casts an extra light on the clinical census report Spock had recently acquired from the Starfleet public servers.

It appears that a growing number of Vulcans have been resigning or abandoning their offworld work in order to return to New Vulcan. The trend encompasses all disciplines and levels of expertise, including Starfleet.

"The Council is investigating the matter, of course," says Sarek. Spock suspects there are already a few solid hypotheses being discussed - but Sarek will not speak of them until there is at least some proof.

He intends to mention it to Kirk, perhaps the next time they are able to enjoy casual discourse over hot beverages in Observation Deck 2. Spock still prefers their chess games, which provide mental stimulation in addition to relaxation, but he can certainly appreciate the need for quiet and rest.

There's a rush of hurried footsteps through the springy underbrush. Spock recognizes the irregular wheezing of Science Officer Hopf seven seconds before the man bursts out between two enormous fronds. "Captain, two of the Security Officers have been snatched by a giant insect!"

"Of course they have," mutters Kirk, low enough for only Spock to hear. Louder, he orders, "Lead the way, Lieutenant Hopf."

~ * ~

The private intranet had started life as a side-project whose existence induced mild fits of worry but fell short of losing Jim actual sleep. Starfleet doesn't outright ban the unsanctioned alteration or introduction of programming to its computer systems, because despite the growing military overtones it is still, at heart, an organization aimed at space exploration and scientific discoveries - the kind that understands that Shit Happens, so there better be room to improvise when it does. But the regulations strong discourage tampering, and Jim figures they'd be extra pissed about people messing around with their spit-shiny, (relatively) brand-new flagship.

Then again, tampering with software is what got Jim this whole gig in the first place, which is a case of mixed signals if Jim's ever seen one. Personally, he thinks that the intranet is one of the best ideas he's ever had. Not that he's entirely sure who should get most of the credit; the whole thing came into being somewhere between Scotty feeling experimental and Jim wanting to show off, a bit, because at the time he'd just gotten the Enterprise and knew, absolutely, that he'd leap-frogged a bunch of levels that he probably shouldn't have. A high-level player with only one major boss-fight under his belt.

At first it'd just been a private chat function between himself and Scotty, piggy-backing the ship's closed network but entirely separate. Which meant: no logs on the ship's record. He mentions it to Bones, naturally, but the next person to show up on the discreet little window was actually Uhura. The initiation had gone something like-

ScotInTheMachine: wait a second theres a new account on the log
N.U.: Took you long enough, I've been expecting one or both of you to come up with something like this.
Jimboree: how did u get in here?!?!
ScotInTheMachine: wat
ScotInTheMachine: uhura???
ScotInTheMachine: alsp yes how did u getin
N.U.: Kirk, we were on the same project for Dynamic Encryptions, I know how you like to hide your subroutines.
N.U.: Also, the way you two talk when you're on shift. It's pretty obvious you've been having conversations off official channels, even when Kirk's been too busy to go down to Engineering.
N.U.: I can hear you twitching in your chair, Captain, you might want to calm down before Spock notices. Like I said, I've been waiting for you guys to set this up, I knew what to look for.
N.U.: Five bucks says that Sulu will be the next one to find out.
ScotInTheMachine: ach my money's on chekov. i swear that kid is psychic.

Spock does not recall the exact stardate on which he began considering the conversations in Observation Deck 2 to be part of his and Kirk’s semi-regular routine. There is nothing that differentiates Observation Deck 2 from the four other such decks installed on the Enterprise – merely cosmetic deviations in the arrangement of the furniture and positioning of the viewing window in relation to the ship. It is not a remarkable room in any aspect – except that Kirk has demonstrated preference for it, which makes it so.

"I have no idea who my father is."

Spock's head feels curiously heavy when he turns it to look at his Captain. Kirk's face is shrouded in gloom, save for a few parts that are gently reflecting light from the various pieces of equipment around the otherwise empty room. To Vulcan eyes, he appears nearly iridescent.

"He was this name that Mom and Sam missed - and resented me for not missing." Kirk exhales slowly through his mouth. "Pike was the opposite.”

After a long while, Kirk adds, “For some reason, it never occurred to me that there'd be a time when he wasn't just there."

Kirk does not ask if their periods of insomnia share a root cause. He is either content to take Spock's silence as confirmation, or the cause does not much concern him.

 

 

His door chimes near the end of his weekly call to his parents. Hikaru ends with a cheerful "Talk to you later!" that he knows will leave his dad grumbling about the sad decline of manners in today's youth, while simultaneously boasting to his online mahjong group: just spoke to my eldest, you know, he's head pilot of a starship, and only in his twenties. "Pavel, that you?"

"Da."

Of course, it's easy to forget that he's young to be a Lieutenant, let alone being on a bridge command crew, when the guy he regularly hangs out with is barely done with being a teenager. Hikaru tells the computer to admit Pavel. "Oh hey, are those the chips you let me try last week?"

Pavel hands over the packet. Hikaru's got it open and is already digging in when he notices that Pavel is not his usual, earnestly energetic self. Instead he's sitting in his usual chair with a discontented air.

Hikaru plants his ass on the end of his narrow bed and shakes the packet at Pavel. "What's up?"

Pavel absently grabs a chip. Munches on it. "I am in need of... some advice, if I may."

"Of course. Speak your mind."

A deep sigh. Pavel looks like a man steeling himself for something - well, maybe more of a kid faced with a potential grounding in the near future. "My girlfriend - Irina? She says she may be pregnant."

Hikaru does not spit out the half-chewed chips in his mouth, but it's a near thing. "Your-" the repeated lessons in crisis management, both theoretical and applied, assert themselves before he can stick his foot into his mouth, or get processed Russian potatoes lodged in his nasal passages. He coughed hard. "Irina? Um, the one who lives in Moscow?"

Pavel nods. "She says she missed this month's-" he makes a gesture that Hikaru's brain refuses to associate with anything, so it's fortunate that the meaning is perfectly clear.

He almost asks, and she's sure it's yours? before he realizes how utterly tactless that is. Plus, if Pavel had any doubt, he'd probably mention it. Though Hikaru wouldn't put it past him to take responsibility for another person's kid.

God. Pavel with a child.

"And you are... happy? Scared? Worried?" prompts Hikaru.

"Everything?" says Pavel. "She is not asking me for anything. But... I cannot leave her to do this on her own. I would ask her to marry me, though I do not think she will say yes." He sighs deeply and slumps down further. "I do not know."

Something in the back of Hikaru's brain starts to ache.

"Right," says Hikaru, slapping his palms on his thighs and wiping off chip-seasoning dust. "Later, we're going to find you someone you can talk to about this. For now," he gets up and walks to his room's tiny, discreetly modified closet, "we're going to get roaring drunk."

"It's only three hours until shift," Pavel points out.

"Which is why I'm going to be sharing one of my hangover cures," says Hikaru, grinning; this is the real gift.

Pavel's eyes grow large, properly appreciative of the magnitude of Hikaru's gesture. People have given up all sorts of things for Hikaru's little pills: priceless artifacts, an entire year's ration of chocolate.

"You are true friend," says Pavel solemnly.

 

 

Spock keeps careful count of the boot-treads around his, and so is the first to realize when there is one less than there should be. He knows that only the Captain, Sulu, and Hendorff are ahead, all of whom are accounted for; he stops, plants his boots as firmly on the rocky ground as he can, and mentally takes stock of the rest of the away team as they run past him.

He starts running back as soon as he realizes who is missing. He thinks he hears the Captain calling after him, but he knows he has little time, and the Captain will have the same realization soon enough. "Ensign Chekov!" calls Spock.

"Over here, Commander!"

The muffled voice is coming from an innocuous-looking bush, which turns out to be concealing a narrow but deep fissure. Spock is careful not to kick sand into the gap as he peers into it. It is remarkably deep, and Chekov has slipped down a long way; visibility only goes as far as Chekov's eyes, his curls approximately the same color as the surrounding rock.

"Are you injured, Ensign?" asks Spock.

"I think my ankle is twisted, Mister Spock." Chekov's hands are scrabbling at the sides of the fissure, trying to find something to haul himself up by. Spock estimates that he would be able to climb up on his own.

The growls and yips are audible now, getting steadily closer.

"Mister Spock, you should run," pants Chekov. "Come back later. Maybe the beasts will ignore me to chase after you."

Spock thinks of the claws at the end of the creatures' legs, the configuration of muscles that resemble the tree-dwelling primates of Earth: odd adaptations for this type of rocky dessert environment. How many of these fissures might be hiding all over the plateau? And Spock cannot ignore the other data available to him: that Chekov is exceptionally intelligent, and indisputably brave, enough to be nodding earnestly and feeding Spock a lie, while piles of picked bones crunch dryly under his feet.

"Unlikely, Ensign," is all Spock says, because he is occupied with removing his belt and using it to tie one leg to the central stem of the nearby bush. Depending on the frequency of rainfall, some desert plants possessed deep, strong roots. He thinks he hears a new set of growling voices, echoing through the fissure; a new pack of the creatures, perhaps, or there is another entrance that the current pack is making use of. The ones that had been chasing them overland are mere seconds away - so are the Captain and the rest of the away team. It is difficult to estimate which group will reach them first. Spock doesn't dare wait.

The Captain runs into view the moment before Spock slides himself into the fissure, head first and arms outstretched. The tie around his leg and the bush stretches, then holds, though it feels rather precarious. Chekov coughs from the shower of sand and small rocks, but he flings up his arms and leaps for Spock without needing to be told. His fingers touch the ends of Spock's, too little and too far. Spock hears the whine of phasers firing.

Chekov shouts something in Russian, likely as a result of his injury, and leaps up again; this time, Spock manages to grip one hand and hold it. But their combined weight causes him to start to slip. Chekov yelps and attempts to let go of Spock. Spock, anticipating this, refuses to loosen his hold. The young man's emotions are bright and sharp against his skin; the fear is expected, but there's also relief and gratitude and a complicated, multi-layered warmth that Spock, to his own surprise, mentally envisions as the Enterprise. Some instinctive part of Spock's mind, unconcerned that the person whose emotions he's brushing against is psi-null, whispers, yes safe know crew tribe.

"Commander!" shouts Chekov. His mind is shouting go escape be safe and don't leave me please, one as loud as the other, the emotions translating the words despite Spock doing his best not to listen.

The Captain is shouting something above them. More phaser fire. Sand streams down around them; Chekov flinches and tries to shield his face. His wiggles his body, and other hand reaches up. Spock grabs it. Chekov looks up again. His eyes are slightly red - a symptom of irritation from small particles. This close, face-to-face, Spock's mind stalls at the reiterated observation that Chekov's eyes are blue.

Suddenly, he's staring through glass, staring at a familiar face devoid of life, and he'd thought he'd known, what loss was, what grief was, but this is different, unexpected, something he'd never thought to prepare himself for, it's already sweeping everything he knows away until all he is he feels-

He feels something snap, and he slides forward sharply, pulled down by Chekov's weight and his own.

Then there are hands grasping his legs. His sliding slows but doesn't entirely stop, his feet must be at the edge. Multiple voices are shouting. Several pairs of hands yank him backwards so hard that pain flares up Spock's left leg. Two heavy weights drop down over his legs, pinning them, which only exacerbates the pain, but at least he is better secured. From the way the weights are wriggling around, he suspects Sulu and the Captain are sitting on him. The pain is designated as background noise. Even with his Vulcan strength, his arms tremble as he pulls Chekov up - his grip is so tight, he's fairly sure he's bruising Chekov's hands, but Chekov doesn't seem to mind - until eventually Chekov is grabbed by reaching hands and Chekov is able to hold on to the rest of Spock's body. He apologizes as he clambers over Spock.

It is just in time - Chekov has barely been pulled out when the gleam of hungry eyes appear in the darkness. Spock reasons that this must be part of their hunting strategy: to sneak up on prey trapped in the fissure, perhaps to minimize the chances for a last-minute attempt to escape.

Unfortunately, while Chekov is free, Spock is still dangling.

A phaser shot streaks past and hits one creature directly on the face.

"Spock, catch!" shouts the Captain. Spock reacts on instinct - he will remember, later, that it'd felt more like the phaser had simply fallen perfectly into his grip, rather than his hand snapping out and catching the phaser that Kirk had dropped to him, which is how Sulu would recount it.

He shoots the second creature that had clambered over the first, missing the face but catching it in the chest. One more appears and is taken down by three different phaser shots.

 

 

Uhura smiles at Spock's quiet thanks for her gift of his PADD, and presses a quick kiss to his lips where, with a human, she might have patted or gripped their hands. She is sure she has Amanda Grayson to thank for Spock's leniency with regard to public displays of affection, though Spock has made his own compromise with Vulcan sensibilities by ranking mouth-kisses as less intimate than hand-kisses.

She's definitely not complaining.

She does give Chekov an affectionate squeeze on the arm when she passes his biobed, which he accepts with a tired "Спасибо". His ankle is in a light brace and there's a heat pack strapped to his shoulder.

Doctor McCoy is hovering in the hallway outside the medbay when she exits. "Something the matter, Doctor?" she asks.

"Hmm? No, no, everything's fine. Hobgoblin and Russian whizkid will be free to go after six hours - I just want to make sure nothing got into those abrasions."

Uhura hadn't seen any, but McCoy had probably already gone over them with a dermal regenerator. "So why are you hanging around out here?"

He casts a pained look at the door to the sickbay, and says in a low voice, "Because those two are the only patients in there right now, and they're being model patients."

"And - this is terrible?" says Uhura.

"It gives me the creeps, all right?" grumbles McCoy. "Chekov has always been easy to work on, but I can usually needle Spock a bit. He's not playing along today, though; it's like he and Chekov are doing a joint best-behavior act."

"Chekov's looking a bit down - maybe Spock just doesn't want to disturb him." Spock isn't particularly perceptive of human emotional states, but even he might notice the way Chekov's riot of curls is currently looking flat and lifeless.

"He's been hurt worse and still bouncing around the bridge after," says McCoy. "And the news about his girlfriend is old." A second later, he winces. "Um."

Uhura shakes her head. "I was the one who sent him to talk to you about the medical side of things. And yeah, he might have found out a while ago, but trust me - it's the kind of thing you can't really stop thinking about." Right, time to switch topics. She narrows her eyes at him. "The CMO chased out of his own medbay by the peace and quiet. You're too used to Kirk giving you trouble, aren't you?"

McCoy's eyes widen and he looks around frantically, as if expecting Kirk to materialize at the mention of his name. Two years of working with them, and Uhura has to admit that it's not an unreasonable reaction. "Don't say that! He'd never let me live it down."

"Why don't we get something to eat?" offers Uhura sympathetically. "I doubt your model patients will be giving the nurses and doctors any trouble. I'll even let you have my coffee."

"You're an angel among mortals," McCoy declares earnestly.

 

 

"I don't dream of Earth," says Kirk, eyes distant. He is slumped in a chair beside Spock’s bed, staring at the Medbay wall in the same manner as he stares out the viewing window on Observation Deck 5, as if he can see the stars drifting past. "Maybe a memory, now and then. And it's more like I'm dreaming of - my mom, or my brother, or riding my hoverbike. Earth's just background." Spock says nothing; not because Kirk's words do not necessitate a response, but because he can hear, somehow, somewhere in Kirk's tone, that there are more words to come. "So, I don't dream of Earth." A quiet noise, like wind rasping over low dunes. "But I do dream of Vulcan."

Spock breathes. What do you know of Vulcan? he wants to demand. You saw Vulcan in the last hour of its existence.

And yet, yet, Kirk had seen. The last hour - but ought the last hour be any less valuable than the millennia that had come before? Spock remembered the outpouring of sympathy and condolences from the Federation, in the months after; the demonstrations of care and goodwill. He remembered, too, the silence in the Enterprise, the emotions packed tight as old sands under the noise of confronting the Narada. Grief had been exchanged for purposeful action; Spock had thought, later, that it had been a better tribute for Vulcan than any number of flags and heartfelt speeches.