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Into Dust

Chapter Text

Into Dust

 

'You should have learned by now

I'll burn this whole world down'

( Breaking Benjamin )

 

 

PROLOGUE

 

- - -

 

( Jeremy Doyen, A History of Empires , publication date 2595 )

'It is, in hindsight, impossible to determine if the events transpiring in the year 2259 were the catalysts of the Klingon-Federation War and the subsequent rise of the Reborn Empire, or merely contributors. An educated guess can still be attempted, however.

 

One would do well to remember that the United Federation of Planets, along with its military arm, Starfleet, were looking back on a long list of conflicts at that time already, and may simply have become too complacent in their assumed position of power, or too arrogant, to realize the fallacy within their approach to exploration: even peaceful exploration is still an encroachment on space inhabited by someone else, no matter how noble the encroaching party's intentions may be. You cannot run through someone's house, even if the door was open, even if you don't steal or break anything, and expect them to simply accept it.

 

Some historians say the war was a matter of circumstance; I for one say the war was inevitable.'

 

- - -

 

Too many Klingons die in the Ketha Province for their High Council to let it sit quietly as yet another point of discontent between the Empire and the United Federation of Planets. The saber rattling begins while on Earth, rescue teams have only just set up triage around the perimeter of the crash site of the USS Vengeance. Reeling from the unexpected, violent end of an internal conflict that shakes the very foundations of the organization and leaves a gaping hole in San Francisco's skyline, Starfleet Command fails to follow up on reports of heightened Klingon activity on the edges of the neutral zone: they have a city in shock to handle, an admiral's questionable orders to decipher, and more than 100,000 corpses to bury.

 

Doctor Leonard McCoy milks blood from the arm of a heavily sedated, genetically engineered man: enough to save a friend's life, enough to keep for later experiments, for complications that may arise, further down the road. The genetically engineered man, considered too dangerous to be allowed consciousness, is frozen when McCoy has what he needs from him, and delivered into Starfleet Command's keeping along with 72 equally frozen individuals.

 

The Klingon attack on Alpha Eridani II goes almost entirely unnoticed. It is only when the dust has settled, when the electrical fires have been put out and the worst of the wreckage is cleared away, that investigations into the activity reports are made. By that time, a week after a Dreadnought darkened the San Francisco sky, the human colony on Eridani II has been reduced to a footnote in the Klingon chronicles of conquered worlds. Eridani's capital, Heliopolis, has been razed to the ground, its inhabitants slaughtered or captured.

 

Captain James Tiberius Kirk, Jim to his friends, rises as Lazarus did from the grave. He does so in the midst of the public cry of outrage when news of Alpha Eridani II's fall into Klingon hands finally reaches Earth, and his miraculous recovery from clinically ascertained exitus does not reach the press at all.

 

But it does reach a small circle of men and women within Starfleet Command, who are scrambling to erase any traces of their affiliation with the late, disgraced Admiral Alexander Marcus. While search-and-rescue ships are dispatched to Alpha Eridani II, along with a sizable number of moderately armed escort vessels, these men and women confiscate the preliminary notes written by Leonard McCoy, as well as the twenty-odd vials of Khan's blood.

 

McCoy is summoned to appear before a jury.

 

- - -

 

'Really, doctor. You injected the blood of a human being into a dead Tribble.' Admiral Kerensky's face shows the depth of her disapproval; she's all but spitting out the words. 'I understand scientific curiosity, but wouldn't you agree that you've crossed the line of ethics there rather blatantly? The captain's log of the Enterprise does correlate your claim that you initially performed tests because Captain Kirk ordered you, so that the nature of your prisoner's apparent 'super powers' could be ascertained. However, what you did went above and beyond a mere physio report. You didn't even attain your test subject's permission for any of the questionable 'experiments' you ran on his blood.'

 

McCoy stares at her in disbelief. 'Considering Khan's actions -'

 

'Khan's – or John Harrison's – actions are not under scrutiny here,' Admiral Kerensky cuts him off. 'Yours are.'

 

McCoy is torn between anger and a dull sense of shame. He feels a little bit like he did when his ex-wife accused him of all the things he'd done wrong during their marriage, things he'd done right, in his opinion. He wants to shout and argue, like he did during the divorce, but he doesn't. In their eyes, he is already burned.

 

He doesn't point out that Khan, if silently, agreed to have his blood drawn, that first time. No one forced anyone to do anything. He doesn't expand on the many promising venues his experimental research on Khan's blood has opened. They wouldn't listen to any of it.

 

McCoy is sitting before a jury of his peers, and they care little for the atrocious acts committed by that genetically engineered asshole. What they care about is his conduct, and whether or not he acted accordingly to the regulations set forth by Starfleet and the oath McCoy swore when he became a doctor.

 

An oath he may have broken, or at least bent a little, but McCoy doesn't regret it: neither the experiments on the necrotic host, nor the induced coma he subjected Khan to when they finally got him back on the Enterprise. McCoy saved Jim's life; he isn't sorry at all for whatever damage ( hah! ) or injustice he might have done Khan. He'd do it, again, in a second, to save a friend's life – ethics be damned.

 

And if this jury – this mock trial – means people will stay away from his friend, well, then that's a sacrifice McCoy is more than willing to make.

 

- - -

 

McCoy does not lose his medical license, but he is ordered to keep his mouth shut and banned from further research. That suits him fine. He doesn't have time for research, anyway. The search-and-rescue ships and their escorts come under heavy fire from the Klingons, who now consider Alpha Eridani II theirs, and limp back to Earth, hundreds of wounded on board. The rescue teams in San Francisco are still pulling victims of Khan's insane attack on the city out of the rubble.

 

Leonard McCoy became a doctor because he wanted to save lives, so he throws himself into his work and attempts to leave the hearing, the accusations, behind. He'll have a censure in his record, but what's a censure compared to saving a friend's life? If they are very, very lucky, Jim and he, the confiscation of his research means that Starfleet Command won't look too closely at the results McCoy's research already has had.

 

Starfleet Command, now headed by Admiral Braddock, is kept unaware of McCoy's hearing and the confiscation of the doctor's research. Admiral Kerensky, Head of Medical and Biological Research at the Academy, seals the transcripts of the hearing, marks them as confidential, and finally erases them from the data archives completely.

 

McCoy's experiments and the vials of Khan's blood are made available to people Kerensky trusts to know what to do with them: Section 31. Admiral Marcus may be dead, but there are people willing to pick up where the good admiral left off, and Susan Kerensky knows all of them.

 

- - -

 

It's November 14th, 2259, and Jim's finally cleared for active duty. In his case, that means a metric ton of paperwork and debriefings his extended stay at the hospital shielded him from, so far.

 

He can't say he's looking forward to the paperwork or the debriefings – he gets to write up his version of events, and then he gets to tell his version of events, over and over again. He's glad now that his miraculous recovery from death didn't make the news; every reporter on the planet would want an interview with him. It's better for everyone involved if there's no digging into any of that. He's not ready yet, to dig into any of that.

 

There are other things to focus on now, anyway.

 

War is standing at the doorstep of the Alpha Quadrant and casting its long shadow over the planets close to the Klingon Empire. It's all a bit surreal – the very thing Admiral Marcus warned him about is now in full progress. The guilt Jim feels, the gut-wrenching knowledge that his actions on Qo'noS may have accelerated the Klingons' encroachment on Federation space, will hopefully start to fade once he's back out there, with a fully repaired Enterprise, to aid in Starfleet's attempts to keep Earth's colonies and the home worlds of their allied species safe.

 

McCoy, overseeing Jim's hazardous way of shoving clothes and other personal items into a carry-all, remarks innocently, “One could think you're eager to get out of here.”

 

“You think?” Jim turns a grin on his friend. “Whatever gave you that impression?” He reaches over and slaps McCoy on the shoulder. “I was stuck here for two months, Bones. Two months! I can't wait to get my hands on some real food that wasn't processed beyond recognition and put through a blender! Admit it, you ordered the nurses to keep serving this stuff to me, just to annoy me.”

 

Easily, McCoy rises to the challenge. “Now listen, Jim, hospital food is made specifically to -”

 

“Oh, come on.” Jim rolls his eyes. “I was sucking steak through a straw yesterday -”

 

They're in the middle of a loud, friendly discussion about the nutritional value of meat put through a blender versus meat that looks like it actually came from a cow at some point, when Scotty bursts through the door, startling them both.

 

“There's not going to be a trial!” Scotty announces. Taking in Jim's and McCoy's stunned expressions, he elaborates, “Thought I'd warn you. They're pulling in all the Enterprise crew members, to make sure no one goes blabbing. It's a cover-up. They're going to sweep this whole thing under the carpet.”

 

On the other side of the hospital bed, McCoy has gone sour-faced, arms crossed over his chest. Processing Scotty's breathless announcement a second time, in case he just misunderstood, Jim swallows down the bile rising in his throat. “That's preposterous.” It's more than that, it's wrong. “The public has a right to know. How are they going to sweep this,” he flaps a hand at the window, “under the carpet?”

 

The skeletal metal carcass of the USS Vengeance is visible from Jim's hospital window. It's visible from every damn vantage point in the city; it's a giant, impossible-to-miss space ship sticking out of the middle of San Francisco. For two months now, the rescue teams have been working on the crash site, and they're still finding the squashed, burned and otherwise mangled remains of victims. They haven't even begun to clear away the wreckage of the skyscrapers the Vengeance razed to the ground, but already the death tally has gone past the 100,000 mark.

 

“Engine failure,” Scotty says.

 

McCoy's eyes nearly bug from his skull. “You've got to be kidding me.”

 

Scotty shakes his head no. “That's the official story. A new prototype of ship, something went wrong, fatal engine failure. Unfortunate that San Francisco happened to be in the way when it crashed, but hey,” Scotty sneers, “at least the ship didn't come down right in the middle of the city, right? Small mercies, and all that.”

 

“And who's going to believe that?” McCoy scoffs.

 

Scotty lifts his shoulders in a shrug. “Who won't, without anyone saying otherwise, and -”

 

“What about Khan?” Jim asks, interrupting Scotty. It's not worry for the safety of Khan Noonien Singh that's driving a hot spike of anger right down the middle of Jim's brain, down to the pit of his belly and out into his limbs until his hands are clenching into fists. Jim owes Khan nothing.

 

But people died to ensure Khan was brought back to Earth to stand trial. Members of the crew of the Enterprise died when Jim made the decision to ignore Admiral Marcus' orders, when he ordered Sulu to set course for Earth. To think that it was all for nothing – that all the men and women who lost their lives to uphold Starfleet regulations, morals, ethics died in vain – that they sacrificed so much only to have even that little bit of victory taken away from them...

 

“I don't know, captain,” Scotty says, sounding subdued and bitter now. “It's not like they can put him on trial without exposing the truth. This all smacks of someone's desperate attempt to keep their reputation intact. Think about what would happen if the public got wind of a Starfleet admiral going rogue. The integrity of everyone in the chain of command would come under scrutiny.”

 

“It wasn't Marcus who crashed the Vengeance into the bay,” McCoy argues.

 

Scotty gives McCoy a long look. “It was Marcus who woke Khan. It was Marcus who enabled Khan to get his hands on that ship in the first place, by bringing it to the edge of the neutral zone.” At McCoy's immediate, angry grunt, he holds up a placating hand. “I'm not defending that maniac. Either of them. This is a political clusterfuck of epic proportions. They can't put Khan on trial without bringing up Marcus' involvement. That's what they're trying to avoid. So there isn't going to be a trial at all.”

 

All of Jim's looking forward to getting out of the hospital has been replaced by a bitter feeling of defeat. Worse, there is a definite edge of betrayal that cuts away at him, laced with gnawing guilt. He sits on the edge of his bed, listening to Scotty and McCoy argue back and forth about responsibilities and politics, and thinks, This is not the Starfleet I signed up for.

 

- - -

 

The Klingon-Federation War begins officially on December 1st, 2259.

 

It is as if the Klingons, having licked blood when they conquered Alpha Eridani II, suddenly decide to go all out. Klingon space is vast, cluttered with dozens of planets to hide War Birds on; there is no end to the armada of ships that pour over the edges of the neutral zone and spill carnage into the Alpha Quadrant. The Klingon High Council turns a deaf ear to all diplomatic attempts. It's time to show these filthy humans, these peace-loving explorers who go where they're not wanted, the might of the Klingon Empire.

 

Ironically, Admiral Marcus was right: Starfleet isn't prepared. Fleet vessels are armed with phaser cannons and torpedo banks, but that's nothing compared to what the Klingons are loading their ships with. It's not that the Starfleet ships are entirely outgunned - they do manage to drive back the Klingons from Arakon before the human colony there is sacked - but the Federation is losing ships faster than they can repair them.

 

Luckily for Earth and Starfleet, Section 31, now under the command of Admiral Kerensky, has a solution to that problem.

 

- - -

 

'Ladies and gentlemen, the tide of war is turning.' Admiral Braddock paces the length of the Daystrom Conference Room, slow, measured steps along the window front, hands clasped behind his back. He chooses his words with care, weighs them thoughtfully. It is a delicate matter he means to bring up, and while times may be hard and calls for desperate measures are probably expected, he is not entirely sure of his fellow admirals' reaction.

 

'We lost the Bradbury. The Endeavor and the Sunstar are in dry dock and can't be expected to be fully functional for weeks.' Braddock arrives at the wall, turns, and returns to his seat at the head of the oval table. 'I was hoping it wouldn't come to this, and I don't expect anyone present to agree with me. But please, consider the possibilities of what I'm about to present to you. There will be a vote at the end of this meeting – anonymous, of course – to decide where we will go from here.'

 

Braddock accesses the information he was given, quite unexpectedly, earlier today. He enters a command into the computer mounted on the table in front of him. Simultaneously, the other screens in the conference room, one for each admiral, show the same image Braddock now gazes at.

 

There are a number of gasps. Collectively, 14 Starfleet admirals move their faces closer to their screens. Only Admiral Kerensky remains seated upright, gaze distant as she stares at San Francisco's skyline outside the windows. Braddock watches her for a moment, wondering what goes through her head, then decides he doesn't want to know. He's only just begun to fully understand what Section 31 is all about. Prior to Admiral Marcus' death at the hands of a madman, Braddock had always assumed it was just a quirky little pet project of Marcus'.

 

It is so much more.

 

Braddock glances at his computer screen. The warship shown there as a small, 3-dimensional model is an exact replica of the one that has now been deemed safe to deconstruct. The rescue teams have pulled away from the crash site, the reactor core has been disassembled and made safe, and now the salvage teams are moving in. For the sake of everyone who suffered a loss in the catastrophic crash of the ship, Braddock hopes it won't take longer than a few weeks until the remains of the Vengeance are gone for good.

 

But god, a Vengeance is what Starfleet needs. Braddock isn't much of a weapon buff, but he's impressed by the destructive capabilities the Dreadnought-class warship has to offer, and that speed...

 

Someone clears their throat. Braddock glances up, realizing that everyone in the conference room is looking at him. Right, then. The moment has come to persuade them of the righteousness of his – and Admiral Kerensky's – idea.

 

He speaks slowly, calmly. “You are all aware of the role a ship of this class played in the recent catastrophe here in San Francisco. I am not asking you to forget, or to ignore. I am asking you to consider the possibilities. Let us give Starfleet a fighting chance. Let us prove that the Federation, and the ideals we stand for, will not be swept aside by one species' destructive attitude.'

 

The meeting temporarily breaks up into small groups of admirals standing in corners, their heads together, conversation hushed and fast.

 

Admiral Kerensky comes to stand at the side of Braddock's chair. 'About my other request -'

 

'Not now,' he says. He is watching the other admirals, trying to gauge the effect his short speech has had on them.

 

Kerensky, obstinately, remains where she is. 'When, then?'

 

On a smaller screen portion of Braddock's computer, information of a different kind is scrolling down – information for his eyes only. He can't make heads or tails of most of it – he's not a medical expert – but he knows enough medical jargon to understand the gist of the test results Kerensky showed him, after she gave him the Dreadnought blueprints.

 

'Think about it,' Kerensky says, low enough so her voice doesn't carry. ' We're not talking about weapons of mass destruction here. I've had my scientists run tests on strains of the Terrellian Plague, and the results are positive. We found a cure. We'll soon be able to vaccinate against one of the deadliest diseases in the galaxy. Think about all the good we could do. It's a short, painless procedure – you've met Captain Kirk since he was released from the hospital. No after-effects. No psychological compound. There's no reason not to.'

 

Braddock hisses, 'You're talking about injecting Starfleet members with the blood of that – that madman!'

 

'I'm talking about saving lives!' Kerensky hisses back. 'What good are a bunch of Dreadnoughts going to be if we've got no one left to fly them?'

 

- - -

 

It is the year 2262. The Enterprise is en route back to Earth from a mission to Starbase 54.

 

Jim's on the bridge when their deep-space sensors pick up the warp signature of another ship. The discussion he's having with Spock and Uhura has gone off on a tangent, and tempers are flaring. Spock and Uhura are all but facing off over the command chair. Jim, unfortunately seated in said command chair, feels like he's about to be scorched alive by the glares his First Officer and Communications Lieutenant are shooting at each other.

 

And they're not even shouting.

 

“It is highly illogical to assume the Andorians or the Tellarites will not join the effort to drive back the Klingon armada,” Spock is saying. “Along with Vulcans and humans, they were the founding members of the United Federation of Planets, and many of their people hold high ranks within Starfleet. Their joining the effort is guaranteed.”

 

Uhura, eyes flashing, juts her chin. “Then what are they waiting for? It's been three years, Spock. We've been at war for three years. If they wait much longer, the only 'effort' they'll be contributing to will be mopping up the pieces.”

 

“Such decisions take time. It is a delicate political process that needs -”

 

Uhura pushes her hands into her hips. “It's not a delicate process. It's a simple matter of putting it to a vote, in congress, or to the public. Yes or no. Earth has always come to the aid of its allies. What is the Federation for, if two of its key members can't even decide whether or not they want to help protect Federation space from a Klingon invasion?”

 

Surreptitiously, Jim tries to make himself as small as possible.

 

He has his own theories why the Tellarites and the Andurians are reluctant to officially take Earth's side, but it's not like he could get a word in edgewise in the volley flying above his head, so he keeps his mouth shut and attempts to figure out a way to ooze out of the chair and escape to the other side of the bridge without either Uhura or Spock noticing.

 

The loud wail of an alarm klaxon puts a sudden end to the argument and Jim's tentative escape plans. Breaking off mid-word, Uhura and Spock both retake their positions at their consoles. Jim straightens up and asks, “Mr. Sulu?”

 

“Proximity alert, captain,” Sulu reports, fingers flying over the pilot's console. The wailing alarm fades to a dull background noise. “Ship at warp, headed right for us.”

 

Jim tenses. “Klingons?” They're far too close to Earth for that, but, you never know.

 

“No. Unknown signature, sir.”

 

“ETA?”

 

“Twenty seconds.”

 

“Shields up. Sound warnings ship-wide, alert med bay.”

 

The bridge crew of the Enterprise falls into the sort of orderly chaos Jim has come to expect and love about his people. Everyone knows exactly what to do.

 

“Ten seconds, sir,” Sulu says. “Five, four, three, two -”

 

A nightmare drops out of warp directly in front of the Enterprise.

 

Jim flinches, bone-deep, a rush of memories driving rational thought out of his head. It can't be. It's not possible – that ship was destroyed. Jim was on Earth when they finally took down the stripped remains and erected a memorial statue in place of the Vengeance. The site has become a national landmark, and there is no way -

 

A hush of silence has fallen over the bridge crew. Sulu recovers from shock first. “Getting a reading now, captain. They're...not scanning us. Weapons systems are not active.”

 

“Captain,” Uhura chimes in, “they're hailing us. Open broadcast, Federation channel.”

 

This feels altogether too much like a repeat scenario from a time Jim would rather forget. For a moment, he can't tear his gaze away from the black warship that looms threateningly through the forward screen. It's an impressive, intimidating sight. “On screen.”

 

“Yes, captain,” Uhura confirms. “Accepting incoming transmission now.”

 

Jim himself stood on a Dreadnought bridge once and held a phaser to Admiral Marcus' head. He remembers the dark interior design, the blue and white lights, the angular command chair Marcus sprawled in. He's had nightmares about that bridge and the events that took place on it, three years ago.

 

But it's not Admiral Marcus' miraculously returned to life who greets him with a clipped, “Captain Kirk.”

 

Admiral Susan Kerensky is a small woman, with gunmetal-gray hair. She's dwarfed by the large command chair of the Dreadnought, sitting there primly with one leg crossed over the other, but she still projects an aura of calm authority that comes from a lifetime of giving orders and having others scramble to fulfill them. Jim has met her before – once in the hospital, when she came to welcome him back among the living and warn him about speaking to the press, and once about a year ago, during shore leave. They'd exchanged the necessary pleasantries required of Starfleet captains meeting Starfleet admirals in restaurants by chance.

 

“Admiral. You gave us all a bit of a shock, coming out of warp like that. Nice ship.” Jim's heart is still beating in his throat. “You'll forgive me if I'm not exactly thrilled to see it.”

 

And he isn't the only one. Sulu's hand is slowly inching toward the lever of the warp drive. Everyone on the bridge of the Enterprise is staring at the screen, tense and ready to spring into action at the drop of a pin.

 

Kerensky nods shortly. Her tone of voice is entirely unapologetic. “I am aware of your previous encounters with a ship of this classification, captain. Suffice to say, I am not Admiral Marcus. We're on this ship's maiden voyage, and we came across your warp signature purely by happenstance. I thought we'd drop by and say hello.”

 

Jim isn't sure if he's meant to take that as an attempt at humor. Half of him expects Sulu to shout that the Dreadnought is locking phasers on the Enterprise, for his ship to shudder under the impact of torpedoes. He settles for nodding; what he wants to say to Kerensky would get him a formal reprimand.

 

“As unplanned as this meeting was,” Kerensky continues, unfazed by Jim's silence, “it's also fortunate that we did meet. Starfleet is in the process of distributing a new form of vaccine against several galaxy-wide diseases, and we carry a batch of the required serum. You and your crew would have been called in for the medical procedure next time you docked at the space station, but we might as well get that over with now.”

 

Jim lifts an eyebrow. She can't be serious. “You want me to send my crew over to your ship? Here?” They're not exactly in enemy space, but far away enough from Earth for him to resent the idea of beaming anyone anywhere. The Klingons aren't shy when it comes to launching surprise attacks, and the last thing Jim wants is for half his crew to be on another ship when that happens. “All due respect, ma'am, but I don't think that's a good idea.”

 

Kerensky eyes him coolly. “I never said I want your crew on my ship. I will have the required amount of serum vials beamed over to the Enterprise. Your CMO will be responsible for distribution. I require the number of people currently stationed aboard the Enterprise, of course.”

 

Chastised, Jim bows his head. “We'll send that right away, ma'am. My apologies for assuming.” Kerensky nods sharply. The transmission screen goes blank, leaving Jim to attempt to slowly let go of the tension that's gripping him. The sight of the Dreadnought hanging motionless in the darkness of space in front of the Enterprise is doing nothing for his nerves. “Mr. Chekov, transmit our crew list to the – what's the name of that ship, anyway?”

 

USS Skyward, sir.”

 

“Send our crew list. Dispatch a security detail to the transporter room.” There's no obvious reason to suspect Admiral Kerensky is going to beam over anything else but the serum she mentioned, but to say that he's rattled by the unexpected encounter would be an understatement: Jim isn't going to take any chances.

 

“Yes, sir,” Chekov confirms.

 

Spock steps up to the command chair, hands clasped behind him. “Captain, I was not aware Starfleet Command was building Dreadnought-class star ships. Might I suggest contacting headquarters to confirm Admiral Kerensky's mission status? If this is indeed the Skyward's maiden voyage, there should be a record.”

 

“Do it.” It's not going to look good on his file if he contacts HQ to confirm an admiral's actions, but Jim doesn't care. He'll take the reprimand for ignoring the chain of command, as long as it means that this isn't a scarily accurate repeat of previous events. “Mr. Spock, the chair is yours. I'll be in the transporter room, so keep me posted. Mr. Sulu, as soon as that serum is on board, the shields go back up.” Jim eyes the Skyward once more. That unsettled feeling isn't going away. “And keep an eye out for anything untoward.”

 

Sulu strokes the warp speed lever. “Aye, captain. Course is set for earth. They do anything funny, I'll punch it.”

 

Not that that's going to do them any good. The last time Sulu 'punched it', they were pursued into the warp speed channel by the USS Vengeance, and then shot right out of it. Still, Jim appreciates the foresight. With a nod to Spock, he heads for the transporter room.

 

McCoy meets him halfway. Judging by the stormy expression on his face, he's about as happy as Jim is. “It's completely unprofessional to expect us to do this in space, while we're in the middle of a mission,” he grouses, falling into step with Jim. “Vaccination can have serious side effects, depending on dosage and potency. Nausea, headaches, diarrhea, allergic reactions, you name it, someone on this ship is going to have it.”

 

Jim considers this. “Orders are orders.” Kerensky hadn't outright ordered him, but Jim can read between the lines. “Can we do this a handful of people at a time? If there are going to be any of the symptoms you described, I'd rather not have half the crew come down with something while we're still out here.”

 

“I'll start on a small test group.” McCoy brandishes one of his beloved scanners. “After I ran some tests. The CMO of the Skyward sent me the specs of that vaccine. I admit I only glanced at it, but it's insane. The dossier lists a few of the deadliest diseases of the galaxy, and that can't be right. There's no way they can squeeze vaccinations against the Terrellian Plague and the Telurian Plague into one and the same bottle – we're talking about two completely independent pathogens here.”

 

“I'll take your word for it.” They reach the transporter room. Jim's communicator beeps. He motions for McCoy to go ahead. “Kirk here.”

 

“Captain,” Spock says, “I have confirmed the Skyward's mission status with headquarters. The ship is indeed on its maiden voyage under the command of Admiral Kerensky. I have also taken the liberty to seek confirmation of the Skyward's destination. They are headed for the human colony on Arakon.”

 

Nothing amiss there, then. Kerensky is headed for Arakon to distribute the vaccine among the colonists there: an easy mission to test a new ship's capabilities. Still, Jim can't dismiss the frisson of anger curling through his belly. Considering his first encounter with that particular class of ship, Command could at least have done him the courtesy of warning him that he might run into another one.

 

His communicator beeps again. It's Sulu, this time. “Captain, the Skyward has resumed its course.”

 

“Thank you, Mr. Sulu. Set course for our next mission destination, then. We've lingered here long enough.” He walks back to the transporter room, feeling the Enterprise's warp engines engage, a fine tremor under the soles of his boots even the internal dampeners can't entirely compensate for. “I'll be back on the bridge in a few minutes. Kirk out.”

 

A security detail is standing on the beaming pad, phaser rifles at the ready and pointed at two stacks of perfectly harmless plastic crates. McCoy, PADD under one arm, is rooting around in one of them, pulling a handful of vials out and holding them up. “So, it's just the vaccine, right?”

 

“Enough to inject everyone on board.” McCoy jiggles his handful of vials. The amber liquid in them catches and reflects the overhead lights. “I'll run the standard tests. And some others.” He looks fascinated, a little worried around the edges, but mostly like a kid with a new toy. “I'll let you know what I find.”

 

There's nothing more for him to do here, so Jim heads back to the bridge. He could go to the med bay with McCoy, to oversee the tests his CMO is going to run on that serum, but his heart isn't in it: he's tired now, almost exhausted, slowly coming down from an adrenaline high.

 

And he's still angry.

 

He's tempted to contact headquarters and ask Admiral Braddock just what the hell the deal is with a Dreadnought flying around, but he can predict the answer: the war with the Klingons isn't going so well. New Vulcan has become a non-factor in the United Federation of Planets, thanks to Nero reducing their numbers to a paltry 10,000 or so, and the Tellarites and Andorians are hemming and hawing, their participation in the war hinging on political merry-go-rounds: stalling tactics, age-old, tried and true. No one wants to get caught in the crossfire between Earth and the Klingons.

 

Earth needs every bit of leeway they can scramble up, if they want to win.

 

Apparently that means utilizing warships designed by a 300-year-old lunatic. Jim will just have to get over it.

 

- - -

 

Six hours later, McCoy all but puts a dent into the door to the captain's quarters, hammering his fist against it. He strides in past a sleep-rumpled, small-eyed Jim, heads straight for the mini-bar that isn't exactly Starfleet regulation, and pours himself a large glass of expensive Orion brandy. The contents of the glass disappear down McCoy's throat in two large gulps.

 

“Sure,” Jim mumbles, shutting the door, “come right in.” He's only half-awake, navigating the way back to his bed in small shuffles. He was having a nice dream – something about that feisty lieutenant from Biology, with the lush mouth and the perky tits – and now he's feeling cotton-headed and unhappy. He's only been asleep for, Christ, four hours. But McCoy wouldn't barge in like this without a reason, so Jim flops down on the edge of his bed and waits.

 

More Orion brandy is poured. McCoy carries the glass to the comfortable armchair adjacent to Jim's bed, shoves Jim's pants, shirt and undershirt to the floor, and sits down. “I'm about to tell you to do something that might cost me my medical license, not to mention my post as your CMO, and you your captaincy.” He takes a smaller sip of the potent brandy, then balances the glass on his knee, and gives Jim an expectant look. “Are you ready for this?”

 

Jim wakes up the rest of the way. “What's this about?”

 

McCoy fishes a narrow vial out of his pocket and holds it up for Jim to see. “This.” He turns the vial between his fingers, the liquid inside sloshing around. “The vaccine Admiral Kerensky beamed over.”

 

“What about it?”

 

“It's not a vaccine. It's blood. Khan's blood, to be specific. If you want me to be extra-specific, it's a highly concentrated, synthesized version of the serum I used to revive you, mixed with a bunch of chemical accelerators.”

 

The words seem to suck all the air out of the room. Jim thinks for a moment that he's dreaming – that the recent encounter with the Skyward has triggered his subconscious into dredging up the most unpleasant aspect of his very personal experience with Dreadnoughts and the mad people who fly them – and gives a short bark of laughter, utterly mirthless. “You're joking.”

 

“No.”

 

Jim nervously scrubs both hands through his hair. “You made a mistake. One of your tests went wrong.”

 

“I think I'm qualified enough to recognize my own work when I see it,” McCoy responds flatly. “Command may have confiscated my research, but I'd recognize the particular chemical makeup of this,” he points the vial in Jim's direction, “anywhere. I didn't make a mistake. I ran the tests twice, just to ensure I didn't. I can run them a third time, if you want.”

 

Waving the offer away, Jim holds his hand out for the vial. “Give that here.” He fingers the small cylinder, watching the amber liquid inside glide smoothly against the glass. The implications of McCoy's words are so profound and at the same time so devastating, Jim doesn't even know where to begin. “One dosage per crew member. Would that be enough to -?”

 

“Absolutely.” McCoy takes a sip of brandy, grimacing when he swallows. “As I said, it's highly concentrated. Remember when I told you about the list of anti-rejection drugs we had to pump into you to stop your body from rebelling against the transfusion?”

 

Jim nods. He's currently not sure he's capable of forming words.

 

“Well,” McCoy continues, “this little beauty there comes with its own batch of anti-rejection stimulants added to the mix already. It's a genetic bomb, Jim. I'd have to run tests on live subjects and extrapolate, but I'm pretty sure that giving this so-called 'vaccine' to a healthy adult human is either going to kill them, or it's going to...”

 

“To turn them into me,” Jim finishes. He drops the vial onto the bed, thoughts racing.

 

“Not that there's anything wrong with being you,” McCoy says quietly, “but you do understand my concern?”

 

Of course, he does. It's their dirty, little secret, McCoy's and Jim's. Not even Spock knows. The side-effects of treating Jim's fatal brush with radiation poisoning hadn't shown up until a month into his stay at the hospital, and even then, their presence had come to light through sheer happenstance. He'd cut his hand open on the sharp edge of a pudding cup, simple as that. By the time McCoy, teasing him about his obvious clumsiness, had wiped his palm clean and readied a dermal regenerator, the cut was already closing, the skin knitting back together while Jim and McCoy both stared, open-mouthed and shocked.

 

The realization that his body wasn't quite his own anymore hadn't tumbled Jim into an existential crisis – he likes being alive, thank you very much - but it's not an experience he wishes on anyone. “Why would Starfleet Command even do something like that? It's ten kinds of unethical, and if they're distributing this widely...”

 

“We're in the middle of a war, Jim,” McCoy points out, “and correct me if I'm wrong, but that is a Dreadnought Admiral Kerensky is flying around in, isn't it?” He shrugs. “Obviously, someone picked up where Marcus left off. Now, that thing I said when I came in, about doing something that might cost me my license and my post as CMO?”

 

“Yeah?” Jim asks warily.

 

“Take those damn vials and shoot them out of the next airlock. Better yet, have those crates incinerated and then shoot them out into space. I don't care if Admiral Braddock himself waltzes in and orders me to do it, but I'm not giving this,” he points at the vial, “to anyone.”

 

“Bones...”

 

“In fact,” McCoy interrupts him, “let's go a step further. Warn them.”

 

Jim blinks. “Warn who?”

 

“Everyone. The colonies. Earth. Every damn ship we can reach from here. Hell, warn the entire Federation. Someone in Starfleet Command is running a genetic experiment on all of us, and the people have a right to know. They have a right to say no.”

 

“You can't be serious.”

 

“I'm dead serious, Jim. I've never been more serious in all my life.” McCoy levers himself out of the armchair, carries his empty glass over to the mini-bar, and pours himself another shot of brandy. His hands are shaking, Jim is surprised to see. Some of the brandy splashes onto the counter.

 

“I can't just,” Jim makes a gesture of helplessness. “There'd be a mass panic.”

 

“Better than mass graves, or an army of Khans.” McCoy says acidly. His fierce expression gentles somewhat when he takes in Jim's obvious shock. “People have a right to choose,” he says. “It's bad enough that I didn't give you a choice, even if it saved your life. I'm not going to make that same mistake again. Either you warn everyone, or I will.”

 

He tosses back his drink, slams the glass on the counter, and walks out.

 

- - -

 

( Jeremy Doyen, A History of Empires , publication date 2595 )

'[…] The vaccinations took place between 2262 and 2265. The serum was distributed to the medical personnel at headquarters in San Francisco first, for small, controlled test runs in a stable environment, at the Academy Hospital. Without adequate proof that says otherwise, we must assume that those who the serum was first tested on were, indeed, volunteers.

 

There is no final record that tells us how many men and women died, their immune systems unable to cope with the introduction of that foreign blood. Suffice to say, surviving hospital data archives from that time show a sudden influx of patients with similar symptoms – organ failure, cell disintegration, sudden growth of tumors and other genetic mutation, as well as broad-range immunity failure – who all died within days of being admitted. […]

 

History points to the crash of the USS Vengeance as the greatest catastrophe to happen on Earth in the 23rd century, with a death tally that rose well beyond the 100,000 mark.

 

I beg to differ. If we count the number of deaths linked by those specific symptoms, symptoms which today can clearly be traced back to the vaccine, we arrive at a staggering 350,000 victims in San Francisco alone.

 

The crash of the USS Vengeance was an act of revenge by an individual bent on taking as many bystanders with him as possible. It was, undoubtedly, a deplorable act, for which no excuse can be offered. Yet, no excuse can be offered for the victims of Starfleet Command's covert genetic experiment, either. Section 31 distributed the vaccine to the general public, fully aware that casualties were unavoidable, and thereby violated every principle of democracy, freedom and freedom of choice the Federation had sworn to uphold and protect. [...]'

 

- - -

 

It is the year 2265.

 

Jim celebrates his birthday. New Vulcan winters are tropical, even more unbearable than the long, dry, hot summers that come with desert storms and long periods without a single drop of rain; good climates for old people, bad weather for former Starfleet captains trying to get drunk. He's sweating the alcohol out faster than he can consume it, or maybe it's just his body attempting to keep him from self-harm. He has a bottle of Romulan ale, a casket of Orion wine, a cake purchased from a local bakery on a whim, and a roomful of ghosts to keep him company.

 

Spock's and Uhura's wedding is in four days. Jim doesn't know yet if he'll attend; he hasn't been good company lately, and he doesn't want to ruin what's supposed to be a happy occasion for two of his best friends. He'd rather wile the hours away here, in the tiny room allotted to him by Admiral Braddock, who runs the human colony on New Vulcan.

 

Jim feels like a ship adrift at sea without an anchor, no port in sight. Inactivity makes him restless and prone to bouts of anger and depression. Without a starship to call his own, without a mission to apply his faculties to, he is essentially useless. Braddock keeps trying to rope him into helping with the colony – God knows they're having trouble, what with new fugitives coming in almost daily – but that would mean going out and...interacting with people.

 

He prefers to keep to himself, these days. There's less of chance that he'll be recognized, that way. His photo and name were circulated widely, when the Enterprise started broadcasting the truth about Section 31's 'vaccine' on every open channel Uhura could find. For a few weeks, he was hailed as a hero, a lone vigilante bent on exposing a broiling scandal at the top tiers of Starfleet Command. But then, in an act of retaliation and to smear his reputation, Section 31 circulated his medical reports and his personal file.

 

Now, when Jim chooses to go out, when he is inevitably recognized, he's not called 'hero' anymore. 'Traitor', they call him. 'First of the Reborn'. And it usually dissolves in violence, then. Jim has learned to keep his head down.

 

A sharp rap on his door interrupts his drinking binge. He's not in the mood for visitors. The sole window of his tiny room opens to New Vulcan jungle, lush, evergreen and fragrant. It's a short climb from the second floor down to the ground; he could make a run for it. Wouldn't be the first time he escaped that way.

 

A dissonant squawk of electronics and the door sliding open put an end to his contemplations. The man standing in the doorway, pocketing a multi-wire gadget with a fierce scowl, walks in and waves a hand before his face, huffing out, “Phew! Smells like a brewery in here.”

 

Jim lifts his bottle of Romulan ale in a mocking toast. “Scotty. So nice of you to break into my room. Come in – pull up a chair. I've only just started.”

 

The former Chief Engineer of the USS Enterprise comes to the corner where Jim's seated at the table. He's in civilian clothes now, like Jim is, hands grease-stained, pants and shirt streaked with what Jim arbitrarily identifies as hydraulic oil. He looks around, at the unmade bed, the stacks of dishes in the kitchenette sink, the heaps of unwashed clothes on a chair in another corner.

 

“If you want to kill yourself, use a gun,” Scotty advises. “It'd be easier to clean up than this pigsty.”

 

Jim slams the bottle down. “It's my birthday. I'm entitled to be a slob.”

 

“It must be your birthday all year 'round, then.” Without further ado, Scotty grips Jim by the arm. “Come on. Bit of fresh air will do you good. Also, I got you a present. Come on, captain – up you go. There's a good lad.”

 

“Not a captain anymore,” Jim mutters. He has half a mind to stay where he is. It's still light out. People will be up and about, wandering the cramped hallways of the colony barracks; someone's bound to recognize him. But Scotty has that no-nonsense look on his face, the one that says he'll bodily drag Jim out the door if he has to, and he's pulling Jim along by the arm. “Where are we going?”

 

“Out,” Scotty says, clipped. “To the landing pad.”

 

Jim grabs a jacket from the chair before they step out into the hallway and puts it on, despite the heat. He pulls the jacket's hood up to conceal his face, ignoring Scotty's long-suffering sigh. The human colony on New Vulcan, fifty miles away from the Vulcan capital and sitting snug in a smooth dip of valley surrounded by jungle, houses roughly 5,000 people. It's a tightly packed cluster of barracks arranged around communal facilities, with a shuttle landing pad on its southern edge.

 

It's not a very long walk from where Jim's room is in one of the northernmost barracks, but he keeps his head down and concentrates on following in Scotty's wake. After the relative silence in his room, the noise of people crowding the hallways and the short stretches of open ground between barracks is deafening. The last time Jim and Braddock spoke, Braddock said they would have to expand the colony soon, or start looking for accommodations elsewhere. They're running out of space fast.

 

Scotty leads the way past the tiny hospital, the kitchens, the open warehouses where volunteers are distributing the bare-bone necessities to new arrivals who had to leave everything behind. Vaccination, to Jim's knowledge, is in its final stages on Earth. The people fleeing to the free colonies now come from the last pockets of a dwindling resistance.

 

They arrive at the landing pad. It's a circular stretch of unevenly paved ground dotted with guiding lights, ringed by low-roofed, wide hangars. They only ever see shuttles coming in these days, small, private vessels with sub-standard warp drives, hopelessly overstuffed with desperate fugitives. The days when Starfleet captains went rogue and ferried people from Earth to the various free colonies are long gone.

 

“Here we are, captain.” Scotty leads him to a hangar. “I'd have wrapped her in a bow, but we're a wee bit short on cloth at the moment, and plastic's so impractical.”

 

The air inside the hangar is positively stagnating with the stuffiness that comes from two suns baking low roofs for 16 hours a day. Jim's soaked with sweat to the bone, and pushes his hood down the moment he's certain they're out of sight. As a former Chief Engineer, Scotty holds a special status within the community: he can repair things, from washing machines to coffee pots to communications relays. It grants him a few privileges, and he's claimed a hangar all for himself. The space is overflowing with spare parts salvaged from damaged shuttles and star ships.

 

There is a ship sitting in the hangar now, surrounded on all sides by metal, wires and work banks. Jim slows down as they walk closer, a tendril of excitement snaking past the cloak of apathy that surrounds him. It's not a pretty ship by any stretch of the imagination, squat and dirt-gray, like a three-part centipede without legs. The forward view port allows glimpses of a tiny, instrument-stuffed bridge with a single seat.

 

“Scotty, what...?”

 

Scotty grins at him. “Happy birthday, Jim.” He raps his knuckles against the ship's hull. “I know she's not much to look at, but I promise she's prettier on the inside. And she's fast. Not as fast as the Enterprise, but there's only so much you can put into a ship this size before hull integrity becomes a problem.”

 

Jim walks forward in a daze and puts his hands against the hull. Short shuttle rides aside, he hasn't sat in a real ship for over a year. “You – you built this.” His voice sounds embarrassingly thick. He swallows. “For me?”

 

Scotty's grin is about to split his face in half. “Well, it wasn't just me.”

 

The loading ramp located in the middle section of the ship lowers. Spock and Uhura come walking out, followed by Spock's father Sarek and Spock's other-dimension counterpart, Old Spock. Jim's mouth drops open. His heart feels as if it's about to burst. He teeters wildly between elevation and disbelief, and there's also a bit of shame in the turbulent mix. “You guys...”

 

Uhura hugs him. It's logistically awkward, her big belly getting in the way, but her embrace is fierce. “Happy birthday, captain.” And then, because she's Uhura, who never minces words around Jim, she adds pointedly, “You need a bath.”

 

“Indeed, you do.” Spock comes next, the hint of a smile in the corners of his mouth, eyes crinkling just so. They don't shake hands, but then, to Jim's surprise, Spock pulls him into an embrace as well. It's over in a second, but Jim's still left speechless; Spock doesn't do hugs, no matter how good friends they've become over the years.

 

Spock returns to Uhura's side. “I'm afraid I won't be applying for the position as First Officer aboard your new ship, captain. My place is here, now,” he brushes two fingers against Uhura's hand, and then adds in utter seriousness, “and your ego is substantial enough to fill the bridge by itself.”

 

Jim offers his hand to Sarek, thinks better of it, and bows instead. He does clasp a hand on Old Spock's shoulder, who is more fragile-looking now than ever, his hair snow-white, but whose eyes have lost none of their sharpness. “Starfleet captains belong to the stars, Jim.” Old Spock smiles serenely, affection writ in every line and wrinkle of his face. “It is time you went back out there.”

 
Jim's throat is closing up. He's been moping and rolling in self-pity for months, and his friends have given him a ship. They've given him a way out. “I don't know what to say,” he admits, “but – thank you.”

 

“That's all you have to say.” Scotty stands there like a proud father, arms crossed over his chest, still grinning. “We need someone out there, to keep an eye on those damn Dreadnoughts. You'll find your new ship comes equipped with deep-space sensors that would put the best Starfleet vessel to shame. Then there's the cloaking device I nicked from that Romulan freighter – remember, two months ago? - so that gives you a bit of an advantage, too. And, finally, the cargo bay. Nice and spacious. If you come across anything interesting, I do expect you to bring it back here. You know – spare parts and the like.”

 

Jim barks out a short laugh. “Do you want me to become a smuggler, Scotty?” It's not such a bad idea, actually. He strokes a palm over the hull of the ship. It's a very good idea, in fact. Why hasn't he thought of that before? Probably because smugglers need ships to carry their goods, and he didn't have one. He has a ship, now. “What's her name?”

 

“She hasn't got one, yet,” Scotty says. “I thought we'd leave that honor to the man who's going to fly her. We did have a few ideas, though.”

 

“I voted for 'Bug'.” Uhura winks. “She certainly looks the part.”

 

“Actually, the shape of the ship is more akin to an Earth insect commonly referred to as 'centipede', considering the elongated shape,” Spock begins, “whereas 'bug' would be more befitting to a rounded -”

 

Uhura, very delicately, steps on Spock's foot. Spock's mouth shuts with an audible 'clack' of teeth.

 

“Bug it is,” Jim says, and laughs.

 

- - -

 

( Jeremy Doyen, A History of Empires , publication date 2595 )

'Admiral Susan Kerensky died at the age of 56, while undergoing the 'vaccination', in August 2265. She was replaced, not by yet another Section 31 contributor or former Starfleet Admiral, but by the civilian David Nguyen, former mayor of San Francisco.

 

Mr. Nguyen's first official act of office was to formally dissolve Starfleet Command and thus destroy the very organization he was supposed to represent, and in its place erect the First Reborn Council. It was, in hindsight, a mere change of name that kept the previous structure of hierarchies in place but usurped the positions of those Mr. Nguyen suspected would become threats to San Francisco's now almost entirely 'reborn' population, Nguyen himself being one of them.

 

In an act that is now widely viewed as disproportionate savagery, Starfleet members in positions of power, who had up to then remained loyal to their chain of command, and in many cases even successfully undergone the vaccination, were imprisoned. Some escaped with the aid of friends and family, but the majority were summarily executed.

 

We can now no longer determine if the events in San Francisco set an example for other cities across the planet to engage in similar acts of replacing hitherto intact authorial structures, or if there were other, perhaps even more sinister forces at work – a form of 'blood bond', as some of the more esoteric studies of that period suggest ( see: Blood calls to Blood , Ellen Rains). Whatever the cause, by October 2265, every major city on Earth was in Reborn hands.'