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They Said This Air Would Be Breathable

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“Scotty!” barks Kirk. “A word?”

Without waiting for a response, he drags the Chief Engineer aside and points a shaking finger at the crewman currently cooling his heels on the transporter pad. “I thought I gave strict instructions to leave that man off the away team rotation.”

“There’s no one else, Captain,” Scotty protests. “I can’t spare Carver or Marquez, Spock insists he can’t spare Akachi, Smrz and Nguyen haven’t completed the training, Nelson is allergic to 90% of the plants down there, and Chopra, Malouf, and Zeph are still recovering from the last mission. If you don’t want to go down short-handed, your options are forcing someone else to work double shifts, or him.”

“Better short-handed than handicapped,” Kirk mutters.

“You’re too hard on the lad,” says Scotty, with a tsk. “Everyone makes their share of mistakes starting out.”

“According to his files, he’s been with Starfleet five years.”

“Everyone makes their share of mistakes,” Scotty insists, not missing a beat. “And I appreciate a man who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty. Mind you, I still have no idea how he almost managed to trigger a warp core breach from an access panel that isn’t connected to the plasma conduits, but...”

Kirk’s glower turns suspicious. “You wouldn’t have your own reasons for wanting him off the ship during maintenance, would you?”

Scotty presses a hand to his heart, affecting an injured expression. “Perish the thought, sir.”

After a brief but intense staredown that fails to break Scotty’s air of wounded innocence, Kirk concedes defeat with a sigh, and strides back to the transporter. “Ensign Mayhem!”

“Sir!” Mayhem, who appears to have been sidling over toward the console during Kirk and Scotty’s discussion, jumps to attention. His phaser, unfortunately, does not make the jump with him, and goes clattering to the ground. Kirk dodges an errant discharge just in time to avoid the scorch mark it leaves on the opposite wall.

“First order,” says Kirk, once he can breathe again. “Secure that weapon.”

“Sir.” Mayhem picks up the phaser and jams it in his holster upside down.

As they wait on the transporter for the rest of the away team to arrive, Kirk shoots Scotty a death glare. “By the time we return, Mr. Scott, the Enterprise had better be running like clockwork.”

-

“Be reasonable, Jim,” says McCoy, as he administers another dose of cortisone. “If the initial scans didn’t pick up that the native plant life was going to be a problem for everyone, you can’t blame Mayhem.”

“I can blame him for stumbling into that field of dandelions from hell,” Kirk grumbles. Only the hard-won knowledge that attempting to scratch his abraded arms will just leave him itchy and in pain keeps him from trying. “Besides, I suppose it’s just a coincidence he happens to be part of the .9% of carbon-based life forms who don’t suffer any symptoms?”

His friend pulls away and studies Kirk with evident concern. “Dammit, man, listen to yourself. You’re more paranoid than the proverbial long-tailed cat.”

Kirk just stares back.

McCoy sighs. “Fine. If the kid--”

“Why does everyone keep calling him that? He’s got to be pushing thirty!”

“If the ensign is causing you this much aggravation, have him assigned here for a spell,” says McCoy in slow, soothing tones, followed by a snort. “How much trouble can he get into inventorying bandages?”

-

Twenty-five minutes after Mayhem’s rotation in sickbay begins, McCoy frog-marches him back onto the bridge. Bones appears grumpier than Kirk has ever seen him, which is saying something.

“It’s against the Hippocratic Oath to allow this man anywhere near patients,” he declares curtly. Before Kirk can respond, he goes storming back out, leaving Mayhem staring aimlessly out at the viewscreen while the rest of the bridge crew stares at him.

“Well,” asks Kirk, “what do we do with you now?”

Mayhem shrugs.

Chekov pipes up with typical enthusiasm: “We could try him at navi--”

“Don’t finish that sentence,” Kirk orders. He rounds on Sulu. “Don’t even think it.”

Sulu obediently closes his mouth.

“Still, as long as we’re soliciting ideas…” Kirk turns back to Mayhem, just in time to distract him from the nearest array of buttons. “Do you have any talents that don’t involve technology, Ensign? Or anything breakable?”

“I’m a translator,” Mayhem offers.

Uhura, who has at least been making a credible show of trying to ignore the commotion, looks up eagerly. “Can you speak X’xie?”

Mayhem erupts with a series of grunts, clicks, and whistles that have Kirk wondering whether he should call McCoy back, until Uhura claps her hands in delight. “Oh, wonderful! We’ve got a diplomatic mission to their homeworld in a week, and I was dreading having to rely on the universal translator. It just doesn’t pick up on all the nuances.”

“Terrific,” says Kirk, ignoring the uneasy feeling still lingering in the pit of his stomach. “Glad that’s settled.”

The console next to Mayhem abruptly explodes.

-

Kirk isn’t surprised when he goes to meet Uhura’s delegation at the transporter to find her disheveled and fuming. Admittedly, he wasn’t expecting literal fumes, but he still can’t say he’s surprised. “Not a success, I take it?”

Uhura glances over at Mayhem, who a couple of the braver security officers are hovering near. “Next time someone says they’re a translator, remind me to ask a few more follow-up questions.”

“Such as?”

“Whether they’re a good translator. Or at least know how to avoid triggering a planet-wide civil war by spilling t’kl’t juice on the Grand Plenipotentiary’s ceremonial robes, and then calling xir the equivalent of a ‘fat cow’ instead of ‘generous host.’” She regards Mayhem with a haunted expression that feels deeply familiar, even if Kirk’s never seen it on his own face. “Is it possible to designate someone a walking red alert?”

“That would be most illogical,” interjects the second-to-last person Kirk wants to deal with right now, coming to a stop between them. “As is the dread with which a growing number of the crew treats Ensign Mayhem. Correlation is not causation, and ‘jinxes’ are a particularly foolish human superstition.”

“Have you run a statistical analysis of the disruptions involving him?” Kirk demands. “It’s a difficult correlation to ignore.”

“Nonetheless,” says Spock, in a tone that suggests he would, in fact, prefer to dismiss the numbers before they undermine his argument, “I believe all the ensign requires is a bit of mental stimulation, and minimum opportunity for distraction.”

“Oh, you think so?” Uhura, whose defeated look has gone past frustration and morphed into a frenzied grin, grabs Spock by the collar. “You think you can do better? Then he’s all yours.”

As she releases him and stalks off, Kirk claps the stunned first officer on the shoulder. “You heard the lady, Spock. Good luck.”

-

The sound of the comm chiming rouses Kirk out of an uneasy slumber. His quarters are still dark, but intact, which he takes as a positive sign. “Yes?” he mumbles.

“Forgive the disturbance, Captain,” Spock’s voice comes to him, still half-muffled by the fog of sleep, “but I have taken the liberty of calling an emergency senior officers’ meeting regarding Ensign Mayhem.”

Kirk sits up, rubbing his eyes. “Have you also apologized to Lieutenant Uhura?”

“Captain, please.” Spock sounds as close to desperate as Spock ever sounds.

“Believe me, I know it’s not funny.” He stands, starts to ask for a status report, then realizes there’s only one detail he actually wants to know. “Where is the ensign, and under what supervision?”

“He has been temporarily incapacitated. While I regret that administering a nerve pinch became necessary, the circumstances leading up to my decision will be detailed in my report, and should justify my actions. In the interim, I recommend we not waste time.”

“Agreed.” Kirk finishes pulling on his uniform. “See you in the briefing room.”

-

“Dammit, we’re going in circles,” McCoy snaps forty-five minutes into the meeting: an observation which does nothing to raise the group’s flagging morale. “And we have no idea when he’s going to wake up. Any other ideas? Any ideas? Anyone?”

“Perhaps it is time to admit the situation is beyond our capabilities,” Spock says. “Starfleet might--”

“I told you, I put in an urgent request regarding transfer opportunities,” Uhura reminds him. “They just laughed.”

“So what are we going to do?” Scotty seems to have appointed himself as devil’s advocate for reasons Kirk’s not sure even he understands, given how peevish he sounds. “Confine him to his quarters without cause?”

“If it were up to me, we’d have him on multiple counts of attempted manslaughter,” McCoy growls. “Or at least gross negligence. But I’m a doctor, not a lawyer, so what do I know?”

While they bicker, Kirk stares at the star map projected on a nearby display screen, regretting the decision to get out of bed. Suddenly, a thought occurs to him. “Mr. Spock, are there any Class Y planets of scientific interest along our current route?”

“There is one.” Spock zooms the display in on a sinister-looking cinder of a world. “Daystrom 17496e. More colloquially known as Eate, after the ancient Basque god of fire.”

“Explorable?”

“Only with intensive preparation and extreme precaution. A heavy-duty suit would need to be modified to filter the mercury out of the atmosphere, and protect against possible hydrochloric rainstorms. Likely one of the travel pods as well, as using the transporter would be out of the question.”

Kirk drums his fingers thoughtfully against the table. “So you’re saying it would have to be a solo mission?”

“Indeed, Captain.”

Scotty has gone pale, though his expression appears more weary than horrified. “Sir, that’s--”

“Mr. Scott,” says Kirk. “Ensign Mayhem has demonstrated a talent for thriving under conditions that would give any other man pause. If he survives this - and believe me, I have every expectation he will - we can reclassify that gift from remarkable to miraculous. Maybe then, Starfleet will decide he is more valuable as a test subject, and take him off our hands.” He looks around the table. “Now, then. Any other objections?”

There are none.

-

“The time,” Kirk intones solemnly, staring out the viewscreen at the desolate hellscape below them, “is 23:47. Nearly two stardates have passed since our last communication with Ensign Mayhem. Should this silence continue through the hour mark, we will have no choice but to assume he has been lost, and with great regret and mourning, continue on our way.”

Someone lets out a whoop. McCoy, who has come down to the bridge for the occasion, shushes them. Still, as the clock ticks down the last seconds of 23:59, the mood is decidedly more anticipatory than grief-stricken.

For Kirk, the moment passes with a hollowness that might either be regret, or a lingering suspicion the other shoe hasn’t dropped yet. He waits a bit to be sure on the latter front, then lowers his head. “Mr. Sulu, lay in a departure course. But first, a moment of silence for our intrepid comrade.”

“How touching.”

Kirk whirls to find Mayhem on the bridge, sans protective gear, but completely unharmed. At his side stands the speaker, who appears to be an older male relative of some kind: the hair is darker, the shoulders broader, but he carries a similar air of sardonic disregard for the chaos stirred up by his mere presence. He wears a red and black uniform that suggests Starfleet origin, albeit of a design Kirk has never seen before, with an array of collar pips Kirk doubts he's earned.

Before he can complete this inspection, the stranger reaches out with a far too forceful handshake. “Captain James Tiberius Kirk!” To Kirk’s dismay, he maintains the grip as he performs a critical once-over of his own. “You’re pudgier than I expected at this point in your career. Thinner on top, too, but I suppose that’s de rigueur for Starfleet brass.”

“And you are--?” asks Kirk through gritted teeth.

“About a hundred years too early for your primitive species to warrant a formal introduction.” Releasing Kirk’s hand at last, he slings an arm around Mayhem’s shoulders. “I’m simply here to thank you for returning our lost lamb to the fold.”

Kirk turns to Mayhem. “So you’re not human?”

Mayhem shakes his head. “I’m a nigh-omnipotent, immortal being from another dimension whose true form you couldn’t possibly begin to comprehend.”

Either Kirk’s brain refuses to parse the full implications of this statement in the interest of allowing him to keep his composure and sanity, or the situation has gone so far past ridiculous, it’s circled back around to making perfect sense. “You might have said something.”

“You didn’t ask,” says Mayhem with a shrug.

Kirk’s mouth opens and closes fruitlessly a few times. “Right. Well. I assume you’ll be on your way, then?”

“Oh, yes,” Mayhem’s companion interjects. “You know how it is. Places to go, prions to see, galaxies to shape.” He glances at Mayhem. “Unless you’ve unfinished business here?”

“No!” the entire bridge shouts in unison.

“Goodbye, Ensign Mayhem,” Kirk says firmly. “It’s been...an experience.”

A sudden flash of light sends nearby crew ducking for cover. But by the time Kirk’s vision has cleared, the stranger and Mayhem have vanished without incident.

At last, Kirk feels the knot in his insides beginning to untangle itself. He is still searching for the proper words to mark the restoration of the status quo when Spock pipes up: “Fascinating.”

Kirk can’t help but smile. “Your gift for understatement never ceases to amaze, Mr. Spock.”

“I was referring to the notion of a nigh-omnipotent being requiring assistance with retrieval. Had the others urgently wished to locate Mayhem themselves, one would think they might have done so without prompting. Yet they were content that he remain lost.”

“Wonder how long it’ll take them to remember why,” McCoy mutters.

Kirk signals for Sulu to take them out, and plants himself in the captain’s chair with a long, deep sigh. “Let’s hope by the time he turns up again, he’ll be someone else’s problem.”