The days and nights had become a blur. They’d been here for at least fifteen local day-night cycles, which were longer than earth’s 24-standard-hour cycles but Leonard wasn’t sure by how much. As soon as they’d beamed down to this godforsaken rock – Gagarin Alpha 7, it was called – they’d lost contact with the Enterprise. No one knew why, whether it was some kind of atmospheric interference that was preventing communications and beam-away, or whether the Enterprise had been attacked by Klingons or something and had been destroyed. Or hell, maybe the goddamn transporter had beamed them into some other dimension and the Enterprise didn’t even exist here.
The away team had consisted of McCoy himself, plus Jim (of course, damn kid never avoided a chance to jump into danger), Spock, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, Scotty (who didn’t usually come on away missions but had said something about stretching his legs and insisted on coming along) and several security officers.
When they’d first scanned the planet, from the safety of the bridge, they’d seen signs of human habitation, large buildings and even flickers of electricity. The prime directive applied since there were no signs of interstellar travel, but their orders had been to do a quick scouting mission, stay out of sight of any locals, get back up to the Enterprise and make a report about local conditions. Routine. Easy. Safe. Leonard snorted. They should all have known by now that there was no such thing as a routine, easy, or safe mission.
They’d learned the hard way to move by night, to hide out during the day. They’d first beamed down during daytime, but at a site far enough away from humanoid life signs that they wouldn’t immediately be in sight of any natives. It hadn’t taken long, though, for them to realize that they’d been observed, and were being followed. It was winter here, and as they tramped through a foot or so of crisp snow among deciduous trees denuded of their foliage, they could see shadows here and there, out of the corners of their eyes. They’d uneasily bunched together a little closer, instinctively herding together for safety. It had been a mistake.
Leonard had heard a strange whistling noise and then suddenly Ensign Rodriguez, who had been walking next to him, had dropped onto the ground, a fletched arrow the size around of Leonard’s thumb projecting from her back. “Get down!” he’d yelled, not that it was necessary, since everyone was dropping down low, and those who could were crawling for the dubious shelter of the trees, dragging those who couldn’t crawl. In the end, Jim had ordered them to abandon the dead and make a run for it. They hadn’t lost any more crewmembers in that hellish dash for safety, but in the days that followed, two more of the unfortunately red-shirted security team had been picked off as they’d kept up their now-subdued march toward the only sign of civilization, a large geodesic dome in the distance.
The worst part had been the bones. As they walked, that first week, they’d stumbled across what appeared to be a random mound of bones, some with bits of meat and gristle still attached. But upon closer inspection, Leonard had been able to easily determine that they were human bones. With human toothmarks on them. He’d nearly thrown up when he’d realized what he was looking at - the remains of some sort of cannibalistic feast. He’d pulled Jim aside and muttered an explanation to him, not wanting the other members of their party to hear. Knowing that the ones they’d lost had probably been eaten by their pursuers would do no good, and could only hurt morale, which was already pretty dismal. Jim had just nodded grimly and then gathered the group and led them onward, until they’d found a cave to hide in for the afternoon.
They’d started traveling by night after that, and since then they hadn’t lost any more crewmembers. Apparently the cannibals only hunted during the day. As they'd walked through the moonlit nights, they'd heard howls in the distance, hints of yet another predator, this one nocturnal. But thank the lord, they hadn’t found that creature yet - or more to the point, it hadn’t yet found them.
They’d passed more of the mounds of bones, but fewer and fewer as they got closer to the city that they could see through the ever-present, constantly shifting mist, a mist that had crept in and grown thicker as they'd traveled. Leonard wasn’t sure if it was a good sign or not that apparently the cannibals were afraid to go near the city.
Finally, one day nearing dawn, they’d come to the outskirts of the city. Whatever civilization had been here, once upon a time, had obviously fallen many years ago, given the state of decay. They’d come upon some kind of field with a dozen or more crashed shuttles. Maybe it had been an airfield once upon a time. Or a junkyard, it was hard to tell. They’d decided to stay here a while to regroup. The meager rations of foodstuffs from their packs had run out a couple days prior, and they had little energy left for walking. At least they each had a portable sonic decontaminator for water, so they could melt snow and drink.
There was liquid water here too, random pools among patches of snowy ground making up a semi-frozen bog. Leonard wasn’t sure if the weather was changing, leading to a thaw, or if conditions were just warmer here nearer the city. It didn’t really matter. The problem was that the pools of water all bubbled with toxic gas. They’d all learned to avoid the pools but not until a few of them had suffered debilitating effects from breathing the stuff accidentally. And Leonard didn’t have any way to treat that illness, or even to ease the symptoms: hacking coughs, burning lungs and airways, and vomiting. He hated to be so helpless in the face of suffering.
Then there were the pods. There were maybe a hundred of them all together, but only a handful were still functional. They’d come across the non-functional ones first, glass and metal booths that held nothing but more human bones. He was starting to loathe the word, the goddamn nickname Jim had tagged him with way back at the academy after some stupid remark on his part.
They’d speculated about the purpose of the pods, but it wasn’t until they’d gotten to some functioning ones that they’d really been able to determine what they were for. They acted as some sort of stasis field, keeping the inhabitants alive, presumably for decades, since the pods were obviously of the same vintage as the crumbling buildings around them. The people inside looked human. Maybe their bone structure was a bit sharper, their eyes a bit more widely set than was typical for a human, but the differences were slight. It was eerie, looking into the pods, seeing faces that could have been friends, neighbors back on earth. But the real problem wasn’t the eeriness of it all. The problem was the pain.
The faces of the people inside the pods were frozen into rictuses of absolute agony. McCoy’s tricorder scans confirmed that their brainwaves were consistent with those of people suffering extreme and acute physical pain. It was like nothing he’d ever seen. They were alive, yes, and healthy physically, but he had no idea whether they’d be even remotely sane after being suspended in physical torment for decades.
Jim had wanted to revive them right away, of course. He was motivated somewhat by altruism - he wanted to end their suffering, after all - but he also wanted to be able to ask them questions about this civilization, the planet, maybe even learn which of the local flora might be edible. Bones had disagreed on the principle of primum non nocere - there was no telling what physical or mental shape the people would be in when they revived them - if they even could revive them. Just as likely there was some sort of specialized equipment or treatment needed to even survive disconnection from the pods, and Bones didn’t have any medical equipment beyond his tricorder and a mostly-depleted first aid kit.
In the ensuing argument, Spock had backed McCoy on the basis of his “logical reasoning” - and that was a new one - but Chekov, large eyes brimming with unshed tears, had begged to release the victims from the torture they were continuously undergoing, even if it resulted in their deaths. The rest of the party stayed uneasily clear of the battle. After an argument hissed at each other in low tones so as not to attract the attention of any predators, humanoid or otherwise, Jim had conceded and they’d left the people alone for the time being, Chekov-induced guilt notwithstanding.
Then also, there were exactly three pods that appeared to be fully functional but had no current occupants. So the real dilemma was whether, if things got desperate, they would use them. They hadn’t discussed it yet, but everyone in the away party knew that if they didn’t get rescued soon, or find a stable source of food and a safe place to stay, they were going to have to decide whether to choose a few of them to survive, albeit in a state of continual physical torture, until hopefully a rescue came, whether from the Enterprise or some other quarter. Leonard didn’t even want to think about it, but the knowledge was increasingly weighing on all of them. It wouldn’t be too much longer before they’d be forced into a decision.
Jim peered into the still water at his feet, mirroring the dark skies above. Stars shimmered in the water like a tiny bioluminescent ecosystem, instead of a vast expanse that went on and on forever. He shook his head. No, no ecosystem here, not in the toxic water of Gagarin Alpha 7.
It had taken twelve days after they’d beamed down to stumble on their current refuge, which seemed to be some sort of ship graveyard, a small forest of twisted metal, half submerged here and there in the boggy waters. It offered some shelter, but not much in the way of supplies. And supplies were growing thin.
He thought again of the pods. He’d told himself it wasn’t an option, but as all other options fell away…
He shook his head – he had been out here too long. The air in the bog was always a risk – small clouds of nitrogen sulfide sometimes burst from the surface, and even a small inhalation could have a person down for the day, vomiting and dizzy, lungs on fire. And Bones might be a miracle worker, but without equipment, there was little even he could do.
And even that was nothing compared to what the native Gagarians would do to him if he were caught.
Jim walked back from the stagnant water, up the snowy hill, toward their camp. He kept his surroundings clear in his head even as he was lost in thought. They had encountered the indigenous Gagarians before they ever even saw them. On that first day, they’d lost Ensign Rodriguez – he’d lost Ensign Rodriguez – to shadows in the trees. The piles of human bones discarded along their path demonstrated the likely fate of her body.
But now as he approached the ruins of the city, he saw the flash of light from the top of a crumbling wall, and it calmed him significantly. Bones was up there, watching for him. Any of the ensigns could have been his lookout, but Bones - Leonard - had insisted on taking on the duty himself. (Jim had seen the bleak look in his eyes anytime Jim used that nickname over the last few days, the tightening in his jaw, though he said nothing. Jim couldn’t really blame him for not wanting to be reminded of the cannibals’ leavings every time Jim called his name, so he’d been making an effort to switch to Leonard, even in his mind, and even if he still thought it was a name more suited to an elderly grandfather than an incredibly hot man in the prime of life.) He pushed away his wayward thoughts and waved to Bones. Leonard, damn it.
“Did you find anything?” Leonard asked him, climbing off the wall as Jim approached. Even under the hood of a winter coat, Jim could see hope in his eyes. He cringed inwardly, hating to snuff it.
“No. Nothing. No signal, no food.”
Leonard’s mouth went tight, and he looked away. “We can’t do this for much longer, Jim. I think we need to reconsider the pods.”
“You know what Scotty said.”
“Yeah, Jim, I know what he said. Locked in, air pulled from your lungs. A vacuum sealed body unable to move or breathe, but alive, Jim! Stasis, in a primitive way. It could save us. A couple of us, anyway.”
“It could kill us, too. And even if it doesn’t...” Jim trailed off. He didn’t want to say it, and he knew that Leonard knew anyway. Was it even worth saving a life, if the cost of that existence was constant, all-consuming agony? Jim thought that McCoy would’ve said no, given that he’d helped his own father end his life in just such a situation. He hesitantly said, “I mean, your father…”
Leonard cut him off with a flash of true anger in his eyes, and Jim flinched. “You’re going to throw my daddy in my face, Jim? You, of all people? And anyway, you know it was against my wishes. That if I had my way, my daddy would have held on despite the pain, and if he had, he might’ve still been alive when…” Leonard choked himself off, turned away from Jim, but Jim knew the end of that sentence anyway. When a cure was discovered. Which had happened not even six weeks after Leonard had helped his father end his life. “I’ve made that mistake once, Jim, chose despair over hope, death over continued life, and I’m not going to make it again. And especially not when it’s your life on the line. Don’t ask it of me.”
Jim sighed. “Bo - Leonard, I’m not going to order anyone to get into one of those pods. I won’t order any of my people to undergo torture when it can be avoided. But if anyone wants to volunteer, I won’t stop them either. If we have more than three volunteers, I guess we’ll have to figure out how to choose.”
Leonard deflated, the anger on his face replaced by sorrow. “Yeah, fair enough. But Jim, if it really gets to the point where we have to make that choice, I want you in one of those pods.” He put up a hand to forestall Jim’s already-forming protest. “You may not see it, but you’re the best of us. You’re the one with the most value to Starfleet and the Federation, and anyway as the Captain all of us are honor-bound to die to protect you. I know you’d die to protect us too, but that’s not the way it’s supposed to go. You know it’s true. Starfleet regs - “
Now it was Jim’s turn to cut Leonard off. “Fuck the regs,” he snarled. “Don’t you start quoting regs at me. There’s no way in hell I’m going to value my own life over my own crew members’ lives. You can’t ask that of me.”
Leonard hung his head. “You can’t die, Jim,” he whispered. “I can’t lose you.” The “not again” was unspoken, but they both knew it was there.
They said nothing more, but trudged back to the camp together, each lost in thought. As they reached the shuttle graveyard, Leonard spoke, reluctance clear in his voice. “Jim, I think you were right. We’ve got to try to wake one of those people up. It’s the only way we’ll know if it’s even safe to use those pods.”
Jim just nodded, because he knew what the admission had cost Leonard. And he knew that Leonard would be the one to take the responsibility on himself - rightly or wrongly - if the person they tried to revive didn’t make it.
Leonard stared grimly into the face of the unconscious woman on the other side of the pod’s viewport. He had one shot to make this work, and he had almost no supplies or equipment to work with. He nodded to Scotty, who pressed some buttons on the control panel on the side of the pod, and there was a hiss of repressurization before the pod slid open. He started scanning the woman with his tricorder, noting the gradual resumption of respiratory and metabolic functions, though she still hadn’t regained consciousness. Still, it was a good sign that her body appeared to be recovering from stasis on its own. Her brainwaves hadn’t changed at all, though, meaning that she was still suspended in that state of permanent pain.
At Bones’ signal, Jim and Spock carefully lifted the woman from the pod, laying her down on an improvised sleeping pad made from shuttle seat cushions torn from the decaying shuttles around them, while Bones knelt next to her prone form. It was a tense five minutes while Bones gently massaged the woman’s hands and feet to help restore circulation, while checking his tricorder readings. Finally, she gave a tremendous gasp and her eyes opened. They widened as they took in her surroundings, and then she spoke, her voice rusty with disuse as she rasped out a garbled jumble of sounds that meant nothing to Leonard. Apparently her people’s language wasn’t in the universal translator, which made sense given that this was a first contact situation.
Leonard tried to keep his face calm and his voice non-threatening as he responded. “My name is Dr. McCoy, and I’m from the starship Enterprise. We won’t hurt you; we only want to help.”
Before he could say more, a whirring noise suddenly penetrated his consciousness, coming from somewhere above him. He looked up to see a flying drone of some sort circling over their camp. His heart beat faster. It might’ve just been an automated drone back from when the civilization was still a going concern, but somehow he didn’t think so. They hadn’t seen any drones before today, which they should have, if they were just on auto-programmed patrol routes. Someone, somewhere was controlling this thing, and had been alerted to their presence when they'd messed with the pod. His eyes met Jim’s, and in one wordless glance he knew they were thinking the same thing.
Suddenly the woman screamed, or at least tried to, though her voice still wasn’t at full strength. Her gaze was fixed on the drone and she spoke rapidly, almost hysterically, as she looked at it. The universal translator was still gathering data, didn’t have enough to extrapolate meaning yet, but it was obvious that the woman was terrified. That didn’t bode well.
The next moment, Jim was taking careful aim with his phaser and the drone was exploding in a shower of sparks and circuitry. There was a brief beat of silence, which Jim broke. “We need to get out of sight,” he said. “Whoever’s controlling that thing knows we’re here now, and we need to get far enough away that we’re not sitting ducks if they send someone out after us.”
“Spock, you’re the strongest, I need you to carry her,” Leonard said, rising to his feet and motioning at the prone woman on the ground. “She’s recovering well but she’s not strong enough to walk yet.”
They all followed Jim on a harrowing, stumbling journey through the boggy mists, with shapes of derelict shuttles, abandoned playground equipment, and other detritus of civilization looming up suddenly through the fog with little warning. The woman in Spock’s arms was whimpering, now, seemingly unable to stop the noises coming out of her mouth although the terror in her eyes suggested that she desperately wanted to.
Finally Jim apparently judged that they were far enough away from their starting point, and he called them to a halt in a patch of trees and fog thick enough to hide them from the drones for the moment. They all clustered together uneasily, following his lead to take a seat on the soft, spongy earth beneath them. The dampness here was pervasive, clinging to their skin and immediately soaking through the seats of their uniforms where they were in contact with the ground.
Spock set the woman gently on the ground and while Leonard scanned her with the tricorder, Jim began talking softly to her, going through the clumsy pantomime that inevitably accompanied a language barrier. He touched his own chest and introduced himself, “Jim Kirk,” leaving off the rank, probably for the sake of making the syllables shorter. He introduced each other member of the away team and then looked expectantly at her. “Aletha,” she said, touching her own chest. Jim spoke to her in simple sentences, trying to get her to respond, to give the universal translator something to work with. He touched various objects and gave the Standard word for them and she followed with the same word in her language. Tree, rock, mud. It was going to take too damn long this way. Uhura came to the rescue, rolling her eyes slightly at Jim’s antics. She made an exaggerated face of fear, and then said “afraid.” She imitated the whining noise of the drone, along with a fist zipping around to demonstrate the motion of a drone, and said “drone.” Somehow she did all this without making even the smallest dent in her usual grace or dignity. In this way she was quickly able to establish a vocabulary of relevant words, and with her patient urging, Aletha began speaking in sentences that - finally - the universal translator was able to work with.
At least, thank the lord, the woman appeared to be relatively healthy and sane. She urgently wanted them to keep moving. But she wouldn’t let them head back the way they had come, back to the pods, not even to try to save the others still in stasis. The sheer terror on her face convinced them to follow her lead. They headed away from the city at an oblique angle, not wanting to head away from the city directly, back into the clutches of the cannibals. Talk about a goddamn rock and a hard place.
As they walked, she indicated various plants that were safe to eat. There were bushes that had a few winter berries still clinging to their branches, and a short, scrubby plant that she dug up to get at a tuber-like root that she indicated could be cooked over a fire. They showed her how the water decontaminators worked on the snow to make clean water and she accepted it without a qualm. Clearly she wasn’t a stranger to technology.
Eventually, after several hours of walking, they found a shallow cave eked into a rock wall, mostly screened by trees. They split up the food and ate hungrily and silently. Then Aletha spoke. Some of it was translated, some not, but there were enough words to piece together what she meant.
There was a being, she told them, made of technology. Most likely an AI, Leonard thought, but couldn’t be sure, because they hadn’t been able to establish that type of abstract, high-level vocabulary. But Aletha was able to convey that when the people had panicked and tried to shut it down, this being had turned against the people who created it, causing their own machines to rise up against them. The being had then gone on to commit wholesale slaughter of the population. Tens of thousands had died, though some had escaped into the unsettled areas around the city. In the city itself, nothing lived. The machines held total sway, and there was not an inch that wasn’t monitored constantly. She didn’t know how far away they had to get for the being to lose interest in them, or if it ever would. She hadn’t known about the cannibals, apparently having been put into stasis before the ones who escaped had devolved into savagery. And hadn’t that been fun to explain, Leonard pantomiming eating another person by grabbing Jim’s arm and pretending to bite into it and then chew. Chekov had blanched. Apparently the kid hadn’t figured it out on his own, though everyone else in the party seemed unsurprised.
Aletha herself had been one of the creators of this AI who tried to shut it down, and so came in for more punishment than one of the random citizens to merely get mowed down indiscriminately. She and her fellow engineers were put into the pods to suffer unending torture via signals sent directly to the brain’s pain receptors, both as retribution and to serve as a warning to the other people of the consequences of fighting back; a demonstration that there were fates worse than death. Hearing her describe how it felt to be in the pod – and worse, seeing her face, more like a death mask than a living visage - it became clear that going into a pod voluntarily was simply not an option. Even going back for the other victims still stuck in the pods was too risky at the moment.
After that discussion, they all stared into the small campfire, which was as small as possible so as to not make a smoke signal to alert the drones - and by extension, the AI - of their whereabouts. No one spoke much, and after setting up a watch rotation, they settled in for sleep early, all huddling together for warmth.
The next day Jim was subdued but determined, full of plans. He sent one team out to gather more food, roots and berries and even to hunt any small creatures they could find, as well as to scout for signs of the cannibals anywhere nearby. Aletha went with that team, since she was familiar with the local flora and fauna. Another team was dispatched to sneak back toward the city, to scavenge whatever technology they could without being spotted by the drones.
Scotty was a genius who regularly pulled miracles out of his ass, but if he was going to somehow boost the signal of their communicators or who the hell knew what else, he needed materials to work with.
Jim had wanted to head out with one of the teams but Leonard had asked – well, he had outright begged – Jim to stay put, not to rush into danger. Jim hadn’t liked it, Leonard could tell, but apparently he could read the edge of panic in McCoy’s voice and decided to humor him.
So the two of them stayed at the campsite and set up what meager comforts they could from the supplies they’d managed to grab before they fled their prior refuge. They didn’t talk much, but each was darting glances at the other and sometimes their eyes caught and held a moment too long. Leonard wasn’t completely oblivious. This unspoken thing between them had been growing for so long, almost since the moment they’d met. But now wasn’t the time. They were both too distracted, too preoccupied with their situation and how to escape it. But McCoy vowed to himself that if they made it out of this alive, he’d finally tell Jim how he felt, tell Jim that he wanted to act on whatever it was between them. Then again, he’d made that vow to himself more times than he could count, and he’d never worked up the courage to actually follow through. This, though - this situation seemed worse, somehow, than the run-of-the-mill disastrous away mission that seemed to happen every week or so. Maybe this time he’d finally do it. If they survived.
The away team had been away longer than usual even for a mission gone wrong, for one thing, and with each hour, each day that passed without word from the Enterprise, all of their hopes were fading. Then, also, they’d been without sufficient nutrition for days, and that took both a physical and an emotional toll. And then, this place, this planet… it was just goddamn creepy. Caught between cannibals and a murderous AI, with bubbling poisonous bogs in between, and everything around them frozen and still. Leonard thought he might never feel warm again.
He and Jim waited, restlessly, for the two scouting teams to report back. Before splitting up, they had decided not to use their communicators since it seemed likely that the AI would be able to monitor their frequency and track them down. The food-gathering-and-cannibal-recon team got back first, with a respectable haul of berries, more tubers, and even a couple of creatures that looked like a cross between a rabbit and a squirrel, hanging limp from Spock’s hands. He might've been a vegetarian, but he was also a pragmatist, and they needed more food calories than the meager winter plant life could provide.
They cooked and ate some of the food, saving the rest for the other team. As hours passed and the other team didn’t appear, they all got more and more tense. Chekov, Scotty, Sulu, Uhura and Hendorff had made up the team sent to look at what tech was available in the junkyard or even in the city itself, and to retrieve anything that might be useful. They were late. Beyond late. Jim was pacing restlessly and Spock was becoming progressively more immobile and rock-like, if such a thing were possible. Aletha looked from one to the other with a combination of fear and pity. It was unsettling.
Finally, just as Leonard was trying to talk Jim down from leading a second party to go after the missing crew members, they heard a crackle of breaking branches and then Scotty and the others were ducking into the cave.
Leonard let out a sigh of relief. Then he noticed that they were short one member. Jim had already caught it and was looking at Sulu, who just shook his head. They’d lost Hendorff. God damn it.
“Report,” said Jim, keeping his voice and face neutral, though Leonard could see how tightly he was holding onto his control.
Sulu spoke. “A drone spotted us. There were at least a dozen around the junkyard. Now that they know we’re here, it looks like they’re searching for us. Then within minutes of being spotted, there was this – I don’t know, some kind of mechanoid, it was bipedal, about the same size and shape as a person. It came up out of the fog and fired on us. Hendorff threw himself out in front of us, tried to shoot it down with his phaser. It didn’t work but… while its attention was focused on Hendorff we were able to scatter, circle around behind it and then with all of us shooting, we brought it down.”
Uhura picked up the tale. “I checked on Hendorff, but it was too late. He was gone. We knew we’d only have a few minutes, if that, before more of those robots found us. Then Scotty… he made us wait long enough to detach the thing’s head and insisted that we take it with us when we left.”
Gazes swiveled towards Scotty. “The AI controlling these things must be projecting some sort of electromagnetic dampening field. I think that’s why we cannae contact the Enterprise and they cannae beam us out, or even send a shuttle. It’s probably why so many shuttles crashed all at once, in that one area. People must have been trying to escape. But the AI can remotely control the drones and maybe these mechs too, so it must be using some sort of signal that isna subject to the dampening field. If I can find the signal receptor chip in this thing, I may be able to wire it to our communicators to hail the Enterprise.”
Jim nodded, but Spock spoke up. “Mr. Scott, if there is indeed an artificial intelligence that can communicate with the unit you’re holding, could not that artificial intelligence track our location using it as a beacon?”
“Aye, it’s possible,” he admitted. “We shouldna stay here. We need to stay on the move. The drones don’t appear to have weapons capability, and the mechs are slow enough that if we move fast, we should be able to keep ahead of them. If we get far enough away from the city, the AI may lose the ability to track us. It obviously hasna been able to hunt down all the people here, since the cannibals are alive and well.”
“I don’t know as I’d say they’re well, the sick bastards,” Leonard muttered, but he was ignored.
Thus began perhaps the strangest and most frightening journey of Leonard’s life. It was deep night, so presumably the risk of running across the cannibalistic natives was low, but between the shifting mist and the dim illumination of the planet’s two moons, it felt surreal. Leonard felt like he was moving through a dreamscape. Well, more like a nightmare-scape. Scotty and Chekov murmured in low voices and were actually dissecting the mechanical-looking head while they walked, trying to figure out what bits and pieces they could use. Okay, it wasn’t a dissection, not really, but that metal head with its empty eye sockets for optical sensors was creepy as all fuck, and looked humanoid enough that the vision of Scotty and Chekov delicately tearing it apart turned his stomach, making him think of the cannibals who were no doubt sleeping somewhere close by, even as they walked.
Several times they heard the howling that they’d heard in their previous nighttime journey across the landscape, but the howls were closer this time, and seemed to be coming from several different directions, moving ever closer, as if there were a pack of creatures that was surrounding and converging on them. Aletha shuddered each time she heard the sounds and Leonard knew that whatever was making those noises wasn’t friendly. Several times, Leonard also thought he heard the whining of drones nearby, but he couldn’t tell if he was imagining it or not. All of them were at the end of their endurance, both physical and mental, looking around wildly at each sound, each flicker in their peripheral vision, real or imagined.
Eventually Leonard realized that he could see a bit better and that the blackness of night was giving way to the first grayish stirrings of dawn. It wasn’t a relief – they were back deep into cannibal territory now and every single moment, Leonard expected to hear the whistling of an arrow, to feel its point piercing his back, killing him as instantaneously as Rodriguez had been killed, all those days ago. He did the only thing he could - he kept his gaze locked on Jim, who was walking ahead of him, leading the way as always. He felt like he was only the thinnest of margins away from gibbering insanity, and only Jim’s solid presence could keep him from falling into that abyss.
The terrain was growing rockier now, with barren hills and valleys all around them, growing steeper the farther they walked. When it was getting light enough that being seen by either the cannibals or the drones was nearly an inevitability, Jim finally called a brief halt.
“We’re going to make for the top of that hill,” he said, indicating a low peak maybe a half mile in the distance. “We’ll be visible, but so will anyone who tries to approach us, and the lack of forest cover should even the playing field – they won’t be able to ambush us. And Scotty and Chekov think they have found the communications chip; they need a place to stop and work on rewiring our communicators.”
The rest of them just nodded, too exhausted to respond. They were gaunt and half-starved, terrified and overwhelmed. They slowly made their way towards the hill and then up it, straggling widely as those with injuries or who were suffering more strongly from exhaustion and malnutrition struggled to keep up.
When they finally reached the plateau at the top of the hill, Leonard collapsed to his knees, utterly done. He looked out at the bleak landscape all around them in the gray pre-dawn light and hated this goddamned planet with every fiber of his being. He hoped Scotty could figure out how to contact the Enterprise and get them rescued, because he wasn’t walking a step farther. He couldn’t. He was spent, emotionally and physically. He had nothing left.
He felt a curious lightness at the realization. There was nothing more for him to do. There was nothing more he could do. He would live, or he would die, and either way it was out of his hands. It didn’t even feel like it mattered that much, at that moment. Jim sat next to him and nudged him until he shuffled himself into a seated position, shoulder to shoulder with Jim. They leaned into each other, not speaking. There was nothing to be said.
The sun was coming up now, and its cold, pitiless light flooded over the little group of survivors. Leonard closed his eyes and let himself drift. He had no idea how much time had passed. Then, suddenly, he heard the unmistakable burst of static, broken by a sharp staccato of syllables, garbled but beautifully recognizable as Federation Standard. It was the Enterprise. His eyes flew open and he looked over at Jim. He saw the dawning hope in those blue eyes, and suddenly Jim’s cold, rough hand was in his, gripping tightly enough to hurt, and Leonard was clutching back just as hard. He could feel the tears starting to well in sheer catharsis, and before he could think himself out of it he leaned over and kissed Jim, full on the lips, pouring into it every ounce of desperate relief and love and need, and Jim was kissing back, just as desperately.
Even through the kiss, Leonard felt the tingle of the transporter beams taking him, and although he was still terrified of the damn transporter, loathed having his atoms and molecules scrambled and relocated, it was just about the best thing he’d ever felt. They’d made it. They were going home.