Chapter One: Diverted
“Okay, okay,” Jim Kirk chuckled, “what about this one? Do you remember?” The captain leaned his head back, slowly crooning, “It’s only been you, among the suns and moons, a thousand alien tunes.”
The commissioner laughed and shook her head. “Sure, but what I’m never going to forget is Spock’s expression while you sang that refrain over and over as the drugs wore off. Shuffling around in your hospital gown, too, with absolutely no shame. I swear he almost smiled.”
“It was a good day,” Jim agreed, throwing yet another glance toward the front of the shuttle where Spock sat at the command console, determinedly facing away from them. The captain’s gaze shifted to Nyota, seated across the cabin. The communications officer, who had been following their conversation with narrowed eyes, simply shrugged noncommittally and bent her head to her console.
Jim turned back to the other woman, continuing, “After all, the doctors had just told me that all the tests were normal, and I was getting out, super-blood and miraculous resurrection notwithstanding. Finally.” He shook his head, leaning back in his seat. “I know I’ve said this a few times already, but it’s good to see you again, Lali.”
“It’s always good to see you, Jim.” Lalitha smoothed her elegant white tunic over her lap. She sighed. “I do wish we could get together under better circumstances, though.”
Jim shrugged. “You mean, apart from death’s door?”
She nodded. “Outside of a hospital, at least.”
“I’ll say.” He shook his head. “Third time’s the charm, I guess.”
“Captain?” Lieutenant Commander Barnes spoke up from where he was seated at the rear of the main cabin. “I’ve finished the modifications to the transporter beacons. Do you want to take a look?”
“Sure.” Jim tilted his head in a mock bow to the commissioner. “Madam, if you will excuse me momentarily?”
“But of course, Captain,” Lalitha responded with an exaggerated wave.
Jim grinned as he stood, walking past the perpetually nervous-looking Yeoman Ocampo to crouch next to Barnes. “Okay, Bill. Let’s have it.”
“Great. Okay, sir, you can see that the positive portal here has been re-configured to enhance the—.”
Barnes kept talking, and Jim nodded along, already recognizing the improvements but allowing the older scientist to lecture through them. He cast a surreptitious look back at the lovely commissioner as she studied a PADD and tried to avoid Ocampo’s puppy eyes. It had been just over two years since he had first met her in the Fleet hospital after Khan’s devastation of San Francisco, and barely five months since they’d met again in the medical ward on Starbase Two after a surprise attack by a rogue Klingon ship had damaged both the base and the crews on leave there. Each time they’d carried on a brief and light-hearted physical affair and parted as friends, and each time it had been a convenient way for him to avoid confronting deeper, more complex feelings for someone else. Wincing slightly, Jim forced his attention back to Barnes.
“—so, the modifications will allow us to lock on for standard automatic transport from beacon to beacon even within the electromagnetic distortions common in the destination atmosphere.”
“Excellent,” Jim said, rising to his feet. “Well done, Commander.”
Barnes appeared pleased. “I’ll pack them up and have them ready to go, sir.”
Lalitha smiled at the captain as he returned to his seat. “My first top secret mission,” she said, “and I have to drag you along with me. Of course, Charisidon had to be well out of everyone’s way.”
“Orders are orders,” Jim shrugged, settling himself down. “And a nice, quiet trade summit isn’t all that bad. Anyway,” he continued casually, “I was actually looking forward to spending a few days in a cramped long-range shuttle on a super-secret trajectory under comms silence.”
“No paperwork,” he quipped.
Lalitha snorted. “Our yeoman would dispute that, I’m sure,” she said, looking pointedly at Ocampo.
“Yes, ma’am!” the young man chirped immediately. “Even the captain can’t escape that easily!”
“See?” Lalitha grinned at him as Ocampo blushed furiously.
Jim smothered his own smile, looking helplessly again at his first officer and taking in the now-familiar perfect lines of the back of his uniform. Spock had kept his distance ever since Commissioner Basu had beamed aboard the Enterprise the day before and had held near-silence during the past nine hours of their present journey. And Nyota’s own relative reticence was no help either. To the best of Jim’s knowledge, she and Spock were no longer seeing each other romantically, but they seemed to be operating together in this, whatever this was. The captain couldn’t help a twinge of familiar irritation at Spock’s predictably enigmatic response, thinking of all the times over the past two years that he and his first officer had flown back and forth between kindred intimacy to confusing distance. It was both confounding and exhilarating: a strangely asymptotic relationship that, outside of professional boundaries, defied traditional definition.
Jim heard Lali clear her throat and swung his attention back to the commissioner, seeing tight curiosity on her face as he realized he had been staring at the Vulcan.
The captain recovered gamely. “The good news is that Charisidon has excellent shore facilities in addition to the utmost in security and operational discretion. Once there, we’ll be in the best of hands.”
She tilted her head flirtatiously, lowering her voice. “I thought I already was in the best of hands.”
Jim leaned closer to the dark-haired woman, pointedly ignoring Nyota’s arched brows on the other side of the cabin. “Well, Lali, if you consider—.”
“Incoming!” Spock’s sharp exclamation cut into Jim’s reply. “All hands brace for impact!”
Jim gripped the restraints as they automatically deployed across his body, as red lights flashed across the interior of the craft, as shock burst over Lalitha’s face and Uhura grabbed for her console. The actual impact came harshly, accompanied by the squeal of twisting plastisteel and shrieking alarms, and Jim grunted as inertial dampeners failed and the gravity field shifted polarity, the shuttle itself flipping end over end as it tumbled out of the warp envelope, sparks erupting from the forward panels.
Fierce adrenaline pumped through Jim’s body as the shuttle leveled out and drifted, alarms blaring shrilly in ruddy, smoky silence.
“Spock! Report!” Jim released his restraints and pushed himself to the Vulcan’s side.
“We encountered a class-four seeker mine, Captain,” Spock said, his hands flying over his boards. “It threw us out of warp. The port nacelle is out of alignment.”
“Class-four?” Jim said incredulously. “We should have disintegrated.”
Spock nodded, outwardly inscrutable aside from slightly quickened breath. “I had been running active sensor scans as a precaution, Captain. The instruments registered the mine’s closing trajectory in time for course adjustment, but we still sustained a peripheral impact.”
“You saved our lives,” Jim said frankly, reaching out to grasp his friend’s shoulder as the Vulcan looked up at him. The deflector’s automatic settings would never have caught it; if Spock hadn’t been running those active sweeps, a direct hit on a craft this size would have turned them all to stardust. Jim squeezed once before letting go and glancing behind him. “Uhura? Lali? Ocampo? Barnes? Everyone okay?”
“I’m fine, Jim,” Lalitha replied shakily. She looked terrified.
Ocampo nodded jerkily, his hands tightly gripping the armrests, his eyes huge. “Yes, sir. Alright, sir.”
Nyota was pressing a hand to her forehead, a fine trail of red dripping from under her fingers and down across her cheekbone as she blinked up at him. “F-fine, Captain.”
She didn’t look it, though, and he put a hand on her console. “We need to send—.”
“Standard distress,” she finished firmly. “Full encrypt and scramble, aye.”
“I’ve got a problem back here, Captain!” Barnes called. “Environmental indicators at red-line in the aft cabin; we’re venting amidships!”
“On my way. Spock, what’s our position?”
“Sector J-34, Captain, subsect twelve.”
“Damn. Skirting unexplored space.” A higher-class mine out here usually ruled out run-of-the-mill pirates or slavers and, given the rarity of ships, was most likely something specifically meant for them. Jim set his jaw. “Can you get us back to warp?”
“Affirmative,” Spock replied,” but I will need to re-calculate the intermix formula to the power couplings in order to accommodate the structural misalignment.”
“Get started. And see if you can identify any other mines out there.” Jim braced himself against the shuttle’s ceiling as he made his way to the rear of the cabin, hearing Spock’s acknowledgement as Lalitha reached out to him.
The captain nodded. “It’s possible. These can be set out in a grid pattern; the others will converge after the first one impacts, assuming there’s anything left to be destroyed.”
She was shaking her head, muttering almost to herself, “The Syndicate. Double-crossing bastards.”
“Orions?” Jim furrowed his brow. “What do you—?”
“Captain?” Barnes interrupted, motioning him over. Jim approached to study the cracked and flickering screen over the older man’s shoulder.
“I’ve gotten the emergency internal fields operational,” Barnes said. “Hull integrity is temporarily restored, but it’s coming at a cost.”
Jim shook his head as he peered at the indicators. “We’ll burn right through our reserve power.”
Barnes nodded, the flashing red alert lights reflecting off his graying hair. “No choice, in my opinion, Captain. We don’t have the equipment to repair this kind of damage out here.”
“Captain?” Nyota’s voice held a note of consternation. “I’m getting persistent and impenetrable interference. All channels currently inaccessible. There’s no way we can get a signal out.”
“It’s not like anything I’ve seen before. It seemed to have started right after that mine impact.”
Spock glanced over his shoulder. “Captain, sensors have identified seventeen additional mines closing on this location at warp one.”
Jim swore internally and gestured to the environmental control panel. “Stay on it, Barnes. Do what you can.” He turned on his heel and jogged to the front of the craft. “How long?”
“Three point six minutes.” Spock’s dark eyes were focused on the screen as Jim slid into the co-pilot’s seat. “The computer is calculating intermix.”
“Is that interference originating from the minefield?”
“Negative,” Spock said somewhat distantly. “It is a directed beam impacting a considerable part of the energy spectrum. High intensity and growing stronger.”
“Directed? From where?”
“Unknown. Sensors are also being affected.”
Jim chewed on the side of his thumbnail, his eye on the chronometer. “Spock, what’s taking so long with the computer?”
“Convergence to the necessary threshold is—.”
“Yeah, how much longer?” Jim interrupted heatedly.
“Spock, we don’t have that much time!”
“Agreed. I am concurrently attempting the calculation myself.”
Jim stared at him, now recognizing the odd preoccupation in the Vulcan’s demeanor. The captain knew his own talents in multidimensional mathematics were impressive, but the Vulcan’s ability to solve complex problems in his head was incomprehensible. “Right,” the captain said. “I’m programming in an escape trajectory.”
Spock abruptly blinked, his unfocused stare breaking as a warning light started flashing on his console.
Jim curled his fingers over the controls. “Rogue mine detected; approaching on two-six-five. Impact in ten seconds!” He looked at his first officer. “Spock, give me something, anything!”
The Vulcan’s hands were moving rapidly over his own panel. “Warp drive possible, but there is a seventy-five point two percent chance we will explode upon initialization.”
“Fuck it! Go, go, go!”
The engines roared and the forward viewer gleamed with the streaks of warp space. Infrastructure shook, high harmonics singing over throbbing engine noise as the shuttle bounced within the warp corridor, and Jim knew that they didn’t have much time before the damaged nacelle manifold would begin to crumple under the strain. Behind him, he heard Barnes’ desperate shout.
“Captain, I’m losing hull integrity again! Fields are fluctuating!”
“How long can you hold out?” Jim shouted over the wailing engines.
“I need to reach the manual override, sir, but the panel’s wedged shut!”
Spock had already unfastened his restraints. “I will see to it, Jim. You are the superior pilot.”
“I’ve got her,” Jim acknowledged, fighting the controls as he programmed in a spiral course. All indicators were maxed; he could smell something burning and he gritted his teeth. He could shift vectors all he wanted, but if they didn’t get enough distance from the mines, they would be sitting ducks when they exited warp. “Uhura, I need you up here!”
Nyota vaulted into the seat next to him, drying blood smeared across her left cheek. Jim heard alarms suddenly increasing in tone as the craft gave a sudden series of powerful jolts. “That wasn’t internal,” he muttered. “What—?”
“The interference field, Captain!” Nyota exclaimed. “Sensors are blanked!”
“I see it.” Jim grimaced as his controls abruptly failed to respond. “It’s got ahold of the helm and nav computer, too. It’s…it’s acting like a tractor beam.” He shook his head, ducking as a panel above his head snapped open, spraying sparks. The entire shuttle was shuddering. “We’re locked at heading point six-two and increasing speed; I’ve lost positive control.”
“Internal fields failing, Captain!” Spock’s shout came as the craft jolted roughly again. “Estimate decompression in ten minutes!”
The whine of the engines hit a fever pitch and then abruptly stopped as the warp corridor evaporated around them and inertial stabilizers bucked again, the shuttle spinning as it dumped velocity. Jim’s head swam as the blue-green curve of a planet swung wildly on the viewscreen, impossibly close, and he heard Lalitha moaning behind him.
“Where—?” he began unsteadily. “What—?”
Nyota was shaking her head as she clutched her console. “The velocity surge was incredible. We were reading close to warp eleven. It’s…impossible.”
“Not impossible,” Jim murmured. He glanced up as Spock appeared behind them.
“Power is at critical level. Internal fields at eleven percent,” the Vulcan said. “Failure is imminent.”
“From what little I can read on scanners,” Nyota said, “that planet is the source of the interference field.” She looked at the captain. “Class-M.”
“Well, whoever or whatever is controlling that field has given us a place to go, I suppose.” Jim gestured widely to the viewscreen and then around at the smoking and sparking shuttle interior, alarms still sounding. “Can we even make it through an atmospheric entry?” he asked his first officer.
“I believe such an attempt is our only option,” Spock replied evenly. “Our trajectory to Charisidon brought us to the very edge of explored space. I hypothesize that our encounter with the mine and our subsequent escape further into that space attracted some attention.”
“I’ll say,” Jim commented wryly. “I—.” He stopped, his voice catching in his throat as something seemed to expand around him. There was the briefest period of unnatural stillness when everything seemed to move in slow motion: the blink of emergency lights, a cascading shower of sparks. And from somewhere in that stillness, purposeful yet invisible tendrils emerged, slipping over Jim’s spine, curling around his temples and out over his limbs: icy-cold and alien and settling deep into his nervous system.
“Spock,” Jim reflexively choked. “Spock?” His voice was broken and uncertain. Everything was distorted, and then everything was too bright, too clear.
Nyota was gasping for breath next to him, both hands pressed to her forehead. She was terrified. Somehow, Jim could sense her fear as if it were an extension of himself.
“What is that?” Ocampo cried, the young man’s own terror amplified to the point of being palpable. “Captain, what is that?”
Jim’s hands were shaking, his body was shaking. He could feel Lalitha and Barnes, too. He was drowning in the others’ emotions: fear, shock, anger and everything terrifying and hopeless. He heard his name and turned to see his first officer’s dark eyes, felt his hands pressed to Jim’s shoulders.
“We’re being probed,” Spock managed, his voice sounding far away. “Extremely powerful and pervasive energies. The computers and, and—.”
“And us, too,” Jim finished as he watched the Vulcan grimace, heard Nyota scream. This felt like death; this tasted like the end of things. They were going to die and fear and defeat were choking them. But, at least, this time he could touch… . Jim grabbed for his friend’s hands, prying them from his shoulders and holding tight.
Everything that couldn’t have happened before, when their hands were separated by relentless transparent aluminum, was happening now. Contact was everything, and the simple fact of it seemed enough for something warm and elusive to spark, to slide like wildfire through the curtain of fear around them, bringing soft and beautiful emotion rolling in its wake. Jim saw Spock’s eyes widen, felt —.
The shuttle jolted yet again, and Jim let out a shout as Spock fell backwards and away, their hands separating. They were falling, falling, no, being dragged into an uncontrolled atmospheric dive and the shuttle was shattering around him, his crew were crying out around him.
“Hold on!” he yelled, because there was nothing else to say, nothing else to do. “Hold—!”
A large explosion from the rear of the craft interrupted him, and then another, nearer, the inevitable internal field failure beginning to extend along the portside main electromagnetic coil. The third explosion was impossibly loud, bursting on his left side. His skin was burning; the very air was burning, and he screamed as flames were chased by darkness and then there was nothing more.