It took several days for the Enterprise, running solely on impulse engines, to limp back to Starbase One after the destruction of the Narada. Christopher Pike spent those long hours mostly on his back, freed from the Centaurian slug the Narada's captain had infected him with but not the damage it had done to his nervous system, staring up at the sickbay ceiling and distracting himself with reports of everything he'd missed.
The Acting CMO, Dr. McCoy-- one last fist to the gut, that, finding yet another cadet filling the emptied shoes of one of his officers-- had given him a brief overview of recent events before sedating him for surgery. Commander Spock had been waiting when he'd awakened, hours later; Spock's report had been much more thorough than the doctor's, not to mention less peppered with colorful metaphor, but no less astonishing in its details. Pike suspected that Lieutenant Kirk's version of events-- Acting Captain Kirk's, for those last few hours before Pike's rescue-- would wind up being even stranger yet.
He'd have to wait to hear it, though. Wonder of wonders, the boy seemed to have not only pulled his act together in the heat of battle, something Pike had always suspected he had in him, but also in the more ordinary details of leadership: coordinating with the ship's departments to ensure they presented their best possible face upon arrival at spacedock, checking on the comfort of the Vulcan refugees, composing his own commendations for the men and women he'd been so briefly in charge of, and all the million and one other things that elevated a true commander above the chaff that filled too many chairs in the 'Fleet.
Fewer chairs, after today. Six starships gone in the blink of an eye: six captains, their officers, and eighty percent of the Academy's graduating class with them. Pike blocked that line of thought quickly, blinking away the warmth that prickled in the corners of his eyes; it was not yet time to grieve, to think of all the eager young faces and old friends they'd lost that day.
No; there were other things to be done before he let himself dwell on the lives consumed in the fires of Nero's insanity. Reports to be assembled, recommendations to compose for Command. As the seniormost surviving officer of the massacred Home Fleet, by rank and almost certainly by age as well, he had no doubt his opinion would have a significant impact on whatever commendations or censures the Admiralty chose to give in the wake of their Pyrrhic mission.
He shifted a little on the biobed, trying to ease the painful tingling in his legs that had defied McCoy's best attempts at healing, and tapped a few commands on the dataslate he'd been allowed. Ship's logs had been somewhat disordered since the last change of command, understandably, but what there was, was remarkably thorough; for a crew composed primarily of hastily commissioned cadets, they'd performed their duties admirably, better than any captain could possibly have asked of them.
...One unauthorized stowaway cadet aside.
Pike had hoped to see Kirk in command of a starship one day, but not so soon; not a mere three years after his first glimpse of all that raw potential bleeding away in a bar in rural Iowa. He wasn't sure what exactly he'd been expecting when he'd named the young man Acting First Officer, but it certainly hadn't been that. It was unbelievable; mind-boggling, especially in light of the litany of rash actions, both brilliant and otherwise, that had lifted Kirk to that position. Attempted mutiny, for God's sake!
And yet-- the young man who'd been on the verge of losing his berth at the Academy less than two days ago for refusing to submit to a no-win scenario had proven his thesis in the most conclusive of ways. He'd pulled improbable victory from the jaws of near-certain defeat, saving not only the Enterprise, but Earth itself and the Federation as a whole from destruction at the hands of a Romulan madman.
They'd been too late for Vulcan, and the impact of that loss was only going to grow in the days to come. Half the Federation's foundation had just crumbled and fallen to dust. But the fact that the destruction had been limited to that one world could be laid at the feet of this crew: bereft of most of their experienced officers, thrown into situations no simulation could possibly have prepared them for, and led by a brash young mastermind with more balls than common sense, they had done the impossible.
If that didn't give an old man hope for the future, he didn't know what would.
He frowned a little, thoughtfully, as he tapped through the string of reports. Spock had adequately covered the sequence of events, but it was the smaller moments he was looking for now. Specific achievements, signs of excellent officers performing above and beyond the call of duty.
Ensign Chekov, displaying the prodigious talent he'd been recruited for at a ridiculously young age, exercising both tactical and transporter expertise. Lieutenant Uhura, putting the previous communications officer to shame with her thoroughness and efficiency. Lieutenant Sulu, pulling off extremely delicate maneuvers around Saturn, not long after fighting for his life in the skies above Vulcan. Dr. McCoy, successfully carrying out the duties of CMO with half the staff he should have had, the rest lost with Dr. Puri in the Narada's initial attack.
A Mr. Scott-- and just where the hell had he come from, anyway?-- somehow implementing transwarp beaming to return Kirk to the Enterprise, then performing several other feats Pike would have sworn were impossible in the capacity of Acting Chief Engineer. The cadet who'd shouldered the burden of the department after Olson's death deserved special recognition, as well; her specialty was in computer programming and troubleshooting, but Lieutenant Gaila had managed to keep the technicians organized and ship-wide repairs underway until a more experienced hand could take over.
Commander Spock, upholding his duty to the best of his abilities in the face of unimaginable loss-- then following the questionably legal orders of a man he had every reason to mistrust without apparent resentment in a successful raid to deprive the Romulans of their world-destroying weapon.
And then there was Kirk himself. Pike sighed and shook his head.
He had once dared the delinquent Kirk had been to do better, to improve on the record of his father; and by God, he had risen to the challenge. George Kirk had been Captain of the Kelvin for twelve minutes, during which time he'd saved eight hundred lives; the lives Jim Kirk had saved since assuming command of the Enterprise could be numbered in the billions.
What was there to do with him now, realistically, but slap him on the shoulder and point him forward? Not in the center seat of the Federation's flagship, of course-- until 'Fleet told him otherwise this was still Pike's ship-- but definitely in a gold command tunic. The service needed more officers like him, like his makeshift crew, especially now when every media eye would be watching. Allowing Kirk's academic suspension to stand, or bringing him up on charges for every regulation he'd broken in the last forty-eight hours, would be a travesty, no matter how much the erstwhile cadet-Lieutenant might actually deserve it.
That didn't mean Pike wasn't going to administer the most thorough dressing-down of his life, of course. There were ways to get around obstacles in the pursuit of duty, and then there were ways. Unlike many of his peers, Pike didn't think Kirk needed any lessons in facing his fears: he'd seen the young man's juvenile record, after all, and knew perfectly well how to read between the lines. But Kirk's reflexive response to that fear would become even more of a problem if he didn't learn how to keep it in check.
Too smart to waste and too reckless to trust, some might say. But seasoning would come with time. The courage, quickness of mind, and determination that came to Kirk as easily as breathing were far rarer gifts.
Pike tapped out a nonurgent request for Kirk to find him when he had a spare moment, then shut off the datascreen and closed his eyes.
His ship was in good hands, for now. It was safe to rest.