John Grimm wakes up and thinks—where am I?
This is new.
Men like him don't normally wake up suffering from an amnesia. But John remembers nothing after beaming down outside the city limits where sun blazed with the kind of intensity found beneath the wrong end of a scope. It’s enough for him to open his eyes past the roar inside his head, ready and alert even though he hasn’t felt this bad since the three-day bender with Duke and Portman.
(How is he feeling this bad?)
But he is alone right now and unrestrained, lying inside a cave blackened with soot and fire on what feels like a bed of bones. At first, he thinks it might be a dream. His jailor looks rough and unshaven, face half-hidden beneath a wide-brimmed hat that reveals nothing but the hint of jaw and feral yellow eyes.
It is his worst nightmare come to life.
He can’t move.
A heavy boot lands on his chest.
He hears himself chuckle.
“Yours too in about a hundred years or three.”
He asks because it is the only thing he can do. His mind moves sluggishly, maybe at the tenth his normal processing speed. But already he has scoped out plans and exits and discarded them as useless. Fighting himself is likewise out of the question. It would have been hard enough before. Poisoned, it’s next to impossible. “Where... where’s Jim?”
“Not here” Reaper says vaguely. “Looking for us I presume.”
That’s good. Very good. The search will keep Jim occupied for a while. It’s better that he finds a body than the story of two immortal men.
“How did you get here?”
“Don’t know, don’t care.” Reaper answers as he leans down. “Important thing is that I am.”
Reaper’s fingers are almost gentle as they caress his stripes and the blue fabric pulled taut across his chest. Had he been a better man, he would have left it there, pretend that he was asleep even if they both knew he was far from it. But diplomacy has never been his strong suit; it says so on his file. As soon as he is able, he finds himself blurting out, “What the fuck are you wearing?”
Because it looks ridiculous, him in a wide-brimmed hat and a heavy trench. He’s seen how the locals dress, like anachronistic cowboys straight from the Old West, carving out a life for themselves on a planet that doesn’t want them. There had been towns after towns across the view screen, ripped apart as though a tornado had come through twice and shat on them just for the hell of it.
“Well sweetheart, the sunlight is mighty hard on my hide.”
The other man thumbs his nose, slightly burnt and already peeling as though he is fond of it, like it is a novelty to touch his face on another version of himself. More than two hundred years has passed without encountering another of his kind, John is sure it’s been longer for him.
Their mission had been to render assistance, provide food and security to the outlying colonies suffering from mysterious attacks. Reports had come in, men driven to madness and women with their heads bashed in, stripped naked and drained.
It drove too close to home to what he was (is) and he hasn’t slept a wink since, like somehow him being awake will make the situation go away. But by the time they arrived, the city was gone, wiped clean off the map by a magistrate with rheumy eyes and idle fingers. A long time ago, John had vowed never again to be ruled by men like him. He wonders where that resolve is now.
Then he remembers, of course he remembers, C-24 made sure that he would remember every little salient detail of whatever the fuck that will ever happen to him.
“You’re the monster.”
Reaper stares at him as though he finds him wanting, like a person looking back on his life and judging every foolish mistake.
John hasn’t lived that life (not yet), but he hopes to (but not really) and feels an irrational burst of anger seep through the cavity of his chest like the poison coursing through his veins. His fingers grasp weakly at his counterpart, curling into the seam of his trench.
“Answer me damn you.”
The seemingly arbitrary series of numbers has him blinking.
Reaper lowers his head.
“2461, I come from the year 2461.”
John stops breathing.
“I woke up here close to fifteen years ago, a shithole of a planet inhabited by a bunch of religious fuckups fighting a never-ending war.”
“You started soldiering again.”
His counterpart shoots him an indulgent look. “It’s what we do, what we’re good at. One day, a clusterfuck of a mission later and we fall in here, like Alice, and get dragged to the big bad that the magistrate’s been looking for.”
“And what was that?”
“You know,” his double says slowly as though unsure where to start. “Sam never really told us what they dug up at Olduvai.” And here John can’t help but shiver because two hundred years is not enough to forgive himself for burying his family in the barren wastes of Mars. “What she didn’t know is that everything, started here.”
In his voice is admiration—“She’s the last of her kind. She came to Sol system because the civilization then was primitive, easy to mold, easier to manipulate into her own image. She started a colony on Mars and gave her children a gift, one that would insure she would never be alone again.”
“They were monsters. They were killing people.”
Reaper shakes his head.
“The only one who was killing things was you John.”
It’s clear to him now that in a hundred years or three, something happens (something big) and he ends up eating his gun. Maybe this time he blew out something vital like morality, impulse control, common sense or basic human decency. Maybe this is the sound of heartbreak, plain ugly and difficult to hear.
“In 2412, the ‘Fleet catches up to me. Kids barely out of the Academy take me in. They don’t know who I am and they don’t give a fuck. They just need to bring me in because the brass tells them to. And I think, I don’t care either. I gave them a hundred years off my life thinking that I’d get Sam back at the end of it, thinking that she was safe. Boy” he laughs, “were we stupid.”
“2387, the hobgoblin disappears. In 2293, Jim dies.”
“You leave in 2274. You go to ground; you let them think that you were dead.”
“This is on you.”
The cold is a shock to his system after the parched heat of the ground above. He doesn’t know how long he’s been here; he doesn’t know how long he has. He thinks that he’s heard an echo of something, echo of an echo of an echo bouncing endlessly off the walls.
“What the hell did you give me?”
“You can’t tell?” His future self mocks. “It’s cyalodin mixed with Regalian liquid crystal. Strong stuff, better than Klingon tea wine.”
He starts to shake.
“That shit is illegal for a reason.”
“I know.” Reaper replies evenly. “I’m a doctor after all.”
“I wouldn’t have left them.”
“You do, you will.”
Reaper drapes his coat over him, leathery and warm, heavy in all the right places and smelling of home. He is lulled into a state of fugue where he is at his most vulnerable, limbs weighed down by a thousand grains of sand. John feels the bulge of a pistol in one pocket but is lost before he can even contemplate its meaning.
Jim is calling for him.
He curls up, helpless in a way he hasn’t been since Sam was taken away, when he held back and watched Jim and Spock board the Narada thinking that it should have been him. He can’t imagine what could have happened in the future, why Jim died young or why Spock disappeared. Why did he leave he asks himself but he knows the answer. He’s always known he was living on borrowed time.
“I don’t have a choice.”
Reaper wrenches his head back, following at the unconscionable flutter in his throat and the rigidity of his jaws. “You think your life is worth more than theirs? Don’t be such an idiot.”
“I can’t go back there.” He says brokenly and a knife kisses the soft skin behind his ears, cold but warming swiftly to his touch.
“You stupid son of a bitch. You are already back there.”
He bites down on the dusty collar, writhing in agony and unable to make a single sound—it would attract Jim faster than honey would a fly. Maybe he will die here; maybe Reaper can do what John Grimm could not decades into the near future. Reaper grins as though pleased at his silence and stands up, letting the bloodied knife drop to the ground.
“Hold it right there.”
Reaper says nothing but stares, as though in wonder, at the golden figure standing in the middle of the cave. Jim is alone, unarmed save for a phaser he holds at the ready. Had he the strength, John would have laughed, tore his captain a new asshole, and laughed at the thought of using a phaser on a creature once known as John Grimm.
“You’ve assaulted a Starfleet officer. That crime is punishable by law.”
His double tilts his head, curious like a tiger on a hunt. “And will you Captain, met out this punishment?”
Jim’s nostrils flare. “I said stand down.”
But he doesn’t. Reaper keeps moving. “Is he worth so much to you?”
John knows he is fast, Reaper is fast. They both are faster than the speed Jim will pull the trigger.
He would shrug off the phaser fire easy like a scraped knee or a burnt finger, healing right up like someone’s poured a quick-drying sealant over his immortal skin. He would subdue him the way he did John the first time around, grabbing him by the back of his head and cracking his skull against one knee. In the right position, with the right amount of force, he could drive the nasal cartilage past the brain case, until the grey matter dribbled out through a man’s ears.
“Stand down.” Jim shouts in warning, face slowly turning red. “Or I will shoot.”
And he knows, Jim has seen. Their likeliness is unmistakable at that distance.
“No Jim, I...”
Blood erupts from his mouth, bright red like the geysers of Melnos IV. John feels the sticky heat scald his palms and boil down the length of his arm. He twists, the blade quivering as it grinds between two ribs, head dizzy and spinning as though it’s about to detach itself and roll away into the dark.
Reaper turns. In one fell swoop, John kicks his knees in and has the pistol pressed against the other man’s forehead because he can’t make his hand steady. His counterpart grins against the jackhammer stabs of his wrists, his hat knocked askew revealing a scalp of wildly-grown cowlicks that tumble past his ears. Jim, dazed, mutters—Bones?
Both men flinch.
“You’ve never listened to the hobgoblin before.” Reaper says in a low voice. “Don’t start when he tells you to go.” John tries to move, pull the pistol away but the other man holds fast, the muzzle digging a circle into his skin. “John. Don’t leave them.” He says in all seriousness, one eye cocked at the gun pressed to his head. “No matter what happens, they didn’t leave you. Don’t leave them.”
He wants to throw up.
“It's like riding a bike.” Reaper insists when he hesitates. “One to the head...”
He doesn’t stop shaking for a long time.