The PADD wasn’t any larger than his hand, and yet it felt like a lead anvil physically pulling him down. It remained in his bag, the weight of it all slouching his shoulders. He knew he should’ve turned it in for evidence by now, but doing so would make it real.
His son’s name was on that PADD. His youngest son. On a list of people who had been ordered to be executed—
Jimmy was a child. In what universe could executing a thirteen year old boy be justified? How could the execution of four thousand people be justified?
George still didn’t know.
He was emotionally compromised, and he knew it. Captain April knew it. And yet he had a duty to Starfleet. To his son. To get justice for him and to make sure he helped as many people as he could, despite not being able to save the one that meant the world to him.
Jimmy had been so excited when he read about the Tarsus IV Accelerated Learning Program. He begged George and Winona to let him apply, and when they finally caved, Jimmy had of course been accepted, and they worked out the details so Jimmy could stay with Winona’s sister and brother-in-law.
They’d been killed as well.
George didn’t know how he was going to tell Winona. About her sister, about their son. He still hadn’t contacted her. He hadn’t been able. Tarsus IV was currently on a communication quarantine until the investigation was over. Only secure frequencies straight to Starfleet HQ were in use.
George’s eldest son had just gone off to college, how would they tell him his little brother had died?
George wiped his face, grimacing at the several days old scruff that he’d neglected to groom. He had a mission to complete, he needed to focus. He owed it to Jimmy to help this secret group of survivors that the spared colonists had told them about. A group that had escaped the massacre and had lived off the land and stolen from the privileged colonists.
The colonists themselves had never taken action against the group, they felt guilty enough that they’d been spared, but they also never actively helped them out of fear of retribution from Kodos’s forces. The least they could do, they’d said, was alert Starfleet of their existence so they could be helped.
So here George was, leading a small party as they searched the land outside the main colony proper, looking for a sign of this group of fugitives.
“Sir, take a look at this.”
George walked over to the security officer who spoke, who was standing by a small cliff of rock maybe three meters high with a considering look. The officer was pointing to a series of scuff marks of various sizes and age.
“Some of these are weeks old, but there’s also a few recent ones, this is a high traffic path for someone,” she said.
George nodded in agreement. “It’s a good sign, let’s check it out.”
The group climbed the cliff face–the short obstacle was deceptively difficult as it barely had effective hand and foot holds–and hoisted themselves onto the grass-topped surface. The area around them was thick with dark foliage, and George could make out a larger cliff face just beyond the visible tree line.
As he took a step forward however, a phaser blast shot the ground just inches from his feet.
“Don’t get any closer!”
The voice came from somewhere in front of them, but no one could spot the shooter in the greenery, and their voice echoed slightly in the clearing, further masking their location.
“We’re members of Starfleet,” George said steadily, still trying to spot the shooter while waving a hand behind him to settle the security officers who had placed a hand on their own phaser holsters. It wouldn’t do to spook the survivors; and this certainly seemed like one of the survivors, Kodos’s remaining loyalists would have shot him without the warning. “We’re here to help you.”
“You’re a little late for that,” the voice snapped. “Starfleet’s been shit for help the past couple months. You were a really big help when the crops started dying,” the voice said scathingly. “A tremendous help when we were being slaughtered by the thousands.”
“We didn’t know,” George said, voice shaking slightly at the reminder of just how many people had died. His son included. “And when we did find out, we were delayed, there was no way we could’ve gotten here sooner, but we tried.”
“How do I know you’re not lying?” The voice sounded young, he noted, though scratchy and hoarse. It made him miss his son all the more. “About trying to help? Or hell, you might not even be Starfleet in the first place.
“You don’t, I suppose,” George said honestly. “Our uniforms could be fake and our ID numbers wouldn’t mean a thing to you. But we haven’t attacked you or made any hostile actions towards you.”
“Maybe you’re waiting to find out where the rest of us are before you kill all of us in one go.”
“Maybe we’re just trying to help,” George said. He let out a heavy sigh. “Maybe I’m just trying to do what I can to remember my son. He was here, you know,” he revealed. He hoped personal experience might help relax the distrustful survivor. “He was…he was on the–the kill list. I know Starfleet has let you down. But it was never intentional. We would have helped you if we could’ve. I would’ve…I would’ve been here, to help you, to help…to help my son…”
George didn’t care if he was having a slight breakdown in front of his subordinates. He’d had enough of this. He wanted time to grieve for the loss of his family, he shouldn’t be out here in the woods on missions, trying to convince a skeptic that Starfleet wasn’t so bad when in that moment, he found himself agreeing that Starfleet should’ve done more—
No no no no no. Fuck, don’t do this to him...
There was a very specific reason why George had no allowed himself to hope that Jimmy had somehow survived the massacre. It would be setting himself up for heartbreak—or heart-shatter—that he’d never be able to recover from. He couldn’t let himself dangle from the narrow thread of hope; he knew he wouldn’t survive that.
Why did this person feel the need to taunt him? To bait the false hope that—
A figure stumbled out of the foliage at their two o’clock. The figure had a phaser rifle raised, but it was pointedly aimed at the ground near their feet.
It was a child. A boy he could tell, barely a teenager maybe. He had shaggy, wispy blond hair that curled around his ears, clinging to the gaunt skin with sweat and grime. His clothing was covered in dirt, and George suspected some of the darker splotches were blood stains. The soles of his sneakers were visibly separating, and his pants were frayed at the hem and torn at the knees. His jacket looked over-sized on his skeletal frame, sharp bones peaking out of a stretched t-shirt collar. His face was pale and hollow, and even from the distance, George could see yellow where white should be in his eyes. The boy’s face was pinched in pain, but he maintained a slight glare as he considered the group in front of him. A look George had seen many times before.
Dare he hope?
The boy didn’t react much, but the tension in his face dropped ever so slightly.
Hope began to dig its claws into George’s heart. The longer he stared at the boy, the more he was convinced. This wild shell of a boy was his son.
George took a step forward, “Jimmy, it’s me, it’s Dad—”
“Stop!” Jimmy snapped, raising his phaser rifle slightly in warning.
George would be lying if he said that hadn’t stung. His own son afraid of him. But he had to remind himself of the conditions Jimmy had likely been living in the last several weeks. His first, second, and third priority had to be paranoia.
Jimmy kept his rifle raised as he slowly approached the group. George resisted the overwhelming urge to break ranks and rush forward to embrace his son, but the very real threat of a phaser blast kept him in check.
Jimmy’s eyes darted back and forth between each member of the group, and George didn’t dare turn or move to make sure they still had their phasers down. The main idea was still to avoid startling Jimmy, but even if Jimmy suddenly became hostile, George would not be responsible for his actions if someone shot his son in retaliation.
Jimmy was close enough now that George could have reached out and touched him, but he resisted the temptation. Jimmy needed to be in control here. Instead, he took the opportunity to more closely observe his son.
He recognized the jacket now, despite it being covered in dirt and various stains. He had given it to him for his twelfth birthday. George had hoped Jimmy might’ve started to outgrow it by now, but it looked larger on him now than it had when he first tried it on.
His hair looked far too thin for a child his age, and his scalp looked cracked with spots of scabbed blood visible through the strands. There was also a prominent scar along his hairline that looked like it had healed naturally over time without the help of a dermal regenerator.
Most concerning were Jimmy’s eyes. George had already noticed the yellow discoloration, but he was more concerned by the look of them. Jimmy’s eyes looked hard, like a battle-worn soldier still in the thick of a battle that he’d already seen and experienced too much of.
And yet, despite all of the heartbreaking attributes Jimmy now sported, the main thought in George’s mind was, Thank God I don’t need to tell Winnie our son died.
Jimmy was looking solely at him now, with a calculating gaze that he never wanted to see aimed at him again. It was like a threat assessment. Holding the weight of the rifle with one arm, Jimmy reached out a hand slowly, ready to retract it at a moment’s notice should the need arise.
With trembling fingers, from fatigue or nerves George didn’t know, Jimmy traced the Starfleet badge on his chest. The hand trailed downwards, guided by one of the seam lines on his shirt, Jimmy’s eyes following the path. George didn’t dare move, but he wondered what Jimmy was trying to accomplish—
A sharp poke dug into his side, and all other thought fled him as he twisted away with an instinctual, “Woah now, that was unfair, that—”
George cut himself off when two twiggy arms wrapped around his neck and a head collided with his chest. The sound of a phaser rifle falling to the ground echoed distantly in the background.
“It’s really you,” Jimmy whispered in disbelief, clinging to George with all of his remaining strength. “You’re here.”
George couldn’t resist any longer. He wrapped his arms securely around Jimmy’s thin torso and held him close, hiding his tear-filled eyes in Jimmy’s mess of hair. “I’m here, son. I’m right here...” he babbled, flooded with the relief of having his son back in his arms.
Just as he had the thought, Jimmy started to pull away from him. No, what did I do—?
“Dad, you’ve gotta help them, they need food, and Tom needs a doctor—” Jimmy rattled off, pulling him towards the foliage.
“Can I call up to my ship for medical?” George asked, still letting Jimmy call the shots.
“Yeah...” Jimmy said slowly, as if wary of the idea of letting anyone near his fellow survivors, but willing to trust his father. “They can come too,” he added, nodding towards the other crewmen in the clearing, who had thankfully remained in place rather than automatically assume Jimmy would be okay with their presence. He made a note to give them all commendations when they made it back to the ship (or at least forward the recommendation to Captain April).
“Mendez, call the Enterprise, have them send down a medical team,” George ordered. He turned his attention to Jimmy again. “Is Tom the only severe injury or should I call for more—?”
“Tom’s the only one who needs a doctor immediately, but they all need medical care of varying degrees. Savi might need a doctor too, she’s been getting worse all week,” Jimmy explained, pulling George along again.
“How many of you are there?”
“Including me, nine,” Jimmy said promptly. “There were eleven, but...” Jimmy bit his lip, seemingly unable to say the words out loud. George understood more than he’d like to, he’d lost his fair share of crewmen. He just wished his son had been spared that heartache.
“It wasn’t your fault, son.”
“You don’t know that,” Jimmy mumbled.
“I do know that,” George disagreed gently. “It’s not your fault you were put in this situation, I’m sure you’ve done the best you could. You’ve gone above and beyond what anyone in your situation would be expected to do, Jimmy.”
“I’ve done a lot of bad things, Dad,” Jimmy said, pointedly looking away from him.
“I don’t give a flying fuck about whatever bad things you’ve done, Jimmy,” George said vehemently, and Jimmy’s gaze snapped back to him in surprise. “The only thing I care about right now is that you’re alive.” George paused. “Don’t tell your mother I swore in front of you.”
“Again, you mean?” Jimmy said, the cheeky look on his face looking like a gift from the heavens.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” George said, playing along with the banter. “I have never sworn in front of you.”
Jimmy snickered but otherwise didn’t respond. He was glad Jimmy’s playful nature hadn’t been completely buried by the ordeal he’d been put through. But George wasn’t naive enough to think Jimmy was the same person he was a few months ago. However familiar the surface may be, George could clearly see the cracks and the darkness that festered beneath. Jimmy had just done an exceptional job of hiding it for now, but he knew that wouldn’t last.
Approaching the foliage line, George could make out a gap in the rock wall. It made sense why Jimmy had held them in the clearing; from the clearing it was impossible to see the rock entrance, and Jimmy had cleverly positioned his guard post away from the entrance. George wondered how the group had come across this hiding place, it seemed perfect for their needs and was enough out of the way that it wasn’t a location easily stumbled upon.
“Guys, we have company! Good company,” Jimmy amended quickly as they reached the cave entrance.
“Define ‘good,’” a weak voice echoed.
Jimmy pulled him along more urgently now. George twisted around to signal at two of the security officers to wait at the mouth of the cave, but like the professionals they were, they had already done so. After a couple sharp turns in the rock path, George found himself in a surprisingly well-lit cavern. A single emergency lantern radiated from the center of the room, encased by a complicated array of reflective surfaces that dispersed the light throughout the space. It was low light, but if used to the conditions it was perfect for visibility.
As Jimmy kept leading him, George tried to look around more at the area. There were two kids who looked around ten years old sitting by a chess board near the lantern who had paused their game to look at the newcomers, and three children roughly between the ages of three and five who seemed to have been entertaining themselves with something on the ground between them prior to their entrance. All five of them were looking at them with an intense gaze of curiosity. George realized they likely hadn’t seen another soul, let alone an adult, in weeks, though he noted they didn’t look nearly as distrustful as Jimmy had.
Jimmy had led them to a makeshift sleeping area it seemed, with blankets strewn all over, ruffled from use. There were two kids laying on the blankets, one a girl maybe four years old, and the other a boy around Jimmy’s age, likely the one who had responded to Jimmy. A third boy, age six maybe, knelt by the girl’s side, tending to a wet cloth on her forehead.
“Good as in my dad’s here,” Jimmy answered finally, kneeling next to the boy.
The boy, Tom presumably, looked to be in bad shape. There was sloppily-applied gauze on the left side of his face, with blotches of blood and pus seeping through. His face, or what was visible of it, looked pale and clammy, and his body was wracked in shivers under a blanket. He looked like he had an infection and a resultant fever.
Tom cracked his uncovered eye open and tried to focus on George. He wasn’t sure how much Tom could see, but he closed his eye soon after with an incredulous, “No shit.” Eye still closed, he turned his face towards Jimmy, who had gripped his hand through the blanket. “I’m not hallucinating, right?”
“Not this time,” Jimmy said softly, sounding so tired that George had to resist the overwhelming urge to wrap his son in a strong hug again and protect him from the world. He didn’t want to think about how much stress his son had surely been under during the past few weeks, and then on top of that one of his friends (and surely they were at least friends with the familiarity they shared) had been direly ill for who knew how long.
It was clear that Jimmy and Tom were the oldest of the group, and based on brief observation, Jimmy had obviously taken a leadership role among them. A provider even, or protector. Tom may have been a co-leader before his injury, or maybe sole leader, there was no way to know, but since then Jimmy had been on his own. He’d been responsible for the lives of eight—ten at one point, he remembered sadly—other people, far more responsibility than any child would be expected to have.
Not only had Jimmy protected his charges, but he’d had to care for the sick and injured as well. And based on the lack of supplies in the cave, George deduced that Jimmy had likely gone out routinely to find food, and maybe even medical supplies.
The echo of footsteps from the front entrance preceded them as the medical team arrived in the cavern, and Sarah April, Captain April’s wife and CMO, did a quick visual sweep of the area before locking eyes with George. “The officers out front briefed us on the situation, Commander, where do you need us?”
George deferred to Jimmy with a look. “I need a doctor over here, everyone else just needs basic care,” Jimmy said.
Orders given, despite the unorthodox source, Dr. April made a beeline towards them as the other medics went to tend to the other kids.
“Savi and Tom are the only immediate medical issues,” Jimmy said promptly as she reached them, eager to expedite the triage. “The rest are relatively fine, not counting malnutrition and dehydration, and probably other things to that effect. Savi was fine up until two days ago when she developed a fever, and we haven’t had much luck keeping it down. Tom was shot by a phaser set to kill, but we don’t think it was fully charged, hence the burn instead of d-death,” Jimmy said, stumbling slightly at the thought. “That was about a month ago. We’d been treating it as best as we could, but an infection set in about a week ago, and I couldn’t find the right medicine to treat it with—”
“You’ve done a fine job considering the circumstances,” Dr. April interrupted kindly, already running a tricorder over Tom. She called a nurse over to tend to the girl, Savi, and Dr. April kept her attention on Tom. She unloaded two hyposprays into his neck with little reaction from the boy before calling over a stretcher, and in the span of a minute, the two sick kids had been taken out of the cave to be beamed aboard the Enterprise.
Jimmy looked as though he desperately wanted to follow them, but he also didn’t want to leave the rest of the kids, who were being tended to by the remaining medics.
“They’re gonna be just fine, Jimmy,” George said reassuringly. “All of them. You did good, son.”
“Not good enough,” he mumbled tiredly.
“You did your best, that’s certainly good enough,” George said.
Jimmy just nodded silently, still looking at exit of the cavern. George decided the best thing to do was to get all the kids onto the Enterprise. He turned to the nearest medic, “Nurse Bayer, let’s try to get the kids out of here—”
The urgent voice had come from the little boy who had been tending to Savi, who was now looking at Jimmy in fright. George followed his gaze, and shifted his body just in time to catch Jimmy before his body crumpled limply to the ground.
George sat by Jimmy’s bedside, Tom sitting on the opposite edge. It had been a week since Jimmy’s collapse in the cave and he’d been unconscious ever since. Dr. April had assured him that this was his body’s way of healing from trauma and that she wouldn’t be concerned about his lack of consciousness for another few days.
Jimmy had been hiding more than George originally thought. He’d been nursing an old cracked rib for days, a gash on his arm that had been in the early stages of infection itself, and a severe right ankle sprain. George was reluctantly impressed that Jimmy had avoided limping on it; he had tried to keep a strong front for both the other kids and in the face of potential hostiles. The measure broke his heart all the same.
In addition, Jimmy was probably the most severely malnourished of the bunch. Tom had confided that the pair of them had more often than not excused themselves from food in favor of making sure the younger kids had more to eat. But when Tom had been shot, Jimmy had insisted that he start eating his fair share. Jimmy had said he’d eat his fair share too, but he’d never actually made the promise like Tom had asked, and he strongly suspected Jimmy had still been holding himself back from their already meager meals.
Tom was doing much better. With access to modern medicine, his infection had cleared up in a few days. He wore a half mask on his face for now to hold the bandages in place over his still healing wound. Unfortunately, his eye had been beyond repair and the damaged nerves in the area made a transplant impossible. In addition, he’d have significant scarring on his face for the rest of his life; it had been left untreated for far too long for a dermal regenerator to repair that damage. Savi had recovered quickly as well and had even been released to the other kids’ quarters, a group suite so they could stay together as they healed.
Tom was still confined to Sickbay, but not his bed, so he spent most of his time silently keeping George company at Jimmy’s bedside, though sometimes he’d offer a few words here and there. It was clear the boy cared about his son.
George had spent as much time as he could by Jimmy’s side, which was thankfully a lot now that Captain April had finally taken him off the duty roster. Or rather, George had taken himself off and had April sign off on it. Lieutenant Commander Pike had taken over his First Officer duties for the time being; it would be good practice for him.
He’d also finally gotten a message to Winona about the whole situation now that the communication quarantine had been lifted and as Starfleet prepared to go to the press about the event. They were too far out to sustain a live civilian channel, nor an unofficial Starfleet channel that he might get away with under different circumstances, so he tried to anticipate the questions Winona would undoubtedly have after the news went public. Above all, he stressed that Jimmy had been found alive and was currently healing in the Enterprise’s Sickbay. He knew Winona would be distraught over the loss of her sister and brother-in-law, but he hoped the relief of Jimmy’s survival would help ease that pain. George did decide to hold off on mentioning Jimmy’s condition however, at least until they had more info.
“Tom, it’s about time we change that bandage,” Dr. Philip Boyce said as he approached Jimmy’s bed.
“Why do I bother putting the mask on if you’re just gonna take it off again every time?” Tom complained, but he still stood up to follow the doctor anyway.
“The mask is better than wrapping and unwrapping your head with tape every time,” Dr. Boyce said lightly, sounding as though he’d explained this many times before but still willing to humor the boy. He is the most patient man I have ever met, George thought fondly as the pair walked off to the other end of Sickbay.
He turned his attention back to Jimmy. While he looked better than he had a week ago, it was still disconcerting to look at the sickly, motionless form of his son. Now that all the dirt and grime had been cleaned off, he actually looked worse than when he had been brought in. The mess had covered the bags under his eyes, the hollow look of his face, and the bruises of varying ages that littered his body. His hair even looked thinner without the layer of dirt on it.
George brushed a lock of hair off of Jimmy’s face, then let his hand linger on his forehead, his thumb rubbing soothingly. “Please wake up, Jimmy,” he whispered, closing his eyes in silent prayer.
George’s eyes snapped open even as he felt Jimmy stir under his hand. Jimmy’s slurred words registered belatedly—“Hand’s cold.”—and George removed it with a quick, “Sorry, kiddo.”
“‘S okay,” Jimmy rasped as his eyes fluttered open. “Fel’ nice.”
George smiled softly, replacing his hand. “You’re on the Enterprise,” George explained when Jimmy started to look around.
“Where’re my kids?” Jimmy asked, awareness coming back to him.
His kids, that was interesting. “They’re safe, they’re in a crew suite all together with some of the nursing staff looking out for them.”
“Savi’s just fine, she’s with the other kids, and Tom’s across the room getting his bandages changed, he’s fine too,” George said. When Jimmy tried to sit up to look for himself, George moved his hand to Jimmy’s shoulder to keep him still. “Woah now, take it easy. Tom will come to you when he’s finished, and you need to stay still.”
“Fine,” Jimmy huffed, though his vexed tone was betrayed by his fatigued body as he slumped back onto the bed without protest. “What happened?” he asked once he’d settled.
“You passed out in the cave after Tom and Savi were taken out,” George explained. “I think once you realized that everyone was being taken care of, your body decided it had had enough and it shut down. You ran yourself into the ground, son,” George said mournfully. “You can’t take care of others if you can’t first take care of yourself.”
Jimmy frowned. “It was worth it,” he said stubbornly.
George had expected that response. He didn’t bother to argue that it wouldn’t have been worth it if he had died because of it. It had worked out in the end, and because of that this wasn’t a lesson Jimmy would absorb any time soon, if ever. During routine emergency procedure presentations on shuttles, they always told passengers to put the oxygen mask on their own face before helping others, even kids and other family, and yet George knew that from now on, Jimmy would forever be the one to tend to others first, even at the expense of himself.
It was scary to think about. How much longer could Jimmy have gone running on fumes? He’d been pushing his body beyond the limits for so long—lack of food, sleep, everything—that if the group had been found any later, Jimmy’s body would’ve shut down regardless of the willpower he possessed. And what would’ve happened then? He’d been doing everything for those kids, would anyone have been able to step up to take care of Jimmy? To take care of everyone? It was likely the whole group would’ve been lost—
George snapped out of his painful thoughts to the view of Jimmy’s concerned face aimed at him.
“I’m right here, Dad, I’m fine,” Jimmy said, almost as if he had read his mind. “You can poke me to confirm it if you need to,” he added with a small smile.
George let out a watery laugh. He raised his hand and slowly but deliberately poked the tip of Jimmy’s nose with his index finger, Jimmy’s eyes crossing slightly as he tracked the finger with a grin.
“Yeah,” he said with a content sigh. “You’re here.”